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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
09 March 2015
Volume 594

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked

Unemployment (North West Norfolk)

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1. What change there has been in the level of unemployment in North West Norfolk constituency since 2010. [907907]

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The claimant count in my hon. Friend’s constituency has fallen by nearly 60% since 2010, to just over 900.

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That is encouraging and unemployment in my constituency has come down by a staggering 908 in the past year, giving hope to a large number of families. Following the story in The Sunday Times last weekend, will the Minister tell the House what support her Department is giving to people seeking employment?

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I read the article in The Sunday Times about an episode of “Dispatches” that is being filmed in contact centres. Contact centres do not handle emergency hardship payments, as those are dealt with by Jobcentre Plus. Jobcentre Plus staff are fully trained and no one is sanctioned without being told about hardship payments. Awareness about benefit advances is being raised at the moment, and new posters and leaflets will be coming out in March once claimants have passed on their opinions and worked with the Department to get them right.

Young People (Employment or Education)

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2. What support his Department provides to young people seeking employment or education. [907908]

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11. What support his Department provides to young people seeking employment or education. [907917]

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Work coaches offer all claimants tailored support from day one of their claim. Claimants in need of experience are guided towards work experience or sector-based work academies, and those who require more focused training are supported through traineeships and apprenticeships.

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One barrier to young people seeking employment is that they do not necessarily have the correct skills required to take up the opportunities on offer. Will my right hon. Friend work with colleagues in the Department for Education and across the Jobcentre Plus network to ensure that local schools and colleges are aware of the skills that local employers need?

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My hon. Friend is right and we must make sure that young people are properly equipped for the world of work. I know of an ex-business man who ran a family business in printing. He knew who came through his door, which included young people who he wanted to give a job to, but they needed what people call “soft skills” and I like to call “core skills” for employability. We are working with the Department for Education on a new careers and enterprise company, and through the Inspiring The Future initiative young people are meeting business people to get a feel for what business and employment is all about, and we must support them as best we can. As my hon. Friend will know, we have increased work experience considerably and introduced sector-based work academies to that end.

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Will the Minister welcome the initiative that has been set up in my constituency with support from DWP and the local Gillingham football club, along with Medway Watersports, to provide young people with skills and positive experiences to assist them in securing employment or further training?

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I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend is working closely with Gillingham football club and its chairman, Paul Scally, who recently launched that help for young people, which is key. Various community and sports groups up and down the country are helping young people through the flexible support fund, and that should be highlighted. As many people as possible coming together to support young people into employment is key.

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If things are going so well, will the Minister explain why youth unemployment has risen by more than 33,000 in the last two months, including a 10% rise in my constituency, which is not too far from hers?

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I would like to get the record straight for the right hon. Gentleman because youth unemployment has fallen on the year, and has fallen considerably since 2010 by nearly 200,000. That is down to the work of this Government. There was a small rise of 3,000 in the last month, but the trend for unemployment is consistently downwards and the claimant count has fallen every month for the past 38 months—the Opposition would die to be able to deliver youth unemployment like that.

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This week, at an event in my constituency, young people will be talking about how the world can improve for them, especially in terms of access to work. Why does the Minister think that youth unemployment has been rising while overall unemployment has been falling in recent months?

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Again, I need to correct the record. It would be helpful if Opposition Members looked at the true youth unemployment numbers, which are down on the year and down nearly a fifth since 2010. Opposition Members delivered an increase in youth unemployment of 45%. Please stop scaremongering, get the facts right and go and help young people into jobs.

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I hope the Minister will at least take some note of her own UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which points out that the UK now has German levels of adult unemployment, but eurozone levels of youth unemployment. Some 40% of unemployed people in the UK are under 25. Youth Contract wage incentives failed and were scrapped eight months early last summer. Does she have any new plans to tackle the very high level of youth unemployment—nearly three times the level of adult unemployment—which, as my hon. Friends have rightly pointed out and contrary to what she has been telling us, has gone up in the past couple of months, not down?

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What can I say to Opposition Members? They seem blind to the truth. The fact of the matter is that youth unemployment was going through the roof—there was an increase of 45%—and this Government have brought it down by nearly 200,000 since 2010. Working with businesses, we brought in an array of support, from work experience to sector-based work academies and wage incentives. We brought in a whole plethora of support. Some worked better than others—that is correct—but the aim and the outcome remains: youth unemployment is down by nearly 200,000 since Labour left office.

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There is not much evidence of soft skills in that answer. The part of the UK where we have seen real progress on youth unemployment has been Wales. Youth unemployment used to be higher in Wales. Thanks to Jobs Growth Wales it is not higher any longer. Is it not now clear that for young people to benefit fully from the recovery that is under way, we need the young people’s job guarantee right across the UK?

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I am afraid it is the right hon. Gentleman who has soft skills. I have core skills in telling the truth: youth unemployment is down 200,000 since he left office. We do not need a job guarantee scheme, which does not work and costs an incredible amount of money. The work experience scheme we brought in is delivering better results at a twentieth of the cost. You bring in Labour, you pay a lot more for a lot less results.

