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Welfare Reforms (Economy)

Volume 587: debated on Monday 3 November 2014

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.