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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 573: debated on Monday 13 January 2014

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Work Capability Assessment

We remain committed to reviewing continually and further improving the assessment. Dr Litchfield’s independent review was published in December, and the Government will publish their response in the first quarter of this year.

It has come to my attention through research conducted by several disability campaign groups that as many as four people a day are dying within six weeks of being declared fit for work under the Department’s work capability assessment. Will the Secretary of State reflect on those figures? When he finds them to be true, as they are based on his Department’s data, will he come back to the House and apologise to the families of the deceased, who suffered unnecessarily in their last precious days? We can recuperate benefits that are awarded incorrectly, but we cannot recuperate a person’s life.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people and families who have lost their loved ones. There is a system in place for people with life-threatening illnesses, and particularly for those who are likely to die. As I said to the Work and Pensions Committee, the Chairman of which is in the Chamber, we are trying to get the decision making down to seven days, which we would all welcome.

Am I right in thinking that we spend more than £13 billion on sickness and incapacity benefit for almost 2.5 million people of working age? Is it not right to ensure that the support goes to those who need it most?

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. Of course, the scheme was brought in by the previous Administration—the Opposition have selective memory loss about that. We are determined to get the scheme right to help people get back into work and to help those who cannot get back into work through the benefits system.

As the Court of Appeal recently threw out the Government’s appeal against the decision that the work capability assessment disadvantages those with long-term mental health problems and learning disabilities such as autism, will the Minister accept that the test is simply not designed to deal with such people? What will he do about that?

The Harrington report referred to that matter specifically. Ensuring that people with hidden disabilities get all the help we can give them is is close to my heart, but the Harrington pilot is on hold because of the judicial review.

In my part of the world, the work capability assessment and the personal independence payment are administered by Atos. When my constituents finally get an assessment, they find an organisation that is as insensitive as it is incompetent. Would not the best way of improving the work capability assessment be to remove the incapable Atos?

We inherited the contract with Atos as the company running the WCA. We were not happy with the quality of its work, which is why we brought in measures. We accept that that is causing delays to the system, but it is better to have the necessary quality than to get it wrong.

How many people have to lose their appeal after 12 months of trying to get justice done? How many more people—including the four a day referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns)—have to die before they get an appeal? Surely it is time for even this insensitive Government to understand that Atos is not fit for purpose and should be abandoned, and that we should start all over again.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman said that all the way through to his own Government when they brought in Atos. What the Opposition put in place when they were in government was a complete mess. We are determined to get it right. We are listening to why the tribunal judges make their decisions so that we get the decisions right earlier on.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that that the Department has service level agreements with Atos and Capita that include claimant satisfaction and timeliness?

Personal Independence Payments

The Department intends to publish official statistics in the spring. In the meantime, we are looking to see whether we can publish interim information as soon as it becomes available.

I thank the Minister for that answer, which is good news for a lot of people. He will appreciate that a lot of people are suffering while Capita takes so long to get that information out; they have the anxiety of not knowing whether their appeals, or even their applications for assessment, have been agreed. What kind of monitoring of Capita is he doing, and does it have enough people to do the job?

We are monitoring the work of both Capita and Atos, and we will have the figures as soon as we can. Under the previous Administration’s scheme, fewer than 6% of people claiming this or a similar benefit were ever assessed. It must be right and proper that there is not self-assessment; it is done by the experts.

Will the Minister look into the fact that personal independence payments seem to get stuck in the system and are not passed on to the Department for Work and Pensions? My constituent waited three months for an assessment. Three more months later, it is still stuck in the system. The Department wants to sort it out. What more can he do to ensure that they liaise with each other?

The Department’s officials and the contractors, Atos and Capita, are working closely every single day. We need to ensure that we get the decisions right. In such situations as the one brought to the House’s attention by my hon. Friend, we will work closely. If my hon. Friend contacts me later, we will look exactly at that point.

When the Minister appeared in front of the Select Committee, he admitted that there had been very long delays in getting PIP assessment determinations. People had applied in the summer and still did not have a determination by December. We are a month further on and they still have not yet heard anything. I am now receiving e-mails from people across the whole country, as well as from my own constituents, who have been waiting for more than six months since they had their face-to-face assessment. They still have not heard whether they will get the benefit or not. What is the Minister doing to ensure that people find out whether they qualify?

The evidence I gave to the Select Committee—the Committee’s questions were useful to me and I hope the evidence I gave was useful—is that the key to this is that we roll it out until we get the decisions right. The next part of the roll-out is taking place today in south Scotland. If we get it right, it will be a much better benefit for everybody. As we know, there are delays, but they are based on getting the quality and the decisions right. We are working very closely and very hard to make sure that decisions are correct when they are put out.

I, too, have constituents who have been waiting since September. I have received letters in writing from the DWP saying that it cannot speed it up. What can the DWP do to speed up the process?

That would depend on where the claim is within the system and whether it is with Capita, Atos or DWP. I will look into the individual complaints. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to come and see me and I will make sure we get on with it.

