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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 597: debated on Monday 22 June 2015

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Private Sector Pensions (Automatic Enrolment)

1. What assessment he has made of the effects of automatic enrolment on private sector pension saving. (900440)

More than 5.2 million workers have been automatically enrolled in a workplace pension by their employer to date. Since the start of automatic enrolment, workplace pension membership in the private sector has risen from 32% in 2012 to 49% in 2014, a very positive start.

With 135,000 firms set to auto-enrol their employees from January, does my hon. Friend agree that the work of non-governmental groups such as the Solihull-based Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals is key to the successful delivery of auto-enrolment and to meeting the savings challenge of 11 million Britons who are currently failing to put enough away for their retirement?

Our success to date in implementing automatic enrolment could not have been achieved without the significant ongoing support of a number of sectors, including the pensions and payroll industries. Friends of automatic enrolment have played a crucial role in bringing together organisations that are playing a key role in its delivery. Together they have helped the Government improve the process of automatic enrolment and ensure that these reforms work. We thank them for their support so far and their commitment to continuing to work with us as we start the process of helping 1.3 million smaller employers implement automatic enrolment for their workers.

But will the Minister advise the House of his estimate of the number of workers who are excluded from the benefit of auto-enrolment because of the changes in the threshold over the past five years, and of what proportion of those workers are women?

The Secretary of State is required by law to review the automatic enrolment thresholds in each tax year and may take into account a range of prescribed factors. The review can include considering whether to lower or increase the thresholds or leave them unchanged, as was the case for the current tax year. Freezing the trigger for this tax year will result in approximately 14,000 additional women and 20,000 people overall being brought into pension savings. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point, I am happy to write to him with further information.

18. I welcome the Minister to his post.One way of boosting auto-enrolment further would be to ensure that people were more confident when they came to access their savings that they had the full range of choices that the law now allows. What more can the Minister do to encourage pension funds to offer that full range at an affordable and fair price? (900457)

I am encouraged by the fact that 91% of people who have already been auto-enrolled have continued to save, which is a welcome step and above initial expectations. We will continue to work with the Treasury, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Pensions Regulator to ensure that flexibilities, information and charges are all delivering for the consumer.

When it comes to the reforms that the Government are putting through, particularly on pension freedoms, we are mindful of the attractions of consumer choice but also of all the mis-selling scandals of the past. What assurances can the Minister give that all defined-contribution plan holders will get appropriate advice and that consumers will be adequately protected? It is not clear to us that the appropriate measures are in place.

As I said in response to the previous question, we will work with the Treasury, the FCA and the Pensions Regulator to monitor that closely. We have also brought in a 0.75% cap on charges, which in time will allow an extra £200 million to remain in pension savings.

Disability Confident Campaign

The Disability Confident campaign continues to play a crucial role in the Government’s aim of halving the disability gap. It has secured support from 360 employers and pledges from 98 organisations to positively change employment practices towards disabled staff. Many colleagues are hosting constituency events, including my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) who did so last week.

Norwich for Jobs, the youth employment campaign that I founded in Norwich, has hit its goal of helping to halve youth unemployment. We want to turn the power of that local network towards helping young people who are claiming employment and support allowance. Will the Minister join me in calling on Norwich companies to give a young disabled person a chance?

I am delighted to hear of the success my hon. Friend has achieved in her constituency with Norwich for Jobs. That is exactly the kind of local initiative that I welcome, and to which I am pleased to add my support. In addition, I hope that her local authority, local enterprise partnership and business community will do all they can to help to promote that fantastic scheme.

Will the Minister join me in thanking all the employers and speakers who contributed to my first Disability Confident conference in Selby a couple of weeks ago? It was an extremely worthwhile event to organise. Many of those employers will join me for my fifth jobs fair in October. I was particularly pleased because we had a bit of stardust at the event—Pamela Uddin, the star of the BBC’s “The Apprentice”, shared her experiences of coping with dyslexia.

I am aware of the very successful event my hon. Friend organised. I congratulate him on the quality of the speakers he secured—it certainly shows that he is no apprentice. We need employers to see that recruiting and retaining disabled people should be the norm, and that disabled people have a great deal to offer in the workplace. Events such as the Selby summit play a crucial part in our drive to get employers involved.

Does the Minister agree that an almost hidden element of disability is autism? It is a barrier to so many people gaining employment and a full and confident life.

I have met stakeholder groups, and that message has been made very clear to me. In fact, 42% of disabled people looking for work say that the biggest barrier they face is the attitude of their employer. Through such campaigns as Disability Confident, we hope to inspire more businesses to take on more people with disabilities. We rejoice in the fact that, over the past 12 months, an extra 238,000 disabled people were in work.

What support is the Minister offering to specialist and locally based employment organisations such as Northern Rights in my constituency and the East Durham Employability Trust? They have a proven track record of supporting disabled people and people with multiple barriers into work, but have frequently found it very difficult to access funding from the Department for Work and Pensions.

