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Work and Pensions

Volume 565: debated on Monday 1 July 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Innovation Fund for Young People

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department's innovation fund projects in helping disadvantaged young people. (162089)

The innovation fund is a £30 million investment testing cutting-edge projects to improve the employment prospects of our most disadvantaged 14 to 24-year-olds. So far the fund is working well: 6,000 young people are being helped, and recent statistics show 1,800 positive outcomes—each an improvement such as better school attendance, improved skills, qualifications or a move into work—which are being measured for future expansion.

I know my right hon. Friend recognises the importance of financial education and financial literacy in schools. Can he repeat his support for financial education to start in primary schools and will he reassure the House that he recognises the need for his Department to work closely with the Department for Education to deliver this important measure?

I can confirm that a strong passion of mine—and certainly one of the DWP’s—is to get financial education literacy into the national curriculum. I hope that view would be shared on both sides of the House. Clearly, people coming out of the education system need at some point to understand what interest rates are, for example—otherwise they will get ripped off by unscrupulous lenders. The national curriculum is published in its final form for first teaching in the autumn of September 2014. The Department for Education and ourselves are consulting on including financial education in it, and I believe that we are likely to get that, so I can say an honest “yes” to my hon. Friend.

The Daily Record recently alleged that Youth Contract wage incentives are being handed out to people already in work—just to give the illusion that the funds are being used. What investigation has the right hon. Gentleman made of that report?

This is not directly related to the innovation fund, which is about testing programmes so that extra skills, quality and money can eventually be put in. However, I am aware of what the hon. Lady says, as is the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) who is looking into it and will ensure that action is taken. If the allegation is true, we will act; if not, it will simply be a scurrilous report.

Child Support Agency

2. What assessment he has made of the use of electronic correspondence by the Child Support Agency. (162090)

For the 1993 and 2003 child maintenance schemes, the preferred method of contact is by telephone—simply because of the sensitive nature of the material, which would otherwise have to be e-mailed. However, the ability to provide electronic communication is being embedded into the design of the 2012 scheme.

I was very surprised when my constituent, Louise Cawser, was told by the agency that she could not deal with it by e-mail, because there was no effective tool to provide sufficient security. Given the drive across government as a whole and in various agencies to consult electronically, will the Minister provide some reassurance to clients of the Child Support Agency about how this will develop in the future?

Yes, I am pleased to say that, starting later this year, clients on the 2012 system will have the equivalent of internet banking, so they will be able to log on, see their account and report changes of circumstances. We will close all existing cases over the next few years, and those who want to remain in the statutory system will move on to the 2012 system and they will have that service available to them.

Work Programme

Work programme performance has significantly improved; it is working. The numbers of people finding lasting work—at least six months for most people or three months for the hardest to help—has increased significantly from 9,000 in March 2012 to 132,000 in March 2013.

Recent data on the Work programme show that it has failed to meet its minimum performance level in every category, and that the proportion of employment and support allowance claimants achieving a sustained job was less than a third of the minimum. Every week, I hear from unemployed people in my constituency who are desperate to find a job, and they are being utterly let down by this programme. What is the Minister going to do about it?

I just point out that in the hon. Lady’s area, the Work programme is exceeding its targets for young people aged between 18 and 24. She should get to grip with the facts on what is happening with the Work programme. It is helping people into work, and particularly in her area. On the point about ESA claimants, she should not forget that when her party was in government, it wrote those people off. This is the first time we have had a major programme to get people who have been out of work through sickness or ill health back into employment. More work needs to be done, but what we are doing is a significant improvement on how the Labour Government abandoned those people in the past.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the improvements in performance of the Work programme providers that cover my constituency of Amber Valley? Notwithstanding that, there are clearly some areas of concern. Will the Department now use the market shift mechanism to make sure that those who are not succeeding will have more encouragement to improve in the future?

My hon. Friend is right. Although performance has improved significantly, more progress is needed. We aim to reward the best providers by shifting more referrals to them, and that will start happening on 1 August. At that time, at least 14 market share shifts will take place to encourage good performers and to send a message to those who are performing badly.

The Minister must be disappointed by the figures relating to employment and support allowance. The people concerned were not abandoned by the last Government; there was a programme called Pathways to Work, and the figures were far better then than they have been during the two years of the Work programme. Will the Minister please look into what is happening to this cohort with a sense of urgency? These people are being let down.

I disagree with the hon. Lady’s presumption that they are being let down. I have ensured that each provider has an action plan. We have also set up a “best practice group” to share information about what is working well, and to ensure that each provider gives the best possible service to this important group of people.

A couple of weeks ago I met George Gallop of A4e, who runs the Work programme in Southampton. He introduced me to two young people whose lives had been utterly transformed by the programme. It was truly inspirational. Does the Minister agree that we should be celebrating such successes, and spreading the techniques employed by Mr Gallop more widely around the country?

My hon. Friend is right. One important thing that we can all do is visit Work programme providers in order to understand what they are doing. I have been doing that since I took over this job in September. It is clear that lives are being transformed, and that people who might otherwise have been out of work for years are gaining employment as a consequence of the programme. We need to learn from what is successful, and spread best practice throughout the country.