Benefit Cap (Employment)

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3. What assessment he has made of the effect of the benefit cap on long-term unemployment. [907909]

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8. What assessment he has made of the effect of the benefit cap on rates of employment. [907914]

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The benefit cap is having a positive impact on people’s lives. I believe it is encouraging them to find work. The statistics show that. [Interruption.] Yes, they do. Those affected by the cap are 41% more likely to go into work than a similar uncapped group. It is under this Government that we are seeing long-term unemployment fall to its lowest level since 2009. The employment rate, at 73.2%, has never been higher.

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I had good cause this weekend to reflect on where I grew up. It breaks my heart to think that so many people spend such a long time on long-term welfare and state handouts. In Windsor, the number of people claiming benefits for more than a year has fallen by almost two-thirds, to just 70 people. That lifts my heart. Does the Secretary of State agree that we have a moral and social imperative to ensure that people are able to make their way from welfare to work and have a meaningful life?

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I agree with my hon. Friend. There is a fairness element: before we introduced the cap, about £9 million a year was being spent on fewer than 300 families. When asked, 73% of the public support the benefit cap and 77% agree it is fair for no household to get more than the average working household after tax. It seems like the only group that absolutely opposes the cap is the Labour party.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that our changes to benefits regulations have ensured that record numbers of people are now in work, and that this coalition Government are delivering jobs, prosperity and growth and that the only alternative from Labour Members is more debt, deficit and dole queues?

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As ever, my hon. Friend puts it succinctly—but that does not stop me answering his question. He is right. There are three figures that are really important. The Minister for Employment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), talked about bringing down unemployment. Under this Government, the International Labour Organisation 12-month-plus employment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds—the hardest to help—is down 59,000 on the year and 16,000 on the election; the 24-month-plus rate is down 30,000 on the year and 2,000 on the quarter; and of those in social housing, never, since records began, have we had so many households in work. That is the real reason for the Government’s long-term economic plan.

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Those on both sides of the House agree that it is important to encourage and support people into work, but under the new benefit cap announced by the Prime Minister, there is not a single three or four-bedroom property that somebody could rent when they need that safety net.

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I think the hon. Lady is talking about the Conservative manifesto proposal—I am not sure what other cap she could be talking about.

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indicated assent.

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She is nodding, but that proposal only brings the benefit cap back in line with average earnings, which are £23,000.

Through the cap, the Government have delivered fairness to the system and an incentive to go back to work, and as a direct result, more people are going back to work than ever before. We are asking people to take responsibility for their lives, just as those who are working and are not within the cap take responsibility for their lives.

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Would the right hon. Gentleman like to meet a constituent of mine whom I met last week? She has polio, she fell down the stairs and broke her leg, and now she has to have a knee replacement. She is on benefits and has two children. The rent on their property is £400, and the benefit cap is £500, which means they are living on £100 a week. Would he like to meet them?

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I am happy to speak to anybody the hon. Lady wants me to speak to about this matter. I believe that the benefits system in the UK helps those in the greatest difficulty—there is plenty of access to things such as hardship funds if that lady is having difficulty temporarily after breaking her leg—but if it is the hon. Lady’s belief that a Labour Government would increase spending on welfare, perhaps she could encourage those on her Front Bench to be honest about it and say so.

Benefit Sanctions

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4. What the average monthly value has been of benefit sanctions imposed since May 2010. [907910]

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The Department does not make an estimate of the amount of benefit withheld as a result of sanctions. The sanctions system is in place to ensure claimants comply with reasonable requirements in order to move off benefits and into work.

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Although the Department might not make estimates, outside experts do, and they now calculate that the amount of sanctions applied is greater than all the fines that magistrates courts in this country impose, but a fine in a magistrates court is imposed only after someone has been able to put their case. Might not the Government consider something like a yellow card system so that before a fine is exercised, people have the chance to bring in outside advisers to help them put their case more effectively?

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The Government do not make estimates because they would be wildly inaccurate, like the figures that the right hon. Gentleman has given. That is because only a maximum figure could be given that did not take into account hardship payments, which could be 80%, or that people already had a job, and there would be so many inconsistencies. The last Government—he was a Minister in the Department—did not make such estimates either.

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Question 5, Mr Speaker.

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No, no. I was calling the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) to ask about Question 4. Several hon. Members were on their feet in respect of this question.

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Does the Minister agree that it is important for us to acknowledge the role that sanctions play as the ultimate backstop in support of our welfare system, particularly as 70% of claimants say that they are more likely to abide by the rules when they know that their benefits are at risk if they do not?

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Sanctions have been around since the benefit came into being, to ensure compliance, to enable the Government to have a backdrop to the social security they provide, and to enable the support to be matched by work to enable people to go into a job. As the secretary-general of the OECD said:

“The United Kingdom is a textbook case of best-practice on how good labour and product markets can support growth and job creation.”

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Freedom of information requests to the Department for Work and Pensions have revealed that of the reviews of 49 deaths of social security claimants, 33 called for improvements into how the DWP operates nationally and locally. What changes have been introduced, and how have they been associated with sanctions on claimants?

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As the hon. Lady will know, we are always improving what we do and always making things better. We brought in the Matt Oakley review to look at better communications, and we work with claimants always to ensure that sanctions are applied only correctly. We know that the vast majority of people work within the system. For employment and support allowance claimants, over 99.4% work within the rules, and with jobseeker’s allowance claimants, it is over 94%. It has to work, but we always look to see how we can get it better.