Again, having met with stakeholders, I can say that local initiatives are clearly key. Each of our individual constituencies has different challenges and opportunities. Part of the Disability Confident campaign is sharing best practice. I would be keen to hear more of the good work going on in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

As part of the Disability Confident campaign, will the Minister work with organisations such as United Response, which does excellent work in my constituency with people who have learning difficulties such as autism, which the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) mentioned, so that people with learning difficulties go into every kind of job and all public service? Some are councillors. I want more people with learning difficulties to put themselves forward to be councillors and Members of Parliament.

That is why we launched the Disability Confident campaign and why we will continue to drive it forward. I met Liz Sayce of Disability Rights UK. She made it very clear to me: she said that, too often, disabled people are seen as recipients when they want to be net contributors. Local initiatives, sharing best practice, busting the myths and ensuring that people see what a huge amount of talent is available will continue to help to drive up disability employment rates.

Personal Independence Payments

5. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department of the High Court ruling in June 2015 on delays in personal independence payments. (900444)

We have taken decisive action to speed up waiting times for personal independence payment claims and are pleased that the Court has recognised the huge progress made. The average new PIP claimant now waits only five weeks for an assessment.

Currently, delays to people receiving PIP causes problems, but the impact of delays on other benefits such as the carer’s allowance and blue badges is hugely significant. Although the Government have made progress, will the Minister advise us as to what the backlog is in terms of numbers, and how many people wait more than seven weeks?

It is important to recognise that other benefits are backdated. We have made huge progress. The backlog has been falling month on month since August 2014, and we are now within where we would expect to be as part of usual business. We are looking at a median time, end to end, of 11 weeks. We will continue to monitor that important issue closely.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to a letter I received from a constituent last week? He says:

“I was recently contacted by DWP to be assessed for PIP…I sent the forms off and within 3 days had a medical assessment at my home…I have to tell you that the process from start to finish was 3 weeks. Is this a record?...Whilst we read a lot in the media I think my recent experience shows the system may at last be improving.”

I thank my hon. Friend for that. Claims are now cleared at four times the rate they were in January 2014. We have quadrupled the number of healthcare professionals, introduced more than 200 new assessment rooms, doubled the number of DWP decision-making staff, and improved IT systems and claimant communication. I am delighted that my hon. Friend’s constituent has benefited from those improvements.

I welcome the new Ministers to their roles.

The recent High Court ruling found that the delays to PIP were unreasonable and unlawful. They are also undermining the well-being and dignity of sick and disabled people. I know that I am not the only Member who has seen constituents affected not just by inordinate delays, but by poor quality assessments, driving them into hardship and destitution. The High Court ruling should have been a wake-up call for Ministers, but they seem to be refusing to accept that PIP is just not fit for purpose. In the light of that damning judgment, will they halt the roll-out of PIP and initiate a review as a matter of urgency?

Actually, the Court and the Paul Gray review agreed that there were no inherent failings in the system, and significant improvements have been made, which I have already listed. The reality is that some cases were unacceptable, but we must not forget why we introduced PIP. It is a modern benefit that allows thorough face-to-face assessments and will ultimately see a higher proportion of maximum value paid, compared with the old disability living allowance system. We are continuing to make improvements and I will keep a close eye on the issue.

I am disappointed by the Minister’s complacency. Earlier this year, Citizens Advice Scotland published research showing that 55% of current DLA claimants will lose out in the transfer to PIP. It is not just sick and disabled people who will suffer—[Interruption.] I am sorry; I thought you were cutting me off, Mr Speaker. The Scottish Government estimate that 450 carers in Scotland will lose their carer’s allowance because of this transition. That will put further strain on families that are already at a disadvantage—

Too long. Some of these questions require a bit of advance practice and a blue pencil. I have no impediment in my throat: I was trying gently to hint to the hon. Lady that her question was a tad long.

I am afraid that I do not share the hon. Lady’s views. PIP is a far better system than the former DLA. Under DLA, only 6% of people had a face-to-face assessment, 50% of awards were made with no medical advice, and 71% were allocated lifetime awards, even though one in three cases would change within 12 months—often getting worse, so that people missed out on the appropriate support. We are right to push this and I will continue to keep a close eye on the improvements we have made.

I warmly welcome the Minister to his post.

My constituency has many isolated rural and coastal communities. What is being done to ensure that assessment centres are more accessible and flexible for people in those communities?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question: he is a real champion for his constituents. We have added an extra 200 assessment rooms. People who find it difficult to reach an assessment room can travel by car as long as it is within 60 minutes; by public transport if it is within 90 minutes; or, by prior agreement with the assessment providers, they can have taxis provided and paid for.

What a difference a weekend makes. On Saturday, thousands of disabled people marched in protest against cuts in their benefits. The Minister comes here today, trotting out his sunshine stories, while in the real world disabled people are losing benefits left, right and centre. He can remedy that today by saying, “This Government will not cut the benefits of any disabled person throughout this Parliament.” Come on, say it!

We are clear that we will protect the disabled and vulnerable. Let us remember that under the PIP system 22% of claimants will end up getting the highest rate of support, which is higher than the 16% under the DLA. We are doing more to help the most vulnerable in society.

Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships give young people the chance to reach their potential, giving them the skills and training required to achieve a successful career. The Government have funded training elements of apprenticeships in England, and between 2009-10 and 2013-14 there has been a 40% increase in the number of young people starting one.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Conservative commitment to create an additional 3 million apprenticeships over this Parliament will give young people the skills they need to get on in life? Will she tell the House what she is doing to work with both the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that the quality of those new apprenticeships is top notch and improving all the time?

Let me start by commending my hon. Friend and fellow Essex MP for his work in this area, particularly with his local employers, many of whom I have met and know. He is of course right to say that our commitment to create 3 million apprenticeships will give young people the vital skills to reach their full potential. We are already working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and employers as part of our apprenticeship reforms to ensure that Britain’s young people get a quality apprenticeship that will help them to reach their full potential.

While there are indeed some excellent apprenticeships—there is no doubt about that—sadly, all too often there are employers who use them as, in effect, a rebranded youth training scheme or youth opportunities programme-type arrangement. What will the Minister do to publish details of employers who abuse the apprenticeship system, or does the scrutiny simply not allow for that?

We all know, and this House recognises, that apprenticeships are vital. They give young people the chance to learn the skills to reach their full potential. [Interruption.] I hear an Opposition Member chuntering away. Employers play a vital role in this scheme. I have already touched on the fact that we are working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on our reforms and delivering 3 million apprenticeships. Employers will be at the heart of that, providing quality training and accountability in their role with apprenticeships.

20. On a recent visit to Fuel Conservation Services in Hednesford, I saw the impact that access to apprenticeships and high-quality training has on young people entering the workplace. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the work of businesses like FCS in offering apprenticeships to young people? [Interruption.] Does she recognise the role that businesses can play in working with the Government on initiatives to tackle youth unemployment? (900459)

Let me start by welcoming my hon. Friend to the House as a new Member of Parliament. It is interesting to hear the conversations among those on the Opposition Benches. They do not like success stories, such as that of the business in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I commend her local business. It is important that the House recognises the vital contribution that employers like FCS make in offering young people apprenticeships. She touches on a very valuable point: they support young people in the transition from school to the world of work, which we know is challenging for young people, and we will support employers in that.

Having served an apprenticeship under a dual system of high-quality apprenticeships, I ask the Minister to accept that employers have to play a much larger role in providing the skills space for our apprentices, and that just expanding level 2 apprenticeships is not sufficient.

I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments. This is all about quality. The quality of the apprenticeships is what we should concern ourselves with: working with employers in particular to make sure that they are giving our young people not just the hopes and aspirations but the skills they require for their own businesses and sectors to enable succession planning within companies and sectors. Also, we have made a commitment to deliver 3 million new apprenticeships, and we are absolutely clear that they should now provide parity with a degree-equivalent qualification. Employers play an important role in delivering that.

Disability Benefits

8. What his policy is on maintaining the level of (a) employment and support allowance, (b) personal independence payment and (c) attendance allowance for disabled claimants. (900447)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for her campaigning in this area. I would like to take this opportunity to offer her my condolences, not having spoken to her before.

I am currently reviewing all policy on welfare. The outcome will be announced when the work is complete, but as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), said, it is our intention to protect the most vulnerable, including the disabled. I believe our reforms demonstrate our strong record of supporting disabled people. We introduced the personal independence payment to ensure more support is going to those who need it. More than 700,000 of those who were, once upon a time, stuck on incapacity benefits under Labour are now preparing or looking for work. Spending on disability benefits increased in real terms, and, as my hon. Friend has said, disability employment increased by 238,000 in the previous Parliament.

I thank the Secretary of State for his condolences.

My advice surgery has received people who are terminally ill, people with life-ending degenerative conditions, people who have been found fit to work despite both conditions, and those on attendance allowance have been told to use their attendance allowance to pay for their second bedroom, so that they are not affected by the bedroom tax. There is huge fear out there in the disabled community. May we have an assurance that those with disabilities will not be further affected by more cuts in welfare benefits?

Our purpose is to protect the most vulnerable. It has been from the beginning, and it will continue to be. There is, therefore, no reason for people to be fearful, and I hope that Opposition Members will not whip up such fearfulness, although I am by no means accusing the hon. Lady of that.

We must review welfare spending, but we want to do so in a way that actually changes lives. We felt that much of the huge increase in welfare spending under the Labour Government—an increase of some 60%—went to the wrong people who were not doing the right thing. That is the key point. Our purpose is to reform welfare in order to get people back to work, and to ensure that those who cannot manage and have disabilities are treated with the utmost kindness and given the utmost support.

There are many unpaid carers in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that flexible working patterns can be an important part of support for them? What encouragement can the Government give employers and employees who need to embrace such flexibility?

Universal credit will be of enormous help to people with caring responsibilities, and others who are periodically required to be at home, because it will pay to be in work for every single hour. Moreover, under universal credit, as part of the in-work allowances, we have included an extra piece of support for those who care for others, on top of the carer’s allowance.

