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Work and Pensions

Volume 570: debated on Monday 18 November 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Independent Living Fund

I declare an interest, in that my brother is enabled to live independently in his own community by the ILF, and I am extremely grateful that that opportunity is afforded to him. Will the Minister assure the House that when the Government come to consider their future plans, there will be full consultation this time with disabled people and disability groups in Wales, the regions of England, and Scotland, and specifically with the Welsh Government?

I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman, but the conclusions of the Court of Appeal were nothing to do with consultation. It was a process issue, in that the Court felt that the Minister had not been given enough information, based on the information that was put in writing. The Court went on to say that there was evidence that the Minister

“consulted personally with many affected groups”

and it had

“no doubt that evidence of hard cases would have been forcefully drawn to her attention.”

That is what the Court ruled. It had nothing to do with consultation.

The Department for Work and Pensions annual report was due to be published in April this year. When will we finally see it?

With due respect, the Court ruling did not have an awful lot to do with that so I cannot answer the question. The annual report will come out in due course.

The Minister of State has the advantage in this case of being right. It was rather a cheeky inquiry by the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), even by his own standards.

Employment and Support Allowance (Kettering)

2. How many people in Kettering constituency claim ESA; how many such claimants have had their claim turned down in the last year; and how many are appealing that decision to the first tier tribunal. (901069)

In Kettering 4,400 claims started between October 2008 and February 2013. Of those assessed, 49% were deemed fit for work. Appeals data, I fully accept, are running very slow, especially in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which he has been campaigning hard for. We will be looking to recruit more judges as we go forward.

Benefit appellants in the Kettering constituency are being told that they now have to wait up to 40 weeks for a first-tier tribunal hearing. This is more than twice the national average and is completely unacceptable. Will my hon. Friend speak with his counterpart in the Ministry of Justice and get the situation sorted out?

My hon. Friend has been campaigning hard on behalf of his constituents and we have been working closely with the Ministry of Justice, which is why I can announce that there were six sessions per month in June 2012 and there are now 18 sessions per month, a 300% increase, and we intend to do better.

People in Kettering and claimants elsewhere might be able to get a quicker resolution of their cases if the testing of the new descriptors for mental health and fluctuating conditions were brought to an end. It is more than two years since Professor Harrington suggested action. When will we see the results?

I am sure that in the hon. Lady’s constituency as well as in Kettering, we are working very hard to bring down the time it takes, particularly in the tribunals. We have been working closely on the area of mental health, and we will continue to work to make sure that everybody gets a fair deal from the process.

Full and Part-time Employment

Three in every four people work full-time, and full-time work accounts for all of the significant rise in employment over the last year.

The Minister has done exactly what I hoped she would do, which is to deal with the fact that whereas the Leader of the Opposition in 2010 said that the Government’s policy would lose a million jobs, my understanding is that since the election there have been more than a million new jobs, and this year more than a quarter of a million new jobs. Will the Minister put it clearly on the record that these new jobs are not all part-time jobs, that there has been a significant growth in full-time employment and that that is predicted to continue?

My right hon. Friend is correct. It is good news that UK business is creating so many new jobs. Since the 2010 election we have seen a rise of nearly 800,000 in the number of full-time jobs and of more than 300,000 in the number of part-time jobs.

With many people in my constituency, particularly women, doing a number of part-time jobs to make up an income, the knock-on consequence is that many of them do not pay national insurance and are therefore not building contributions to their pension. What is the Minister doing about this long-term consequence of too much part-time employment?

The family will accrue credit if they have family responsibilities. That is a very positive step that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), has taken. We can all welcome the fact that more than a million people are now in work, and more than 210,000 more women are in work this year alone.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating New College Telford, Telford college of arts and technology and Harper Adams university on providing the skills and training throughout Shropshire to ensure that unemployment continues to fall as it has done month on month for the last seven months?

I will indeed join my hon. Friend in celebrating this positive news. What is happening in his constituency is also happening in every constituency throughout the country. This is positive news that we can all celebrate.

Has a comparative assessment been made of former Remploy employees who find themselves in part-time or full-time work, and if so, will the Minister publish those findings?

I and the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), will be publishing those findings. We have had significant success with Remploy employees. They have gained jobs at a faster rate than others who have been made redundant, and the work of the local Jobcentre Plus has been exceptional.

Benefit Cap (Employment Outcomes)

Recent poll findings show that of those notified or aware that they would be affected by the cap, three in 10 took action to find work. To date, almost 36,000 have accepted help to move into work from Jobcentre Plus and around 18,000 potentially capped claimants have moved into work.

