I beg to move,
That this House notes that after £612 million being spent, including £131 million written off or written down, the introduction of Universal Credit is now years behind schedule, with no clear plan for how, when, or whether full implementation will be achievable or represent value for money; further notes the admission of the Minister of State for Disabled People in oral evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee on 11 June 2014 that over 700,000 people are still waiting for a Work Capability Assessment, and the report of the Office for Budget Responsibility in March 2014 that found that projected spending on Employment and Support Allowance has risen by £800 million since December; recognises the finding of the Committee of Public Accounts in its First Report, HC 280, that Personal Independence Payment delays have created uncertainty, stress and financial costs for disabled people and additional budgetary pressures for Government; further recognises that the Work Programme has failed to meet its targets, the unfair bedroom tax risks costing more than it saves, and other DWP programmes are performing poorly or in disarray; and calls on the Government to publish (a) the risk register and other documentation relating to the delivery of Universal Credit as a Freedom of Information tribunal has ruled it should, (b) the time in which it will guarantee that disabled people will receive an assessment for PIP and (c) a full risk assessment showing the potential impact of delays, delivery problems, contract failures and underperformance on (i) people receiving or entitled to benefits, (ii) departmental budgets and spending plans and (iii) the Government’s welfare cap.
This debate is about how we as a country treat our fellow citizens. It is about the young woman diagnosed with a life-limiting illness who has waited six months for any help with her living costs. It is about the disabled man whose payments have been stopped because he did not attend an interview to which he was never invited. It is about the millions of working people in this country who pay their taxes and national insurance every week and who want to know that their money is ensuring a strong and efficient system of social security that will be there for them and their families, with rules applied fairly and promptly to ensure support goes to those who need it and not to those who do not. Instead, the Government are wasting more and more taxpayers’ money on poorly planned and disastrously managed projects, and are allowing in-work benefits to spiral because of their failure to tackle the low pay and insecurity that are adding billions of pounds to the benefits bill.
There is strong support in Britain for a social security system that helps people get by when they fall on hard times; secures dignity and a decent standard of living for those unable to work because of sickness or disability; and ensures that no child goes hungry, without essential clothing or without adequate housing because their parents are in low-paid or insecure work. Instead of a system that works, under this Government we have got chaos, waste and delay. Chaos is 7,000 people waiting for a work capability assessment, and the Government still not able to tell us which provider will replace Atos. Waste is more than £600 million spent on universal credit, including £131 million written down or written off, with no clear assurances about how, when or whether this important project will ever be fully operational or provide value for money. Delay is the desperate people, many of whom have been working and paying into the system for years or decades and are now struck by disability or illness, waiting six months or more for help from the Department for Work and Pensions.
I am glad that the hon. Lady has mentioned the issue of waste. Does she feel comfortable that under the last Labour Government housing benefit bills were occasionally more than £100,000—a figure that many people in the private sector could never afford?
Does the hon. Gentleman feel comfortable that under this Government spending on housing benefit for people who are in work has gone up by more than 60%, reflecting the fact that more people are in low-paid or insecure work and are unable to make ends meet, even though they may be working all the hours God sends?
We have a Government who are totally out of touch with the reality of life for millions of hard-working taxpayers and those in need of help. The Government are careless with the contributions that people make to the system, callous about the consequences of their incompetence for the most vulnerable, and too arrogant to admit mistakes and engage seriously with the task of sorting out their own mess.
Of course I welcome the fact that unemployment, including youth unemployment, is now falling, but we have to face up to the fact that too many people in work are struggling to make ends meet. The hon. Gentleman will know from his constituency that some people who are in work have to rely on housing benefit and tax credits to make ends meet because they are not paid a wage they can afford to live on, they are on zero-hours contracts, or they are among the record numbers of people who are working part time but want to work full time. We need to address those challenges as well.
It is all about ensuring that more people are in work through the compulsory jobs guarantee, ensuring that people have the skills to hold down a job with a basic skills test and a youth allowance, and doing more to ensure that people in work can earn enough to live on—through, for example, an increase in the minimum wage and ensuring that more people are paid the living wage. Those policies will make a huge difference to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents in Dover and Deal, which will be a Labour constituency after the next election.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is an absolute scandal that the Government do not know what they are talking about? They talk about the number of jobs being created, but they do not know how many of them are on zero-hours contracts or how many are on Government schemes or how many have been transferred from the public sector. In fact, the Secretary of State knows absolutely nothing about these so-called jobs that the Government are supposed to have created.
What we do know is that more than 5 million people—20% of the work force—are paid less than the living wage. Furthermore, 1.5 million people are on zero-hours contracts and 1.4 million people are working part time who want to work full time.
When it comes to detailing the extent of the Secretary of State’s dereliction, it is hard to know where to start. For a useful overview, we need look no further than the Department’s own annual report and accounts for 2013-14, which was released at the end of last week. It reveals the latest opinion of the DWP’s head of internal audit—that the Department has yet to take the necessary action to “address control weaknesses” and, in his words, to
“provide an improved…environment from which to manage the continuing challenges and risks faced by the Department.”
It lists no fewer than eight areas described as “significant challenges” where the Department still falls short. Universal credit, we are told,
“continues to be a significant challenge for both the Department and delivery partners”,
and it goes on to say that
“there continues to be an inherent level of risk contained in the plans.”
On fraud and error, we are told that the rate has “worsened” with respect to housing benefit and that the chance of the Government achieving their target for reduction
“remains a very substantial challenge and is unlikely to be achieved.”
The report confirms that in the area of contracted-out assessments for employment and support allowance and the new personal independence payments,
“the volume of assessments undertaken by providers…has fallen consistently below demand, with a detrimental impact on customer service and implications for forecast expenditure on sickness and disability benefits”.
In other words, it is hurting, but it certainly is not working.
My hon. Friend is offering a stark indictment of this Government’s policies. Does she agree that another stark indictment of their policies is the massive increase in food banks across this country, another one of which I had to open in my constituency just a few weeks ago?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, these remarks are from the Government’s own report. In our constituencies we all see people who are so desperate that they have to queue at food banks to be able to feed themselves and their families. That is not something that should be happening in 21st century Britain.
Is my hon. Friend aware that when I asked how many people in my constituency had been waiting more than six months or three months for medical assessments for personal independence payments, the Government told me that the figures were not available. In other words, they are not only incompetent; they do not know how incompetent they are!
My hon. Friend puts it very succinctly, and I am coming on to some of the examples we have all heard about from our constituency surgeries.
What we here must take care to do and what this Government have now totally failed to do is to remember the human impact, often on people in vulnerable circumstances, of this catalogue of chaos. Behind the bureaucratic language and spreadsheets showing backlogs and overspends are people in need who are being let down and mistreated, and taxpayers who can ill afford the mismanagement and waste of their money. Let me provide just a few examples that I am sure will be familiar to Members of all parties from our constituency surgeries.
In February, a woman came to my surgery in a state of desperation. Her husband had suffered a stroke the previous year, rendering him unfit for work. He applied for the personal independence payment and employment and support allowance, but a month after making the application, they were still waiting just to get their Atos assessment. She had given up work to look after her husband, but because they had not had their decision on PIP, she could not apply for carer’s allowance. They were so short of money that I referred them to one of the food banks. Both had worked for many years and paid into the system, but when they needed support, it was not there for them. In March this year, the husband died. His Atos appointment letter had never come. His wife, now a widow, had been made unwell by all the stress of this experience. She applied for ESA, but she has heard nothing.
Does the hon. Lady regret the fact that it was her Government who appointed Atos in the first place?
As the hon. Gentleman will have heard, the example that I gave involved personal independence payments, which were introduced by this Government, not the last one. We have made our position clear. Although we appointed Atos, we said last autumn that it should be sacked. However, it is not just a question of replacing Atos; it is a question of reforming the work capability assessment and introducing targets relating not just to the number of decisions, but to the correct decisions.
Another couple came to me after applying for personal independence payments last August. The husband was asked to attend an assessment on a date when he would be in hospital for a spine operation. Nursing staff at Leeds General Infirmary advised the Department for Work and Pensions that he would be unable to attend the appointment, and he was told that a home assessment would be arranged, but he then heard nothing for months. In May, I wrote to the Department on the couple’s behalf. The reply that I received said simply:
“we will respond to your query as soon as possible but due to the volumes being received and the PIP system still being in its infancy there may be delays in getting back to you”.
Meanwhile, we also referred that couple to a food bank when their money ran out. These people deserve better.
Does my hon. Friend share my surprise that, although the problems with Atos were known about—and it is now being suggested that they had been known about for some time—a contract was given to that organisation for PIP? Was due diligence carried out before the new contract was issued?
My hon. Friend has made a very important point. The PIP contract was awarded to Atos although we knew that there were problems with the work capability assessment. It was this Government’s decision to give a contract to a provider that we already knew was failing.
Since this debate was announced at the end of last week, my office has been inundated by communications from people from all over the country with similar tragic and appalling stories to tell. This morning I spoke to Malcolm Graham from Romford, who last September was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. He underwent 10 weeks of chemotherapy and a 10-hour operation. He had been unable to work, and he finds it hard to get around. He applied for a personal independence payment and employment and support allowance on 23 September last year. After phoning the Department nearly every day since then, he finally had his assessment for personal independence payment on 16 May. On 20 June—five weeks later—he received a letter from the Department saying that it now had all the information it needed in order to make a decision, but today, more than nine months after his application, he has yet to receive notification of what support, if any, he will receive. In the meantime, he has had to rely on help from family and friends. He has struggled to keep up with his bills, and has even been visited by a debt recovery firm.
Until he was struck by cancer, Mr Graham had worked all his life. For 40 years he had paid his tax and national insurance. However, he told me today “When I needed it, the help was not there. I never knew what it would be like to be on the other side of the fence.” He added: “But now that I do, I wish that the Secretary of State would imagine what it is like being on this side of the fence—what it is like being in my position.”
My hon. Friend is making a very strong and moving speech about the impact on individuals of these horrendous fiascos, but does she agree that the issues involving PIP go beyond some of the examples that have been given today? I am thinking particularly of Motability. Many of my constituents have been caught by the double whammy of delays involving, first, the disability living allowance and now PIP. They have waited long periods for a resolution, but because a decision is being reconsidered, their Motability—the lifeline that has enabled them to get out of their homes—has been taken away before that decision has been made. Is that not a horrendous indictment of the Government? [Interruption.]
Government Members should listen rather than heckle, because my hon. Friend has made an incredibly important point. I recently went to Ringways garage in Farnley, in my constituency, to give someone the keys to a Motability car. That person talked about the difference that Motability made, in terms of independence and family. However, as my hon. Friend has said, we also know that, as a result of some of the Government’s reforms, many people who need to be helped to obtain the car that will give them the freedom that the rest of us take for granted have had that support taken away from them. The delays and the chaos is one thing, but there is also some of the substance of those decisions.
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, so, no, I will not.
I know that many hon. Members will have similar stories to tell today, and I hope the Secretary of State stays to listen, because when we write to the Department with our constituents’ problems we only ever get replies from the correspondence unit. I realise that the Secretary of State is probably deluged with letters raising problems.
I am sorry, but I just cannot agree with that. Every letter from a member of the Privy Council gets replied to by me, and every other Minister replies to every single other Member of Parliament’s inquiry. If the hon. Lady is now insinuating that we do not, perhaps she could demonstrate why.
Well, I will send the Secretary of State all the letters I have had from his correspondence unit, not one of them signed by him. [Interruption.] Well, letters that I have written to the Department about the challenges facing—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman says he replies to these letters; he has not written a single letter to me about—[Interruption.]
If the Secretary of State now claims that he signs his letters “The correspondence unit”, perhaps he has replied, but I would have expected the Secretary of State to sign the letters and I will be very happy to forward all the letters to him. [Interruption.] He carries on chuntering from a sedentary position; I have not had a single letter about my casework from him. I will send them all to him, and perhaps he can write to me and my constituents explaining why they have been treated so abysmally by him and his Government.
All I can say is that my experience when raising cases from my excellent local citizens advice bureau is that they have been answered very well, in full and thoroughly by the Minister for disabled people, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has listened to my concerns and answered them, largely dealing with the appalling performance of Atos, hired by the Labour party and dealt with successfully by my right hon. Friend.
This one! The shadow Secretary of State should look behind her, and she will see many, many of her colleagues nodding when I say that I have written personally, and dealt with cases personally, and when there was a mistake, I admitted there was a mistake, so the generalisation she has just made about party political bias is fundamentally wrong.
The Minister for disabled people has never replied to the letters I have sent to the Department for Work and Pensions about people in my constituency. I have given two examples today. [Interruption.] He says he has; can the right hon. Gentleman stand up and say he has ever replied to a letter from me?
Letters from a Privy Counsellor, which the right hon. Lady is, will be responded to by the Secretary of State. [Interruption.] Well, if you’re not a Privy Counsellor, it would be me responding, but look around behind you—I apologise for the “yous”, Madam Deputy Speaker—and see that I have responded in depth to colleagues. They may not have liked the reply, but I have done that, and if the hon. Lady had written to me directly, I would have replied.
And he apologised. But I have to say that the Secretary of State clearly does not know what is going on in his own Department. He is not even listening to the debate, and, frankly, let me say this about the views expressed by the Conservative party about the vulnerable people who are coming to us for help: they are being disregarded and treated with contempt by the laughing cavaliers opposite. They should be ashamed of themselves.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
I hope the Secretary of State also responds to the calls we are making today for the Government to give sick and disabled people some clarity and assurance by publishing a guaranteed time limit for the assessment of claims. For example, Macmillan Cancer Support has recommended that the personal independence payment assessment process be limited to 11 weeks. I hope the Secretary of State will tell us today that he will undertake to give that guarantee—if not, why not?
We are also calling for the Secretary of State to own up to the extent of the problems in his Department, particularly the mounting costs arising from problems with the personal independence payment, the work capability assessment and universal credit. The introduction of personal independence payments in place of disability living allowance was supposed to save £780 million in annual spending by next April, but with £200 million a year being spent on administration, including £127 million a year going to contracted-out assessment providers, this change is set to be completed not next year but, at this rate of progress, in 42 years’ time.
I received an e-mail today from a constituent who is in considerable distress. She first applied for her PIP on 1 November 2013, so she has now been waiting for eight months. She is in work and she has always been physically fit but she has now just been struck by misfortune. She is in such distress and Atos has told her that her referral is subject to a quality check to see whether Atos is doing its job properly. Clearly, if it has taken eight months to get to this stage, it is not doing its job properly.
Eight months is far too long for anyone to have to wait and, clearly, any further delay is totally unacceptable.
On the work capability assessment, the Government spend £100 million a year on the contracted assessors, as well as tens of millions more on decisions that are appealed. Now, the process has almost reached “virtual collapse”, according to the senior judge overseeing the trials, with Atos walking away from the contract, the Government yet to identify a replacement and a backlog of more than 700,000 assessments in a queue. As a result of the disarray, we are seeing spiralling costs to the taxpayer, with the latest report from the Office for Budget Responsibility showing an £800 million increase in projected spending and leaked documents revealing that the Government now see this as one of the biggest fiscal risks, with spending on course to breach their own welfare cap.
This debate is also about employment, so will the hon. Lady welcome the rise in employment, not least in her constituency, where, according to the House of Commons Library, the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants has reduced by 23% in the past year, with youth unemployment down 26% and unemployment among those who are 50 and over down by 17.6%?
But what we have also seen in my constituency is that average wages in Yorkshire and Humber have reduced by £26 a week since the coalition came into government and employment and support allowance claims have increased by 0.9 percentage points during the same period.
On that previous intervention, does my hon. Friend share my sense of deep frustration that even after the 1980s the Conservatives have failed to learn that the important thing is not a falling claimant count, but the unemployment rate? Although that is thankfully lower, there are loads of other reasons to think that we still have problems in our economy.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there is still an awful lot to do to reduce unemployment and ensure that everybody in work is earning enough to be able to support themselves and their families.
Let us now deal with universal credit, the Secretary of State’s pet project and the Prime Minister’s flagship welfare reform. Where are we with that? It was supposed to be the Government’s way of achieving £38 billion of savings over 10 years and £7 billion a year thereafter by reducing fraud and error and by encouraging more people into work. Today, with more than £600 million spent on set-up costs, we should be starting to see the benefits—1 million people should be claiming universal credit now, as part of a roll-out that the Government said would be completed by 2017—but instead we find that £130 million of this expenditure has already been written down or written off and only 6,000 of the simplest cases have so far received the benefit, which is less than 1% of the level it should be at now. Most worryingly of all, we now have no reliable timetable and no Treasury-approved business case to tell us how, when or whether this project will ever be fully operational or deliver value for money.
We have repeatedly called on the Government to come clean about the state of universal credit. The rescue committee, which we appointed to advise on the future of universal credit, has recommended that the books be opened for a warts-and-all review, with the National Audit Office signing off any new business case before it goes forward. But instead of moving on from the culture of secrecy and denial, which has been identified as the biggest fatal flaw besetting universal credit, the Government are instead spending yet more taxpayers’ money fighting freedom of information requests and court cases to try to stop the publication of documents setting out the risks, milestones and state of progress of this multi-billion pound project. They are hiding behind a veil of secrecy that is making universal credit harder, not easier, to deliver.
I respect the hon. Lady’s real world experience and the things that she has done in the business world before coming to this place. In that vein, will she not understand that it is vital to roll things out on a test-and-learn basis and not, as the previous Government did with tax credits, on a crash-and-burn basis?
What I know from my business experience—I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows it as well—is that writing off and writing down £131 million of expenditure is not good value for money. It is good to test things, but I do not see this Government doing much learning from the mistakes they are making.
The evidence is now clear that the Secretary of State’s record has been a complete car crash.
On the point about learning lessons, is my hon. Friend aware that I have been making freedom of information requests to the Department in relation to mandatory reconsiderations? When people get their work capability assessment, and it has failed, before they can appeal there has to be a mandatory reconsideration. The Department does not know how many cases have been overturned, how many claimants have been left without any money and how long the longest period is for reconsideration. It cannot answer a single one of those questions under a freedom of information request.