Disabled people do not want kindness; they want justice, and access to the benefits that can help them to live their lives. Will the Secretary of State give them a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no cuts in their benefits, no cuts in tax credits, and no cuts in the disability premiums that tax credits can bring? Disabled people need those assurances, given that, we understand, the Secretary of State has now agreed with the Chancellor that we are to expect welfare cuts amounting to £12 billion.

Let me remind the hon. Lady what happened during the last Parliament, under a Conservative Government. Spending on disability living allowance was up by half in the decade before PIP came in, and just 6% of new claimants had face-to-face assessments. Under PIP, 20% of claimants receive both the higher rates, as opposed to 16% under DLA. Our reforms are about helping those in the greatest need. Let me remind the hon. Lady of something else as well, just in case she has forgotten. We did debate the overall figure of £12 billion, and Labour lost the election. I remember something that was said by the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), who is not with us for the moment—I send her my best. She said:

“Labour will be tougher than the Tories when it comes to slashing the benefits bill.”

Is it not a bit of hypocrisy on the part of Labour Members to come here and make their claims, having said that they would be tougher than we are?

Labour will be tougher in cutting benefits when that is a response to the wrong drivers of those benefits. What we will not tolerate is cuts in benefits for people who are in work and who need those benefits to enable their work to pay. May I ask the Secretary of State about some of the work-related benefits for disabled people? Will he confirm that there will be no cuts and no downgrading of the payments to people on employment and support allowance in the work-related activity group, and will he tell us whether industrial injuries disablement benefit will be protected from cuts?

The hon. Lady really needs to think carefully about what she says. Labour Members say that they will be tougher than us. Let me give the hon. Lady a simple pledge: we will protect the most vulnerable. There is only thing that is tough at the moment —tough on Labour Members: they lost the election. They had no idea of how they were going to end the deficit, and that is why they are sitting on the Opposition Benches.

Child Maintenance Payments

9. What arrangements are in place to prevent child maintenance payments from increasing when a parent is prevented from spending time with their child by the recipient of the payments. (900448)

The issue of contact with children and that of the calculation of child maintenance, although related, are separate. In the calculation, we will reflect the level of care that a parent provides for any child for whom he or she should pay maintenance, but we have no power to direct what the level of care should be. That is a matter for the parents to agree either privately or through the courts.

I asked the question on behalf of a constituent, but obviously many others will be in the same situation. I do not agree that there is no link, because it clearly states on the Child Support Agency website that if someone spends less time with their children, they will pay more in child maintenance. Some people spend less time with their children because, through no fault of their own and with no suggestion of any detriment to the children if they were to see them, the partner prevents that from happening. Will the Minister examine this and stop punishing parents twice over?

Child contact following the separation of two parents is always a difficult and emotive issue, and the child’s needs must be met by both parents, in terms of financial support, when they separate. We are investing in support for parents to help them make more family-based child maintenance arrangements, and we will continue to help and secure separated families so that they can do what is in the best interests of their child. The hon. Lady mentioned that she has a particular case, and I am happy to look into it.

The Minister rightly said that contact and payment are separate issues. In most cases it is right that a child stays in contact with both parents if they are no longer living together, but I wish to press her on something: it cannot be right that a payment should be linked to a right to see that child.

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. As I said, we know that this is an emotive issue for separating parents, and much of it is arbitrated in the courts system. It is all about balance in terms of parental support and parental access. Access is a matter for the courts, not for the Department for Work and Pensions. As I have said, we as a Department and as a Government are already investing in support for parents to make the right kind of arrangements. We will continue to do so and help separated families so that they can do what is in the best interests of their child.

Carers: Financial Support

This Government recognise and appreciate the vital contribution made by carers. We have ensured that carers are central to the Government’s reforms to care and support, and there are stronger rights for carers in the Care Act 2014, which came into force in April 2015. Since 2010, the rate of carer’s allowance has increased from £53.90 to £62.10, and this April we increased the earnings threshold for carers by 8% to £110 a week. The Government are committed to continuing to provide financial support for carers throughout the benefits system.

Young carers in our society perform a vital role, often balancing their responsibility of caring with work or study, yet young carers in full-time education are not entitled to carer’s allowance. What will the Secretary of State do to remedy that injustice?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that this was very much the situation when his party was in government—before he starts lecturing us too much on what we have done. We have done more to improve the status of carers, and we support carers enormously. As I said, in universal credit we are adding an extra benefit for them by allowing the work allowances for carers to support them as well. I am certainly happy to look at the particular situation he asked about, and I will write to him.

As the Secretary of State will know, the Bath Carers Centre in my constituency does a superb job of supporting carers and their families. What assurances can I give people there as to the Government’s plans on supporting carers in the coming years?

As I have said, we did a huge amount to support carers in the last Parliament, and we intend to continue to protect and support them throughout this Parliament. Carers do a huge amount to support people, including in the national health service, and including people with disabilities. This has been our promise and our pledge. We will continue to support carers.

The Secretary of State referred to the shadow Secretary of State; I am pleased to tell the House that she gave birth to a baby boy last Wednesday and that mother and baby are doing well. The Secretary of State referred to disabled people and the effect on them of the £12 billion benefit cuts. It now appears that the anxiety and uncertainty facing carers will be extended, because we will not get the full list of cuts on 8 July; we will have to await a further statement in the autumn. When the final list of £12 billion is announced, will carers be protected from those cuts?

