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Work and Pensions

Volume 557: debated on Monday 28 January 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Housing Benefit

1. What estimate he has made of the number of households in Scotland affected by the new under-occupancy rules for housing benefit. (139384)

The social sector size criteria, which will be introduced from April, will align housing benefit rules for those living in social sector accommodation with those already applied to claimants living in the private rented sector. We estimate that around 80,000 households in Scotland could be affected.

The vast majority of tenants affected by this policy have no realistic prospect of finding a smaller, cheaper house. It also has many implications for devolved policy areas. Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State to show his respect for the Scottish Parliament by appearing in person before its Welfare Reform Committee?

Obviously, the impact of housing benefit policy, which is a matter for the UK Parliament, will be different in different parts of the country. I have been to the Scottish Parliament and talked to the Deputy First Minister about welfare reform and we keep a dialogue open with our colleagues in Scotland.

Is it not the case that in Scotland and England as a whole getting on for 2 million families are in overcrowded accommodation? Is it not important that we think about their needs?

My hon. Friend is right to bring forward the voice of those in overcrowded accommodation, which is all too often not heard in this debate. At the same time as we are paying housing benefit for approaching a million spare bedrooms, a quarter of a million households in overcrowded accommodation would love the opportunity to live in a larger house.

At the weekend, I spoke to one of my constituents in Scotland who has been a foster parent for 23 years and currently has four foster children, two of whom are in long-term placements. She fosters for one local authority and lives just over the border in another, which means that there is now considerable confusion about the discretionary payments. Would it not be much better if foster parents were exempted altogether?

We recognise the special position of foster carers, which is why we allocated £5 million of discretionary housing payments so that local authorities can respond on a case-by-case basis to the needs of foster carers. We believe that that is a more flexible approach than a blanket exemption.

At the same time as millionaires are getting a tax cut, hundreds of thousands of Britain’s poorest families, people with disabled children, the terminally ill and the bereaved will be made poorer or forced to move. That risks increasing the benefits bill, as most will go into the private rented sector where rents are higher. However, I want to ask for a clear assurance about the brave men and women serving in the forces. Will the Minister assure the House that they and their families will have their rent covered 100%, that they will not lose a penny while they are away from home and that they will not be affected at all? Yes or no?

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about millionaires, I gather they are hankering after the halcyon days when they used to pay only 40% income tax and 18% capital gains tax. On his point about service personnel, let me make it absolutely clear that in the case of a couple with a young adult who is going off to serve with the forces, when that young person leaves the home to serve on the front-line we cease to assume that they are making a rent contribution. When that person goes off to serve, the housing benefit will, in general, go up.

Business Start-ups (Government Support)

We believe that for many people self-employment is the best route out of unemployment. That is why we have introduced the new enterprise allowance and enterprise clubs, which have proved effective in helping people back into work.

Tourism is obviously a key industry in Bournemouth, but the digital economy is now the fastest-growing sector thanks to the work of Bournemouth university—so much so that Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole are now getting the nickname of the silicon beach of England. What more can be done to harness that interest and expertise through incubator units and start-ups?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We should be capitalising on the skills of graduates of Bournemouth university to ensure that the digital economy spreads throughout the UK, including to silicon beach. I urge him to talk to his local council and to others to see what opportunities there are to bring forward premises that could be used for self-employment.

Unemployment in Lichfield was running at 2.6 % in December, but that is still not good enough. What are the Government doing to provide an enterprise culture in practice, and how many people has my hon. Friend managed to get starting new businesses?

My hon. Friend will be aware that in Lichfield, 30 claimants have started with a business mentor. That has led to 20 businesses starting already. Some 8,000 new businesses have been started as a consequence of the new enterprise allowance, and I am pleased to announce that we are going to extend the availability of the new enterprise allowance to lone parents on income support and to some employment and support allowance claimants, because they are the sort of people who would be able to benefit from the new enterprise allowance and combine their existing responsibilities with starting a business for themselves.

May I push the Minister on what is happening to people who want to start their own business if they pitch up at Jobcentre Plus? Is it not a scandal, the way that Jobcentre Plus recycles people? Giving them a job for one day removes the onus of finding them anything, such as starting their own business, or referring them to the Work programme. There is a tension between what is happening in Jobcentre Plus and what is happening in the Work programmes that does nobody any good.

To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about enterprise, when someone first makes a claim for jobseeker’s allowance, advisers talk to them and ask them whether they have an idea for a new business. Where they have a credible plan, they can be referred to a mentor, who will work with them to develop that business plan which, if successful, can lead to the new enterprise allowance. We see the importance of small businesses and of getting new start-ups going. Both the Work programme and Jobcentre Plus are focused on how they can help people set up a business themselves and start to recruit others.

Unfortunately, unemployment in the Rhondda is still growing. The figures for last November are higher than they were for the November before. One of the difficulties is that many of the people who have enough get up and go to set up a company get up and go elsewhere. How can we make sure that geographically isolated communities such as the Rhondda have a strong enough local economy for local entrepreneurs to prosper?