What does the Minister plan to do with people who come out at the other end of the Work programme? According to a letter that I have received from my local branch of Jobcentre Plus, the programme’s intensive regime will reduce the number of people on benefits, but will not increase the number of those in work. Will the Minister assure us that the activities involved in following up people who have been left without work on the programme will not include bullying them off benefits, and will include getting them into work?

It was the hon. Lady’s party, when it was in government, that established targets for sanctions on jobseekers—targets that the present Government scrapped.

A range of measures exist to support those who are leaving the Work programme and bring them closer to employment. However, we are also asking people to go into the jobcentre every day in order to receive one-to-one support, and I think we shall find that that is very effective.

A4e tells me that 38% of its Work programme clients in the east midlands are aged between 18 and 24, and that one of the biggest challenges that they face is the provision of inadequate or irregular transport services in rural areas, and bad bus services in particular. Is the Minister aware of that problem, and what work can he do with the Department for Transport to deal with it?

My hon. Friend has raised an issue that applies to a number of areas. Work programme providers, Jobcentre Plus, employers and transport companies have worked together well to improve transport links, and to ensure that as many people as possible can travel to a job that enables them to look after themselves and their families.

Social Investment Market

Social investment involves taking a new approach to the tackling of our most entrenched social problems, thus enabling investors to have a positive impact on society and make a return that guarantees more long-term investment. After initiating the scheme, the Government, along with Sir Ronnie Cohen and others, launched Big Society Capital, which is the world’s first institution of its kind, and established the Early Intervention Foundation. My Department has set up 10 social impact bonds, taking the total in the country to 13. We are improving the concept, and we are now a world leader in the field.

Will my right hon. Friend seek to maximise the involvement of retail investors in the social investment market? Does he agree that the new social investment tax relief has great potential to unlock new funding to finance valuable local projects and help to turn lives around?

I will certainly try to encourage precisely those people to invest. The aim is eventually to establish a proven project which delivers a social return, thus encouraging both trusts and private sector investors, as well as local authorities, to supply guaranteed funds to organisations that would otherwise have no funding. We think that the potential market is enormous. The Americans, among others, have said that they are grateful for our leadership in this regard, and the G8 was very keen on hearing from us.

Does the Secretary of State agree that social investment could be channelled through local regional banks and expanded credit unions, which are surely the best-placed organisations and the closest to their local communities?

All those are options. We have put in extra investment in credit unions—some £35 million—to try to increase their scope and to bring them together again. My hon. Friend is right. Local is what this is all about. It is about giving projects in the local area, with local authorities, a chance to obtain reasonable, long-term investment to deliver life-changing results. It is interesting that, at the G8 conference—this is the most important thing—many of the countries said that this is the way for them to go, too. This country has led on this area, thanks to the coalition.

National Insurance Contributions (Northern Ireland)

5. How many people who worked in Northern Ireland and paid national insurance contributions while aged 14 or 15 between 1947 and 1957, which did not count towards their qualifying years for a full basic state pension, fall two years or less short of the years needed to qualify for such a pension. (162093)

As the hon. Lady will be aware, state pensions in Northern Ireland are the responsibility of Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is responsible for national insurance matters. However, I am advised by HMRC that the information that she has requested could be obtained only at disproportionate cost.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but some of the people who worked during that period, before the school leaving age changed in Northern Ireland, would be resident in other parts of the UK as well as in Northern Ireland. Therefore, will he undertake at least to raise the matter again with HMRC, in order that it can reconsider its response?

The issue for HMRC is that the records that the hon. Lady is talking about—those of people who left school at 14 and 15 in the 1940s and 1950s—are on pieces of cardboard in a cupboard somewhere. That information could only be gathered at disproportionate cost.

Does not this question demonstrate the fact that the concept of national insurance has always been a bit of a con in that it is not, and never has been, an insurance scheme? Essentially, those who are in work at any time are paying, out of their taxed income, for the pensions of pensioners of that time, on the understanding that when they reach pensionable age those in work will pay their pensions. Ever since it was introduced, the phrase, “national insurance”, has been misleading.

My hon. Friend is correct: it is an intergenerational pension promise, although we hold to the notion that we pay bigger pensions to those who have made more years of contributions. Therefore, we believe that there is an insurance element to the scheme.

Eligibility for State Pension

6. What assessment he has made of eligibility for the state pension following the rise in contributions to 35 years from 2016. (162094)

Does the Minister accept that as a result of the changes fewer people overall will qualify for the state pension by 2020? Does he agree that that is particularly unfair to people who, being so close to retirement, will not have time to make up the years?

We have put in place special provision for the very people to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. When we value their pension rights at 2016, we will do so under the current rules, where 30 years are needed to qualify, and the new rules, where 35 years are needed, and we will use whichever of the two provides the highest number. The 2016 calculation will take whichever set of rules treats people most favourably and they will build upon that.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the proposed arrangements will greatly reduce means-testing in the long run and so restore incentives for people to save?

My hon. Friend is right. The danger with the current system is that people who save find that the Government come along and say, “You’ve saved some money—we’ll take some money off you.” Our intention is to encourage, not penalise, saving. Paying a single, simple, decent pension just above the level of the basic means test will greatly enhance those incentives.

