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Topical Questions

Volume 594: debated on Monday 9 March 2015

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.

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?

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.

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)

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!

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?

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?

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?

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.