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Given how poorly served people with mental health problems are by the Work programme, and given the fact that the Minister told me in an answer that the Department does not currently have available to it information about the proportion of people with a mental health problem who are sanctioned, is it not time that the Government did that research and made sure that we had back-to-work programmes to help people with mental health problems?

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We know that over 99.4% people on ESA and with a mental health condition are not sanctioned, so only 0.6% are. Again, we look to see how we work with people; and for very vulnerable people there is clear guidance on what counts as good cause, so they would know how and why they would not be sanctioned. We always know we need to do more. We have various pilots going on that seek better to understand people with mental health conditions.

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I am reminded of the feeling when one thinks the washing machine will stop—but it does not!

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Over 143,000 benefit sanctions were imposed in Scotland in the two years from October 2012, and one in four food bank users is using them because of delays in the benefit system. Yet today we read in the Financial Times that the Tories are planning to cut 30,000 jobs from the Department for Work and Pensions if they win the next election, most of them in the nations and regions. Is this not a recipe for further chaos and misery? Do not both claimants and DWP staff deserve better?

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For the sake of brevity and clarity, those figures are not true at all.

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That was exemplary brevity and clarity, I must concede.

Child Support Agency

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5. What progress has been made on reform of the Child Support Agency. [907911]

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I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the 2012 child maintenance scheme is now open to all applicants and is delivering a more efficient statutory service, including the option of direct payments, for those who cannot make a family-based arrangement. From January 2015, closure of existing CSA cases began.

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I thank the Minister and want to ask him a further question. For most MPs starting in 2010, this issue provided a lot of constituency casework for us, and the agency in question was often felt not to be fit for purpose, despite the good intentions in setting it up. What progress have the Government made in dealing with the fraud and error that has been so well publicised as existing in the system?

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We recognise that further incremental reform would not deal with the long and deep-seated problems with the Child Support Agency. That is why we are closing all the cases on the existing system and moving towards a much more streamlined system. To provide one example of the improvements, we now get data direct from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs rather than having to wait for non-resident parents to provide payslips, so we have prompt and accurate information to avoid arrears building up.

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May I thank my right hon. Friend and the Government for the substantial reforms that they have made to the Child Support Agency, whose service as it was a few years ago is unrecognisable to us now?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he has said. We want to encourage people to sort things out for themselves whenever that is possible, but when they do use the new system, we offer a much better service than we did. For example, we now have what is known in the jargon as a web-based portal. People can log on and see how their accounts stand, and the system is so good that some have likened it to online banking.

Discretionary Housing Payments

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6. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on people subject to the under-occupancy penalty of a reduction in funding for discretionary housing payments in 2015-16. [907912]

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We have actually increased the funding for discretionary housing payments to help those who are affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy, and, as the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement, it will be protected in 2015-16.

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Does the Minister agree with the Child Poverty Action Group, which has said that any degradation of discretionary housing payments will threaten to “cut the parachute cord” that keeps so many vulnerable families from the homelessness and destitution created by the foul bedroom tax? Will he give an absolute guarantee that the payments will be not only maintained in real terms, but possibly increased when necessary, and ring-fenced?

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If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my answer, he would have heard me say that the level of discretionary housing payments relating to the removal of the spare room subsidy would be maintained in 2015-16, as the Chancellor said in the autumn statement. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s point of order about questions and answers last week. I think that my answer did relate to his question, and perhaps he should have listened to it.

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What happens when district councils do not use the whole discretionary housing payment fund? Is it carried over? What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that authorities spend the full amount that they are entitled to spend?

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That is a good question. Last year, two thirds of local authorities did not spend all the money that the Government allocated to them. If the money is not spent, it returns to central Government and to whence it came—that is, to the taxpayer

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25. What has the Minister got to say to my constituent Mr Cocks, who has not only lived in his two-bedroom house in Denton for more than six decades, but was born there? This is not a house; it is his home. Last year he qualified for a discretionary housing payment, but he has been refused one for next year. Is this not yet another example of how cruel the bedroom tax can be, given that in a few years my constituent will be exempt from it anyway? [907931]

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As I have said, the Government have made discretionary housing payments available to local authorities so that they can take specific facts into account, because they are obviously better acquainted with what is happening on the ground. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent is that he should talk to his local authority.

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Will my hon. Friend and his Conservative ministerial colleagues stop blocking the Affordable Homes Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) and allow it to be passed before the end of this Parliament, so that some of these issues can be resolved?

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I am afraid that the estimated cost of the Affordable Homes Bill is about £1,000 million. As well as having to find the money to pay for it, the hon. Member for St Ives would have to identify the other benefits that would need to be cut to enable us to stay within the welfare cap to which both Government parties and the Opposition have signed up.

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Each year, local authorities are spending nearly £200 million on adapting properties for disabled people. Then the Government come along and try to move them out of those properties by imposing the bedroom tax. Will the Minister now admit that that is a prime example of Tory welfare waste?

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The hon. Lady still has not found anyone apart from herself to take up that slogan. She will know that £25 million of discretionary housing payment was made available specifically to support disabled people who are in adapted accommodation, so that the local authorities do not have to move them. That money is available, and local authorities should use it for the purpose for which it was intended.