The Government’s case for the new state pension is that it will increase the incentive to save in private pensions, but does the Minister agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), a Treasury Parliamentary Private Secretary? He told the House during Second Reading of the Pensions Bill:

“One reason that people are not saving is that there is massive distrust of the industry. I have many colleagues in the private sector who would almost cut their arms off than invest in the pensions market.—[Official Report, 17 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 712.]

What will the Minister to encourage people to make those savings in private pensions?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman to the extent that there is mistrust of private pensions, which is why we have taken strong action,: for example, we have banned consultancy charges, which were a source of concern. On savings incentives, if he looks at our analysis, he will find that low earners in particular will have much smaller withdrawal rates when they save. Therefore, the return on savings, particularly for low earners, about whom I am sure he is most concerned, will be enhanced by the proposals.

I think my hon. Friend might be referring to the idea of a total welfare cap, and while the Chancellor of the Exchequer has explicitly ruled out the idea of capping state pensions, I understand there are others in this House who are prepared to cap state pensions.

Work Programme

7. What assessment he has made of the performance of the Work programme in helping young people into work. (162095)

Just under half the young people who had been on the Work programme for a year had work, and over 46,000 had had more than six months of work.

I do not know whether the Minister is as disappointed as I am at the sniping negativity of Labour MPs towards the Work programme, when what they should be doing is rolling up their sleeves and making it work in their constituencies. In that spirit, will the Minister applaud the 50 small businesses in Bedford which, working in conjunction with the two Work programme providers, will on 11 July be giving 200 young people the equivalent of a day of speed-dating interviews to give them a good restart in their careers?

That is a fantastic example of how local employers can work with the Work programme to deliver good outcomes for people and get them into work.

From this month, hundreds of jobseekers, including young people, will be returned to jobcentres. The DWP originally said they would be asked to come in weekly, but I think I heard the Secretary of State say they will be coming in daily, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that new jobseekers will be coming in weekly. The problem here is that the National Audit Office has said job advisers are seeing far more jobseekers than ever before, that the time they spend with jobseekers is down, and that the DWP budget fell by 9% in last week’s spending review. Is this not just a lot of hot air? Is it not something that is not actually going to happen?

I remind the hon. Lady that over the last seven months the number of jobseekers has fallen. She has not welcomed that, but it is good news for her constituents and for people across the country. We want to make sure Jobcentre Plus advisers offer a good quality service. They do that, and I am very disappointed that a member of the Select Committee cannot see fit to thank Jobcentre Plus advisers for their hard work.

Indeed, they are at their highest level since 2008. That is why we have record numbers of people in work, record numbers of women in work, and a record number of hours worked. It is about time the Opposition welcomed that.

In the invitation to tender for the Work programme, the Minister’s Department said it expected providers significantly to exceed the minimum standards it had set out, but the facts are that they have not even reached the minimum standards, including for young people getting back into work, and that about half the providers have not even met the standards his Department said would be met without a programme in place. Is not the Minister even a tiny bit embarrassed?

I am pleased to be able to say that performance is improving. Across the country the performance of Work programme providers has improved, and about half of providers have significantly exceeded the minimum standards. That is why people are getting into work; that is why we are seeing lives transformed. I wish the Opposition would stop carping and congratulate the work the providers are doing to get people into work.

18. Until recently, a significant part of the labour market, including young people, was referred to as unemployable. May I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State on challenging this deeply negative assumption? To be getting 132,000 previously unemployed people into employment is a considerable achievement. Does my hon. Friend agree that the payment-by-results model has been instrumental in this achievement? (162107)

Under previous schemes, money was paid upfront to providers without much attention being paid to whether people got jobs and work. Under this scheme, the interests of taxpayers, the unemployed and providers are closely aligned, because providers get paid only if they get people into work for six months.

Work Capability Assessments

8. If he will take steps to ensure that work capability assessments better meet the needs of people with mental health problems.

(162096)

We recognise the challenges in accurately assessing people with mental health conditions, and the potential vulnerability of such claimants. The previous Government built safeguards into the work capability assessment. We have introduced further improvements to ensure the process deals with people with mental health conditions fairly and accurately.

In recent months, I have been in contact with a number of constituents with mental health conditions who tell me that the work capability assessment fails to recognise the nature and severity of their problems. In the light of the recent court case in which it was ruled that the current assessment process discriminates against those with mental health problems and autism, will the Minister stop the transfer of people with mental health conditions from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance until the system is fixed for that group?

It is important to ensure that we get the right support in place for people. Not long after ESA was introduced under the previous Government, 33% of people with a mental health condition received the support allowance, but under this Government the figure has increased to 43%, so more people are getting the right support as a consequence of this assessment.

Will the Minister encourage a scheme that Mind had—the “way to work” campaign—under which people with spasmodic mental health illnesses could work flexibly? It was not taken up as well as it could have been by employers, and it would help people who are assessed as having periods of good health as well as ill health.

My hon. Friend rightly says that we need to find ways to help people with mental health conditions, and other conditions, back into employment—the work we do under the Work programme is part of that, but other interventions are also being made—because there is a strong link between work and good health outcomes.