Discretionary Housing Payments

Figures published in December show that in the first half of the financial year 2013-14 the average committed spend by local authorities was 40% of their allocated budget. Against those who had said that they were overspending, in fact it turns out that the vast majority are not.

Will the Secretary of State explain the particular circumstances for people who have been on housing benefit constantly since 1996 in relation to discretionary housing payments?

Yes, this is a narrow but complicated area dating back to 1996 with the introduction of local reference rent rules. They were intended to offer transitional protection at that time for existing claimants, but they were not in any way time limited. There was another opportunity, in 2008, to change the regulations when the previous Government brought in local housing allowance. They were not adjusted then. This protection had been dormant for 17 years and not used. This is a complex area that we are now resolving, but I have to say that in three different Governments it has missed the attention of Ministers.

Some would have had us believe that the discretionary housing payment will run out very quickly and that people will be forced out of London to live elsewhere. Will the Secretary of State confirm that there was an underspend in discretionary housing payments of nearly £11 million, and that the claims of social cleansing from the Opposition were complete rubbish?

Yes, I can. The reality, as my hon. Friend says, is that last year about £11 million in underspends was returned to the Department. It is interesting to note the claims made by some in this House. The hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) said that the money in her area was fast running out. It turns out that, at the six-month cut, only 28% of discretionary housing payment has actually been used. In Nottingham South, only 33% has been used. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) said that too much had been spent in Birmingham, Erdington, but only 47% has been used. Discretionary housing payments are there to be used to help those in the most difficult circumstances. Councils should get on and use them.

My right hon. Friend may not be aware that Suffolk Coastal has used 60% of its budget after nine months and Waveney has used half its budget. Does he agree that that shows that discretionary budgets are working and that it is wrong to try to make political capital out of potentially very difficult human circumstances?

It does. The reality is that about 71% have spent less than half of their discretionary budgets by the half-way cut of the year, and politicians should always be careful about using individual cases and making political capital out of what are often human tragedies.

The Secretary of State should be careful about throwing around accusations of incompetence in local authorities. I was going to ask a different question, but I want to put it on record, and reassure the Secretary of State, that Manchester city council will be spending all its discretionary housing payments and has recently applied for more. Will he accept that application for more funding?

The answer I gave previously was based on what the hon. Lady actually said previously, which was:

“The money is fast running out, if it has not already run out”.—[Official Report, 12 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 838.]

At the six-month cut, Manchester city council had spent 28% of the discretionary payments. I suspect that, in reality, the hon. Lady was about to ask me about that, but realised that she could not because she had got it wrong.

What a lot of waffle in response to that planted question from the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin). The bulletin that the Secretary of State issued last week is a clear admission that he has been hitting thousands of people illegally with the bedroom tax since April. Is he aware of the latest survey from the Northern Housing Consortium, which says that nearly half of all front-line housing workers have dealt with someone who has threatened to commit suicide, largely because of the Government’s welfare changes? Will he apologise this afternoon to those people for the concern and chaos that he is causing?

I said it all right, and I say it again: the Department is, and I am, absolutely sorry that anybody may have been caught up in this who should not have been. However, what we were left by the last Government was this: 1,000 pages of complex housing benefit regulations. Under universal credit, they will be reduced to 300 pages and we will simplify them. The reality is that this is a problem of the massive complexity of housing benefit that the last Government left us, with a housing benefit bill that has been rising and that doubled in 10 years on the right hon. Gentleman’s watch.

Discretionary housing payments simply will not plug the gap for disadvantaged tenants in Scotland. Given that last week the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities published clear evidence showing that the policy is costing more to implement than it saves, will the Secretary of State finally accept that it has been a disaster and abandon it?

What I never hear about from the other side of the House, including from the hon. Lady, is what was left to us, which is 250,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation. Nobody on the Opposition Benches ever speaks for them or for the 1 million people they left on waiting lists who cannot get into homes while the taxpayer subsidises people to live in homes that they do not fully occupy. I simply put it back to the hon. Lady: I wonder when she or Opposition Front Benchers will ever speak for those they left in terrible conditions in overcrowded accommodation.

24. As always when I talk about my wonderful South Derbyshire district council, I declare an interest: its leader is my husband. Does my right hon. Friend agree that good councils are spending the appropriate amount of money on this issue and that councils need to look at the systems they have to look after the most vulnerable people in our society? (901917)

That is exactly the point. I am sure that the leader of South Derbyshire district council is doing almost as good a job as my hon. Friend did previously, although I leave her to sort that out with him later. The key thing is that discretionary housing payments are there to help the most vulnerable. Councils should use them. We have allocated an extra pot for those that think they might run over, so there is extra money to bid for, and we are happy to entertain those bids.

