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Topical Questions

Volume 585: debated on Monday 1 September 2014

Today, I welcome an important step in our new test and learn approach to delivering universal credit, with the launch of 11 robust evaluation trials to test support for vulnerable households. We are working with local authorities in a way that has not been done before to make available a system of universal support that is delivered locally and that offers tailored help to get online and budget effectively as individuals progress into sustainable work.

Is the Secretary of State aware that since July last year, unemployment in my constituency has fallen by a very welcome 689 people? That means that nearly 700 more families have a new wage earner and hope for the future. That is surely a clear vindication of his reforms and our long-term economic plan.

I welcome everything that my hon. Friend has said about what is happening in his constituency. Such things are happening right across the country. The coalition Government—Conservative and Lib Dem colleagues—are developing a better Britain for all of us.

Two thirds of children in poverty now live in families in which somebody is working, and a record 5 million people are earning less than a living wage. In-work poverty is an injustice and an indignity to those who suffer it, but it also costs the taxpayer through the benefit system. Will the Secretary of State tell us by how much the spending on housing benefit for people in work is expected to increase between 2010 and 2018?

I wish the hon. Lady had been listening to my answer to an earlier question—[Interruption.] No, the reality is that the number of people who are out of work and on housing benefit is falling. The number of those who are in work is rising. Under the last Government, we saw a rise in the number of people who were out of work and having to claim housing benefit. Let me also remind the hon. Lady, who has voted against every single measure we have taken, that our housing benefit reforms were set to reduce the amount of money. When the Labour Government left office, housing benefit was likely to rise to £26 billion. It will now rise at a far slower rate than that, because of the reforms that we have made to housing benefit.

The reality is that housing benefit overall is going to go up in real terms from £23 billion at the beginning of this Parliament to £24.6 billion at the end of it. Housing benefit for people in work is forecast to rise by a staggering £12.9 billion between 2010 and 2018. Does that not show that taking action to make work pay would be a much more effective way of controlling housing benefit than the unfair and unworkable bedroom tax, which I and many of my colleagues will be voting to change this Friday, and which we need a Labour Government to repeal after the general election next year?

The hon. Lady is in a hole and she really should stop digging. Let me remind her of what we had to take over when we came into government. Left unreformed, the bill that Labour left us with would have exceeded £26 billion in 2014-15. Instead, today, it is £24 billion—£2 billion less. Under Labour, in-work and out-of-work housing benefit claimant numbers increased, and those who were in more despair, being out of work, had to claim higher payments. Under us, homelessness is down 7%, half the peak that occurred under the last Government, and rent collection is currently 98% higher than under the last Government. Also, housing association arrears fell during the last two quarters. All of that is better than anything that the last Government left us as a result of their record on spending.

T2. A number of my constituents have experienced lengthy delays while waiting for a decision on a review of their personal independence payment application. That is a time of great uncertainty and stress for all concerned. In addition to the efforts that the Minister has already outlined, will he tell us what steps he will take to speed up the application, review and appeal processes? (905089)

My hon. Friend will know from earlier answers the priority that we attach to this. As well as ensuring that the assessment can take place faster, we are also ensuring that the DWP decision makers will be able to cope with the increased number of cases as those cases move through the system, so that, once we have got the assessment process sorted out, those decisions will be made in a timely way which will benefit her constituents and mine.

T4. Ministers have talked about bedroom tax exemptions, but in reality these do not protect unpaid family carers. In fact, 60,000 carers are hit by the tax, and Carers UK has found that 75% of the carers it surveyed were cutting back on food and heating to make up the shortfall. Will the Minister now accept how cruel and unfair it is to make unpaid family carers pay the bedroom tax? (905092)

The hon. Lady will know that the spare room subsidy is about making sure that people have the size of home that they are entitled to, and that if people regularly need carers to stay overnight, that is considered an acceptable reason for having an extra bedroom. She will also know that we have made considerable funds available to local authorities through the discretionary housing payments, many of which have not even been spent.

T3. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to reducing the waiting times for processing benefit applications. At a recent meeting that I organised for Atos, the DWP, citizens advice bureaux and MPs’ caseworkers in Gloucestershire, representatives of the CABs expressed their suspicion that DWP contractors were paid according to how many people they could take off benefits. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that is absolutely not the case? Will he also encourage CABs to work closely with MPs’ offices so that we can intervene sooner to help our constituents who have problems? (905091)

I can confirm to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour that contractors are not paid based on any sort of incentive arrangement to get people off benefits. They are paid to make an accurate assessment, which they then provide to departmental decision makers. Citizens advice bureaux should continue their work with MPs’ offices, which is incredibly helpful.

