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Topical Questions

Volume 576: debated on Monday 24 February 2014

Today I welcome the latest statistics showing the growth in employment over the past year. Against a rise of 54,000 foreign nationals at work, 360,000 more UK nationals are employed, a far better record than under the previous Government. With new measures to tighten up on immigration still further, such as the minimum earnings threshold announced last week, we are ensuring that those who want to work and who will work hard and play by the rules will see the benefits of Britain’s growth.

The bishops have said that there is an “acute moral imperative” to act on welfare, and I agree, because that has been clear since at least 2006, when the Centre for Social Justice published its report, “Breakdown Britain”. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is still on a moral mission to break those cycles of deprivation that lead to entrenched poverty so that people can live lives of hope and fulfilment?

I am determined, as I have been since I arrived as Secretary of State, to improve the welfare system so that it supports people back into positive lifestyles, and that is what we are doing. More people have moved from economic inactivity, which is now at its lowest levels, back into work. There are now fewer workless households than there were on our arrival. When we came into government, one in 20—a fifth—of all households were without work; that figure has now reduced for the first time in 30 years.

On 13 January, the Secretary of State told this House that between 3,000 and 5,000 people were wrongly paying the bedroom tax because of a loophole in the legislation. Since then, councils have been trawling through years of records to find out who has been overpaid. Will the Secretary of State update us on how many people were wrongly paying the bedroom tax?

On the loophole that I talked about when I made that comment, the estimate we had, which was drawn from local authorities and still stands, in our view, was that some 5,000 people may be affected. That is based on the most up-to-date data that local authorities have given. I know that the hon. Lady and her team have made a freedom of information request, but the key thing is that the information we have is based on all the local authorities’ evidence to us, and I do not believe that her evidence is in any way accurate.

Yes, we have put in a freedom of information request, because we did not think that the Secretary of State’s numbers were correct, and, as it turns out, they are not. The FOI request shows that with 194 out of 346 councils having responded so far, a staggering 21,500 people have been wrongly paying the bedroom tax, including 4,198 in Tory local authorities, so perhaps they have got their numbers wrong too. There are 275 in Tory Chester, 200 in Tory Peterborough, 234—

Order. I am sorry, but the question is too long. I have got Back Benchers to accommodate, so I know that the final sentence, which will be a short one, is on its way.

Instead of trying stealthily to close the loophole, will the Secretary of State now do the right thing and scrap the cruel and hated bedroom tax?

Yet again we hear from the hon. Lady a complete failure to mention the fact that in all her Government’s time in power, they did nothing for those who lived in overcrowded accommodation. A quarter of a million people were left to us who suffer every day because they cannot get the right rooms. One million people were left on the waiting list, and the house building programme fell to its lowest point since the 1920s. There is only one answer to her: sorting this out is the right thing to do, and shame on a Government who did nothing for those in greatest difficulty.

T2. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the fall in unemployment in my constituency over the past three years? We now have about 2,500 more people in work than in 2010, benefiting young and old, those in full-time and part-time positions, and men and women. Does not this highlight how important it is for the Government to stick to their economic plans and ensure that the well-being of this country improves? (902649)

My hon. Friend is right to say that we have got a record number of people into work across the board. What is most interesting as I travel up and down the country is to see how local Jobcentres Plus are working with local businesses to support their local work forces. In particular, the learning shop at Bluewater is doing tremendous work. My hon. Friend is right. We have done a lot; we have more to do.

T3. A constituent of mine recently had his benefits wrongly withdrawn. He has severe learning difficulties and cannot use the internet independently, and therefore has great difficulty in applying for jobs online. Does the Secretary of State agree that targeted support would be more successful in getting my constituent and others back into work than damaging, wrongly imposed benefit sanctions? (902650)

It is very important that we help everybody to get back into work, no matter who it is. If benefits have been stopped incorrectly, I promise to look into that for the hon. Lady.

T4. The Minister will be aware of the 16% drop in unemployment in my constituency, along with the 34% drop in youth unemployment. Will he join me in welcoming the support of local businesses at our next annual Enfield jobs fair on 7 March, where employers are coming to support us in helping to find work for the unemployed? (902651)

I will do everything I can to make sure I am there to support my hon. Friend, who is also my parliamentary neighbour. He is right to say that what we have seen in the recent employment figures has happened only because we stuck to the course of our economic plan and because the welfare reforms are delivering more people into work. All that would be damaged if that lot were in power.

