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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 587: debated on Monday 3 November 2014

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Working Families (Benefits)

1. What assessment his Department has made of the effects on working families of recent changes to the level of benefits. (905803)

Since the financial crash of 2008, while average wages have risen by around 10%, working age benefits have risen by around 20%—a sign of our commitment to those who are most vulnerable, despite the black hole in the public finances that we inherited.

In their relentless demonisation of those on benefits, this Government forget to say that only 3% of welfare spending goes on benefits to the unemployed, and a half of all those in poverty are in working households. In the north-east, working people are £1,800 worse off per year since this Government came to power, and a quarter of a million of them do not even get the living wage. Now the Minister decides to freeze working tax credits. Why is he balancing the books on the backs of the working people?

It is difficult to know which of those dubious assertions to choose from that question. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady asks which one is dubious. She says that 3% of what she calls welfare spending goes to the unemployed—[Interruption]—goes on benefits to the unemployed, so she presumably counts state pensions as welfare spending. I do not.

I welcome the news that over the last 12 months we have seen the largest annual fall in unemployment since records began. Does the Minister share my view that the best way out of poverty is through sustainable employment and a regular pay packet—something enjoyed by an extra 847 of my constituents since January 2013?

My hon. Friend is quite right. We know that the risk of a child, for example, being in poverty is three times as great if they are in a workless household rather than a working household. We have almost become blasé about new record falls in unemployment month after month. That is the key to our drive to tackle poverty.

I ask the Minister this week to support the living wage campaign in his own Department. Can he tell the House how many contracted-out workers outside London in his Department have yet to receive the living wage?

The right hon. Gentleman deserves great credit for his promotion of the living wage. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State inherited a situation in which some of the Department’s employees were not receiving the living wage. Our Department has committed to it, and we have had that dialogue with our subcontractors as well.

I also welcome the rise in the living wage announced today. The Minister will be aware that jobseeker’s allowance claimant numbers are falling across the board in every single constituency in the north-east, and by 31% in my Hexham constituency over the last year. Does he agree with me that coming off JSA and into employment is surely the way forward?

My hon. Friend is quite right. It is entirely welcome that we are ensuring not only that more people get into work, but that work pays through the universal credit reform, which this coalition Government are proud to have introduced.

According to the Government’s own figures, 20% of working people in my constituency earn less than the living wage, yet they will lose hundreds of pounds a year through this Government’s freeze in working tax credit. How does that possibly reward people who want to work, and how can the Minister justify that when the Government give tax cuts to the wealthy?

The largest number of people who have benefited most from tax cuts during this Government are those who are in work and paying income tax. Under this Government, a typical basic rate taxpayer is £800 a year better off in cash terms as a result of our changes to the personal income tax allowance, and over 3.2 million individuals will have been taken out of income tax altogether.

Harrogate borough is part of the roll-out of universal credit, and the feedback from jobseekers and employers has been universally positive. Will the Minister explain a bit more about the benefits to the UK economy as a whole when this roll-out is completed?

My hon. Friend is quite right that the early indications from those receiving universal credit have been positive, in line with the expectations of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We are designing the system to be simpler for people and to make sure that when they take work, work pays. Already those on the front line who are working with unemployed people are welcoming the new freedoms universal credit gives them to support people back to work.

Welfare Reforms (Economy)

Our reforms are having a very positive impact on the economy, as my hon. Friend has seen. The deficit is down by more than a third, and we are at a record level of employment. Recent statistics have shown that both the number and rate of workless households is at a record low, too—the lowest since 1996.

May I commend my right hon. Friend on these reforms, which as he said have led to record falls in unemployment while also cutting the deficit? Does he agree with me that all of this is threatened by the policies suggested by Labour Members, who caused the financial chaos that we have had to deal with in the first place?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is worth highlighting one particularly revealing set of figures. For workless households, both the number and the rate are at record lows: 3.3 million and 15.9% are the lowest since ’96. Children in workless households number 1.5 million, at a rate of 12.7%—again, the lowest on record. Under Labour, some 2 million children lived in workless households. That is now collapsing, thanks to the work we are doing. Labour’s plans would only return us to the bad old days.

Why are jobcentre staff being told to say to people, “We are not here to help you to find work; we are simply here to check that you do it for yourself”?

I do not believe that that is correct. I have the highest respect for the people who man jobcentres all over the country, and who do a remarkable job in helping many of those who have fallen out of work to get back into it. Jobcentre staff now tell people that their own job is to help them to find and take work, but that they themselves have a responsibility to do whatever is necessary to find work and take it. Their job is a combination of helping people and ensuring that they perform their task of seeking work and taking it. I am sure that, actually, the right hon. Gentleman agrees that that is the right thing to do.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend undertaken of economies similar to ours that have ducked the challenge of welfare reform, and of how their economic performance compares with ours?

We do not need to go very far to see the country that the Opposition held up as the paragon of virtue in the European Union. It is, of course, France. I should point out that the French pursued the policies that the present Opposition think are right for the British economy. Adult unemployment in France is at record, scorchingly high levels, and youth unemployment is far higher than it has ever been in this country, while it is falling here.