Jobcentre Plus in Dorset worked extremely hard to identify those affected and to get them into employment. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact of that on the recent encouraging employment figures?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I give credit to Jobcentre Plus for the action that it took, which sometimes goes unnoticed, when it knew that this policy was coming in. From April 2012, it wrote to potentially affected people with advance warning. It set up a helpline on the benefit cap and an online calculator so that they could work out some of the figures themselves. It then telephoned some of the most vulnerable, and visited them as well. It set up funding for intensive employment support and worked with local authorities to support claimants in budgeting, housing and child care, and big employment events. This is one of major reasons why about 61% of those who moved into work did so after they were notified.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this, and I assure him that in an area such as mine, which includes the ward with the highest level of child poverty in the south-east region, my constituents welcome the fact that we really are trying to encourage people who have been far too long on benefits to look for options to work. The news that he has just announced is what is needed.

I agree with my hon. Friend. The reality is that of more than 19,000 householders capped in mid-September 2013, 60% were lone parents and 78% were capped by £100 or less a week. This is a system that is returning fairness to the whole programme. The Opposition opposed the cap, and it is worth remembering that even though the trade union leaders opposed it, 80% of Unite members support our policy on welfare reform, as I discovered from a poll the other day.

Youth Contract Wage Incentives

6. What progress he has made on delivering his target of 160,000 Youth Contract wage incentives by April 2015; and if he will make a statement. (901073)

13. What progress he has made on delivering his target of 160,000 Youth Contract wage incentives by April 2015; and if he will make a statement. (901080)

There were more than 21,000 wage incentive job starts up to May 2013. The next wage incentive statistics are due to be released early in the new year.

As the Secretary of State is well aware, in the first 14 months of this programme his Department delivered less than 3% of what he promised. Together with the appalling underperformance of the Work programme, and with Ministers and civil servants at each other’s throats over the chaotic introduction of universal credit, is this not yet another example of how this Secretary of State promises much but delivers little?

I am quite sure that what the hon. Gentleman was reading out was a piece of fiction and I would like to give him the correct figures. The Youth Contract is made up of many component parts. One is wage incentives, and there is a wage incentive for apprenticeships, and another is for work experience. Of the 113,000 people who went on work experience, 50% have a job, and 21,000 have wage incentives, and that figure is rising by 4,000 a month. Youth unemployment has fallen for 17 consecutive months. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, it has fallen 35% in the last year. Perhaps he wants to congratulate us on that.

I do not congratulate the Government on the level of youth unemployment in my constituency; there are 900 unemployed young people in my constituency and almost 1 million nationally. The system of wage incentives is clearly not working, because the numbers are appallingly low for constituencies such as mine. Is not it time that Ministers stopped being in denial and started doing something radical to help young people back to work?

I would just like to mention Labour’s record: a 40% increase in youth unemployment. What we have done, as I have said, has seen youth unemployment fall for 17 consecutive months. It is now lower than it was at the general election.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that since the Youth Contract was launched in April 2012 youth unemployment has fallen by more than 59,000 and that the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance has been dropping for 17 consecutive months?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Just so that we can hear it again, even though I have said it twice and he has said it once, youth unemployment has fallen for 17 consecutive months.

Will the Minister tell the House how the Youth Contract performs in terms of value for money and effectiveness compared with the future jobs fund?

The future jobs fund cost £6,500 per outcome, whereas our work experience outcomes cost £325, which is a 20th of the price for exactly the same outcomes. As always, the coalition Government are delivering value for money.

After more than two years of the Work programme and 18 months of the embarrassing flop of Youth Contract wage incentives, youth unemployment is still nearly 1 million, higher than it was at the general election and higher than when the Work programme began. That is terrible not only for young people, but for the future of the economy. When will Ministers finally get serious about that and back a proper youth jobs guarantee?

Obviously the Opposition like to rewrite history. The 40% increase in youth unemployment that we saw over their years in office was shocking, particularly given that it was during a boom period. We are dealing with the issue most practically. The Youth Contract has been, is and will be a huge success, with wage contracts increasing from a slow start of 1,000 a month to 4,000-plus a month.

Pension Charges

As my hon. Friend knows, we are consulting on whether there should be cap on charges in workplace pensions and, if so, what costs it should cover. Without pre-empting the consultation, he can be assured that our presumption would be in favour of a broad definition of charges for those purposes.

I thank the pensions Minister for that answer and congratulate him on his consultation on introducing a cap that is 50% of the level of the cap for stakeholder pensions introduced when the Opposition were in government. That is a step forward. A further step forward across the whole industry would be to have better comparability and transparency of charges generally. We have acted to do that for energy companies by simplifying charge structures. Will we consider doing that for pensions?

I thank my hon. Friend for being the only Member who managed to get a pensions question on today’s Order Paper. [Interruption.] I will make the most of it. He is quite right that the Office of Fair Trading identified 18 different sorts of charges, which are often baffling and hidden. One of its recommendations was that the committees that oversee pensions should be given transparent information about charges, and that is a recommendation we will be looking to take forward.

