Even with the employment record at a high this week, I welcome the autumn statement announcement of more help to enter work across the generations, for young or old. We are introducing intensive support for those not in education, employment or training claiming universal credit to prevent a wage scar developing any further, and we are piloting work placements for older workers, helping with the transition to a new job in later life.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I welcome the announcement that the compensation scheme for diffuse mesothelioma has paid out over £15 million in its first seven months. What plans do the Government have to ensure that all victims, such as those in the Medway towns linked to the Chatham dockyards, are made aware of their rights to this compensation?
I thank my hon. Friend who, with some of his colleagues, has put in a huge amount of effort to bring this to the Government’s attention. The new scheme is already making payments, with compensation averaging £125,000 for this desperate and terrible disease. We know that there are many more victims and families to be encouraged to come forward, and the Government are promoting that through the regional press and work in administrations to publish it further. Should the need arise—and should it be possible—we will keep this under review with a view to possibly raising that as well.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments that he takes today’s report on food banks seriously, especially after previously refusing to meet the Trussell Trust. However, does he recognise the reality depicted by the Archbishop of Canterbury who said that
“hunger stalks large parts of our country”,
often because of problems with the benefits system? Even being in work and earning money no longer appears to offer complete protection against extreme food poverty.
I do take this report seriously. We have met the Trussell Trust—I have never refused to meet it—and I have met many others from a number of food banks. The reality is that of course there are things that need doing. It is a wide-ranging report that deals with food distribution as well, as I said to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), and with supermarkets and the amount of food that is disposed of and how we can distribute that. There was a very good debate on Radio 4 about that, but of course, as I said to her colleague the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), one of the areas that they and our own internal report highlighted was what we do to raise awareness. Today I have announced that we shall be doing much more to raise awareness of interim payments for people who need them, particularly those who are in difficulty.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but frankly it is not enough. The findings of this morning’s all-party report are clear: the rise in food poverty is the consequence of the failing safety net and the worsening cost of living crisis. Just a few weeks before Christmas, it is shocking that more and more families are worrying about where their next meal is going to come from. Food banks have become the shameful symbol of this Tory-led Government, and yet another example of Tory welfare waste. Is it not about time that the Government started to put this right by raising the minimum wage, ending the abuse of zero-hours contracts, getting a grip on benefit delays, scrapping targets for sanctions and cancelling the cruel and unfair bedroom tax? If they do not do these things, is it not about time we had a Labour Government who will?
The same old rubbish from the Opposition! May I just remind the hon. Lady that this Government have done a huge amount for the poorest? The tax allowance is up to £10,000 by April, saving £825 per year. Under this Government, the national minimum wage has gone up by 3%, more than earnings and more than inflation. There are free school meals for primary school pupils—1.5 million children will be getting them. The cost of living is coming down, too. Food prices are falling, and motor fuel prices are down. The hon. Lady wanted to make this a political issue, but I remind her of what the Archbishop of Canterbury said today: it would be wrong to play political games with such an important issue. Perhaps she should listen more and speak less.
T4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as unemployment continues to fall, we have a golden opportunity to offer work to those with a learning or physical disability? Will he confirm that programmes such as Work Choice and Access to Work and the work of his Department’s disability employment advisers will continue to have top priority, so that we can make yet further progress? (906502)
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. In fact, the latest labour market statistics show that disabled people are sharing in the jobs that are being created, with more than 258,000 more disabled people in work over the last year, including 75,000 in the south-east, which will cover his constituency, and there are particularly sharp rises in the number of those with learning disabilities getting jobs, which he specifically asked about.
T3. The former Minister for Disabled People, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), repeatedly assured the House during the passage of the Mesothelioma Act 2014 that the planned 3% levy on insurers to fund pay-outs to victims was not “going anywhere”—in other words, it was not going to change. In a written ministerial statement on 28 November, however, the current Minister announced that the levy would amount to just 2.2%. A 3% levy could have funded more generous pay-outs, helped to fund research or covered more asbestos-related diseases. Is it not disgraceful that the Minister has put the interests of the insurance industry ahead of the interests of victims? (906501)
We have introduced a scheme, and introduced a levy to pay for it. This continues the work that we agreed on when the previous Government introduced a similar scheme under the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. I am proud of the scheme we have introduced. It will go a long way towards helping people who have been affected by this dreadful industrial disease.
T7. Last month, there was a debate in this Chamber on promoting the living wage. May I congratulate the Department for Work and Pensions on being the first Department in Whitehall to pay its staff and contractors the London living wage? Does the Secretary of State agree that we should encourage all Government Departments to follow suit? (906505)
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We had discussions about this quite early on with the cleaners and with those who are keen on the living wage, and I took the decision with the contractor to ensure that the London living wage was paid here in London. I speak to my colleagues every day and discuss this with them.
