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Topical Questions

Volume 597: debated on Monday 22 June 2015

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.