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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 591: debated on Monday 26 January 2015

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Innovation Fund for Young People

I set up the £30 million innovation fund four years ago to test cutting-edge projects for helping disadvantaged young people: some of those most at risk of becoming NEET—not in education, employment or training—or falling in with gangs. Using social impact bonds, these projects are now proving they can deliver a return on the investment; 16,600 positive educational and employment outcomes have been achieved, each one an improvement in a young person’s prospects.

One key factor of the innovation fund is the use of social investment. How effective does my right hon. Friend think social investment has been? What future does he foresee for social investment in future projects from his Department?

The interesting thing about this development, which I hope has support on both sides of the House, is that these social investment bonds have advanced dramatically in the past four years, making the UK now a world leader in this, with lots of different Governments coming to ask how to implement it. With the tax relief that we have granted to social investment bonds, the future funding in many of these projects will involve more and more decisions being able to be taken by local government; it will be able to set individual projects up and fund them, without recourse to government, but with a return. So we will be paying for things that happen rather than things that might happen—that is the key.

But ending the wage incentive part of the Youth Contract eight months early was a tacit admission of its failure. Only 10,000 young people completed the contract, whereas 160,000 were budgeted for. Can the Secretary of State tell us what went wrong?

What went wrong was the Youth Contract, full stop. The money used for the Youth Contract actually went to invest in people who had greatest disadvantage, and when we set up our other programmes, including the Work programme, we outperformed anything the Youth Contract had. Furthermore, work experience was not available to young people under the previous Government for any great length of time, whereas we have had more than 50% of people on those work experience programmes go back to work. More young people are in work now than when we came into office; they were left by the disaster of the previous Government.

Young people remain at a distinct disadvantage in the labour market. The statistics published last week show that for the third month in a row overall unemployment came down but youth unemployment rose. Does the Secretary of State have any new proposals to tackle this problem of currently rising youth unemployment?

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has actually looked at the figures correctly. He will find that under this Government youth unemployment has fallen; there are now more young people in work; and youth unemployment is at a lower level than the previous Government left us in 2010, after they crashed the economy. I might also remind him that they used to put young people on short-term programmes. As soon as they did that, they took them off the register and started them as though they had begun looking for work then, rather than being six months in. The previous Government gerrymandered the figures and they still failed.

At the time of the general election the rate of youth unemployment was two and a half times the overall level of unemployment. Since then, the relative position of young people has steadily worsened, to the point where last week the youth unemployment rate was 2.9 times the overall rate of unemployment. Judging by his answer, the Secretary of State may not have noticed that youth unemployment is currently going up. Is it not now high time for a compulsory job guarantee, so that young people have the chance of a job at the start of what should be their working lives, instead of spending years on unemployment benefit?

The reality is quite different from that set out by the right hon. Gentleman. Youth unemployment is down 171,000 on the year—nearly a fifth; 7.1% of all young people are unemployed and not in full-time education; and the number of young people on jobseeker’s allowance has fallen every month for that past three years. The truth about this is quite the opposite to that he suggests. The previous Government left us with young people unable to get work experience and unable to get jobs, and a real stagnation problem, with young people not being able to get the skills necessary. Youth unemployment is now falling. Youth employment is rising—[Interruption.] No; since the last Parliament youth unemployment has fallen. Youth employment is rising. Once in a while it would be nice if the right hon. Gentleman got up and said, “You know what, the last Government got it wrong. Thank you for getting it right.”

Mental Health (Employment Opportunities)

4. What progress he has made on supporting people with a mental health condition to find work. (907176)

The Government are committed to helping people with mental health problems into work. We are piloting a number of innovative approaches to employment support for those with mental health problems, and the Access to Work mental health support service can help people with a mental health condition who are absent from work or who are finding it difficult to get back into work.

Mental health issues in Fylde are as serious as they are anywhere else, so what plans does the Minister have to support further people with mental health conditions throughout the Disability Confident campaign?

I am pleased that my hon. Friend mentions the Disability Confident campaign. I have invited Members from both sides of the House to talk about Disability Confident at an event in the House on Wednesday. Specifically on mental health, I had the privilege last Thursday to visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and to meet with the work coaches in the jobcentre and with those who have been on some of our pilot programmes to hear about the success we have had in encouraging people with a mental health problem to get back into work, or to avoid having one in the first place.

Will the Minister join me in recognising the importance of the voluntary sector in helping those with mental health issues to get back into work? Organisations such as Relate in my constituency work tirelessly to improve mental health and provide vital counselling that allows people to get back into work and progress with their careers.

I am happy to pay tribute to organisations such as the one my hon. Friend has just mentioned. The important thing is to have a proper partnership with Jobcentre Plus, voluntary and third-sector organisations, the NHS and employers working together to ensure that we stop people from falling out of work if they develop a mental health problem, and that they can get back into work if they do so.

I cannot be the only person in the House today who finds it utterly heartbreaking when people come to their surgery unable to find work. Those people are often more than capable of working but, because of a fear of stigmatisation and an absence of support, they are unable to find that work. I praise the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) for setting an example in this area. Following on from the good work of Waitrose and Tesco, can we not do more in this House to set an example, because we are after all a major employer?