Unemployment (UK and other European Countries)

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7. What comparative assessment he has made of unemployment rates in the UK and other European countries. [907913]

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17. What comparative assessment he has made of unemployment rates in the UK and other European countries. [907923]

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The UK currently has the 3rd lowest unemployment rate in the European Union, and it has fallen faster than that of any other G7 economy in the past year. Thanks to welfare reform and our long-term economic plan, businesses are creating jobs, and 1.85 million more people are in work than in 2010. For interest, that is more than the total population of Estonia.

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The Opposition like to ally themselves to France, so I would like my right hon. Friend to inform the House where we stand in comparison with our neighbours in France.

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I do recall that the Opposition extolled the virtues of the French Government and what they were doing. It is worth bearing in mind therefore what would have happened if they had followed the French example—which I think they still plan to do. If the UK had the same employment rate as France, employment would be 3.5 million lower in this country. If the UK had the same unemployment rate as France, unemployment would be nearly 1.5 million higher. But there you go—the truth is that every time a Labour Government leave office, they leave unemployment higher than when they arrived.

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I welcome the steps my right hon. Friend is taking to create jobs and reduce unemployment, which has fallen by 40% in Macclesfield over the last year. I have recently been on a delegation to Spain where we discussed the challenges they are facing of 25% unemployment and 50% youth unemployment, so does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely vital for the UK to stick to its current course for the years ahead?

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Yes, I do. This Government—under the Conservative party—with our long-term economic plan, will stick to those plans, so we would continue to see unemployment fall. Spain has taken huge strides in trying to make changes, but they still have more to do, as they said to me, to deregulate the ways in which they work, but none the less they are at least making real efforts to do so, and they look to us for some examples. Our unemployment and employment rates are better, but I would like to think they are trying very hard to get there.

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May I remind the Secretary of State that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which was set up by Ministers, has pointed out that 40% of unemployed people in Britain are under 25? There are 550 unemployed young people in my constituency. Is not the Secretary of State missing an opportunity to rebalance the regional economy, to address the skills shortages and to target resources at those areas that need it the most?

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Absolutely, but the point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that I would love for somebody on his side to get up and say, “The economy under Labour crashed with a 6% fall in GDP.” Does he honestly think that had no effect on his constituents? [Interruption.] Since then, we have got unemployment down below 2010 levels and got employment levels up, and we are doing our best to reskill people through work experience and so forth—[Interruption.]—and for all the shouting on the Opposition Benches, they blame everybody else for the crash but they do not give us the credit for the changes and improvements.

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Would the Secretary of State like to thank the former Labour Government—[Interruption.]

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Order. Mr Hopkins is on his feet, seeking to ask a question in his normally robust but courteous manner, and being shouted down by a Member on his own Benches. That is not satisfactory. I want to hear Mr Hopkins; the people of Luton North want to hear Mr Hopkins, the nation wants to hear Mr Hopkins.

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I am most grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for that help. Would the Secretary of State like to thank the former Labour Government for keeping Britain out of the euro, which is the principal cause of the devastation of the southern European members of the eurozone?

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It is a very good thing that we are out of the euro—I am very happy about that. As far as credit is to be given, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I have been opposed to entry into the euro and my party was, under my leadership, absolutely opposed and continues to be so, and I am very pleased about that. May I finish by reminding the House of what even those in Europe say when they look at us? The OECD said of the UK that

“the performance of the labour market has been remarkable!”

That is the point: the rest of Europe says the UK has done better on employment and unemployment than anybody else, and that is down to the Government, thanks to their long-term economic plan. We have got it right; they have got it wrong.

“Not Just For Boys” Campaign

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9. What progress he has made on the “Not Just For Boys” campaign. [907915]

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With record employment and vacancy levels, the “Not Just For Boys” campaign is intended to encourage young girls and women to consider a career in an industry where they are traditionally under-represented. After just under a month, some of the UK’s and the world’s leading businesses are on board, as are schools, business women, companies such as BT, Microsoft and Diageo and organisations including Opportunity Now, the Construction Industry Training Board and Be Onsite. I could continue, but for the sake of brevity, I will sit down.

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A recent OECD report made it clear that gender differences among high-performing students remain stubbornly high in science, technology, engineering and maths—the STEM subjects. In 2012, only 12% of women entering university chose to study in science-related fields, compared with 39% of men, with all that that entails for women’s long-term job security and levels of pay. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this simply underlines how incredibly important it is that campaigns such as her “Not Just For Boys” campaign should succeed?

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I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. The campaign came about after we looked at where the jobs were going to be over the next decade. There will be 12 million jobs in fields such as IT, engineering and manufacturing, yet only 7% of girls were going into those subjects, so we knew that we had to do more—hence the campaign. Businesses came on board, as did women wanting to be role models. The Department for Education should also take some credit here, because there are now 10,000 more girls studying STEM subjects at A-level than there were in 2010.

Universal Credit

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10. What progress his Department has made on the roll-out of universal credit. [907916]

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We have begun the national roll-out of universal credit. Those plans are on track, and universal credit is now available in nearly 150 jobcentre areas for single claimants and in nearly 100 areas for couples and families. Universal credit will be available in over 500 jobcentre areas—seven in 10—by the end of the year, and it will be rolled out to all our 714 jobcentres next year.