Over the last generation the net size of employment units has shrunk as a function of technology and changes in society. That has meant smaller pension schemes that in net terms require a greater management effort to run them. What will the Minister do to try to bring together some of the smaller schemes to get better value for money overall?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. In fact, consolidation is happening; the number of medium-sized schemes has declined quite significantly in the past few years. The quality standards that we will be putting in place will mean that running a small, substandard, sub-scale scheme will not be an option, so we anticipate that there will be much more consolidation. Together with the National Employment Savings Trust, the Government’s own scheme which already has over 500,000 members, we are moving towards better value for money.

Tonight on Channel 4, the Minister will accuse big pension companies of making excess profits at the expense of those who have worked hard and saved all their lives. “Dispatches” will claim that many savers are losing up to £10,000 per year every year in their retirement as the companies make excess profits, yet the Pensions Bill that the Minister has just taken through the Commons does precisely nothing to tackle rip-offs in annuities. When will he get a grip on the annuities market and end these rip-offs?

I make no apology for defending consumers against an abuse that has gone on for far too long, with people buying annuities where they will get their money back only if they live until they are 90 or beyond. The Financial Conduct Authority, which was created only about six months ago, has already reported on annuities and will bring forward further proposals. We are working with our colleagues at the Treasury who lead on these matters to make sure that this issue, which has gone long unaddressed by successive Governments, is finally tackled.

Universal Credit (Lone Parents)

Universal credit fundamentally simplifies support for working lone parents and our analysis shows that UC will create positive work incentives for lone parents.

But does the Minister not accept that research for Gingerbread shows that two in every five lone parents will lose out in cash terms under universal credit, with lone parents in work fighting an uphill battle to make work pay beyond 20 hours a week? Are not this Government not only botching the introduction of universal credit but breaching the Secretary of State’s pledge that UC would make sure that work paid for each and every hour that people work?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to the Gingerbread report, which I have here. It says:

“Universal credit increases the financial pay off from working of single parents”.

Does the Minister agree that regardless of any particular problems that might be thrown up by the introduction of universal credit, one of the biggest problems with the welfare system is that it is far too complex, which leads to all sorts of mistakes being made, and that regardless of the teething problems we must press ahead with universal credit?

My hon. Friend is quite right. At the moment, people have to go to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for their tax credits, to the local authority for their housing benefit, and to the Department for Work and Pensions for their jobseeker’s allowance. Having all this in a single system will improve take-up, and that is one of the things that the Gingerbread report did not factor in.

The Gingerbread report does, though, warn that working single parents are likely to lose a higher proportion of their income than other household types. Why does the Minister think that the children of lone parents should lose out?

As I say, the report makes some assumptions that it accepts are not true. One of its assumptions is that there is no impact on take-up; it assumes 100% take-up before and after. We know that that is not true—that take-up is partial—and rolling all three benefits into one will improve take-up for the benefit of the children of lone parents.

The introduction of new IT systems can be challenging for business as well as for Government Departments. What lessons have been learned from the mistakes of others as regards the introduction of the new universal credit and its new IT system?

As my hon. Friend knows, the litany of failed IT systems under the Labour Government would fill the remainder of this Question Time. One of the key things that is often forgotten is that every day this Department pays pensions and benefits seamlessly to millions of people. All the IT projects that are developed without delay and without hiccup never make it on to the front page of the newspapers.

Free school meals offer vital support to many lone parents in my constituency. When does the Minister plan to set out the eligibility criteria for free school meals under universal credit?

The broad intent is to mirror, as far as possible, the current rules. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for stressing the importance of free school meals. She will therefore welcome the coalition’s decision to extend access to free school meals to all infant school children.

Work Programme

9. When he estimates the Work programme will provide the same number of job outcomes as the flexible new deal. (901076)

The flexible new deal ran for two years from October 2009 to the end of September 2011, by which time 50,000 people achieved a six-month job outcome. By August 2012, after only one year and two months, 47,000 people achieved a six-month job outcome through the Work programme. Only one month later —in September 2012, after one year and three months—63,000 people were in a job. Simply put, the Work programme is outperforming the flexible new deal.

It is not so much a work programme, as a Government do not work programme. Whatever the Minister says, the figures she commissioned from a private company state that the flexible new deal created more jobs over a limited period than the Work programme.

I think I set out plainly how many jobs the flexible new deal did not create. To date, 117,000 people have achieved six-month outcomes through the Work programme, so it is working. I am pleased to note that in the Vale of Clwyd the level of jobseekers is at 3.6%, the lowest it has been since November 2008. We must be getting something right.

