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Work and Pensions

Volume 563: debated on Monday 20 May 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Work Capability Assessment

1. What steps he plans to take to implement the recommendations made by Professor Harrington in his final report on the work capability assessment in November 2012. (155859)

As with each of Professor Harrington’s reports, we have adopted all recommendations to improve the process we inherited from the previous Government. We are in the process of implementing those recommendations.

The Minister will be aware that the rate of successful appeals has actually increased, which would appear to suggest that the reforms to the system are not yet working. Does he intend to investigate the claims made by Greg Wood, a former medical assessor for Atos, who said that the system was skewed against the claimant and made several serious allegations about how people’s claims were assessed?

As I said, we are in the process of implementing Professor Harrington’s recommendations. I would make the point to the hon. Lady, however, that when her party was in government, one in 10 people received the full employment support allowance, but as a consequence of our reforms three in 10 people now receive it, which demonstrates that the system is an improvement on the one that we inherited.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does it not indicate that the Government take ESA very seriously and are being diligent in providing unconditional support to those who need it?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I want a system that gives the right support to the people who need it the most. We should also recognise that because of our reforms and improvements to the process, only 15% of fit-for-work decisions are successfully overturned.

The tribunal has published a list setting out the reasons appeals are successful. In most cases, it is a consequence either of oral evidence presented at the tribunal or newer evidence being presented.

The Minister will be well aware that there have been issues of public confidence in Atos ever since it was first commissioned to do this work by the last Government. Are the Government looking into and making progress on Professor Harrington’s alternative assessment process for those with hidden and fluctuating conditions, which is a very important area?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. As a consequence of Professor Harrington’s recommendations, we are considering a range of different descriptors. We are working closely with medical experts and charities to assess those descriptors and will report later in the year on the effectiveness of the programme.

Enterprise Allowance

I believe that the new enterprise allowance has been very effective in helping people set up their own business. As at the end of November last year, 31,540 have received or are receiving support from a mentor, and more than 15,000 have commenced trading. As my hon. Friend knows from his own experience, self-employment not only enables people to take responsibility for themselves and their family’s welfare, but gives others the chance of a job as the business grows.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me— I speak as somebody who ran their own business for 20 years before coming to this place—that the role of volunteer business mentors is crucial in that step between the classroom and self-employment?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I congratulate the voluntary mentors who are taking their role seriously, helping people to get into work and identify ways of setting up their own business. On Thursday, I was in Bradford talking to a group called Inspired Neighbourhoods, which promotes self-employment in its area and provides many voluntary mentors to help people take advantage of those opportunities.

Given the difficulties and challenges in setting up a business, does the Minister agree that it is essential that the advice given ensures that people can succeed, so that they do not end up in a worse situation than if they had not gone down that route in the first place?

The hon. Gentleman is right. That was one of the lessons from Inspired Neighbourhoods, which sat down with people and said, “This is the amount of money you need to make from your business to ensure you become free from benefits and help your family to look after themselves.”

21. I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming last week’s employment figures, which show that the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Reading East is now at its second lowest level since February 2009. Given Labour’s poor track record of securing sustainable employment, does he agree that the Opposition’s proposed job guarantee would fail to provide as many positive outcomes as the new enterprise allowance? (155879)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the fact that the number of people claiming JSA fell by 7,000 last month, which also saw the 11th consecutive monthly fall in the number of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. The measures we are taking demonstrate the effectiveness of our programmes, particularly the new enterprise allowance.

Will the Minister explain why people on the Work programme are not allowed to take up the new enterprise allowance and why he does not do more to encourage Work programme participants into self-employment?

The hon. Lady should be aware that a large number of Work programme providers see self-employment as a route out. For example, I know from talking to Avanta, which operates the Work programme in the north-east and elsewhere, that it sees lots of opportunities for people to get into self-employment and supports them to do so.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as providing opportunities to get into self-employment, the small businesses generated are potential generators of many jobs? Has he seen the academic work showing that in business cycle after business cycle, small businesses created during a recession have a much higher chance of survival than those created at other points in the cycle?

That is a very good point. When I have visited jobcentres, I have seen examples of people who have created employment opportunities for themselves and others as a consequence of setting up their own business. That is a testament to the strength and resilience of the sector.

Does the Minister realise—I tell him this as someone who has employed a lot of people in social enterprise—that social enterprise is also a good destination for entrepreneurs? Is he aware of the critical importance of high-quality mentoring? I know he went to Bradford; he could have come to Huddersfield to see the Enterprise Foundation. The quintessential success of that operation was down to good mentoring and trained mentors who carry on mentoring over the long term.

Indeed. I went to Portsmouth last month to see the Cathedral Innovation Centre, which was working with people from the Royal Society of Arts and Portsmouth university business school, as well as volunteers, to provide the right sort of mentors to enable social enterprises to get set up and be successful.

