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House of Commons Hansard
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01 February 2016
Volume 605
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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [903334]

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We are trialling a new feature of the access to work scheme From today we shall be testing the use of personal budgets, which will allow disabled people who have received grants to decide exactly how and when the money can best be used to support their individual needs. That gives them more choice and more control over the support they receive to help them to start work, to stay in work, or even to start a business.

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Last week the bedroom tax was declared unlawful in the Court of Appeal because it discriminated against domestic violence victims and disabled children. However, the Government are set to spend more on appealing against the decision than they would spend on abiding by the ruling. Surely the Secretary of State agrees that that means poor value for the taxpayer, and that this despicable and discredited policy needs to go.

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The hon. Lady ought to check her lines before making statements like that. The truth is that that is not what the Court of Appeal said last week. The debate in the Court of Appeal was about whether we should isolate individual groups and rule them out of the benefit system, or leave it to local authorities to handle the matter with extra money. We believe that, with the extra money that we are giving them for discretionary housing payments, local authorities are quite capable of allowing people to stay when they think that that is necessary, without limitation.

What I really wonder about—and this applies to the Front Bench as well—is the fact that Labour Members never, ever talk about those whom they left in overcrowded homes, on waiting lists, and unable to get decent homes. It was they who introduced this policy; we have merely followed through.

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T2. Can the Secretary of State give me some indication of when he will publish the draft regulations on housing benefits for 18 to 21-year-olds? Will he also look sympathetically at exempting from those regulations those who cannot live safely in their neighbourhood where their family home is because of sexual abuse, gang-related activity or overcrowded housing? [903336]

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We will publish the draft regulations shortly, although the Welfare Reform and Work Bill has to be passed first. I am very happy to discuss those elements. Of course, there are always exemptions for those who are most in need, and I am very happy to discuss that matter with my hon. Friend if he would like to come and see me.

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Last week, the Government were significantly defeated in the House of Lords over their plans to cut the benefits of sick and disabled people. More than half the people in the work-related activity group have a mental health condition. They face barriers getting into work as a result of their condition as well as stigma from employers. Will the Secretary of State now accept how utterly unfair and ineffective this proposed cut is, and abandon it?

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No one will lose out as a result of the changes we are making to employment and support allowance. Importantly, that means that there will be no cash losers. I think it is worth my reflecting on the point that the Secretary of State made, which is that this Government are focused on supporting those on ESA in a way that the previous Labour Government did not when they introduced the work capability assessment. That is why we have kept the WCA under review. We will announce the publication of a White Paper in the spring that will look into further reforms.

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T4. As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on multiple sclerosis, may I ask the Minister to join me in applauding the excellent work of the Multiple Sclerosis Society in supporting people with MS? Will he tell us how his Department is supporting people with MS to get into work or to keep their jobs after a diagnosis of MS? [903338]

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I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the fantastic work of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Only two weeks ago, I was at the Swindon branch’s 50th anniversary. The society has a huge number of volunteers across the country who are making a difference. Its work toolkit stands out as an example of best practice, both for employers and employees, and I am keen for that to be highlighted and for that best practice to be shared among other organisations.

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The Minister’s latest proposals to change the way in which personal independence payments are assessed will be a further blow to disabled people, who have been among the hardest hit by the UK Government’s austerity measures. I know from my constituents who are experiencing lengthy delays that the assessment process is not yet working. Will the Minister abandon these latest proposals, which will narrow disabled people’s eligibility for benefits, and instead focus on getting this part of the process right rather than adding complex changes that will reduce the support available to disabled people?

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We are doing ongoing work with disability groups and user groups following the Paul Gray review, which flagged this as an area, and we are determined to get a clear and consistent policy as we analyse those consultation responses. The length of time for an assessment has fallen by three quarters since June 2014. It is now down to five weeks for an assessment, and 11 weeks median end to end. That has been a settled position for quite some time now.

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T5. Jobs fairs are an effective way for local employers to promote their apprenticeships, which are a key element of this Government’s long-term economic plan. Will the Minister join me in congratulating local Havant businesses Fasset, Barratt Homes and Lockheed Martin on supporting my jobs fair later this month? [903339]

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I thank my hon. Friend for making this point about the great work that is taking place in his constituency. I absolutely endorse his commitment to holding apprenticeship and jobs fairs, because they are the gateway to new jobs and employment opportunities for many young people. I commend him for the work that he is doing.

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T7. May I ask the Minister to speed up the review process for benefit claimants who have been sanctioned or whose claims are being investigated? Over the Christmas period, a number of my constituents, despite having done everything right, ended up having to borrow money to get through that period because of delays. In some cases, this has happened after the Christmas period as well. [903342]

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None of that should actually happen. There are now loans available immediately, so if someone has been sanctioned they are immediately told about hardship loans, which are advertised inside jobcentres. Delay times have fallen to their lowest level ever; they are far lower than they were under the previous Government. If the hon. Gentleman has an individual case in mind, he should write to us immediately or give us a call and we will help to solve the matter straight away.

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T6. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Tame Plastics and other manufacturing firms in Tamworth that are creating new jobs and apprenticeships? What can he do in areas of low unemployment to turn jobcentres into recruitment agencies for more and better-skilled roles? [903341]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says. There is no doubt that a great deal of work is being done with Jobcentre Plus to support local firms such as Tame Plastics, not only in recruiting new employees but in supporting the skills base that important companies such as this need in his constituency.

