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House of Commons Hansard
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14 March 2016
Volume 607

The Secretary of State was asked—

Welfare Reform

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1. What assessment he has made of the effect of his Department’s welfare reforms on low and middle-income households since 2010. [904050]

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As a result of our reforms, the number of people in work is at a record high; income inequality is lower than it was in 2009-10; the number of workless households in the social rented sector is also at a record low; the number of children living in workless households is at a record low; youth unemployment is at the lowest level in a decade; and the employment rate for women is also at a record high.

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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer, but the question was not about work—it was about low income. It is one thing being in work, but it is quite a different matter if people are in work that does not pay them enough to earn a living. Is he concerned about reports at the weekend that the latest changes to the personal independence payment system will adversely affect 640,000 people by 2020, making it difficult or impossible for them to live independent lives? Does he not accept that welfare changes that start with a target saving before any consideration is given to the impact on vulnerable people are always going to go wrong?

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The hon. Gentleman talks about my answers to him about low and middle-income people and work, but the point to make is that work is the best route out of poverty, and it is by getting people back to work that we are getting people out of poverty. It is worth reminding him that the poverty figures show that poverty has fallen, both for adults and for children, and that is the critical bit. The reforms we are making are helping people to help themselves to get beyond dependency and back into full-time work.

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Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the latest low-income statistics show that the percentage of individuals and children in relatively low-income circumstances is at its lowest level since the 1980s?

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Yes, and it is also worth noting that income inequality is now lower than it was in 2009-10. It is worth reminding ourselves that, for all the complaining from the Opposition, income inequality rose under Labour to the highest levels it had ever been.

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But the Secretary of State will know that research analysis from the House of Commons Library shows that three in four people who are currently receiving tax credits will see that in-work support reduced when they are naturally migrated over to universal credit. What does he have to say to those millions of workers whose in-work support will be revised downwards?

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As we have made clear on a number of occasions, anybody migrating across from tax credits will see no change to their income—the Institute for Fiscal Studies has made that clear publicly and we also make it clear. It is also worth reminding the hon. Gentleman, because his party seems to have opposed the advent of universal credit, that in the latest IFS-supported research universal credit claimants are seen to be much more likely to go into work than they would be under jobseeker’s allowance, they move into work faster, they stay in work longer and they earn more money. Those are major positives for people who are trying hard and working, whereas the last Labour Government penalised anybody who wanted to go to work.

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A report published yesterday by the Women’s Budget Group highlighted that this Tory Government’s policies are predicted to be more regressive even than those of their coalition predecessor. The report highlighted that single parent women and single female pensioners will see their standard of living reduced by an average of 23% by 2020. The Secretary of State’s Department’s policies are having a negative impact on gender equality. Will he go back to the drawing board to create a social security and pensions system that is fair and equitable?

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There have been many forecasts and most of them have been absolutely wrong—even the IFS forecast about child poverty has been wrong. It is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman of our reforms: the national living wage will give a boost of £900 to full-time workers who are currently on the national minimum wage; the personal tax allowance rising to £12,500 helps those on low income; and general childcare provision is available. That brings me to his point about lone parents, because universal credit, coupled with the incredibly generous childcare provision, now makes lone parents better off in work than they ever would have been before. That is why more people are going to work.

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That answer will not provide a crumb of comfort to those being hammered by social security cuts up and down this country. Today I have written to the Chancellor, highlighting the devastating impact that the cuts to employment and support allowance and to universal credit will have on disabled and sick recipients. These cuts are predicted to save £1.4 billion, yet just £100 million appears to be set aside for the long-awaited, much vaunted White Paper on health and work. Does the Secretary of State agree that the White Paper must be properly resourced in order to provide direct financial support to the sick and disabled people who are seeing their support cut? Will he today finally confirm when that White Paper will be published?

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The White Paper will be published well before the summer break. It is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman of two things. First, and really importantly, half the spending on welfare and public services still goes to the poorest 40%, as it did in 2009-10. Secondly, it is also important to note that we expect no change in the proportion of spending projected to be received by the lowest and middle quintiles between 2010-11 and 2020. I also say to him that it is a bit rich that the Scottish Nationalists, who are in Government in Scotland and who now face a £15 billion deficit, which would have racked them had they gone for independence, have not once referred to the tough choices that they might have to make to reduce that deficit.

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Politics is always about choices, about priorities and about values. This past weekend, we saw the values and priorities of the current Government laid bare in their decision to implement a so-called welfare reform that will see £1.2 billion cut from the incomes of disabled people to pay for—we are told—a tax cut for top-rate taxpayers. Will the Secretary of State come back to the Dispatch Box and honestly describe that as a welfare reform, and then justify those choices?