The Work programme is failing disabled people badly, with only 5.8% getting into work—worse than if there was no programme at all. Meanwhile, specialist disability charities are complaining that they are getting only a handful of referrals. The employment and support allowance is costing the public purse £1.4 billion per year. When will the Minister get a grip on this failing programme, so that disabled people can receive the expert support they need to get them into work?

I have just had a successful meeting with the Shaw Trust. Its latest report calls for the Work programme to be refined, not redone. The Work programme is working, but we need to make it better. The Opposition left 1.4 million people without support or help, and those people are being helped for the first time. Although it is tough, we have got significant numbers into work.


In the short time I have been the Minister of State with responsibility for this matter, I have had the pleasure of meeting the all-party group and victim support group representatives to discuss the Mesothelioma Bill currently before Parliament.

I thank the Minister for bringing forward this much-needed Bill. Does he agree that thousands of working-class people have been killed through being negligently exposed to asbestos in the workplace and that their families have been denied financial security, while the insurance industry has got off with almost £1 billion in unpaid compensation payments? I urge him to reject the proposals from the House of Lords for the insurance industry to be responsible for 75% of compensations payments only, and to make them pay the full 100%. Let the vultures in the insurance industry pay.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on campaigning on behalf of his constituents and others. People have been suffering from this abhorrent disease for many years. The issue was discussed extensively in the House of Lords and will be discussed extensively in this place. Our discussions will not be quite as extensive, so that we can pass the Bill and the people who need it may receive compensation. Governments—I stress Governments—have turned their back on these people. We are not going to do that.

Universal Credit

Within the time scales set out, our priority is to deliver universal credit safely and securely, and we will set out our plans in more detail in a couple of weeks.

Why did the Secretary of State tell the House last month that his plans for universal credit were on track?

As I said in my earlier answer, I ordered a reset so that we do not have difficulties when we start to roll out the scheme. We have rolled out the pathfinder already. It is important to note that there have been at least six sites from October, and there will be many more around the country when we expand that. As I said, I will make clear to the House the plan and programme for the full roll-out, all the way through to complete delivery, in detail in the next couple of weeks.

The Public Accounts Committee found that leadership of the universal credit programme was hapless. Will the Secretary of State tell us who is responsible for that blunder?

I already take full responsibility for everything that goes on in my Department. I have to say that I take responsibility for making sure that universal credit as originally planned was stopped and reset. Before anybody was affected, we made absolutely sure that when we roll it out, as we have begun and will continue to do, it will deliver maximum benefits of more than £38 billion to the public.

I take no lessons from the Opposition, who spent years rolling out programmes regardless of how they affected people—a disaster on IT for tax credits and a disaster on the health service. A little bit of humble pie on their part might not be a bad thing.

The pathfinder mentioned by the Secretary of State was meant to include 10 separate Jobcentre Plus areas by October this year, but only one has come on line, in addition to those already in place, so there has been a further slowing down of the roll-out of universal credit. Indeed, the ones assessed have been the very simplest cases. When will the Department deliver on its original timetable, far less on any speeded-up timetable?

As I said to the hon. Lady when I appeared in front of her Committee in July, we have been very clear that we would roll out universal credit on the plan and programme already set out. The pathfinders are on track. Those before Christmas and those after Christmas are on track—[Interruption.] Yes they are. It is not just the pathfinder centres; we already have a huge amount of change. We are putting 6,000 new computers into jobcentres to be ready for universal credit, and we are training 25,000 jobcentre staff to ensure that they are ready for its delivery. We are on track to make sure that universal credit—the bit that follows next—can use those pathfinders to deliver a universal credit programme that works, unlike so many of the programmes that the previous Government used.

Dear, dear, dear. [Interruption.] No, the report does not say that; I can tell you what it does say. It says that, precisely in the Government’s timetable, from October 2013

“All new claims for out-of-work support are treated as claims to Universal Credit.”

That has not happened, has it? The Secretary of State is not on time, he is not on budget, and it looks as if he is going to lose £140 million. The first step to recovery is owning up that you are sick. You are not on time, you are not on budget—are you?

Mr Speaker, you are not only on time, but you are always on budget.

That was a lot of sound and fury from the hon. Gentleman, signifying absolutely nothing. The reality is, as I have said quite categorically and publicly, the report could be written because of the actions I took over a year ago to ensure that universal credit will roll out and deliver exactly as we said it would. The hon. Gentleman served for I do not know how many years in a Government who allowed all these other programmes to fail, but not one person will be adversely affected by the change we have made. Universal credit will deliver maximum benefits to the British public, and the Opposition will remain out of government, because they have not a single clue.

Benefit Payments (Post Office)

12. What plans he has to introduce the payment of pensions and benefits and begin accepting applications for universal credit through the Post Office. (901079)

I assure my hon. Friend that all Department for Work and Pensions benefits and entitlements, including universal credit, are normally paid by direct payment into a mainstream bank account, the vast majority of which can now be accessed over the counter at post office branches.