The hon. Gentleman is right. One thing we are doing through our Disability Confident campaign is ensuring that employers are aware not only of those with physical disabilities but of those with mental health problems. There was, for a period, a statutory bar on Members of Parliament serving in this House in this respect. When I was in Opposition I challenged the then Justice Secretary on the matter, and this Government have now delivered change to ensure that we set a good example. We now say that if someone has a mental health problem, they are just as capable as anyone else to work both as a Member of Parliament and as staff in the House.

On that matter, the Minister of State wisely heeded the recommendation of the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation, which enjoyed all-party support.

Voluntary sector organisations working with the most vulnerable claimants are expressing concerns that people with mental illness are still over represented among those being sanctioned. Does the Minister accept that there is still a problem here, and what more can he do about it?

Just before I answer the hon. Lady, let me say that I am happy to agree with you, Mr Speaker, that your conference showed great leadership, which we were happy to follow. I think that it is wise to acknowledge that from the Dispatch Box—[Laughter.] The Secretary of State says keep going. The hon. Lady makes a serious point about sanctioning. We have to make sure in the Department and Jobcentre Plus that if someone on employment and support allowance does not engage with the help they are given, we understand why they do not engage with it and then deliver proper support. Last week, when I was looking at the pilots, I was trying to see how we better engage with that mental health support to ensure that we give people the support both to stay in work, and to get back to work, if they have a mental health problem.

I was delighted to welcome the Minister to the Olive Tree café which provides opportunities for more than 30 people to rebuild their confidence and skills. That has been achieved through a successful social enterprise. How can we share that best practice?

My hon. Friend invited me to visit the Olive Tree café in his constituency on a day that I also spoke at a mindful employer event, which again focused on mental health, at the constituency of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland). We can use our Disability Confident campaign to get those messages out there. My hon. Friend, by using the benefits of this House, has ensured that the message will be heard far and wide.

In the past year, a number of people have written to me who are finding it hard to stay in work because they are getting very poor support in the workplace, and sometimes they are having difficulty accessing mental health support. What discussions has the Minister had with employers and his colleagues in the Department of Health about how we can tackle that? If those people cannot stay in work and become unemployed, they may have difficulty getting back into work again.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, to which I would say two things in reply. First, people who are in work can be referred to the Access to Work mental health support service, to get support delivered to them to enable them to stay in work. Secondly, the NHS now recognises that it has an important part to play here, and for the first time we have set out access requirements for mental health services, which will start this April.

Why is no help available to get people with mental health problems back on to employment and support allowance, when they have voluntarily come off ESA and gone on to jobseeker’s allowance, wrongly believing that they were fit to work, only to be sanctioned for failing to comply with their jobseeker’s agreement because of their mental illness?

One of the things that our work coaches in the jobcentre are able to do is flex the claimant commitment people make according to the claimant’s health condition. What should happen in such cases is that, if the individual remains on JSA, their work coach can alter the conditions to deal with that. If the hon. Gentleman has specific examples where that has not happened, I would be delighted if he wrote to me so that we can look into those cases.

Just at the time that many young people leave full-time education, those battling mental health problems are also having to navigate their transition from adolescent to adult mental health services. Is it not essential that those services are there to support them at the very time we are looking to them to embark on their working lives?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we are doing several things in that respect. First, we are looking at properly joining up the education, health and care assessments people have at school and the disabled students’ allowance application made when they go to university. We are also working closely with the Department of Health to make sure that mental health services are properly integrated with the world of work.

Job Creation (Yorkshire)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on those great statistics. Late last year, I organised a jobs fair in Shipley that had employers there with more than 300 current vacancies. She will be aware that many Conservative MPs in Yorkshire have also held jobs fairs in their constituencies. Will she ensure that jobcentres always support jobs fairs, to ensure that as many jobseekers as possible come to them?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I congratulate him on holding a jobs fair. He is right to draw attention to the fact that Conservative MPs in Yorkshire have been putting the Labour MPs to shame for not holding as many job fairs. Because of those events and our welfare changes, and because of the success of our long-term economic plan, more jobs were created in Yorkshire last year than in the whole of France—something I am sure my hon. Friend is particularly pleased to hear.

The hon. Gentleman’s constituency is a considerable distance from Shipley and Yorkshire, but no doubt he will say he has a half-sister there, or something.

I am an only child, Mr Speaker.

With regard to Shipley and Yorkshire, can the Minister say how many of the jobs she mentioned were part-time, on zero-hours contracts or on the minimum wage? If she is not sure of the figures, does she agree with me that a heck of a lot of jobs are in those categories?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking that question, because I frequently hear the myths put about by the Opposition. I can assure him that 80% are full-time jobs and 75% are managerial and professional jobs. These are very good jobs for excellent people who are trying to support their families in Shipley and across the UK.

Employment Opportunities (Northern Region)

As part of this Government’s long-term economic plan, we are committed to developing the northern powerhouse. We are investing heavily in infrastructure, science and technology, and culture to rebalance the economy by closing the long-term gap between the north and south—something the Opposition did not manage to do.