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In contrast to some reports today, the staff in the jobcentres in my constituency are looking forward to the roll-out of universal credit because they know the advantages it will bring to local jobseekers. Has my right hon. Friend made a recent assessment of the benefits of universal credit following the roll-out so far?

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We have indeed. From what I have read of the reports my hon. Friend mentions, every single point made in them is wrong and misleading. We will be making our position clear on that. The analysis that he asks for has shown that the benefits of universal credit are statistically significant. Findings now show that, compared with similar claimants on jobseeker’s allowance, universal credit claimants spend more time looking for work, enter work more quickly and spend more time in work. They also end up earning more.

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The roll-out so far has been to specific groups of people with particular characteristics. That is partly because, to put it uncharitably, the original IT system does not work. If I were being charitable, I would say that it worked but with greatly reduced functionality compared with what was originally planned. However, the Department is piloting a digital solution in Sutton, Surrey, and I wonder whether the Secretary of State could tell us how that is going. When are we likely to get the results of that pilot? Can he tell us when the digital solution is going to be rolled out, given that it was meant to be the great white hope for saving universal credit?

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The IT system is exactly the same system, and it works in all categories. The difference is that we have rightly decided, in accordance with the Public Accounts Committee’s request, to roll this out stage by stage—we have been told that this is the correct way to do it—rather than trying to rush it, as was done with the tax credit system, which crashed. The hon. Lady mentioned the digital solution. Digital development and the online service are merging together, because the live service has many elements that will be used by the digital service anyway. This is a merging of the two services, and we will be reporting on that as we go along. It is successfully rolling out at the moment and expanding at the same time. I would be very happy if the hon. Lady wanted to go and visit it.

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22. I congratulate the Government on their agile approach to the roll-out of universal credit. Given that it is expected to come to Wycombe, along with every other constituency, in the course of the next year, will my right hon. Friend remind the House of the advantages that our constituents can expect from it? [907928]

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Apart from the technical changes, the reality is that at the moment when someone falls unemployed then takes a part-time job they have to sign off and go through the whole rigmarole of claiming tax credits with no one talking to them. Under universal credit, they do not sign off. They stay with their adviser, who helps them enormously in negotiating their way through all their job applications. There is therefore a human interface, which is much better and which will help people who are unemployed and who have difficulties. People can look forward to that.

Work Programme (Over 50s)

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12. What proportion of people over the age of 50 who have been referred to the Work programme have found work as a result. [907918]

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The objective of the Work programme is to move more people into sustainable employment, and so the available data relate to people’s job outcomes, not starts, which means they have been in work for three or six months. To September 2014, there were 300,410 referrals of people aged 50 and over, resulting in 42,750 job outcomes.

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The Work programme is failing older people, with the figures the Minister has just given meaning that only 13% of people aged 55 to 59 have found a lasting job as a result of the programme. What would she say to the constituents I meet, who are desperate to work and doing all that is asked of them yet feel badly let down by her Government?

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The Work programme is the largest programme of its kind, helping people into work on an unparalleled scale. It is superseding all the expected levels and targets; it is better than anything that has gone before it.

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With the Banbury and Bicester job clubs, we seek to help people who are out of work to get back into the world of work, irrespective of age. Am I not right in thinking that 50,000 over-50s who are in work now were not in work last year? So 50,000 over-50s have found work in just the past year, and it is right that we should not write anyone off simply because of their age.

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My right hon. Friend is correct about that. We are seeing what extra support we can give to the over-50s, which is why, with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions, we have brought together the “Fuller Working Lives” document. It is also why we are looking at: how we can do extra IT; how we can do extra CVs and résumés; and how we can have older worker champions going into business to really sell the benefits of older employees, because it is key that they should be there to share their experience.

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Can the Minister explain why the Work programme works less well for women over 50 than for any other group in the community? According to her Department’s own figures, just over one in 10 women over 50 actually finds work as a result of the Work programme.

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I am not really sure where the hon. Lady has got her figures from. I have the figures in front of me and the one in 10 would refer to the number of employment and support allowance new claimants who found lasting work—that compares to a figure of one in 25 when they first joined and is well above the expected average, which would have been about one in 14. But we must remember that these people are some of the most difficult and hardest to help into work, which is why we have put this in place to support them. [Laughter.]

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When the Minister joins me on Wednesday in my constituency for her meeting with employers at my jobs fair, she will learn that many of them have started and wish to continue apprenticeships for the over-50s. Does she see a role for the Government in extending the programme to over-50s, with sufficient demand?

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I do indeed, and what my hon. Friend is doing there is incredible, supporting people of all ages through job fairs. As there were peals of laughter from Opposition Members, they obviously do not understand how the Work programme works and who goes on it, because it is there specifically to help those who are the hardest to help into work and to give them extra help and support.

Work programme (Disabled People)

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13. How many disabled people have moved into work as a result of the Work programme. [907919]

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The objective of the Work programme is to move people into sustainable employment, and so the available data relate to people’s job outcomes, not starts, which means they have been in work for three or six months. As of September 2014, there were 596,640 referrals for people with a disability indicator and 78,480 job outcomes paid.

