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Topical Questions

Volume 603: debated on Monday 7 December 2015

I am pleased to be able to update the House today on the next stage of universal credit roll-out. Universal credit is available now in three quarters of all jobcentres, and by April next year will be available nationally. Building on that, the digital service is already in a number of jobcentres, and I can announce that it is being extended to a further five jobcentres as early as next year—to Hounslow, Musselburgh, Purley, Thornton Heath and Great Yarmouth prior to May 2016, when the digital service will be rolled out nationally.

I invite the Secretary of State to confirm that current claimants of universal credit will face losses next April as a result of cuts to the work allowance. Can he explain to the House why there is no transitional protection for universal credit, as there is for tax credit recipients?

I thought I had made this clear, but I will make it clear again. For those already on universal credit, advisers will support them through the additional resources and the flexible support fund to ensure that their status remains the same. Those moving from tax credit to universal credit are transitionally protected, as has already been stated.

T2. What steps are being taken to support those with early onset dementia through the ESA process and, where appropriate, how do we support those who wish to continue in work to do so? (902549)

We fully recognise the devastating impact that a diagnosis such as early onset dementia can have on individuals and their families. That is why we have the work capability assessment, which is designed to ensure that any claimant who is severely affected can be identified at the earliest possible stages and is supported. They will of course be placed on to the highest rate of benefit, where there has been such a diagnosis, and they will be free from any conditionality.

At the election, the Conservative party promised to exempt pensioners from their proposed benefit freeze, yet as a consequence of the autumn statement some 400,000 of those on pension credit will see their benefits cut, and 800,000 will see it frozen. [Interruption.] There is no point in Ministers looking puzzled; I would have thought they would learn to read the small print of the Chancellor’s economic statements by now. How can it be right, when three quarters of pensioners are facing a choice between heating and eating this Christmas, to be taking more than £100 a year away from so many older people?

The hon. Gentleman really must move away from student politics. This Government have done more for pensioners than any other Government. They are benefiting more now than they would have under any system introduced by the Labour party. The triple lock is making sure they have more money. We have also maintained a lot of the universal benefits, so we on this side of the House will take no lectures from those on that side of the House.

T6. I recently visited UK Interactive Entertainment to learn more about the work of Special Effect, a charity working with disabled people to make video games accessible to all. How can we further utilise technology to assist those with disabilities? (902553)

I was delighted to join my hon. Friend on the visit to that fantastic charity, which has widespread support including from the Prime Minister and the deputy leader of the Labour party. Technology is key to removing barriers and I am delighted that we have the innovative technology prize—we will be announcing the winner in March—which shows that creating innovation and creating more opportunities will reduce more barriers.

T3. I have a constituent, a single mother of three, who was declared fit for work despite having ongoing complex mental and physical health problems. Since the verdict, she has phoned my office and she says she cannot take any more. Her doctor has also increased her medication for depression. Will the Government admit that in this instance and many others they are pushing the fit for work test too far and it is having an adverse effect on people’s health? (902550)

I would be very happy to look at the constituency case that the hon. Lady has just raised. I also remind her and the House that we have already had five reviews of the WCA.

T7. Since 2010, unemployment in Weaver Vale has decreased by 54%. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the hard-working staff of Jobcentre Plus who have helped to make that happen? Is it not an example of this Government’s long-term economic plan delivering for hard-working taxpayers in Weaver Vale? (902554)

As my hon. Friend knows, I visited him the other day in his constituency, where he is doing an exemplary job, as is the jobcentre. Employment is improving and unemployment is falling, and that is happening nationally as well as with him. I would be very happy to visit him again.

T4. Hounslow Community FoodBox in my constituency is a food bank service that is, sadly, growing. A recent worrying trend has been the police bringing people into the FoodBox who have been caught shoplifting because they have no way of affording food. They have fallen through the net. Will the Secretary of State review past decisions to withdraw DWP emergency funds in the case of people who would otherwise be left destitute? (902551)

We have actually gone in exactly the opposite direction. We are making sure that in all jobcentres, and in all correspondence, individuals are notified that if they have difficulty they will have full access to crisis loans and advance payments. There is no reason for anybody in the benefits system to find that they have no money. They need to go and speak to the jobcentre advisers or ring them on the telephone and they will find themselves supported.

As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on youth employment, I welcome the unemployment figures in my constituency, but will the Minister tell me what more can be done to help the hardest-to-reach young people into work?

I welcome the work that my hon. Friend is doing through the APPG. We recognise that we can never stand still in this area. There is always more to be done to support young people through work experience, traineeships and, importantly, working with employers to encourage them to take on more young people and get them into the labour market, invest in them and train them so that they have skills for the future.

T5. A devastating announcement has been made in the days before Christmas by Shop Direct, which covers the Littlewoods and Very brands, and its partner, Webhelp, that 400 call centre jobs in my constituency are to be lost. Those jobs are to be transferred 6,000 miles away to South Africa. What assurances can the Secretary of State give me that the people affected by those redundancies will get all the support and help they need from his Department? (902552)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. All support will be given by Jobcentre Plus. If it has not already done so, I will ensure that it puts a specialist team in to make sure that all those people are seen as a priority, that all their skills are assessed and that they are got into jobs as quickly as possible. If, however, he would like to come and see me about this or if he can think of anything else we can do, I can assure him we will do everything we can to help his constituents at this time.