Some of us are a little wary of short-term gimmicks, especially short-term jobs fairs. In Huddersfield we have had an Enterprise Foundation promoting small business start-ups that last, and it continues to be very effective. Has the Minister seen the Centre for Cities report, which shows clearly that the investment and job growth seem to be largely, though not entirely, in London and the south-east? If she looks at the report, she will see that it is the great northern industrial cities that have suffered over a number of years. What is she doing about that?

Again, I am delighted to answer the question; again, the information was out of date. The information for that report closed in 2013 and covered the previous 10-year period, when the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported were in office. The latest figures would show that 60% of jobs created are outside London and the south-east. I know that the hon. Gentleman, as the previous Chair of the Education Committee, takes a keen interest in opportunities for young people, so I hope he will welcome the latest announcement from Yorkshire Water that it will create 160 apprenticeships.

Will the Minister join me in thanking Huddersfield job centre, which supported my jobs fairs in Holmfirth and Marsden last year, giving local people access to real jobs and apprenticeships? Will she note the 4,130 apprenticeship starts in my constituency since 2010?

Indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local jobcentre and him on all the work he does. Those were over 4,000 apprenticeships in his constituency, but at the end of last year there were 2 million new apprenticeships for young people right across the country. That is why we have seen the biggest fall in youth unemployment since records began.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to improve job opportunities for people in the north of England is for Government to reduce tax and red tape on businesses to give them the opportunity to create new businesses, and to ensure that the Government always make it pay to be in work, not on benefits?

Once again, my hon. Friend speaks sound sense. That is exactly what this Government have been trying to do. We have been working with businesses, finding out what they need to expand and grow and to take on young people. As we have seen, growth is increasing. We are now growing faster than any other country in the G7. We know that not only are wages going up by 2%, but they are destined to go up by 3.4%, and inflation has fallen by 0.5%. If anybody had a long-term economic plan, it is this Government.

New Enterprise Allowance

7. What recent assessment he has made of take-up of the new enterprise allowance (a) nationally and (b) in the Dudley metropolitan borough council area. (907179)

The new enterprise allowance supports jobseekers who want to set up their own business through mentoring and a weekly allowance. Through the scheme over 60,000 businesses have been started nationally, including 640 within the Dudley metropolitan area.

The new enterprise allowance is one of the many ways that the Government are supporting people into self-employment and running their own businesses. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this support has been essential to the thriving business environment which has seen over 2,000 new businesses start up in my constituency, Stourbridge, since 2010?

My hon. Friend is right. When any new business sets up, it needs support, mentoring and access to finance, all of which we are providing. With her background, she knows exactly how to set up a business; she set up her own and won awards for it, and her dad set up his own business in the 1930s which went on to be an incredibly successful manufacturing company. That is what we need to do—support people, provide access to finance and mentoring, and ensure that they have a good business plan. I thank my hon. Friend for that question.

Work Programme

9. What assessment he has made of the views of Jobcentre Plus managers on the effectiveness of the Work programme. (907181)

We have continued to drive improvements in providers’ results. Jobcentre Plus is integral to this, and we have implemented a closer working approach between jobcentres and providers. The evaluation indicates that the relationship between jobcentres and providers has strengthened over time—for instance, through the use of co-location and enhanced information sharing.

The serious concerns of jobcentre managers expressed in a report published in December should come as no surprise to the Minister given the latest dismal figures showing that barely 7% of people on employment and support allowance have moved into sustained employment. What is the Minister going to do to tackle the problems that jobcentre managers identify, such as the lack of work placement opportunities, infrequent contact with participants, and lack of explanation to participants about why sanctions have been requested?

First, I would like to remind everybody that the Work programme is the most successful scheme of its kind in getting people from long-term unemployment into work. Some 1.75 million people are now being helped and over 600,000 have got a job. In feedback, participants are saying that they are happy with the frequency of contact and think that that works with them and helps overcome the barriers to finding work. The number of people on ESA shows that it is actually performing well above what was expected. It was expected to apply to only one in 14 people and the figure is now one in 10. All the extra work that we have done on the communications between Jobcentre Plus and work providers is obviously showing results.

What more can the Minister do to get a better relationship between jobcentres and Work programme providers so that they can provide a warm handover when claimants move into the Work programme and when they return from the programme at the end of their two-year period?

My hon. Friend is right. This is all part of the Oakley review. It is about ensuring that communications are better, that that hand-holding is understood, that people get a copy of the claimant commitment, and that they can understand a good cause and work together. At the end of the day, we are trying to get some of the most vulnerable people, who have been unemployed for a long time, into work. What is needed is that communication and that support from Jobcentre Plus and prime contractors.

My constituent, John McArthur, was laid off at the end of a temporary job that paid the national minimum wage. The DWP later tried to force him to work for the same company, in the same job, for six months. He subsequently got accused and lost his benefit. How can that sanction possibly be justified?

This was a complicated case. I will obviously meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss it. His constituent had been laid off and then, as we were trying to support him back into work, he did work experience. It was in a different part of the business, and it was how we could best enable him to move from long-term unemployment into employment. If the hon. Gentleman would like to meet me, I am more than happy to do that, but I have already looked into this case.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Work programme has helped hundreds of thousands of people out of the misery of long-term unemployment and into sustainable work?