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What does the Minister have to say in response to the recent Mind report, which stated:

“Current government back-to-work schemes are failing people with mental health problems because they are not built on a proper understanding of why people have ended up out of work and what support they will need to move closer to work.”?

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Mind also looked at the fact that all previous job schemes did not do enough for those with mental health conditions, who are the hardest to help and support. The Work programme tailors support to the individual, looking at an individual’s barriers into work. We have helped thousands of people with mental health conditions into work, instead of writing them off. There is more to do, so we are working and doing extra pilots to see how we can better engage with people with mental health conditions.

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I was very grateful to the Secretary of State for visiting Crawley last month to see how successfully the Work programme was operating. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the staff of Royal British Legion Industries who deliver the Work programme in my constituency for paying great attention to getting disabled people and people with mental health conditions back into work?

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Indeed I will join my hon. Friend in celebrating the work of the Royal British Legion and all the other charities and voluntary groups up and down the country as they try to ensure that there is a personalised plan and support for people looking for work. They do an invaluable job, and the people who go into such a field have a passion for getting people into work.

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19. One of the greatest disabilities that stops young people getting a job is autism. Is the Minister aware that autism is predicted to cost this country £32 billion a year? Will she stop for a moment being the “hard-hearted Hannah” of the Front Bench and be a little more compassionate about disabled young people looking for work? [907925]

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I understand a lot about autism and the extra support, help and work that we need to do. That is why the Secretary of State and I introduced the campaign, Disability Confident, which reaches out to employers and says, “Listen to the needs of the people and find out what we can do and how we can best work with these people.” I do hope that the hon. Gentleman’s comment was not sexist, as I have had very many such comments from the Opposition Benches.

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One highlight from my first term in Parliament was meeting a gentleman who had spent 10 years out of work on disability benefits because of depression. Through the Work programme, he got a full-time job. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Work programme can give disabled people hope and opportunities for the future, whereas, in the past, they were left on benefits for life?

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I totally agree with my hon. Friend. What this is all about is understanding how we can help people, especially those with disabilities, and getting them into work. I am glad to say that, over the past year, employment for people with disabilities has risen by 141,000. Nearly half a million people with disabilities have set up their own business. That is what a Conservative Government and a coalition Government can do.

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A moment ago, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), I heard the Minister say that the Work programme was exceeding all its targets. Just 7% of those on employment and support allowance in the Work programme have got into jobs, compared with the tender document that said that, by year two, a 15% success rate would be achieved. The programme is not achieving even half that. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are stuck in a queue waiting for a work capability assessment with no idea when they will be reassessed. The Access to Work programme, which should help people get into work and get on at work, is supporting fewer people today than when Labour left office in 2010. It is no wonder that the bill for disability benefits is set to be as much as £10 billion higher, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. Is the Minister satisfied with that catalogue of failure and waste?

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Once again, let me give the Opposition the latest and correct figures. One in 10 of ESA new claimants has found lasting work, which is above anything achieved in the past. What we expected was a level of one in 14, which was already there. Disability employment is up by 141,000 in the past year, and it now stands at more than 3.1 million. We are supporting disabled people into work and into education, and we are proud of our record.

Road Traffic Accidents at Work

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14. What assessment he has made of the performance of the Health and Safety Executive in reducing road traffic accidents at work. [907920]

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The Department for Transport leads on specific legislation relating to road safety, but the Health and Safety Executive does work with the Department for Transport and its agencies to produce joint guidance on driving at work. I understand from statistics produced by the Department for Transport that, in comparison with other countries, the UK remains one of the road safety leaders in the world.

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More than three times as many people die when they drive for a living as they do in any other workplace. It is estimated that 20% of accidents are caused by sleepiness. Is it not time to use the expertise that the HSE has used so well in other workplaces and apply it to people who drive for a living, and reduce the death toll from driving?

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I know that the hon. Lady has been interested in this issue for a number of years following a tragic death in her constituency in 2006 involving a driver with undiagnosed sleep apnoea. The Health and Safety Executive works with the Department for Transport and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and their medical teams to ensure that people driving, particularly commercially, are safe. They will continue that valuable work and I know that she will continue to raise the issue.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [907947]

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Today I welcome regulations laid in this House to prevent migrant jobseekers from the EU from accessing universal credit if they have never worked in the UK. This is a clear reversal of the open door policy of the past under the previous Government and we are now delivering a fair system for those who work hard in Britain. It is also in line with the fact that more British people find jobs that ended under the previous Government. A higher proportion of the jobs are taken by British people, which means that more people are in work. With welfare having fallen in real terms and a fairer pension system, this Government, as we come to a close, have a record of which to be proud.

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An undercover reporter from “Dispatches” has found that staff in the Bolton universal credit call centre, where the system crashed nine times in 20 days, have been told not to inform claimants about same-day advance payment, the flexible support fund or the hardship fund, even though payments are taking at least five weeks to arrive. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is the correct way for staff to be told to behave and, if not, what is he going to do about it?