Millions of people have chosen to collect their pensions and benefits at a post office through a Post Office card account, but the contract is due to expire in 16 months’ time. Will the Government end the uncertainty and announce that POCA will continue after April 2015 with, I hope, improved banking facilities?

We are in active discussions with Post Office Ltd and our colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Indeed, I am meeting ministerial colleagues later this afternoon to discuss that issue. I can assure my hon. Friend that I share his commitment to the post office network.

How long does the Minister anticipate that post offices will have to wait before they are in a position to take applications for universal credit?

Just to be clear, people can receive universal credit into an account accessible at a post office already. Universal credit obviously has an online application process, so if there is access to the internet at local post offices, that can be done already.

Youth Employment

The Government are not only creating job opportunities. In the last quarter, youth employment was up by 50,000. That shows that our approach is working. We are providing young people with the support that is needed, including work experience and apprenticeships.

North Hertfordshire college in Stevenage has developed a range of learning companies in which students work while they gain their qualifications. We have seen an increase in the number of job offers for students who are learning in that way. Does the Minister agree that learning companies offer opportunities for young people, in partnership with local employers?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. If people come together to create opportunities that turn into jobs, that is welcomed by the Department. We are leading the way and have put down a strategy that enables people to work in partnership.

Does the Minister recognise that her response to that question sounded a bit complacent? Will she consider how we can build a better relationship among employers and further education colleges, schools and universities? Is it not time that she spoke to her colleagues in the Department for Education and brought a careers service back into our schools?

If I gave the impression of being complacent, I am sorry, but I am certainly not. I know the size of the job that the Government have to do to help all the youth out there. We are doing that job and will continue to do it as best we can. We do talk to other Departments. There is a duty on head teachers to provide careers guidance in their schools. We have a National Careers Service at Jobcentre Plus. We can work with schools to ensure that children have the best careers advice.

17. In my constituency, youth unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since before the last election. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the excellent partnership in my constituency between MidKent college and ActivKids, which improves the job prospects of young people? (901084)

I join my hon. Friend in celebrating that success. I know that it is something in which he takes much interest and that he has helped greatly. I hope to hear many more stories like that from across the UK.

Jobseekers (Support)

Conditionality measures were announced in the spending review to increase the support for jobseeker’s allowance claimants. Claimants will be asked to write a CV and register with universal jobmatch. Longer initial interviews, weekly signing and quarterly reviews with our advisers will provide more intensive support for claimants.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will she reassure me that that conditionality will involve remedying deficiencies in what is often called work readiness, as well as focusing on the overall number of jobs for which a claimant applies each week?

My hon. Friend is quite right that work readiness skills are key and that it is not only the number of jobs for which somebody applies that matters. Through the claimant conditionality and the longer intensive interview when a claim is made, the people at Jobcentre Plus will find out what skills the claimant needs and support them.

The Minister will know that Deloitte is selling its interest in the Work programme. Why does she think investors are pulling out of the scheme?

Investors are not pulling out of the scheme. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that Deloitte is not working with Ingeus any more. Ingeus is one of the top performing Work programme primes. We expected to see movement in the industry. Deloitte came in and supported Ingeus as best it could, and now it is exiting, as happens when any businesses come together. As I said, the Work programme is working. The figures are going up, which is something that the Labour party could not achieve.

Not only is the number of jobseekers falling, but the number of economically inactive people of working age has fallen by more than 400,000 under this Government to a level that has not been seen for more than two decades. Does the Minister agree that when people are returning to the labour market after a long period outside it, new jobseekers need support to prevent them from becoming long-term unemployed themselves?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Let us look again at Labour’s record. It left 5 million people unemployed and claiming. We have taken the number of people who are claiming the three main benefits down by more than 500,000 since coming to power. Instead of criticising what we are doing, all Members should take pride in the fact that 1 million more people have jobs.

Employment and Support Allowance

21. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Work programme for people already claiming employment and support allowance. (901088)

Work programme provider performance is helping people on ESA move towards work, and to continue that improvement we are setting up a best practice group to help other primes share best practice.

Last Wednesday, I spoke at a conference entitled, “Newcastle: a good city in tough times”, where faith, volunteer groups, charities and business all emphasised the importance of volunteering and the voluntary sector in helping claimants into work, yet the Department for Work and Pensions is making it harder to volunteer, through sanctioning, and squeezing the voluntary sector out of Work programme contracts. That is one reason that Newcastle’s success rate for ESA claimants is only 2%. What is the Department doing to encourage volunteers and the voluntary sector to help build the community skills we need to get people back into work?