That links in with what I was saying earlier. If the Government do not learn from their mistakes, how can they make improvements?
Universal credit is widely off track; the work capability assessment has almost completely broken down; personal independence payments are a fiasco; the Work programme is not working; the Youth Contract is a flop; support for families with multiple problems are falling far short of its target; the jobmatch website is an absurd embarrassment; the unfair and vindictive bedroom tax is costing more money than it saves; and the Government cannot even agree on a definition of child poverty let alone take action to deal with it.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to fail to deliver on one policy might be considered unfortunate; to miss one’s targets on two has to be judged careless; but to make such a complete mess of every single initiative the Secretary of State has attempted requires a special gift. It is something like a Midas touch: everything he touches turns into a total shambles.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State will spew out dodgy statistics, rant and rave about Labour’s record, say “on time and on budget” until he is blue in the face and, in typical Tory style, blame the staff for everything that goes wrong. We have all long given up hope on the Secretary of State ever getting a grip on his Department. The real question today is when will the Prime Minister learn and take responsibility for the slow-motion car crash he has allowed to unfold? The DWP has the highest spending of any Government Department, and the responsibility for handling some of the most sensitive situations and some of the most vulnerable people in our country. We will all be paying a price for a long time to come for this Government’s failure to get a grip, and the lives of too many people, such as Malcolm Graham who is still waiting for his personal independence payment, have been irreparably damaged. It is clear that this Government will never take their responsibilities in this area with the seriousness that is needed. Let me pledge today that a Labour Government will. They will help those thousands of families who have been let down by the system and the millions of taxpayers who are seeing their money wasted. That change cannot come soon enough.
Order. Before I call the Secretary of State, let me say that Members know perfectly well that making a long intervention instead of waiting to make a speech is simply rude and it is unacceptable. Interventions must be short. As there are so many Members waiting to speak, I will have to impose a time limit of six minutes on Back-Bench speeches, after the Secretary of State has spoken.
I welcome today’s debate. We have waited and waited for a debate on welfare in Opposition time, yet today we see a cynical motion from a cynical party, pandering to their unions and chasing media headlines. They have cynically avoided the topic of welfare reform, missing the real point, which is the impact and success of what we are delivering. More people are in work than ever before, with the figure up 1.7 million. More people are in private sector work than ever before, with the figure up more than 2 million. Unemployment and youth unemployment are lower than the Opposition left them at the last election, and workless households are at the lowest rate since records began.
The Department processes 7.4 million claims successfully, issues more than £680 million in payment to 22 million claimants and carries out more than 24 million adviser interviews. To date, since we introduced the efficiency programs, call volumes have been at their lowest level, as have complaints. We have seen record debt collections of more than £2 billion—and, by the way, debt is lower than the figure we were left—as well as record online claims. At the same time, we have saved £2 billion from the Department’s baseline spending compared with 2009-10—
I am going to make a little progress, as you have told me that we need to, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will give way later.
Let me repeat that: £2 billion has been saved from the Department’s baseline expenditure compared with 2009-10, when the previous Government left office. Let me give two examples of where, when we came into office, there was ridiculous, excessive and personal waste. When I walked through the door, I found that the previous Government and their Ministers had had six cars and six drivers sitting permanently inactive, costing more than £500,000. We have reduced that to one pool car used by all of us, or we get taxis or the tube—
I will give way in a second; I want to set out the ground rules. The motion contains no mention of those efficiencies or achievements, no suggestion of what Labour would do and—there is no better illustration of how cynical the Opposition are—no admission of the shambles they left behind. The economy was at breaking point, £112 billion had been wiped off our GDP and we were burdened with the largest deficit in peacetime history. Welfare bills were completely out of control. Housing benefit alone had doubled, contributing to overall spending increasing by 60%. The benefits system was in meltdown, with a mess of 30-plus benefits that meant that work simply did not pay.
Under Labour, the safety net had become a trap—
I said that I will give way, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I wanted to set out the successes of this Government against the nonsense of the Opposition’s debate.
At its peak, when I walked through the door, our inheritance was 5 million people on out-of-work benefits, a million of them for more than a decade. Youth unemployment had increased by nearly half and long-term unemployment doubled in just two years. One in five households was workless and the number in which no one had ever worked almost doubled.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. I want to talk about incompetence on his part. Every week, people come to my surgery who cannot have their personal independence payment claims processed. Will he take some responsibility and apologise to them for the incompetence of his policy and his Department?
We take full responsibility for ensuring that that benefit is rolled out carefully, so that when we do the full national roll-out of the whole benefit, we will know that it works. We have made a series of adjustments and also have more recruitment going on and more staff going in. I will give some pointers about where we will be when I return to this point. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that when Labour rolled out tax credits, more than 400,000 people failed to get their money and the Prime Minister had to make a personal apology. I do not want to repeat that in this case. I want to ensure that those most in need will get the benefit.
Amid the litany of failures of the previous Government, which my right hon. Friend was recalling, and their dreadful legacy in this area, does he remember that of all the new jobs that the property boom-fuelled growth generated, three quarters or more went to foreign nationals? Is that not a circumstance which this Government have reversed entirely?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Well over 70% of new jobs now go to British nationals, as opposed to 90% that went to foreign nationals before.
I want to repeat the figures: there were 5 million on out-of-work benefits, youth unemployment increased by nearly half, long-term unemployment doubled in just two years, and one in five households—it is worth stressing that—was workless, and the number of households where no one had ever worked almost doubled under Labour. Now, as the Opposition themselves seemed to admit over the weekend, as I noticed in the papers, they have no plans, no policies and no prospects—only, as the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) put it put rather succinctly, an
“instrumentalised, cynical nugget of policy to chime with our focus groups and our press strategies and our desire for a top line”.
I agree. Today’s debate is just that—a cynical nugget of short-term policy to put to the unions.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I make no apology for speaking up for constituents who are very concerned about what is happening to them, having been caught up in the system. He attacks us for cynicism. Is he also concerned by the report last week from Macmillan, which showed that 60% of people who went through the PIP assessment were waiting four and a half months, and a quarter were waiting six months? That could be somebody in my family, in his family or in our constituents’ families? That is not cynicism—
No one ever complains about someone raising issues to do with their constituents. That is what we are all here for. However, instead of scaremongering, we deal with these points. I do not say for a moment that what we are trying to do is anything but difficult. We are trying to reform a system that was in many senses broken. It was not delivering money to key people. DLA was, by common agreement, not doing what it was meant to do. The delivery times that the hon. Gentleman talks about are out of date. As regards terminally ill people, nobody should wait for more than 10 days under the PIP programme. That is happening.
Does it surprise my right hon. Friend that the shadow Minister made no mention of the 80 constituents who have benefited in her constituency from the new enterprise allowance, creating successful new businesses? There was no mention of them in her speech.
No, that does not surprise me. The purpose of today’s debate is to avoid anything to do with welfare reform and just pick away at issues that the Opposition think will get them some kind of coverage. That is the cynicism that the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham was talking about.
I want to make a little more progress and highlight a couple of programmes. First, let me deal with the issue that shows the cynicism of the Opposition more than anything else—the issue that the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) did not want to raise, child maintenance, the enforcement commission and the Child Support Agency, on which the Opposition have remained silent. When we came into office, £500 million had been wasted on scrapped IT, including £120 million on a botched rescue scheme. I notice that the Opposition now want a rescue scheme for universal credit. At that rate—£120 million lost—we do not need any of their rescues.
On child maintenance, 75,000 cases were lost in the system. There were no effective financial arrangements at all for more than half the children. The IT system cost £74 million a year in operating costs alone, even as the number of expensively managed clerical cases hit 100,000. [Interruption.] Instead of becoming his party’s megamouth, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) needs to keep a little quieter and listen to reality. It was his party that made a shambles of the IT introduction when it was in government.
As the NAO has confirmed, our phased roll-out is ensuring that we have a new, efficient system that works: 60% more parents than we expected are paying directly; processing procedures are down, from an overall 21,000 to 450; and we expect savings of £220 million a year once it is complete.
I just want to make sure that I understand correctly what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I believe that he has just given an undertaking to the House that work capability assessments will be done in 10 days. [Interruption.] He has not given that undertaking. I wrote to the Department about a constituent who applied for PIP on 19 November, and I received a letter on 18 June telling me that it did not have a time scale for when he would get his work capability assessment.
I was referring to PIP and the fact that the terminally ill will not have to wait longer than 10 days to be seen. I think that the hon. Lady is referring to WCA. They will go straight to the support group. [Interruption.] Well, I have given an undertaking that they should not have to wait more than 10 days to be dealt with.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the shadow Secretary of State’s four-point rescue plan. Part 1 is a three-month delay, which would lead to a write-off. Parts 3 and 4 include scope increases, which at this phase in the programme would be bound to cause further write-offs. That is precisely why Labour lost £20 billion in the previous Parliament.
On behalf of my constituents, I want to thank the Secretary of State for all the excellent and essential work he is doing on welfare reform and for the part his Department is playing to deliver the Government’s long-term economic plan, which has seen unemployment in my constituency fall by 40% and youth unemployment fall by 50% over the past 12 months.
What an excellent intervention. It is a testing one, but I will try to live up to it.
Let me move on to universal credit. Across all 44 programmes of change in the Department, we are taking a careful and controlled approach to achieve a safe and secure delivery. For example, the benefit cap started with an early roll-out and is now fully implemented, seeing 42,000 households capped and 6,000 move into work. Universal credit is on track to roll out safely and securely, against the plan I set out last year. The hon. Member for Leeds West quoted a figure of £12.8 billion but, as ever, shows a poor grasp of the finances. We have always been clear that universal credit’s total budget is £2 billion, and we will not overspend.
Furthermore, we have taken decisive action so as not to repeat the way in which programmes were rolled out under the previous Government. The reset will avoid the “big bang” concept that they put forward at the last election. They did a number of things that led them to have to write off huge sums of money. For example, their benefit processing replacement programme was not even introduced; it was just scrapped after £140 million had been wasted on IT that could never be used. Lectures about money that has to be written off with nothing to show for it should be directed at them, not us.
We have introduced the pathfinder in order to test and learn. We are now rolling it out, as I announced the other day, to 90 jobcentres across the north-west, and that process will be completed in the autumn. Furthermore, I have announced that, from today, new universal credit claims for couples will be rolling out into the live status, and claims for families will follow that roll-out. That will complete universal credit’s roll-out in the north-west, as we set out last year.
On the digital solution, nothing offers clearer proof that the existing live service works. It is delivering universal credit and will continue to do so. As I have always said, the majority of the existing IT will continue to be used, even as we develop the final element, which is the digital service, using all that equipment. It is about an end-state solution—fully online, fully secure and responsive to all digital threats—enhancing what we have already built. Universal credit will roll out on time, and it will deliver what we have said it will deliver—at least £38 billion in net benefit to the Exchequer.
I think that I have been pretty clear about the end-state solution. It is universal credit completely delivering to everybody in the UK. That is the end-state solution—live, online and fully protected. Perhaps I need to spell it out to the hon. Lady again. On PIP, I will simply say that we did not rush it. We have kept control of the level and scale of the roll-out. As we have learnt what the difficulties are, we have made changes, working with the providers. I will demonstrate in a moment that we are driving those numbers down to reasonable levels, as expected.
Government Members welcome the rise in job numbers, which have improved by 30%-plus in Hexham. I also welcome the transformation in universal credit, which is fixing a broken system. The pathfinders, the pilots and the reform are necessary and we must stick to our guns. My right hon. and hon. Friends are behind the Secretary of State.
Can the Secretary of State tell me how in touch he is with those people who have wasted over six months waiting for PIP? What are we to say to our constituents when they cannot get an answer from his Department? Where is his humility and his accountability? How is he dealing with this?
First, no wait that is not in accordance with the time it takes to do these assessments is acceptable. We are driving those down. For anybody who has been waiting, I accept that for them it is a personal tragedy. We want to change that, which is what we are doing. That is why we are doing it in this way, and I will come back to that point with some figures later. The point is that we introduced the changes with PIP because ultimately it will be a better system than DLA. Many people did not get the kind of service they needed under DLA, and that is the purpose of PIP.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the most effective way of getting people out of poverty is by ensuring that they achieve employment? To that end, is he aware that not a single Labour Government, from the time they took office to the time they left, have ever reduced unemployment? I therefore urge him to stick with his policies.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I will return to the matter of unemployment later, but the reality is that we are driving unemployment down and employment up. Youth unemployment and long-term unemployment are falling as a result of this Government’s actions.
I will make a little progress, because I am conscious that many Members wish to speak.
With regard to employment and support allowance, I make no secret of the fact that the process of reform is challenging; I have said so from the word go. There will always be issues when dealing with such delicate matters, but the question of how we deal with them and what lessons we learn is important. Let me remind the House that the previous Government, with our support—I thought that they were moving in the right direction—introduced the WCA, but the contract was a very difficult one. To break it arbitrarily would have cost over £30 million. What we saw at the beginning, and then had to change, was some very harsh decision making, particularly in relation to those with cancer and mental health conditions. Some 200,000 cases were then locked in the system in a growing backlog, and there were a very high and rising number of appeals. In fact, the previous Government had to increase spending on appeals by 1,500% at the time.
We have taken decisive action to deliver improvements. There have been four independent reviews, which have accepted over 50 Harrington recommendations. There is now an easier route into the support group for cancer sufferers, and there are three times more people with mental health conditions in the support group than there were in 2009. We ended the Atos contract a year early, with a significant sum paid back to the Department by Atos. More than 1.35 million incapacity benefit claimants have gone through the reassessment process, and 720,000 more people are now preparing or looking for work. Furthermore, appeals against ESA decisions are down by just under 90% and we are bringing in a new provider. The hon. Member for Leeds West pressed me about the new provider, so let me say something about it. We are going through the competition process and companies are willing to bid and compete. In due course, we will announce which companies secure the bid in the end. There will be a new provider.
Now we are doing the same to drive down the ESA backlog, which has fallen by 100,000 in the past few months—it is now about 688,000 and falling further. That is a good start, but I understand that there are concerns and issues that people want to raise. [Interruption.] I thought that somebody at the back wanted to intervene.
I do not need people to intervene on me; the hon. Gentleman makes enough noise for all of them. One thing I do know is that he needs to listen more and talk less.
We made the deliberate choice to introduce PIP in a controlled and phased way. [Interruption.] It is good fun being opposite the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant); one does not need much of an audience with him sitting there.
We have taken the right approach. On PIP, the NAO said, “The Department has learnt from the controlled start in April 2013…the MPA identified the controlled start as a positive way to implement the programme and reduce the risks”. As I said, the delays faced by some people are unacceptable, and we are committed to putting that right. Already we have introduced a dedicated service to fast-track terminally ill people, and that is down to around 10 days and below. The Public Accounts Committee has said that too many people have waited longer than six months. By the autumn, no one will be waiting longer than six months, and before the end of the year, no one will be waiting for more than 16 weeks, which brings things back into line with where we were expecting them to be.
It is the definition given by the consultants who refer the people in question to the programme. That group will be seen and dealt with within the 10 days. That is the definition.
I repeat that by the end of the year those on PIP will not be waiting for longer than 16 weeks.
I say to the hon. Member for Leeds West, who made a poor speech, that my Department has a proven track record of delivery—[Interruption.] In that case, perhaps she will answer this question, which has been raised before. A little while ago, in March, she is recorded as having said that, left to her, “all the changes that the Government has introduced” in welfare reform would be reversed “and all benefits” could be and should be “universal”. She has been asked this question before. It was a quote. I will give way to her if she wants to deny it.
I have to say to the hon. Lady that it is reported that she said that “all changes that the Government has introduced” in welfare could be reversed and “all benefits can be universal”. That is what she is quoted as saying. I will send her the quote if she likes. This is important.
This is what is so interesting. Over the weekend, the lid was lifted on what is really going on. [Interruption.] They do not like this, because it is the truth. The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham said of the Opposition employment policy announced the other day:
“We managed in the political world to condense it into one story about a punitive hit on 18 to 21-year-olds around their benefits. That takes some doing, you know, a report with depth is collapsed into one instrumentalised policy thing which was fairly cynical and punitive.”
He was making the point, I think, that the Opposition are failing to say what they really want to do. The hon. Lady let the cat out of the bag when she made it clear that the Opposition want to spend more on welfare and to reverse our changes to the welfare system.
Perhaps we could get back on track and scrutinise the performance of the Department for Work and Pensions. Will the Secretary of State confirm when he anticipates actually delivering 1 million people on universal credit? Will it be by 2191? At the current rate, it will be.
The hon. Lady asks that ridiculous question time and again. We are rolling out in accordance with the plan. Universal credit will have rolled out by 2016, delivering massive benefits. It would be good if the hon. Lady said at any stage that she wanted to support universal credit. Her party has voted against it and all the savings.
My Department has a proven track record of delivery. Nothing illustrates that more clearly than our employment reforms. Universal Jobmatch has transformed how almost 7 million jobseekers look for work, with an average of more than 4 million daily searches. Work experience has been one of the Government’s great successes for young people, with half of participants off benefits at a 20th of the cost of the future jobs fund. The Work programme has been better than any Labour programme. It helps more than any programme before, with half a million people having started a job and 300,000 having moved into lasting work. That was not the case under Labour. We are confident that the programme’s performance will improve, and the payment by results de-risks taxpayers and ensures value for money.
What we are seeing is remarkable. Unemployment is down by 347,000 on the year, the largest annual fall since 1998. Long-term unemployment is down by 108,000 on the year—again, the largest annual fall since 1998. Youth unemployment is down among those who have left full-time education; it is now at its lowest since 2008, down 94,000 on the year.
The Secretary of State is making excellent points about the Government’s reforms and the maladministration under the Labour party. What about the other issue of the maladministration of pension credit? Under the last Labour Government, pension credit in my city was under-claimed to the tune of £10 million a year.