Employment and Support Allowance (Appeals)

3. What financial support his Department makes available to sick and disabled people while their claim for employment and support allowance undergoes mandatory reconsideration prior to the formal appeal. (155861)

Jobseeker’s allowance is available to those found fit for work. Alternatively, employment and support allowance can be paid for those who subsequently decide to appeal. ESA can be backdated to include the reconsideration period. Those who are put in the work-related activity group, but appeal because they want to move to the support group, will continue to be paid ESA at the assessment rate, as now.

I thank the Minister for that answer. A number of my constituents who have claimed for JSA have been told that they are not fit for work—they have a medical certificate—and are therefore not eligible because they are not available for work. What are people supposed to do in that situation? Will it not drive them into the hands of payday lenders?

First, if someone is found fit for work, they should be eligible for jobseeker’s allowance. The hon. Lady will be aware, as I am, of some of the hardship arrangements that are in place to help people, but it is absolutely right to try to encourage those claiming incapacity benefit to be reassessed, to ensure that those who are fit for work can get back into work, rather than be written off and face a lifetime of inactivity, as happened under previous Governments.

More broadly, when the Select Committee on Work and Pensions looked at this issue, we were interested in claimants’ experience of face-to-face interviews and, in particular, claimants with mental health problems. Will the Minister update the House on his assessment of those areas?

As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, my hon. Friend speaks knowledgeably about this issue. When the employment and support allowance was introduced under the previous Government, a third of those with a mental health condition received it. As a consequence of the reforms we have introduced, that number has now gone up to 43%.

Is the Minister aware of the representations that I have made to the Secretary of State about a constituent of mine who has been suffering from mental illness for 13 years? Three months before his Atos test, he tried to commit suicide. Nevertheless, he was immediately refused a continuation of his benefit and was put into the limited liability group. Does the Minister not realise that there are some horrendous cases of punitive action being taken against people who are completely innocent in this respect? That constituent was without any visible means of income, and I had to refer him to the food bank in order to prevent him from starving. Is the Minister proud of such consequences of his policies?

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he was in the Government who introduced the work capability assessment and the employment and support allowance. I have set out the improvements that we have made to the system that we inherited from the previous Government, which was not working. We are continuing to make reforms, and that is demonstrated by the fact that the proportion of people claiming employment and support allowance has tripled under this Government.

I am afraid that appeals to tribunals following refused ESA claims are taking far too long. The Leicester office, which deals with appeals from my constituents, now has a waiting list of 40 weeks. I know that this is not the responsibility of the Minister’s Department, but will he liaise with the Ministry of Justice to get this sorted out as quickly as possible?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the whole process is taking far too long. We are working closely with the Ministry of Justice to reform the system and ensure that appeals can be heard more quickly. We are also working with charities to see what additional support we can give to people claiming employment and support allowance, to ensure that the right information is made available as soon as possible to enable claims to be processed as quickly as possible.

What would the Minister say to my constituent, Philip Gillespie, who served our nation in Afghanistan and lost his right leg in an explosion there? Last month, he lost his disability living allowance and was told that he would be caught up by the new military system that is soon to be put in place. I hope that he will be caught up by it, but will the Minister ensure that this never happens again, and that a soldier serving his nation is never refused a benefit to which he is entitled?

I am not familiar with the details of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but we are working on arrangements with the Ministry of Defence and, in future, such cases will be dealt with by the Ministry rather than by the Department for Work and Pensions. However, the assessment is about functionability, not about someone’s condition. The old system, under which people were judged on their condition, resulted in many people being written off for decades because of their illness.

Offshore Safety Inspections (North Sea)

I meet the chairman and chief executive of the Health and Safety Executive regularly to discuss health and safety matters, including those relating to the offshore sector, as appropriate. The departmental Select Committee and the Maitland review, which was commissioned after the Deepwater Horizon episode, both concluded that we had a strong offshore regulatory system.

The Minister will be aware—or at least he should be—that next month will be the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, which precipitated the present health and safety approach taken in the North sea. Does he share the concern expressed by the trade unions operating in the North sea that the Health and Safety Executive’s energy division was set up without any consultation with the unions, and that the division undertakes not only offshore inspections but others as well? Will he guarantee that neither the number of inspectors available to conduct offshore inspections nor the number of such inspections will change as a result of this?

We have brought together various aspects of the energy sector in a single department. That bringing together of complementary skills is a sensible response to the increased diversification of the energy sector. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no slackening of focus on the offshore sector; indeed, we are recruiting more offshore inspectors.

State Pension

5. What assessment he has made of the effects of planned changes to the state pension on women born between April 1952 and April 1953. (155863)

We have published a detailed assessment of women in that group, and we have found that an overwhelming majority will receive more pension over their lifetime than under the existing system than would a man born on the same day who receives a single-tier pension.