My hon. Friend raises yet another good point. Under Labour, the number of people living in households where nobody had ever worked doubled. We therefore needed not only to do a lot of work to bring us back to the regular standards of what we had before Labour came into office, but to build on that to get more people into work. That is exactly right. We have helped hundreds of thousands of those people who were left unemployed for a long time.

Access to Benefits

10. Whether universal credit will be available to migrants from the European Economic Area when it is fully rolled out. (907182)

Citizens of the European economic area who choose to come here without a job to start will not be able to access universal credit. We have introduced several restrictions to benefits to ensure that our welfare system focuses support on those who are contributing to the economy. These include strengthening the habitual residency test, banning access to housing benefit for new EEA jobseekers, and introducing a three-month residency requirement for income-based jobseeker’s allowance.

The Secretary of State originally predicted that 1 million people would be on universal credit by April last year. The latest figure is 26,000. I understand that last October he predicted a figure of 100,000 by May—does he still believe that?

The universal credit programme is working well. It is now completing its roll-out to all the areas in the north-west, to all singles, couples and families. In the next month, it will start rolling out across the country, and that will bring universal credit to more jobcentres. By the time that process is completed, one in three jobcentres will be running universal credit. The key thing is to make sure that we get this vital reform, which helps people to get back into work faster, that we land it correctly and safely, and that we learn the lessons of the past when things like tax credits, brought in under the previous Government, were absolute disasters wasting billions of pounds in lost money and fraud.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is quite wrong for people who are working in this country on a temporary basis to be able to claim benefits for their dependants in their country of origin, when one considers the cost of those benefits in relation to the differences in the cost of living?

Yes; changing that situation is something that the coalition has set out to achieve. I remind my hon. Friend that when we came to power, the last Government had pretty much left an open door for access to benefits. People were able to claim jobseeker’s allowance pretty much on arrival. There was a habitual residence test, but it was very weak. We strengthened it and stopped people claiming for more than three months. People will not be able to claim housing benefit and they must have a right of residence. If they do claim, they must show that they have a minimum earnings likelihood. Anything below that will not count as a job. We are tightening up the system after the mess that we were left by the last Government.

Does the Secretary of State really feel that it is sufficient for people to have to work in this country for only three months before they can claim out-of-work benefits?

I will take that as a peculiar compliment. We inherited a system in which people did not have to work for any time to claim jobseeker’s allowance. Within the existing rules, we will not pay for the first three months. If people are unemployed, they will be paid for three months. After that, they will be asked to leave. That is a much tighter position than the one we inherited. I, of course, would like to take it further. As the Prime Minister set out clearly in a recent speech, he believes that there should be years of contributions before someone is eligible to claim benefits, be they tax credits or jobseeker’s allowance. When the Conservative party gets back into power, we will implement that.

I, too, welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement in November that a future Conservative Government will have the toughest regime in Europe on limiting migrants’ access to our benefits system. Will the Secretary of State outline for the House the steps the Government have already taken to ensure that migrants come here to work and contribute, and what he has done to deter people from benefit tourism?

Exactly what I have mentioned. The mess that we were left by the last Government left little or no restrictions on anybody coming in, so the UK became a draw for people who wanted to claim benefits and be out of work, because it was a better option. We are tightening that up. We have stopped a number of things, such as housing benefit, and have shortened the time on jobseeker’s allowance. Tax credits are moving into line with that as well. As I said, when we are re-elected at the next election as a Conservative Government, we will tighten it up even more.


11. What assessment he has made of the reasons for differences in the unemployment rate in the UK and in other European countries. (907183)

The UK has the fifth lowest unemployment rate in the European Union, and unemployment has fallen by more than in any other G7 economy in the past year. Thanks to welfare reform and our long-term economic plan, businesses are creating jobs and 1.75 million more people are in work than in 2010.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most recent EUROSTAT figures, which show that employment in the UK is rising at twice the rate of any other European nation, underline the importance of maintaining a benefits system in which people are always better off in work than not in work?

Yes, I agree with my right hon. Friend. The reality of what he raises is exemplified by the fact that the Opposition still cleave to the idea that they would copy the French way of doing things in respect of the economy. It is worth reminding them that in France—this is the system that they think is really good—the employment rate is down at 64%, the unemployment rate is 10.3% and the youth unemployment rate is up at 25.4%, which are all massively worse than here in the UK.

But it remains the case that youth unemployment here is much higher than in countries such as Germany, Austria and Norway. Does the Secretary of State agree that we will not tackle that until we tackle the scandal of the quality of technical and vocational education in our schools and colleges?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to ensure that much greater emphasis is placed on vocational education in schools, including to get people ready for apprenticeships. The Government have done a huge amount towards that. There are 1 million new apprenticeships. The report that came out when we first arrived said that there had to be a greater emphasis on that. None the less, our youth unemployment rate is remarkable when compared with the average in Europe and, apart from Germany and Holland, is significantly lower than anywhere else.