First, will the right hon. Gentleman pass on our thanks—I mean congratulations—to the hon. Lady on her great news? I have already made it clear that we have done a great deal to support carers, and it is my intention to keep on supporting them. It is worth pointing out that our changes improved the lot of carers over the course of the previous Parliament, and will continue to do so.

The absence of any reassurance there will give rise to a great deal of concern among carers. May I ask the Secretary of State about working families on lower and average incomes? Will they be better off or worse off once his £12 billion of cuts have been announced?

We are looking at welfare, and at how to reform it. When we are ready, I will come forward with an announcement. Let me take the right hon. Gentleman back to the issue of tax credits. We have had many Labour Members going on about tax credits. I looked up how tax credits were increased under a Labour Government. Interestingly, it appears that just before every election, the Labour Government dramatically increased tax credits—in 2004 by 60%; in 2005, just before the election, by 7.2%; and in 2010, just before the election, by 14.4% and by 8.5%. The truth is that his Government have always used benefits as a way of trying to buy votes. We believe that benefits are about supporting people to do the right thing, to get back to work, and to live a more prosperous life.

Social Landlords (Direct Rent Payments)

11. What consultation his Department has undertaken with social landlords on the potential effects of the introduction of universal credit and the benefit cap on direct rent payments to landlords. (900450)

I instituted a phased roll-out of universal credit, so we would have time to consider any issues that arose and to deal with them. Jobcentre Plus and local authorities are working together with “Universal Support—delivered locally”. We will continue to develop this important partnership to ensure the most vulnerable get the support they need to lead independent lives. We have done a huge number of reviews. We regularly engage with more than 50 landlords across all sectors, which includes meeting social landlords in key areas where universal credit is live.

This issue was raised by Tony Stacey, the chief executive of South Yorkshire Housing Association. Currently, if a household is in rent arrears and gets housing benefit, the benefit can be paid directly to the social landlord. When universal credit is introduced, if the family also gets a welfare cap, it is the housing cost element that is squeezed by the cap. No longer will the universal credit be paid directly to the social landlord to cover the rent. Can the Secretary of State not see that that could lead to a rise in evictions? Is he aware of the problem, and what will he do about it?

Let me be absolutely clear about the importance of universal credit. In the past, housing providers would get the money paid directly to them while the individuals in difficulties sorted themselves out. Under universal credit, they can apply for an extra payment, and that will be done direct. The key point about this is that the housing provider works with the individual family to help them turn around their circumstances, rather than just leaving them as they are and not doing anything about them. All that is being tested under universal credit. People on universal credit will be better off directly as a result of the changes that we are making.

Section 96 of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 stipulates that the level at which the total benefit cap is set will be determined by reference to estimated average earnings. How do the Government justify breaking the link between the cap and average earnings by reducing the rate to £23,000?

The hon. Gentleman should address his question to his Front-Bench team, as they apparently support our move.

21. With respect to the benefits cap, does the Secretary of State agree that the big picture is about getting people off benefits and into work? The people of South Suffolk feel that the fact that anyone can ever earn more out of work than in work is one of the great social injustices of our day. (900460)

As I have said, the problem that we inherited was a tax credit system that rewarded people for doing the wrong things, and parked people who wanted to do better on benefits that allowed them not to do any more hours of work. Universal credit changes that: every hour of work pays. Labour has opposed that root and branch, but then it has opposed every other welfare reform that we have introduced, and all the extra jobs that have come about directly as a result.

Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to congratulate with me people working in Jobcentre Plus in Rossendale and Darwen who have been involved in the roll-out of universal credit? Having spoken to them and to some of their clients, I can say that universal credit seems to be universally popular.

I thank my hon. Friend for that difficult question. I will, absolutely. Jobcentre Plus staff do fantastic work, do a huge amount to get people back into work, and work with people with difficult conditions, and they welcome universal credit. I will pass on his congratulations to them, and I thank him for asking me to.

Food Banks

13. If he will make an assessment of the effects of the benefits sanctions and conditionality regime on use of food banks. (900452)

14. If he will make an assessment of the effects of the benefits sanctions and conditionality regime on use of food banks. (900453)

We have looked at the issue extensively, and we agree with the conclusion reached by the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger that the reasons for food bank use are complex and overlapping. There is no robust evidence that directly links sanctions and food bank use.

While all Members of this House will commend the work carried out by charities such as the Gate food bank in Alloa in my constituency, it is absolutely clear from all independent evidence that the sanctions regime is having a heartbreaking effect on people such as David Duncan from Fife, who, as reported in this morning's Daily Record, was sanctioned after missing a jobcentre appointment, despite being in hospital recovering after major surgery following a serious heart attack. Will the Minister commit to an immediate review of the conditionality and sanctions regime to put a stop to this relentless and heartless assault on vulnerable people in this country?