I thank the Minister for that reply, and for the work that he has done on this matter. Given the fact that the new system and the current one will run concurrently after the implementation of the single-tier pension, can he reassure women in the affected age group that none will lose out in the transition, compared with women who are eligible for the proposed single-tier pension? Would he also consider meeting a group of women from my constituency to discuss the matter?

Obviously, women in the age group we are talking about get a basic state pension based on 30 years, whereas those under single tier will need 35 years and those a few years older need 39 years. Each group has a different system, but the key point is that the new system will cost exactly the same as the system it replaced. We are not putting extra money into new pensions and ignoring today’s pensioners; it is the same amount of money, but spent in a simpler way.

There are 900 of my constituents who are female and were born between 6 April 1951 and 6 April 1953, and who will not receive these new pension entitlements while men of the same age will. Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to those 900 women and bring forward proposals to look again at making sure that we have proper equality in the system?

I think that the hon. Gentleman might have written his question before he heard my earlier answer. Comparing those women in his constituency with men born on the same day, as he did, misses the point that those men will have to wait several years longer for their pension. They would far rather be in the position of the women who get their pension at 62 or 63.

The Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) is to say that these women are in a far better position than equivalent men. Let me push him a little on this. How did he come to a calculation suggesting that these women are better off? My understanding is that, under the Government’s plan, 700,000 women currently aged between 60 and 62 will on retirement receive a lower state pension every week than a man of the same age. Will he tell us specifically how much less a week on average these women will receive on retirement than a man of the same age?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, two things matter: how much people get, and when they get it, and he ignores the second thing. A man born on the same day has to wait until he is 65, but the women he is talking about will get a pension at 61, 62 or 63. The fact that they get the pension for years longer more than offsets a lower average receipt.

Under-occupancy Penalty (Wales)

Our equality impact assessment estimates that around 40,000 claimants will be affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy in Wales. A formal evaluation of the policy will be carried out over a two-year period with initial findings available early next year.

BBC Wales reports that for every 70 victims of the bedroom tax, only one alternative unit of accommodation is available. That means that 69 out of every 70 will have no choice but to endure this tax, which is unfair, impractical and will further impoverish the already poor.

The hon. Gentleman is right that we are asking social tenants to pay £2 a day towards a spare room—something that private tenants had to do under Labour’s local housing allowance scheme. Within Wales, a quarter of all social accommodation is one-bedroom properties. If we can deal with overcrowding and people on the waiting list in Wales, we will be doing the right thing by the people of Wales.

I am pleased that £50 million-worth of discretionary housing payments have been made available to ease the transition in difficult cases and to support families. How will the Minister ensure that my constituents are aware of this extra support?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need local authorities and social landlords, with which we have been working, to alert tenants to the fact that over £150 million has been made available to local authorities this year to help individuals in hard cases.

Monmouthshire council has allocated over a third of its £121,000-worth of discretionary housing payments in the six weeks since the bedroom tax came in. Given that the demand and the need is so high, does the Minister really believe that the Government have given enough money?

It was always the case that there would be high demand at the start of the year, because unlike other discretionary housing payments that arise randomly through the course of the year, this will apply for the whole year. We expected and planned for a higher rate of demand at the start of the year. We do keep these things under review, of course, and we are in close contact with local authorities in Wales to monitor the early implementation of this policy.

What will the Minister do to ensure that councils actually use the discretionary funding that has been given and do not hide the money away in order to make a political point against this particular policy?

My hon. Friend is right. We need to ensure that local authorities use the money that has been given to them to assist households when an extra contribution would be helpful. We have given a huge amount of taxpayers’ money to councils for that purpose, and we expect them to use every penny of it.

19. Government changes already require the British taxpayer to find nearly £2 billion more to rehouse vulnerable families. How many families does the Minister think will need to be rehoused as a result of this punitive bedroom tax? (155877)

I do not recognise that number at all. In fact, many of the scare stories that have come from the hon. Lady and others have proved not to transpire. When we capped rents in the private rented sector, we were told that there would be mass evictions and that vast droves of people would be moving all over London, but the evidence has not borne that out.


I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Can he confirm that the number of people claiming the main out-of-work benefits since the 2010 election has fallen?

Yes; this is an intriguing figure. As we have succeeded in enabling people who, when the last Government left office, were inactive but of working age to find employment, the total number of people without jobs has fallen by 380,000 since 2010. That fall has been driven by a fall in the rate of inactivity that was left by the last Government. As a result, the number of people receiving incapacity benefit and a number of other benefits—including lone parents—is at its lowest for some two decades.

Unemployment, including youth unemployment, is stubbornly high in Telford. Does the Secretary of State still talk to the Chancellor of the Exchequer or indeed the Prime Minister, because there was nothing in the Budget about youth unemployment, and there was nothing about it in the Queen’s Speech? Is he talking to them at all?

