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House of Commons Hansard
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14 October 2013
Volume 568
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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [900408]

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Today I welcomed the national roll-out of the claimant commitment across around 100 jobcentres a month from now, mirroring a contract of employment. These contracts are about a cultural shift making it easier for claimants to understand what they must do in return for benefits and that they are in work now to find work. During the pathfinder both claimants and staff have found this helps enormously in focusing people on their requirements and the consequences if they do not meet them. This now marks the next stage of delivery.

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One of my constituents who is still without a job after his involvement in the Work programme came to one of the public consultation meetings I organised during the recess because he was angered by his experience of the programme. Bright and articulate with a postgraduate degree from Oxford, he had been sent on an eight-week employability course that included the completion of questions by ticking boxes with smiley faces or sad faces. Does the Secretary of State understand why he and others on the course angrily felt it was a waste of time, and does his experience explain why the Work programme has failed the overwhelming majority of people who have been sent on it?

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I just do not agree with that because the reality is that the Work programme figures show that it is performing incredibly well and it will just get better: some 72% of the first tranche or cohort are off benefits; 380,000 people who before were written off by the last Government are now in work; 168,000 are now in sustained employment; and we now know that 90% of those who are in sustained employment go on to another year at least of employment, which is better than any of the last Government’s programmes—cheaper, more effective and better for those trying to get into work.

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T6. As this month marks the first anniversary of automatic enrolment, will the Minister update the House on progress so far? [900413]

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Yes, as my hon. Friend says, it has been a year since the first firm automatically enrolled. This has been a striking success. Over 1.5 million employees have been automatically enrolled and the staying-in rates have been far higher, with over 90% of employees who have been placed in a workplace pension remaining in it. It is a superb start and I congratulate all those who played a part in it.

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Labour Members support the principle of universal credit, but we have repeatedly raised concerns about the Secretary of State’s ability to deliver it. Since 2011 he has consistently promised that 1 million people will be claiming universal credit by April 2014. Will he now tell the House how many people he expects actually to be claiming universal credit by then, and whether he will proceed with the previously announced plans to close down new claims for tax credits by that date?

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May I start by welcoming the hon. Lady to her position? As I told the Committee and have said consistently, universal credit will be rolled out within the time scales we set, and we are planning very clearly to enrol as many people in it as possible. This will be a success. As she says she is in favour of universal credit, perhaps she can explain why Labour Members voted against it at the start and continue to do so.

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Despite what the Secretary of State says, the truth is that by April next year it will be possible to claim universal credit at just 10 jobcentres out of a total of 772. Meanwhile, the National Audit Office says that £34 million has already had to be written off, £303 million is now at risk, and Ministers have failed to set out how the policy will work. It is a catalogue of errors. Will the Secretary of State tell us how much money spent on the project will be money down the drain? Instead of blaming everybody but himself, would it not be better for him to turn down the volume on off-the-record briefings against his own permanent secretary and start taking responsibility for his own failed policy?

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Just in case the hon. Lady does not realise it, I should point out that this is not a failed policy: it will roll out successfully on time and within budget. Where does the word “failure” apply to that? She is part of a party whose time in office saw more than £28 billion wasted on IT programmes, with complete chaos most of the time it was there. This will roll out on time and within budget. At any time when we announce the new reset, she can, if she would like, come and talk to us about it. Perhaps for once, instead of voting against stuff and then saying she supports it, she might tell us how many of the benefit cuts Labour Members voted against they are now in favour of.

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T10. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Southend West has fallen by 12% in the past year? Will he join me in congratulating everyone on this very encouraging trend? [900417]

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I will indeed do that. Although my hon. Friend talks about an average of 14% fewer people claiming in his constituency, across the country the average is 11%, and 400,000 fewer people are claiming since 2010, so it is success all round for this Government.

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T2. With well over 1 million unemployment benefit claimants being sanctioned since 2010, rumours abounding that targets are in place for sanctioning, and all of us facing many desperate people in our surgeries, will the Secretary of State tell us when we will see the results of his investigation into sanctioning? [900409]

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It is obvious and clear that Labour Members do not support sanctioning. The reality is that they spend their whole time saying that they are in favour of benefit changes and at every single turn they oppose them. People who deserve sanctions deserve sanctions, and we impose them on those who do not play a part in the system.

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People with autism and mental health problems have particular problems with the work capability assessment, and the courts recently found that the test put people with mental health problems at a substantial disadvantage. Will the Minister or the Secretary of State rethink the work capability assessment for those people and pause the process, for which Rethink Mental Illness called?

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I have looked at this very closely in the past week. Of course, lots of groups would want us to look at individual cases. The way the assessment is done is not rigid, and it will evolve. We will look at this carefully, but I cannot make promises on individual groups today.

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T3. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether benefits officers been have told not to sanction people when the only job offered is on a zero-hours contract? Do Ministers recognise that the new claimant commitments mean that people will not actually be able to sign zero-hours contracts without risking losing their in-work benefits? [900410]

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The claimant commitment is about people’s obligations under the existing terms. They will have to seek work, attend interviews and try to get a job, and once they are offered a job they must take it. Those are the sanctions coming up under universal credit. People will lose benefits for three months for a first offence, six months for a second offence and three years for a third offence. Right now, zero-hours contracts are legal. If Labour wants to change the law, we want to hear that from the hon. Gentleman.

