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Topical Questions

Volume 565: debated on Monday 1 July 2013

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?