Benefit Cap

4. What recent estimate he has made of potential savings to the public purse arising from implementation of the benefit cap. (901896)

Capping benefit at average earnings is forecast, by reducing the large benefit amounts previously paid to households, to save £85 million this year and around £140 million next year. What is more, some 19,000 potentially capped claimants have moved into work, where paying tax and national insurance contributions brings a further benefit to the Exchequer.

Residents in my North-West Leicestershire constituency are doubly astonished, first, that more than 30,000 households were claiming more than £26,000 in benefits prior to the introduction of the cap and, secondly, that the Labour party completely failed to support the introduction of a cap at all. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that this Government will persevere with its benefits cap policy and review the level at which the cap is set—currently at considerably more than the average post-tax income in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is not alone, when 73% of the public support the cap as it stands, as did nine out of 10 Londoners in a recent poll. It appears that the only people who do not support the cap are Labour Members. We will keep the policy under review, but the one thing we should celebrate is that we are reforming welfare to ensure that those who need the money get it, and those who do not get back to work.

When previous Governments changed benefits, they commissioned research to find out about the consequences. Given that we are talking about a benefit cut, is the Secretary of State in a position to tell us who is doing the research?

I am not sure from that whether the right hon. Gentleman supports the change or not. [Interruption.] He supports it—yet again a lone figure on his side, on which I congratulate him. We have carried out a whole load of revisions and changes, making sure that we watch implementation carefully. We carry out research constantly when it comes to the effects of all of our benefit changes. This one is an overall positive rather than a negative.

Personal Independence Payments

5. What recent assessment he has made of Capita’s timescales for processing medical assessments for personal independence payments and providing them to his Department. (901897)

As I said earlier, the end to end journey time for people claiming PIP is too long—within the DWP as well as with Capita and Atos in the hon. Lady’s constituency. More than anything else, this is to do with quality issues that we want to get right. There is no point in having a very quick journey if we get the wrong decision.

I thank the Minister for that reply. My constituent Mr Weaver applied for PIP in June, and Mrs Curran did so in July. They both had their assessments with Capita in August. The assessments have still not reached the DWP, which is totally unacceptable. Legitimate claims are being denied, which cannot be good money for the Government and cannot be a quality service. This company is inept, inefficient and not fit to carry out the work it is asked to do.

I thank the hon. Lady and we will obviously look into the individual cases she mentioned. It is absolutely crucial to get it right and to get the quality right so that when benefits are claimed, those who deserve them get them and those who do not deserve them do not. Face-to-face assessment is a crucial part of this and I have said previously, that fewer than 6% of those who claimed benefit were ever assessed.

Is it not the appeals process against the initial decision that is slowing the process down? Will my hon. Friend use his good offices and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to raise this issue as a matter of urgency with the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. What often happens is that evidence is produced on the day of the tribunal that the Department’s officials have never seen before. In some cases, evidence has understandably come forward at that stage when we might not have known anything about it. We are looking closely at that as well as at getting more information from the judges.

Since June, I have had five cases brought to my attention at my constituency surgery where applications for PIPs have been made yet not one of them has been paid. The assessments have been carried out, yet DWP employees are telling people being treated for cancer to phone up and chase Capita. Will the Minister do something about it because this system is collapsing?

Those with terminal illnesses are; cancer is not always terminal. I know this is an emotive subject, but fortunately plenty of people in this country live through their cancer. I will look carefully into what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is not the case that no benefits are getting through. The vast majority are. I see cases at my surgery the same as others do, but the vast majority are getting their benefits. We will, however, work on the quality.

A GP whose patient has particularly complex medical and learning disability needs is still waiting for an assessment and a decision many months after making his application. Why are doctors’ letters not accepted?

Even the last Administration had the sense to recognise that GPs were very close to their patients, and that it was therefore necessary to obtain evidence from other health experts as well, especially consultants. However, the assessment relates not to an illness or other condition, but to a person’s capacity to work. That is what is important.

OECD Disability Spend

The most recent OECD figures, from 2009, show that the United Kingdom spent 2.4% of its gross domestic product on benefits for people with disabilities. According to UK figures for 2012-13, we are spending about £50 billion a year on such benefits.

Can the Minister explain how that money is being used to help disabled people in my constituency to lead full and independent lives?

The reason we are spending so much money is that we want to ensure that people with disabilities or other long-term conditions can lead lives that are as fulfilling as possible, and, if they are able to do so, enter the workplace. Much of the money is spent on the Access to Work scheme, which has proved very successful. It is interesting that not many Opposition Members seem to approve of the £50 billion that the Government are spending.

Ministers have been taking a pick-and-mix approach to the OECD figures, claiming that the United Kingdom is a top spender on disability-related benefits while referring to only one indicator rather than to total incapacity-related benefit spending. Is it not time that they came clean? Will the Minister now admit that disabled people are bearing the brunt of the Government’s welfare reforms?

We do not “pick and mix” at all. Those who look carefully at the figures will see that Germany spends roughly half the amount that we spend in relation to GDP. If the hon. Lady thinks that we should spend more, that will mean another spending commitment from the Opposition.