Of course, we fully support people doing voluntary work, so long as they can commit to their job signing and the work they have to do to get a full-time job. We see voluntary work as an important step to getting a job, and nearly 50% of Work programme providers are from the voluntary sector. Also, I am sure the hon. Lady will join us in celebrating the fact that the claimant count in her constituency has fallen by 13% in the past year.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Work programme and other measures have seen the number of people unemployed in Harlow fall by 100 over the past year and that other Government measures have seen the number of apprenticeships increase by 86%? Does this not show that the Government are helping working people?

Absolutely. Not only are we helping people through the Work programme, wage incentives and record numbers of apprenticeships—half a million in the last year—but the Government are doing everything to support people, young and old, back into the workplace.

Working-age Benefits

22. How many people in (a) Stafford and (b) England were receiving the major working-age benefits in April (i) 2010 and (ii) 2013. (901089)

In May 2013, the number of people claiming working-age benefits in England was down to 4,645,040 from 4,807,940 in 2010—a fall of 162,900. In Stafford, the number was down to 8,070 from 8,690 in 2010—a fall of 620.

The figures suggest that the number of people on major out-of-work benefits has fallen substantially since May 2010. In addition to the great benefit to former claimants of being back in work, will the Minister estimate the saving to the taxpayer?

My hon. Friend is right. The figures suggest that out-of-work welfare dependency has been reduced by nearly 10%, which of course is very encouraging. Furthermore, in the past 12 months, the change in the number of JSA claimants has saved £1 billion.

Care Leavers

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s work on the all-party group on financial education for young people. Last month, we launched the cross-departmental care leavers strategy, brokered through the Cabinet Committee on Social Justice, to ensure that for the first time pooled resources from education, employment, health, housing and justice will be tailored to the challenge facing a group of young people for too long left to struggle alone.

Does the Secretary of State agree that equipping young people in general and care leavers in particular to manage their own finances well is a vital tool? What are the Government doing to address this matter, as recommended by the report of the all-party group on financial education for young people?

Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend, because we will definitely be considering this next recommendation of hers. I have listened and read her suggestions, and we have actually managed to alter the new curriculum. The final version will now state that

“the functions and uses of money, the importance and practice of budgeting, and managing risk…income and expenditure, credit and debt, insurance, savings and pensions, financial products and services”

will be taught as part of the curriculum for the first time.

Medical Services Reports

25. What steps he is taking to improve the quality of medical services reports on claimants of benefits. (901092)

This Government take the quality of assessments very seriously. That is why, before I became the Minister, when the Government saw a drop in the quality of work capability assessments, Atos was instructed to implement an improvement plan to ensure that assessment reports meet the high standards that the Department needs. That plan is now complete.

My constituent Mr Robert Shafer suffered an injustice as a result of a rogue medical services report from many years ago. Will the Minister undertake to take further steps to improve the quality of medical services reports, and arrange a reply to my latest letter to the Secretary of State, to which a response is overdue, on behalf of my constituent?

On the latter point, not only will I ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives the letter he requires, but if he wants to meet me, I will be more than happy to do that. The Department has commissioned four independent reviews. We know we need to get there; we know we need to do more. We have made changes to help cancer patients and are carrying out an evidence-based review of criteria, which is being overseen by Professor Harrington. I expect to see that report quite soon.

My constituent Matthew Moore, who has a severe mental health condition, was told that he no longer qualified for employment and support allowance. He appealed and months later saw the decision in his case overturned in a few minutes. The tribunal chair said that he was shocked that ESA had been withdrawn in the first place and had no hesitation in awarding 30 points. Is that not yet another example of the incompetence of the many people paid to carry out assessments of some of our most vulnerable people, and of why the Government need to get their act together, have some compassion and ensure that such people are treated fairly?

Individual cases are understandably quite emotional for individual MPs and their constituents. If the decision in that case was overturned, we will look carefully at what the tribunal said. We need to do that to ensure we get it right. However, this process was started by the previous Administration—it is nothing new for this Government—but we will get it right where, I am afraid, they got it wrong.

Topical Questions

Today I welcome the latest labour market statistics. We have seen the largest annual drop in the claimant count for 15 years. Almost every area in Britain has seen the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance fall over the last year, contributing to a total fall in worklessness of more than 500,000 since 2010, while there are now more than 1 million more in work. All this is a testament, I believe, to this Government’s success in getting Britain working again.

Few would disagree that careers advice in schools needs improvement. Given that unemployment is now down to 2.6% in my constituency, does my right hon. Friend agree that Jobcentre Plus is well placed—it has the resources and the local knowledge —to deliver part of that improvement, preferably in conjunction with local employers?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his area on having an unemployment rate of 2.6%, which is testimony to the efforts this Government are making. Schools obviously have a legal duty to secure independent careers guidance for their pupils, and employers have to work with them, but it is also a fact that Jobcentre Plus has a careers guidance programme. We are now in talks with the schools to ensure that somehow we can connect would-be school leavers, long before they leave school, with companies and businesses, to tell them exactly what they need to have and what skills they will need to obtain.

