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Topical Questions

Volume 601: debated on Monday 2 November 2015

Today the Legatum Institute is publishing is global prosperity index. I raise it because it ranks countries on a number of measures, including the economy and levels of opportunity, with the UK rising nine places in the economic index, which is the latest evidence showing the positive impact of our reforms. As today’s report shows, thanks to our welfare reforms and economic reforms more people than ever have the opportunity to benefit from the dignity and sense of purpose that comes from having a job.

I have been contacted by a number of constituents who have been in receipt of a Motability vehicle and have appealed against a PIP assessment. They tell me that it can take months for their appeal to be heard, during which their entitlement to the vehicle, to which expensive adaptations have sometimes been made, is withdrawn. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that those rightly in receipt of a Motability vehicle retain it?

We are working closely with Motability to put in place a package of support for those who lose their eligibility. Claimants will be able to keep their vehicles for almost two months and most claimants receive a one-off payment of up to £2,000 to maintain their mobility. In addition, we have reformed the DWP appeals process with the introduction of the mandatory reconsideration. This enables disputes to be addressed more quickly. Finally, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service continues to focus on reducing waiting times, and I would be happy to work with my hon. Friend further to see what progress can be made.

Given the considerable disquiet in the country about cuts to tax credits, not to mention the alarm on the Secretary of State’s side of the House, where 20 of his own MPs have said that the Government are in danger of cutting a lifeline to working families, does he now regret describing tax credits as a “bribe”?

The hon. Lady should remember exactly how the money was spent. If she looks back, she will find that in the run-up to the 2005 general election, the then Chancellor raised the spending on tax credits, strangely, by 71%. After that the rate stayed pretty flat, but before the 2010 election it was suddenly raised again by nearly 23%. I simply say to the hon. Lady that if she does the maths, she might wonder why Labour lost the 2010 election.

T4. Will the introduction of universal credit, and all the associated data that that entails, enable the Government and the Department to help young people on low incomes to find new opportunities to progress into higher-paid jobs? (901915)

Yes. What happens now when someone on jobseeker’s allowance gets a job is that they disappear and nobody sees them. Under universal credit they will stay with their adviser, who will help them with any subsidiary training, help them to find extra hours if they want them, and help them to sort out any problems at work. That is a remarkable change, and it will give us the opportunity really to help people to progress in work.

T2. According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly one in four jobs in my city of Sheffield pays less than the real living wage. On the day that the living wage is being increased to £8.25 an hour, will the Secretary of State congratulate the Living Wage Foundation on its work and outline what he will do to ensure that more people are paid the real living wage, which is now over £1 an hour more than the Government’s bogus national living wage? (901913)

This Government are very clear that it is through our welfare policies that we are ensuring that work pays. As the hon. Gentleman heard me say earlier, we are introducing a national living wage next April which will ensure that work always pays and that people in the country are given a pay rise.

T5. What actions is the Department taking to support the small businesses in Romford and the London borough of Havering that are seeking to provide support and training to adults so that they can develop skills for successful employment? (901916)

I know that small businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency are flourishing and expanding at an impressive rate. Jobcentre Plus works with a range of providers to make specialist courses available, covering information and communications technology as well as many construction courses. In particular, we are working with businesses to ensure that the local labour market is growing in the right way and that people are getting access to the skills they need.

T3. With one in four workers in Erdington earning less than the living wage, 82% of children are being brought up in families that are dependent on tax credits. Does the Secretary of State not accept that this is the worst possible time to cut tax credits, and that those families will not be compensated by his phoney living wage? Will he join me in welcoming the initiative taken today by the Labour-led Birmingham City Council to declare that no Brummie in the city should earn less than the real living wage? (901914)

Despite all the other arguments, the Labour Government had 13 years in power and they let the national minimum wage fall further behind than ever before. It is this Government who have increased the minimum wage and who are now proposing a real living wage of £9 at the end of this Parliament.

T6. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to introducing a yellow card system for sanctions, but does he agree that we also need to ensure that claimants with mental health problems are placed in the right group in the first place? Will he reaffirm the commitment that I received from his predecessor, following a tragic constituency case, to improve mental health training for assessors and decision makers? (901917)

This is an important area, in which the Government have rightly invested an extra £1.25 billion in the March 2015 Budget. We have rolled out a £43 million series of pilots to provide face-to-face, group, online and telephone support. We also have mental health and wellbeing partnership managers and disability employment advisers right across the jobcentre network. We will continue to push further training, as this is an important issue.

T8. Over the previous Parliament, the number of working families in London claiming housing benefit increased by 84%. Over the past three years, London councils have been able to replace only one in seven of the council homes they have sold. Does the Minister see any connection between those two figures? (901919)

What the hon. Gentleman failed to remind us all is that under the last Government the number of people claiming housing benefit, both out of work and in work, rose dramatically, whereas under this Government the number of those claiming housing benefit out of work has fallen dramatically.