I talk to them regularly, and they talk to me. What I tell them constantly is that the figure for youth unemployment is lower than the figure that we inherited. We have also introduced the Youth Contract, which provides us with extra money so that we can give many people below the age of 24 a real chance to benefit from work experience programmes and apprenticeships. Many more people will go into apprenticeships under this Government than ever went into them under the last Government.

Last week I held my second jobs fair, at which 30 local employers met 300 jobseekers in my constituency to talk about more than 300 vacancies. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that there is currently a record number of vacancies in the United Kingdom?

That is correct. On average, about half a million vacant jobs are advertised, and that may not represent all the work that is available. Our universal jobmatch scheme ensures that claimants look for and apply for jobs, because they must be mandated on to the system. The number of private sector jobs has increased by 1.25 million since the election, and every six jobs created over the last six years correspond with one job loss in the public sector.

The House hears what the Secretary of State has to say about youth unemployment, but there is a youth unemployment crisis among young black men in particular. What action will he take to lower the present 50% level?

I agree that there is a particular problem in that regard. I am talking to all the voluntary sector groups as well as to providers, including all our staff at the DWP, and also to Opposition Members. We need to make more progress, because youth unemployment is not good regardless of the numbers involved, and we cannot do enough to drive it down. I can give the hon. Gentleman a guarantee that we will make more efforts to deal with this particular problem.

Benefits (Immigration)

8. What steps he plans to take to restrict access to benefits for new migrants from other EU member states. (155866)

14. What steps he is taking to reduce the eligibility to UK benefits of nationals of other EU member states. (155872)

We are taking steps to tighten further the rules relating to all migrants, not just new migrants. We are strengthening the habitual residence test; the Home Office is creating a statutory presumption that European economic area jobseekers and workers who are involuntarily unemployed will not have a right to reside here after six months unless they can demonstrate they are actively seeking work and have a genuine chance of finding a job; and we will prevent those with no entitlement to work in the UK from claiming contributory benefits.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it may be a good idea in the longer term to consider a more contributions-based system of benefits for all? One of the biggest problems for many people is although they may have worked and paid into the system for many years, if they are out of work for a period they receive little more than someone who turned up only last week.

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, but she might be aware that in a contributory benefits system those benefits can be exported to other EU member states, and she may think that is a disadvantage of the contributory system.

Why do the Government not insist that out-of-work benefits paid to non-United Kingdom citizens should be paid at the rate of benefit prevailing in the claimant’s home country? Should we not insist on that being a red line in the welcome forthcoming renegotiation?

My hon. Friend is aware that we are, in part, operating within a framework determined by the European Union. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met his German counterpart last week, and further meetings are planned for next month with European employment Ministers to discuss these very issues.


Even where we have had to take difficult decisions on welfare spending, we have systematically protected pensioners from the impacts of changes. Indeed, we have gone further: we have permanently increased the cold weather payment to £25, and the basic state pension is now a higher share of average earnings than at any time in the past 20 years.

Unlike the Opposition, we on this side of the House recognise that it is not right to increase basic state pensions by 75p: we give proper increases. What more is the Minister doing to ensure that retirement incomes continue to rise in the future?

As my hon. Friend knows, our goal is to have a retirement income based on the foundation of a simple, single, decent state pension—the legislation on this was announced in the Queen’s Speech—complemented by automatic enrolment into a workplace pension, so people have a pension based on their national insurance and a pension of their own with a contribution from both the employer and the taxpayer. That is a good combination to build on.

What does the Minister have to say to my constituent, a 91-year-old pensioner who is occupying a four-bedroom property and has been told that, because the priority has to be given to allocating smaller homes to people currently being hit by the bedroom tax, she has no immediate prospect of being housed in smaller, more suitable accommodation?

We expect social landlords to manage their housing stock effectively, and many social landlords have put in place schemes to enable older tenants to trade down, which many of them would want to do. If the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent is 91, I would think the housing association in question has had plenty of time to do something about that.

One of the barriers to pension planning is uncertainty. Does the Minister agree that auto-enrolment and the single-tier pension will give the certainty that both pensioners and the pension industry need?

My hon. Friend is right: we cannot build a building on an uneven foundation. That is why we had to get state pension reform right with a single, simple, predictable state pension. That makes private saving and automatic enrolment far more effective, and I am grateful for his support for that principle.

Universal Credit (IT System)

The IT system to support the pathfinder roll-out from April 2013 is up and running. As Members would expect, we continue to monitor, test and learn. That system is a crucial aspect of our pathfinder approach—although not all of it, by any means—which will guarantee the careful and deliberate wider roll-out of universal credit.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but will he confirm that three of the pathfinders are not going ahead precisely because the computer system is not ready? Will he also confirm that in the one pathfinder that is going ahead, the staff have one computer screen on which to record information, and the rest of the claimant information has be written down by pen on a notepad? That is the situation, is it not? How can the Secretary of State possibly come to this House and justify that as being satisfactory, after years of preparation?