My hon. Friend makes a huge and important statement. The inefficiencies and chaos under Labour were so great that the welfare system was haemorrhaging money. There was a 60% increase in welfare spending—the party that really presided over chaos and malfunction is the Labour party.
Before I get on to some of Labour’s spending commitments, I should say that the hon. Member for Leeds West said to the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), that she had never had a letter from him. She has had many. In future, instead of making allegations, she might like to read her correspondence.
With a little over a year to go to the general election, this is the choice facing the electorate. On the one hand, there is the party that in government wasted £26 billion on botched IT programmes and lost £2.8 billion on catastrophic tax credit implementation, £500 million on scrapped Child Support Agency IT and £140 million on the axed benefit processing replacement programme in 2006. In opposition, the party has opposed every single measure of welfare reform and it would turn back the clock to reverse our progress—back to more borrowing and spending. Reversing the spare room subsidy would cost £1 billion over two years. The unfunded jobs guarantee has costs underestimated by £0.6 billion in the first year and £1.7 billion in future years. Skills training for all 18 to 21-year-olds below A-level would be hugely expensive given that 92% of all those not in education, employment or training do not even have GCSE numeracy skills. Paying older workers higher JSA would mean, because under-25s are already paid less, that money would have to be taken from those with lower contributions such as young people and carers. The welfare party has learned nothing.
At one of my first Public Accounts Committee hearings in 2010, the permanent secretary of the Department said that, with the systems he had, he could not get losses through fraud and error much below £1 billion. Does the Secretary of State think we can do better?
We have already saved over £2 billion on fraud and error. We continue to drive that process forward, and there are more savings to be made. We have done remarkably well considering what we were left by Labour, which, as far as I can make out, did not even bother to try to save any money on fraud and error.
Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why only one in 20 disabled people is getting work? He says that the number of people on benefits has dropped. How many of them have stopped claiming because of sanctions? Can he at least tell us what is the quality of the jobs that people are getting? How many are unpaid, how many are zero-hours contracts, and how many are part time?
In fact, we have been more successful in getting disabled people back into work. The proportion of disabled people in work is now rising as a result of what we have been doing. On the back of the work capability assessment, some 700,000 people will now be seeking and finding work.
I hope to be able to raise this matter again if I am called to speak. Why did the Treasury have to borrow £13.5 billion extra above its target? The reason given was the fall in income tax receipts. People are now living on poverty wages—they are being forced into what the Secretary of State calls jobs, but they do not pay a wage that they can live on.
Fond as I am of the hon. Gentleman, the reality is that this coalition Government have raised the tax threshold, meaning that 26 million people now pay less tax and millions have been taken out of the lowest tax band altogether. That is a huge statement.
The Secretary of State should be truly proud that self-employment is now much more on the agenda of those going through jobcentres. When I did a review with the all-party group on micro-businesses, only half the job centres and Work programme providers were able to help people into self-employment. That is not the case any more. In my constituency, unemployment is down in the past 12 months by 33%, and many of the people coming into work are setting up their own businesses.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. By the way, the situation is the same for every Labour MP. They do not want to talk about the improvement in employment or the fall in unemployment. They do not even want to talk about the successes in getting the long-term unemployed back to work, on which we have done so much.
We have got Britain back to work. There is record high employment, with three quarters of the rise over the past year accounted for by UK nationals. Half a million people have started a job through the Work programme. We have seen the creation of nearly 50,000 new businesses through the new enterprise allowance. There is the lowest rate of economic inactivity on record. There is the lowest rate of workless households on record. We have a proven track record of delivery. Departmental baseline spending is down by £2 billion. The welfare cap is bringing £120 billion under new controls. Welfare spending is falling as a proportion of GDP. Reforms are set to save £50 billion. This is a record we can all be proud of—one of success, unlike Labour’s waste and failure.
We have to remember three things about welfare reform: first, it is fiendishly complicated; secondly, there are always unintended consequences; and thirdly, enacting such change takes a very long time and can often cost quite a lot of money. It is fiendishly complicated because people do not lead simple lives; they lead very complex lives. In modern Britain, we have very complex family circumstances. The welfare system has grown up over the decades with things being added and, very often, not being taken away because to do so might result in unintended consequences.
The unintended consequences arise because whenever any Government propose change, there are always things that they do not think about. I often think of welfare reform as being like a big blancmange—when you press down on one bit, something pops up somewhere else. For instance, when the Government decided that they were going to raise the pension age, I am pretty sure they did not think of the unintended consequences for the group of women born in 1953 or 1954 who have found that their state pension age has risen by almost two years. The Pensions Minister, who is in his place, has tried to get round that particular unintended consequence, but not with much success, and that group of people feel very aggrieved.
Even more complicated is universal credit, with six pre-existing benefits going into one benefit. It seems so simple to say, “Let’s have a single working-age benefit,” yet it is incredibly complicated. As soon as we start putting things together, as in universal credit, we get unintended consequences when we start to introduce things such as free school meals or child care and suddenly the disregards and tapers that were in the original plan seem to be not as good or generous as they might have been.
It takes a great deal of time to implement any change. That is why, over the years, previous Governments have looked at one area of welfare reform at most, and tackled that one area, only to find that it takes much longer than expected. When the previous Labour Government introduced employment support allowance and the work capability assessment, they thought that perhaps it could start to migrate two years into the process. Part of the problem in this area is that when the coalition Government came into office in 2010, they speeded up the migration process at a time when it was not working properly for new claimants. That is exactly what we see again with the introduction of the personal independence payment that is going to replace disability living allowance. The Secretary of State keeps saying, “We want to take time to get things right.” Well, there is taking time to get things right and there is a sensible speed of implementation.
The problems with ESA started when we started to migrate people from incapacity benefit to the new benefit. Those problems should have been solved for new claimants before the migration started. The Government have decided to slow down the migration of people from DLA to PIP for the very good reason that they have not got PIP working for new claimants. Part of the problem was that instead of doing a proper pilot so that there was a cohort who had gone through the whole process before it was rolled out across the country, the Government allowed only a month before rolling it out. As a result, not one single individual had gone through the whole process, so the Department did not know how long each assessment was going to take.
Reform takes a long time and needs to be done in stages. It is hard enough for any Government and any Department to implement change in one area of welfare, but this Government and this Department are trying to implement it in several areas. The problem is that they have bitten off more than they can chew. At last Monday’s DWP questions, I asked about the various backlogs. The Secretary of State said today that the backlog of those awaiting assessments for employment support allowance—work capability appointments—had fallen to 688,000. It was 700,000 at the beginning of last week, so it is certainly falling, but it is still a huge number and a huge backlog.
The Government have bitten off more than they can chew because they have forgotten the three basic lessons about welfare reform: it cannot be done easily, it cannot be done simply, and it costs a great deal of money.
It is a great privilege for me to be able to contribute to this debate, having worked in the Department for a number of years with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb). I believe these reforms are one of the most important parts of the plan for this country’s long-term economic recovery, because they are helping to recreate the environment for work and enterprise, rather than disempowering people and writing them off to a lifetime on benefits.
I listened with disbelief to the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). I expected a slightly more thoughtful contribution from her, so I was disappointed. These reforms were ducked by the Labour party when it was in government for 13 years. It had 13 years to put things right and missed the opportunity. I think it was clear to many Labour Members that things could not continue as they were. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, the safety net had become a trap. Labour saw that, but it simply did not have the courage to act. My right hon. Friend does have the courage to act and it is he and his colleagues who will make progress.
It is this Government who are creating the environment that has allowed for 2 million more people to be employed in the private sector since the election, but it is the welfare reform programme that has helped to make sure that the jobs that have been created can be taken by the people who were on benefits. Some 3.6 million people have been helped off jobseeker’s allowance, including through the Work programme. The benefit cap has also encouraged more people to take up those new jobs, and universal jobmatch is enabling 4 million daily searches.
The hon. Member for Leeds West is right to say that this Government inherited significant challenges, but if we are going to succeed we have the right team to make it happen. They are not just taking forward a set of practical measures, as outlined by the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee; they are also overseeing a cultural change. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not been afraid to talk about the role of work and its importance to families, as well as the corrosive effect of unemployment and intergenerational unemployment. The Labour party was perfectly prepared to sit back and see a generation of people trapped on long-term benefits. That is entirely inexcusable. It is this Government who want to consider what people can do, not simply disregard them for what they cannot do.
This debate would benefit from a few more facts being put on the table, particularly the fact that the overall spend on disability benefits will have been higher in every year up to 2015-16 than it was in 2010. My colleagues on the Front Bench are continuing to spend some £50 million a year to support disabled people. Under universal credit, the expenditure will increase by some £300 million. We will not write people off to a lifetime on benefits. We will provide the right support to help them get back into work.
We have not finished the job yet—there is a great deal more to do—and we will always have to make choices about the way that money is used, but we want to make sure that it is used for those who need it most. I am most pleased that that continues to be this team’s philosophy.
I am particularly concerned about the position in which many young people find themselves when they enter the job market. If we look at countries such as Spain, we see that the level of unemployment for many young people is pretty scary. Under Labour, youth unemployment increased by some 24%, but it has fallen under this Government. We should be proud of those figures and we should continue to make sure that they move in the right direction.
The future jobs fund failed so many thousands of young people and cost up to £6,500 per placement, but it simply did not provide young people with the long-term jobs that they wanted and expected. By contrast, when I visited my own local jobcentre recently I heard how, under the Youth Contract, work experience is enabling so many young people to get their foot in the door, to prove themselves and to convert the experience into a proper long-term job. That is the sort of programme we need more of, and I commend my colleagues for the work they are doing.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not; there is a time limit.
I urge my colleagues on the Front Bench to make sure that we do more to support more businesses to take on young people and give them the sort of opportunities I heard about at my local jobcentre in Basingstoke.
Time is far too short for me to make all the points I would have liked to make. The hon. Member for Leeds West said that this debate was about how we treated our fellow citizens, and I agree with her wholeheartedly. It is right that every one of our constituents is valued for who they are. It is important that we view them according to their abilities and do not simply write them off to a lifetime on benefits.
I am sorry that the Secretary of State believes this debate is cynical and nonsense, because I have received more correspondence on, and more people have come to see me about, this single issue than any other over the past two years. That cannot be unique to North East Derbyshire; it must be true across the country. The experiences of my constituents and hundreds of thousands of others across the country suggest that the DWP and its programmes are in serious trouble. Given that more than 700,000 people are still waiting for work capability assessments and that the length of delays people are experiencing are pushing them into destitution, we really are getting into trouble.
This cannot only be about saving money. I said as much when the previous Labour Government were in power and I say it again in opposition. It has to be about finding work for those who are able to work and looking after those who are not able to work. It is really important that we prioritise that, rather than saving money from the DWP budget, because even under those terms the Office for Budget Responsibility has said that the cost of the employment support allowance has risen since December by a shocking £800 million. It is very important that we focus on people.
It is also important that we concentrate on language, because we are sometimes in danger of talking about deserving and undeserving people on benefits and in poverty. Most people who are on benefits and social security are desperate to work. They are looking as hard as possible for work and they should not be called scroungers and skivers simply because the jobs are not there for them.
A constituent of mine is registered blind and has been on a Work programme for the past two years. He was given plenty of help to find work but could not find any. After two years, he has returned to the jobcentre, but he is no longer being given the support he needs as a blind person who is desperate to get into work. This man is not a scrounger—he is desperate to find work.
By the same token, Jamie Thompson, who is paraplegic, has been coming to see us for two years. He is not able to work—he is paralysed from the chest down—but he is being called in for face-to-face interviews every three months. Jamie knows how to contact his MP’s office and how to work with welfare rights, but it is wrong that he is constantly being called in. His condition will not change and his medical records will be the same every three months. I do not understand why the system is pulling Jamie in when it needs to focus on other things.
The last person I want to talk about is Andrew Birks, who has a 15-year-old daughter so severely disabled that she needs around-the-clock care. Both her parents work—they have always worked, and never claimed benefits—but Ella has now had her disability allowance withdrawn, which has pushed her parents into serious financial trouble. They have already waited three months for an appeal, and there is still absolutely no sign of it.
These are the sort of individual cases that I am getting. I have loads of them, and each demonstrates that there is a failure in the system with the DWP. As the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) said, it is really complicated: the DWP has taken on a huge number of programmes, and many of them are just not delivering what they are supposed to deliver.
The welfare state is designed as a safety net to catch people who absolutely cannot help themselves—that is especially true for those with severe disabilities, who just cannot work—but I am really worried that that safety net is being withdrawn under this Government, which is certainly pushing some of my constituents into destitution. Not only my constituents but hundreds of thousands of people are being affected by the failings of the DWP. They cannot wait 10 months for the next general election; they need help now.
In the short time available, I want to make a few brief points. The first is that from listening to Labour Members one would never have thought that they had a record. In rolling out universal credit, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is taking the right approach. It is slower than we would originally have liked, but taking a careful approach has a lot to recommend it. When we were in opposition and the Labour party rolled out tax credits in a big bang, constituents of mine who needed the money were given the wrong amount and had to pay it back, so they were getting to the point at which they were pleading for the tax credits to be taken away. Taking a careful approach is very sensible. If she has not already done so, I hope that the shadow Secretary of State takes up my right hon. Friend’s offer to go to a jobcentre that is rolling out universal credit to see how the system is operating in practice. That would be very welcome.
It is worth saying that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been right to allow my right hon. Friend to be the Secretary of State for a significant period so that he can see the reforms through. I looked at what happened under the Labour party: in the nine years that the Department for Work and Pensions existed, there were eight Secretaries of State. To be fair, one or two Secretaries of State tried some reforms, but they were barely in the job long enough to think about them or to design policies before they were moved on. It is to this Government’s credit that we have allowed Cabinet Ministers to be in an office, come up with policies, implement them, deal with the difficulties—there will inevitably be some in making the largest welfare reform programme for decades—and see them through. My hon. Friend the Secretary of State discussed and was passionate about the issues before we entered government, and it is very welcome that he has had the chance to see the reforms through.
To turn to my constituency, I want to draw the House’s attention to the benefit cap, which the Labour party opposed. I must say that the only feedback I have ever had in my constituency is that we set the benefit cap too high. In a constituency where the average individual salary is only £24,000 to £25,000, my constituents think that £26,000 net income, which is equivalent to £35,000 gross, is quite generous. Families who work hard for many hours to support themselves do not see why other people should take away more money from hard-working taxpayers than they get for working. The cap is the right policy, and it is to the Labour party’s discredit that it opposed it instead of supporting us in doing what is right. I suspect that many Labour voters support the benefit cap, and think that we are right and that the Labour party is wrong about the policy.
On the difficulties of assessments, I have checked with my office to make sure that I can speak with the facts. On the employment and support allowance, that difficult welfare reform was started by the Labour party with, to be fair, our support. When the Labour Government tried to do the right thing, we supported them, but Labour Members have been sorely lacking in such a cross-party approach. I am afraid that the instant they were on the Opposition Benches, any pretence of being interested in welfare reform fell away. I do not know what the reason was—whether it was their union paymasters or just opportunism—but they have never supported anything that we have done, despite our more cross-party approach.
The main issues about assessments are related to the performance of Atos. As I said in an intervention, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has responsibility for disabled people, looked into the issues I raised, and wrote thoughtful and considered replies, which I shared with local citizens advice bureaux, and we have managed to speed up the assessments for my constituents. However, I must say that the problem was inherited from the Labour party. The contract was very poor. I know that Ministers took action—
I will not give way, because I am very limited on time.
I am very pleased that Ministers took thoughtful action so that the contract could be ended with Atos having to pay compensation to the Department and to the taxpayer, rather than the taxpayer having to compensate Atos.
If the hon. Gentleman is right that the Atos contract for the delivery of the work capability assessment was a mess, why is he not criticising his Government for using the same company on a new contract for a very different benefit called personal independence payment?
That is partly because she did not give me a chance. I was talking about the employment and support allowance and the work capability assessment. Atos has not performed well on the work capability assessment, and I am very pleased that that has been terminated, but it had to be done thoughtfully so that compensation was due from the company to the taxpayer, not the other way round.
The Secretary of State set out very carefully the Government’s approach to rolling out personal independence payment. It is the right policy to deliver more support for disabled people, and to help them to get into work and to live independent lives. I am not pretending that it is easy—it is a difficult thing to do—and I am pleased that the Secretary of State has had the courage to continue.
On employment, we must recognise that there are 2 million more jobs in the private sector. I forget which Opposition Member tried to suggest that all these new jobs are simply schemes. The fact that there are 2 million more jobs in the private sector means that, even with the difficult decisions we have had to take in reducing jobs in the public sector, there has been an overall net increase of 1.7 million jobs.
What I am proudest of—as a combination of our immigration policy, employment and welfare policies and skills agenda—is the fact that three quarters of the jobs created since the election have gone to British citizens. In the five years up to the crash, the Labour party’s policies meant that less than 10% of the jobs that were created benefited British citizens. That was a disastrous failure and a policy mistake that I am glad this Government have put right. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can be proud of his record, and this party can be proud to support him in the Division Lobby this evening.
The hon. Gentleman will in future regret taking such pride in his Secretary of State. We have all become used to the way in which the Secretary of State avoids answering any kind of direct question or actively engaging in any of the serious issues about the destruction of the welfare state and his Department’s total and utter incompetence by opting for a self-serving, sanctimonious sermon as opposed to any direct speech. I seem to recall, to go back a very long way, that he stood at the Dispatch Box and avowedly took exclusive responsibility for the delivery of everything from IT systems to universal credit in order to take people out of poverty, when what he has in fact done is to plunge thousands and thousands of our fellow citizens into the most abject penury.
Today, the Secretary of State still managed to avoid any kind of reference to the realities of the situation for all those people affected when Atos had its contract for the work capability assessment renewed many months ago. I distinctly remember that the Select Committee was quite forensic in examining how Atos would prioritise, as the Secretary of State and the Government told us it would, the needs of disabled and vulnerable people, particularly those with mental health difficulties. Atos confirmed that that would be an absolute target. There would be champions for people with mental health difficulties and detailed examination of every single individual who came forward for a work capability assessment. Despite the Harrington recommendations, to which the Secretary of State referred, there have been no marked improvements for people who are waiting for ESA—we have already heard those figures.