In May 2010, the claimant count in my constituency was 1,702. This month, it is 684. In a European context, will my right hon. Friend help me? Is that fall in unemployment in my constituency due to the increased vibrancy of a diversified rural economy such as mine, or the absence of a plan long terme économique elsewhere?

My right hon. Friend puts his finger on it. The reality is that the Government have implemented a long-term economic plan. In that long-term economic plan, welfare reform plays a critical part in ensuring that people are ready and available for work. Our labour market is far more deregulated than that of many other countries in Europe. It is noticeable that today, in the light of the elections in Greece, everyone is talking about austerity, but the big problem in Greece, as in other countries, is that the labour market is so rigid that very few companies want to invest, because there is no flexibility whatever. That is why they come to the UK—this Government have a plan that works to help them to get profitability.

Unemployment in the Kettering constituency has halved since May 2010. What does my right hon. Friend think would have happened to the rate of unemployment in Kettering had Her Majesty’s Government followed the economic policies of France, which apparently are a blueprint for Her Majesty’s Opposition?

That is the point. Opposition Members do not like it very much, but let us follow that theme for a minute. The Leader of the Opposition extolled the virtues of the alternative to the long-term economic plan—the French plan, which was no economic plan as far as I understand it. We have now seen French unemployment go through the roof, employment rates fall and economic activity stagnate. London is now something like the sixth or seventh-largest French city because so many French people are coming to the UK because—we welcome them—they like to look for jobs.

Housing Benefit

12. What recent estimate he has made of the number of people whose housing benefit has been reduced as a result of the social sector size criteria. (907184)

17. What recent estimate he has made of the number of people whose housing benefit has been reduced as a result of the social sector size criteria. (907189)

The latest published figures for August 2014 showed that the number of people affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy has fallen by 75,000. This follows a general downward trend, bringing the number of those affected down from 547,000 in May 2013 to 472,000.

In the Wigan borough, 3,386 people have had their housing benefit reduced due to the bedroom tax. Wigan & Leigh Housing estimates that it will take over seven years to re-house those who wish to downsize. Many of those affected have contacted me because, despite working, they are struggling to pay bills and feed their family. What is the Secretary of State’s estimate of the average income of those subject to the bedroom tax?

In previous speeches and today, the hon. Lady has talked about the fact that there are just not enough properties in her constituency to enable people to downsize. In fact, I understand that there are 2,700 people subject to the under-occupancy spare room subsidy, but something like 15,000 one and two-bedroom houses in the social sector properties in Wigan. There are many houses—many more than she might have laid out.

My point to the hon. Lady and the Opposition is that, in their opposition, they need to explain how they will afford it. The policy is saving some £500 million a year. It has already saved £830 million to date. They have no plans for substituting that, which means that their economic record is in tatters. After all, Labour, when in power, was the party that introduced that very policy for those in social sector private rented tenancies.

Once in every generation, there is a tax so bad that the next generation looks back and asks, “Why did they do it?” Such was the poll tax, now the bedroom tax. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many victims of domestic violence liable to the bedroom tax have had their sanctuary rooms deemed as spare rooms?

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is just another attempt to start scaremongering about the whole idea—[Interruption.] Yes, it is. What has been disgraceful about the Opposition is that they have spent their time scaremongering up and down the country about this issue. He knows very well that local authorities and the police work together, they have discretionary housing payments to deal with that matter at a local level and they can resolve it. More than £380 million has been granted to local authorities for discretionary payments.

I have looked at what the hon. Gentleman said previously about the number of houses available. He said that some 5,000 people are suffering due to the under-occupancy rules because they had nowhere to move, but I remind him that there are 63,500 one and two-bedroom properties in Birmingham. He yet again mis-states the reality, which is that this has to work. I remind him again that it was his Government who introduced this for the private-rented social sector.

The Secretary of State is too complacent. The fact is that when a family pays the bedroom tax, the whole family suffers. The actual number of people affected is much higher than the numbers he quoted, at 750,000. Making families move is unkind, especially when it disrupts children’s education. There are not enough smaller properties, as colleagues have said, and people cannot move. So why did not the Government vote with Labour before Christmas to abolish the bedroom tax?

The hon. Lady, like many on the Opposition Benches, is living in cloud cuckoo land. They invent a whole series of issues about this. First, we get these lines about the fact that evictions are up. In fact, evictions are a very small proportion and are down. They say that rent arrears are up, but they are stable and have not risen. They say that homelessness is up, but it is actually down. The reality is that every time the Opposition talk about this subject, they invent these issues. But never once in the whole of the time they were in government—or even now—did they bother to talk about the fact that their policies meant that house building fell to the lowest level since the 1920s and that many people live in overcrowded accommodation, thanks to Labour’s failure, its crashing of the economy and its shocking mismanagement of housing.

Young People (Employment or Training)

The youth claimant count is at its lowest level since the 1970s and this is due to the action that the Government have taken. Young persons entering a jobcentre will receive tailored support from their work coach and be directed to work experience, sector-based work academies or locally funded support.