That is why measures such as the Work programme and the new enterprise allowance help lay those foundations. We need to see businesses moving to places such as the Rhondda and south Wales. I went to Swansea before Christmas to see the work that Amazon is doing there to boost employment in the local community—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may mock, but that created job opportunities that people would not otherwise have had.

Benefit Cap

The benefit cap will be implemented from 15 April 2013 in Bromley, Croydon, Enfield and Haringey local authority areas. This will be a phased roll-out, with the remaining local authorities implementing the cap by the summer. This is in keeping with the way that the culture has changed in DWP. All the programmes that we are implementing are being rolled out on a staged basis. That includes changes to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, universal credit, personal independence payment and universal job match.

Can my right hon. Friend give me some reassurance that vulnerable people will not be affected by the cap? Can he also assure me that every effort is being made to support people back into work?

Clearly, the cap and the principles behind the cap are supported by Government Members—that is, that people who are on benefits should not be earning more than those, for example, on average earnings. Those who are exempted are those who are entitled to working tax credit—because this is about getting people back to work, not stopping them doing that—war widows, widowers, those in receipt of disability living allowance/personal independence payment, attendance allowance, industrial injuries benefits, those on war disablement pension and compensation scheme and the support component of employment support allowance. There is also a 39-week grace period for those who fall unemployed so that they can get back to work without having to change their arrangements.

Despite what the Secretary of State has just said, it is clear that he sees the need now to delay an implementation that was previously seen as so important. What about those households where there is an adult receiving DLA and where there are parents who act as the carers? They are two separate units for benefit purposes. Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that those households are not penalised?

First, I must say to the hon. Lady that she is talking complete nonsense. I would much rather implement a programme learning the lessons as we implement it, than follow the practice of the previous Government, who had a period of collapsing programmes because they rushed them. This is the right way to do it and it is a shift in culture. On the second part of her question, under the Government that she supported—and it is still the case today—when someone becomes an adult, they effectively form their own household. We have discussed and are discussing those matters continuously, but households are formed when someone becomes an adult, and the previous Government never saw any reason to change that in all the years that they were in power.

As the Secretary of State confirmed, Croydon will be one of the first places where this policy is rolled out. May I thank Lord Freud, who is the Minister responsible for welfare reform, and the housing Minister for meeting me to discuss this? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that his Department will work closely with my local authority to ensure that this important policy is implemented smoothly?

I say to my hon. Friend and to all hon. Members and hon. Friends whose areas are affected by the roll-out that we are in deep discussions with all those councils. Jobcentre Plus will be working hugely with each of them, advising, helping and supporting them—in many senses, giving them more support than is necessarily likely to be the case when the national roll-out follows the pilot programmes.

But as the roll-out happens, some of the areas that will be most affected are not the pilot areas—the first areas—but places such as my constituency, where people are already being moved out of London housing into Slough because there is relatively cheap housing there. Will the Secretary of State undertake that during the period when, as he said, he is taking time to introduce this, he will make revisions and talk to those authorities that are not the pilot authorities and are affected, as mine will be?

I am glad to see that the hon. Lady realises the point of this whole process—to learn the lessons and to understand how best to implement the pilot programmes properly. Of course we will be talking to all local authorities, particularly those that are directly affected, and all other local authorities will listen to what they say. Despite the massive protestations of collapse and doom and gloom that we heard when we announced these proposals—we should remember that all local authorities have known about them for over a year—we now see statistics showing that there has not been the mass migration that was predicted. As for access to housing, housing benefit caseloads in London have risen by 5%, not fallen.

State Pensions

4. How many people currently claiming a state pension will benefit from the new higher rate state pension under his proposals for a single tier scheme. (139387)

People who reach state pension age before single-tier implementation will receive a state pension in line with existing rules. Existing pensioners already receive the triple lock designed to ensure that the pension rises by at least 2.5% each year. The single-tier reforms are designed to respond to the challenges facing working people today.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. Will he confirm that Britain’s 12 million current pensioners and 4 million future pensioners will not benefit at all from the Government’s proposed changes?

To be clear, today’s pensioners have benefited hugely from our decision to reverse 30 years of falling value of the state pension for those 12 million pensioners, to whom we are now paying a pension that is a bigger share of national average earnings than at any time in the past 20 years.

Women often take a few years off to look after children or elderly relatives. Will the Minister reassure me that women who do that will not be penalised and will also be eligible for the single-tier pension?

My hon. Friend is right. For those who retire under the new regime, years spent some decades ago bringing up children, which were not properly protected for state pension rights, will be so under the single-tier arrangements.

It has been a busy few weeks in pensions world. The Minister will be aware that the Office of Fair Trading has recently announced that it is to undertake an inquiry into the private pensions market. This follows a Labour campaign for just such an inquiry. The Minister’s response to our campaign was to accuse the Labour party of scaremongering on pension charges. Now that the OFT has decided to undertake this inquiry, may I encourage the Minister to heed another Labour campaign call and lift the restrictions on NEST as soon as possible so that it can provide low-cost, high-quality pensions to everyone who wishes to save with it?