Food banks play an important role in local welfare provision. I do not accept anything that the hon. Lady has said. In Scotland, the number of jobseeker’s allowance sanctions has decreased from 84,000 in 2013 to 55,000—

Well, we are devolving welfare, and we can have this debate next week on the Floor of the House. It is also important to emphasise that the purpose of sanctions is to encourage claimants to comply with reasonable requirements to help them develop and move into the world of work. That is vital.

I thank the Minister for her response, but in the year following the introduction of benefits sanctions, approximately 2,500 people were sanctioned in my city of Dundee, leading to a 51% increase in referrals to Dundee’s Trussell Trust food bank, including many parents with young children. The number is rising year on year, despite what she just said about falling figures. Does she not accept that there is an intrinsic link between the two, and that it is an absolute disgrace to have rising food poverty in the 21st century?

Sanctions were in place for a significant amount of time before this Government and the previous Government. Let me reiterate the point, made in the recent Oakley review of benefits sanctions, that sanctions are a

“key element of the mutual obligation that underpins both the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system.”

For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman, let me say that we have accepted all the recommendations made by Oakley. This brings us back to the fact that sanctions play an important role in encouraging and supporting people to go back to work.

Does the Minister agree that those who pay for these benefits through their taxes expect an effective mechanism to be in place, such as sanctions, to ensure that the rules are complied with?

My hon. Friend is right, because at the end of the day we are speaking about hard-working taxpayers who support and contribute to the welfare system. Of course, we have a duty to support those who are seeking work and who are in receipt of benefits, but at the same time, hard-working taxpayers want to ensure that their taxes are spent fairly.

All I know is that those at Mission Trinity, an excellent independent non-political food bank in Goole, tell me that benefits sanctions are driving people to use it. I support the benefit sanctions system, but one issue that seems to be a problem is the consistency with which sanctions are applied. May we have a review of this and ensure that the recipients of the sanctions properly understand the consequences?

I commend my hon. Friend’s local food bank, and him, on the work done in his constituency. If he has specific examples that he would like to draw to my attention, I will happily discuss them with him.

May I welcome the Minister to her new role? Before the election, we had a most unsatisfactory debate on benefits sanctions with her predecessor. I have to say, Mr Speaker, that in a disappointing election for Labour, the result in Wirral West was one bright spot.

One person in four is now being sanctioned, and sanctions are cited as one of the top reasons for people visiting food banks. Will the Minister take steps to make sure that DWP staff apply the good reasons code correctly and end these vicious and arbitrary sanctions?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome, although I must say I thought her comments about my predecessor were ungracious.

Regarding sanctions, I assure the House that for those in genuine need, hardship payments are on offer, as is support for those who have been sanctioned. Support is there for those who can demonstrate that they require financial assistance to buy essential items. It is absolutely right that in our jobcentres and in the interactions with claimants, we give them the right sort of support, guidance and advice, and I assure the hon. Lady that that does take place.

Topical Questions

Today, I would like to remind the House of the progress this Government have made on a groundbreaking programme called social impact bonds. In the last Parliament, we set up the innovation fund, working with young people at risk of falling out of the education system, or even joining gangs. This is a radical departure from the funding systems of the past, in which arbitrary spending was based on inputs. Now, with the impact bonds, money can be put into programmes that are about outcomes. We will bring in the next phase of this work shortly through the Social Justice Cabinet Committee, which I chair.

In his speech today, the Prime Minister talked about the causes of welfare spending. He had next to nothing to say about low pay, yet the financial modelling I conducted on Labour’s plans for raising the national minimum wage shows that we could save three quarters of a billion pounds on housing benefit and tax credit costs. Surely getting to grips with the root causes is a better way to control rising welfare costs than attacking the incomes of the poorest?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we want companies to take a fuller share of paying people a reasonable and decent salary. That is an absolute fact. In the last Parliament, this Government raised the minimum wage twice. It is at £6.50 now, in October it will go up to £6.70, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that he wants it to rise even further. We want companies to pay better salaries, which means less tax credits from us.

T2. What support is the Department giving young people in my constituency who are seeking apprenticeships and employment? (900466)

I commend my hon. Friend, who is a strong and assiduous champion of young people and apprenticeships. I assure him that we are engaging with young people in his constituency, promoting nine apprenticeships that are available with his local authority and working in partnership with Kirklees College to promote traineeships. In 2013-14, 616 apprenticeships were started in his constituency.

We welcome the Government’s belated decision to consult on a charge cap for savers withdrawing their money from pensions. Will the cap apply only to exit fees, or will it also cover recurring charges on investment and income drawdown products? Which? says that that sort of cap could save £10,000 out of a typical £36,000 pension pot, and before her appointment, in March, the new Minister for Pensions said that that sort of cap was needed to protect savers. Will the wider cap be the subject of the Government’s consultation?

The right hon. Gentleman is right in the first part of his question. In the second part, as he knows, the Chancellor announced the consultation, which will go out in July. We have concerns about some companies that may be overcharging, and that will form part of the consultation.