The hon. Gentleman is fundamentally wrong. All the pathfinders are going ahead. The IT system is but a part of that, and goes ahead in one of the pathfinders. The other three are already testing all the other aspects of universal credit and in July will, essentially, themselves roll out the remainder of the pathfinder, and more than 7,000 people will be engaged in it. All that nonsense the hon. Gentleman has just said is completely untrue.

22. The pilot commenced on time and substantially on budget at one of the pathfinder locations, implying that much of the application must be working. Does that not contrast well with the failed big-bang approach taken by the last Government in similar implementations? (155880)

I repeat to my hon. Friend what I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts): the reality is that it is far better for us to do this carefully, and to check each time that the systems work and that those who are meant to be using them know what they are doing, so we learn the lessons from the whole system. The last Government went for a big-bang approach in one project after another, and most of them literally did just that: they blew up.

The Secretary of State will recall that I wrote to him in November 2010 to warn that the IT system could not possibly be delivered in the time scale he was claiming—unfortunately, that has proved to be the case. In November 2011, he announced that 1 million people would be receiving universal credit by April 2014. What is his latest estimate of the number of people who will be receiving universal credit by April 2014?

Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of a quote from the Institute for Fiscal Studies about the way we are rolling the system out. It said:

“The level of problems caused to tax credit claimants and employers as the new tax credit systems went live in April 2003 demonstrated that there were undetected gaps in the design of the testing regime for the systems.”

This system is a success. We have four years to roll it out, we are rolling it out now, we will continue the roll-out nationwide and we will have a system that works—and one that works because we have tested it properly.

In November 2011, 1 million people were going to be claiming by next April: now, the Secretary of State has not the faintest idea how many there will be—so much for this project being on schedule. There were supposed to be four pathfinders, but now there is only one, under which the only people who can get universal credit are those in the most straightforward circumstances. How long will it now realistically be before he has an IT system that can cope with, for example, applicants with children?

Interestingly enough, I had the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) in to see me last year and I told them exactly how we were rolling the system out—[Interruption.] No, no. I told them that the pathfinder would continue first of all with single claimants. As for the idea that somehow things have changed—he knew about that then and the situation is exactly the same now.

Disability Living Allowance/Motability

11. What steps he is taking to publicise the potential effects of planned regulation changes on claimants currently in receipt of (a) the disability living allowance higher rate and (b) Motability cars. (155869)

We wrote to every DLA claimant earlier this year, as well as holding stakeholder engagement events and MPs’ events. Online, there is a personal independence payment checker and a PIP toolkit. As the hon. Lady asks specifically about the highest rates of both components, I am sure that she will pleased to know that we have increased those rates under PIP from 16% to 23%, which is an increase of seven percentage points.

It came as a great shock to my constituents that the new regulations will see the removal of the Motability lease payments after 28 days of a person’s being in hospital. Will the Minister explain why she is prepared to leave disabled people worried about going into hospital and potentially losing their Motability car, losing their deposit and having to restart the whole process when they come out? They will be worried about what it will mean for them to reapply for a new car with new adaptations that requires a new deposit. Additional administration will fall on the Department for Work and Pensions, so who will bear the cost incurred when the exclusively and specifically adapted Motability cars have to be returned—

Order. I think that the hon. Lady’s essay —perhaps even her thesis—has been completed.

Obviously, I do not know the specific details of the case, but when somebody is in hospital for a long time they will not need the Motability car. However, every case is taken on its specifics and everything is dealt with in the most sensitive way. That has always been the case with Motability cars.

A constituent with a severely disabled daughter who is dependent on disability living allowance and a Motability car came to see me. Will my hon. Friend assure me that my constituent will be entitled to an appeal before those things are arbitrarily removed?

At the moment, we are considering working age people and that is where the changes are happening, so we would not be specifically considering the case my hon. Friend mentions. However, if she is talking about what happens at the end of a fixed-term period for which the child has entitlement, the assessment would be the same as it always was for DLA. The focus of the reforms is to ensure that the billions of pounds we are spending every year—a figure that is going up over this Parliament—will be focused on those who most need it.

The Minister really needs to look at the specifics of this. Her regulations have changed: a person in hospital will now lose their higher mobility rate after four weeks, instead of 13 weeks. Their Motability car will have to go back, even though they may have spent thousands of pounds on adaptations to it. The Minister really has to look at how her regulations have changed.

Obviously, I do indeed look at those regulations, but, as I said, every case is looked at on a case-by-case basis, to see what is required in that specific instance.

The Minister and the Secretary of State have recently been found out using figures that show a dramatic increase in the number of people receiving disability living allowance. To quote the Secretary of State, they wanted

“to get in early, get ahead of it”—

that is, the PIP. However, Department for Work and Pensions statistics show that there was a significant decrease in the number of working-age people—that is, those affected by the changes—getting the benefit, so much so that The Economist said:

“Over the past few months…questionable numbers have floated out of Iain Duncan Smith’s office into the public debate like raw sewage.”