Thank you Mr Speaker. It will be a house- hold name soon, I hope.

We worked very closely with the OFT in the run-up to its inquiry, which will look at whether there are problems in this area. It is very welcome, and we will be working very closely with the OFT as it carries it out. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Labour introduced constraints on NEST—the National Employment Savings Trust—and we are consulting on whether to lift them.

11. When my hon. Friend presented these proposals last week, it was indicated that there would be a net cost to public sector workers in relation to the higher-rate state pension. Is he able to put a figure on that additional cost? (139394)

Yes. Those who work in the public sector will pay the full rate of national insurance, which is an extra 1.4%, but they will build up state pension at the full rate. Crudely speaking, they will pay about a tenth extra in national insurance but build up, potentially, up to a third extra in state pension, which will be a very good deal.

Disability Living Allowance

6. How many reassessments of claims for disability living allowance have taken place in the past six months. (139389)

About 280,000 disability living allowance claims have been reassessed over the past six months. Reassessments are comprised of super-sessions, where someone reports changes in their circumstances; renewals of fixed-term awards, which are by far the biggest; and reconsiderations.

A constituent of mine had to wait two years to have his DLA appeal reassessed, causing him immense hardship. They found in his favour. He is not alone. Newcastle citizens advice bureau and the Newcastle welfare rights service each see two or three new cases of DLA delays every single week. How will the Minister ensure that the roll-out of the personal independence payment will not lead to the same vulnerable groups being subjected to more delays?

I have the figures from 2007-08 and they are exactly the same as those for DLA this year, whether that applies to appeals or to people wanting to make new claims. That was the main reason for introducing PIP. It is about clarity and certainty for both the claimant and the assessors, so that we can reduce any delays in reassessments and appeals.

The Minister will be aware that the opportunity to have one’s DLA reconsidered at the end of a fixed-term award is, actually, not an opportunity to cut the DLA. Will she join me in welcoming the fact that more than 12,000 people in the past year have had their DLA award increased at the end of a fixed term? Is that not something that the Opposition ought to bear in mind when they criticise us for cutting DLA?

My hon. Friend is correct. If people are being reassessed or if their term has come to an end, they will be reviewed according to their needs now and many people will get an increased award.

On 13 December 2012, the Minister announced that there would be

“a significantly slower reassessment timetable”—[Official Report, 13 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 464.]

for the PIP process—the replacement for DLA—which I welcomed. However, did that significantly slower reassessment timetable impact on the contracts that were signed in August 2012 with Capita and Atos on a different timetable? Will there be any significant financial reassessments as a result of the new timetable? Did she consider whether the changes were significant enough to necessitate re-tendering the contract?

We did indeed slow down the roll-out of the reassessments, having listened to the consultation and what various organisations and charities said, but we did not consider that to be significant change to the contract, so we are working closely with both Atos and Capita to ensure the smooth running of the roll-out.

Universal Credit

7. What assessment he has made of the preparations for the introduction of universal credit; and if he will make a statement. (139390)

Early roll-out of universal credit begins with a pathfinder in April 2013 in the Greater Manchester and Cheshire region, including the jobcentre in Ashton-under-Lyne. I am aware that a number of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will be involved as a result, as will other Members’ constituents, and my Department will write to all of them to invite them to discuss the roll-out.

The Secretary of State is right to say that my local authority of Tameside is one of the pathfinder areas. Conversations that I have had with officers from that authority and the wider public infrastructure show that there is a lot of concern about the lack of detail and support from the Department of Work and Pensions with regard to the implementation. Given that this is just a few months away and is a cause of serious concern, will the Secretary of State reassure me and people in my local area that the Government are on top of this and that implementation will take place as planned?

It will—I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. We are discussing this at every level with the local authorities concerned. The process will start at a jobcentre in each of the areas I have mentioned on 29 April, and that will start bringing in childless couples to claim universal credit, rather than jobseeker’s allowance. Over that period, once people are captured into the universal credit system, they will not go back on to jobseeker’s allowance, so a lot of tax-credit people who fall unemployed will move on to universal credit. We are in deep discussions with the regions.[Official Report, 31 January 2013, Vol. 557, c. 6MC.]

The previous Government’s record in commissioning and managing large IT projects was a catalogue of failure. Have my right hon. Friend and his colleagues been able to learn anything from that in how they have designed universal credit?

All such programmes under Governments of any hue have always carried risk, because they are about change. The DWP benefits systems, including tax credits, are very complicated and often contradictory. Of course what we are doing involves risk, but we are trying to manage that risk. The best way to do so is to ensure that we introduce it stage by stage, so that we can recognise where we need to learn lessons, correct what is difficult or going wrong and ensure that we roll out the system properly.