Employment Statistics

7. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of the most recent employment statistics. (901899)

14. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of the most recent employment statistics. (901906)

The latest employment statistics, which show a record number of people in work and falling unemployment, demonstrate that our policies are working.

Will my hon. Friend tell the House by how much the number of claimants has fallen since the Government were elected in 2010, and what has been the consequent saving to the public purse?

I know that my hon. Friend is very interested in this subject. I understand that he runs business breakfast clubs to help people to obtain work, and to secure growth in his constituency. I can tell him that 525,000 fewer people have claimed the three main out-of-work benefits since the election, that both unemployment and the claimant count are lower, and that in his constituency the claimant count has fallen by 23% in the last year, long-term unemployment has fallen by 16%, and youth unemployment has fallen by 28%. Obviously, all that is saving the Government a considerable amount of money.

Youth unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 25.6% in the last 12 months alone thanks to this Government. I organise a job fair every year, and last year more than 2,000 people came through the doors, many of them wanting to swap jobs. Thanks to the Government, things are moving very much in the right direction. Meanwhile, the Government are expanding the new enterprise allowance scheme, which is designed to improve young people’s entrepreneurial skills. What is the Minister’s assessment of how that is going?

My hon. Friend is another Conservative Member who is doing a great deal in his area. He has got together 2,000 people from his local community—job seekers and businesses—and has found everyone work. He is right: youth unemployment has fallen by 28% over the year, and long-term youth unemployment in his area has fallen by 26%. The new enterprise allowance scheme is expanding—2,000 young people have already set up businesses in that way—and we are investing more money by extending the scheme until December 2015.

The December report of the Office for Budget Responsibility increased its projection for increased spend on housing benefit by £1.8 billion between March and December and attributes half of that to people in employment who will have to claim housing benefit. Is not the truth that because of low hours and wages, savings in one respect are simply popping out as increased spending in another?

That is not the case. We want to look at the numbers. If we look at the spend on housing benefit, we see that it doubled under Labour from £12 billion to £24 billion. What we have got to do is look in the round at those people who are in overcrowded housing and those on waiting lists as well as those who have got houses that are bigger than they necessarily need and yet the taxpayer is funding all of it. The figures are right: the cost doubled under Labour’s watch.

What plans does the Minister have to tackle the new record level of people wanting full-time work but only able to get part-time work? That went up in the most recent statistics to 1.47 million. It is the highest level it has ever been. What is the Minister going to do about it?

Actually, in the last three months the vast majority of people who got jobs were getting not only full-time jobs but also permanent full-time jobs, and three out of every four jobs have been full-time.

22. For the past three years running I have had an apprentice caseworker in my office who has been an A-level school-leaver. Does my hon. Friend agree that having apprenticeships perhaps before university is an opportunity for young people to get on to the road to work by getting some work experience and that that is an incredibly valuable experience for young people that more and more of them are taking advantage of? (901915)

I totally agree with my hon. Friend who set up one of the biggest and best job clubs in her area, supporting people into work. Work experience is key and it does not matter whether people are on their way to university or just wanting to get into a job because this helps in understanding what jobs they want to do and what jobs they do not want to do. Around 113,000 people have gone through work experience and over 50% of them have ended up in a job. My hon. Friend is right to sing the praises of work experience.

Employment and Support Allowance

8. What steps he is taking to increase the ability of employment and support allowance claimants in the work-related activity group to gain paid employment. (901900)

ESA claimants in the work-related activity group have access to a wide range of employment support, including the Work programme where claimants receive tailored support for two years, and a flexible menu of support through their Jobcentre Plus. Specialist support is also available through Work Choice.

The Minister will be aware that the Lichfield review analysing the system said that it was beset by delays beyond the stipulated regulatory period and that Work programme providers consistently reported that they had very little information about the people referred to the scheme. Can the Minister explain to the House what specific steps she has taken to address those concerns?

First, let us talk about the Work programme, which is the first time we have ever had a coherent way to address and support these people back into work. We know through industry statistics that over 440,000 people have got a job from that programme and that over 100,000 have found a long-term job. We are supporting people as best we can—the first time we have ever done this. We are taking specific steps, too: we are analysing everything, watching what works, conducting a best-practice group and implementing the findings. So this is new, it has started and we are getting it better.

Can the Minister confirm that the pilot is the first time that ESA has been looked at in a co-ordinated way to try and get people to fulfil their potential? Will she also confirm that it is innovative policies such as this that mean our unemployment is so much lower than that in countries such as France where the Labour party’s policies are being pursued to economic catastrophe?

My hon. Friend is right. Most of Europe is looking to us to see how we get people into work, whereas the Opposition are looking to France where the exact opposite is happening. This is a very complicated journey for people who are in the ESA group and for most of them it is about understanding their lifestyles and getting them closer to the workplace and then into a job.

