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Topical Questions

Volume 573: debated on Monday 13 January 2014

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.