23. Given today’s launch of Rethink’s Unfair WCA campaign, when will the Minister finally decide whether to implement the changes to the descriptors recommended over a year ago by the mental health charities? (162112)

Work is going on at the moment to test those descriptors, and we are working closely with the charities. Today also marks the launch of the call for evidence of the fourth independent review of the WCA, which recognises our commitment to improving on the system we inherited from the previous Government.

Will the Minister examine the way in which people with mental and physical health problems are assessed before they are placed in their WCA, specifically by Seetec in my part of the world? Will he examine how appropriate the placement is after they have started, because in my experience such placements are often inappropriate and therefore do not benefit anybody at the end of the exercise?

The Work programme does not undertake the assessments; they are undertaken as part of the ESA process. It is in the interests of providers to ensure that they get people placed with the right employer, because that maximises the chance of that person staying in work and, thus, the provider getting paid for the right outcomes.

In May, Dr Greg Wood, an Atos-appointed doctor, made a series of specific allegations about failings in the WCA process as he saw it, as a doctor working for Atos. I asked the Prime Minister to investigate and I received a reply from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions this week that made absolutely no reference to the specific allegations that have been raised. Does the Minister understand that one reason why there is such a lack of confidence in the Atos test is this complacent, contemptuous disregard for, and head-in-the-sand attitude towards, what is happening in the system?

I just point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as I said in response to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), today we have launched a call for evidence for the fourth independent review of the WCA. That demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that we get this right, so that people get the right support, and that we continue to deliver the right outcomes for people going through this process.

It is encouraging that over the past three years the number of people with mental health conditions who have been put into the support group has trebled. Does the Minister agree, however, that we need constantly to monitor the effectiveness of the WCA, perhaps by working with mental health charities, to make sure that it is suitable for people with fluctuating mental health conditions?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is because we are committed to continuing to improve the whole process that we work with mental health charities. Since coming to office, I have had several meetings with charities to talk about what we can do, and this is why we are currently going through the process of assessing alternative descriptors, particularly for those with fluctuating conditions and mental health issues.

Employment (Disabled People)

The Department offers a range of support to help disabled people get into work and stay in work, including the Work programme, Work Choice and Access to Work. Although there has been a welcome improvement in the disability employment rate over recent years, much still needs to be done. We will be doing that by launching a new, two-year disability employment campaign in July.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I also thank the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), who is coming to our jobs fair tomorrow morning where there will be information about jobs that local companies have designed around people with certain abilities and disabilities. What can we do to communicate to businesses the value of employing people with elements of disability and to ensure that they play a good part in our work force?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work she is doing. Employers have the jobs and young people want those jobs, so getting them together is key. That is precisely what we will be doing when we launch our new employment strategy: getting together all the FTSE 100 companies, SMEs and young disabled entrepreneurs so that they can employ people and share best practice.

The Minister has mentioned programmes that help disabled people get into work, but how many of those people remained in work 12 months after they got a job?

Of the nearly 13,000 people who have started on Work Choice, a third—30%—have stayed in work. That situation has improved, but we want to do more, so we are starting the “disability confident” campaign, which will, we hope, help to achieve better outcomes.

Will the Minister confirm that disabled people can, through Access to Work and as part of the new enterprise allowance, get more equipment that will help them set up their own businesses?

My hon. Friend is correct. We have extended the new enterprise allowance to help disabled entrepreneurs with support from Access to Work and she will be pleased to know that more than half a million disabled people have now set up their own businesses.

In spite of the bluff and bluster of the Minister of State for employment, the reality is that Work programme outcomes for new ESA clients show a pathetic performance outcome of only 5.3%, three times worse than doing nothing.

However, I want to turn to another employment support programme for disabled people, Access to Work, which the Under-Secretary has just mentioned. According to the DWP’s most recent statistics, the programme is now supporting 27,000 people compared with 37,290 in the year 2009-10 and 35,000 in 2010-11. Given that many disabled people want to get into work and are constantly told that they need to get into work, can the Minister advise when both the Work programme and Access to Work will start to make a real change to their lives?

The right hon. Lady is quite right that Access to Work is key in helping people to remain in work, which is why we have extended it to young children who want to do internships and to new people who want to set up in business. It is working well and we are continuing to expand it, but we must also ensure that it works as best it possibly can. I am proud of what we are doing and we will build on that good platform.

Thanks to organ transplants, many lives have been saved, but in some cases despite their outward appearance the person is inwardly still disabled. What advice is given to jobcentres and other Government agencies to draw attention to the special needs of those who have had organ transplants?

I am not aware of any specific advice that is given about people with organ transplants, but I do know that our disability employment advisers have in-depth knowledge and help people with all disabilities.

Work Capability Assessments

10. What assessment he has made of the operation of work capability assessments; and if he will make a statement. (162098)

The work capability assessment is aimed at ensuring people out of work through ill health or disability get the support they need. It is under regular review and today the call for evidence for the fourth review is being launched.

In recent weeks, it seems that more of my constituents have been put in the work-related activity group without even having a face-to-face assessment. Will the Minister confirm whether the use of discretionary powers is increasing and will he reassure me that that is not a case of cutting corners to clear a backlog?