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The changes that have been announced on personal independence payment are about changing, reforming and improving what goes to those who most need it in this disability allowance. The key point about this, which has been made by the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), is that we put out a consultation long before the Christmas period. The Opposition had an opportunity to make their submissions, which they did, and we listened to all the submissions that came back. As a result, we are not implementing any of the first four options. It is right to continue to recognise aids and appliances and all the activities, as we previously did, but with a change to activities 5 and 6, changing the points numbers from two to one. That brings them into line with activity 3, in which one point has always been awarded for aids and appliances. Finally, activities 5 and 6 are less reliable indicators of additional cost. This all came on the back of an independent review published just after the last election, asking us to look again at the way those indicators are used. We have done that and, in fairness, this is the right way to go and will improve the lot of the worst off.

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For the benefit of the House, may I translate what the Secretary of State has just said? What he means is that he will take away £1.2 billion, completely eroding access to personal independence payment for 200,000 people, and cutting it by a third, from £70 to £50, for a further 450,000 people—people who are quite often unable to use the toilet or get dressed unaided. That comes on top of the cuts to ESA that went through the House last week. Before I came to the Chamber this afternoon, I asked disabled people what question they would like to put to the Secretary of State. One answer stood out. It was quite simply, “How does he sleep at night?”

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I remind the hon. Gentleman that, under this Government, spending on sickness and disability benefits has risen every year. We spend more than £50 billion, which is more than any other OECD country of equivalent size, such as Germany. I am proud of that, and, even with these changes, we will continue to see spending on PIP rise every year all the way to the end of this Parliament. As I have said, I am proud of that, because our reforms ensure that those most in need get full support and that the way that we do it is fair to everybody. I am also proud of the fact that this represents 6% of all Government spending, because, by reforming the economy and reforming welfare, we can get the money to those who most need it. By contrast, when Labour was in Government, we had a lot of promises, a broken economy and cuts all round.

Disability and Employment

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2. What steps he is taking to support people with disabilities into employment. [904051]

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12. What steps he is taking to support people with disabilities into employment. [904061]

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16. What steps he is taking to support people with disabilities into employment. [904066]

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This Government are committed to halving the disability employment gap. In the spending review, we announced a real-terms spending increase on supporting disabled people into work. In the last year, 152,000 more disabled people entered employment. Our forthcoming White Paper will set out our plans to support more disabled people into work.

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I recently met the Kent Learning Disability Partnership, and the people there with disabilities told me that they are keen to work and welcome the Government’s support for that, but they asked me whether the Government would consider following the example of the NHS and introducing an accessible information standard, because they said they often found the communications from my hon. Friend’s Department too confusing and would like them to be easier to understand.

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That is a powerful point. On 14 January I launched a taskforce that included the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the British Deaf Association, Action on Hearing Loss, the National Federation for the Blind, People First, the British Institute of Learning Disabilities, Sense and Mencap to look at that issue and at how, as a Department, we can lead across Government. I would be delighted if my hon. Friend would join that taskforce.

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May I urge the Minister to publish the White Paper on employment support for those with disabilities as soon as practically possible? I take note of the Secretary of State’s earlier response that it would be before the summer break, but there has been some slippage on that. Will my hon. Friend outline what provisions the White Paper will contain on integrating employment and health support?

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We will shortly be publishing the White Paper, which will set out the reforms for improved support for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. We will be looking at a number of issues, including ways to engage with employers as part of our commitment to halve the disability employment gap, integration across health and employment, and further localised tailored support. This is an exciting opportunity.

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My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of the superb work that the Salvation Army does in my constituency in helping disabled people get back into employment, and of the fact that I and the jobcentre are about to hold a Disability Confident event. Can my hon. Friend expand on what more his Department can do in Castle Point, not least by engaging with employers to get more of them to take on disabled employees?

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I thank my hon. Friend for agreeing to host her own Disability Confident event. More than 50 MPs from all parties are doing that, supporting our work to halve the disability employment gap, and promoting services such as access to work, where we now have funding for an additional 25,000 places on top of the near-record 38,000 that we are currently helping.

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I call Naz Shah.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Question 21.

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No, on this question. Do you wish to come in on this question?

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We may or may not get to question 21. Patience may be rewarded. We shall see.

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Last Friday we heard that an additional £1.2 billion is to be cut from the PIP budget. That translates into £2,000 a year less for more than 60,000 claimants. What method or madness led the Minister to think that cutting support could help PIP claimants into work or to achieve independent living?

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We are continuing to make improvements for claimants across the assessment process for PIP. At the end of this Parliament, we will continue to see increased numbers going through the system and benefiting from PIP.

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The establishment of a taskforce is occasionally a mechanism for kicking the can down the road, but in this case I give the Minister credit for his good intentions. Will he consider adding the Royal British Legion to the list of consultees, because there is a real issue of disabled ex-servicemen and women having a great deal of difficulty getting into work?