I will give a precise example of just how chaotic the system is. One of my constituents, who is paraplegic, was placed on ESA. Another constituent is 26 years old and has the mental capacity of a six-year-old, and is consistently having to go for work capability assessments. I find it absolutely impossible to believe that Government Members have no constituents coming to them in similar or even worse situations; yet they find the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) hilarious. They find it really funny that we have seen an explosion in food banks being used by people who are working.
I point out to the Secretary of State that he furnished absolutely no evidence—no Government Member did—that the jobs that all Government Members are trumpeting have been created during his sovereignty of the Department for Work and Pensions are actually being created by his policies. Other Government Members trumpet that the new jobs are being created by the private sector.
One certain thing in an uncertain world is that 48% of appeals—I am talking about ESA; I do not want there to be any confusion—are upheld, yet people on ESA are waiting for months before their appeals are heard. During that period they are told to apply for jobseeker’s allowance, but they cannot do so because they are told that they are unfit for work. They are therefore without any financial support at all. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) said, the welfare state was created to protect people from falling through the cracks. But this particular Secretary of State, along with his Department, is pushing people through those cracks and hoping that the rest of the country will not notice that they have disappeared. I believe that the rest of the country is noticing that—that it is the most vulnerable in our society who are being punished.
That is a shame and an utter disgrace for the Secretary of State. At some point I am pretty certain that he will claim that he can walk on water, but he cannot. His Department is not delivering any of the promises that were made, not to the Opposition but to the people of this country. People are being maligned and bad-mouthed. It is being presented to the country as though there are plenty of jobs out there for those people but they are too idle ever to take them. That is not the case, as Government Members know, and as the Secretary of State should know. Perhaps he is floating so high in his self-appointed sanctity that he has forgotten what is actually happening out there in this country as a direct result of his incompetence and failure to accept his responsibilities.
I hope my contribution to the debate will be the calm after the storm. I had enormous respect for the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) when, aged 13, I first saw her on television playing Queen Elizabeth I, but her contribution today was over the top and largely unwarranted.
That is not to say that there are not problems that all of us in every constituency across the land have heard about from our constituents. Often the problems are to do with disabilities and with moving from one benefit system to another. Very often they are to do with work capability assessments that have been carried out by a contractor whose contract has been terminated. Let us not forget that that contractor was originally given a monopoly contract by the Opposition.
To some extent we all share in the problems that some of our constituents have had. We all have to recognise that, as individual constituency MPs, we have to do our bit to raise those issues with the Department where necessary, as well as with Atos, and to fight the corner for individual constituents to make sure that their problems are resolved as quickly as possible. My experience certainly has been that the system does respond. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), has listened. I have had meetings with him and telephone conferences with Atos, and am bringing Atos to meet the citizen’s advice bureau in my constituency precisely to go through particular outstanding unresolved cases.
I come back now to the nature of the debate. When I stood for Parliament, my main motivation was to try to make real two simple and uncontroversial goals: first, that work always pays; secondly, that saving always pays. I am afraid that neither was true after 13 years of the previous Government. Arguably the country had moved further from both, because the relationship between work and benefits was made much more complicated by the introduction of things such as tax credits and because we had a system in which the effective marginal tax rate was strongly disincentivising people from coming back to work. Savings did not pay in many cases because a lot of pensioners were better off not through having small amounts of savings but, as they still are, by getting means-tested pensions. I should be grateful to the Opposition, because those two particular goals, which were not truths in 2010, inspired me to get involved and eventually brought me to this House.
Interestingly, in the motion there is absolutely no mention of pensions whatever. I cannot help wonder whether that was precisely because what this Government have done on pensions has been so important and so right, and has been well supported across the House. The motion therefore focuses on the other aspect of what the Department does, which is work and, in particular, welfare benefits.
Let me touch briefly on a few specific points. As I said, we have all had to deal with issues about work capability assessments and some constituents with disabilities. But as I have also mentioned, the Government and Ministers have tried their best to resolve those problems when they have been raised.
The Work programme is not perfect—let us not pretend that everything has been solved—but it is working. People are getting back to work, and the numbers are increasing: I think the figure is now one in 17 people in work as a result rather than one in 26 as it was only a few months ago. The new work experience places, which are mostly in business and so give a greater opportunity for a sustainable future job, are costing one twentieth of the cost of the future jobs fund.
Compassion is incredibly important, but money matters in this game, because there is no social justice in bankrupting the public finances. Neither should there be any pride in the predecessor of the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), saying that he was sorry there was no money left, as if this were some form of teddy bears’ picnic. It is a lot more serious than that. The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) mentioned some of her constituents. She is absolutely right that when there is no money left, creative and innovative solutions have to be found.
In the time that remains to me, I want gently to question the origins of the motion. I sense there is an attempt to rewrite the situation as a new dawn. Opposition Front Benchers have no clear policy. I am still not sure whether they support the reforms being made to social welfare, which their entire party opposed, whether they are trying to achieve more savings, in which case I am not quite clear how, or whether they are trying to cast aspersions about waste, especially in universal credit. There have been some problems with that but they are tiny by comparison with the problems with IT in the NHS that the previous Government had.
Let us not pretend that implementing complicated IT programmes is a simple matter: as the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), said, these are complicated matters. Some mistakes have been made, which have been discussed and debated in this House many times, and I believe that we are firmly on the right track. I support the reforms, and want universal credit to be rolled out as quickly as possible.
May I make one point in this debate and seek one undertaking?
The issues that we are debating are immensely important, particularly for large numbers of our constituents. One advantage of being in this place for 35 years is that one notices the changes. I notice that two of the Government Members who are present are part of a parliamentary inquiry into hunger and food poverty. They have therefore had the opportunity to look at what is happening elsewhere in the country and not only in their backyard.
The Secretary of State used one phrase that stung me into action. I wish to address that rather than say what I was going to say. He said that one problem with the Labour Government was that we just paid out money too easily.
I have the quotation here, although perhaps I did not get it right. The Secretary of State said that Labour “wasn’t delivering the money”. It is the delivery of the money that I would like to take him up on and on which I would like to seek the undertaking.
Many of our constituents—not just those of Opposition Members, but those of Government Members—become dependent only and totally on benefit for part of their life. How effectively, efficiently and quickly that benefit is delivered is of immense importance. For many of our constituents, although not all, claiming benefit is not a pleasant thing to do. They do not do it lightly or think that they gain out of it, other than gaining the hope that they will have money with which to put food on the table. It is quite clear not only from my constituency, but from going around the country, that there is a growing difficulty for people in gaining benefit in an adequate space of time. It is undignified not to have money. It is appalling to have to grovel across the counter for money. The alternative of attending food banks is, for many people, a very last resort.
The Department has rules. It makes judgments about who is out of money, and money is paid to people in those circumstances. I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that an undertaking is given in the concluding remarks that he will look at how well—or not well—those rules are working. Although some people are without money because sanctions have been applied against them, others are seeking benefit genuinely but are not gaining it. When I asked the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) how many people had been without benefit for one month, two months and three months, he said that the Department did not know. Just imagine what it is like having no money and waiting one day, let alone months, for benefit to come through. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to give the undertaking that the safety measures that the Department has in place will be reviewed and new rules brought in quickly, so that people are not left dangling at the end of a string, destitute, waiting for decisions that do not come.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). He is the exception to what I am about to say, because he typified the thoughtful approach to welfare reform that is sadly lacking from the Opposition.
Opposition parties of all persuasions have the habit of falling into a trap. They lose an election and assume that it was the voters who got it wrong, not the politicians. They hope that in three to four years, the voters will see the error of their ways and return to the true path. They think that normal service will be resumed and that everything will be okay. That is what my party did after 1997. It took us many years to understand properly why the voters had rejected us.
Four years into this coalition Government, I fear that the same is occurring on the Opposition Benches. The Opposition still think that the voters got it wrong in 2010 and that all they need to do is oppose, oppose, oppose. We have seen no evidence of any alternative economic narrative to explain what happened before 2010. More importantly, we have heard no narrative on welfare reform. We hear clear criticisms. We heard a thoughtful speech from the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, who made some useful points. However, I am still not clear whether Opposition Members want to see the reforms halted immediately or whether they want the implementation to improve. There is no clarity, just confusion.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the area of youth unemployment. That is a concern of mine, because I represent a seaside town that has seasonal employment patterns. Yet what do we see from the Opposition? We see a jobs guarantee that shows no sign of not repeating the errors that made the future jobs fund expensive and that meant it was not a pathway into long-term work. Crashing into that policy comes a new punitive regime for those who are furthest away from work and have the most challenges to overcome. Despite that, they seem to be the ones who will be punished the most. It seems to be built in to the Labour strategy that there will inevitably be educational failure between the ages of 18 and 24. I cannot begin to understand that as a policy model. It fits with the critique by the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) that these policies are not thought through or discussed, but are nuggets that are delivered for a Sunday paper. That really does concern me.
I understand that Labour has a paternalistic view of the world. It wants people to see that it has a cadre with a managerial attitude. It wants to ensure that there is a strong state with strong state institutions that will manage away the bad things in life. If only life were that simple.
If there is one individual who has done more over the past decade to understand the real nature of poverty in this country than anyone else, it is the Secretary of State. Despite what the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) said, he has dedicated the past decade or more of his life to understanding the true nature of poverty in towns such as mine. Blackpool has the fourth most deprived ward in the country and I see on a daily basis what poverty actually means for families in real situations. It is not something that I see in my surgery week after week, day after day. I always find it annoying when Opposition Members say that we have no idea what is going on. They should come and sit in some of my constituency surgeries. I offer real, practical help. I do not just read out examples in the Chamber of the House of Commons and say, “There you are. Get on with it.”
I want to make another wider point about Labour policy. The motion promises a guaranteed waiting time for personal independence payment assessments. It is hard to disagree with that. We have heard from both sides of the Chamber about delays to people’s assessments. It is fair to say that many people are still waiting too long. I recognise that the Government are seeking to do something about that.
However, I ask the Labour party to think a little more carefully about what it is promising. If somebody applies for PIP, there is no guarantee that they will have a face-to-face assessment. The moment one implements an arbitrary time frame within which that assessment should occur, one sets up a deadline. Whenever there is a deadline in the benefits system, there will be people who fall either side of it. It is like the unintended consequences to which the Chair of the Select Committee pointed. If there is a deadline and the assessment can be accelerated so that it is carried out within the deadline, we risk people having to go through face-to-face assessments who otherwise would not have to do so. We should all know from our constituency surgeries that such face-to-face assessments can be an ordeal, especially for those with mental health problems. I understand that it is a policy born of sympathy, but it has a dangerous element of the target culture within it.
From my point of view, it is far better to focus on the philosophy of continuous improvement that Ministers have adopted. We were grateful that the Harrington report came in and that it was followed by the Litchfield report. We have tried to act on all that and to make improvements in the delivery of benefits. Waiting times are coming down.
What worries me more than anything else is the constant and complete refusal by Opposition Members to countenance any sort of welfare reform. They regard opposition as an opportunity not to have to reform anything. What we are left with is a party that offers no analysis and no answers, and that, as a consequence, has no credibility on welfare reform.
The original title for today’s debate announced last Thursday was “Chaos and waste at the Department for Work and Pensions”, not “Performance of the Department for Work and Pensions”, and for me, the original title is apt. I emphasise that staff at DWP offices are not the target of my remarks, or those of Opposition Members, because I think the blame lies squarely at the door of this Government who have pursued policies that have been harsh in intent and in effect, and have too often failed to provide the desired results. Today’s motion mentions a fair few of the current catastrophes of policy, administration, oversight and structural areas. I agree with the motion, and Plaid Cymru will vote with the Labour party tonight.
If Labour forms the next Government, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is quoted as saying that Labour would be “Tougher than the Tories” on benefits. Some of that may well be the froth of political journalism and serious points taken out of context without looking at the detail. However if Labour Members are the victims of a coarse and vindictive press, they seem all too willing to embrace that status—alas, it appears to me, for the sake of headlines.
The motion notes the Government’s policies and their failure to manage the change that they have instigated, and even a cursory glance will bring up areas not covered in the motion that go beyond the delay to universal credit, the crisis in PIP, and the harshness and cost-ineffectiveness of the bedroom tax, not to mention the benefits cap. A whole host of Government policies have contributed to the misery that so many vulnerable people suffer.
Hon. Members will need no reminding of the work of Atos and the work capability assessment—we have already heard a great deal about that this afternoon—as well as seemingly endless cases of people with serious illnesses, or even those at the very door of death, being passed as fit for work. We all have such cases, and the temptation in a situation such as this is to quote the most extreme ones. There are a few extreme cases, but here is one of mine that comes not from the extreme end but is, I am afraid, typical: a man with angina, severe breathing problems, crippling arthritis and who is waiting for surgery was passed as fit for work. He is one representative of many people not on the extreme end, and he was passed through a points system that is clearly still not fit for purpose—I say still, but will it ever be fit for purpose?
My central criticism of the system is that the person in front of the assessor disappears and becomes dehumanised—a collection of tick-boxes and points scored. When I started, more than 30 years ago, representing people to the Department of Health and Social Security, the system was far from perfect. I recall having to plead for an extra blanket for someone, arguing that the applicant lived in a particularly cold area. I had to contend with advice from the Government’s expert advisers saying that food in half-empty tins was better left in the can, so applicants could not possibly qualify for the luxury of a Tupperware pot. I am not, therefore, starry-eyed about the old system, but it allowed workers to build up an expertise, have some discretion and prioritise. They could, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said earlier to the Secretary of State, apply basic, simple common sense, which is denied to them by a system based on ticking the boxes.
Earlier this year the Welsh Government published the second part of their third and final report on the impact of the UK Government’s welfare reform changes in Wales. It shows that Wales’s total loss of income as a result of Westminster’s plans for social security will be around £930 million a year by 2015-16. Of all the local authority areas in Wales, Neath Port Talbot, Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil are estimated to be hardest hit by the welfare reforms as analysed. Those last two local authorities are probably the most deprived in Wales, and they are being hit the hardest. Neath Port Talbot has a high level of long-term sickness and disability from its heavy industry.
Although losses will vary widely depending on individual circumstances, the average loss to a working-age adult in those areas is estimated at around £600, compared with £500 for Wales as a whole. The people of Wales—no more than those in north-west or western England, or elsewhere—cannot afford such losses without major ill effects throughout society. We cannot afford this Government, and on present form I fear we will not be able to afford the next one either.
The motion before the House is wide-ranging, and I will concentrate on three fairly niche areas in some detail. The motion notes that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) recently commented in the Work and Pensions Committee on work capability assessment throughput, but it fails to note what officials then said about that issue before the Committee. Those officials told the Committee that the Department has hugely improved performance. What does that mean? They said that a month has been taken off the front end of the application process for WCA, which has been reduced from 92 days to 60 days. Clearly, that is not good enough yet, but it is a huge important improvement at the front end. Once the WCA decision has been made, the further decision has also been reduced by a month: from 42 days to 12 or 14 days. Considerable changes have been going on in the Department that are beneficial to applicants.
We also know that the number of benefit decision appeals fell by 79% to just over 30,000 between January and March this year, compared with the same time last year. Why? It is because mandatory reconsideration put itself into the mix and ensured that fewer such applications go to appeal. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) will say that some of that is to do with legal aid, and I suspect she may be right. However, the load on the costly appeals process is also reducing, so it seems that the Department has an exemplary track record, within itself and its own machinations, of reacting positively to the changes to WCA.
Where is the delay occurring? The answer has to be, with Atos. To understand that, we must look at where the WCA came from. The WCA was introduced in 2008, and within that legislation five annual assessments were put into the mix. We have now had four of those—three from Harrington and one from Paul Litchfield—and it is clear that the design, scope and outcomes from the WCA were wholly inadequate from the beginning. Large numbers of improvements were recommended. Those of the three Harrington reviews and Paul Litchfield have largely been not just accepted by the Government but implemented, but in short, Atos’s capacity does not match the increase in quality demanded. That is because the original contract and the price the Government paid for it is simply not enough to allow it to do the job that Parliament, quite rightly, demands.
No, I will not, because we all have a limited speaking time.
I think the Minister was right to end the Atos contract and re-let it because it seems that Atos did not have the capacity to do what it needed to do. It is somewhat ironic that the Opposition motion should seek to emphasise something that was caused entirely by actions taken by Labour when in government and that this Government are taking huge steps to improve, and which Opposition Back Benchers have—quite reasonably and vociferously—demanded. I believe that that improvement, which we all want, has made it more difficult for Atos to pursue what it is supposed to pursue.
No. I have already made it clear that I am not going to give way. The risk register is also identified in the motion—[Interruption.] I notice that my time now seems to be infinite, which is absolutely splendid—[Interruption.] The clock has now dropped down to three minutes. I should have said nothing.
The motion demands a publication of the risk register held by the Department. That is hardly a new argument, and in the short time I have been in this House it has been made many times about a similar document held by the national health service. Let me quote the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham)—the shadow Health Secretary—from 23 March 2007 when he was asked whether he would release the NHS risk register:
“Putting the risk register in the public domain would be likely to reduce the detail and utility of its contents. This would inhibit the free and frank exchange of views about significant risks and their management, and inhibit the provision of advice to Ministers. We cannot therefore agree to place a copy of the current version of the register in the Library.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 1192W.]
That was then, as now, very sensible advice.
Do we really think it a good idea for the Government to make public all their plans for the management of every conceivable risk that they might encounter in any particular programme? Surely we cannot. As the right hon. Member for Leigh pointed out, it is essential that Ministers and officials can have free and frank exchanges behind closed doors on the risks to their Department. If they are inhibited from doing so in any way, they are most likely not to consider those risks in a free and frank way, and we will not have the benefit of the exercise in the first place. It is a preposterous proposition. All officials and all Ministers need a place where they can talk safely about what might happen to their Departments in extremis.