As my right hon. Friend will know, the benefit cap is encouraging some people to move out of London, where rents are high, to areas such as Clacton and Thanet. Does he agree that local councils should be able to act to discourage benefit migration of that kind?

There has been very little movement of more than about five miles from people’s existing homes as a result of the benefit cap. Most people have settled, and many—two thirds—have either gone back to work or found alternative employment. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that there is something called the discretionary housing payment, and his local council, like any other, can make decisions about how it modifies the process. It is up to councils to do that, and we leave it with them.

The flagship of welfare reform was supposed to be universal credit. The Secretary of State’s former adviser told Radio 4 last week that the Secretary of State had known that the project was going badly wrong since May 2012, but he continued to tell the House that it was “exactly on track”. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee expects IT write-offs to exceed half a billion pounds after the election. What is the right hon. Gentleman’s estimate?

Yet again, the right hon. Gentleman has got his facts completely wrong. The reality is that, as was announced only a few weeks ago, universal credit is not only doing well, but is to be rolled out nationally. The right hon. Gentleman may be smiling because he has the idea that Labour might somehow get into government, and might inherit a success. I can tell him that Labour will not get into government, but universal credit will get more people back to work. It is already the case that it will give the economy net benefits of more than £30 billion, and there will be direct benefits of some £9 billion a year as a direct result of the roll-out that we are planning successfully.

According to page 34 of the “21st Century Welfare” Green Paper,

“The IT changes that would be necessary to deliver”

universal credit

“would not constitute a major IT project.”

Is not the problem—as I pointed out to him at the time—that the Secretary of State failed to grasp the scale of the undertaking at the outset, and that hundreds of millions of pounds have been wasted as a result?

Again, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong. No money has been wasted. The roll-out means that, with all the work that we are doing, the vast majority is reusable through the digital system. I should be happy to invite him into my office to discuss the issue; the door has always been open to him.

Let me also say this, however. I wish that the Opposition would stop trying to play silly games and would recognise that this benefit, which is now being rolled out successfully and whose national roll-out has been announced, will be a massive benefit for those who are seeking work and those who are in work. It is time that the Opposition sat down with jobseekers and those who run the jobcentres, and got their story straight. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) spent about half an hour in a jobcentre, and then disappeared without talking to anyone there.

Child Poverty

3. If his Department will make an assessment of the potential effect on child poverty of a two-year freeze in benefits. (905805)

Under this Government, the number of children in relative poverty has fallen by 300,000. The Government have no plans to make any further assessment of this kind. Such an assessment would only be provided in reference to Government policy.

The End Child Poverty coalition recently found that almost half of all children in my constituency now live in poverty. Of the 2.6 million children living in poverty across the UK, two thirds rely on tax credits and in-work benefits. How does the Minister square that with the recent changes to benefits, which are going to make matters worse, and is he today redefining poverty?

I am interested in the hon. Lady’s question because in the report Alan Milburn brought out as part of his commission he recommended that we should

“supplement the existing child poverty targets with new measures to give a more rounded picture of those in poverty”,

and I agree with that. That is what we have set out to do. We took a consultation, and we are now considering that consultation and we will be bringing forward recommendations.

May I just say to the hon. Lady, however, that many of the forecasts about child poverty proved to be wrong? Child poverty has actually fallen, and, interestingly, I notice that the figures for her area show that Tower Hamlets has seen the largest fall of any local authority in England, down 7.1%, and down 9.6% since 2010 for those on tax credits and below the poverty line.

I am sure that when I voted for the welfare cap I was surrounded in the Division Lobby by large numbers of Labour Members of Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one can only have an effective welfare cap, and cap the welfare bill, if benefits do not rise faster than wages?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right and he is approaching this from the logical perspective, which is that we have a responsibility to make sure that the economy is in balance, that we get the deficit down and that we are able to afford what we want to do to support the most vulnerable. What the Opposition fail to recognise time and again is that the economy that they left in a totally wrecked position has got to be sorted out; we cannot just go spending what we do not earn.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that children are also being pushed into poverty because his Department is not pursuing errant non-resident fathers vigorously enough? As he knows, my constituent Lisa Jones, a hard-working single mother, has been totally frustrated by the lackadaisical attitude of the Child Support Agency in tracking down the father, despite knowing his mother’s address, when he owes £23,000 and she has been struggling on tax credits and housing benefits to bring up a teenage boy while the father takes exotic holidays and avoids court orders. Will the right hon. Gentleman stop his weasel-worded replies to me and sort this matter out now?

I completely agree that in the right hon. Gentleman’s individual case, which I do know about and I recognise, that money should go to the parent with care. We fully agree with that and the CSA, part of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, is bearing down to try and get the details of this individual. As he knows, this case is a little complicated because the individual moves time and again before the agencies can get hold of him, but I have to say that I have already intervened by talking to them about this, and I promise the right hon. Gentleman this, and ask him to pass this on to his constituent: I personally will take direct interest in this because it is outrageous that this individual gets away with what he is doing. I have told the CMEC that it must bear down on these cases. The reforms we are bringing in will do just that, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman can reassure his constituent that we will sort this out.

There will be a further report to the House on the matter in due course. I am quite confident of that.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, in spite of what Opposition Members say, relative child poverty has fallen by 300,000 under this Government since 2010?