This weekend it was reported that Atos had pulled out of a DWP contract providing specialist disability advice. What was the Department’s response? An internal memo instructing staff deciding whether people are disabled enough to receive disability living allowance to “google it”. Is this not the biggest indication yet of the sheer contempt in which the Department for Work and Pensions holds disabled people?

The hon. Lady is completely wrong. First of all, it was not an internal memo; it was guidance that goes out to the Department in the normal way. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) needs to keep quiet for a while and listen a bit more. This man has travelled so far in his political career that we never know what he is talking about. He has gone from being a Tory to being a Blairite and then a Brownite, and now he is a socialist on his website, so I wonder whether he needs to keep quiet and listen a little more.

The answer to the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) is that Atos Healthcare has not withdrawn from the contract. Normal procedures to update guidance in the process of DLA reform are going through. Under DLA, only 6% had face-to-face assessments; the majority have face-to-face assessments now, under the personal independence payment. Therefore, decision makers have much more objective information than they ever had before, so there is no change to the quality of the service. This is a simple contract adjustment to reflect and meet the corresponding business needs. The hon. Lady should really not listen to jobbing journalists who come to her to tell her they have an issue.

I am not sure whether the Secretary of State has even bothered to read the memo from his own Department. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, because of the failure of his Department to deliver the reform, the personal independence payment is going out only to a third of country. After the chaos of the universal credit, the work capability assessment, the PIP, the Work programme and the Youth Contract, DLA is now in chaos as well. Is there any part of the Department for Work and Pensions that is actually working?

The thing that is wonderful about the hon. Lady is that she never listens; she just reads what is on her script that she prepared before, and it does not matter what question was answered. I have already told her—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda should keep quiet; otherwise he will jump out of his underpants if he carries on like that—

Order. These occasions are becoming deeply disorderly. A question has been put, and the Secretary of State is answering it. The House must hear the answer with all due courtesy and orderliness.

The first answer is that the hon. Member for Rhondda should keep quiet for longer. The real answer to the question on PIP is that the hon. Lady is completely wrong. As with every other programme, we are controlling the roll-out to ensure that it meets all our needs. There is nothing for the hon. Lady to concern herself about. This is working and it will work all the way through next year, exactly as planned. The truth is that the hon. Lady raises these questions because she does not want to come back to last week’s failed Opposition day debate, when her argument was so powerful that 47 Labour Members—including the shadow Chancellor, who I gather is a “nightmare”—decided to abstain.

T4. Will the Government use the Post Office to allow people without internet access to submit applications for universal credit and to give help with the application? Post offices are in the heart of communities, and for many of my constituents, this would avoid a long journey to the nearest jobcentre. (901136)

May I say to my hon. Friend that that is exactly what we want to do? We want to make sure that those claiming universal credit can claim it in a number of different places—for example, we are setting up the facility to claim in libraries, in local government offices and also in jobcentres. We will work and are working with post offices to ensure that if people need to make claims from them, particularly in very rural constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, that facility will be made available as well.

T2. Last month, the Secretary of State tried to tell me that lots of people were using food banks simply because they were available and it made sense to do so—adding insult to injury for the many thousands of people who are being forced to use food banks and have been referred to them by agencies because they are recognised as being in desperate need. Has the Secretary of State seen the research commissioned by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs into the rise of emergency food aid? Why has this been shelved? Is it because it reveals that the Government are at fault for people not being able to feed themselves and their families? (901134)

We have not shelved anything, and I have to tell the hon. Lady that she needs a few facts to be put on the table. First, during a time of growth under the Labour Government—[Interruption.] Labour Members really hate to be reminded that they were in government once and that the reason why they are no longer in government is that their incompetence was so phenomenal that even at a time of growth, people ended up claiming food parcels. If we look back, we see that under the last Government the number claiming rose by 10 times. More importantly, let me inform the House of an international comparison. In the UK at the moment, some 60,000 or so are food bank users. In Germany, which has a much higher level of welfare payment, 6 million people use food banks—one in 12, which is many more, and it is the same in Canada. The hon. Lady should not always read everything she reads, particularly when it is her lot that write it.

T5. A recent report by the Office of Fair Trading identified no fewer than 18 different points at which charges can be levied on a pension. Does the Minister share my view that there should be radical simplification and disclosure on pension fees and charges—however and wherever they are levied? (901137)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this important issue. Over the last few years, we have taken expanded powers to cap charges and to require disclosure along the lines he describes. We will shortly act on our charges consultation and will publish quality standards, which will include requirements to disclose relevant information, including charges.

