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Topical Questions

Volume 578: debated on Monday 31 March 2014

We were pleased this week to find elements of—that new families formed were no longer breaking up. These figures came out last week to ensure that we are making our programmes work for very good reasons. Families are now staying together. Stable families in households being able to—[Interruption.]

Order. May I gently interrupt the Secretary of State? I thought that he was going to give a brief rundown of his departmental responsibilities in answer to the first topical question.

I was talking about the figures that came out last week on new families forming and staying together.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he and his Department are doing in transforming lives and getting people back into work? In preparation for my jobs and apprenticeships fair on Friday, will he confirm the job vacancy figures for both London and Brentford and Isleworth?

At the end of last week, there were 927 active vacancies and 1,493 active jobs in the Brentford and Isleworth constituency. The vacancies were largely in retail, travel, transportation and tourism. The jobcentre has also worked with Asda and Premier Inn to deliver work experience and sector-based work academy opportunities.

Just 46% of disabled people are in work, while 40% of disabled people not working report that they want to work. Helping disabled people into work provides them with security and dignity as well as helping control the costs of social security. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what proportion of disabled people referred to the Work programme get a job?

The Work programme has been successful for those who are furthest from the labour market. The group of people the hon. Lady is talking about who suffer from sickness and disability have, for the first time, been worked with and helped back into work. The figures that we are seeing now are slower than we would have wished, but they are, none the less, improving all the time. Let me remind the hon. Lady that no one has ever attempted to get these people back into work. The Work programme is succeeding in helping into work those who were never in work before.

The truth is that just 5% of disabled people on the Work programme end up in work. If that is a success, I would like to know what failure is. It is worse than doing nothing. It is a disgrace to let disabled people down in such a way. In the Budget, spending on employment and support allowance was revised up by a staggering £800 million because of delays, incompetence and the complete failure of the Work programme. Will the Secretary of State now agree to take action to help disabled people and give them the support they need and reform the failing Work programme?

Let me remind the hon. Lady that, as I said earlier, for these people, and the previous Government made no effort whatsoever to get them back to work—[Interruption.] No, 2.5 million people were written off on sickness benefits under the previous Government. No one worked with them and about 1 million were left without anybody seeing them for nearly 10 years. That is the record of the previous Government. I simply remind the hon. Lady that since we came to power, some 22,000 have started a job for the first time and many thousands more have worked with the Work programme to get ready for work without a requirement to go to work. The programme is succeeding and improving all the time and this is the first time that the thousands who are going back to work have ever had help—they got none from the previous Government.

T2. What is my right hon. Friend’s assessment of how the Government’s triple lock guarantee for increases in the state pension has benefited thousands of pensioners in my constituency and across the country? (903359)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for flagging the fact that we have increased the basic state pension by whichever of earnings, prices or 2.5% gives the best outcome for pensioners. Compared with the earnings link, which we think the Opposition would have restored from 2012, that is an extra £440 a year in state pension for pensioners in our constituencies.

T3. A constituent of mine who is on jobseeker’s allowance wrote to me to ask for financial support to get feedback on her interview technique to find where she was falling down at interview. Instead, I gave her a mock interview and, I hope, some helpful feedback. She says of the jobcentre, “I have asked umpteen times for interview practice, but all I get is directed to tips on the web.” Why can that not be provided by the jobcentre? (903360)

I would like to know which jobcentre that was. I know, as I go to jobcentres all the time, how caring and supportive the advisers are. They take as much time as necessary, particularly with the claimant commitment we have rolled out across the country, to find out what skills, tips and support claimants need. I know that that is working, which is why we have record figures. I shall take the issue up, however.

T8. A number of my constituents have contacted me to say that they are having to wait six months or even longer for an assessment for employment and support allowance or the personal independence payment. Surely that is unacceptable. What will the Minister do to make sure those people get assessments that are both accurate and prompt? (903366)

There are two separate answers to that question. On WCA, Atos is leaving and we will bring in a new contractor before moving to multiple contractors to ensure that the suppliers can do what is said on the tin, all without paying a single piece of compensation to Atos—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Exactly the opposite, actually—Atos will be paying it to us. Secondly, PIP is being rolled out. We need to ensure that we get it right, as the hon. Gentleman said, and we will make sure that we get it through quicker. We need to make sure that the assessments are correct rather than making mistakes.