Yes, and it is something the Opposition do not really want to talk about. The forecast was that it would rise. In fact, it has come down. It is also important to recognise that nearly 400,000 fewer children now live in workless households and that the proportion of children on free school meals getting five good GCSEs is up from 31% under the last Government to 38% as of a year ago.

Jobseeker’s Allowance (Bury North)

The number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Bury North was 1,304 in September, a fall of more than 500 people since 2010.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that this fall in unemployment has not happened by accident? It has only happened because this Government have cut tax and red tape on businesses, giving them the confidence to grow and take on new employees?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The latest reports from the British Chambers of Commerce show that businesses are feeling more confident and are taking on more people. In the north-west, an additional 109,000 people are in work this year. He knows only too well how important it is to get a job that can lead to career progression. He is a working-class Tory who got himself into a job, did a correspondence course in law and then set up his own legal practice. We want those opportunities for everyone.

Employment and Support Allowance

5. What change there has been in the number of people claiming employment and support allowance over the last two years. (905807)

Based on the latest published national statistics, as at February 2014 there were 2.46 million people on employment and support allowance and incapacity benefits, a fall of 98,000 from February 2012.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Since the incapacity benefits migration started, 250,000 IB claimants have been found fit for work, yet he is now telling us that the total number has fallen by only about 90,000. That might explain why the Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting that spending on incapacity benefit alone will rise by £3 billion more than the Government expected in 2010. Is it not time that the Minister and his colleagues realised that, despite all the rhetoric, many people are not fit for work and that the necessary support is not there for those who do want to work?

I would point out to the hon. Lady that we have had some problems with the work capability assessment—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Before Opposition Members jeer, they should remember that this has happened under the provider that the previous Government appointed. We have taken action to sort the problems out, and Atos has agreed to exit from its contract. From 1 March next year, the new provider that I appointed last week, Maximus, will be taking over and will do a better job.

I welcome the Government’s decision to introduce a new provider. The Minister has just confirmed that it was the previous Government who appointed Atos. Can he explain how the new provision will be materially different from the outgoing arrangements?

Yes, I can. I have taken a close interest in the contracting process, and we have learned from the previous experience. We are confident, given the bid that Maximus put together and the successful contracts that it has operated in Australia, Canada and the United States of America, that it will be able to deliver the assessments competently over the next three years.

Last week, the BBC reported that Ministers were considering cutting employment and support allowance for those in the work-related activity group—that is, those who have been assessed as being too severely disabled or too ill to be ready to work. I was grateful for the Minister’s letter, which I received this morning, assuring me that that did not reflect Government policy. I am sure he will want to place that on the record in the Chamber now. However, Ministers are in trouble with employment and support allowance. Over the course of this Parliament, it is likely to have a cumulative cost of £8 billion more than they had planned. The Office for Budget Responsibility has also sounded the alarm, saying that

“spending would remain higher…because of delays to the work capability assessment programme”,

which puts the Government’s own annually managed expenditure cap at risk. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be no cut, now or in the future, to the benefits on which disabled people rely, in order to pay for the Government’s policy failures?

I am glad that the hon. Lady has referred to the letter I sent her, because it confirms that the BBC report

“does not reflect Government policy.”

It also makes the point that we have seen

“a fall in out of work benefit numbers of 832,000 since 2010—the total is now below 4 million, the lowest figure since 1990”,

that incapacity benefit numbers have fallen by 98,000, and that the spend on incapacity benefits has also fallen by £1 billion in real terms between 2009-10 and 2013-14.

I thank the Minister for his comment that the mooted cut was not Government policy. Can he reassure me and others that it will not become Government policy and that he will not consider making cuts in that area? People who are unwell or disabled often face additional costs to those faced by everyone else.

The hon. Gentleman talks about disabled people having higher costs; he is obviously talking about the personal independence payment, which is the help we give to people to help them to stay or become independent. The BBC report was talking about employment and support allowance, which is an out-of-work benefit.

Employment (Young People)

In the past 12 months, youth unemployment has fallen by a record-breaking 253,000. This Government have developed an array of support for young people including: work experience, sector-based work academies, traineeships, the Work programme and increasing apprenticeship numbers.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Youth unemployment in my constituency has halved since 2012. I recently visited my local Asda in Colne to see the work it is doing with local jobcentres. What more can my right hon. Friend offer to end youth unemployment in Pendle?

My hon. Friend is doing a lot locally to help people into work. He has had three job fairs so far, and is soon to have a fourth. It is by working with business, as he is doing in his constituency and we are doing nationally, that we have businesses and trade associations engaged in running programmes such as movement to work and feeding Britain’s future. All such initiatives are giving young people opportunities to move into work. We are not complacent, and recognise that there is more we can do. We are looking to create an extra 3 million apprenticeships in the next Parliament to ensure that we have full employment for young people.

The Minister sounds so plausible and she has oh so many skills learned in the television trade, but she should pick up the Local Government Association report that said that so many young people in this country are being badly served and that there will be 2 million of them unemployed or under-employed in the next few years because the model that we have for helping young people is not fit for purpose and that after four and a half years she has done very little about it.