Auto-enrolment

I am pleased to update the House and say that more than 2.5 million workers have now been automatically enrolled into a workplace pension. That puts us roughly a quarter of the way through the entire programme of automatic enrolment.

What have the Government done to ease the burdens on employers, particularly the small and medium-sized enterprises that play such a dominant role in the business mix in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is quite right. Every change that we have made to the administration of automatic enrolment has been designed to reduce the burden on firms. For example, we have raised the wage threshold at which people are automatically enrolled, and we have delayed the staging for the smallest firms so that no one who employs fewer than 50 people will have to stage before April 2015.

Basic State Pension Inheritance

11. What transitional arrangements his Department will make in respect of the ending of basic state pension inheritance. (901903)

The ability to access or increase a state pension based on the national insurance record of a partner or former partner was introduced in the 1940s, but less than 5% of people reaching pension age after the single tier is introduced will be affected by the removal of this facility. We are putting in place transitional arrangements for certain women who paid the married woman’s stamp, but to go beyond that and make transitional arrangements for a broader group would severely damage the simplicity of the scheme.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that protection will be put in place for those women who have paid the married woman’s stamp, to ensure that they receive a decent state pension?

Yes, I can. Women who paid the married woman’s stamp at any point in the 35 years before the scheme comes in will get the pension that they expected—namely, the 60% for married women and the 100% widow’s pension.

When the Minister announced his flat-rate state pension reform, the key argument was that the public would henceforth have clarity about what they could expect from the state in retirement. Now we find, via a parliamentary question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), that the Government have no intention of writing to individuals to communicate what the state pension changes will mean for them and their families. Why did the Minister give the impression that the Government would write to people about their state pension entitlement if he has no intention of doing so?

I am slightly baffled by that question, because our reforms to the state pension will affect everyone who reaches state pension age after 2016. That is almost the entire working age population. Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that we should write 40 million letters?

Funeral Payments

12. What assessment he has made of the appropriateness of the eligibility criteria for funeral payments allocated from the social fund. (901904)

It is important that help is targeted at those who are least well off at the time the need arises. The Government therefore firmly believe that the qualifying criteria for the funeral payments should be linked to the receipt of one of a number of income-related benefits.

I thank the Minister for his response, but the reality is that almost one in five people struggles to pay the cost of a funeral service for a member of their family, and more and more are taking on debts so that they can afford to pay for a service for their loved one. Will the Minister therefore consider adjusting the criteria so that families suffering emotional hardship need not experience financial hardship as well?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. We have expanded the scope of the budgeting loans scheme to include funeral costs, which were not previously eligible. If someone is short of cash to meet funeral costs, they can borrow money through the social fund if they are eligible for a budgeting loan, as well as applying for the grant that we pay, which averages £1,200.

Under-occupancy Penalty

16. What assessment he has made of the effect of the under-occupancy penalty on household incomes. (901909)

The average weekly reduction in housing benefit resulting from this measure is £14.50. However, two thirds of those affected experience weekly reductions of less than that, and the average weekly loss for those who have moved off benefit as a result of this policy is £8.

When I visited the Scunthorpe food bank recently, the excellent volunteers there reported a significant increase in the numbers of people using the food bank. When I asked them why that was, they chorused in unison: “The bedroom tax.” When are this Government going to do a proper evaluation of the damage the bedroom tax is doing to hard-working families?

I, too, praise the local community, the voluntary groups, the Trussell Trust and the Churches that are helping people through the food banks, but I do not agree that we can draw an analogy between what is happening there and our attempt to get fairness through changes to the spare room subsidy. What about those people who are in overcrowded homes? What about those people who are on a waiting list? How do we support everybody in this way? Labour shirked dealing with this problem, and it is a very difficult issue to get right. Labour shirked it but we are dealing with it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is financially unsustainable for the housing benefit bill to continue rising at the level that it has historically without the type of fundamental reform to housing benefit that this Government are introducing?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. There are many dimensions to this, because it is not just about a housing benefit bill that doubled under Labour’s watch; it is also about the lack of houses that were built, fairness in the system, getting housing right and building right for the future.

This might be all right if there were smaller properties for people to go to, but there are not. It might be all right if £14.50 was a tiny sum, which it may be to the hon. Lady or to any of us in the Chamber, but it is not to the carers who do an invaluable job, not only on behalf of the person they care for, but for the whole of society. So how can it possibly be right that 60,000 carers are paying, on average, as the Minister has just admitted, an extra £14.50 a week? Are this Government dim-witted, short-sighted or just plain cruel?

I am afraid none of those are true. I see that the hon. Gentleman gathered much information together, but let us see what happens; as I said, we have got to get this right. We have to get the housing right. We have got to have more smaller buildings. He wrote to me as he did not understand about conversions and I had to lay it out clearly in the letter; the National Housing Federation agreed with me. Despite not knowing the facts, he did produce a press release for the papers. We are getting conversions right, sorting out the problem and helping as many people as possible.