Those are the words of The Economist, not mine. Will the Minister take this opportunity to correct the figures on the record, and to resolve to use accurate figures only? As The Economist puts it,

“they shouldn’t manipulate…and distort”


“to tell stories that aren’t actually true.”

I will put on record that we do use correct figures. We use the right figures, and we make sure that people know exactly what is happening, because that is only right. We are dealing with the most vulnerable people in society, and it is only right that they get the correct information. We will continue doing that.

Jobseeker's Allowance (Claimant Sanctions)

Sanctions have played a key role in ensuring that jobseekers meet their commitments to the taxpayer in return for jobseeker’s allowance, and 40% of claimants say that they are more likely to look for work due to the threat of a sanction.

In my constituency, the number of jobless people chasing each vacancy is more than double the national average, yet my local citizens advice bureau informs me that there has been an increase in the number of people who have been to see it who have been kicked off benefits because of sanctions. When will the Government—more specifically, the Tories—stop demonising the unemployed for not having a job, and when will they stop this relentless war against the poor?

I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there are people in his constituency who are paying their taxes and working, and who expect jobseekers to do all they can to look for work, so that they can look after themselves and their families. That is the contract that underpins the welfare state—the contract that the previous Government signed up to; I am surprised that he seems to be backing away from that.

Housing Benefit Cap (Evictions)

13. What redress is available to tenants whose landlords seek to evict them on the grounds that they are housing benefit recipients subject to the benefits cap. (155871)

Landlords must support their tenants in maintaining their tenancy. All those affected by the cap have already been contacted, most of them more than a year ago, so tenants uncertain about their situation should have asked for a review by now, to check that they are receiving all the benefits to which they are entitled. The local authority may consider paying discretionary housing payments, which we have already given them, in negotiations with the landlord, to find a way to avoid eviction.

The Secretary of State is precisely avoiding the point. He knows very well that landlords are using as an excuse for getting rid of tenants, and as a reason to evict them, the fact that they are on the benefits cap. He said that the benefits cap would be a way of bringing rents down, but it is not; it is a way of evicting tenants who are living on benefits. That is appalling, and he needs to do something about it.

On the implementation of the cap, people have had over a year to work on this, and I know that local authorities are working with them; we keep in constant contact with them. We will have given local authorities more than £380 million in discretionary moneys. It is very clear that if the issue is only the cap, there is no requirement for people to be evicted. This is a reality, and authorities must work with them. The hon. Gentleman needs to talk to his party, because it wants to make the cap worse by regionalising it.

Credit Unions

I congratulate my hon. Friend, as I always make a point of doing, on his persistence in supporting credit unions. I know that he is a member of his local one, which has about 300 members. I hope that he will welcome the award of a contract for £38 million to the Association of British Credit Unions Limited, which will help 1 million people, and will act as an alternative to loan sharks and payday loans.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that helpful answer. I know that he would like to praise the volunteers at Colchester credit union for all they do. Will he discuss with his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Education the importance of encouraging all of us, particularly children, to undertake regular saving?

My hon. Friend is right and his campaigns have helped us shape some of our thinking on that. It is worth noting that for the first time financial education will be on the national curriculum, which is extremely important. Through universal credit we are making available a series of financial planning devices and special bank accounts, so we hope this will drive people in the right direction. The crackdown on payday lenders who abuse their position has already started and is yielding real results.

Disability-related Benefits

16. What assessment he has made of whether people who claim disability-related benefits are also more likely to receive housing benefit; and if he will make a statement. (155874)

As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, there are different types of benefit for disabled people, including disability living allowance, which is paid irrespective of whether the claimant is in work or not, as well as income replacement benefits such as employment and support allowance, so a person could receive ESA and DLA or wages and DLA. Around a third of households in receipt of disability living allowance or attendance allowance also receive support for their housing costs.

I have been driven to ask this as an oral question by my being refused a reply to a number of written questions on the grounds that it would cost too much money. I have been able to discover that there are 678,000 housing benefit claimants who are also receiving ESA, so there are at least two thirds of a million disabled people in receipt of housing benefit. In Slough landlords—

What is the Minister going to do to protect disabled people in private housing when landlords refuse to accept people on housing benefit, which is common in my constituency?

We have supported people with discretionary housing payments amounting to £360 million. The authorities are working with credible landlords. We are supporting those people. Perhaps the hon. Lady could not get an answer to her question because she was looking for something that was not there.

Topical Questions

Today I welcome the step that we are taking to support those suffering from mesothelioma and their families, which is a vast improvement on previous taxpayer-funded schemes. The Mesothelioma Bill will correct the failings of the insurance industry to keep proper records, speeding up tracing and setting up the scheme whereby insurers will make payments to some 300 people a year who cannot trace their past employers’ insurers. The Bill is a laudable and long-overdue step towards redress for sufferers of this terrible disease and I welcome its Second Reading in the other place.