T4. My constituent, Lyn Ward, has had a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Eleven months later, she is still waiting for her PIP assessment and in desperation has gone back to work, even though she is not yet fit. When will that be sorted out? (903362)

As I said to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), we need to make sure that we get it right as we roll out PIP. The hon. Lady can give me the details of the case if she would like. Thousands of cases have been handled correctly, and if there are mistakes we must ensure that they are addressed.

T9. What recent assessment has the Secretary of State made of the innovation fund in helping disadvantaged young people? (903367)

The innovation fund, which started with £30 million put in by my Department, has helped to build up the concept for social impact bonds, which will help to invest in the sort of projects that my hon. Friend is talking about. The trials have been to help children from the ages of 14 to 16 to get remedial education and to be job-ready. That has been a huge success and we will in due course publish the figures, but it opens the marketplace to new money from private investors and trusts.

Last week, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions published a report that recommended that the backlog for the PIP assessment should be cleared before the Government continued with the migration from the disability living allowance to PIP. Will the Government accept that? Will the fact that Atos has now lost the contract for the WCA have an impact on PIP? What action has the Minister taken to speed up new claims for PIP?

Atos leaving the WCA contract will have no impact on the PIP part of the contract. We are making sure that we speed it up as we go. Interestingly, as the Chair of the Select Committee knows, I have turned off the tap on reassessments so that we get the initial backlog done first. The backlog is taking too long, in my own Department as well as in the two providers, but we will get it right.

Given the German Government’s determination to clamp down on EU migrant benefit abuse, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is growing support among key EU member states for this Government’s agenda on this vital issue?

Yes, there is huge support in other countries. Recently, Mrs Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, said:

“There is a need for clarity: who is entitled to claim social security in Germany, and under what conditions.”

The Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands, among others, has said exactly the same. I am in discussions with many of my counterparts across Europe to make sure that we, as individual independent nations within the EU, will be able to impose the conditions we require to stop migrants coming here just to get better benefits than they would in their own country.

With thousands of PIP claimants waiting six months or more for even their medicals before they get anywhere near any money, will the Minister say exactly what penalties he is imposing on Atos and Capita for failing so abysmally?

As I said in my previous answer, it is not just Atos and Capita that are too slow. They are under a contractual obligation to the Department and I am enforcing that contract, so where they are asked for compensation we will get that compensation.

One of the most satisfying ways for people to get into work is often by setting up their own businesses. I am always impressed by the young entrepreneurs mugging me in my constituency to buy something from their new business. Will my right hon. Friend update us on the progress of the new enterprise allowance, in particular on how it is helping our younger entrepreneurs?

My hon. Friend obviously has very enthusiastic young constituents with vibrant businesses. He is right that the new enterprise allowance is helping young people aged 18 to 24, some 7% of whom have set up their own businesses. I have said that we are creating a new enterprise generation, as shown by the 2,000 new businesses a month, 7% of which are set up by those aged 18 to 24.

Following last week’s Budget, will the Minister assure me that if people exhaust their pension pots they will still be entitled to the full range of pensioner income-related benefits?

Unlike the Labour party, we actually trust people with their own money. The people we are talking about have saved frugally for their retirement; they are not the sort of people to blow the lot. We will, of course, look at all the rules on capital in our Department and in the Department of Health in the light of the announcement to ensure that they are up to date, but I think the hon. Gentleman’s view that older people will blow the lot is far from the truth.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that unemployment in Harlow is now 600 lower than it was at the general election, and that the number of apprenticeships in the past year has gone up by 86%? Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the Jobcentre Plus and the agencies that are working well with the Government’s Work programme to improve the unemployment and skills situation in Harlow?

My hon. Friend is right to mention the people who work tirelessly to help people into work. All the staff at the Jobcentre Pluses, all the benefit staff and all those who work on the Work programme dedicate so much of their time to something that they believe in: getting people into work.