Live-in carers are provided for as part of the assessment of household need. An additional room for non-resident overnight carers is allowed in certain circumstances. Discretionary housing payment funding has been increased to £180 million for 2013-14 to help support vulnerable claimants to adjust to the reforms.

Many children grow up with separated parents, but I think we would all agree that joint parenting is in the best interests of the child. One of my constituents is a devoted father whose small son lives with him 50% of the time, but he now has to lose his son’s bedroom because the benefits system will accept only one parent as the “main carer”. Will the Minister re-examine that rule and consider an exemption?

The hon. Lady is right to bring this matter to the House, and such situations are always difficult, but the room would be allocated to whoever was the main carer of the child. In this instance, that is the mother and that is who we would be looking to. We would not be supporting two sets of rooms in two separate houses, as we are trying to get this housing policy right.

May I bring the Minister back to the issue of unpaid family carers of sick and disabled people? She recently admitted in a response to my question that 50,000 or 60,000 of those carers were affected by the bedroom tax. More than 1 million of those carers have given up work to care, and they have nowhere to go to find the money. She has talked about live-in carers, but it is not about that. Will she answer about the 50,000 or 60,000 carers? Will she admit that it was a mistake not to exempt them from the bedroom tax?

What we did is not name absolutely everybody who could have part of the discretionary housing payment. We have allowed discretion for those people who might need it the most, hence it is called “discretionary”, hence it has been trebled and hence we are supporting these people. Obviously, if somebody on housing benefit, or their partner, needs an overnight carer on a regular basis, they would have their spare room subsidy; they would be exempt from this.

Habitual Residence Test

Migrants must now meet a much tougher habitual residence test than before, showing the efforts they have made to find work before coming to the UK and that their English language skills are not a barrier to getting a job. They must also have been resident in the UK for three months before being able to access out-of-work benefits. We have plans to make it even stronger, by introducing a minimum earnings threshold, with tougher questions on whether work is genuine, and job seekers from the European economic area will not receive housing benefit.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that detailed answer. I urge him to go a bit further and listen to the representations he has received to extend the qualifying period for the habitual residence test, and make people have to be here for a year before they can get those benefits.

As has been made clear beyond this Chamber, we are looking at that matter at the moment, and we have been discussing it with a number of other European nations, the vast majority of which are clear and with us on the idea that freedom of movement should not result in an opportunity for people to take benefits from wherever they want and to pick and choose their benefit areas. We are looking at how we can come to an agreement on those time scales and limits.

Universal Credit

19. What his most recent estimate is of the number of people who will be claiming universal credit by April 2014. (901012)

Based on caseload projections, we expect more than 6,000 claimants from the pathfinders to be on universal credit in January.

Beyond the pathfinder scheme and in the live running of universal credit, we are also rolling out other components, such as the claimant commitment. Jobcentre Plus advisers have agreed around 120,000 JSA claimant commitments, rising by some 30,000 each week. That continues our progressive approach to date, enabling a safe and successful delivery.

The Secretary of State has made a pig’s ear of the roll-out of universal credit. Does he agree with his colleague, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who claimed that the mess was all his fault?

Actually my right hon. Friend did not make that claim. If the hon. Gentleman had gone on with the quote, we would hear that he said:

“I’m a very strong supporter of what he is doing…and I’m absolutely confident that”

he is capable of implementing it.

Kettering Jobcentre Plus

20. How many adults and young people have been helped to find employment by Kettering Jobcentre Plus in each of the last three years. (901913)

In the last three years, the number of young people and adults claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Kettering has fallen by 26%, long-term unemployment is down 8%, youth employment is down 35% and long-term youth unemployment is down 31%. Claimants are not required to tell us their reason for leaving JSA, but surveys suggest that it is that 77% of people move into work.

I thank the Minister for that extremely good news for Kettering. Will she say what assistance is being provided to help young people find employment?

I will indeed. I was planning to give my hon. Friend some information for those young people in Kettering. There is a growth hub, Brackley job club, Christ Church work club, the graduate boost work club, Kettering library work club and a whole host of extra support. Across the country, we have put £1 billion in the Youth Contract to help young people get into work.

Topical Questions

I welcome industry figures that suggest that business hiring intentions are at their highest for two and a half years and that even more UK businesses are reporting that they intend to recruit in 2014. Those positive signs are backed up by the latest labour market statistics that show that more people are in private sector employment than ever before—up by more than 1.6 million since the general election.

With the popularity of the Post Office in mind, does the Minister agree that the value of the Post Office card account is immense, benefiting some 2.9 million people? Will he think about extending it?

I indeed agree with my hon. Friend that the Post Office card account has played an important part in supporting the post office network and enabling pensioners and benefit recipients to receive their money at a local post office. All of the options under consideration conclude that access to pensions and benefits via the post office will continue beyond March 2015.

We already know that 600,000 people are affected by the bedroom tax, two thirds of them are disabled and 60,000 are carers. Will the Secretary of State now tell the House exactly how many long-term residents have been wrongly paying the bedroom tax since April because the Government failed to spot a loophole in the legislation?