On Friday, I visited a housing association in my constituency that is greatly concerned about the introduction of universal credit, as well as the bedroom tax and the benefits cap. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on the finances of housing associations from the possible increases in rent arrears as a result of his Government’s policies?

I do not believe that there will be an impact. [Interruption.] The Opposition should look to their own record and the housing benefit mess that they left us. They left a rising bill that had doubled in nearly 10 years, so it would be better to have a little less from them. We are trying to ensure that those who are paying this money are not allowed to slip into debt for any great length of time. That matter is being discussed with housing associations and we are making good progress on it. I believe that this approach will help people who are trying to get back into work enormously, rather than their being treated as though they are children who have to have all their bills paid for them.

A constituent of mine who did a few extra hours at Tesco before Christmas faces losing her income support and carer’s allowance for a whole month and will be much worse off. Does the Secretary of State agree that that shows the injustice of the system left by the previous Government, and that universal credit is desperately needed?

That is exactly the point. My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The mess of all the chaotic benefits left by the last Government, many of which contradicted each other, meant that people were not incentivised to go to work for anything more than 16 hours in some cases. Many people who could have got themselves out of poverty by working did not do so because they were penalised by the system. That is the shame of what the last Government left behind.

Will the Secretary of State say what resources are being allocated to in-work conditionality for part-time workers under universal credit, given that the Department has acknowledged that there is no evidence nationally or internationally of what works to sustain people in employment and enable them to progress?

The Department is looking closely at how we can assist people to take more work while on universal credit. We do not have the final results of that, but I am happy to sit down with the hon. Lady at any time and discuss her concerns. She is right about one thing: rather than parking people on a specific number of hours, universal credit will allow people to work more hours and get more money, rather than losing it, thereby getting themselves and their children, if they have any, out of poverty.

Welfare Spending

The Government have undertaken major reforms to limit Britain’s welfare spending, which over successive years ran out of control. Under the last Government, welfare bills had increased by 60% by 2010, costing every household in Britain an extra £3,000 a year. Last week, the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill was passed by this House. It will save £1.9 billion, restoring fairness for taxpayers in the process.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress that he has made in controlling welfare expenditure, particularly given that under the previous Government, the costs rose by no less than 60%. However, there is always more to do. Will he outline what we are doing to clamp down on welfare fraud?

My hon. Friend is right about the situation that we were left. We are already bearing down on the problem. The figures show that we are making inroads into welfare fraud. Universal credit will have a much better record in this area, because we will be able to use real-time information to check up on who is in work and what they are earning on a monthly basis, rather than having to wait until the end of somebody’s time on tax credits at the end of a year and reconcile the figures over a long period. Under the current tax credits system, £5 billion has been written off as a result of fraud and error, and it looks like another £5 billion will also be written off.[Official Report, 1 February 2013, Vol. 557, c. 8MC.]

As the Secretary of State has said, the previous Government increased welfare spending by 60%. There was not, however, a 60% increase in people getting jobs, or a 60% reduction in child poverty. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should not measure the success of our welfare system by how much we are spending on it?

I agree with my hon. Friend: we should measure our welfare system by how soon it provides support to those who need it and how it supports those who can be moved into a more productive form of life. The previous system trapped people into dependency on welfare with rising bills and, ultimately, a very poor record on child poverty.

I strongly welcome the welfare reforms that the Government are introducing, and I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for the control he is bringing to expenditure. Does he agree, however, that the provision of some of the benefits, and the terms under which they will be received, may need to be reviewed? If the parent of a young child with a complicated medical condition needs to stay in hospital for longer than 84 days, they may fall foul of the carer’s allowance. Will the Secretary of State agree to look at that?

I understand fully what my hon. Friend is saying and, of course, the parent who is caring for a child in hospital has 84 days in which that child may be in hospital. I also recognise what he is saying about broken-up periods in hospital should someone have a condition that takes them back to hospital again. I would be happy to sit down with him, and anybody else, to look at the issue and discuss whether there are ways to rectify it.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the reforms he is bringing in. Social mobility and poverty were manifestly not improved by 60% during the previous Government’s regime, although the bill went up by 60%. However, people such as my constituent, Mr Martin Wilsher, who is visually impaired, still have concerns about some of the reforms being introduced. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend provide to Mr Wilsher?

First, as my hon. Friend knows, this is about the disability living allowance and the personal independence payment, and the reality is that DLA will not be included in the changes. More than that, it is important to note that through discussions over the introduction of PIP, a good and warm welcome has finally come from the Royal National Institute of Blind People. After recent discussions it said that the PIP criteria include a number of

“significant improvements for blind and partially sighted people.”

The changes we are making to PIP, after guidance from that organisation and others, will help people such as my hon. Friend’s constituent.

Last week in Westminster Hall Ministers made great play of the savings that the Government might expect from the bedroom tax. In Wales there is a chronic shortage of smaller houses, so why will the Secretary of State not admit that those who are hit by this cruel policy in Wales will have to go into the insecure private sector where rents will be higher and local housing allowance rates will cost more?