It would have been better had the hon. Gentleman stopped after his first sentence. Not only am I plausible—I was giving the true statistics. Let us be honest: it was the Opposition who said that unemployment would be up by a million at this stage. How wrong they were. [Interruption.] We have unemployment up by 2 million. [Interruption.] Sorry, the Opposition said that it would be down by a million. Employment levels are at a record high: more than 30.7 million people are now in work, putting the figures on a par with pre-recession rates.

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but rather than living on planet fantasy I ask him to look at the facts.

Youth unemployment in the Ribble Valley is relatively low. One of our great facilities, the jobcentre in Clitheroe, is currently under review and the suggestion is that it should close. Does the Minister accept that young people in rural areas have to travel large distances to get to a jobcentre? As these jobcentres are important, they should not be told to get on a bus to Blackburn.

My hon. Friend is right that jobcentres are important. The question is how we best support jobcentres and claimants. Can young people in rural areas make their claim on the phone or online, and can we align various other organisations so that they can come together and help support people in a fully rounded way? Obviously, what we are doing is right, because, as he says, in his area employment is up and unemployment is down.

The Minister budgeted for 160,000 young people to complete the Youth Contract wage incentive payments. When the Department pulled the plug on that scheme, fewer than 10,000 young people had actually completed the 26 weeks on the programme. Will she tell the House what went wrong?

What I will do is tell the House what went right, as that is what people want to know. We have a record number of young people in work. We had a £1 billion Youth Contract, within which was an array of different opportunities—work experience, sector-based work academies and wage incentives. Working with businesses, we found that work experience, sector-based work academies and apprenticeships were the things that they want, and they are the ones offering the jobs. We have seen 40,000 young people—not 10,000 young people—start in that way. We have redeployed the money from the Youth Contract to areas where it will be most effective. The situation is far from what the hon. Gentleman outlined, as what we are doing is working.

Personal Independence Payments

When I was asked this at the last departmental questions, I said that the straightforward answer was that PIP claimants were having to wait too long and we are putting that right. I am pleased to say that since I answered that question we have made considerable progress; both the assessment providers have significantly increased the number of claims they are processing. That is good, and we will meet the Secretary of State’s commitment that nobody would be waiting 16 weeks by the end of the year. On the statistics, we will pre-announce the publication in due course, in line with the UK Statistics Authority code of practice.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I also thank the Minister for that answer, but I would like him to make something absolutely clear. If one of my constituents phones up the Department today to make a PIP claim, will that be dealt with within 16 weeks or will they hear what people are often hearing, which is that it could take up to six months?

Nobody will be waiting longer than 16 weeks by the end of the year. One area where we are performing better is Scotland; the contract Atos runs in Scotland has some of the best performance we are seeing, so I hope that if someone were to make that claim now they would get a decision much more quickly than the hon. Lady might expect.

My constituent Ian Want has severely painful osteoporosis. Having already waited three years for a decision on his claim for disability living allowance, he applied for PIP. Capita rang him at 10.30 pm on a Wednesday to tell him that his medical assessment appointment was at 8.10 the following morning— 50 miles away, in Stoke-on-Trent. Will the Minister apologise to Ian and to the many other disabled people who are being let down by his Department?

I do not know the specific circumstances of that case. If what the hon. Lady describes is the case, it is clearly not acceptable to expect somebody to travel at such short notice and I will look into the matter for her. As I said, however, both the assessment providers are making considerable progress in the number of assessments they are making and communicating to the Department, and departmental decision makers are making considerable progress in making decisions.

While people are awaiting the assessment for PIP, what special help is given to those with mental health conditions who want to get into the workplace to assist them to do so?

We are looking at a number of options to help people. My hon. Friend will be aware that the national health service has made some announcements about the extra help it will be putting in place for people with mental health conditions from April—this will be a significant improvement. We are also running some pilots, examining access to psychological therapies and linking those up with support in getting into work. So she will see that more support is available for those with mental health problems, both now and going forward.

Will the Minister ensure that the welcome progress on PIP is also reflected in a legacy on DLA claims, because under-16s, for whom these claims still have to be made, are also experiencing long delays?

I hear what my hon. Friend says. I have had one or two examples of that brought to my attention, and I have asked officials to brief me on the DLA performance for children. I will come back to him in writing when I have something further to tell him.

Personal Independence Payments

8. When he plans to begin the assessment of existing recipients of disability living allowance for eligibility for personal independence payment. (905810)

We have consistently said that we would take a controlled approach to introducing PIP, continuously learning lessons as we went along. That is why we have introduced reassessments of existing disability living allowance claimants in a phased way, beginning from last October.

Is it indeed quite an inheritance that the new Minister has on his plate in this area. In June, I told his predecessor about a constituent of mine who had received arrears of more than £5,000, having waited 10 months for his PIP assessment. Given the difficulties we have heard about this afternoon, will he consider the time frame for the transfer of existing DLA recipients to PIP and waiting until such a time as his Department is able to give them a timely decision about their entitlement?

I agree with what my hon. Friend says; we are conducting the further natural reassessment roll-out only in those areas where I am confident we have the capacity to undertake the claims in a timely way. We are doing it in a carefully controlled way. The majority of DLA claimants will not be invited to claim PIP until 2015 onwards under a programme of managed reassessment.