I am delighted to say that the number of 18 to 24-year-olds in Warwick and Leamington claiming JSA has fallen by 79% since April 2010. However, I recognise that there is still more work to do. Does the Minister agree that schools and businesses can develop strong partnerships, not least in terms of providing work experience? What incentives can the Government provide to encourage those relationships and highlight the benefits that they can offer?

My hon. Friend is right—it is about building relationships between businesses and schools, and that is what we have done with some of the biggest businesses. We set up Movement to Work, which created 100,000 work experience schemes. Another scheme, Feeding Britain’s Future, provided another 15,000 work experience places and, in the west midlands alone, there are more than 16,000. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education created the new careers support scheme, which is also working with companies, schools and individuals.

23. It lifts my heart to see so many more people in employment across Windsor and the country. All hon. Members share the vision of a country in which the circumstances of our birth do not determine where we end up. I commend the Secretary of State on his work on welfare reform, and does the Minister agree that we must continue to push on with those changes so that social mobility in Britain is boosted once again? (907196)

My hon. Friend is right about social mobility. He is also the living embodiment of it, as he comes from a council estate in south London, son of a single mum with many mouths to feed. He then set up a multi-million pound business and won young entrepreneur of the year from Ernst and Young. The Government have provided support and encouragement, creating the sort of environment in which people like my hon. Friend can develop their businesses and employ other people.

Hunger and Food Poverty

15. What plans he has to respond to the recent recommendations of the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty. (907187)

The report is a serious contribution to an important debate, which recognises that the reasons behind the demand for emergency food assistance are complex and overlapping. I have already responded and will continue to review the recommendations and engage with the inquiry as it takes its proposals forward. That is an undertaking I gave at the last Question Time. My Department has already agreed to do more to raise awareness of short-term benefit advances, including advertising in jobcentres so that everyone can see it.

The report showed that about a quarter of a million people last year used food banks because of benefit sanctions. I have a constituent who showed me evidence that he applied for hundreds of jobs, but, because he applied for one by handing in a CV in person rather than through the website, he was sanctioned for three months without money. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is completely outrageous?

I am afraid I simply do not recognise the kind of case the hon. Lady raises. She knows that if she wants to raise a case directly with me or with the Minister for Employment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), she should do so, but there is no such rule in jobcentres or in respect of sanctions. [Interruption.] Yes, I am very happy to see the hon. Lady, but let me bring her to the wider issue, which is simply this: the report made it very clear that there are multiple issues. What the Opposition have tried to do non-stop, as they have with the spare room subsidy and other matters, is try to scare everybody up and down the country into believing that there is a magic wand. Let me remind her that under her Government the number of food banks doubled. The reality is that long before the coalition came to power, they were already delivering a failed economy and forcing people out of work and into difficulty beyond whatever we may have done.

One of the reasons for using food banks—a reason given by those who use them—is delays in benefit payments. Am I right in thinking, however, that the average time for sorting out benefit payment disputes has been reduced to under two weeks?

My right hon. Friend is correct. The reality is that delays in benefit payments have fallen under this Government. There are now fewer delays. The Opposition say that we need to speed up the payment of benefits. I remind them that under Labour benefits were not paid until two weeks after the claim, so unless they are now saying that benefits should be paid earlier than that, I really have no idea what the Opposition’s policy is on this. We pay benefits as quickly as possible. There is no determination to delay payment. Jobcentres and benefit offices do their level best to ensure that people get money when they need it, and hardship funds are available if anybody has any difficulty.

Employment and Support Allowance

18. What recent assessment he has made of the reasons for changes in the number of employment and support allowance claimants. (907190)

Under this Government, the number of people in receipt of out-of-work benefits has fallen by 899,000, and there are 93,000 fewer people on incapacity benefit since May 2010.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but I think he is absolutely clear that the number of people on incapacity benefit who have been found unfit for work is far higher than the Department for Work and Pensions predicted. Is it not time that Ministers dropped the scrounger rhetoric and accepted that if people are to move back towards employment, they need real help and support?

I do not know whom the hon. Lady has heard using that rhetoric, but it is certainly not me or members of this Government. [Interruption.] It is no good her waving at us. It may be reported like that in newspapers, but Ministers do not use that sort of language. I have been very clear that people who are able to go to work with the right support will receive employment and support allowance. I am sure she was listening to the long exchange we had earlier on mental health support. Half the people on ESA have a mental health problem. She will have heard me set out the considerable range of things we are doing to help them to get back into work.

Ministers are spending £8 billion more than planned on incapacity benefit and ESA because they cannot assess people quickly enough, they cannot reassess them, and the failing Work programme cannot get them into sustained employment. Even the Minister for Employment, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), admitted a few moments ago that it is achieving a 90% failure rate. Now the Tories say that they want to cut £12 billion from social security spending, and disabled people are worried that they will be paying for this catalogue of Tory welfare failure. What reassurance can the Minister offer them?

I listened carefully, but it is a bit rich for the hon. Lady to criticise the issues we had with the assessment process. There were issues with the assessment provider that her Government appointed, which is why we appointed a new contractor, Maximus, which will start work in March, and I am confident that that will improve the assessment process and get people back into work. Getting people back into work is how we will continue to reduce the benefits bill, which I remind her rose enormously when her party was in government.