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That is an important point, and something we are already doing work on. I would be happy to discuss that further.

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The Government have sunk to a new low with this cut to the personal independence payment. As my hon. Friends have said, by 2020 some 640,000 disabled people will have their personal independence payment cut, a third by £2,865 a year and two thirds by £1,400 a year, stripping disabled people of their independence and their dignity. That is on top of the £24 billion cut to 4 million people since 2012. What are the Government’s estimates of how many of those disabled people will be in work, and how many will be unable to work as a consequence of those cuts?

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PIP is about the extra costs that those with a disability would face. We made these changes on the back of the independent review published by Paul Gray, in which he highlighted concerns about the use of aids and appliance, the three recent legal judgments, and the fact that in the past 18 months we saw a trebling of the number of claimants who were able to access the benefit purely for aids and appliances. We listened carefully to the extensive consultation, including feedback from the hon. Lady, and for that reason aids and appliances will continue to be taken into account across all eight of the daily living components. We have ruled out the other four measures, and by the end of this Parliament there will be even greater numbers benefiting from the PIP system. [Interruption.]

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Well, a Government Member is saying, “Listen to the answer.” Again, I am afraid, it is a non-answer—a hallmark of this dodgy, inept and unjust Government. Let us see whether they can do a bit better with this question.

Social security spending on disabled people as a percentage of GDP is lower now than it was in 1960. The Conservative manifesto for the last general election pledged not to cut social security support for disabled people. How and why have the Government gone back on that commitment, and how much more do they think disabled people will be able to take?

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We spend almost double what the Germans spend—about 6% of our Government spending, which is more than we spend on our police and defence budgets combined.

Family Stability

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3. What assessment he has made of the effect of family stability on levels of poverty and on life chances. [904052]

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15. What assessment he has made of the effect of family stability on levels of poverty and on life chances. [904065]

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Our family stability review found that family instability is one of the main drivers of poverty, with unstable families more likely to have low incomes. That is why support for families is firmly at the heart of what we are doing in Government, such as doubling the funding for relationship support and doubling the amount of free childcare.

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I welcome the Government’s determination to tackle the root causes of poverty. With respect to the doubling of funding for the relationship support scheme, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the scheme can be accessed across the country by those who find it hardest to reach Government support and those who most need it?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the huge amount of work he has done in backing this up and supporting it, and to the work he is doing at present to make sure it gets across to everybody. We are clear that any new or extended support that we provide—and we do—will need to be accessible and effective for all families, no matter where they are, with additional, complex needs, and more will be said on that when we bring forward the life chances strategy, to be published this summer. However, I can guarantee to him that it is the No. 1 priority to make sure everybody who needs support gets it.

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Domestic violence is a stain on our society and often a cause of family instability. The Southern Domestic Abuse Service supports victims of domestic violence in Fareham, providing help in the community as an alternative to fleeing for refuge, which is often more costly and disruptive for the family. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Southern Domestic Abuse Service on the vital work it does?

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I certainly will. I myself have been in the House on a ten-minute rule Bill to try to improve access to legal means to prosecute those who drive people to suicide, and I still believe this is something that could be done. I congratulate my hon. Friend and her remarkable charity. The Government have backed that work up, because we have now trebled the amount of money going to these organisations. I would be very happy, at some point, to meet them to congratulate them myself.

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Would the Secretary of State like to confirm that if we look at the current poverty data, we see that there are almost no poor children in households where there is a parent in work and one parent is available for part-time work? What lesson does he draw from that?

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I simply draw the lesson that we want more people to get back into work, because a household with work is a household that is more likely to be out of poverty. As usual, I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, because he has done a huge amount of work on this issue. That lesson has been the drive behind everything that we have done—universal credit, our attempt to make sure that people get into work, and increased childcare to improve the possibility for more women to be in work to boost household income. However, universal credit also ensures that the first person into work is better off, and that therefore improves the likelihood of a household having more income and less chance of being in poverty.

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If we are talking about cause and effect, I fear the question is the wrong way around. What I would like the Secretary of State to explain is how increasing levels of poverty under his Government are affecting family stability. Perhaps he might answer that question.

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I just wish the hon. Gentleman would check the figures. There are 800,000 fewer people in relative poverty, including 300,000 fewer children. [Interruption.] I know it is always awkward for the Opposition when the facts do not bear out the rhetoric, but the reality is that the proportion on a relative low income is the lowest since the 1980s, income inequality is lower than it was when his Government left office, and household disposable income is £1,500 higher than two years ago. It is improving, but it is not good enough—we want to go further and further. All I can say is that we are working to get people into work and make sure that work always pays, as it is the route out of poverty. I just wish that instead of carping, Labour Members would one day support that.