Thousands and thousands of DLA recipients are feeling the effect of the unjust bedroom tax. What does the Minister intend to do to raise discretionary housing payments to help alleviate the problems felt by people on DLA?

The hon. Gentleman is right to mention discretionary housing payments. I looked into this matter quite carefully. We have been very generous in the amount of money that we have given to local authorities. Indeed, many local authorities have not spent the money we have made available to them. We also made available further funds for which local authorities could bid and, again, not all of that money was spent. So we have given local authorities the wherewithal to use discretionary housing payment to support those who they think have a good case following the removal of the spare room subsidy.

One of the advantages of having two assessment companies is that the Minister should be able to make performance comparisons between them. Has my hon. Friend assessed the performance of both companies, and is there any good practice that can be carried from one to the other?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I look at the performance of both providers, Atos and Capita, and he is right—where we see good practice and particular things that work with one, we want to make sure we share that information with the other. Having the two is helpful for the Department in assessing their performance.

I support the point made by the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames). Why are some of my constituents from Telford awaiting a PIP assessment being told that they will have to go to Stoke-on-Trent? It is an 80-mile round trip. One of the journey recommendations provided to one of my constituents involved sitting on a railway platform overnight waiting for a train. This is a disgrace. When is the Minister going to sort it out?

Under the guidance that we give assessment providers for journey times, no one should have to travel for more than 90 minutes on public transport to go to an assessment, so if that was what the hon. Gentleman’s constituent was told, that was clearly a mistake. Ninety minutes is the maximum time people are supposed to have to travel by public transport, and for no longer.

Benefit Tourism

My Ministers, officials, and I are in regular dialogue with the European Commission and other member states about the co-ordination and reform of social security. The most recent meeting was at the October Employment and Social Policy Council.

The think-tank Open Europe today proposed that EU migrants’ eligibility for in-work benefits and out-of-work benefits be restricted for the first three years. Are my right hon. Friend’s EU counterparts in northern Europe sympathetic to such views?

Although I have not read the report, Open Europe has stated what we are already discussing with Ministers of many of the other countries concerned. They are all pretty much in agreement that the present system does not give them enough leeway, and there is a general sense that they want people to contribute more before they receive benefits. That is very much the tenor of the discussion, so what the think-tank writes is pretty much what I think is going to happen in Europe.

I thank the Minister for his decision to ensure that my constituents who fled Sierra Leone because of Ebola were able to claim benefits and were not affected by the habitual residence test. Will he therefore reinstate the old rule whereby people who were advised by British embassies and high commissions to come back to Britain will have the habitual residence rule waived?

The moment I heard the hon. Lady’s question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, I immediately said to the Department, “Let me have the news on this”, and I changed the policy on that specifically for Ebola. I am keeping the matter under review to look at whether it is necessary to make a wider exemption, depending on what the embassies say, and I will come back to her about that in due course. I was horrified to see what had happened to her constituents.

Under-occupancy Penalty

10. What recent estimate he has made of the number of people subject to the under-occupancy penalty who have moved into a smaller home since the introduction of that penalty. (905812)

The latest published figures showed that, as a result of various actions, 65,000 people were no longer affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy. As at December 2013, around 22,000 had downsized or moved a year ago. New figures to be published in due course show that if that trend continues, up to 50,000 will have moved or downsized by now, with the total no longer affected even higher.

The justification for the cruel and heartless bedroom tax is that it would force people to move into smaller homes. As only about 5% of people hit by the tax have been able to move, not least because in areas such as mine there are no smaller properties to move to, does the Secretary of State accept that this policy has manifestly failed?

Actually, I do not, and by the way I think the hon. Lady’s figures are not correct. I gave her higher figures even for last December. The rationale for the policy was fairness. The previous Government left us with the situation where some on housing benefit in the private sector were not allowed to occupy houses that had extra rooms, so balancing that is fair. Getting housing benefit spending under control after it nearly doubled in cash terms under the previous Government, and helping those living in overcrowded accommodation while we build more houses, giving them a chance to move into houses where they can fit their families—that is decent and fair.

Given that, according to recent surveys by social landlords, more than half the people impacted by the bedroom tax are now in arrears, what advice would the Secretary of State give those social landlords, particularly housing associations, about the unsustainable financial position they now find themselves in?

Of course, we always keep in close contact with social landlords to ensure that they do what they are meant to do and do not overcharge. The Homes and Communities Agency’s latest figures show that arrears have fallen in the same period from last year and rent collection among housing associations is stable at around 98%, so I think that it is safe to assume that the under-occupancy penalty has had little effect on housing association arrears.

The bedroom tax surely has a claim to be the most wrong-headed and iniquitous policy introduced by any Government in recent memory. The Government’s justification for this cruel tax was that putting it on social housing tenants would incentivise families and individuals to move into smaller homes, but the policy has one fatal flaw: the absence of homes for those families and individuals to move into. Surely the Secretary of State must today concede that the policy has been an abject failure and scrap the tax immediately.