Topical Questions

Today I welcome the new cross-Government report on drug addiction which shows that, for the most complex cases, residential treatment delivers a rate of positive outcomes nearly three times better than community treatment. Instead of not prioritising full recovery, as used to be the case, we are now getting people off drugs, into work and on the path to a better future, rather than leaving them languishing on methadone.

In answer to my earlier question, the right hon. Gentleman talked about the number of food banks under the last Labour Government. In the last year of that Government, there were 41,000 food bank users, but the number is now nearly 1 million a year—a figure that just before Christmas he referred to as “tiny”. What do we have to do to get him to accept that food bank use and the scandal of food poverty in this country are his responsibility and that he needs to do more about them?

As we have always said, these are complex issues. We welcome the fact that voluntary sector organisations provide for and support people in their community, through food banks and often with clothing and various other things. Having had the allowance passed down to them, many local authorities now use it to engage with food banks and send people there and to other organisations providing food and so on. Instead of simply saying that everything is the fault purely of the Government, the hon. Lady should take stock of one thing: it was her Government who crashed the economy and made people worse off. [Interruption.] I know the Opposition do not like to hear it, but they should do the maths: destroying the economy leaves people worse off. By getting more people back into work, the Government are helping them get beyond the need for food banks and other support.

T3. Will the Minister ask officials to look compassionately on benefits arrangements for people with mental health difficulties? So often, when these people are called for assessment, it is not obvious that they really do have problems. (907215)

My hon. Friend raises a good point. Of course, assessors are trained in assessing mental health problems and are particularly mindful of the fact that people with mental health problems often have a fluctuating condition that might not be apparent at the time of the assessment. Of course, we tell claimants that they can bring someone with them to support them during the assessment, if that would be beneficial.

In 2011, the Secretary of State said that, by April 2014, 1 million people would be receiving universal credit. With delays and write-offs, that date has been and gone, so will he answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) asked, but which was not answered, and give a guarantee to the House that he will meet his latest target of just 100,000 people receiving universal credit by May 2015?

I say to the hon. Lady that we intend to, and I repeat the answer I gave earlier. I know she wants to dance around on these things, but she has to say whether she genuinely supports universal credit or whether she plans to get rid of it, as that seems to be becoming Labour party policy.

We have been consistent: we support universal credit, but not throwing good money after bad, and we will go ahead with it only if the National Audit Office signs it off and says it will save more money than it costs, which is far from clear at the moment.

Last week’s figures show that the glacial pace continues, with still only 26,940 people receiving universal credit. At this rate of progress, it will take 1,571 years before it is fully rolled out. The Secretary of State protests that it would be riskier to go faster, but he has only himself to blame for the undeliverable targets he set and the unrealistic claims he made for this flagship policy. Is not the truth that, having failed to deliver the one policy that could have helped make work pay over this Parliament, all he is left with is a toxic legacy of rising child benefit and reliance on food banks and a ballooning benefits bill for people in work—a record of Tory welfare waste that, if I were him, I would rather run from than run on?

I bet that looked good on a piece of paper when she wrote it. Honestly, here we go again Let me just remind the hon. Lady what her party left behind. It left a welfare budget that had “ballooned”—her word—by 60%. On tax credits alone, in the six years before the election, her Government spent £175 billion. They ballooned their welfare spending; unemployment rose; the economy crashed; people found themselves out of work—and her Government were to blame for all that. We have reformed welfare, and let me remind the hon. Lady that, at the end of this Parliament, we will have saved £50 billion from the bills Labour left us; housing benefit has come down; the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants has fallen; and before she writes a script again, she might like to test it for accuracy. They—the Labour party—have failed.

T5. What measures have been taken to ensure that sanctions are not imposed inappropriately on jobseeker’s allowance claimants—if they unavoidably miss appointments, for instance? (907217)

If somebody misses an appointment and has good cause for not being able to make it, they would never be sanctioned. I do not think that people quite follow the process of what happens. Should somebody not make an appointment or not take the steps to get work that they should have taken, they would have been told that it could be a sanctionable offence. That is what the adviser would say. It would then go to the decision maker, and if there is good cause, 50% will not be sanctioned. The vast majority will not be getting sanctioned because they will have good cause, but they need to be taking reasonable steps to get into work. In fact, monthly sanctions rates are at about 5% to 6% for JSA, and for ESA they are less than 1%. Those are the numbers.

T2. Following my request for a rescheduled meeting about the independent living fund, the Minister kindly wrote to me on 15 January, but why did he make no reference to my request for a meeting and why did he refer me to post-ILF provision under Newcastle city council when my constituency is North Tyneside? (907214)

My point was that the independent living fund has been meeting local authorities across the country to make sure that every local authority with somebody in it that has ILF is well aware of the support it is getting. My answer was saying that to make sure that the person was getting the support, a conversation with the local authority would be more productive than a question to me.