Seven weeks in, the true devastating consequences of the bedroom tax are becoming clear: claims for discretionary housing payments up 338% in a month, and in Glasgow rising to 5,500, the highest in the entire country. Is it not the case that the Secretary of State has not provided local councils with the resources they need to deal with a crisis of his making?

We have substantially increased the budget for discretionary housing payment, so it is not surprising that there is a rising number of people applying for it. My officials are in regular contact with Scottish local authorities to look at the issues there, as well as in other parts of the country. We have formal evaluation over the next year and two years, and we are monitoring the situation on the ground to see how these reforms are working.

T5. I am proud to have given full-time jobs to two young people who did some short-term work experience in my constituency office. That was work experience, not an internship. What evidence has my hon. Friend that work experience helps people get back into work? (155888)

An evaluation that we published last year shows that young people who have had work experience have a better chance of getting off benefit and into work. I am grateful to everybody, including my hon. Friend, who makes available work experience places to give young people a chance to get out of unemployment and into employment.

Can the Secretary of State give the House his personal forecast for when this year’s allocation for the discretionary housing payment fund will run out?

No, because the reality is that we have also said that there is three years’ worth of payments—that is the point of the word “discretionary”, by the way. Local authorities can use the money for precisely the kinds of reasons they want, and their observance is to spend it. We keep it under review, as we have said we will do persistently. I cannot understand the point of the right hon. Gentleman’s question.

Let me tell the Secretary of State the point of the question: across the country discretionary housing payment fund money is about to run out. In my home city of Birmingham applications are up five times on last year. That policy means that in places such as the north-east three-bedroom houses are now standing empty because people cannot afford to move in. There are now 53,000 households in our country being put up in temporary accommodation, which is costing the taxpayer billions of pounds. When will he admit the truth: the hated bedroom tax now costs more than it saved? It is time to scrap it, and scrap it for good?

Discretionary housing payments are given to councils, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. They set the scheme up. They can top the money up as they wish—[Interruption.] One moment they want discretionary moneys, and the next they do not. That falls into the pattern for the Opposition. When they were in government they lost control of the housing benefit bill, which doubled, and it was due to rise by another £5 billion. Every time they come to the Dispatch Box and oppose what we are doing, it means another spending commitment. They have gone from old Labour to new Labour and now to welfare Labour.

T6. What progress has my hon. Friend made on transforming the lives of the most disadvantaged individuals and families in our society? (155889)

My hon. Friend will recognise that we have seen a big fall in the number of people who are out of work and a reduction in the number of people claiming the main out-of-work benefits. I am confident that our reforms to universal credit will further improve the lives of those who are out of work and those who are on low incomes.

T2. For many, retirement is a welcome liberation from demeaning drudgery. For others, it is an unwelcome end to their useful lives, often leading to ill health. What are the Government doing to ensure more choice in the age of retirement? (155885)

One of the measures we implemented early on, and of which I am proudest, was the abolition of forced retirement. The previous Government talked about it a lot, but we abolished it, so people can no longer be forced out of their jobs simply for turning 65. However, there is much more to do. We are working with employers’ groups on attitudes to older workers to encourage them to retain them and enable them to stay in the work force if they wish to do so.

T7. Ministers will be aware of the long-overdue changes to shared parenting in the current Children and Families Bill. Will they liaise with their hon. Friends in the Department for Education to ensure that non-resident fathers are not deterred from engaging in their children’s lives as much as possible because of welfare changes that might make it difficult for them to secure appropriate accommodation when their children come to stay? (155890)

First, may I welcome the fantastic work my hon. Friend did when he was in that job? He is absolutely right, and I will ensure that we liaise with colleagues and make that argument strongly, but it is one that I think they already bear in mind strongly.

T3. I keep hearing of homeless people having particularly difficult and negative experiences of the Work programme. Crisis has told me of a woman who lives in a hostel and has serious mental health problems, some of which relate to being homeless, yet she was referred to a sub-contractor specialising not in mental health, but in learning difficulties, who was obviously no use to her whatsoever. What will the Secretary of State do to sort out the people who are supposed to be offering services and support that are appropriate to people’s needs and end the failure of his Work programme? (155886)

There are some excellent examples of how the Work programme has worked with people who are homeless and those who have mental health problems. The important thing is to learn from where practice is excellent. We will ensure that that happens and that good practice is shared.

T9. Will my hon. Friend please update the House on what recent assessment she has made of the number of Remploy staff who have made it into employment or training? (155892)

As of today, of the 1,100 Remploy staff who have come forward for help, 351 are in work and about the same number are in training. We are working closely with former Remploy staff to ensure that we get this as good as possible. I will also say that when the previous Government closed 29 factories in 2008, absolutely no support or monitoring was put in place, something that this Government have done and got right.