T3. I was pleased to meet with Disability Support Torbay on Friday to discuss the advocacy, support and advice it gives to many local people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is crucial to work with employers to make sure that they are aware of work the Government are doing, such as the Access to Work programme, to help them to employ and retain people with disabilities? (900468)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting such excellent local initiatives. In my earlier answers I stressed how important that is. Last year we saw an increase of 238,000 disabled people in work. The employment rate is now 46.3%—up 2.1% from last year—and our Disability Confident campaign will continue to share best practice and signpost further help for local businesses.

T5. Following the shameful failure of the Front-Bench team once again to answer a question today, may I ask again why the Government are refusing to publish—even though the Information Commissioner has instructed them to do so—the up-to-date statistics relating to the number of people who have died, having been found fit for work at their face-to-face assessment? (900470)

I find it absurd that Opposition Members deliberately try to misrepresent what happens under such schemes. I remind the hon. Lady that it was her Government who introduced the employment support allowance and the work capability assessment, and at no stage did they say that that led to people committing suicide. People in that situation are often in a very delicate and difficult position, and I find it disgraceful that she is going round making such allegations.

T9. The latest employment statistics show that under this Government record numbers of women are in work, yet there are 2 million more women who would like to be in employment but are not. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues to ensure that the barriers that those women face are being removed? (900474)

My right hon. Friend is right. We are all about ensuring that more women get employment and enter the labour market. On the barriers to women entering the labour market, she will be aware of our work, for example, on shared parental leave, increasing the availability of childcare places, and increasing the provision of childcare from 15 free hours to 30 free hours. In relation to women and pay, the Government will require large employers to publish information on the gender pay gap.

T7. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) is right. Given that on 5 June the High Court found the Department’s actions—this time on PIP delays—unlawful, does the Secretary of State think that he and his Department are above the law? Why does he refuse to publish the details of the number of people who have died within six weeks of their claims for incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance, including those who have been found fit for work? (900472)

As I said to the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer), I find it unbelievable that she, the hon. Lady and others have spent all their time trying to make allegations about people going about their work. [Interruption.] She knows very well that the Department does not collate numbers on people in that circumstance. It deals with individual cases where things have gone right or gone wrong and reviews them. It is a crying shame that Labour Members want to go out every day scaring and frightening people. It is no wonder they lost the election.

May I welcome the introduction of the family test and the Secretary of State’s lead on that? What is he doing to ensure that it does what the Prime Minister says it should do, which is change the way Government do business?

This test will be reviewed through the Social Justice Cabinet Committee, which I chair. We intend, and the Prime Minister intends, that it will have teeth. We want to see an improvement in family life and greater support for those who have to juggle care for their children, care for elderly relatives, and work. Through that process we hope to improve their lives.

T8. In my constituency rents are almost double the English average and the housing benefit bill rose by 50% during the previous Parliament. Does the Secretary of State think that subsidising private landlords to such a degree is a good use of public money? (900473)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we deal with housing benefit claims as they come. They support people in both private rented accommodation and social rented accommodation. I remind him that the Government whom he supported introduced the current private rented benefit test. More importantly, under that Government more people out of work and more people in work were claiming housing benefit. Under this Government fewer of those out of work are claiming housing benefit.

As the employment figures tell us, the work plan is working. Before I came to this place, I ran my own business, and when I saw the same CVs coming back six months or a year later, I would choose to email or call those people and try to give them some coaching. It is a great opportunity for businesses to mentor individuals who are not being touched by the work plan.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on coming into the House. I think she was referring to the Work programme, in particular. She is absolutely right. For us, if the Work programme is to be successful—and it is succeeding; we have record numbers of people in employment because of it—it will be through working with employers to find the right kind of work experience that helps them to fill vacancies and to make a big difference too. Work programme providers have the freedom to design and deliver, with employers, the support that is most appropriate for claimants.

One of my constituents who has been disabled from birth has had her mobility allowances reduced, so she cannot have her mobility car. She is now housebound, and she says she is being punished because of her disability by the Government. Why is the Secretary of State so keen to be the obedient lapdog of the Chancellor in spreading misery wherever possible to the most vulnerable? This Government are conducting a campaign of harassment against disabled people in our country.

Without having the full details of that case, I cannot comment, but if the hon. Gentleman provided further information I would be happy to look into it. He should remember, however, that under the PIP process 22% of people would be expected to get the highest rate of support as against only 16% under DLA.

Does the Secretary of State agree that family breakdown is a driver of child poverty as well as many other issues such as addiction, obesity and self-harm, at a cost of almost £50 billion a year, and that therefore investment in strengthening couple relationships, as well as parent-child relationships, makes economic sense as well as being a matter of social justice?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The previous Labour Government did absolutely nothing in this area. We have put huge sums of money into family breakdown support through counselling. We intend to continue that support and make it even stronger.

My constituency is a pilot area for universal credit. Despite what the Secretary of State has said previously, social landlords are among the many local organisations who are concerned that the proposed seven-day waiting period will lead to some of the most vulnerable of my constituents getting into rent arrears. The Social Security Advisory Committee agreed and recommended that the Government reconsider this proposal, but it was overruled by the Secretary of State. Will he agree to meet the concerned parties, including social landlords, charities and citizens advice bureaux, to hear from them directly? What steps will he take to protect social landlords and their tenants from the effects of this change?