T7. I welcome the reforms to welfare, which have helped 609 people in my constituency back into work since 2010. Moving from benefits into work can cause cashflow difficulties, so I additionally welcome the initiative to put Jobcentre Plus advisers into food banks to make sure those delays do not occur. What progress are we making on speeding up benefit claims to make sure those situations do not occur? (901918)

We want to ensure that anybody who goes to a location such as a food bank has the ability to check whether there is a problem—if there is, let us deal with it there. We have also advertised hugely across all the jobcentres, telling everybody they can get benefit advances, hardship loans and so on. We are now beginning to find that when they go to the food banks, they are also being helped to get back into work, which is an added bonus.

T9. On the administration of the benefit sanctions regime, yesterday’s Sunday Herald reported new figures showing that in nearly 300,000 cases benefit claimants had been penalised with sanctions without being officially notified—that includes an estimated 28,000 cases in Scotland alone. Will the Minister apologise to all those who have faced destitution without proper notice? Will he finally commission an independent review of this badly intentioned and poorly administered system? (901920)

I do not recognise those figures, but I will say to the hon. Lady that back in 2001 the last Labour Government decided to move—

Well, she asked the question and if she does not want the answer, that is fine by me. What I am saying to her is that the last Labour Government moved to a clerical system. We have reviewed that approach over the past year and decided that, under the changes we want, going back to an automatic system is much better. The recent statistics released last week show that the rate of appeal was slightly higher among those who did not receive the initial letter appeal than among those who did; we therefore do not think there is a difference. We will be writing to people to remind them that they still have rights to appeal if they wish to do so.

A substantial benefit of the issues relating to tax credits is that more companies are encouraged to pay the national living wage—£9 an hour—now. What conversations has my right hon. Friend had with the Chancellor about incentives that we could provide to companies to pay £9 an hour?

Yes, the No. 1 reality is that companies that believe the economy is well run will invest in their workforce and give them a better salary. The problem was that the last Labour Government set up a system that encouraged companies to pay low wages and leave them static. The change now is this: universal credit is making them move on; higher salaries; a better wage packet. Many companies are already paying the higher level—they have come and said they will.

I was pleased to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People to discuss children with Batten disease who were having to re-apply for disability living allowance, but we were disappointed to be told that we would not get a formal response. Will the Minister ensure that the Batten Disease Family Association gets a formal response about how the Department will take the recommendations forward?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I am very disappointed to hear what he says and I will make sure that a formal response is sent. I was very grateful to both the hon. Gentleman and the Batten Disease Family Association UK for taking the time to help proactively support the changes that we needed to make.

Does the Minister share my view that a huge part of tackling youth unemployment is ensuring that people leave the education system work-ready? What has been done to help achieve that?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what she says. I know that she is doing a great deal in her constituency to champion apprenticeships, which of course support young people not just in getting into work, but in developing long-term careers.

According to the Department’s own figures, pension contributions by the self-employed have fallen year on year for the past five years. What is the Secretary of State going to do to reverse that trend?

We are liaising with companies and individuals and also ensuring that people take some individual responsibility, by looking at their statements and contributions and thinking ahead. We are also encouraging companies to be proactive and to ensure that their workers take part in the auto-enrolment process and that those workers are protected.

Building a broad skills set is crucial for entering the world of work, so is the Department actively promoting schemes such as the National Citizen Service, which provides a really unique opportunity to do exactly that?

We have already had cross-departmental meetings to look at how we can further promote the National Citizen Service. As an MP, I can say that it is one of the schemes that was introduced in the previous Parliament of which I am proudest. It absolutely transforms children into young very employable adults; it is a brilliant scheme.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Department of Health about passporting on to the new disability benefits, without the need for further assessment, those people who received contaminated blood from the NHS and contracted HIV and hepatitis C? That is causing such concern to those who are affected.

Given the Government’s ambition to have all benefit claims online by the end of this Parliament, will the Minister update the House on what discussions he has had with internet service providers to ensure that those on low incomes can get online?

The ambition is to get as many claims online as we can, but there will be some people who cannot get online. Under universal credit, we are keen to ensure that people can, if necessary, continue to make paper submissions, and that they will be treated inside jobcentres, but we will get as many online as we can. We have been talking constantly to the providers about how best to do this, and also about matters of security.

For clarification, is the Secretary of State pleased that, as a result of sustained parliamentary and public pressure, the Chancellor has been forced to reconsider the proposals on tax credits? Is that a matter that meets with his approval?

The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), said earlier that letters were sent to all women born in the 1950s to inform them of changes to the state pension age. I have to say to him that the campaigning group, Women Against State Pension Inequality, disagrees with him. I have constituents who were not informed of the changes, and they suddenly discovered that they were not going to retire soon and that they had many years to retirement. Will the Minister look again at that issue and reconsider whether that group of women affected—there are many hundreds of thousands of them—can now have transitional protection?

I am surprised to hear what the hon. Lady says, but I am happy to look into the matter further. The information that I have is that there was communication with those people, but I will correspond with her.