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Topical Questions

Volume 570: debated on Monday 18 November 2013

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.