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Topical Questions

Volume 563: debated on Monday 20 May 2013

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.