Finally, I have some facts and figures on the Work programme—I am sorry, but it is hard to avoid statistics in the argument. Some 300,000 long-term unemployed people have found lasting work using the Work programme. There has been an increase of 44,000 people in jobs in the past three months alone. Long-term unemployment has fallen by 108,000 in the past year, which is the largest fall in 16 years. Some 296,000 people have so far found lasting work, which is up from 132,000 a year earlier. The vast majority of those who find sustained employment remain in work beyond the six-month point or, for the hardest-to-help, the three-month point. More than 274,000 participants have gone on to find work beyond those points.
Performance has continually improved, with all contracts meeting the minimum performance levels in the third year of the programme. In the most recent cohort, nearly 28% were placed in a sustained job, up from 22% of those who joined at the beginning of the programme. Out of any group, young people proportionately have secured the largest number of sustainable jobs—71,640 have done so since the programme began. In short, the Work programme is truly working for those participating in it, and I shall certainly not support the motion.
This is an important and timely debate, given the serious concerns that have been raised about systemic problems in the Department for Work and Pensions in recent times. However, the most visible sign of those problems is the increasing number of people at the sharp end of welfare reform—those who have been incorrectly assessed, or those who have to wait inordinate amounts of time for claims and appeals to be processed.
It is only fair to say that there have been problems in our welfare system for many years, but what disturbs me is the steep increase in the number of people who are looking for help with disability benefits in the past couple of years. Significantly more people in desperate need are looking for referrals to food banks and other forms of charitable support.
A lot has been said in the debate about the introduction of personal independence payments. I am glad that the Government have set out a timetable. I asked a question on that last week but did not get an answer. For people who have no money, 16 weeks is still an incredibly long time to wait. What are folk going to do for those three and a half months? Two constituents of mine have waited more than 37 weeks for PIP assessments. They got them only after my interventions. In one case, I had to send not one but two chaser letters. Quite a bit was said about letters going back and forth. Surely the point is that, if the system worked, we would not have to send all those letters. If the system worked, letters would be an exception, not the rule. Instead, we have dozens of cases on our books. Another constituent has waited 25 weeks for an assessment. When he had the assessment, it took a further nine weeks for the outcome to be forwarded to the disability and carers service. That, too, needed to be chased.
On the work capability assessment, I met a constituent in her early 50s just a couple of weeks ago who lost her employment and support allowance in November last year having been found fit for work, even though her GP considers her unfit for work. She is now in the bizarre and unacceptable position that the jobcentre will not let her sign on for jobseeker’s allowance because it recognises that she is not well enough to be available for work. She cannot even get to the jobcentre without assistance. Currently, her sole income is £84 a month in disability living allowance. She is living off food parcels from a local church food bank. That is not acceptable and such women are being very badly let down. The other serious issue is that local authorities, housing associations and voluntary sector organisations are picking up the tab. They have to deal with the consequences, whether that is rent arrears, crisis support or dealing with the emergency needs of people who would otherwise be destitute.
Another constituent’s claim for ESA was initially disallowed. The consequent accrual of rent arrears led to her being evicted, becoming homeless and being separated from her child. After a period of sleeping rough, she was housed in temporary accommodation. After my involvement, the DWP accepted “errors and delays” both in the handling of her claim and in the mandatory reconsideration process. The woman now receives ESA, which she should have had in the first place, and she has been re-housed, but the human cost of her homelessness and being unable to care for her child is incalculable, as is the impact on her child. The cost to the local authority and the public purse was massive. Money was wasted unnecessarily and it would not have been spent if the DWP functioned properly.
I have concentrated on individual cases, but I have a more general observation. People who are losing out on incapacity-related benefits such as ESA are also those most likely to lose out as a result of changes to DLA and the move to PIP. They are also the most likely to lose out on housing support, especially if they live in private sector accommodation. Of course, with the cost of living rising much more quickly than benefits uprating, those most dependent on state support are falling further behind everybody else and are being squeezed ever harder.
ESA claimants tend to be older and have tended to work in lower-skilled manual occupations. They are also disproportionately concentrated in areas with the most challenging labour market conditions. That geographic distribution is extremely problematic for those with less severe disabilities and health conditions, who are less likely to qualify for support under the new regime. They will be seeking work in the areas where they are least likely to be able to find it.
The Government’s argument today is as it has been since they embarked on the welfare reform process: they argue that they are removing barriers for disabled people and those with long-term conditions. Who can argue with that? Hon. Members agree with the Government on that, but the Government are failing to come to terms with the fact that we cannot assume that a greater supply of sick and disabled people entering the labour market will lead to increased demand from employers for older workers with poor health records, especially in areas where the local economy is weak. The Government need to understand that the income lost by people who lose support is unlikely to be fully replaced by earnings, even for those who find work, because that work is likely to be low paid and part time. That divide between the very poor and everyone else, and between the wealthiest and most deprived communities, is likely to grow as a consequence.
Welfare reform was an opportunity to address some of the systemic problems in our social security provision, but it has been used as a vehicle to slash support to those with disabilities and health conditions. It has created chaos not just in the machinery of government, but in the lives of people who depend on that essential support. Any of us could be in that position at some point in our lives.
The bottom line is that the Government have not shown that they can be trusted to deliver a fair and decent welfare system. The sooner such decisions can be made in Scotland, for Scotland, by people we have voted for, the better.
We are talking about chaos and waste in the welfare system, but I can think of no bigger risk than for a new country to try to produce a new welfare system at top speed. Who knows what damage will be done in that situation? I therefore cannot agree with the closing remarks of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford).
If we want to know what chaos in a welfare system looks like, we can look back four long years to 2010, when far too many people claimed too many different benefits for far too long, at too great a cost to the taxpayer. The incoming Government had to tackle that situation. I normally agree with the Work and Pensions Committee Chair, who is wise and learned on such issues, but I do not think she was right to imply that the solution to the risks and unknown problems of welfare reform—she was right about those—is to do nothing. We have been bolting on new and enhanced bits to the system for decades. She says, “Let’s leave it like that. If we bolt on a few more bits and make a few tweaks, we can sort it all out,” but at some point a Government had to bite the bullet and say, “We need a new system. We have to make it simpler and clearer for people to understand what they are claiming. We need to make it easier for people to know when they need to notify the Government of changes.” Fundamentally, the Government needed to make it easier to administer the system. We could not continue with people claiming six different benefits at the same time, not knowing what they were doing. That was not fair on them or on the system. That is what led to the huge amount of fraud and error that this Government and the previous one have been trying to tackle in different ways without getting the number down by very much. The only way out of the mess is a simpler benefits system that everyone can understand.
We must all accept that progress on universal credit has not happened at the speed that the Government planned and that we would all have liked, but what was the alternative? Was the alternative for the Government to press on and say, “It would be bad news to slow down. Let’s press on at full speed and hope we get it right”? That would have been a complete disaster and a terrible political decision to take. It would have risked people not getting the benefits to which they are entitled. In the early days, they might have got more than they were entitled to, before finding that they had to pay it back a few months later. That situation would have been unacceptable. We saw that with tax credits and were right to learn from the mistakes. The Government are right to say, “Look, we have problems with the system. Let’s slow it down and trial it properly. Let’s get it right before we put millions of people through it and risk making their lives even harder.” That was the right decision.
I note that the motion does not mention the positive things that the Department has done. It does not mention that unemployment is down—by 31% in my constituency in the last year. It does not mention the pension changes, which are huge steps in the right direction. Nor does it mention the child maintenance reforms. I shall not suggest that they will work perfectly first time—that would be a brave claim after the history of the last 20 years—but the system now looks fairer and tries to encourage the right behaviour, not the wrong behaviour.
The welfare reforms are very important and we need to get them right. We need people to have faith in the welfare system. What we hear on the doorstep is that people do not believe that the system is fair. They do not believe that the people who get benefits actually deserve them, but we all know that most people who get benefits are entitled to them, they claim the right amount and they try to work the system properly. The only way to change the public perception so that people see that the system is fair is to get it right, drive out the errors and complexity, and show that it is fair.
As part of that, assessments need to work. It is clear that the Atos contract was failing miserably. It was too tight a price and the company was forced to try to go for volume rather than quality. We need to go in the right direction on that. I also accept that the PIP assessments started out too slowly. The contractors were trying to get them right, but they were taking far longer than it was thought they would. What did we want the contractors to do—rush the assessments or have unqualified people perform them? That would not have been a sensible approach.
My hon. Friend is right. We both represent Derbyshire, a region that was in the initial phase of PIP, so we have seen how the system went wrong at the start. I would be the first to blame the contractor for some of the mistakes that were made, the speed at which the assessments were done, and how hard it was to get any information. That is now improving slowly, and I commend the Minister for making real changes that are helping. I sincerely hope that when we let the new work capability assessment contract, we learn from the problems of too little money, too much volume and too slow a pace. We need to get these contracts right because we need people to have faith that the assessments produce the right answer; otherwise, we will be in a right mess and have no one who can deliver these assessments in a way that is trusted. We need the next contractor to be supported to get this right. It needs to perform and we need to help it perform. We need to watch the next contract award carefully to make sure that it is got right. We all want a welfare system that is fair and seen to be fair, but if we cannot achieve that it will be a disaster for our society.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills). I agree with a couple of the things he said; I agree that the programme has had a bumpy start, but I disagree that the bumpy start is over. I also agree with him that we need to get things right in order to build confidence in the benefit system. For many reasons, that confidence is not as high as we want it to be, and one of those reasons is the corrosive language that we often hear about people who claim benefits.
Darlington is in the north-east, but unemployment there is consistently lower than the regional average. People in my constituency work hard, and they want claimants to be challenged and people to demonstrate why they need benefits, but the system is not working. I shall give a few examples of real case studies. They are still live cases that have been raised with the Department, but they have not been resolved. I would like an assurance from the Minister that we will get a better service from the Department when things go wrong. They go wrong frequently, and despite what the Secretary of State said at the Dispatch Box earlier, we are not getting an adequate response from him or his officials.
One case involves a woman who was advised to claim DLA in April 2013. She had a medical and waited to hear what would happen next. She was told she would have to have a medical, but she had already had one. She was told that PIPs were replacing DLA so she would have to claim all over again. In June 2013, she received a letter referring to a letter she had been sent in May, but she had not received that letter. She asked about progress in September 2013 and she was told that her claim was with Atos for internal audit. In October 2013, she raised the issue with me, because she had no money and had to go to the food bank to feed herself and her five-year-old son. She was unable to pay her rent and her gas, electricity and water bills. I contacted the PIP office in October and again in November. It said that it was having trouble getting Atos to respond to its queries. In February this year she finally got her PIP payment. It took nearly a year to resolve, but we got there in the end. Other people are still waiting.
A young man with autism desperately wanted to work, so he volunteered for help from a training provider—Avanta—which then sanctioned him for not complying because he did not understand what he was meant to be doing. Three months later, that case is still not resolved.
I received an e-mail from someone who suffers from various diagnosed mental health problems. He has been found fit for work by Atos so he decided to stop taking his medication. After all, as he said, Atos had said that he was cured. He was later sectioned having been found in a distressed state.
I am not revealing the names of these people as they have asked me not to do so, but their cases give a flavour of the problems that my colleagues and I frequently deal with. Another person had an appointment for an Atos medical in Thornaby on 27 June. Thornaby is a perfectly good place, but it is tricky to get there from Darlington on public transport. It takes at least two bus journeys and the building has stairs and is not properly accessible. My constituent has spondylosis, tennis elbow and sciatica after years of working as a labourer. He telephoned Atos and was told that his GP had to fax a letter explaining why he needed a home visit. He asked Atos to give him a later appointment so that he could get there on time. Because the Thornaby site is so difficult to get to, Atos seems to think that if people can get to their appointment, it is proof that they are fit to work.
In another case, the jobcentre agreed that a constituent, who has a wife and two kids, could do a part-time care course, but he was sanctioned—incorrectly—for being on a full-time course. He has no money for food or rent while that is being sorted out. In the end, he was offered a job, conditional on his completing the course, which only had a month to run, but the jobcentre had sanctioned him for being on the course.
The response from the Department on PIPs is dreadful. It can take 12 to 16 weeks to get an appointment for a face-to-face assessment, and 21 to 26 weeks from date of claim to a decision being made. That is six months, and that is not acceptable. We need to know how long it will take. The whole system is shambolic. My complaint is not that constituents are being challenged or assessed or asked to demonstrate why they should receive ESA or PIP: it is that the delays, the poor administration and the lack of answers when cases are raised are unacceptable.
I have been very interested to hear some of the contributions from Labour Members as well as those from my hon. Friends. It is interesting that the terms of the motion address the so-called chaos in the administration of the Department. To me, that is an admission by the Opposition that they are not challenging the need for reform. As a consequence of the fact that Labour Members cannot engage in a debate about whether the reforms are necessary, they have sought to propose this secondary motion, as it were, based on looking at the administration of the Department.
Everyone here knows that we faced a significant budgetary problem when this Government came to power in 2010. It will be remembered that the last Labour Chief Secretary said there was “no money left”, which clearly was the case. There was a deficit of £160 billion, and a large component of that overspend was a consequence of overspending in the welfare department. In 1997, the amount spent on welfare and social security was £93 billion. Within about 10 years, that had gone up by about 60% in real terms. Today we have a bill of well over £200 billion. Anyone can see that that was not sustainable. Anyone can see—the public do see—that it was not a viable proposition to keep adding to this welfare bill. What this Government have done very effectively has been to focus on this problem, to try to address it and to bring about reforms to make our welfare spending sustainable in the future.
It is quite irresponsible for Labour Members to say that we Conservative Members do not care and that it is the same old evil Tories. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) made a passionate speech, giving full vent to all her theatrical skills in denouncing my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Everyone knows that his attention to detail and his commitment in this area have been second to none. Over 10 or 15 years, he has devoted himself to trying to understand the system and the causes of long-term poverty and long-term unemployment. In fact, after four years, he and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer between them have turned around this floundering ship.
If we look at the employment figures and see how much employment is being created by a prospering private sector, and if we look at the numbers of people entering employment, we will see a marked success in this area. It is no good Labour Members wailing about the changes being made. We all know that the country faced a significant budgetary problem and we all know that a big part of the overspend related to this precise area of welfare spending, welfare dependency and so forth, and it is quite right for the Government to tackle it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) mentioned the benefit cap of £26,000. He was quite right to suggest that this policy is widely appreciated and widely supported by people across the country who cannot understand why any family in any constituency should be in receipt of £26,000 a year in benefits. The results of polls done on individual policies show that the benefit cap is the most popular Government policy of any party since 1945. This is well documented, and there is a reason for it: people understand that the benefit bill had been expanded way beyond anything that was sustainable.
It is quite revealing that in the course of this debate, the Labour party, which should be re-christened the welfare party, has failed to engage with any of the real reasons why reform was needed. Labour Members have relied on what I am calling a subsidiary motion related to the Department’s administration because they know that on the substantive issue of welfare reform and of trying to reduce spending and ensure that welfare goes to the people who most need it, they have been found wanting. Frankly, the British people do not accept any of their arguments.
I can tell the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) that the only wailing I hear is the wailing from my constituents, many of whom are very poor. He should be more respectful of that fact. The overall impact of UK tax and benefit changes between January 2010 and April 2015 will be to cut the bottom half of the population’s net household income by over 2%, with the bottom 20% seeing a loss of 4% or 5%. The top half of income distribution other than the richest 10% see a loss of less than 2% of net income. If the hon. Gentleman could tell me how that is fair, I would be interested to hear it.
I shall concentrate my remarks on the effects that the current policies are having on my constituents. I come from a former mining area and a coastal area that is suffering badly with increasing poverty. It is a disgrace that child poverty is heading for the steepest rise for a generation, which will wipe out the progress made since 1998-99 and push at least 50,000 children into poverty in Scotland alone. That accords with independent projections, which the Government of course ignored in their child poverty strategy report for 2014 to 2017. Half of the respondents to the consultation are concerned about the impact of welfare reform on low-income families.
The Child Poverty Action Group says that the Government’s strategy does not amount to a plan to end child poverty and fails to set out what actions, milestones and progressive measures could set child poverty on a downward trend. Instead, it is more of the same, even though it is clear from expert studies that families are being impoverished across the UK, at a cost of £29 billion a year. This can only get worse. Two thirds of poor children live in working families, so the problem is not just about getting people into work. What kind of work is provided and what support is given to families with children are what really matters. Tackling low pay and promoting affordable housing and affordable child care are fundamental.
In my 17 years as an MP, I have never witnessed so many desperate people appearing at my surgery with little or no money in their pockets. The Minister has a lot of explaining to do regarding the abject failure of universal credit to date, especially in respect of simplification of the system, in spite of the fact that the Secretary of State has held up universal credit as the pinnacle of welfare reform.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) said, the Secretary of State has bitten off more than he can chew. I want to thank my hon. Friend for coming to my constituency recently to give a talk on the implications of independence for welfare issues. I will not try your patience by going into that any further, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I just wanted to mention it because it was very welcome.
I am most concerned about the number of vulnerable people being thrown off benefit as a result of a work capability assessment that is not fit for purpose. Some people are terrified of the impact that PIP will have on their daily lives—even if they can get an interview at all—and of a Work programme that provides very little work.
The sanctions regime can be described only as bullying. Citizens Advice Scotland is not the only organisation inundated with people needing help with inaccurate assessments or unfair sanctions. In years gone by, I had very few cases where sanctions had been applied and it was usually for fair enough reasons. There are now numerous cases each week and sanctions are applied for the flimsiest of reasons. No doubt Conservative Members will think that to be a good thing, and perhaps it would be if it was fair. In a recent case, a young man with learning difficulties had been sanctioned three times since last September because, apparently, he had not done enough to look for work. On looking at his calendar and diary in which he had to fill in details of the jobs he had applied for, it was clear that he had applied for a reasonable number of jobs, most of which he had absolutely no chance of ever getting.