T7. Two of my constituents—both of whom are UK citizens—went to other European Union countries to find work, but when those jobs ended and they came home they found they were no longer eligible to receive benefits in the UK. Did the Government mean to penalise UK citizens who go abroad to get off the UK unemployment register, and is not that exactly the wrong signal to give? Will the Secretary of State change the regulations? (902654)

As the hon. Gentleman should know, we are bringing forward tougher sanctions on those who come here just to take benefits, rather than to work. Of course, British citizens working abroad are more likely to have gone abroad with a strong work record in the UK, so when they come back that is taken into account. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about a particular case, perhaps he would like to write to me and I will take it up. The sanctions are fair because they stop people coming to countries such as Britain just because they have better welfare systems than theirs.

T5. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on all the work he has put into getting people back into employment, but I was visited this weekend by one of my constituents, Paul Vachon, who has been unemployed for more than 12 months and is highly skilled. His major concern is that, because he is close to the point of retirement, his employability is diminished. What are the Government doing to encourage and support those such as Paul who are seeking jobs at the point when they are about to retire? (902652)

My hon. Friend raises an important question about how we support all people back into work. It really is important that advisers have the flexibility to offer skills and job-search support to people of all ages, including those who might need extra support on the Work programme and, equally, those in local areas that might have an over-50s digital group or 50-plus work clubs. We need to make sure that everybody is getting the support and I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.

T8. I have put this question to the Department for Work and Pensions on two previous occasions in the Chamber, but I will try again and perhaps, as the old adage goes, this will be third time lucky. More than 90% of the Work programme participants in my home city of Dundee have not been helped into work by it, so my simple question is: why not? (902655)

The Work programme supports those people who are furthest away from the job market. We have helped more than 1.4 million people and we now know that more than 400,000 of them have had a job start. We have to get them closer to the workplace, so it is working well. We always say that there is more to do, but this has done a significant amount for those people who are the hardest to help.

T6. Will Ministers do something about the fact that, of all the people being helped with personal independence payment claims by the Berwick citizens advice bureau, not one remaining in the area has received an assessment since the scheme started? (902653)

Of course, as we roll out PIP, this is a really difficult situation and we must make sure we get the quality right. I will look into that individual case for my right hon. Friend and make sure we get it right in his area.

T9. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern), a number of my constituents have been on the employment and support programme for two years, or nearly two years, and have had not a sniff of a work opportunity. Do the Government have a solution for how to get people with complex needs into work, because clearly the Work programme is not delivering? (902656)

The Work programme is working. For those people who are on employment and support allowance, it is about getting closer to the job market and that is what we are doing—putting provision in place. I remind the hon. Lady that, under her Government, those people were not supported in any consistent way whatsoever.

T10. One of the issues raised during the last debate before the recess was payment of benefits to terminally ill patients. Will Ministers update the House on what additional help and support is available for recipients of PIP? (902657)

It is very important for the families and loved ones of people who are terminally ill to make sure that we get the PIP payment through as fast as possible. The period was too long; we have got it down now, and we need to get it down more. I said to the Select Committee that the proportion should be below 10%. Working with Macmillan, we are going to a PDF as well as a paper-based system for the 2%, but it is very important that we get that right, and that is why I have changed the rules.

Mr Speaker, you will remember that during exchanges at the last Work and Pensions questions, the Secretary of State said that Manchester had spent very little of its discretionary housing allocation. I wonder whether he wants to use this opportunity to clarify that allegation, given that only two days later, his Department granted Manchester city council an extra £200,000 of discretionary housing payment in recognition that its money was nearly spent.

I stand by the figures I gave the hon. Lady, and I also stand by the fact that Manchester—[Interruption.] No, the figures I gave her were the halfway cut for the year, when she said that it had already overspent—[Interruption.] No, she cannot run away from it. She said that it had overspent, and the reality is that it had not overspent. Since then, it has asked for more money. We have a pot, and we have allowed it to have more money. That is the point of the discretionary housing payment. Welcome to the world of decision making.

My constituent Jane has been receiving treatment for cancer since her diagnosis last October, but she was wrongly told that she was excluded from applying for help unless she resigned from her job altogether or became pregnant. Will the Minister meet me to discuss Jane’s suggestions to improve how patients receiving treatment for serious illnesses are referred by the NHS towards help, such as personal independence payment, in the interests of joined-up government?

There is a very simple answer to the hon. Lady’s question: yes, I will meet her as soon as possible.

Further to all the questions about people who are seriously ill, does the Minister think it right that my constituent, who has a weakened heart, has been told that she will not get the personal independence payment? Surely it is just not right that, to avoid reaching rock bottom, she has to not follow her doctor’s advice not to work, and has to lie about her condition. Surely now is the time to see just how fit for purpose his welfare benefits system is—it is not working.

Assessment was brought in by the previous Administration. I fully accept that there are such individual cases. If the hon. Lady’s constituent has not got PIP, she is entitled to appeal and go to a tribunal and the higher tribunal, and she can also register for JSA and produce a sicknote. I will look into the individual case if the hon. Lady so wishes.