It depends on the information provided and if claimants are providing good-quality information through the ESA50, they can be referred without a face-to-face assessment. I would also point out that the proportion of people going into the support group has increased in recent times, particularly as a consequence of not using face-to-face assessments.

Jobcentres

Jobcentre Plus has a national network of employer relationship and partnership staff whose task is to work collaboratively with voluntary organisations to support more people back to work and encourage and support employers to open up their vacancies to the unemployed.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Newton Farm community association in my constituency has signed up a number of high-profile local people from both the private and the public sectors to mentor unemployed people in Herefordshire. Will he join me in congratulating the association and commending that spirit of self-help and mutual support? Will he also consider ways in which the Government can use jobcentres to offer further support to that and similar mentoring programmes?

I can not only join in the congratulations but say that the local jobcentre has a positive relationship with the Newton Farm community association. We want to do more work with local organisations to encourage people into work, and we are keen to support them in any way we can.

Many smaller voluntary organisations and social enterprises that signed up for the Work programme have had appalling experiences—some not even receiving a single referral—and they complain of being the fig leaf of local engagement for large companies, even though they know the local skills and job market best. What will the Minister do to improve their experience?

The Work programme providers argued for freedom and flexibility over who to contract with, but we have introduced the Merlin standard to govern the relationship between Work programme contractors and their subcontractors. If organisations have concerns about the way they have been treated by the Work programme providers, they should refer those concerns to the Merlin committee.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Jobcentre Plus in the Beverley and Holderness area on working closely with me in organising a jobs fair, which hundreds of local people attended; on the part it has played in ensuring that Beverley and Holderness has one of the highest figures on apprentice starts in the country; and on the fact that unemployment is now 3.5%? There has been a 20% drop in youth unemployment in my constituency in the past year.

I will join my hon. Friend in congratulating his local Jobcentre Plus on the work it has done. Jobcentre Plus does an excellent job in helping people into work, but of course helped by the private sector, which has created 1.3 million new jobs since May 2010.

A key step for jobcentres will be the introduction of universal credit. A press release from the Secretary of State in May last year claimed that

“all new applications for existing benefits and credits will be entirely phased out by April 2014.”

Will the Minister acknowledge that jobcentres will still be handling new applications for existing benefits long after next April?

The right hon. Gentleman never ceases to amaze me with the number of questions he asks about universal credit. He knows exactly what the time scale is. We have said when the national roll-out will be completed and I thought he would have been delighted today that we have extended the roll-out to Wigan.

Child Poverty

The hon. Gentleman asks a really important question about absolute poverty. The threshold has been rebased this year under a new baseline. That changes the way it is reported. Those changes result from a reclassification and do not represent a real change in children’s circumstances. However, low-income and material deprivation is static or marginally improved.

The hon. Gentleman asks about what we are doing. There are a number of programmes through bringing in universal credit to help the poorest to some of the Work programme and the troubled families programme—I will go through more detail with him if he wants—as well as the pupil premium, and early intervention and education. There is a raft of work to try to change the lives of those likely to be on low incomes.

I know the Secretary of State to be thoughtful man, and quite a caring man as well, but is he not concerned that Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner, only as recently as last week said that the recent reforms of welfare benefit had put another 600,000 children into real poverty?

I like to think that on both sides of the House the objective is to reduce child poverty. That is our stated objective; I think it was the stated objective of the Labour Government.

I hear from a Labour Front Bencher, “It has gone up.” Actually, relative poverty has fallen by 300,000 since the start of this Parliament. Before Labour Front Benchers intervene again, I should say that while the hon. Gentleman’s question is thoughtful, their interjection is not. The reality is that throughout the past 10 years they talked about relative poverty as the measure, not absolute poverty, so they ought to be slightly careful. It has fallen under this Government.

The real point is that we are in a difficult time; there is no question about it. Just the other day, we saw that the Office for National Statistics has revised its figure on the scale of the collapse in 2009 down to 7%, which is a dramatic fall. We will drive all those programmes that I mentioned to the hon. Gentleman, and the change—we hope—to the measurement is about getting real help to real people.

Is it not the case that in the past, enormous sums were spent on moving people just over the relative poverty threshold without addressing any of the causes of poverty? Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that he will change that?

Yes. The important point to make is that from 2004 to 2010, the last Government spent £171 billion on tax credits alone, but relative poverty rose in that period, and absolute poverty was absolutely static, falling only at the end, when inflation crashed below zero because the economy crashed with it.

This multi-millionaire Secretary of State, with his stately home lifestyle, has never gone hungry in his life, but for some children in poverty, the free school dinner is the only square meal in the day. Ministers still refuse to set out their plans for the future of the free school dinner under universal credit, and there are rumours of a new cut-off for families earning more than £135 a week. Will he end the uncertainty for 168,000 families and tell us when he will set out his plans?

We have always said that we stand by the existence of free school meals, and I stand by that now. As we bring in universal credit, we will make it very clear how this will work—and work well. I do not need any lectures from the hon. Gentleman. He may accuse us, but it was not us who crashed the economy and forced lots—thousands—of people into poverty. That was a direct result of his Government’s incompetence. This Government are doing more to get people back to work, more to get them out of poverty, and more to help them through family breakdown than his Government ever did, so I do not need lectures from an empty barrel like him.