Frankly, the answers that Ministers have given so far on the Work programme defy belief. How can Ministers be satisfied with a Work programme where the latest data show that only one in five people, having spent two years on the programme, go on to secure a job that is sustained?

I will give the hon. Gentleman the figures: 1.5 million people are now receiving support that they have never received before, and half a million of those have got a job. More than 252,000 of those who have been long-term unemployed now have a lasting job. The hon. Gentleman might not think that that is very good progress, but I would say that it is revolutionary: it is turning people’s lives around. I meet those people and they say, “You know what, I thought the world had given up on me, but not now. I’ve got a job and I can support my family.”

I congratulate the Pensions Minister on the radical reforms he announced last week, which will be warmly welcomed by the retired secondary cancer patient whose case I raised with him before the Budget. How soon will people like her be able to get their hands on what is, after all, their own money?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who did indeed raise the issue with me before the Budget. Short-term changes came into effect last week to raise the limits on things such as draw-down and, in the jargon, trivially commuting small pension pots. Legislation will go through for much greater liberalisation to come into effect in April 2015.

We read in The Guardian—it must be true—that the Secretary of State is considering charging for appeals against DWP decisions. If someone has their benefits stopped, with what money are they supposed to pay to get justice?

That is a matter for the Secretary of State for Justice, but we have no plans whatsoever to charge for appeals or tribunals.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, when it comes to a jobs guarantee, in the real world there is no such thing as a guaranteed job and that new, genuine jobs can be created only by growing companies?

What is interesting about the Opposition’s view of a jobs guarantee is that their future jobs fund failed. We have introduced work experience, which costs a tiny proportion of what the future jobs fund cost—some £300, as opposed to £6,000 or nearly £7,000 a job—and as many people get into work and come off benefit as did under the future jobs fund. Labour’s make-work schemes do not work, but our schemes, which get private sector employers to help, do. We are getting people back to work.

More than 15,000 people in my constituency, which is over 40% of those in work, earn less than the living wage. For millions of people the employment figures hide the reality of underemployment, zero-hours contracts and part-time, low-paid and insecure work. I wonder whether the Secretary of State can tell me how many of his constituents earn less than the living wage.

I never heard Labour Members moan much about the living wage when they were in government, but all of a sudden it becomes an issue. The reality is that we are doing more to get people back to work, which gives them a chance to improve their living standards and incomes. The reality is that I took the decision to ensure that my Department pays the living wage, including to the cleaners. The Opposition never did that. I think that we stand ahead of them in that matter.

Has the Secretary of State noticed that when the spare room subsidy was first removed the Opposition and their mouthpiece of choice, the BBC, complained that too many people would be removed from their homes, yet last week Labour BBC was complaining that too few people have been removed from their homes? In the interests of fairness, surely taxpayers not on housing benefit who cannot afford a spare bedroom should not be expected to pay for a spare bedroom for people on housing benefit.

The first and principal point is that this programme is saving over £1 million a day for hard-pressed taxpayers, many of whom, as my hon. Friend said, cannot afford a spare room themselves but were paying taxes to subsidise those who had spare rooms. The second point is that over 30,000 people who were once in overcrowded accommodation, left behind by Labour in terrible conditions, are now moving into better houses. This programme is a success. The Opposition did nothing about those people the whole time they were in government.

In my constituency the waiting time for PIP assessments is now 26 weeks. [Interruption.] After further investigation, I discovered that that is because of a lack of suitable accommodation in which to carry out assessments. Why was a contract signed with Atos when there were no suitable premises in my constituency in which to carry out PIP assessments?

I find it very hard to listen to that from a former Minister in the Government who signed the original contracts with Atos, and who seemed very happy with it at the time. We have removed Atos from that work. I will look into the particular situation the right hon. Lady refers to, but I find it very difficult when Opposition Members hark on about what to do about Atos when it was they who employed it in the first place.

I cannot identify the individual involved—I would not be in a position to do so—so I will simply tell the House collectively that blowing one’s nose underneath a microphone is a distinctly risky enterprise.