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T8. Last week, the Government suffered another embarrassing defeat in the House of Lords on the proposals to cut ESA WRAG support by £30, which would leave many disabled people in a very difficult financial position. Despite what has been said earlier today, will the Secretary of State now re-examine the arguments put forward by the Scottish National party? Will he categorically give a commitment today that no one will lose out on this critical financial support? [903343]

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Let me remind the hon. Lady of my earlier comments, when I said that no one currently on ESA will lose out as a result of the changes. Importantly, too, our Government are focused on supporting individuals who have health conditions and are on ESA, which is why those in need would automatically go to the support group.

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A jobcentre’s role is especially important for those who do not have the necessary support at home. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in addition to the youth obligation, there should be an obligation on jobcentres to offer more specialist support?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point: jobcentres have a significant role to play in providing support to young people. That is why we have just started a pilot that takes Jobcentre Plus, with employers, into school to act as a gateway to provide new employment, work experience and work placement opportunities. He has also made the point that the new youth obligation focuses on ensuring that young people are either earning or learning, and do not end up trapped in the benefits system, which is exactly what happened under the previous Labour Government.

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We have already heard that the Department has changes afoot in relation to benefits for people with disabilities, not least with the narrowing of the personal independence payment. Are Ministers hoping to extend that to Northern Ireland as well, using the direct rule powers that exist until the end of this calendar year?

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We have no plans to do that, but I am happy to see the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to encourage us.

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Following on from the comments about the ESA WRAG changes and the Lords having passed the matter back to us, I welcome the opportunity to look at this again and am excited to see the content of the White Paper. Can the Minister give us any feel at all about the cost recognition for claimants in the future? This is not just about support; it is also about the additional costs that they face to live.

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I thank my hon. Friend for the point she raises and her question, and I come back to the comments I made earlier. Importantly, the changes we are making, particularly through the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, show that we are committed to transforming people’s lives by supporting more people with disabilities who face barriers to work. This also means an increase in funding support for those with health conditions and disabilities of almost 15%, and we will bring that forward in the new work and health programme.

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Will the Minister agree to look at the case of my constituent Mr Beet, who has home dialysis three times a week but is also trying hard to keep his job to support his family? He has been turned down for PIP twice. Does she feel, as I do, that if a person is having dialysis, they are eminently suitable to receive PIP?

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I would be very happy to look at this case with the hon. Lady to see what support we can provide her constituent. She makes an important point, which is that he wants to work and therefore should be supported to stay in employment, too.

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I look forward to welcoming my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People to North Devon next month for a Disability Confident event. Does he agree that these are very important events, not only for people with disabilities, to bring them closer to the world of work, but for employers, who do not realise what untapped talent there is?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that. I am particularly excited about going to visit his constituency to support his excellent Disability Confident event, and I pay tribute to the other 48 MPs who came into our drop-in event last week and have committed to hold their own events in their constituencies.

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Does the Secretary of State believe that the two-child policy and the rape clause are consistent with his Government’s obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child?

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I am quite convinced that the proposals that we bring forward will make it absolutely certain that all those who suffer rape will not be put upon in any way by this proposal.

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What steps are the Government taking to ensure that all employees are fully informed of the new auto-enrolment pensions?

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I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government are working closely with the pensions regulator to ensure that small employees in particular are informed of the new auto-enrolment changes. Online facilities are easy and simple to use for many people. Offline facilities such as leaflets and so on are also made as easy as possible.

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The Government have agreed to remove the 28-day waiting rule for terminally ill people who are transferring from DLA to PIP, but for those who are unable to afford to travel to loved ones, or who are worried about bills in their final weeks, it cannot come soon enough. Will the Minister update us on progress?

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I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) for their tenacious and constructive work in this area, which I am delighted to support in full. Subject to the will of Parliament, we intend to make and lay new regulations and, as set out by the Secretary of State, we will write shortly to update Members on that timetable.

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Will Department for Work and Pensions Ministers hold discussions quite urgently with civil service and Treasury Ministers about the Conservative manifesto commitment to cap very large redundancy payments? Are they aware of serious concerns that, by including early retirement awards in the capping scheme, we may penalise long-serving but low-paid public employees by a measure rightly intended to limit undeserved golden goodbyes to the very highly paid?

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As my hon. Friend knows, that is really a matter for the Treasury, but I am very happy to undertake such discussions. If he would like to add his extra information on this, I would be very happy to take it.

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Half of those receiving employment and support allowance in Scotland qualify through a mental health problem. A report from the Scottish Association for Mental Health, which has a base in my constituency at Redhall Walled Garden, has found that people who are placed in the work-related activity group report “inappropriate expectations” being put on them, making their mental illness worse. Does the Minister agree that that will be exacerbated by the Government’s proposed changes?

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With respect, I say to the hon. Lady that she is wrong. This Government are investing more than any previous Government in providing financial support and in piloting new projects to make sure that those who have mental health challenges and problems are given the right kind of support. We should make the distinction here that this is about not just financial support but the wider support that they get through DWP and the networks and in the community to help them get into work.

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I welcome the news that nine out of 10 businesses that started with new enterprise allowance support survived for more than 12 months. Will the Minister update us on what further progress there has been in the Government’s efforts to support jobseekers who are looking to start up their own businesses?

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I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the great work and the results of the NEA, which has been an outstanding scheme, supporting more and more people to get into work and start up their own businesses. There is more support going through our Jobcentre Plus network to mentor, help and engage with those individuals who want to start up their own businesses. We have more reviews coming, but the whole House can join me in commending this programme for its success and for how it has enabled people to get on in life and start up their own businesses and become successful.