Women in Work

Women’s participation in the labour force has never been higher. There are 13.8 million women in work—the highest number on record, and 250,000 more than before the recession.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does she agree that although much progress has been made on the issue, it is important that the Government continue to focus on and monitor the number of women in work?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and we will do just that. I hope she agrees that the step that the Chancellor took—adding another £200 million to child care support—will be essential in helping mums and dads back into the workplace.

Many women in my constituency lost their job when the Government supported the closure of the Remploy factory. Nearly a year later, they have not found any employment. Why?

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what has been happening: out of the 1,100 people who came forward from the Remploy factory and wanted support, to date, 400 have work and 328 are in training. When it comes to getting people into work, that is a higher rate than for any regular redundancy. We have provided £8 million in tailored support and have tracked those people—something that the previous Labour Government never did when they closed down 29 factories in 2008.

Social Security Tribunal Decisions

15. What progress his Department has made on improving feedback from social security tribunal decisions. (162104)

From 10 June, judges in four social security and child support tribunals are providing the Department for Work and Pensions with more in-depth information on why they overturn employment and support allowance decisions. That builds on the drop-down list of primary reasons for overturning decisions that was introduced last July.

I congratulate the Minister on the work that she has done with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to secure this new approach. Does she agree that the information from the tribunals will allow the Department greatly to improve its decision-making process?

My hon. Friend is correct, and that information is key, because decisions are overturned for many reasons. Most of the time, it is because new information comes into play at the appeal. We need to find out why decisions are overturned, not just for the claimant but for the DWP and everybody involved.

Is not the truth of the matter that in the vast majority of cases where a decision was overturned, it was because the wrong decision was made in the first place? Would it not make far more sense to make the right decision in the first place, so we did not have to waste time, money and energy on pursuing the matter all over again?

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman was listening to what I said. Actually, the majority of overturns are the result of new information being supplied on appeal. To ensure that we get this right first time, there will be mandatory reconsiderations, just like under universal credit and the personal independence payment. That will also be the case for employment and support allowance from the end of October. That will provide a proper administrative route, rather than a judicial one involving extra costs, extra pain and extra stress. We are getting this right, which is something the previous Government never did.

Work Programme

16. What assessment he has made of the performance of the Work programme in helping young people into work. (162105)

In my hon. Friend’s area, 1,700 young people have had more than six months’ work as a consequence of the Work programme, and two of the three Work programme providers in her area have significantly exceeded their targets.

One of the best ways to create and nurture aspiration in our young people is to have better careers advice and guidance in schools and further education colleges. What discussions is my hon. Friend having with other Ministers on this, and is there more that we can do to encourage young people to set up their own businesses?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues, particularly the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, on careers guidance and advice. A further education college in my constituency is setting a good example by having an employment adviser in the college who talks to young people about the opportunities that can flow from the courses they are taking. That kind of innovation is really important if we are to ensure that young people make the best of their qualifications.

I hope that Ministers will be aware of the excellent research being carried out by the Single Parent Action Network, which supports young single parents as well as older parents who are trying to get into work. Its recent report on the Work programme found that many barriers still exist to prevent them from getting work, including the lack of affordable child care. May I urge Ministers to look at that report and to acknowledge that getting into work is not so easy for people with child care responsibilities?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We need to work with those organisations that support lone parents to see what more the Work programme can do to help them into employment. The Chancellor announced last week that we will be providing more support to lone parents in the two or three years before their child goes to primary school.

Does the Minister agree that what we really need for young people is jobs in the economy? Will he welcome what is happening at Rushden Lakes, a major new retail and leisure park that is currently going through its planning process? It will create thousands of jobs, many of them for young people, thanks to the leadership of the Conservative-dominated Government.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Labour did not believe that the private sector would create the necessary jobs to offset public sector job losses, but over the past three years, for every job lost in the public sector, three were created in the private sector. Labour criticises that, but we should congratulate the sector.

Topical Questions

Today I welcomed the announcement in the spending review that we will reinvest more than £350 million a year in extra support to help people move into work. Through up-front work search, more intensive work preparation, weekly signing on and mandatory English language courses, we are ensuring that those who need the most help get it, giving them the best possible chance of finding work.

Judging by the evidence of my constituency surgeries, the testimony of other Members and the number of successful appeals, it appears that Atos cannot tell the difference between someone who is sick and someone who is not. Given that that is the company’s job, when is the Secretary of State going to sack Atos?

As I have said in earlier responses, we are continuing to build on the system that we inherited from the previous Government. We have also had the fourth independent review of the work capability assessment and our own independent review, and we are seeing that the proportion of people going into the support group has increased in recent years.

T3. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the number of people who have come off the main unemployment benefits since May 2010? (162115)

If my hon. Friend looks at the three main benefits—jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance and lone parent income support—he will see that, since the general election, there has been a reduction of 300,000 in the number claiming those benefits. That is a consequence of the measures that we have taken to get people into work, and of welfare reform.