What the hon. Lady and her party presided over when they were in power was a complete mess in housing—[Interruption.] It is all very well for Opposition Members to shout like a bunch of discombobulated monkeys bouncing up and down on the Benches; the reality is that their housing benefit record left many thousands of families unable to find housing because they were in a queue, while others occupied housing that had far too many rooms. We have to put that right, and that is what we are doing. The Labour party never did that when it was in government.

Although I am not a vindictive person—at least, I hope I am not—I would like to see the Secretary of State and his colleagues, plus the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, try to live, just for six months, on the income of those who have been adversely affected as a result of the cuts carried out by the Government over the past two years. Try and live on that sort of income; see what it is like not having any recourse to private income.

I have known the hon. Gentleman for a long time, and the reality is that none of these decisions is taken lightly by this Government—indeed, any Government. I remind him, however, about all those people who, because of the mess in which the previous Government left the finances, have found themselves out of work or with incomes falling. When he talks about vulnerable people, it is this Government who have increased the pension and made it better for some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Under the current rules, citizens from some eastern European countries are entitled to housing benefit and working tax credit, but not to income-related jobseeker’s allowance. Will the Secretary of State set out for the House what the position of these people will be once universal credit, which will wrap all the benefits up together, has been introduced?

It is our intention to try to ensure that under universal credit the loose access to benefits that has been enjoyed by far too many people coming into this country who have no right to them will actually be limited. I will be able to brief the House much better on that as and when we complete the rules on it.

Obviously the Secretary of State has made mention of the benefits uprating being capped at a 1% increase. Has he had any discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer about what that will do to growth or about the impact that it will have on the economy over the next three years?

I have lots of discussions with the Chancellor on a regular basis, all very amicable. Of course we have to discuss this in a wider context, but the hon. Gentleman and his party look at this in a very narrow context. They say, “Well, you withdraw this money from people on benefits and that immediately has an effect on the high street.” If that were all that we were doing, I would agree with him, but it is not. There is a major programme for investment in industry and a huge capital spending programme, not least as will be announced in a statement later today. These will have an even bigger effect, in a positive way, on spending in the high street.

Jobseeker’s Allowance (Easington)

9. What estimate he has made of trends in the number of people in Easington constituency claiming jobseeker’s allowance in 2013. (139392)

About 3,400 people in Easington are currently claiming jobseeker’s allowance, which is up 340 on the year, but last week we saw a fall in the number of people in the north-east claiming JSA. Since the general election, there has been an increase of 35,000 in the number of people in work in the north-east.

The Government have stopped publishing the number of unemployed people in each constituency chasing each vacancy. As I have impressed on Ministers before, and I will say it again, the issue for us in Easington, unlike in Lichfield, is joblessness—a lack of jobs. Will the Minister give consideration to publishing those data, which would be useful to potential employers and inward investors?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I was born and brought up in his constituency, so I well understand the challenges that Easington faces. We do want to encourage more people to invest in the area, and that is why I am keen to commend the work that has been done with the East Durham area partnership to encourage more people into work in Easington. We will look at how we can recommence publication of vacancy statistics shortly.

Ministers often say that they have stopped people on Government schemes appearing in the labour market statistics as “in employment”. But recent analysis shows that of the claimed 500,000 increase in employment over the past 12 months, 214,000 people are in fact on Government schemes and mostly still claiming JSA. What is going on?

The question is exclusively on Easington, but the right hon. Gentleman has made his own point with delphic confidence.

What is happening—and it happened under the previous Government—is that these figures are drawn up in line with international rules. I agree with him that it is inappropriate, and that is why I wrote several months ago to the Office for National Statistics to ask it to change that. Only one in 20 of the additional jobs created since the general election are down to Government schemes, and the right hon. Gentleman should be commending the number of private sector jobs being created that have helped people get back into work. That is why we have record numbers of people in work.

Housing Benefit

12. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on low-income families of planned changes to housing benefit eligibility in respect of under-occupancy in the social rented sector. (139395)

Our impact assessment shows that of the 3.4 million social sector tenants receiving housing benefit, up to 660,000 could potentially be affected by this measure.

Do this Government ever get fed up with hammering the poor of this country? Punishing the poor seems to be the mandate that is running this Government. In my constituency, 2,000 households will lose anything up to 25% because of this bedroom tax. Will the Minister change this callous measure now, or will he wait until it becomes this Government’s poll tax and comes back to haunt them?

If we leave aside the issue of people in his constituency who are living in over-crowded accommodation, who would very much like the opportunity to live in one of these houses, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that for many years under Labour, people who rented in the private rented sector were not allowed a spare bedroom. Why is it fair not to allow private renters a spare bedroom, but to allow social tenants a spare bedroom?

Does the Minister agree that downsizing when people can no longer afford accommodation or when accommodation becomes too big is something that many people have had to do for many years? Would it not be perverse if the only people protected from what is a fact of life for many were those dependent on the state for their housing?

