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Topical Questions

Volume 599: debated on Monday 7 September 2015

This month, we are rolling out our Fit for Work programme to all employers across England and Wales, and to GPs. Employers will now be able to refer thousands of workers facing long-term sickness to specialist support, providing occupational health advice and helping them to avoid long absence. The Fit for Work service is the first line of defence when anyone falls sick, and alongside GPs it will help employers to avoid people falling on to sickness benefits and losing their link with the world of work.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work of social enterprises, such as GO4 Enterprises in Colchester, which do brilliant work in helping young people, ex-offenders and those with mental health difficulties to get back into lasting work?

Absolutely. I recognise the huge and vital contribution made by firms such as GO4 Enterprises, delivering huge change in Essex. My Department is instrumental in growing social investment via the £30 million innovation fund I set up, and we will continue to chase and improve those targets.

T4. How can the Secretary of State claim, as he did this afternoon, that no one has lost out from the roll-out of universal credit, when the taxpayer has lost out to the tune of £140 million because of the botched roll-out of the IT systems? (901189)

Actually, that has not happened. Taxpayers have not lost money. What we have done is to go on rolling out a system, and unlike what happened when tax credits were rolled out under the last Labour Government and hundreds of thousands of people lost money, nobody is losing money as universal credit rolls out.

T2. Despite being diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica mid-way through her degree course, my constituent Amy Green successfully completed her course and now hopes to set up her own business. What support is available for people with disabilities who want to start their own business? (901187)

As someone who ran my own business for 10 years, I wish my hon. Friend’s constituent the very best of luck. The Government have helped over 28,000 people through the new enterprise allowance, and through the Access to Work scheme specific training and specialist support can be provided to people with disabilities.

T6. When is the Minister’s Department going to publish a full analysis of the impact of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill on the proportion of children living in child poverty as defined by the Child Poverty Act 2010? (901191)

We publish statistics the whole time on child poverty. We will also be publishing statistics on the effects of different aspects of what we do. There has never been across-the-board comprehensive publication of data by Government on all those things, but I am happy to engage with the hon. Lady if she wants to take the matter further.

T3. My constituent, Mrs C, recently bereaved, failed to apply for the bereavement allowance in time because she was not aware that it existed. She now has severe financial problems. Will the Minister and his officials be willing to meet me to discuss this case and any way that we could help her? (901188)

I am very happy to see my hon. Friend myself. If what he is suggesting has happened, it should not have done, and let us put it right.

T7. Will the Secretary of State support Oxfam’s calls for the Welfare Reform and Work Bill to include a requirement for his Government to publish a poverty strategy that would properly address the issue of low pay and tax credit cuts? Please note: the answer is not the Chancellor’s entirely bogus living wage. (901192)

We are focused constantly on trying to get incomes up, and we are looking to do that through the raising of the national living wage announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. For this Government, the No. 1 thing we need to do to make sure that people get out of poverty is to get them back to work. There are some of the best employment figures in Scotland thanks to this Government.

T5. Given that the Chancellor has said that the welfare costs of new Syrian refugees will be paid for out of the international aid budget, does the Secretary of State agree that there is a good case to be made for that budget also to be used to pay for the costs of existing asylum seekers already in the United Kingdom? (901190)

I thank my hon. Friend for that really helpful question. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made it clear that in this particular circumstance, the needs of these particular migrants, in many cases in desperate trouble, will be met by the money in the aid budget. We have no plans to change that. My hon. Friend cannot tempt me to say more, but following is a statement in which he might like to catch the Speaker’s eye.

T8. The planned reduction in support of £30 a week for those in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group is causing considerable anxiety. If I heard the Minister for Employment correctly, she said that no existing claimants will lose financial support. Does that mean that existing claimants reassessed after April 2017 will not be designated as new claimants and subject to that £30 reduction? (901193)

As I said, there will be no cash losers among existing claimants. Obviously, the details of this will be outlined as we go through the Welfare Reform and Work Bill in Committee.