Apart from the rhetoric, the reality is that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. It was his Government who started the process in the first place. I remind him that when they introduced the local housing allowance, they refused to allow anybody who accepted that benefit to live in a house that had extra bedrooms, because that would be unfair on those who were in that accommodation. We have restored that fairness. That is the right thing to do, and it saves £500 million a year.

Child Poverty

Relative child poverty is now at its lowest level since the mid-1980s, and there are now 300,000 fewer children in relative poverty than in 2010. However, poverty projections are based on a number of factors that cannot be reliably predicted, including the median income.

According to the most recent figures published under this Government, 53% of children in the Orchard Park and Greenwood ward in my constituency are living in poverty, compared with 11% in the neighbouring constituency of Haltemprice and Howden. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that we do not end up with a permanently divided society?

The fall in unemployment has happened across the country, and the risk that a child will be living in poverty is three times greater for those living in workless households than for those living in a house in work. We now have over 300,000 fewer children living in workless households, with more falls since those figures were put together. That is the best antidote to child poverty.

Those same figures show that Manchester Central has the fourth highest rate of child poverty in the country. That comes on top of the finding by the Government’s own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission that there are now 600,000 more children in working households living in absolute poverty. When will Ministers stop denying that that is a problem and do something about it?

I was very struck by the comments of the hon. Lady’s hon. Friend the shadow Education Secretary. According to a recent article:

“Criticising the policies of the last Labour government, Mr Hunt said that the party had previously been too preoccupied with tax credits and not given enough thought to tackling social problems in families.”

We are tackling those social problems through the troubled families initiative and a whole range of initiatives, such as the pupil premium, free school meals and more help with child care for young children. Disadvantaged children will benefit from our measures.

Assuming that the Department for Work and Pensions supports the armed forces covenant, will the Minister indicate whether the children of any serving personnel might be brought into child poverty as a result of the Ministry of Defence’s decision in recent days, as we approach Remembrance Sunday, to jack up the rents for Army married housing?

I take a close interest in those matters, as vice-chair of the ministerial committee on the armed forces covenant, and know that my hon. Friend has a proud record in speaking for his constituents on these matters. We have sought to benefit the children of serving personnel—for example, with regard to education if they have to move around the country—but I will be happy to raise with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence his concern about the impact of the rent increase and ensure that he receives a written response.

Disabled People (Work)

There is a range of provision to help disabled people, including the Work programme, Work Choice and Access to Work. We also launched our Disability Confident campaign to promote disabled people to employers.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Jobseekers with learning difficulties need support that jobcentres sometimes struggle to provide. They often do better when placed in social enterprises like Pack-IT Hereford in my constituency. Will he take steps to encourage such placements, and join me in congratulating Pack-IT Hereford on its work?

I do indeed join my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour in congratulating Pack-IT Hereford on its work. That is one of a range of opportunities that we are looking at to get more people with learning disabilities into work.

But the inconvenient truth for the Minister is that the Work programme has been a terrible failure, particularly for those on employment and support allowance. Last week, Ministers were boasting that things have improved: that 10% of people are being helped. That is fine—but what is he doing for the 90% who are not?

The hon. Gentleman is a bit of a glass-half-full person. The 10% of people being helped through the Work programme is a significant improvement, and a significant number of people who go through Work Choice get into work. That is a very considerable record, and 116,000 more disabled people are in work this year than last year.

13. The Minister is right that when it comes to getting a job, personalised support is as critical to people with a learning disability as it is to anyone else. Will he support Basingstoke’s Mencap, which provides training and a jobs club, and in February a jobs fair, to help people with learning disabilities to find the right work for them? (905815)

I very much support my right hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about these matters, and congratulate Mencap in her constituency on its Aspire project. It strongly supports the work of the Disability Confident campaign in getting more disabled people, including those with learning disabilities, into work, and I commend it strongly.

In-work Poverty

The number of people in in-work poverty fell by 300,000, according to the latest figures. The rate is flat in general terms since the election, despite there being more people in work than ever before, and there are almost a million more people in working families and above the poverty line.

Tomorrow is equal pay day, which marks the day on which women effectively start working for free because they earn on average only 80p for every £1 a man earns. Does the Secretary of State agree that addressing the gender pay gap, which has got worse under his Government, is key to tackling in-work poverty, and what does he intend to do about it?

First, let us start from where we are: more women are now in work than ever before, which is a huge start. I also accept—[Interruption.] The rate is even better: it is a record rate. Of course, it is absolutely vital and right to ensure that women who go to work get paid a decent salary. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment has been leading the charge for the Department, doing a lot of campaigning. Universal credit, as it rolls out nationally, delivers for working women a far better deal, with higher wages, than they would get under the present system.

Given that 20% of workers are struggling on the minimum wage alone, when was the last time the Secretary of State spoke to employers about adopting a living wage for their workers?

I have talked to employers endlessly about making sure that they pay a decent wage—first, making sure that people pay the minimum wage, which the last Government were rather slack about but we have done a lot on. My own Department pays our employees in London the London living wage, and we negotiated with the contractor to make sure everybody gets it, including all the cleaners.

I am sure that the House is aware—but if not, I can inform Members—that the House of Commons is itself an accredited living wage employer.

