Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 557: debated on Monday 28 January 2013

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.