Will the Minister please inform the House of the specific plans for constituencies such as mine which have very high rates of employment but suffer proportionally high rates of long-term unemployment?

I know that my hon. Friend is doing a great deal of work locally in the employment space through apprenticeship fairs and things of that nature. When it comes to supporting people who are suffering long-term unemployment, we are working with our jobcentres and employers and, importantly, Work programme providers to get people closer to the labour market, to support them through training schemes and to nurture them so that they have an easier, smoother journey into work.

T8. I was delighted to hear from the Minister about all the work that the Government are doing for pensioners. In the light of the Pensions Minister’s announcement that they have finally conceded and announced a review of how rises in the state pension age should progress, will they now right the wrong that has been done to hundreds of thousands of women in this country? Does he recognise that this issue has to be addressed, as the Women Against State Pension Inequality—WASPI—campaign has said, to ensure that women are not pushed into poverty? (902555)

When the Pensions Act 2011 was passing through Parliament, the Government made a concession worth £1.1 billion that reduced the period concerned from two years to 18 months. For 81% of the women concerned, the period will not be extended, and will be a maximum of 12 months. I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman that this Government have no plans to make any further concessions.

Does the Under-Secretary of State responsible for disabled people agree that, at a time when we are doing so much to encourage people with disabilities to participate in sport, it is a huge missed opportunity that not one of our inspirational disabled athletes is being honoured by the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I thought that decision was a disgrace. I was at the Barclays power of sport event on Thursday—on international day for people with disabilities—and there was collective disbelief among the great representatives of disability sport at that decision. We are not saying that people should always be guaranteed a win, but they should have been included as a consideration, because that is really important for inspiring the next generation.

I was surprised to hear the Secretary of State say earlier that my party never supported universal credit. If that were the case, why would we have spent the past five years harassing him about how slowly he was going with it? However, that does not stop me worrying about the fortunes of the 30,000 lone-parent families in work in Merseyside. Is the Secretary of State for real: can he confirm that not a single one of those families will be a penny worse off?

Universal credit actually improves the lot of lone parents dramatically, because the first person into work gets a huge amount more than they would have done under tax credits. Here is the key: I have already said that those who are on universal credit at the moment will be supported by their advisers through the flexible support fund, to ensure that their status does not change.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on protecting the winter fuel payment, but although hundreds of thousands of letters are dropping through people’s letterboxes, figures also show that those who are retired are disproportionately less likely to switch their energy supplier. Will he commit to work with colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change to look at how energy switching details can be included with the winter fuel payment?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s suggestion, and I would be delighted to liaise and work with colleagues to make that point. The more that we all do to switch energy suppliers and producers, the more money we can all save in the long run.

The latest figures from the Department show that a clear majority of the JSA sanctions imposed in April to June, and about half of the ESA sanctions, were on claimants who had already been sanctioned within the previous two and a half years. Why does the Minister think the sanctions process is failing to change the behaviour of so many benefit claimants, and why does she not accept the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Committee and instigate a full and independent inquiry forthwith?

We know that sanctions are having a positive effect on securing employment, and the figures actually show that. In addition, the claimant commitment clearly outlines to the claimants and the work coach the requirements on supporting the individual back into work. As we are seeing, JSA sanctions have halved and ESA sanctions are down, and they are supporting more people in getting back to work.

I have a brief question on universal credit, as we continue to roll it out. Is there an opportunity to extend the dedicated telephone line that housing associations enjoy direct to universal credit to citizens advice bureaux, which do an incredible amount of work but are struggling to make contact with the people who can help them?

Under universal support, which is delivered locally, we are talking hugely to local authorities and all the local organisations in the area, and my hon. Friend will find that this will be swept up as part of that process; it is a dramatic improvement on where tax credits are right now, because it brings in all those other benefits as well.

The latest projections show that universal credit is running about four years behind the timetable that the Secretary of State originally set out. He has told us today that the new digital IT solution is to be rolled out from next April. How will he merge that with the prior IT system, which is already in use in quite a lot of jobcentres?

The universal programme is on track and has been approved by the Major Projects Authority, which has said that it is delisted. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, who has been here long enough to remember, that I will take no lessons from a Labour Government who gave us a tax credit debacle—they rolled it out and more than three quarters of a million people failed to receive any benefit on the day it was launched. He should come to see this system; the live service and the digital service are merged because a lot of the digital service will use elements of the live service. They are therefore merging in the run-up to May and will then be rolled out together at the same time.

The Minister said earlier that there is no place for domestic violence in our country, and I firmly agree with him. When will he confirm how his Department intends to make women prove that they have had their third child by rape?

My apologies to the hon. Lady. May I say to her that we will come back with our exact reasons and rationale for how we will decide that? The reality remains, however—and this is, I believe, popular among the public—that those who make choices and take responsibility for them want everyone else to do the same as well.

Order. Points of order come after statements. I shall await with eager anticipation the hon. Gentleman’s point of order.