This is a farce. Employers are fed up with being inundated with unsuitable applicants, and, far from raising the confidence of the jobless, the system is undermining morale and increasing poverty. In the case that I have cited, it has increased the pressure on the young man’s mother to support him, although she herself is poor. In another case that I encountered, a woman from New Cumnock was “sanctioned” because she did not have access to a computer, although it is not easy to have such access in her community.
The Minister should be embarrassed by the amount of taxpayers’ money that is being wasted while distress is being caused and parents are being deprived of an opportunity to meet the most basic needs of their children and provide them with food. On Saturday, I will go to one of the local food banks to help with the collection. There are now about six food banks in my constituency. Is it not deplorable that the Government have tried to hide the fact that referrals to food banks often result from delays in benefit payments, including hardship payments? Adding insult to injury by presiding over an inefficient and frankly cruel system only makes things worse.
This is a cynical, mean-spirited and dubious motion. It was tabled by a Yorkshire Member, and, as a fellow Yorkshire representative, I cannot tell the House how surprised I am. The economic results achieved by the Government in Yorkshire are incredibly positive. Business confidence is growing: the number of business start-ups in north Yorkshire is now double the national average, and we have more private sector jobs than we have had for years. However, as we get set to welcome the Tour de France to Yorkshire at the end of the week, the economies of Britain and Yorkshire are being been talked down, and that is a total disgrace.
The Government’s welfare policies are key to our long-term plan, and also to our economic recovery. There has been a 22% drop in the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Yorkshire, which is at a five-year low. We have seen a bigger reduction in the number of claimants of employment and support allowance than the national average, and 920 new businesses have been set up under the new enterprise allowance. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) failed to mention any of the 80 success stories in her constituency: she did not refer to any of the businesses that have been set up under NEA over the past few years. Just last week, I heard from a company called Lime Tree Europe in Halifax, which is a key marginal seat. That company has been trading for three weeks. It is delighted by the benefits that the NEA has brought, and is greatly looking forward to building its business.
Even more odd and sinister is the fact that the Labour party has kicked the men and women who work in our jobcentres and at the DWP—and who are working hard to change the culture—firmly in the teeth. Anyone who has been to a jobcentre and observed people working hard to return our fellow citizens to employment will know that there has been a complete revolution in the way in which those organisations operate. When I visited a jobcentre in Skipton recently, I went from desk to desk and saw every woman and every man working flat out to get my constituents back into work. Everyone knew their numbers; everyone was on top of what had to be done. It is not surprising that 300,000 people are now in sustainable jobs, thanks to the Ministers and other hard-working people in the DWP.
A couple of weeks ago, with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), I visited a jobcentre in Harrogate. The first person whom we met was Paul, who was doing work experience and was showing older people how to use Universal Jobmatch.
My hon. Friend is making some important points about the success of universal credit. When we visited that jobcentre, we met users who emphasised the fact that universal credit was making work pay. Surely that is something to which Governments have been aspiring for decades.
Absolutely—and the two people whom we met said that it was giving them the confidence to go out and find work. Representatives of recruitment firms told us that universal credit would make it much easier to place clients, because they would not be losing their benefits.
A surprising aspect of the shadow Minister’s speech was the implication that she and her colleagues had not visited a jobcentre in recent months. If they had done so, they would have heard from jobcentre staff that they want more of the Government’s reforms. They want people to have more work experience and zero-hours contracts, because those things will give them a foot on the ladder leading them back to employment. They want universal credit to work, because it gives them an opportunity to motivate people who are not currently boarding the work bus.
If the hon. Member for Leeds West will not listen to jobcentre staff—the people whom I have met—she should listen to the Yorkshire people, her constituents. What they want is a lower benefit cap. They want the Government to get on with introducing their national insurance cut for young people, which will encourage employers to take on more of those young people, and they want the Government’s benefit reforms to include even tougher measures.
Following what my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and I saw in Harrogate, I hope that universal credit will be rolled out throughout the country as quickly, but as responsibly, as possible. Rather than hearing criticisms of the DWP and jobcentre staff, I want to see more incentives given to those staff, who are performing incredibly well. They currently have an opportunity to receive a bonus amounting to 0.25% of their salaries. I want them to have more such opportunities.
Labour Members have to admit that if they ever get their hands on the tiller again, they will never reverse the reforms that the Government have introduced. They have to come clean about their proposals for a national insurance rise. Are they going to place a burden on British business as a result of which it will again fail to employ the necessary numbers? We want the Secretary of State and other Ministers to press ahead with these reforms. I say to them: please turn up the volume.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), but I must tell him that I think I speak for all Opposition Members when I say that I rather resent his suggestion that any criticisms of the inefficiencies of the Secretary of State’s Department are laid at the door of hard-working civil servants. Let me also tell him that when he next makes assertions about what people who work in jobcentres actually want, he might wish to prove those assertions rather than simply stating that they are in favour of more reforms and more sanctions.
The DWP touches all our lives at some point. I think that when we talk about welfare, we should bear it in mind that welfare payments—that generic term that we trot out so easily—also include our pension system. The Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but I suspect that about 54% of our welfare payments are pensioner payments. We should never forget that.
Today’s debate results from the fact that a Government Department has failed miserably to achieve its objectives, namely reform of our welfare system, a Work programme that works for people, and the reform of disability payments. I agree with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), the Chair of the Select Committee—who, on cue, has just entered the Chamber. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) suggested that the Conservatives were the only party that was in favour of welfare reform. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we did object to—
Will the hon. Gentleman let me finish my sentence? I had only got as far as a comma.
The hon. Gentleman should realise that, in fact, we had a consensus on welfare reform. Indeed, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) mentioned that we had worked together in the last Parliament. We are now debating a reform programme that is not about consensus—it is not about talking to other people. It is the brainchild of the Secretary of State. He went at it with zeal, and he was not prepared to accept that there were any ways in which he ought to finesse its implementation. We cannot simply dismiss the 700,000 people who are waiting for WCA as somehow a blip or a glitch in the system. Those are individuals who, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said very powerfully, find themselves quite literally without money on many days of the week; people who find themselves in the humiliating position, as they see it, of having to go to get food from friends, family and food banks.
We have PIP now. I think the Minister deserves just a little credit for PIP and I have said that to him before. He has stalled the implementation, however, and I hope that at the end of this debate he will tell us exactly what the waiting times are now, because they have been bandied around but I have not seen any evidence for them.
We cannot just ignore what other organisations are saying. The Public Accounts Committee says the DWP has “yet to achieve” savings and it has an “unacceptable level of service” with
“uncertainty, stress and financial costs for claimants”.
Even the DWP’s own annual report last week said:
“The volume of assessments undertaken by providers on both contracts has fallen consistently below”
the expected demand.
We have called over many months now for a cumulative impact assessment of the impact of the policies on disabled people. What we have here is a cumulative disaster area of a ministerial team, which introduced major change projects without suitable testing. The objective assessments have clearly identified that. Ministers continued to advise this House that everything was, and was going to be, hunky-dory. They have sought to camouflage all the failures of their Department. We now even have a new technical term that we did not know we had: reset. Actually, that is a term for a new project; the Secretary of State ought to admit that.
We have a Secretary of State who has stretched credibility on universal credit when he has said time after time that it is on budget and on time. I hate to disillusion the Secretary of State, but when I asked the chief executive of the Major Projects Authority whether universal credit was on budget and on time, he might have said certain words, but his body language gave a whole different interpretation of what he said, and the Secretary of State should look at that evidence in the PAC record.
This ministerial team is living in a virtual world in Caxton house. It is not the same world most of us—even the Ministers’ own Back Benchers—have said they live in, and, frankly, if the Secretary of State does not get a grip on the chaos within his Department in working with people, one has to ask, “Why is he still in his job?”
Three principles underlie the Government’s welfare reforms: ending dependency, establishing a ladder of aspiration, and social justice and redistribution.
In 1874, Benjamin Disraeli said—I apologise to my Liberal colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb)—that the Conservatives had done more for the working man in five years than the Liberals had done in 50. That continues to ring true today.
When I was elected as Harlow’s MP in 2010, there was a feeling of negativity in the town. Unemployment, and particularly youth unemployment, was rife—a hangover from the last Government’s disastrous policies which suggested that a life on benefits was a way of life. Worse than that, despite welfare spending increasing by 60% under the last Government, the number of food banks increased tenfold, and median real wages stopped growing in 2003. Notably, the Office for National Statistics says that inequality is now at its lowest level since 1986.
Since then, there has been a new optimism. Unemployment is down by one third in my constituency, with youth unemployment decreasing by 30%. There is renewed confidence in the local economy, and businesses are creating jobs. The number of apprenticeships in the town have increased by a staggering 83%. What is happening in my town is not unique; it is happening up and down the country. Employment is up and welfare dependency is down, and according to the OECD Britain is a more optimistic place than it was in 2010.
The best way to get people off welfare and into work is by creating a conveyor belt of aspiration. That starts in the family, continues in schools, and carries on into skills training and post-16 education. Excluding those in full-time education, despite what the Government have done on youth unemployment, there are still 500,000 young people out of work, so we must make it easier for young people to get the skills that they need to give them the best chance in life.
In last year’s Queen’s Speech, the Government said that it should be typical for school leavers to go to university or start an apprenticeship. Significant progress has already been made, with the Government on track to deliver 2 million apprenticeship starts. The university technical colleges are part of this ladder of aspiration, giving young people—those on low incomes, who would never otherwise have had the chance—the chance to get a state-of-the-art technical and vocational education alongside traditional academic education, and we need to bring that through. We need to ensure that doing training and vocational work and taking up apprenticeships are as prestigious as going to university.
We also need to be the party of social justice and redistribution. The Government have done a lot of work on redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor by cutting taxes for lower earners. Even the 45p rate has raised an extra £9 billion for the Treasury, and I urge the Secretary of State to lobby for that £9 billion extra to be put into a special fund that we can use to raise the national insurance threshold for the poor—part-time workers and those on lower pay. We have the money now as a result of the 45p rate, so let us redistribute the money we have gained from tax cuts to the rich and give it in tax cuts to the poor. Let us be the party of social justice and redistribution.
Finally, I want to tell two stories of what has happened to me as a constituency MP. A man came into my surgery and said, “The Government won’t let me go to the zoo.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Because I don’t get enough on benefits to go to the zoo.” I said to him, “Do you realise the average wage in my constituency is £23,000 and people are paying £1,250 in their taxes on welfare benefits, not including pensions, and are you saying that those people, who struggle every day, should be paying more in taxes so that you can go to the zoo?” He said, “Yes, it is my human right to go to the zoo.” He was brought up on a diet of dependency so beloved by the last Government.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is in challenging these suppositions that this Government are really making progress in the reforms they are bringing through, and that we need to look very carefully at the level of the cap as we go into the next year?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and I want to give a contrasting story—one which shows the difference and the battle between the two sides. We have the diet of dependency—the man who believed it was his human right to go to the zoo and to get as much in benefits as he liked paid through taxation—and we have another man, who was helping me fix my car, and who said to me, “I just want to let you know that my whole family have been Labour but I’m going to vote Conservative.” I asked why. He said, “Because I’ve got a job; because the Government have got me off benefits and back into work.” That is what the mission of the Secretary of State has been all about: welfare into work; redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor by cutting taxes for lower earners; and social justice.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and I congratulate his constituent on finding a job, but we need to understand in the round the impact that the social security and welfare reforms are having on most people.
Once again I was absolutely stunned by the Secretary of State’s hubris in his speech. The DWP is in absolute chaos. The welfare reforms have been nothing short of catastrophic. Not one of the projects, from the introduction of universal credit to the revision of the work capability assessment and the replacement of DLA with PIP, has been delivered with even a modicum of competence. I just await the next fiasco in the replacement for the Child Support Agency. Ministers have wasted hundreds of millions of pounds of public money—these are Ministers who pose as the defenders of the hard-working taxpayer. Such is their arrogance that they blame everyone for the problems they have experienced, from their own civil servants to the Trussell Trust, which runs so many of our food banks. What has been reported, and what I have had confirmed by Trussell Trust members, is disgraceful. Anyone who tries to investigate these Ministers or hold them to account, including the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, has been subject to hostility and obfuscation.
We supported the principles of universal credit, and the Secretary of State would be sensible to remember that. We support the simplification of the social security system and the principle of making work pay, but the Government’s reforms are not working. The introduction of universal credit has been an unmitigated disaster, with delays, increasing costs and fewer participants than predicted. In November 2011, four pathfinders, including one in my Oldham constituency, were meant to pilot UC before the national roll-out in October 2013. In July 2013, it was announced that there were to be six more pathfinder areas, yet by December 2013 we were informed that the national roll-out was not taking place but UC would be extended to couples and families. Members of the Select Committee were informed of that on the very day of the announcement. The latest figures show that fewer than 6,000 people are claiming UC, so I repeat my question to the Secretary of State: when exactly will 1 million people be on it?
In the middle of all that, in September we got the National Audit Office report on the various IT problems that the Government had known about for at least 18 months. Some £40 million spent on software has had to be written off and a further £90 million has been written down. Good money is being poured after bad as the Government continue to spend millions—the estimates are between £37 million and £58 million—on the old IT system while spending extensive sums on an end-state solution. As the NAO and Major Projects Authority reported, there are significant issues to address in governance, lack of transparency, inadequate financial controls over supplier spending and ineffective departmental oversight.
The Government’s incompetence on universal credit is matched by the measures to which they have subjected people on PIP. Anyone attending the Macmillan Cancer Support report launch last week could not have failed to be moved by the people there and their stories. In my constituency, I have encountered numerous cases where PIP has been delayed. One constituent made an application for PIP on 5 August 2013, but there were mix-ups with assessment appointments and delays with reports—the left hand did not seem to know what the right hand was doing—and only nine months later was a decision taken. The Public Accounts Committee report was rightly critical of PIP’s introduction. In the first 12 months, the Department made decisions for 84,900 people, or 7,000 a month, at which rate it is expected to be 42 years before the 3.6 million people who have been targeted will be seen.
I could go on about PIP, but I just want briefly to mention the work capability assessment. The Select Committee is undertaking an inquiry on its revision, and I was stunned by what we heard when we visited Newcastle. The final point I wish to make is this: if a Department judges people as fit for work and they subsequently die, can we possibly regard that Department as competent? No, we definitely cannot, as that is not what we expect in a civilised society. We must remember why we developed our model of social welfare and retain its principle of inclusion, support and security for all. Any one of us could be struck down by an illness or accident and we would need our social security support system—we should value it.
I have sat through this debate and listened carefully to speeches made by Opposition Members, and it appears to me that they believe that history started when this Government came into office. A collective act of amnesia has taken place, as demonstrated by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). She needs to remember that employment and support allowance and the work capability assessment were introduced when her party was in government. It designed the system and the process, and it awarded the contract to Atos, so Labour Members have to think about their role in all this. Not only did they demonstrate collective amnesia, but they have not put forward one idea as to how we can reform welfare, how we tackle dependency and how we help more people get back into work. Labour Members have forgotten their record and the scale of the challenge this Government inherited when we came into office in May 2010.
The Opposition have forgotten that they left behind a complex system of benefits, where it was unclear to those out of work whether they would be better off in work or out of work. I have sat down in jobcentres and heard Jobcentre Plus advisers spend 15 minutes with unemployed people trying to work out whether they would be better off working than not working. It was not clear all the time whether someone would be better off in work, which is why it is right to introduce universal credit. We cannot have a welfare system that sends inconsistent and unclear messages to our constituents who want to work. Universal credit is vital, not just because it changes and modernises the IT the Department uses, but in order to change the culture, so that people know automatically that they are better off in work than out of work, and that they are better off working more and earning more rather than working less and earning less. That shows the mess we had to deal with when we came into office in May 2010.
The previous Labour Government, as with every Labour Government, had left office with unemployment at a higher level than when they came into office. That is another part of the legacy we have had to deal with. What should we say about youth unemployment? It had gone up by 50% under the previous Government and, worse still, it had increased when the economy was growing quickly. That is not my observation; it is the observation of David Miliband, the former Member for South Shields. That is the situation we inherited, and what we have done in the past four years is reform the welfare system to ensure that it encourages people to work, that it is stable in terms of the fiscal position and that it is fair.
How is it fair for someone who is in work and working hard to take home less every month than someone who is on benefits? That shows why it was absolutely right to introduce the benefit cap. Not only did we do that to control the cost of benefits, but as a result of hard work by the staff of Jobcentre Plus and local authorities, 6,000 people who would have been affected by the benefit cap have now gone into employment. We should recognise that, and we should be applauding people for doing that and tackling the culture of dependency we inherited when we came into office in May 2010.
The other thing we have done that the Labour party will not like is ended the spare room subsidy in social rented accommodation, thus saving the taxpayer money and promoting exactly the same principle which Labour implemented when it was in government but has carefully forgotten about; the Labour Government did not have the spare room subsidy for private rented accommodation but they did have it for the social sector. Labour Members will not accept that what we did was provide consistency and fairness, and help tackle the housing benefit bill which rose so catastrophically quickly while Labour was in office.
I have mentioned this once or twice before in the Chamber, but when I was the leader of South Derbyshire district council, winning in 2007 for the first time for the Conservatives, we had to implement the Labour policy in 2008 on the spare room subsidy for the private sector. So what is fair? People only want fairness, and I am sure my hon. Friend would agree with me on that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and what she says again highlights the amnesia of Labour Members. They have forgotten what they did in government and they are pretending that any changes happened after we came into office in May 2010.
One thing that had struck me was just how technology had bypassed the jobcentre; the previous Government had let Jobcentre Plus become out of date and inefficient. The launch of Universal Jobmatch was a huge achievement—modern technology was being used to help match the right people with the right vacancies—but do we hear any praise for its roll-out from Labour Members? No, they are not interested in the good news. They are not interested in the fact that the Youth Contract has helped get young people into work by offering work experience places with the private sector, as opposed to the expensive schemes produced by the previous Government. We see hints of those schemes return again in the future jobs fund, which is one of the few ideas that Labour talks about in opposition.