T5. Despite the Minister’s earlier optimism, is it not clear that it has all gone badly wrong when the Government can organise to pay disability benefits to an on-the-run convicted killer such as David Richards, who as I understand it just walked out of jail, but cannot organise for some of the poorest disabled people in my constituency even to have their applications assessed within six months? (905093)

I am not familiar with the case that the hon. Gentleman raises, although I know he has written to me to raise some PIP cases. I have not yet confirmed this to him, so I confirm now at the Dispatch Box that I will be happy to meet him to discuss those cases.

T7. In a few weeks, I will hold my eighth Reading jobs fair. At the previous seven, 20,000 jobseekers and 300 local businesses have already been welcomed. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State join me in thanking all the businesses and partner organisations that have made that possible, and in welcoming the impact that it has had on reducing unemployment in the Reading area? (905096)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on working closely with businesses to get people back to work. Will he also pass on our congratulations to the businesses, small and large, that have done their level best to help deliver 1.7 million new jobs since the Government came to power and to turn the economy around so that it is the best performing economy in the whole of Europe?

T6. With the lamentable record of the failures of Atos, the shocking delays in assessments, the injustice of the bedroom tax and the continuing scandal of the IT system for universal credit, why does the Secretary of State stay in the job? (905094)

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that this Government have got more people back to work, that we now have record levels of employment, that we have cut the deficit and that we are getting the cost of delivering welfare down. We inherited a shambles, and we have turned that around. That is the purpose of government.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Rossendale jobcentre, which has just signed up nearly 45 people to its work experience programme, including me and my office? The first young person to come through my office on work experience, Liam, has just secured a job because of that work experience.

First off, three cheers for Liam for getting his job through work experience, as many other people are doing across the UK. Nearly 200,000 people have been on work experience since 2011, more than 40% of whom have got a job. That just shows that people can have a positive future when they have a Government like this in charge.

T8. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) mentioned the carers caught up in the bedroom tax. How many of them are still caught up in it? (905097)

The hon. Gentleman knows that, as I have just said, if someone has an overnight carer, that is a perfectly acceptable reason for having a room. He will also know that local authorities have been given significant sums in discretionary housing payments to deal with difficult cases that do not clearly fit the rules. Most local authorities are not spending the money that the Government have allocated to them.

On 11 March last year, I asked the Secretary of State about under-occupancy. I said:

“Does the Secretary of State agree that no benefit reduction should take place until people have at least been offered somewhere appropriately sized and located?”—[Official Report, 11 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 22.]

The Secretary of State said, “I agree”. What has he done to deliver that?

I remind my hon. Friend that we have given local authorities more than £300 million in discretionary housing payments. What they are meant to be doing right now—many of them are doing it, by the way—is finding people the accommodation that they require and supporting them through discretionary payments while they are looking for it. That is why we are saving £1 million a day and £500 million a year.

A constituent of mine, an older, experienced woman, recently told me that when she was made redundant she got barely any help from our local jobcentre. It was therefore no surprise to me to see recent figures showing that the Work programme is getting a job for only one in eight workers over 50. Who is going to fix that—those who are running the Work programme or Ministers?

The Work programme has proved to be very successful. Some 1.5 million people who are long-term unemployed have been on it, and more than 500,000 of those have got a job. However, if that lady was only recently made unemployed, she would not have been going on the Work programme just then. We have a flexible fund to support people, and we are doing more to help people, extending their working lives.

I know that Labour Members do not like encouraging news, but youth unemployment in Selby and Ainsty is down by more than a third since the last election, and much of that is down to apprenticeships. Will the Minister join me in thanking the employers who are taking on those youngsters, and encourage them to turn up at my jobs fair—the fourth one in Selby—on 9 October?

I certainly will—if you are an employer and have a job, please get down to the Selby jobs fair. That is absolutely right. That is what we are doing: we are getting the country back on its feet and helping young people as best we can—hence, we have more young people in work than since records began. I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work he does on the ground.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the impending crisis to the stability of institutions in Northern Ireland as a result of the failure to implement significant reforms to the welfare system there? If he is aware of those threats, what message has he for Sinn Fein, which has failed to introduce those changes and appears to be more interested in the need of residents in Monaghan than those in Northern Ireland?

Sinn Fein needs to face up to its responsibilities and cannot have it all ways. If it gets the welfare Bill through, it will benefit from the support that it will get, but it cannot sit in limbo land. I support what the hon. Gentleman has just said—it is time for Sinn Fein to get on and do what an elected Government need to do.

Will the Minister provide an update on when the decision on the moratorium on funding for deaf interpreters for Access to Work will be announced, because we have been waiting for a report from the DWP?

Let me undertake to write to my hon. Friend as soon as I leave the House and give him the full details.