Topical Questions

Today, I welcome the tougher action my Department has taken to recoup debt and safeguard taxpayers’ money. Now, where overpayments result from benefit fraud, the Department will always recover the maximum amount in legislation, ending concessions that previously meant that people paid back less, and making exceptions only where children will be affected.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, on the latest official data, child poverty, elderly poverty, fuel poverty, inequality—using the Gini coefficient—the numbers of people not in education, employment or training, and the gender pay gap are all, every single one, lower under this Government than when Labour was in office?

This Government have dealt with huge problems that were left to us. First, we had a collapsed economy. We are now putting that right, and we are also getting more people back to work. The best way to get people out of poverty is to get their families into work. Under this Government, there is now the lowest number of households in poverty.

As others have remarked, this week is living wage week, when we celebrate the success of employers and campaigners in moving towards getting more workers paid a wage that they can afford to live on. Under this Government, the number of people paid less than a living wage has risen from 3.6 million to 4.9 million—more than one in five people. Does the Secretary of State agree that this Government’s failure to tackle low pay means that more people in work are living in poverty, which is a key reason why the Government are spending £400 million more on housing benefit for people in work than when they came into office?

It is good to see the hon. Lady; I know that she did not turn up and vote for her party’s own motion last week, and did not even sign it, but now we have her here. I answer her question by simply saying this: the reality is that we have seen the minimum wage rise faster under this Government than under the previous Government, with an increase of nearly 10% since the election. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is doing everything he can to pursue companies that do not pay the minimum wage, and we are prosecuting them.

First, I would like the Secretary of State to withdraw what he said about my not being here last week. He does not know the reasons why I was not here, and I expect him to withdraw those comments.

The truth is that the in-work benefits bill is rising in real terms because of this Government’s failure to build a recovery that benefits everyone, not just a few at the top. We have seen a historic squeeze on wages for the majority and the minimum wage falling behind the increase in inflation, with an increase of just 70p in five years. The reality is that taxpayers are footing the bill for the spread of low pay and insecurity under this Government. Is it not time that the Secretary of State adopted Labour’s plans to raise the minimum wage, to get more workers paid a living wage, to ban exploitative zero-hours contracts, and to build an economy that works for all working people?

I remind the hon. Lady that it was under her Government that the minimum wage stalled. Under this Government, it has risen by nearly 10% to £6.50 from October 2014. As for those who are supposed to be worse off, it is calculated using real earnings. Labour Members use a very simplistic calculation, and it does not give the full picture. The reality is that this Government categorically have done more for low-paid people than the previous Government did in their whole time in office.

A point of order will come after questions. If it relates to these matters—[Interruption.] No, there is discretion. Exceptionally, I can take it after Question Time if it relates to these matters.

T2. The number of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Warwick and Leamington has fallen by 70% since April 2010. Will the Minister join me in congratulating local businesses and the young people who work so hard to make this possible, and outline what measures are being taken to ensure that this trend continues? (905769)

I will indeed join my hon. Friend in congratulating not only the businesses that are supporting young people into work but the young people who have now got a job and are on their career journey, which we hope will be successful for them. Equally, I congratulate my hon. Friend on having a jobs fair in Leamington town hall and helping more people into work. It is Members on the Government Benches who are having jobs fair after jobs fair and really looking at ways to help people into work. [Interruption.] Rather than chuntering, it would be good if Opposition Members copied what we are doing.

T4. A couple of weeks ago, a very disturbing press report said that teachers are having to resort to spending their reserves, or even the pupil premium money, on providing food, clothes, transport, beds, and even ovens for children living in poverty because they take the view that if children are not fed and have nowhere to sleep, they will never be able to achieve educationally. Is it not an absolute disgrace that schools are having to resort to that because the safety net is not there to meet the fundamental needs of these children? (905771)

I have not seen that report, but I am happy to look at it. However, I believe that the work being done in schools under this Government to support people who come from low-income families is phenomenal. Introducing that support for those children means that more children are now staying in school. As I said earlier, they are getting better results directly as a result of that support provided for them in school.

T7. Casework in my constituency has shown that, although the Department for Work and Pensions does well in identifying and prioritising claims made by terminally ill patients, when those claims are passed to Atos there is a lack of monitoring. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that those claims are dealt with in a timely manner at every point in the system? (905774)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. We have introduced a range of improvements for claims from terminally ill people. We are already seeing claims at around the expected level of 10 days. The assessment providers treat these cases as a high priority: 99% are processed within two days and 100% within five days.

T5. One of the greatest failings of this Government is the high level of in-work poverty and the significant cost of in-work benefits. Therefore—this is a similar question to that asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), who stole my thunder a tad—is it not time for the Secretary of State to be a real advocate of the living wage, to help address this problem? (905772)

Under this Government, take-home pay rose last year by more than inflation for all but the richest 10%. Average annual pay growth is 3.7% for those who have stayed in work between 2012 and 2013, and disposable income last year was higher than in any year under the previous Government.

T8. Which Minister is responsible for worklessness? Will they get to their feet and accept the grateful thanks of the nation that the number of workless households is the lowest since records began, and will they explain to the House how it has been achieved? (905775)

This is a tough one, but I will endeavour to do my best. On behalf of my team and my Government, I accept that we are doing the right thing, and more people are going to work than ever before.