T5. The South Ayrshire food bank is threatened with closure if it cannot find funding for premises for food storage and distribution by Christmas. Given today’s report on food banks, and given that the people involved are having to do this incredibly important work for the poorest in our society thanks to this Government’s nasty welfare policies, what practical support can the Government provide to those charities to support their important work? (906503)
The Government give huge support to charities up and down the country. I do not know the specific case that the hon. Lady has mentioned, but if she wants to drop me a note about it, I would be happy to look into it and see whether there is anything more we can do to help. I have to say, though, that the Opposition go on and on about what we are doing with welfare and how it has somehow driven everybody into this situation, but in Germany 1.5 million people a week go to food banks. It has nothing to do with our welfare reforms, and Germany is a wealthier country. Food banks have grown around the world, but the latest figures from the OECD show that, in the category of the “difficulty to afford food”, the UK is almost alone in having gone down from the position that we inherited from the last Government. This Government are doing more to help poor people to get by and to get jobs, rather than leaving them parked on unemployment benefit like the last Government did.
T8. Belper in my constituency won the Great British high street of year award recently. Like many of my colleagues, I spent Saturday visiting small businesses in my constituency to celebrate small business Saturday. Will my right hon. Friend outline the help that the Government are giving to small businesses to encourage them to employ more staff? (906506)
Many of us were on the high street celebrating small business Saturday and helping our local businesses, but of course this Government are doing even more to help them to take on more people. Whether through implementing a £2,000 cut in their national insurance bills, extending the business rate relief or putting £10 billion of financing into the British business bank, we have done a great deal to help our small businesses, which are the backbone of this country.
T6. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is sending letters to taxpayers detailing how their tax revenues are being allocated. This is being done in the name of transparency, but will the Minister tell his colleagues in the Treasury that teachers’ pensions are not welfare? (906504)
As the hon. Gentleman appreciates, the letters are sent by HMRC on behalf of the Treasury, and he is welcome to address his concern to our colleagues there. However, we clearly appreciate that there is a distinction between social security benefits and pensions paid to public servants in retirement.
T9. We have heard today about the use of food banks, and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) mentioned a recent report from the Church of England, the Child Poverty Action Group, Oxfam and the Trussell Trust that highlighted the problems that arise when those who have been sanctioned lose all their benefits, including housing benefit. I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions is working on a fix to prevent housing benefit from being stopped when a claimant is sanctioned, but while that is being worked on, will the Minister consider sanctioning all but, say, 10p of jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance now so that other benefits are not automatically cancelled and claimants do not need to use a food bank and end up in rent arrears while they are being sanctioned? (906507)
I take all these reports seriously, and this one particularly. It is of huge interest. We want to do everything we can to make sure that people do not stumble into a process of sanctions. I am certainly willing to consider what the hon. Lady says, but the big thing that the Oakley review told us is that communications were critical, so advising claimants all the way along that they are about to be caught in this trap is vital to making sure that they do not get caught.
Absolutely. The Secretary of State has at last begun to recognise the problem, but I would like him to go a lot further on the issue of food banks and the fact that it is benefit sanctions, changes and delays that cause the majority of food bank users to have to go there. Will he do more and have a thorough review of all his Department’s responsibilities to make sure that nobody has to go to a food bank for those reasons?
Of course I take the matter seriously, but it is rather ridiculous to assume that every single person who goes to a food bank does so because of what the Department for Work and Pensions does. The report today and other reports are clear. They show that these are often people with dysfunctional lives—people who have been caught in drug addiction and family breakdown, people who have a serious illness and are not claiming benefits and get into difficulty. All these ultimately have to be dealt with by the Department, but we have had a number of reviews, which have told us that there are some things we need to improve and we are working on that. The one thing that we have improved dramatically is late payments. There are fewer late payments than there were under the previous Government.
Ministers promised to cut the waiting period for assessments for PIP to 16 weeks by the end of the year, but will they apologise to 900 people in my constituency and the hundreds of thousands more across the country who have been left to wait for months on end in severe financial hardship?
I am happy to do so. I have said before that that is not acceptable; I made it clear during my first time at the Dispatch Box. I am happy to say that the Government should have made sure that we did not make that mistake. People should not have had to wait that long. I am making sure that we are doing something about it, as has the Secretary of State, so that people will not have to wait for such a long time in the future.
My daughter is on a zero-hours contract as a care assistant, which suits both her and her employer as it allows her to choose when to work and when to study. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as long as there is no exclusivity clause, such flexibility in employment is helpful?
Yes. My hon. Friend is right. Some 2% of people in work are on zero-hours contracts and the vast majority of them choose to do it because it suits them. Many of them have caring responsibilities and cannot commit to a full period of work, and some of those are in very professional jobs. It has been a success.
Is the Secretary of State really telling us that the Government have no responsibility at all for the acute financial hardship affecting so many people in our country? If so, no one believes him except Tory MPs. No wonder the Archbishop of Canterbury is so shocked by what he sees in Britain today.
The Archbishop of Canterbury also said today that they should not play political games with a serious report. I agree. Of course, a Government take responsibility where that responsibility falls, but we do more than that. I am determined to do whatever it takes to make sure that far fewer people are in any kind of need and have to go to food banks. That is the vital issue. It is all very well, after four years in opposition, to lecture us sanctimoniously, as the hon. Gentleman does, when it was the Government whom he supported who crashed the economy and did not even take any responsibility for the disaster they brought to all the families who lost their jobs.