It is proving a success, because what it is doing—[Laughter.] No. What it is doing is finally shining a light on the previous Government’s failure to sort out the mess in social housing, with the housing benefit bill doubling in 10 years and set to rise by another £5 billion. I never hear from the right hon. Gentleman, or anyone else on the Labour Benches, about their failure, because they left so many people—a quarter of a million—in overcrowded accommodation and a waiting list that had grown to 1.5 million. When he gets up, perhaps he would like to tell us: is he going to reverse this policy or not?

If the Secretary of State thinks that the bedroom tax has been a success, he is living on a different planet. Back in 2011 the pensions Minister told the House that the bedroom tax would solve overcrowding, but this morning we heard on the BBC that there are houses lying empty from Teesside to Merseyside. They are not overcrowded; they are empty. Councils up and down the country are saying that arrears are up by 300%, and military families are saying that they have been lied to and cheated. When is the Secretary of State going to realise that this policy costs more than it saves and that this Government should be taxing mansions, not bedrooms?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman something about empty homes. The previous Government left a huge amount of empty homes when they left office. There are now around 710,000 empty homes, which is 73,000 below the peak in 2008, which was under them. There are now 259,000 long-term empty homes, which is down 20,000 since they left office. The reality is this: the Labour party left a shambles, and never once did the people living in overcrowded accommodation hear anything from the Labour party about them. They are having to suffer while we subsidise to nearly £1 billion people living in houses with spare rooms. Perhaps he can say whether he, if he ever got into office again, would reverse that. Why does he not stop moaning about it?

T4. I would like to thank the Under- Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), for her productive meeting last week with representatives from the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford. Does she share my view that the best way to achieve efficiencies in the residential training programme is to encourage disability employment advisers to make more referrals to that very successful scheme? (162116)

I believe that would be a good way forward. After the meeting, we asked them to put forward all their ideas on how they could really reach out to more disabled people and help more into work.

T5. Last year the parents of 47,009 children living abroad received child benefit totalling £55 million. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to fulfil the promise he made on 30 May to fight every step of the way to resolve that issue? (162117)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is an existing problem. The European Union insists that family benefits are paid at the highest level, depending on which country the recipient is in. Someone coming to the UK to work from, say, Poland would still get their family benefit paid to them, but if it is lower than family benefits over here, the top-up amount will go back to their families. I believe that is iniquitous, and I am not alone. I have had a series of discussions with others from Holland, Denmark and Germany, and there is a genuine consensus—it is growing dramatically—that it is wrong and that we need to change it, so we are engaging with the Commission on a plan to change it.

T6. A high percentage of employment and support allowance claims have been won on appeal because the claimant produced evidence that had not previously been made available. What can the Department do to encourage all relevant documents to be provided from the outset to save unnecessary costs and emotional stress? (162118)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We ask claimants when we send out ESA50 forms to contact GPs and consultants so that we get the right medical information to help our decision makers reach the right outcome. I encourage GPs and others to take more time to send in the returns quickly so that we have the best information possible to make those decisions.

T7. The pensions Minister knows that I have been in regular contact with the Pensions Regulator regarding the Carrington Wire pension fund. He also knows that I am grateful for his support in addressing concerns about the ability of some foreign-based multinational companies to renege on their pensions responsibilities to UK pension holders. What progress are the Government making on addressing that important issue? (162119)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and pay tribute to his assiduous work on behalf of his constituents in that case. I hope that this afternoon he was able to have a telephone conversation with the Pensions Regulator to discuss it. In general terms, the Pensions Regulator has powers to act overseas, as in the 2007 Sea Containers case and the 2011 Great Lakes case. I am happy to continue working with the hon. Gentleman on the issue.

T8. What steps is the Department taking to support those who have worked for one company for most of their lives and whose pensions have now gone into the pension protection fund? (162120)

I am pleased to announce that we recognised that the cap in the pension protection fund on those who are early-retired was affecting people particularly adversely if they had long service. We will be tabling amendments to the Pensions Bill so that those who have long service of more than 20 years with a firm will get an enhanced level of protection.

T9. The number of people accessing emergency food aid from Liverpool’s central food bank in my constituency has jumped by 70% over the past year. The chief cause of this is delays in them receiving their social security support. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of how many more people will be forced to turn to food banks and payday lenders by his Government’s proposal to extend the wait for jobseeker’s allowance? (162121)

The story that the cause is an increase in waits is not true; in fact, waits have fallen and have improved by 4% since 2009-10. The Trussell Trust’s director of UK food banks has set out the real reason behind most of this:

“The growth in volunteers and awareness about the fact you can get this help if you need it helps explain the growth this year.”

T10. Can the Minister share with the House what steps she has taken to deliver a cross-government disability strategy? (162122)

My hon. Friend asks a timely question, because tomorrow we will publish a detailed, cross-departmental action plan on how to help disabled people in many different respects. That plan has been developed with disabled people, and it ranges from employment to education to transport to social participation.

In 2011 Lord Freud told peers that in theory his housing benefit policy would cause rents to fall, that it is a matter of market forces, and that it was irresponsible to suggest that thousands of people would be made homeless as a result. In fact, rents have soared, most new claims for housing benefit are from working families, and in London there has been a 91% increase in homelessness applications from people losing their private sector tenancies. How is that theory going?