T6. The Government have rightly tackled the long-standing chaos in the Child Support Agency, but attracted controversy with their new 4% admin charge on struggling parents with care when the other parent is not stepping up to the plate. What assessment have the Government made of the big drop-off in the number of parents using the Child Maintenance Service? Are absent parents magically paying up to avoid their charge or are parents with care being scared off to avoid theirs? (907218)

I was beginning to feel unemployed until this moment. [Laughter.] The philosophy of the new Child Maintenance Service is that, wherever possible, we want to encourage people to sort things out for themselves if they can. The £20 charge is designed to encourage people to think before applying to the Child Maintenance Service. Where, however, there is an instance of domestic violence, for example, that £20 will be waived. We are undertaking research into the people who contact us and then do not use our services to ensure that effective maintenance arrangements are being put in place.

T4. The Secretary of State has said that local authorities are choosing to give funds to local food banks. I can assure him that Mayor Joe Anderson in Liverpool does not relish having to spend £138,000 to tackle food poverty locally in Liverpool. Will the Secretary of State sit down with representatives from the Trussell Trust to help him understand how more than 1 million people are being forced to go hungry by the actions of his Department? (907216)

The truth is that many local authorities are using some of the devolved social fund, which is a very good idea, and engaging with food banks to enable people to access them in the early part of their claim. That is happening up and down the country, and I think that is quite reasonable; it is what local authorities do to help people as best they can. Perhaps the hon. Lady is opposed to that because she thinks everything should be run centrally from the Government here. Well, they made a mess of it last time.

As my right hon. Friend will know, a crucial aspect of tackling youth unemployment is ensuring that people have the right skill set. Will she commend the work of City of Wolverhampton college, which is in my constituency and which—following a very difficult starting point—has turned around the lives of many young people by working with local businesses and creating opportunity and employment, and creating opportunities for the local university as well?

I will indeed praise that college, and I will praise my hon. Friend as well for all the work that he does in engaging with colleges and bringing businesses to them to support the young people so that they can get jobs.

T7. Dr David Webster of Glasgow university has estimated that about £300 million is withheld in benefit sanctions each year. Is that figure correct? (907219)

I apologise: I missed the question. What I do know, however, is that no one has any limits, or targets, or whatever it may be, for benefits or for sanctions. There are no targets for sanctions, and there will be no numbers.

Local housing allowance levels in Cambridge are far too low, and have been for years. In 2008, Shelter could find only four properties that were affordable, and the position is essentially unchanged. The Minister helpfully gave us an above-inflation increase, but it still has not solved the problem. Will he investigate further to check that local housing allowances match the cost of renting, and undo the legacy of the broad rental market areas?

My hon. Friend, and, indeed, his predecessor have been doughty campaigners on behalf of the city of Cambridge. He will be aware that the rent levels are set across the whole Cambridge rental market area, not just in the city of Cambridge. As he said, in 2014-15 we allocated £45 million for targeted affordability funding. We will be allocating £95 million in 2015-16, and the rates will be announced at the end of this week.

T8. What steps is the Minister taking to tackle long-term youth unemployment in areas of high deprivation such as Easington? What specific measures has he identified to help my constituents? (907220)

We have taken significant measures to help young people who are long-term unemployed. We have established sector-based work academies, and have provided work experience and traineeships. Obviously the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, according to figures from the International Labour Organisation, youth unemployment is down on the quarter, on the year and since the general election.

Not all employers appreciate the social importance and value to the work force that employing disabled people can bring. What more are the Government doing to try to encourage employers to take on disabled people, and to help them into work?

I think that our Disability Confident campaign has contributed to the fact that more than a quarter of a million extra disabled people have started work over the last year. I am also considering improvements that we can make to the Access to Work service, which plays an important role in helping people either to stay in work or to return to it.

T9. The Secretary of State said that by the start of this year no one would wait more than 16 weeks for a personal independence payment assessment. Will he tell us whether that is the case—yes or no? (907221)

As the hon. Lady will know, this Wednesday I shall publish some properly verified statistics. I shall also engage in a lengthy session before the Work and Pensions Committee, when I shall set out the facts in full, as I have been requested to do.

The Independent Project Board, which was set up by the Office of Fair Trading, recently established that more than £8 billion-worth of private pension assets were subject to charges of between 2% and 3%. That makes it almost impossible for such schemes to grow. Will the Minister tell us what action he will take to deal with that?

Action is already being taken. Those statistics were a snapshot showing the position in April 2014. Measures that we have announced, such as the charge cap, mean that some of those schemes will be dealt with, and by the end of this week I shall have met six major pension providers to discuss how we can speed up the process of tackling the high legacy pension charges which the last Government did nothing to tackle.

T10. The Secretary of State will be aware that 1,250 young people in my constituency are long-term unemployed. As well as helping those people directly, will he link much more closely with the Department for Education so that we can pre-empt those problems through good careers guidance, helping the pre-NEETs and ensuring that young people are job-ready at the age of 16, 17 and 18? (907222)

May I first commend the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done? It has been a shining example both in his own area and nationally on early intervention and in setting up the Early Intervention Foundation. He has worked closely with Government and his own side. Yes, the answer is that of course we want to look at linking closely with the Department for Education, and I am very happy to discuss it with him further, but I also want to congratulate him on the hard work he does.