My hon. Friend is right that ensuring that we make the best use of the scarce resource that is the social housing stock does involve people moving to smaller accommodation later on in life—although not pensioners, who we have exempted. Many of the best housing associations and councils are managing their housing stock better in response to this change.

The bedroom tax will have an impact on thousands of people in Telford. Many might want to move to smaller accommodation, but it is not available and the Government know it is not available. The policy is designed to penalise people—it is nothing to do with the housing market.

There is a danger that this is viewed in a very static way. Many of the best housing associations are looking at groups of constituents, some of whom are over-occupying and are overcrowded, and are moving people around to create space. In the longer term, we need a housing stock that better meets the needs of people on the waiting list, and it is time that successive Governments addressed that.

Because of the shameful under-investment in social housing by the previous Government, there are simply not enough properties for people to downsize to. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the number of families who will end up moving to smaller, more expensive accommodation and end up receiving more in housing benefit?

My hon. Friend is right: successive Governments have failed to build enough affordable housing. It is worth stressing that moving is one option, but only one option, for those in work. Just two or three extra hours on the minimum wage would cover this deduction. There are a range of options—going into work, taking in a lodger or sub-letting—and good housing associations are working with their tenants to achieve best outcomes.

Carer's Allowance

13. What estimate she has made of the number of unpaid carers who will lose carer’s allowance as a result of the benefit cap. (139396)

No one loses carer’s allowance as a result of the benefit cap for, as the hon. Lady may know, the cap is applied to overall household income.

What advice would the Minister give to the 5,000 carers who, as the Government’s impact assessment states, will lose an average of £105 a week through the operation of the benefit cap? Is she suggesting that they give up caring, look for work and ask social services to find a care placement for the person they care for? Why have the Government not thought of exempting carers, who do a wonderful job, from the benefit cap in recognition of their unpaid caring work?

I would not seek to tell anybody what they should do. We seek to work closely with people to enable and support them as best we can. We are doing that by trebling the discretionary payment to help people into work, because if they are on working tax credits, they will be exempt from the benefit cap.

I can tell the House that

“carers caring for an adult disabled child or other adult relative could see their benefits capped, because the DLA of the people they care for is not considered to be in the same benefit package or ‘household’ as the carers’–even if they are living together.”

This is a direct quote from Carers UK. Does the Minister agree with Carers UK that it is confusing, complicated and simply unfair to protect some carers and not others?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the definition of “household” has been in place for some time, so what has happened has always been in place. As the Secretary of State said, there are many exemptions from the cap. Working with the discretionary payment, we can work together to get this right.

Long-term Unemployment

There are a range of measures in place to tackle long-term unemployment, including the Work programme. Last week’s unemployment figures show a fall of 5,000 in the number of people who have been unemployed for more than a year, and a fall of 10,000 in the number of people who have been unemployed for more than two years.

According to the House of Commons Library, there has been a 45% increase in the number of people unemployed over the last 12 months. When will the Government get a grip on this issue, and why will they not take up Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee?

When the hon. Lady’s party was in government, the number of people in long-term unemployment doubled, but this month we have seen a reduction in the numbers of people unemployed for more than one year and for more than two years. I would have thought she would be welcome that. It demonstrates that ours are the right actions to tackle the problems of long-term unemployment.

Employment in the west midlands has increased by 4.3% in the past 12 months and the average time spent on jobseeker’s allowance is just three months. What can my hon. Friend do to bring all Work programme providers up to the standard of the best providers, such as EOS in the black country?

I, too, have seen the excellent work that EOS does to improve people’s chances of getting into work—it has some innovative programmes—and I am relentless in pushing Work programme providers to improve their performance so that we get people into work. Last month’s unemployment figures are testament to the benefits of our actions.

Topical Questions

Today, I welcome the millionth jobseeker signed up to the universal jobmatch service, launched before Christmas, which is revolutionising how claimants look for work—with online job searching and matching through DWP on a scale never seen before. The system works 24/7 to find jobs that fit with people’s skills, location and working patterns, which means that their CV works for them even while they sleep. The service harnesses new technology to improve their prospects, and was launched on time and on budget.

It would appear that about 430,000 women born between 6 April 1952 and 6 July 1953 will not qualify for the new pension, while men of the same age will. What does the Minister have to say to the 1,700 women in Newcastle potentially affected by this unfair situation?

Those women will, of course, receive a state pension up to two years before a man born on the same day and have the option of being treated in the same way as a man—for example, they could defer their pension for two years and get an extra 20% for deferral. That is an option. We cannot bring the measure forward, however, because the occupational pension sector needs time. The only way we could treat men and women identically would be to delay until 2019, but if we did that many more women would be excluded.

T2. Given that one in six of the adult population is functionally illiterate, what training is provided to jobcentre staff to help identify and signpost adults with literacy issues? (139410)

My hon. Friend makes an important point: poor literacy and numeracy are big barriers to employment. For that reason, personal advisers in jobcentres are trained to identify signs and to signpost people to appropriate course providers. Fareham college in the constituency adjacent to hers is one such provider, but I am sure there are other local providers.