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I did read the reports about that and they are wrong. The people the programme talked to are not responsible for talking to claimants about hardship funds. The people who talk about hardship funds are in the jobcentres and I can tell the hon. Lady categorically—she is more than welcome to look at it—that the advice given to them is explicit. They are meant to engage with people immediately if they have any suspicion or if they are asked about this. We are putting up posters in jobcentres to make sure that those people are aware of that and we are also ensuring that all letters on any sanction contain the elements that are relevant. The programme is wrong on this issue.

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T4. Since 2010, unemployment has halved in Kettering. Which Minister is responsible month on month for announcing the big reductions in unemployment we have seen and will she step forward to the Dispatch Box to accept the thanks of a grateful nation? [907950]

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Obviously, I would like to thank my lovely assistants, who are sitting behind me, in a bit of a role reversal. We are led by the Secretary of State, who 10 years ago wrote about “Breakdown Britain” and “Breakthrough Britain”, and about what a compassionate Conservative Government would want to do by providing a ladder to help people who might have been left in despair to come forward, get a job and prosper. So, to him!

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Since our last oral questions, the time it will take fully to roll out universal credit on the basis of the latest figures has increased from 1,571 years to 1,605 years, an increase of 34 years in just 42 days. Let me ask about the effect of the policy. In its original impact assessment, the Department for Work and Pensions said that 2.8 million households would be worse off when the policy is fully rolled out. Will the Secretary of States give us his latest assessment of how many households will be entitled to less support under universal credit?

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The hon. Lady is nothing if not persistent with a useless question, so I will now attempt to answer. Universal credit will benefit the vast majority of households in this country. They will be better off, they will be in work more quickly, they will have longer terms in work and they will earn more. The latest work that has been done, which is independently assessed, shows that universal credit is a net benefit to society. It saves money for the Treasury and helps people. I would have thought that she would say that she backs it, but every time she gets to the Dispatch Box she spends her time trying to attack it. Does she not think that if she wants to be elected to government she needs to stand a little taller and be a little more responsible rather than just playing cheap politics?

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Instead of lecturing me, perhaps the Secretary of State would like to answer the question. The truth, revealed in a written answer by the Minister for Disabled People on 3 February, is that another 200,000 households are set to be worse off under universal credit, because to make up for all the waste and delays on universal credit, the Government are reducing the support that they provide to low-paid workers. Is not the truth that universal credit—the one policy that the Secretary of State had to build a better benefits system and make work pay—is being continually scaled down and pushed back because of his inability to deliver anything that remotely looks like being on time and on budget, and are not the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on universal credit so far just another example of his welfare waste?

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So there we have it: an Opposition who think that they will govern by innuendo and clap-trap. What we have heard from them is a lot of nonsense from start to finish. Listening to the hon. Lady, I wonder whether she is even the slightest bit prepared for government—although she will not be lucky enough to get into government. We heard another little speech from the shadow Chancellor today, in which he did not lay out one single policy on welfare, the economy or anything else at all. What we have from the Opposition—this is why they will not get into government—is constant nonsense, cheap politics and a total waste of time.

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T5. I think we must all welcome the Institute for Fiscal Studies report last week, which said that household median incomes are almost back to pre-recession levels. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that that demonstrates that sensible, competent economic policies in government make the difference to people on the street? [907951]

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That is absolutely true. While the Opposition moan on about bits and pieces, the reality is that this Government have got on with getting more people into work, getting more stable incomes, and increasing incomes. The cost of living, petrol prices and food prices are falling, and people’s incomes are rising. This Government’s long-term economic plan is delivering a change and an improvement to people’s lives.

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T3. Last week Maximus told me that a disabled constituent of mine, who had been waiting more than a year for her ESA claim to be processed, could not be given a date on which that would happen, because many more people had had to wait longer. That does not exactly fill us with confidence, given that Maximus is taking over the Atos contract for assessing personal independence payment claims, or could the Minister give us some meaningful assurance that things can only get better? [907949]

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To be fair to Maximus, it took over the contract only eight days ago. I remind the hon. Lady that the company that it took it over from, which had well-published problems, was appointed by a Government of the party of whom she is a member. We have been sorting out that problem. Maximus has been in place for eight days and will improve the position, but the hon. Lady needs to give it a fair crack of the whip. It will not sort out all the problems in a week.

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T6. Will the Minister tell the House how the outlook for women and their pensions has improved since 2010? [907952]

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I am very happy to brief my hon. Friend. Tackling the poorer pension outcomes for women has been a long-term priority for him and for me. Our reformed state pension will come in during 2016 and will deliver a fairer pension for women. Millions of women have been automatically enrolled and so will have a pension of their own, on top of a decent state pension—the difference, dare I say it, that a Liberal Democrat Pensions Minister makes.

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Responding on the issue of youth unemployment, the Minister for Employment painted a rosy picture, but she needs to take additional action in rural areas, especially those such as mine, where youth unemployment continues to rise month on month and the whole economy is based on agriculture and tourism. What additional support does she think she can genuinely give to areas such as mine?

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We have provided a whole array of support. We measured what was working best and asked how we would roll that out. By working with businesses, we found that the answer was work experience, the sector-based work academies, and apprenticeships; we have introduced 2 million of those—and it is national apprenticeship week. Getting young people into a job is about skills, including employability skills, and we are doing as much as we can.

