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Topical Questions

Volume 607: debated on Monday 14 March 2016

As agreed with the Work and Pensions Select Committee when I was last in front of it, I can now inform the House that today we are launching the sanctions early warning trial for claimants. From April, early warning letters will begin to be issued to claimants within the trial site. The trial is being run in Scotland and gives jobseekers an extra 14 days to provide further evidence of their reasons for not complying before a sanction is applied.

My constituent Nick Dale is 36 years old and has a complex range of disabilities. His care package has just been reduced by Cambridgeshire County Council from 17 hours a week to 6.5 hours. The council told him he should see this not negatively but as a way

“of utilizing the strengths and resources that he may not realise he has within himself.”

His mother is appalled by his loss and the patronising tone—borrowed from the Government. If I lift the Secretary of State’s wallet in the Lobby tonight, would it help him utilise hidden strengths he did not realise he had, or is he as furious as I am about the way Nick Dale has been treated?

I am happy to look at that case. The Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Act 2015 should have put stronger protections in place, but I am happy to look at this matter further.

T2. JPMorgan Chase, Sunseeker, Lush, Cobham and many other local businesses are supporting the inaugural Mid Dorset and North Poole apprenticeships and jobs fair. Does the Minister agree that supporting young people into apprenticeships is vital, and will she agree to open my jobs fair in Wimborne? (904041)

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind invitation. I would be happy to look into it and try to come to his constituency. It is National Apprenticeship Week as well. He is right of course that employers, such as the outstanding ones he referred to, continue to do their utmost to support young people. I myself will be visiting many employers in Essex this week just to make that point to them.

T4. Last month, the Minister said that the idea that there was a 20-metre rule for assessing eligibility for enhanced mobility allowance was an “urban myth”, but in the case of my constituent Cathy Walsh—I must acknowledge that the Minister listened to my case—it was only when her consultant provided evidence that she could walk no more than 20 metres that her eligibility was reviewed and her benefit reinstated. What steps will the Government take to clarify this issue with assessors and to ensure that other disabled people do not have to suffer as my constituent has? (904043)

To be absolutely clear, the assessment is whether an individual can safely, repeatedly, to an acceptable standard and in a reasonable time period walk a certain distance. It is not a case of saying that if someone gets to 19.9 metres, they qualify for the money, but if they get to 20.1 metres, they do not. It is assessed according to the criteria I have set out, and we will continue to make sure that assessors are aware of that.

T3. Un- employment in Cheltenham has fallen by 66% since 2010. Will the Minister join me in thanking staff at Cheltenham’s Jobcentre Plus office, who hosted a very successful jobs fair recently and who are working hard to bring opportunity to those seeking to get on in life and provide for their families? (904042)

I am delighted to hear of the outstanding work undertaken by our local Jobcentre Plus staff. In fact, all our JCP staff across the country do great work supporting people, getting them off benefits and into work and helping to transform their lives. I am delighted to see that the employment rates in my hon. Friend’s constituency are going from strength to strength.

T5. The House will be aware that hundreds of thousands of pensioners live in countries where there is no uprating. Now that we are facing the EU referendum, and given that 400,000 British pensioners live elsewhere in the EU, will the Minister tell us what will happen to either the partial or the full uprating for British pensioners if we leave the EU? (904044)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the position of the Government is that we are better off in the EU: the people of Britain will be safer and more secure.

T8. The Octagon theatre in Bolton is undergoing an upgrade to improve accessibility to disabled people. Will my right hon. Friend update us on the work being done to ensure that more public venues have better accessibility to disabled people? (904049)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. We are doing extensive work in this area, recognising the combined spending power of £212 billion for those with disabilities. We are doing particular work with my colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to make cultural and music venues accessible. Attitude is Everything is a fantastic charity. A task group is looking with leading operators at restaurants, and good progress has been made with sports facilities, particularly with the premier league.

T6. The Minister dismisses the six suggestions of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for transitional arrangements as somehow mathematically challenged—or perhaps it was challenging. This issue is about fairness, however, and about establishing a fair transitional arrangement for the WASPI women. Has the Minister actually costed any of the six suggestions, or has he just dismissed them all out of hand? (904046)

Yes, we have costed them, and a response to a freedom of information request is coming out today. When the hon. Lady talks about fairness and says that there should be transitional arrangements, I simply ask her to look back at Hansard for the year 2011, where she will find that on Second Reading, the then Secretary of State who is the current Secretary of State said that he would go away and consider—and he did. Four months later, transitional arrangements were implemented. They cost £1.1 billion and a reduction was made to the period from two years to 18 months, so transitional arrangements have been put in place.