We need to ensure that we get value for money and that we get people to work in the private sector. It is the private sector in this country that is creating jobs. We have seen a tremendous improvement in private sector job creation over the past four years. Some 2 million jobs have been created by the private sector, which is five times the amount of jobs lost in the public sector. That is a tribute to the businesses in this country, which have responded to our long-term economic plan and created the opportunities. It says something else as well: if we create clear incentives for people and make them understand that work pays, we will see more people coming forward to take up the jobs. That is why the employment rate is currently just shy of its all-time record. We are seeing jobs being created in this country, and three quarters of them are permanent jobs. We never hear about that from the Labour party. All it wants to do is talk down the jobs that its constituents get and the jobs created by businesses. That is damaging this economy and the confidence of communities up and down the country.
If Labour wants to demonstrate that it is fit for office, it needs to stop talking down the economy and start talking up the achievements of companies up and down this country. If it does not do that, the message that people will get is that Labour has learned nothing from its time in government; nothing about how to tackle the dependency culture; nothing about the complex benefits systems it left behind; and nothing about how to be on the side of those who work, those who want to play by the rules and those who want to see everyone else treated in the same fair fashion. That is what we have sought to do.
Welfare reform is a key part of our economic legacy. It has helped to provide the supply of workers that we need, and it has given hope to people. We know that people in work are far less likely to be in poverty than those who are out of work. That is why welfare is a key part of this Government’s reforms. If we get welfare right, the economy right and ensure that people have education and skills, we will continue to see the job creation that this country deserves.
I had a six-minute speech prepared, but I fear that I may need to ditch part of it to deal with some of the extraordinary points raised by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) who, until recently, was in the Treasury. To hear him allow no facts to get in the way of a good party political slogan is really very depressing.
Let me deal with the four worst points of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. First, he said that, under Labour, work did not pay and that people were better off on benefits. He needs to understand what tax credits and in-work benefits are. The whole point was that people would work. They would not be paid very much and, instead of paying tax, they would be able to get tax back. The idea was that it was worth working and that was the entire purpose behind in-work benefits. That is why we introduced them and why it is such a shame that they are being undermined by this Government.
Secondly, the bedroom tax has not been introduced by this Government in the same way that the previous Government introduced a bedroom tax for the private sector. The difference is that when a private sector tenant moved from one private rental place to another, he or she would not get housing benefit at a level for a flat that was far too big for them. When we introduced it, we were not going to say to them, “You are in a two-bedroom flat, so we will not give you all your rent”. We were going to wait until they had moved into a new flat and then say, “I am sorry, but you have to move into a flat that is appropriate to the size of your family.” That is the difference. Now the Government are saying to people in social housing, “You must move, and if you don’t and you can’t, because there isn’t social housing available for you of an appropriate size, we will not give you all your rent. You will continue to be charged all your rent, and out of the tiny amount of money that you get on welfare, you will need to pay that towards your rent or you will be evicted.” That is a big difference. [Interruption.] It is such a shame that the hon. Member for Fareham is not listening, because if he were, perhaps he would stop making such comments.
On the bedroom tax, Advice Nottingham provided me with a case study: Arthur, who was living alone in a two-bedroom council property, had rent of £70 a week. He moved to private rented accommodation to avoid the bedroom tax, and is now being paid £88.85 a week in housing benefit and still has a spare bedroom. Does that not show the ridiculous nature of this Government’s housing benefit reforms?
I could not have put it better myself. I do hope that the hon. Gentleman was taking notes.
Long-term youth unemployment eats into people’s souls. It eats into their future, their ambition and their very character. Worryingly, under this Government, long-term youth unemployment is going up. That is a fact that the hon. Gentleman really should have at the forefront of his mind and that the Government should be thinking about as an entire generation are losing their chance of life.
Let me touch on my last point before I move on to the speech that I had intended to make—[Interruption.] No, no, let me make my fourth point, which is that it is not fair that people on an average income should be getting less money than people on benefits. Let me explain this to the hon. Gentleman. If someone is on an average income in central London, they cannot live. They get in-work benefits, their rent paid or some assistance with their rent, and tax credits—as long as the Government continue to pay them out—because it is not possible to live in certain areas on an average income. We are in favour of caps on benefit, but we are in favour of them on a regional basis, because that is fair. The reason why the benefit bill is higher in certain areas is that property is more expensive. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has noticed this, but it is more expensive living in London and the south-east, or even the south, than it is in other areas. These people on benefits are not getting the money themselves; their landlords are getting it because the rents are so high. For that reason the benefit bill continues to go up. What is Labour’s solution? We will build 200,000 homes and that is the radical politics that is necessary to be able to address the problem of the cap.
In the two minutes I have left of my speech, I will talk about the problems with work capability assessments. The difficulty lies in the enormous delays in the system. Until recently, I had constituents who were waiting for an age to get their work capability assessments. I have a number of cases, which I now cannot read out, of people who have been waiting for more than six months for their work capability assessment to be done. Once it is done, it may be unfair, so they will have to appeal, and the appeals are taking a year. To get around that, the Government have introduced a mandatory reconsideration. The problem with that is that they are also taking an age. I have asked the Department how many claimants are left without any income during the reconsideration process. The Department cannot tell me. I have asked the Department what is the longest period that people have had to wait for their mandatory reconsideration. It cannot tell me that. The Department cannot tell me how mandatory reconsideration is going, so how can it know whether it has been a success?
People now have to wait for the work capability assessment, the mandatory assessment and then the appeal, 45% of which, even after jumping through all of those hoops, are successful. Is this a Department that is working properly? No, it is not. It has a new baby—the personal independence payment, which is supposed to work. In my area, we have only new claimants on PIP. The PIP assessment is also a nightmare. I have a constituent who, as a result of being in the war in Helmand, cannot stand or sit, and he has been waiting since 9 July 2013 for his assessment. How can that be? The reason is that he cannot move, so cannot get out of his home. He has been applying for PIP, but he cannot get his assessment. The latest letter from the Department, which has not been signed by a Minister, says that it cannot give me a time scale for how long he needs to wait for his assessment. Is that fair? It is not. Is this a Government who care? They do not. Can it be right that a Department allows seriously disabled people to be without any source of income for extended periods, and is still able to look itself in the mirror? I fear that it does, and it should be ashamed.
Order. I regret to say that there are more Members wishing to speak in this debate than there is time for them all to speak at six minutes. I will take the time limit down to five minutes from the next speaker. I have to say that it may not be possible for every Member to get in even on five minutes.
I am confident that the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) will forgive me for not responding meticulously to five minutes of sanctimony and histrionics.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on making an important set of points that received only giggles from the Opposition. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), who is not in her place, demanded respect, while those on her Benches laughed at his points.
I agree with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who pointed out that the title of today’s debate on the Order Paper, “Performance of the Department for Work and Pensions,” is a big bash at civil servants. As I make the first of the four points I want to make during my substantive contribution, I pay tribute to the staff of the Department for Work and Pensions with whom I work at the jobcentre in Norwich—in particular, Julia Nix, the district manager, Tom Adams, a project manager, and a young man called Jamie who is on work experience.
I have had the great honour of working with those three people on a project that seeks to halve Norwich’s youth unemployment and I am delighted to say that we are succeeding. Only last week, we were able to announce the 1,000th young person to go into work through that project. That has only been possible through the hard work of those civil servants. I have been humbled to be able to help them in that project and I want to continue to do more of that.
Secondly, we need universal credit to come in. It is crucial to make work pay. Let me give two examples from my constituency that demonstrate that. One father of four is trapped needing housing benefit at the level at which he receives it. He is unwilling to ask his wife to go to work because if he did so they would lose the benefits they receive. He is frustrated as heck in that trap and it is not fair on him.
I will make sure that I discuss that with my constituent, who is disgusted about what Labour ever did for him during its 13 years in office.
I also want to talk about the group of mums I recently met at Asda, which had kindly organised an event off the back of its Mumdex, a scheme that will be known to Members of the House. I hold my surgeries in Asda anyway, so it was a doubly good opportunity for me. Hon. Members will know very well the trap that occurs at 16 hours, which we have spoken about at length.
The next point I need to make about universal credit is that it will start to treat people as individuals. It will not continue to put people in the boxes of income support, JSA and ESA. It is crucial that we consider people’s individual circumstances and I suggest that the desire to free people from labels is what divides this side of the House from the Opposition. That is what drew me to the Conservative party and that is what I am proud to stand for. I resist any attempt from the Opposition to suggest that it is not respectful to see people as individuals rather than to label them.
Thirdly, I welcome the benefit cap. Many hon. Members have spoken about it already. I know many people in Norwich who would be only too happy to see the benefit cap set at the minimum wage rather than at average earnings. Norwich is another place where those things are out of kilter. It is a crying shame that Labour opposes the benefit cap and that shows the truth of what my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) said: Labour seems to think that it owns voters. That is another disgraceful demonstration of how Labour likes to label people as its people, but there will be no people left in support of the Opposition when they are not on the right side of the welfare debate.
Finally, I want to thank the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who is responsible for disabled people, for a move that he has recently made. He has changed the location of the work capability assessments carried out in Norwich. The company, Atos, which we have talked about many times today, formerly used an office on the second floor of a building in Norwich. The Minister has just put the wheels in motion to change that location. It is obviously not acceptable for some of the most vulnerable people represented by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) to be turned away and sent to Ipswich by public transport or sometimes by taxi. None of that is acceptable and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for turning that situation around. It is the right thing to have done. Do you know what? Who signed the contract on that building in the first place? Who has forgotten history, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban)? Who thinks that that it all began in 2010? The Labour party signed that contract in 1998 and my right hon. Friend the Minister has put things right.
I am wondering where to start, with only five minutes to speak. I wonder whether anybody was surprised by the Secretary of State’s opening remarks. He said that the Labour party was the cynical party—what a laugh that is. He said that the debate was just pandering to the paymasters in the trade unions, which has also been said by a number of Government Members. He went on to mention that they have had a good look at the Department in that they use taxis now and some Ministers use the tube. That is great. People in the constituencies will be absolutely delighted that such cuts have been made. Do the Secretary of State and the Ministers not realise that the people we are discussing tonight can barely afford to use taxis and that some disabled people cannot use the tube?
The Secretary of State said that the debate was nonsense and that Opposition Members were scaremongering. That could be described as arrogance in abundance from the Secretary of State. Only an out-of-touch raving lunatic would dare suggest that everything in the Department for Work and Pensions is on track and under control. It is in utter chaos. I would not suggest for one minute that the Ministers or the Secretary of State were stark raving lunatics—quite the opposite. These people know exactly what they are doing to disabled people, vulnerable people and poor people. They are some of the brightest people in Parliament, if not in the country. They know the consequences of their actions when it comes to cuts to the welfare state. They know exactly what is happening.
I would dare to suggest that this is the unbridled brutality of the nasty party coming to the fore—[Interruption.] Of course, they say, “Good grief, how can the hon. Gentleman suggest that?” That is the reality and that is how that party is portrayed in constituencies up and down the country. This is an ideological attack on poor people and on people on benefits, as has been said before. It is an absolute disgrace.
If we look at the universal credit, the work capability assessment, PIP or the bedroom tax, how on earth can anybody even suggest that they have been a success? They are in absolute turmoil. All the analysis and all the experts are saying exactly the same. How can PIP be successful if 700,000 people are waiting to be assessed? We are talking about 700,000 people, yet the Minister and the Secretary of State get up and say that there is nothing to worry about and that things are fine.
Let me end by saying that I will not accept what the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said about the Labour party having a go at people in the DWP. The people who work in jobcentres up and down the country are working their socks off. People are being laid up because of mental stress caused by the backlogs, the hassle and the way in which they are working. They get support from the Labour party, not from the Conservative party.
In relation to the so-called trade union paymasters, the trade unions have done more for vulnerable, poor and disabled people than the paymasters in the City have ever done or are likely to do, so I resent comments from the Government Benches that the subject for today’s debate was chosen to placate the trade union movement. The trade union movement has done more than they will ever do to support those people, who do not have a voice in Parliament.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), I have sat through most of this debate. The contribution of my hon. Friend and that of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) show in stark contrast how, with some notable exceptions on the Opposition Benches, the two sides of the House approach the vital issue of welfare reform. There can be no one in the House who does not want to live in a country that provides a safety net for people who cannot work—for people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in difficulties and need the support of their fellow citizens. That unites the House; it does not divide us.
However, when we move on to how we deliver a fair welfare state that not only looks after the most vulnerable people in our society, but enables everyone to be the best that they can be, there is a gap far greater than those few feet separating the Government and the Opposition Benches. What we have heard from Opposition Members this evening is unfettered ideology. What we have heard from Government Members, by contrast with the Opposition’s cynical party political scaremongering, are practical examples and pragmatic approaches to what we are going to do to enable people of working age who can work to work, and to give them a ladder out of poverty, with a good education and employment as the essential rungs on that ladder. We believe passionately in that, and we have spent the past four years building that ladder. It will take years more to make it a sound and lasting ladder, but we have made significant progress, as we have heard this evening.
Perhaps we are finding out tonight the real heart and soul that divide the two parties here. Member after Member on the Government Benches has demonstrated the practical work that he or she is doing in their constituencies on projects with the DWP, in schools and with employers—projects that are making a difference by improving employment, driving up salaries, and increasing people’s skills and opportunities. Those are all things that Opposition Members could be doing, but we have heard little about that this evening. Even our approach to food banks is remarkably different. Colleagues on the Government Benches are engaging with their food banks, and understand that this is not just about food; it is about making sure that people who fall between the cracks in our society get all the support they need to help them turn their lives around.
It is Government Members who are rolling up their sleeves and making a positive difference, not throwing out cynical party political comments which do nothing for the people who sent us here—the people we need to be mindful of this evening. It is shameful to listen to some of the contributions this evening, which undermine the excellent work that people in businesses and in the public services are doing to get alongside the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society to make a positive difference.
As our economy grows—it will take some time before it is the sort of economy that we want it to be—and as we rebalance it so that all parts of the nation feel the benefit, I want to make sure that no one is left behind. I am sure that our Front-Bench team has the right ideas and the right character to make sure that no one is left behind. With growing prosperity in our country, every part of our country and every person will have the opportunity to be the best that they can be and to improve living standards for themselves and their family. Based on the performance that we have seen tonight, the Opposition do not have the team or the ideas to help those people get on.
Some of the aspirations of the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) are indeed shared across the House. The problem is that for all those cheery words, many of the policies that the Government have put in place are not working. That is a fact and that is the purpose of this debate, not necessarily to reprise the entire debate on the Welfare Reform Bill, on the Committee of which the hon. Lady and I both sat. Many of the things that we said at the time were wrong and would not work have come to pass.
On Saturday morning I spoke to a constituent who cares for her daughter who has severe learning disabilities. She said to me, “My daughter is 25. She’s not going to get better. She’s not going to change, so why is she constantly being reassessed for employment and support allowance? What is all that about?”
Picking up on the point that my hon. Friend is making, I know a young girl, Nieve Evans, who has cerebral palsy, which of course is an incurable disease. She is four years old and is on the highest rate of DLA. Her parents are forced to fill in forms continually, and those documents are endlessly long. Every time they have to apply for the highest rate of DLA for her, and she will never improve. Is this the type of welfare state we want?
The issue that I want to raise is not just the stress caused to my constituent and her mother, but the extra expense and time involved. In debate after debate, I and others have suggested that one of the simple changes that could be made, which would be humane and would save money, is not to carry out constant reassessment. Even that minor change has not been accepted by Minister after Minister who has been responsible for people with disabilities.
The Minister for disabled people now admits that there is a backlog of 700,000 people awaiting ESA assessments. That comes as no surprise to us, because our constituents have been telling us for the past few months that the delays have been getting longer and longer. All these things—ESA, PIP and universal credit—seem to follow a pattern. First, Ministers deny that there is a problem, arguing that the Opposition, voluntary groups and advice agencies are scaremongering. Eventually an announcement is made that some changes are necessary because the benefit is not quite working out, but that is accompanied by a reassurance that everything will be fine very soon.
In 2011 the Government ignored concerns about how ESA was working out and rolled out the migration from incapacity benefit, despite the Select Committee’s concern about capacity. Simultaneously the Minister told us that Atos was being asked to make savings. I wonder whether some of those savings are in part the cause of the further capacity problems. Last year we heard that there was a slight glitch and Atos was being asked to improve its reporting. Within months, Atos was out of the door, so the problem was much more serious than we were told at that time.
Ministers want to blame anybody but themselves for this situation. Suddenly Atos is the bad guy, after years of being defended whenever Opposition Members dared to criticise it. The current Minister for disabled people has occasionally tried to claim that Atos was allowed to take the original contract knowing that it could not make it viable, so it was therefore the Labour Government’s fault. If that was the case, why did one of his predecessors tell the Select Committee in 2011 that there was room for cost savings? Why did the Government roll it out if they had concerns about the nature of the contract?
More recently, the Minister for disabled people has tried to blame the previous Government for the current backlog of 700,000, suggesting that it was somehow inherited in 2010. If there was any truth in that, why go ahead with the roll-out? Why did his predecessor say in March 2012 that there was a small backlog caused by some improvements that followed the Harrington report, but that it was on track to be cleared by the summer of 2012? He was not aware of any huge backlog inherited from the previous Government; he is just trying to avoid any responsibility for what is happening.
Crucially—this is fundamentally important—we have a system that is not only really hurting many of the people going through it, but is not succeeding, even on the Government’s own terms. The number of people in receipt of either incapacity benefit, as some people still are, or ESA has not fallen by anything like as much as we might expect, given the number who have apparently been found fit for work, who no longer get ESA on a contributory basis and who fall out of ESA altogether. The numbers just do not add up, and that is probably one of the major reasons why the savings are not adding up either.
Why is that important? What is actually happening to people? When we ask the DWP, it says that it does not know because it does not track what is happening to people. I think that many people are being found fit for work but are nowhere near finding work. The Work programme is failing people with disabilities, and sooner or later—in a few months or perhaps a year—they reapply for ESA. The numbers are not falling in the way the Government are trying to claim. That suggests that the system is failing even on its own terms. It is not making the savings, but it is making life very hard for individuals. It is time to look at it all again and quickly make some changes, some of which are quite straightforward, in order to bring savings and improve many people’s experience.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was extremely disturbed to hear over the monitors the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) describe cerebral palsy as an infectious disease, which implies that it can be caught by other people. That is not the case; it is a neurological condition. I wish to place that on the record.