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T8. My constituents in Burton and Uttoxeter welcome people coming to this country who want to work hard, pay their taxes and contribute, but they are concerned about those who come to take advantage of our benefits system. Will the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that this Government take that seriously, and will he outline what we will do about it? [907954]

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My hon. Friend is right. When we came into office there was an open door policy—people could come in, be unemployed and claim benefits immediately. They could claim housing benefit. Since we have been in office, we have stopped people claiming housing benefit. They must be resident for three months before they can claim jobseeker’s allowance, and after three months, if they do not have a job or the prospect of a job, they will not be allowed to stay in this country. These changes introduced by this Government and the new ones on universal credit today mean that we are serious about this. Labour never was.

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Has the Secretary of State seen the Citizens Advice report which shows that many ESA claimants are left with no money and are reliant on food banks after being told that they are too fit to claim ESA and not fit enough to claim JSA? Most have had to wait up to 10 weeks for a decision. Will the Minister look into this?

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If the hon. Gentleman is referring to mandatory reconsideration when somebody is found fit for work, he will know that the average length of time taken to decide one of those is 13 days, not 13 weeks. He will also know that if someone is found fit for work, they are able to claim jobseeker’s allowance and they will receive support from the jobcentre to help them get back into work.

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T9. In the past five years, how many people have moved from benefits into work? Is there any comparable five-year period since 1945 when so many people have moved off benefits into the world of work? [907955]

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The record now for people moving from benefits into work is remarkable. Some 600,000 have moved back into work. Peak to peak, the figure is over 800,000, and we have many, many more people back in employment. There have never been as many people in work and that number is still growing, with some 700,000 vacancies in the jobcentres every week.

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Some 35% of appellants succeed in overturning erroneously imposed JSA sanctions, yet the Minister denies setting sanction targets or expectations. If that is true, how does she explain such appalling performance statistics—a 35% failure rate that masks untold misery and grinding poverty for thousands of our fellow citizens?

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I have repeatedly made it clear that there are no limits, no levels and no targets for sanctions. That is the case. We ensure that quality is correct so that people get this right. There will be quality assurance targets and measures that are put in place. The figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes are not correct. Somebody might be told that they have a doubt raised against them, and from that doubt, though they have not been sanctioned, 50% will end up never having a sanction, less than 10% will go on to reconsiderations, and much less than that will go to appeal.

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T10. Very good progress has been made both nationally and locally in getting unemployment and youth unemployment down. The answers today show that we should not stop there and put all that at risk. Instead, we should go further. Does the Minister agree that we should be doing even more to help, in particular, young people with disabilities or mental health conditions into work? [907956]

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I am pleased to agree with my hon. Friend. I know that she has held her Norwich for jobs initiative, which my right hon. Friend the Employment Minister has had the opportunity to go and see. We are keen to make sure that we improve performance in getting people on ESA back into work, and my hon. Friend will know particularly that we are trying a number of things in the area of mental health to make sure that we are more successful in that area.

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For international women’s day I visited Westgate community college to see the fantastic work that it is doing to improve the skills of women of all ages and backgrounds, but I was told that this Government’s sanctioning policy means that many women cannot feed their children, and also that some women have to come to mandated courses within two weeks of giving birth for fear of losing benefits. Is this how the Government treat women?

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I would like to meet the hon. Lady about these cases because I do not believe they are true. They certainly should not be true because if people had good reason, they would not be sanctioned. People have to take reasonable steps to get a job. We will need to get to the bottom of these cases because that would not be the case. We would not preside over a system where that was the case.

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The jobless count among 18 to 24-year-olds in my constituency is down 79% since 2010. Does the Employment Minister agree that a degree from a good university is one route into work—and someone who goes to the university of Winchester will be among the 92% who are in employment or further education six months after graduating—but just one route, because one of this Government’s great achievements has been to give young people hope that there are other routes?

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My hon. Friend is quite right. University is one route into work, and if it works for people that is great, but apprenticeships are another route, and this Government have done more than any other to get young people into apprenticeships—there are now more than 2 million apprentices—and into work. I know that my hon. Friend works closely with his university and local businesses to make that happen.

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We are running late, but this is the last Work and Pensions Question Time of the Parliament and there are two colleagues I wish to accommodate.

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Youth unemployment in my constituency is still very high. Unlike some Tory Members, I cannot brag about a 50% reduction in youth unemployment. In fact, I cannot even go to 5%. Will the Minister do something about it?

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Of course we want to ensure that every young person has a chance to get a job, none less so than we on the Government side and the hon. Gentleman, but he must remember that the reason they are unemployed is that the economy crashed and fell by 6% of GDP, and we have to put that right. What we are seeing now is more young people across the country getting back into work. I believe that this does and will affect his constituents for the better, which is exactly what it is all about.

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Last but not least, Mr Duncan Hames.

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Now that the roll-out of universal credit is beginning in Wiltshire, what effect will it have on the identification of children’s eligibility for free school meals, and what conversations has the Secretary of State had with Ministers in the Department for Education on how that will affect the allocation of the incredibly popular pupil premium?

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In the first instance, we have already agreed with the Department for Education on how that will work. It is set on a series of moments when it will apply the free school meals eligibility. I think that it will actually be better than the present system. With regard to the pupil premium, which is in the coalition agreement and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, works successfully, this should have no direct effect on that, other than to improve it.