We have already made it clear that the number is likely to be between 3,000 and 5,000, but we will be clearer about that when the local authorities, which are responsible for collecting the data, come forward with the final facts.

The fact is that the Secretary of State has not got a clue. It could be 5,000 or it could be as many as 40,000 people, as reported by the experts. What a total shambles! Will the Secretary of State now guarantee that everybody who has been wrongly paying the bedroom tax will be reimbursed, and instead of closing the loophole, will the Government now do the right thing and scrap the bedroom tax?

Yet again, what we have from the hon. Lady is a moan about a policy that helps people in difficult circumstances. I said earlier that not once has she come to the Dispatch Box and said that she was concerned about those her party left behind living in overcrowded accommodation. Not once has she mentioned the 1 million on the waiting list or apologised for the fact that building levels for social housing fell to their lowest point since the ’20s. Of course we will look after those affected by the policy, but she must make it clear that she supports one of these policies; otherwise, there will be a total cost to the Exchequer. The shambles is on the Opposition’s part.

T7. Will the Minister confirm that under the new system, 80% of individuals will be entitled to a full single-tier pension in their own right by 2030? (901889)

I am encouraged by the close interest my hon. Friend is taking in the single-tier pension, and I feel he is a kindred spirit. He is right that, as the 35-year qualifying rule includes not just earned contributions but credits for caring and so on, the vast majority of people will qualify for the full single-tier pension.

T3. In response to an inquiry, the Department for Work and Pensions has confirmed to me that employers advertising vacancies on the Government’s jobmatch service must provide a full, clear and accurate job description. Does the Secretary of State agree that they should also make it clear when they are offering zero-hours contracts, rather than simply listing them as part time? (901885)

Of course, the key point is that all contracts must be clear from the beginning and every employee must know what contract they are on. A very small percentage of the population are on zero hours and great care is needed, as some jobs and some individuals prefer such contracts—as the hon. Gentleman’s Government found out when they were in power.

T8. Will the Minister update the House on the progress in providing support for mesothelioma sufferers? (901891)

Legislation on compensation for mesothelioma sufferers went through the House last week, and I was pleased to see the Bill receive its Third Reading. As I said at the time, it is not perfect but it will help as a fund of last resort for those who have had nothing from the system because they could not trace their employers or insurers. I hope that Her Majesty will grant it Royal Assent at the earliest opportunity.

T4. The Government’s auto-enrolment pension scheme will provide relatively poor and insecure returns, based as it is on the private pensions industry and subject to stock market vagaries. Is not the only long-term solution a comprehensive and compulsory state scheme for all, with defined and guaranteed returns, in line with schemes overseas? (901886)

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his consistency on the issue. His view is that he wants his income in retirement to be wholly dependent on a promise that future taxpayers would fund it. I must say that I would prefer to spread my risks by having a decent, simple state pension, such as the single-tier pension that we are introducing, and a stock market-linked investment that will benefit in the long run as the economy grows and, crucially, will benefit from a contribution from the employer, too, which is not the case in the state scheme.

The total figure for the fall in the number of workless households has been in the order of 17%. The position we inherited was that it had not fallen for 30 years and approximately 2.5 million children were living in such households. That number has fallen by several hundred thousand—a clear change and a clear improvement for the public and those going back to work.

T5. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that there will be no further delays to his roll-out of universal credit? (901887)

Universal credit is set to roll out according to the timetable I laid out the other day. We have been round this—[Interruption.] With respect, Mr Speaker, I know that Christmas is over but I think one of the pantomimes left its dame behind on the Opposition Front Bench. Universal credit will roll out in the time scales available and will be a major benefit to all those who come under it, including the constituents of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith).

Constituents of mine who face mandatory reconsideration are stuck with the possibility of a gap in their benefits until their tribunal hearing. I know that the Secretary of State is very keen to deal with that problem. Will he tell the House what further steps can be taken to protect my constituents?

One of the things we have done in the past couple of weeks, since I came to this post, is get information back from tribunal judges. Previously, we did not have that information. We are studying why judges are making those decisions, so we can make sure that we get decisions right before they go to tribunal.

T6. Given the praise for the Health and Safety Executive from respondents to the recent triennial review, including positive feedback from the business sector, will the Minister support its regulatory function of saving British workers’ lives, instead of repeating the tired old Tory mantra about work-based dangers: “It’s health and safety gone mad”? (901888)

I am slightly disappointed in my hon. Friend for asking that sort of question, because it is very important that health and safety is taken seriously in the workplace and in public areas. Right across the Christmas period, I went public about the need to ensure that Christmas was not spoiled by stupid comments, and stupid local authorities saying, “We shouldn’t do this or that”—throw snowballs, or have Christmas trees in certain areas—“because of health and safety.” That is wrong, and it has nothing to do with health and safety; it is an insurance risk.