The Minister will have read about the cases of Becky Bell raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and of Angel Hooper, the disabled child whose parents have been told that they will lose £20 a week because her specially adapted room will not be shared with another family member. They are two of the 660,000 families being told they will have to fork out extra or move under the bedroom tax. Will he confirm how many one-bedroom properties will be needed for people to downsize to as the bedroom tax kicks in?

You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that discretionary housing payments are being made available with a specific focus on the needs of severely disabled people—for example, where a house has been adjusted to reflect the needs of a disabled person. We have allocated money to local authorities precisely to cater for those whom it would be inappropriate to expect to move.

The Minister knows that 600,000 people will now need a one-bedroom flat, yet the Department’s own assessment states that there are insufficient properties to enable tenants to move to accommodation of an appropriate size, even if they want to move. From the beginning of April, therefore, people in social housing will face a £14 a week extra bill, when those on £1 million a year face a £2,000 a week tax cut. How can the Minister justify this to hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who said that benefit cuts at a time of tax cuts of this order would send the clearest signal that

“Conservatives were looking after vested interests: not so much a dog whistle—more a full blown trumpet.”?

Given that the right hon. Gentleman mentions taxation, I will risk straying on to it, but quite why today’s millionaires would rather have our 45p rate than his 40p rate, or our 28% capital gains tax, rather than his 18% rate is beyond me.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s specific point, households will respond in a range of ways to the measure on under-occupation: moving is simply one of them; taking in a lodger or boarder, sub-letting, working or working more hours are others, and there are discretionary payments for those in most need.

T7. Is the Minister aware that the Conservatives in Wales have introduced the post of shadow Minister for older people? In the light of that, will he update the House on the work of the UK advisory forum on ageing in getting a co-ordinated approach to older people’s issues across Whitehall? (139415)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for flagging up the work of the UK advisory forum, which I jointly chair with the Minister for care services at the Department of Health. It enables us to bring Departments beyond those two together with older people’s organisations, and we are looking to expand the role of that group.

T4. More than 2.3 million people with disabilities currently live in poverty. Given that fewer than half of all disabled people are in work, that we have a contracting economy and that at least £6.7 billion is being cut from disability benefits, how many more disabled people do the Government estimate will be living in poverty at the end of this Parliament? (139412)

Let me say straight away that I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s figures at all. What I can tell her is that £50 billion is spent every year on support and benefits, and that will continue. We are spending £13 billion a year on disability living allowance, and we will continue spending that when people are moved on to the personal independence payment. We are doing a lot and we are protecting the most vulnerable, as acknowledged around the world.

The winter fuel allowance is a non-contributory benefit, yet every year we spend tens of millions of pounds on winter fuel allowance for pensioners who live abroad in far pleasanter climates than our own. Is there nothing that the Government can do within the terms of the EU directive to ensure that such payments cease and that pensioners in this country benefit from that money?

This is a matter that we are looking into. As my hon. Friend knows very well, it is caught under European law; however, the recent judgment that came out said that we had to make these payments. There might be other ways we may be able to limit that exposure, and I will be able to let my hon. Friend know later in the day.

T5. Teacher Dawn Lewis in my constituency is one of 600 women who will lose out because of the perverse pension rule that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) drew attention to earlier. Is the Minister at all worried that this looks like yet another coalition attack on working women? (139413)

Just to be clear, we are talking about women who draw a pension significantly earlier than men born on the same day. The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head; that is a statement of fact. It is the case that present pensioners do not fall under the new system. I have explained why we cannot bring it forward, but I am delighted that the Opposition’s principal criticism is that we are not introducing our reform quickly enough.

On the Government’s benefit changes for housing, foster carers have expressed their concern to me that they might be inhibited from doing their good work by the extra penalty for having a spare room. Can the Secretary of State or a Minister give me some reassurance that the amount of fostering that we currently have—and need—can continue without financial disadvantage?

We are of course working closely with the Minister responsible at the Department for Education—the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson)—whose record on this is unimpeachable, as my right hon. Friend knows. He also should recognise that we have laid aside £5 million specifically to help with foster carers in the situation he described. However, we are in discussions with local authorities, county councils and the Department for Education about how best the money can be used to ensure that it specifically helps foster carers in this area, so that they suffer no hardship whatever, but can continue, and we can encourage more people to become foster carers.

T6. Further to the questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), I still do not understand why the Government are, in effect, targeting and discriminating against nearly 500,000 women, 500 of whom are in my constituency—one of them is my mother—or why they think this is fair, given that men of exactly the same age will get a higher pension. It is not fair, but is it legal and will the Government reconsider their proposals? (139414)

Just to be clear, when the hon. Lady says that a man born on the same day will get a higher pension, that is simply not necessarily the case. People are wrongly comparing the £144 flat rate with the £107 basic pension, plus a variable SERPS—state earnings-related pension scheme—pension, so the figure might be higher, but it might be lower. The new system is not more generous overall than the one it replaces. All I would say, through the hon. Lady to her mother, is that a man born on the same day as her mother will draw his pension significantly later, so she will have the benefit of that pension for perhaps up to two years more than a man born on the same day.