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Will the Secretary of State update the House on the innovation fund and how it is helping separated families?

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This is money designed to help and support separated families. We have spent £6.5 million so far on seven projects in the voluntary and private sector designed to help with things such as mediation. Although it is early days, we have anecdotal examples whereby we have enabled families to function together for the benefit of the child, and whereby the child’s performance at school is improving as well as maintenance flowing.

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T4. Housing associations in Ogmore are carrying a rising level of debt on their balance sheets as a result of rent arrears. They have a desperate scarcity of one and two-bedroom properties to rent, and yet they have three-bedroom properties lying empty. Is this just a necessary but painful adjustment to the Secretary of State’s benefit and bedroom tax changes? [900411]

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This is something we have to do. I have answered this before: how many people we have to look at who are on waiting lists, how many are in overcrowded housing, and how the bill doubled under Labour. The hon. Gentleman is quite right—we have to get the stock right: the fact that there are three-bedroom houses and why in the last three years they have not been modified into one and two-bedroom houses. Those questions have to be asked. That is what we have to do: get the stock right and support people as best we can.

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The pensions Minister mentioned earlier that the Office of Fair Trading report highlighted some of the abusive practices in the private pensions industry, such as active member discount and charges of up to 3% on many schemes. I welcome his consultation, but does he agree that it will be important to put a cap in place before auto-enrolment is rolled out at volume?

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My hon. Friend raises the crucial issue that, while the largest firms have been able to negotiate very good charging levels, we cannot be certain that the smaller firms will even be offered them or, indeed, that employers will necessarily be interested in charging levels when it is the employees, rather than the employers, who pay them. Our consultation will touch on that issue and on that of active member discounts.

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T5. The Government continue to disregard warnings from the likes of Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty that many of the 500,000 people being forced to use food banks are doing so because of delayed, reduced or withdrawn benefits. The Department seems not to be interested in collecting any statistics behind the reasons for that referral. Will the Secretary of State look into this to see what impact his benefit changes are having on people who simply cannot afford to feed themselves? [900412]

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We do spend our time looking carefully to see whether the effects of our policies are negative on some families and how we can best support them. We have localised to local authorities the support for things such as crisis loans. Local authorities are now much better at focusing on what people really need. Our general view is that there are people in some difficulty, but lots of people are taking some of this food because it is available and it makes sense to do so. We are working with local authorities to ensure that those in real need get support.

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What estimate has been made of the annual number of surviving civil partners who qualify for widow and widower pensions?

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As my hon. Friend knows, our data on the pension rights of people in civil partnerships are very patchy, but I can tell him that, in response to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, we have committed to a statutory review. We are gathering data as we speak and we will report back on our proposals by next July.

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T8. Given the woeful performance of the Work programme in Hull and local job losses, does the Secretary of State agree with The Economist that Hull’s long-term jobseekers should give up looking for jobs in Hull and travel elsewhere in the country? [900415]

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I would never put out a message that people should not look for work, because work is vital to self-esteem, motivation and supporting one’s family, so I totally disagree with that statement.

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The roll-out of universal credit will be complete by 2017, yet the contract for the Post Office card account will be up for renewal in 18 months. What assurance can the Secretary of State give that people will still be able to access their benefits through their post offices?

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I have looked at this matter carefully. The Post Office contract is due to expire in 2015, but there is the option to extend it and we will keep the matter under review. The Post Office is piloting a new current account and we hope that many people will transfer on to that. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will ensure that those who are in the circumstances that he describes will always be properly supported.

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Every single week, constituents tell me that Atos claims that it has not received the forms that they have completed. Last week, a young disabled constituent told me that that had happened on several occasions, leaving him penniless for weeks at a time. Why can the Secretary of State not sort this shambles out?

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The personal circumstances that the hon. Gentleman has described are completely unacceptable. If he gives me the details of the case, I will look at it. The performance of Atos is ever so important and it was an issue for the previous Administration. We are working on it, but those circumstances are not acceptable and I will look at the matter.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm that since the benefit cap was introduced, his Department has helped more than 16,000 people who would have been affected by it into work? Does that not show that those who voted against the benefit cap cannot be trusted on welfare reform?

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My hon. Friend is right that the benefit cap is popular and effective. Although the new shadow Secretary of State said that Labour would be tougher on welfare, we have all noticed throughout questions that the only thing we have heard from Labour is opposition to every single spending reduction and welfare reform. That party is not fit for government.

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The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has been looking doleful for much of questions. I shall do my best to rescue her from her misery.

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I am entirely grateful, Mr Speaker, but my dolefulness has more to do with the responses from the Government than with my not catching your eye.

The Government’s main reason for denying women born between 1951 and 1953 the option of receiving the single-tier pension if that means a higher weekly income appears to be the uncertainty about when their husbands will die. That is irrelevant for single, unmarried female pensioners—the poorest of all groups in retirement—who know that they would be better off with a choice. Will the Minister reconsider his policy so that the Government can help my constituents and others like them?

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To be clear, we have made one change to the pension position of the women to whom the hon. Lady refers: we have improved the indexation of their pensions by introducing the triple lock. I make no apology for that.

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rose

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I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, to whose mellifluous tones I could happily listen all afternoon, but we must move on to the statement.