T9. I note what the Minister has said about the excellent progress in reducing youth unemployment numbers, which is really welcome. What has the Department done specifically to focus on reducing the numbers of young people who are not in education, employment or training, given the very specific challenges that those people face? (901194)

My hon. Friend is correct. This Government have had a very strong track record in supporting young people in getting back into work. As I said earlier, this area was discussed at the recent G20. We have now joined an international commitment to do even more because we are ambitious for our young people. We have agreed to have a target for doing more by reducing the number of NEETs by 15% by 2025. We are committed to that. She will be interested to know that our international counterparts are also interested in what the United Kingdom has done and achieved.

T10. What assessment has been made of the impact of cuts to ESA for those with mental health conditions? (901195)

I did not quite hear the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I think he was alluding to ESA. Ten days ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave a speech that basically outlined that we will continue to support those on ESA with the right interventions to help them get back to work.

As the Minister will be aware, the previous Government agreed to lift the Pension Protection Fund cap imposed on long-serving employees’ pensions when a pension fund collapses. Will he tell the House when he will bring forward the appropriate legislation to make that happen?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He will appreciate that I am not prepared to make an announcement about that at the moment. When I do make an announcement, he will be the first to know.

Physical exercise and sport have been shown to have a very positive effect not only on physical wellbeing, but on mental wellbeing. What is the Department doing to encourage employers to encourage employees to take part in such activities, perhaps with flexible working hours to allow them to do so during the working day?

The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point, which is about getting ahead of the curve by making sure that people do not fall sick. I have announced today the Fit for Work programme, part of which is very much about trying to encourage employers to look at the health of their employees well ahead of that happening. If he wants to write to me about this, I will be very happy to discuss it with him, and we may be able to do more.

I welcome all that the Government have done to increase youth employment, including the remarkable achievement of Eastleigh College, working alongside local employers and stakeholders. Will the Minister investigate having a separate disability living allowance application for those with mental disabilities, such as severe autism, as highlighted by my constituent Cheryl Derrick on behalf of her son?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is absolutely right about the Government’s achievement in supporting young people back into work. I would be very happy to discuss her particular case with her and to pick up on the points she made.

This Government oblige jobseekers to search online without giving them the skills or resources to do so. Despite my many questions, the Minister has refused to tell me how many claimants have been sanctioned because they cannot get online. Will the Minister tell me or promise to find out?

Nobody should be sanctioned because they cannot get online. If the hon. Lady has any examples of that, we would be very happy to take them up. There are online opportunities in libraries and jobcentres, and everything else. If she wants to write to us about it, I would be very happy to deal with it.

With Wales nearly certain to qualify for the European championship, what efforts are being made to improve disabled spectators’ facilities in football stadiums?

I think the whole House will join me in wishing Wales the very best of luck in qualifying for their first final since 1958. They are nearly there. As somebody who is very passionate about sport, I regularly meet the Minister for sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). We are putting a lot of pressure on both the Premier League and the Football Association. Disabled people should have the right to enjoy sport in the same way as everyone else.

As it seems that there may finally be movement towards addressing welfare in Northern Ireland, has the Minister considered how best to address one of the core legacy issues from the troubles—that of mental health?

The hon. Gentleman is right that a huge amount of work is being done and there is still even more that can be done, but the No. 1 priority for Northern Ireland right now is for people to sit down, behave rationally and sort this out so that we can get the money to Northern Ireland and support the sort of people he talks about, rather than posturing and playing games.

The Government’s own data show that people in the work-related activity group are twice as likely to die than those in the general population. How can the Secretary of State justify £30-a-week cuts for people in that category?

The hon. Lady put out a series of blogs on the mortality stats last week that were fundamentally wrong. Her use of figures is therefore quite often incorrect. I simply say to her—[Interruption.] She has had an offer to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), time and again, but she just wants to sit in the bitter corner screaming abuse.

In the period during which the Secretary of State has held his job, what is the most unacceptable reason he has come across for a benefit claimant being sanctioned?

There are rules, regulations and guidance on who should be sanctioned. The sanctions regime, which was in place under the Labour Government, is there to ensure that when taxpayers pay their money to support unemployed people, those people look for work, take that work and stay in work. I think that is only fair.