The hon. Lady refers to soaring rents, but I hope she accepts the evidence from the Office for National Statistics, which last week published figures for rents in London in the private rented sector that showed an increase of 2.2% below the rate of inflation.

A constituent of mine on jobseeker’s allowance who is actively seeking work was recently made to give up some of the volunteering he was doing. What good is an arbitrary 16-hour-a-week limit on volunteering by JSA recipients when what really matters is that they do whatever is best to increase their chances of getting a job?

There is no 16-hour-a-week limit on voluntary work, so let me slay that myth first. The important thing is that the jobseeker is actively seeking work, and advisers have some flexibility on that, but volunteering should not get in the way of trying to find a job.

The bedroom tax is causing councils enormous financial strain, as it is for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people across the country. On 11 June the pensions Minister told me that the Government are not making monthly checks on how much discretionary housing payment money councils are spending. What will happen to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people when the money runs out?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentions the support we give to local authorities through discretionary housing payments. We constantly hear that it is not enough, so he may be startled to learn that in the year just ended, 2012-13, over 300 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales sent us back money totalling over £11 million because they could not spend it.

The most recent figures suggest that of the people who are on the back-to-work programme in my city of Dundee, 9% have managed to get back to work. I admit that that is an improvement on the farcical 1.4% that we had last year—the lowest in the UK, I believe—but it is not necessary to be an expert in arithmetic to work out that that means that 90% of people on the programme have still not found work. Will the Government admit that with the recent bedroom tax, which has been mentioned, and welfare benefit cuts, they are not just starving families in work but starving them full stop—

There was a nugget buried in that question: the hon. Gentleman accepts, unlike those on his party’s Front Bench, that the Work programme is improving and getting more people into work. I am delighted by his support for it.

What assistance can my right hon. Friend offer my constituent who, anxious not to be a burden on anyone, took a zero-hours contract? Although he generally works for significantly fewer than 16 hours, on the odd occasion that he does work for more than 16 hours his department suggests that he makes a new claim when cancelling the old one. How can that be right?

I recognise that this is an issue. Some 200,000 people are employed on zero-hours contracts, which is just less than 1% of all workers. The current benefit system deals with claimants on zero-hours contracts, but universal credit will mean that they will not have to re-sign on. Personally, I think there should be far fewer zero-hours contracts. We are trying to work with employers and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to persuade those who have a genuine long-term job to get off zero-hours contracts and get a proper contract of work.

The pensions Minister’s answer a couple of minutes ago on discretionary housing payments was quite frankly absurd, because he knows full well that the bedroom tax was not in operation in the last financial year.

To return to the question of impact, local authorities throughout the country, including my own, now find that arrears are going up because people cannot afford the bedroom tax that is being imposed on them. What does the Minister expect local authorities to do about this, because it is affecting their overall budgets as well?

Just to be clear, when we made reductions in housing benefit for 2012-13 we were told that the support was not enough, but the hon. Gentleman’s local authority, Edinburgh, returned to us £162,000 of help that it could not spend. We have increased the support to Edinburgh council this year compared with last year.

Benefit tourism can be deterred if greater conditionality is introduced into the UK benefit system. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether or not our European partners will allow us to do that?

I believe they will. I think that a large number of countries in the European Union are concerned that, while they want people to travel for work—as do we—through free movement, they do not want people to pick and choose which benefit system they want to be a part of when they are out of work. We have had recent conversations with Germans and others, and we are all moving together towards an eventual proposal to get the European Commission to work with us to change this.

Distributional analysis of the Government’s spending review shows that 20% of people on the lowest incomes—namely pensioners, the disabled, the unemployed and those in low-paid work who depend most on DWP support—are paying a disproportionate price as a result of the austerity cuts. Are Ministers not ashamed that they are asking the poorest to pay the highest price?

It is this Government who have protected pensioners more than any other Government: we introduced the triple lock and their incomes have risen faster and further than for a long time, particularly compared with when that lot in the Labour party were in office. The reality is that we are protecting pensioners far better than any recent Government.

Paul Stewart was paralysed from the waist down and told that he would never walk again after a snowboarding accident. Through sheer willpower and determination he has defied the odds and next month he will undertake his IronSpine Challenge of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile cycle, a 26.2 mile walk and a cliff-face climb to raise money for spinal research. Does the Minister agree that Paul is a tremendous inspiration to others who suffer such life-changing disabilities?

I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. When I first heard about Paul’s story, I had to read it twice because I could not believe what he intended to do. He was paralysed from the waist down; now he is paralysed from the knees down and has learned to walk with aids and adaptations. The Prime Minister has supported him and I will be there at the start of this excellent challenge.

Have Ministers had any discussions with the Housing Minister about the benefits of switching funding from escalating housing benefit expenditure to new, affordable house building?

The hon. Lady will have heard in the comprehensive spending review announcement that the Government are committed to a £3 billion investment in building affordable housing. This is a priority for this Government and we agree entirely that previous Governments left far too few affordable houses.

When the benefit cap, which will develop strong work incentives, is rolled out to Plymouth, will my right hon. Friend be able to tell me how many people will be encouraged to get a job, rather than depend on benefits?