We are already talking to many social landlords, who have agreed with us that the improvements we have made are dramatic and helpful, but I am very happy to meet anybody the hon. Lady wants to bring to me.

Will the Minister explain the Government’s commitment to training in jobcentres? One concern is that there is inconsistency in decisions made. What commitment will be given during the next five years to the training budget for jobcentre staff?

I am not altogether certain that I quite understand what my hon. Friend is referring to. If he is referring to the Flexible Support Fund, that is allocated deliberately so that jobcentres can make local decisions about the kind of training that they need to give. If he has a particular problem, I am more than happy for him to write to me or come and see me.

My constituent, Mr Geoffrey Thomas, found that the DWP was deducting £8.43 from his ESA because it falsely claimed that he had taken out £400-worth of social loans. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is a disgraceful way to have treated my constituent? Will he make urgent inquiries to make sure that this is not happening to any other people across the country?

The hon. Gentleman has highlighted a constituency case, and I would be very happy to discuss it with him and look into the details.

This weekend I had a discussion about the difficulties that those suffering from mental health conditions face when trying to access support, specifically in relation to budgeting. What support is available, particularly in the most difficult cases?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the issue of mental health conditions, which is a particular priority for us. Through the Access to Work scheme, we have introduced a lot more measures to increase support and provision for those trying to get into work and while they are in work. That is partly why 35,000 people benefited from that scheme last year, up by 4,000 on the previous year.

Six-year-old Ellie Mae Brownnutt tragically died on 8 May from Batten disease; her brother Caleb also suffers from the condition. The parents of children with Batten disease still have to fill in forms for DLA every three years, even though there is no cure and, sadly, death is inevitable. Some conditions are exempt from that requirement and some are not. Will the Minister meet me, representatives of the Batten Disease Family Association and people affected by other degenerative conditions to discuss how this situation can be changed?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue—I know he has been a real champion for the cause. I am happy to meet him, but he should remember that the reason we do reassessments, where appropriate, is that sometimes conditions get worse and support for them will therefore increase. We would not want people to miss out, as they did under DLA.

Earlier, the Minister pointed out that we have brought in a 0.75% cap on private pensions that are subject to auto-enrolment. That is excellent news. However, there is also abusive behaviour more widely in the industry. Do we expect that cap to be extended to non-auto-enrolled pensions?

At the moment, the cap sits with automatic enrolment, but I am happy to hear the case for extending it. As I said earlier, we will consult on this issue in July and I am happy for my hon. Friend to make some kind of report or submission.

Since 2010 there has been a big fall in the number of apprenticeships in technical sectors, including IT and construction. Does the Secretary of State accept that if his Department is serious about addressing the need for high-paid jobs in this country, he has to do a lot more about young people’s skills?

I absolutely agree, and am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of apprenticeships. Under the previous Government there were 2 million more apprenticeships, and this Government have made a commitment to 3 million. As the Minister for Employment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), said earlier, we have also introduced a degree-level apprenticeship. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely on the money: we want to do more about apprenticeships, and if he spots something that will be helpful to us I am happy to see him about that.

People with mental health problems can find it incredibly difficult to get a job and stay in employment. What are the Government doing to help?

That issue is being picked up through the Access to Work scheme. The changes we have made recognise the challenges for people with mental health conditions both while they are in work and with maintaining work. I formerly employed someone with a mental health condition, so I know what a valuable contribution such people can make, often needing only small changes and bits of support.

Ah! We are graced with the presence of the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, from whom we will now hear.

The Minister has just extolled the virtues of his Department’s support for people with mental health problems, but in reality we know that too many people with mental health issues are coming through the Work programme and not getting work. Is it not time that, for the benefit of those people and of the taxpayer, some of his Department’s money was devolved to local areas so those people can get better support and get into proper jobs?

Like Mr Speaker, I welcome the hon. Lady to her post. This is absolutely an area where we want to take things further and do more work. Mental health conditions are one of the big issues stopping people getting into work. We want to do more on that, and have more treatment and more support through jobcentres. I am happy to discuss that.

I welcome some of the statistics given earlier by the Minister for Disabled People. Does he agree that Disability Confident events could be rolled out across the whole country, and will he consider holding an event at which MPs from across the House could hear from him and DWP staff about how those events are held and the advantages they have, so that we can all help this great cause?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Thirteen MPs have already held events in their constituencies. We can all play a vital role in promoting opportunities for the wealth of talent that is available and willing to go into work.

The Secretary of State may be aware of a report on the front page of today’s Herald about a recently retired employee who took advantage of the Government’s changes to pension regulations and as a direct result was scammed out of his entire pension provision of £360,000. What steps are his Department taking to make sure that the changes it has introduced do not simply allow gangs of criminals to declare open season on our pensioners?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman raised that specific case, and I would like to hear more from him about it, as I have not read that report myself. We are doing a huge amount under the consultation and we want to look more at scams and how to stop them. I will very much be making those representations to the industry and will, if necessary, bring in relevant legislation.