Last year, the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), met Newlife, a Cannock-based charity that provides specialist disability equipment to children across the country. Will my hon. Friend join me in commending Newlife’s work, and does he agree that the provision of this equipment at this early stage means that these children can have a better quality of life?

It is a fantastic organisation; I enjoyed meeting Newlife. I have already taken the opportunity to highlight its good work and how we can promote it further in tandem with my colleagues in the Department of Health.

T7. In December, the Secretary of State said:“For those already on universal credit, advisers will…ensure that their status remains the same”.—[Official Report, 7 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 703.]However, the Government’s decision appears to have changed; they are now saying that it is at the discretion of work coaches to use the flexible support fund. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the 60,000 workers currently on universal credit will, in his own words, have their status remain “the same”? (904048)

Universal credit is now pretty much rolled out all over the country. The Institute for Fiscal Studies made it clear in respect of anybody transitioning from tax credits that

“no family will take an immediate…hit”

because they are “transitionally protected”. I said at the time that we would do our level best, working with the advisers and through the flexible support fund, to make sure that people’s situations continued and actually improved. That is exactly what universal credit will do. That is why I wonder why the Opposition do not support it. More people go into work quicker; they get into work faster; they actually earn more money; and they stay and work longer.

The Minister will be aware that almost 15% of the working population are self-employed, and that in five years’ time, about 40,000 of them will be living in Wiltshire. Does he agree that something needs to be done and that a self-employed auto-enrolment scheme could be looked at? Would he welcome the inclusion of such a thing in this week’s Budget?

Auto-enrolment is a very important issue that this Government are undertaking. I am happy to report that some 6 million people have already taken part in the initiative. This is something that will be of particular benefit to women, who will have the opportunity to enrol as part of a pension, which will certainly help their chances in the future.

When the Minister for Disabled People recently met Ravi Metha, Sulaiman Khan and Tanvi Vyas-Brady, campaigners from Muscular Dystrophy UK’s Trailblazers group, he heard at first hand the challenges that young disabled people face looking for work. Will he confirm that he can and will arrange for these young people to meet his access to work team so that their experiences can directly influence future DWP policies?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for taking the time to introduce those truly inspirational young ambassadors. They were brilliant in the meeting, and I look forward to them actively engaging with our access to work team to help to improve that service. It was a real pleasure.

One of the welcome provisions of the Pensions Act 2014 was the lifting of the Pension Protection Fund cap; yet, nearly two years on, this clause is still to be implemented. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and a cross-party delegation to discuss how we might move the issue forward and bring security in retirement to those who have found their pensions seriously curtailed through no fault of their own?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and any others he wants to bring with him. This Government have a proud record on reforming pensions. The single tier will mean that pension incomes improve dramatically, particularly for those who have broken care. We also have auto-enrolment, which is massively increasing savings among those who have never saved before. Finally, the freedom to take an annuity or not, as and when a pension comes due, is enormous. I am very happy to make sure that reform programme continues, and I will happily meet my hon. Friend.

Can the Secretary of State tell me how many jobseeker’s allowance claimants have been sanctioned in the period between being offered work and taking up work?

I do not have the figures to hand, but I am very happy to write to the hon. Lady about that. I have to say, the number of people who have been sanctioned has fallen dramatically in the last 12 months, and I am sure she will be very happy to see the figures.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People for attending a highly successful Disability Confident event in my constituency on Friday 10 days ago. Does he agree that such events are vital to ensuring that employers get the help they need and, crucially, that people with disabilities are moved closer to the world of employment?

I thank my hon. Friend for his hard work in championing disability employment opportunities. The good businesses of Ilfracombe seized that opportunity, which will make a real difference in the local community.

Have any DWP Ministers had conversations with Department of Health Ministers about the consultation on financial support for those who received contaminated blood in the ’70s and ’80s and whether they should have their benefits passported through to the new personal independence payment scheme?