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Topical Questions

Volume 587: debated on Monday 3 November 2014

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.