Last Friday, I visited the A4e offices in Bracknell, and it was encouraging to hear the staff there giving support to my constituents who were seeking to set up their own business. In addition to providing that support, what are the Government doing to extend the availability of new enterprise allowances so that more people in my constituency can start their own business?

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has seen for himself the work that A4e is doing in Bracknell. We need more people to have the opportunity to set up their own business, particularly lone parents and those with health conditions. That is why I am pleased to announce that we are extending the availability of the new enterprise allowance to lone parents who receive income support and to some employment and support allowance claimants.

T8. As several of my hon. Friends have already said, almost 500,000 women aged between 59 and 60 will not qualify for the new state pension while men of the same age will do so. How does the Minister justify penalising 700 such women in my constituency in that way? (139416)

Just to be clear, the women the hon. Gentleman is talking about will get exactly the pension that they thought they were going to get before we made our announcement, and they will get it on the day on which they thought they were going to get it. We have changed nothing at all. However, under the present system, if those women want to defer a pension for two years, they will get that on the current rules plus 20%, which is a generous rate of deferral.

Will the Minister confirm that, contrary to the comments made by some Labour Members, a record number of women are in work at the moment?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the fact that there are more women in work than ever before. That is testament to the flexibility of the labour market, which allows more women to work, either part time or full time.

T9. Given the inability of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to write to all parents affected by the recent child benefit changes, I have serious concerns about the real-time information that will need to be delivered if universal credit is going to work and succeed. In September, the Minister for Welfare Reform, Lord Freud, said that 99.8% of the data sent by employers had been matched, yet a parliamentary answer from the Exchequer Secretary on 17 December revealed data from the same month showing that only 71% had been matched. Which Minister has got it right? (139417)

The hon. Lady is confusing two answers. The answer that she received from the Treasury—from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—was to do with checking against the references of the accredited companies. That was a process that was looking for 80%, and it was achieving just over 75%. What my hon. Friend the Minister was saying was that the number of companies being brought on to the pilot was exactly in line with the number that is there. I can promise the hon. Lady that, if she really wants me to, I will give her a written answer to that question as well.

Is the Secretary of State looking favourably on the idea that workers coming here from Europe to earn a living should have to establish a contribution record over a reasonable period of time before becoming eligible to receive benefits?

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) and others are engaged on this matter with our European partners. We do not think it right that somebody who has made no contribution to this country should be able to walk in here on day one and take benefits, as is being proposed. I promise my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) that I will not allow that to happen.

T10. The Minister has failed to justify to the 430,000 women in the rest of the country, or to the 500 women in my constituency, born between 5 April 1952 and 6 July 1953 why they will receive a state pension of up to £1,900 a year less than a man born on the same day as they were. (139418)

To risk repetition, I say to the hon. Gentleman not only that those women will receive potentially up to two years more but that, on average, the new system is costing no more than the one it is replacing. So it is simply not the case that we are taking new pensioners and spending more money on them than we were in the system that we are replacing.

As the Minister knows, concern has been expressed recently following the conversion from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment. It relates to mobility-impaired people and the change from 50 metres to 20 metres. Will she confirm that she has listened carefully to the points raised about converting the guidelines to ensure that the words “reliably, safely, repeatedly and in a timely manner” will appear in the regulation, so that the people who are anxious about this can be reassured?

My hon. Friend is correct to suggest that we have been in discussions about this. At the moment, the words “reliably, safely, repeatedly and in a timely manner” are in the contracts and in the guidance, and we are looking to see whether they can be put into the regulation, but that will happen only if that achieves what it is intended to achieve.

DWP research suggests that over 42% of people affected by the bedroom tax will not be able to pay the difference and will go into arrears instead. Given that DWP research, how many people does the Minister or the Secretary of State expect to lose their homes as a result of these crazy policies?

We do not expect anybody to lose their homes as a result, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that his Government sat for a large number of years without building any houses, watching housing benefit rise and people sitting on waiting lists to get houses, so crocodile tears from them now they are in opposition are a waste of time. We will sort the problem out, and I hope they will not be in government for a long time to come.

Most EU migration has been of real benefit to Britain, but may I ask the Secretary of State what plans he is putting in place to stop Bulgarian and Romanian migrants claiming welfare benefits from 1 January 2014, thus driving up the welfare bill for UK taxpayers?

We inherited a situation in which there were rules guarding against that happening to those who come in. To put the record straight, habitual residence tests and other rules require that those who come into this country are involved in some form of work. My hon. Friend also knows that European legislation is before us at the moment that tries to allow those coming in to claim benefits on day one. We are utterly opposed to that: we are fighting it, and it is not my intention to see it happen in any way.