T6. Will the Secretary of State confirm the rumours that the job fairs occurring up and down the country get a lot of assistance from his Department and that that assistance goes to Conservative MPs and even Conservative candidates, but that Labour and Opposition Members are not offered the same support when they run anything similar? (905773)

That allegation is without foundation. The jobcentres in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and all the others will give every bit of support to every Labour Member and any other Member, nationalist or otherwise, to get their job fairs going. I recommend that Labour Members do more to create job fairs in their own constituencies, to help people get back to work.

T9. Ministers will be aware that another first for this side of the House is the launch of the Enfield over-50s jobs forum, helping to break down the barriers of getting older people back into work. Will Ministers meet me and support the vast number of local and national companies that have got behind it and fully support it? (905776)

I will indeed meet my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on all the work he is doing, not just on job fairs in general but in supporting people over 50. He has developed something unique to help people have fuller working lives. I would be delighted to take forward what he is doing. In fact, I have looked at it, the Department now has a hold of it, and we are going to spread it right across the country.

In earlier questions on the bedroom tax, it was not mentioned that this unfair charge hits 60,000 unpaid family carers, many of whom are not able to move from adapted homes. They cannot move into work, they cannot take extra hours and they need those additional rooms, which are essential for getting enough sleep to enable them to carry on caring. Is it not about time that we accepted that they should be exempt from the bedroom tax?

We have already had court cases that leave this very clearly with the Department. Our view is that those who need to be exempted are exempted, and we have left discretionary payments of some £380 million with local authorities to make those local discretionary decisions themselves. The hon. Lady’s local authority can do just that.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming this Government’s approach to the national minimum wage and its rise to £6.50 last month, which is the biggest cash increase since 2008 and 3% above inflation? (905777)

That is exactly what has happened. The minimum wage has risen faster under this Government than under the previous Government, and we are driving for greater acceptance among businesses.

How many people does the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), aspire to help on an annual basis through the Access to Work programme?

I would very much like to help more. In the last financial year, 2013-14, we helped 35,000 individuals into Access to Work, which was 5,000 more than the previous year. That is a good start.

It is all very well for Germany to lecture us on the importance of the free movement of workers in Europe, but that is what it is supposed to be about—workers. Because Germany has a contributory system, one cannot arrive there and claim benefits. Will the Secretary of State take action, sort this matter out, take on the European Commission and say that people have to contribute taxes for three years before they can claim benefits here?

We have already taken action. We have closed many of the loopholes and tightened things up. Come Monday next week, nobody will be able to claim out-of-work benefit for more than three months, and after that people will have to leave the country. They will not get housing benefit, they have to be able to speak English and they have to show that they are resident here. And that is only the beginning.

A research group from Oxford university has analysed the data from the Government’s new sanctions regime. It has identified that 4.5 million people on jobseeker’s allowance have been sanctioned, including young people. One in four of those who were sanctioned left JSA. More than half of those who left did so for reasons other than employment. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State apologise for his claim that his policies are getting people into work, when they clearly are not?

As far as I am concerned, jobcentres apply sanctions only as a last resort. With the new actions that we have taken to get mandatory reconsideration, the number of appeals has dropped. The truth is that when the hon. Lady’s party was in government, it accepted the need for sanctions when people did not do what they were expected to do. Only in opposition does it claim that it is opposed to sanctions. It would not implement that policy if it was in government.

I welcome the fall in the number of JSA claimants in my constituency from more than 1,500 to below 700 since 2010. However, one area in which we face significant recruitment problems is nursing. That is a problem not just in Staffordshire but across the country. Will the Secretary of State talk to the Secretary of State for Health to see whether we can increase the number of training places at universities across the country?

We will indeed speak to all the Departments to ensure that more people are recruited in different areas all the time. We speak to trade associations, national employers and other Departments. The wonderful news, which will be celebrated in all parts of the House, is that record numbers of people are in employment.

Will the Secretary of State update us on the work that is being done to prepare for the application of the welfare cap? Will he say whether that work has been informed by devolution considerations?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are in the middle of discussing devolution proposals that emanated in Scotland but that cover all other elements of the United Kingdom. The key point that I make to him again and again is that Northern Ireland has not implemented the welfare legislation. As a result of that, it is difficult for us to deal with Northern Ireland directly on these matters, but I am certainly willing to engage.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State criticised me for not turning up to vote on an Opposition day motion last week. He knows nothing of why I was not able to attend last week. I kindly ask him to withdraw his criticism and apologise for the aspersion that I could not be bothered to turn up to vote in the House of Commons.

I simply made the point that it was good to see the hon. Lady here because she did not turn up to vote in the last debate. I understand that she retweeted that she was in Rochester at the time. She was not put down as a signatory to the motion. Those are the points that I made.

Order. We cannot have a protracted exchange on this one matter. However, if the hon. Lady wishes to add anything further, I am content that she should do so.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was not in Rochester last week. I will give the Secretary of State one last opportunity to withdraw the aspersion and apologise. He knows nothing of the reason why I was not here last week, so I ask him to withdraw the aspersion and apologise.

I stand by my assertion that the hon. Lady did not vote and that her name was not on the Order Paper.