Mr Maynard, I think that you know that that is not a point of order for the Chair, but a continuation of debate in the Chamber. You have got your point on the record and it is now part of the debate. I am sure that others will want to clarify the position.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, like the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), I have a unique opportunity to examine the successes and failures of the complex system that this country has in place. Fundamentally, every colleague in the Chamber harbours the same desires: to protect those who are unable to work and to equip jobseekers with the skills and support they need to get into work.
With colleagues from across the House, I have sat in the Select Committee and listened to accounts of waste, error and fraud. I have listened to the accounts of people who, thanks to the system the previous Government presided over, have been taught that there is no opportunity for them. As someone who spent some time unemployed in my youth, I know how disheartening the situation can be, quite apart from the assumptions of a system that says, “Because you aren’t in work now, you never will be.” The accounts we have heard have shown time and again that reform is not only important but essential.
Certainly, the outlook is brighter for active jobseekers across Britain under this Government. Employment is now running at over 30 million, which is an increase of 1.7 million since the general election. On the day it was announced that private sector employment had risen by more than 2 million since the election, figures show that in my constituency the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants had fallen to a record low of just over 3%. That is a drop of 31% since I became the Member of Parliament. Running my annual jobs and apprenticeship fair, the third of which I held in May, is a great tribute to the jobcentres and the people who work in them, as was ably demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). They do an outstanding job helping the neediest people get into employment.
I have spoken in the Chamber before about PIP and how the Government’s reforms offer responsible protection for those who need it the most while supporting those who can move back into work. Let me first set out how this Government are committed to supporting those with disabilities. Last year in the UK we spent over £50 billion supporting disabled people. To better serve those who need support the most, we need to look at how to address people’s needs as they change. Some 71% of DLA claimants are given indefinite awards, with no need for reassessment, so it is no surprise that changes in conditions are not picked up. That means that people whose conditions improve are not identified and, crucially, that people whose health has deteriorated further are not given what they need. How can we be surprised that people feel they have been labelled as lost causes and written off, given that no one takes the time to see how their lives have changed? I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) who gave an excellent example of what I am talking about.
DLA is clearly now an outmoded system that fails to address the needs of the people concerned. PIP will ensure that a responsible support network is in place to protect disabled people by providing regular assessments. That will mean that the proportion of people receiving the highest rate for both components will increase to 20% and that those receiving at least one component at the highest rate will increase to 56%. We are committed to a responsible transition, so the Government have set up, among other services, a dedicated phone service and electronic transfer of information, a streamlined assessment report form and a faster process for people with terminal illnesses.
The work capability assessment has also demonstrated the failings of the previous Government. The system was designed to ensure that those who are able to work get the help they need and that those who are too sick or disabled are fully supported. However, it proved unfit for purpose after its introduction in 2008. The hypocrisy of an Opposition debate about welfare should not be ignored, given that the Labour party left a 200,000-case backlog of employment and support allowance applications after its 13 years in power. As with the economy, it has been this Government’s job to fix its failure.
There are people who were written off by the state as unfit for work who are victims of poor assessments and a fundamental lack of support. Of those now accurately described as fit to work, 29% have been claiming incapacity benefit for more than 10 years and 10% have been claiming it for more than 15 years. The Government are committed to reviewing and continually improving the assessment process to make sure that nobody gets left behind. They are taking the vital steps needed to ensure that each person is seen as an individual. It is this Government who are making sure that each person has a place in our society. The message is: it always pays to work.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In my zeal to correct the record, I inadvertently attributed the phrase “infectious disease” to the hon. Member for Hyndburn. I apologise to him; in fact, he said “incurable disease”. I place that on the record.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. Opposition Members have been called cynics this evening; if I am a cynic, it is because the Government have made me one. I thought that we had seen the worst excesses of the Tories under Margaret Thatcher, but what we are seeing under this Government is even worse. Notably, not a single Lib Dem has spoken so far; I suspect that they are all out trying to hold on to their seats. The Minister has no choice but to contribute to the debate as the Opposition have tabled the motion.
As hon. Friends have tried to point out to Government Members, the motion is not just about the Government doing wrong; it is about them doing wrong badly. The Secretary of State always struggles. He is okay when he is talking about figures—he can be as macho and nasty as fits his character. However, as we saw on BBC’s “Question Time”, when Owen Jones talked about the human toll behind the figures, when he is actually faced with the stories of real people he becomes very uncomfortable.
In the limited time I have, I want to try to get practical support for constituents of mine who have brought forward their concerns. I want to talk about PIP in particular. That change was brought in by the Government; our fingers are not on it. It was not meant to save money, because we have been reassured that it will not involve cuts to any support to people with disabilities.
May I have some clarification from the Minister? The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) said that the Secretary of State was good at the technical detail, but if the hon. Gentleman had been sitting where I was he would have seen that the Secretary of State constantly had to turn to the Minister for advice on the detail of how PIP works. Will the Minister confirm that when the Secretary of State talked about the terminally ill, he meant that there will be no time limit for anyone who comes from their consultant with a verification of terminal illness? I have been advised—I will wait until the Minister gets to his feet; he will have longer than I have—that there is a criterion of six months. If what the Secretary of State seemed to say is really the case, that is good news, because for people diagnosed with motor neurone disease, half of whom live for only 14 months, time is short. Getting benefits paid back in arrears is not the same for someone whose life is limited.
I hope that when it takes a long time to assess someone for PIP, carer’s allowance will also be backdated. A young man in my constituency diagnosed with cancer waited over a year for his assessment. In the end, he received £4,000, which could have been of huge benefit to him and his family at the most difficult time in their lives, but his mother was not entitled to carer’s allowance. Will the Minister give an assurance that carer’s allowance will also be backdated to the date when the PIP claim was put before the DWP?
Labour Members have said that we believe that there is a place for sanctions—but sanctions that are fair. The Minister needs to ask himself: what is the purpose of a sanction? Is it to punish someone or is it to change behaviour, and what evidence do the Government have that the system is working in the way they would hope? I do not doubt that Government Members do not want to see people left with no support, having to turn to food banks or losing the tenancies of their homes, but they have to face up to the fact that that is what is happening under this system.
Bridges Project in Musselburgh in my constituency does a brilliant job in supporting young people. A young man, still at school, whose mother had died was left on his own in the house, and because he was late turning up to sign on he was sanctioned. That, to me, is a disgrace. While this may not be the intent of this Government, it is what they are doing to people up and down the country, and they have to face up to that. They have to be honest about the impact of these changes and start to redress the situation, because it is not just ruining lives but costing lives. I look forward to the Minister’s response and hope he will be able to answer my questions.
I did not prepare a speech as I wanted to come into the Chamber and listen to contributions by Members on both sides of the House.
This has been an interesting debate and some of the points made, especially given the drafting of the motion, will make interesting reading. We are all aware in this House that we pass legislation here, but the running of Government is often much more important. We pull the lever and it is important for us to follow it through. Nobody is going to pretend that we live in a state of nirvana and everything is perfect. Constituents have approached me about issues and I have had written responses from Ministers.
The sentiment is perhaps the most important thing. What are we trying to do and what message are we sending out? I will be interested if Labour Members agree with this. The sentiment of having a welfare cap, controlling housing benefit and believing that work always pays is absolutely crucial. I say that, as a Conservative Member, because I have lived it. I have been poor—dirt poor, to give the technical definition. I was born in a two-up, two-down and used to share my bedroom with my sister and, in fact, some of my cousins. According to the technical definition used by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), I was homeless. My wife is one of seven children, and it was exactly the same; they used to have an outside toilet and an old tin bath in Derby.
I am not going to give way, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will respect that, because we are pushed for time and other Members want to get in.
For a few years, I was at a state school in south-west Birmingham, where, candidly, some of my teachers thought I could not speak English. Eventually a teacher approached me and said, “You can actually speak English, Paul”, and I said, “I can read it too, sir.” If that teacher had not approached me, I would not be standing here delivering this speech today. The message is absolutely the most important thing. People should be told that they can do it and there is no limit on their aspirations—that just because they come from this background or that background, there should be no limit to how far they can go in society. In our welfare reforms, we are sending out that message very strongly and proudly.
I am a bit of a film buff and I occasionally watch TV. There is a wonderful line in the documentary—I do not know whether anyone saw it—where Stephen Fry went across the United States. He met parents celebrating at football colleges where 60,000 Americans would come out and watch their children play of an evening. He would ask them, “Why are you out when you have to go to work tomorrow?” His response to the situation time and again was, “Only in America,” and he observed that, when people here say, “Only in Britain,” they are often in a queue or it is raining. That is a simple use of words, but it shows the difference, which is the most important thing.
I have listened to all the points that have been made during this debate, but what do Labour Members actually want to achieve? It is often said that Labour was the great party of socialism. Is it the party of the public sector? The motion suggests that it is the party of the focus group and of not doing the right, long-term and difficult thing. It is being populist and looking for the easiest box to tick. I am proud that we are not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. That is the important thing—providing a ladder for social mobility. It is very easy to talk about these things, but very difficult to do them.
The vast majority of the caseload in my constituency of Wolverhampton South West comes from the centre of the city. Constituents approach me time and again. I have lived in the real world and we know that people will play the game, so it is absolutely vital that we change that and have a system that is open to everybody and makes work pay.
Two generations ago, my grandparents would often go for 48 or 72 hours without eating. My father came to this country with less than a few pounds in his pocket, but he came here because he wanted to work. During his first few days here, someone whispered in his ear, “Do you realise you can claim benefits?” It was total anathema to him that he should do that. His idea was to come here to work, better himself and contribute to the system, and that is what we are trying to inspire in everybody in the UK. We want to send out that important message.
I am glad that we are taking those difficult decisions, empowering people and giving them an opportunity. Thank goodness we are doing that, because I do not think it would happen under any other party represented in this Chamber.
Order. Five minutes simply will not give enough time for everybody to be able to contribute to the debate. My judgment is that those who have sat in the Chamber all day would rather have four minutes than no minutes at all. Therefore, I am now setting the time limit at four minutes. It will be very tight to get everybody in, but I hope nobody will be disappointed. The time limit is now four minutes.
I remember the introduction of the much-needed welfare reform under the previous Government and the teething problems that materialised early on. At that point, Labour MPs stood up, questioned their Government and said that we needed to see some change. The situation in the Chamber today has been totally different. This Government are just ploughing on and we have not heard a squeak about it from Government Members, with the possible exception of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), who did touch on his constituents. Frankly, we have been listening to sheep living in a parallel universe.
This motion is about system failure, not the principle of welfare reform or making work pay. Given that I have had 300 cases across my desk recently, I had hoped to raise 10 of them today, but I am not going to be able to do that, so I will raise just a couple. Mr M applied for PIP last September. In January, an assessment was set in Tavistock, 20 miles away, which prompts the very good question: why does he have to go to Tavistock when we live in a city with a population of 250,000? His paperwork was lost and he had to go for another assessment in May. When he arrived he was told it had been cancelled, but nobody had thought to tell him.
Mrs P applied many months ago and continues to have major operations for cancer of the lung, liver and bowel. She had to postpone her last assessment because of a lung operation. I am not quite sure whether she is considered to be terminally ill, but according to Atos she is not and she is still waiting for a decision. Mrs P applied last December and has been through various processes, including being told she has to go to Portsmouth, which is three and a quarter hours away, for an assessment. I hope the Minister will look into that. I know Whitehall has a problem distinguishing between two naval cities, but that, quite frankly, is ridiculous. When Mrs P finally arrived, Atos told her, “We’ll help you back into work,” which is interesting because she is self-employed and has told Atos as much on a number of occasions. The system is in chaos and does not take account of people’s problems.
There are also legal issues. It is believed that such delays are discriminatory, because the failure of companies carrying out the assessment and the guidelines that the DWP has to work to mean that the Government are actively supporting institutional disability discrimination. Under the Equality Act 2010, unfair treatment of a person or group of people by a public body due to a protected characteristic—in this case, disability—constitutes unlawful discrimination. The service provided to claimants of the disability benefit PIP is worse than the service provided to claimants of non-disability benefits administered by the DWP. PIP and ESA claimants are unfairly treated in comparison with claimants of non-disability benefits in that the norm for claimants of non-disability benefits is to wait for no more than 12 weeks, while, from all the experience of the many cases that I and other hon. Members have seen, that is simply not the case with disability benefits.
I think that this callous Government are failing morally and legally to administer welfare reform correctly. I urge hon. Members to support the motion, which, as I have said, is about the system, not the principle that some welfare reform is needed.
I apologise to the House for having been in a Statutory Instrument Committee—in fact, on DWP issues—listening to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) padding out his speech while saying very little. That is essentially where we are: we are not quite sure what the Labour party’s alternative is to what we are doing. However, Labour has a motion. In it, Labour complains that
“projected spending on Employment and Support Allowance has risen by £800 million”.
That tells us that Labour would prefer that perhaps another 160,000 people who currently get ESA not get it.
I am concerned about some areas. I have taken over as chair of the Lib Dems Back Bench parliamentary policy committee, and one issue I have expressed concern about is sanctions. There is no question but that people are sanctioned who should not be sanctioned. I thought that we should find out about more such cases, so I asked my local jobcentre to put on the wall a letter saying, “I am worried about people being wrongfully sanctioned. Can you please contact me if you have been wrongfully sanctioned?” The jobcentre said no—that it would not put a letter on the wall—which caused me concern, so I have written to Ministers to ask them to consider that issue. I take the view that jobcentres should make people aware of alternative advice services, be they the local Member of Parliament or the CAB.
I am sorry, but I will not take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman because it will knock somebody else out.
The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), was quite right to say that welfare reform is a very complex area. However, there is no question about it: we have to make it so that people are better off in work than out of work. I was very pleased when I heard universal credit proposed, because I have supported its principle for a long time. I thought that it might be a bit too radical for the Government, but we are in fact managing to make progress down that route, even though there are difficulties in our way.
Things such as the welfare cap are right, because it sends this message: “You should be in work.” The local Labour party in my constituency of Birmingham, Yardley opposed all the Government’s welfare changes during the local elections, but it got 27%, while we got 46%. My local constituents in Birmingham, Yardley agree with the welfare cap. Many of them do not earn that much money, and they think the cap is reasonable.
We should concentrate money on low-paid workers. Universal credit, which will top up their pay, will be good. I want an increase in the minimum wage above what is proposed. I would go for a figure of about £7 an hour as a way of starting to make progress on that.
The welfare benefits system is a complex area. Now that we are one year out from a general election, I really think that the Labour party has a responsibility to put forward some alternatives. We have heard noises from Opposition Members complaining about the cost of housing benefit going up, but if we freeze housing benefit payments, the people who will suffer are those on low incomes, whether in work or out of work, who have difficulty paying their rent. There has been talk of the Labour party adopting the Institute for Public Policy Research’s proposal about the transfer or localisation of housing benefit, but that would cause great difficulties, and I do not think that local authorities want it. Less than a year from a general election, with the Government doing a good job in improving the employment situation—getting young people into work and making it worth while to work—the Opposition have got to offer an alternative.
The motion refers largely to the work capability assessment and the personal independence payment, but it also refers to the disarray in other benefit programmes. I want to concentrate on the independent living fund, which the Government are proceeding to abolish.
On Saturday a group of people with severe disabilities turned up with their carers and in their wheelchairs and chained themselves together in Westminster abbey gardens in protest against the Government’s proposal to proceed with the abolition of the independent living fund. The protest was organised by a group called DPAC—Disabled People Against Cuts. They wanted to remain there for a couple of weeks to try to engage with parliamentarians and others on this issue, but unfortunately 200 police arrived and evicted them from the site, with the support of the Dean of Westminster. I wonder what happened to the sermon on the mount.
I thought that there was cross-party support for the independent living fund—that it was one of the benefits that worked. The idea was to fund carers and others who enabled people with severe disabilities to ensure that they were no longer trapped in residential homes but could live independently in their own homes and participate in wider society, and that as a result of that support some could go to work and earn their income. I thought we had cross-party agreement that it was one part of the welfare system that was working effectively, but the Government have proceeded to abolish it.
Responsibility is now being transferred to local authorities. The Government are arguing that the Care Act 2014 will enable local authorities to provide a similar level of service, but that is not the case for many of the people who already experience the services offered by local authorities. There has been a cut of £3 billion in expenditure by local authorities on social care for people with disabilities. We have already seen significant cutbacks on levels of care. People who are severely disabled are now anxious that as the money transferred to local authorities is not being ring-fenced, local authorities will cut support for people with disabilities, and that support will not be protected in future.
That is causing concern and desperation among people with disabilities and their carers—so much so that they took the Government to court because of the lack of consultation on the proposals and the lack of consideration of the equalities implications. They won in court, but only a few months ago the Government decided nevertheless to proceed with the abolition of the independent living fund. I believe that will be challenged again by a number of claimants. I hope that this time around the Government will not contest that challenge and that we can come back, discuss the policy and arrive at a consensus again about how we can support the most severely disabled people in our country. We need to do exactly what the ILF was funded to do: to provide care and support so that disability can be overcome at least in the sense that people with disabilities are able to participate in wider society.
The policy is causing extreme consternation not just among disabled people but among their families. We know what will happen: local authority cuts will fall on the individuals and care will fall on to the families themselves—I have to say that in my constituency many of those people are ageing parents—and eventually, because of the abolition of the independent living fund, people will be forced back into residential establishments. At the end of the day, that will prove even more costly than the 17,500 people who are currently receiving the benefit.
I appeal to the House and to the Government to think again on this one. It is one benefit that we all thought we had got right. In the 1980s I served on the Committee on Restrictions against Disabled People. It was the first committee to try to ensure the integration of disabled people in this country. We thought that the independent living fund was the benefit that could succeed. Everyone agreed at that time, and they should agree now.