T3. Eleven parishes in Oswaldtwistle have come together to open Hyndburn’s four food banks, which often serve people who are in employment. Is the Secretary of State not concerned about these levels of poverty, particularly in constituencies such as mine? (901135)

I am. That is why we are doing all that we can to reduce the levels of poverty, and are succeeding. Child poverty, for example, has fallen by more than 300,000 under this Government. [Interruption.] I accept that the hon. Gentleman may well find that there are issues and problems in his constituency, and I am ready and willing to discuss them with him at any stage. The fact is, however, that child poverty rose under the last Government. They spent more than £170 billion on tax credits in an attempt to end the situation, and one of the hon. Gentleman’s own colleagues has said that they would no longer be able to afford them. They were more than 10 times more expensive than anything that they replaced.

T6. We have heard about the excessive amounts being charged on pensions and annuities. Does my hon. Friend the pensions Minister agree that it is important for us to re-establish a real savings culture, and will he tell us what else he can do? (901138)

I do agree with my right hon. Friend. We are establishing an economy that is based on savings rather than debt, and one of the most important measures that we are implementing is automatic enrolment in workplace pensions. By Christmas, about 2 million workers will have been enrolled. Nine out of 10 people are choosing to stay in workplace pensions, and it is encouraging to note that—notwithstanding what sceptics have said—young people are particularly likely to do so, thus establishing a culture of saving from an early age.

Since January, the coalition has no longer been producing the statistics showing the number of people chasing every job vacancy in each constituency. Will the Secretary of State bring those statistics back, so that we can have information about what is happening in our own constituencies?

Does the Secretary of State agree that a non-resident parent who has no declared income, but chooses not to claim benefits and is living on a loan, should be required by the Child Support Agency to contribute the flat rate of £5 rather than being party to a “nil” arrangement and not having to pay anything? Should not such people contribute to the considerable costs of raising their child or children?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that when we bring all new claims into the 2012 child maintenance system, we will use information from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs relating not just to earned income, but to income from all sources. Provided that income is coming into the household and HMRC is aware of it, we shall be able to use that information in assessments.

Can the Minister tell us how many people have died as a result of illness or suicide between their being declared fit for work and the hearing of their appeals? If he does not know, does he not think that he has a duty to collect those figures?

I think that we should be very careful about scaremongering. There will be people to whom that applies, but such figures are not collected centrally. I know the hon. Lady very well, and I do not think that the House expects scaremongering of that kind from her.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on introducing a benefit cap. The feedback that I receive from my constituents suggests that they thoroughly support the principle of the cap, but feel that its level is too high. Will the Secretary of State encourage them by announcing that he will consider lowering the level, perhaps to a figure beginning with 1?

I shall take my hon. Friend’s plaudits and congratulations in the spirit in which they were meant. The benefit cap is intended to be fair to those who pay tax to support people who are out of work by ensuring that people cannot earn more through being out of work than they can through being in work. Of course we keep the whole issue under review, but the cap is working very well at its present level.

How interesting it is that not one Opposition Member wants to talk about issues such as getting people back to work and being fair to the taxpayer. The only policy that the Opposition have come up with so far is reversal of the spare room subsidy. That is a pathetic indictment of the lack of welfare policies in the “welfare party”.

I welcome today’s figures showing a reduction in unemployment, but what are the implications for the targets relating to inappropriate sanctions on jobseeker’s allowance claimants? This is a real issue, and it needs to be addressed. It is distorting the JSA figures.

With regard to discretionary housing payment, under a recent freedom of information request it has been established that Calderdale’s budget is almost £384,000 and under the same FOI we learned that in the first six months of the spare room subsidy Labour-run Calderdale has struggled to spend around £24,000. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this massive differential between budget and actual spend could indicate that the spare room subsidy in Calderdale is not an issue, or does he think Labour-run Calderdale is not doing enough to help the most vulnerable?

We will, of course, be releasing figures on this later, but what I say to councils up and down the country is, “That is what the money is there for—to help alleviate issues and problems, at their discretion.” I remind my hon. Friend that last year, after having complained that they did not have enough money, they returned £10 million to the Exchequer, so my urging to them is, “Either do what you’re meant to do or stop complaining.”

What advice does the Secretary of State have for the 4,963 people in Sefton chasing the 10 available one-bedroom properties? Where does he expect them to go, especially given that many of them are disabled and are unable to pay the bedroom tax?

As my hon. Friends made clear in the debate last week, there is actually an awful lot of available property in HomeSwap, with over 300,000 available in the last week alone. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman, and, through him to the councils, local authorities and housing associations, that the purpose of this programme is to get them to manage their housing better, and not to be building bigger houses when they need one-bedroom properties, and to start managing better for the people who need their property.