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Topical Questions

Volume 591: debated on Monday 26 January 2015

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.