T8. The Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues have taken a number of questions on Atos and the work capability assessment, and I think that many people listening to these proceedings would consider their answers relaxed to the point of complacency. Does he recognise that people who have intermittent, real problems with working—people with brain damage and with mental health problems—are not being served properly by the work capability assessment? Does he recognise that this is a problem, or not? If he does, what, in practice, is he going to do about it? (155891)

The hon. Gentleman needs to remember that his party in government introduced the work capability assessment, so Labour Members cannot shirk their responsibilities. Since we came into office we have implemented the findings of Professor Harrington, and the fourth independent report is under way. The proportion of people going into support groups has tripled under this Government. That is a consequence of the reforms that we have introduced to fix a system that the previous Government created.

T10. Will the Minister join me in welcoming last week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics showing a fourth consecutive quarter of significant growth in the employment of UK nationals? Will he contrast that performance with the performance of the previous Government between 2004 and 20011, when we saw a significant increase in the employment of non-UK nationals in the economy? (155893)

The former Prime Minister used to bang on about British jobs for British workers, but in reality the majority of new jobs went to non-UK nationals. We have reversed that trend, and now nine out of 10 new jobs go to UK nationals.

A constituent of mine who lives in Haddington was recently asked to attend a tribunal for her disability living allowance in Glasgow, which, because she had to use public transport, would have meant a round trip of six hours. That is not only unacceptable for her but places a strain on welfare rights in my constituency. Does the Minister think that that is acceptable?

The transition to the personal independence payment is a good thing in theory, but some people are telling me that they are concerned that the threshold for qualification is unacceptably high and they feel unsupported in trying to work out how to make a difficult choice among the variety of suppliers available.

I was not exactly sure where the right hon. Gentleman was going with that question. The PIP was introduced to support the most vulnerable and to make it as easy as possible to do so, and to ensure that people who could not fill in a self-assessment form could see somebody on a one-to-one basis. This is the biggest ever change in welfare. I thank all the people who have helped with it in Jobcentre Pluses, and the stakeholders. Over 1,000 disabled people got involved to make sure that the system was right, and I thank them for making it a good transition to a new benefit.

The Minister can always have a cup of tea with her right hon. Friend if any further clarification is required.

Many of my constituents rely on the sub-prime lending sector to manage from day to day and to build their credit record. What conversations has the Secretary of State’s Department had with the Financial Conduct Authority in its efforts to improve that sector and to make sure that my constituents get a good service rather than, in some cases, being driven into the hands of illegal moneylenders?

That is a very good question. My noble Friend Lord Freud is conducting those discussions, which are in line with all his discussions with the banking and finance sector in advance of universal credit coming in. The hon. Lady makes a very valuable point, and she is absolutely right. I will ensure that we press people very hard on this.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Department suffered £1.2 billion of fraud losses last year and recovered just under £50 million. Will he look again at the scope for greater data sharing with the private sector, which is often targeted by the same fraudsters, to see whether risk-averse legal advice within the Department is hampering these recoveries?

Yes. When we came into office, the fraud and error in tax credit loan bills stood at some £11.6 billion—money lost by the previous Government. Since then, we have published a new fraud legislative strategy, refreshed in February last year, and we are convicting and punishing more people. There were almost 10,000 convictions for benefit fraud in 2011-12, up more than 40% on 2009-10.

The Secretary of State blithely told us earlier that if the budget given to local councils for discretionary housing payments runs out, they should just top it up. Where exactly does he think they should get the money from to top up their budgets, and, if he is not prepared to accept the failures of the bedroom tax, why does he not at least agree to top up the budgets himself in order to make up for the deficiencies of his own policy?

I have said all along that we will keep this under review and talk to local authorities. The Opposition have not once apologised—they did not do so when in government, either—for the fact that, under them, house building fell to its lowest level since the 1920s and that there was more overcrowding. There are 1.5 million spare rooms and 250,000 people live in overcrowded accommodation. There were record levels under the previous Government. Why do they not say sorry for the mess they left housing in?

I know that Ministers want to be on the side of those who work hard to get on, including a constituent of mine—about whom I have written to the employment Minister—who worked hard for many years before undergoing chemotherapy for blood cancer. Two years ago he spent a month between jobs, during which time he chose not to claim benefits, but he has been told by the benefits office that, as a result of this gap in his contribution history, he is not eligible for contributory employment support allowance. Will the Minister meet me so that we can examine this case and try to make sure that rigid bureaucracy does not prevent us from helping people in such situations?

A recent judgment said that homeless people using night shelters are not eligible for any housing benefit payments. Given that night shelters will not be able to continue without an income from their service users, what action is being taken to address this problem?

We are looking at this issue with my noble friend Lord Freud and my right hon. Friends. I will definitely write to the hon. Lady about the outcome.