Has the Secretary of State managed to watch programmes such as “Benefits Street” and “On Benefits & Proud”? If so, has he, like me, been struck by the number of people on them who manage to combine complaining about welfare reform with being able to afford to buy copious amounts of cigarettes, have lots of tattoos, and watch Sky TV on the obligatory widescreen television? Does he understand the concerns and irritation of many people who go to work every day and pay their taxes but cannot afford those kinds of luxuries?

My hon. Friend is right: many people are shocked by what they see. That is why the public back our welfare reform package, which will get more people back to work and end these abuses. All these abuses date back to the last Government, who had massive spending and trapped people in benefit dependency.

May I ask the Secretary of State to look carefully at his many policies that are delivered through intermediaries such as G4S, Capita and Atos? Are not many of those private sector providers deeply ineffective and inefficient? They cause many of my constituents great grief.

While I accept some of the things that the hon. Gentleman says—in particular, I accept that Atos’ contract for the work capability assessment was brought in by the previous Administration—there can be benefits, and savings can be made, if assessments are done correctly. To look after our constituents, we have to make sure that companies do them properly.

In the Minister’s reply to my written question of 5 December, we learned that there was a prosecution in fewer than one in four of 45,000 cases of benefit fraud. Only 400 cases resulted in a prison sentence; the vast majority were handled through informal recovery processes. What proportion of the informal repayment arrangements are up to date, and does the Minister believe that increasing the incidence of prosecution would be helpful in reducing the incidence of benefit fraud?

We have made great progress in pursuing more people than have ever been pursued before. The reality is that the amount got back from those who have been defrauding the state is better than it has been, but in the answer to which my hon. Friend refers, we made it clear that we have much more to do. It is the nature of many benefits that they are open to abuse; changes such as universal credit will simplify the process and give far less opportunity to those who would defraud the system. That is the right way to deal with the issue.

In Northern Ireland, 300,000 pensioners enjoy the winter fuel allowance. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether, if he is returned to office after the next election, that benefit will remain in place?

It is this Government who have stood by that. The Prime Minister gave a pledge before the last election, and we intended to, and will, see that all the way to the election. As always, all further commitments will be made and published in the manifesto.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that universal credit will improve the lives of those in our poorest communities, including those of many people in Brighton, Kemptown?

I can indeed. Universal credit replaces the benefits that are most open to fraud, in many cases. Also, housing benefit doubled in value under the last Government; universal credit will deal with those problems, get things back into order, and provide an incentive to go back to work; that is the key thing. Getting people back to work, which the Opposition are not interested in, is the key element of welfare reform.

Given this latest bedroom tax shambles, can the Secretary of State clarify whether he will write off, or seek repayment for, discretionary housing payments that have been made to those people who will now receive back payment of housing benefit?

I made it clear in my previous answer that I will be coming forward with full details about that, including the number of people affected.

I urge the Secretary of State to promote fairness for people on housing waiting lists, fairness for people in overcrowded accommodation, where children have to do their homework in the hallways, and fairness for hard-working people and their families when it comes to welfare tourism.

That is exactly right. The reality that my hon. Friend has spotted is that the Opposition have voted against every single one of our welfare reforms. Not only would the welfare bill have been £45 billion higher under them, but more people would be out of work and they would have failed the British people.

On the Work programme, can the Minister explain why Dundee is once again the least supported city in Scotland, with only 9.79% of people being helped back into work by the programme? Will she apologise to the people of Dundee and explain why 90% are still not being helped?

The majority of people are being helped by the Work programme. As I said earlier, this is the first time we have had a co-ordinated approach to support, and it has supported 2.5 million people so far. Of course we have to make it better and support more people, but 444,000—that figure is from industry statistics—have actually got a job.

Tragically, nearly 10,000 families suffer the death of a child each year, including 7,800 babies under the age of one. Is it not time that the Government did the right and compassionate thing in the remainder of this Parliament by backing the Change Bereavement Leave campaign and introducing a statutory right to bereavement leave for all parents who lose a child?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are reforming bereavement benefits. The intention, having talked with bereaved families, is to focus the funding on the point of bereavement and the immediate year thereafter, but obviously ongoing support for bereaved families will be available through universal credit. I will be happy to discuss the matter with him further.

A few moments ago the Secretary of State quoted the Minister for the Cabinet Office on universal credit, but he forgot to mention the part where the Minister called its implementation “lamentable” and said that a lot of money has been wasted. We also learned last week that the Cabinet Office withdrew the Government Digital Service from universal credit, a decision described as “disappointing” by the lead official. Why did the official describe it in such terms?

Yet again the Opposition are farming in and around old e-mails. The truth is that universal credit and the Cabinet Office are working together, with the Cabinet Office supporting us on the digital ask. The Minister for the Cabinet Office made it absolutely clear that that is where we are going. I know that in reality the Opposition do not support universal credit, but it would be better if they came clean: it will be delivered and they will be thankful in the end.