Disability: Welfare Support

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4. What steps he has taken to review the system of assessments for disabled people seeking welfare support. [904053]

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Independent reviews have been carried out of the assessments for personal independence payment and work capability assessment. The first review of the assessment for personal independence payment was undertaken and published in December 2014. There have also been five independent reviews of the work capability assessment.

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Disabled people, particularly those with mental challenges, report that the work capability assessment is exacerbating their ill health, even to the point that they want to take their own life. Those constituents are vulnerable and fragile. The situation is made worse by changes in benefits, financial hardship, and threats of future cuts. Rather than deny the problem, will the Secretary of State order an independent review of those with mental health challenges to assess the impact of the system from a service user’s perspective?

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Following the Dr Litchfield recommendations, we accept that more needs to be done. We are improving training for staff, and now, across the jobcentre networks, we have mental function champions who can spread best practice in mental health.

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In view of Friday’s statement, why do the Government have such a compulsive need to hit out at disabled people at every opportunity? Does the Minister not realise how difficult it is for those people to lead their lives while their income is being undermined by the Government? This can only be described as an ongoing Tory war against the disabled.

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I simply do not accept that. We are increasing the numbers of people who will benefit from the PIP system, we continue to improve the claimant’s journey, and we work extensively with our stakeholders to make sure that improvements are ongoing. By the end of this Parliament, we will be spending more money in this area than we are today.

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One of my constituents, a Mr McLoughlin, is registered as blind, but he has been denied, through the access to work scheme, essential equipment to help him work. The reason given was that able-bodied people would also be able to use the equipment. I am interested to know what equipment the Minister believes an able-bodied person could not use that a registered blind person could. Will he personally look into Mr McLoughlin’s case and that of others who face the same difficulty?

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I will happily look into it, because without having all the details I cannot comment. On the broader issue, we are now helping more than 38,000 people a year—close to record numbers—with the access to work funding, which is in the fourth year of growth, and we have just secured funding for a further 25,000.

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My constituent, who is also registered blind, has told me how valuable the access to work scheme has been in getting him into work. His disability employment adviser contacted a new employer about his needs and they made workplace adjustments without which it would be very difficult for him to hold down his job. Is it not the case that this scheme is extremely valuable in supporting people such as my constituent?

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I thank my hon. Friend. That is why we were so delighted to secure the extra funding for a further 25,000 places. We will be doing a lot more to promote this scheme, and I encourage employers to take advantage of it.

Steel Workers

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5. What support the Government are providing to redundant steel workers to help them get back into skilled work. [904054]

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The rapid response service delivers tailored support for individuals and communities affected by large-scale redundancies. This service was used to help steel workers affected by recent job losses at SSI in Redcar, and of course at Tata in Scunthorpe and Port Talbot.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. A few weeks ago we heard the very troubling news that 30 jobs were to be lost at Corby’s Tata site. What support has the Department provided, alongside others, to those 30 individuals and their families?

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My hon. Friend is right to mention the Corby site. Again, support from the rapid response service and the Department’s team was offered to Tata workers following the announcement of the job losses. On top of that, at this very difficult time, we are giving those individuals support through our DWP network—for example, guidance on job applications, training and support—to enable them to get into work all over again.

Universal Credit

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6. How many people his Department expects to be naturally migrated on to universal credit during this Parliament. [904055]

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Universal credit is rolling out, with the live service available in over 90% of jobcentres, and full roll-out will continue according to the published plan. It is worth reminding everybody that it is complete in London, and very shortly—probably by the end of this month or the beginning of next—universal credit will be in pretty much every single jobcentre in the country.

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The Secretary of State made reference earlier to unreliable predictions. He predicted that by today’s date 8 million people would be on universal credit, but the DWP confirmed last week that fewer than 365,000 people are on universal credit—a staggeringly pathetic success rate of 4.4%. The only reason why the Government are pushing out universal credit now is to deliver the tax credit cut that will hit thousands of working families in my constituency, so is it not time the quiet man went silent on pretending that universal credit is a success?

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I bet that looked good when the hon. Gentleman wrote it down. It is utter rubbish.

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I hope that the Secretary of State does not think that this is a load of rubbish. I visited this morning, with Dame Steve Shirley, a wonderful place where young people with autism are prepared for work. They are very concerned about how universal credit is going to affect them, because they have already seen education not being allowed in their personal plans. Remember that autism costs this country £34 billion a year. If we do not get those young people into employment, the sum will increase and the misery of the families will also increase.

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The hon. Gentleman is right. Autism is a real problem, and we want to help the young people and adults who have that problem as much as we can. Universal credit lends itself hugely to that. Unlike in the past, when those people would have gone from jobseeker’s allowance to working tax credits by themselves and had no advice, help or support once in work, under universal credit the adviser will stay with them all the way.

Importantly, we have now committed £100 million to train advisers to be specialists in helping people who have medical conditions such as autism, and that should help enormously. I would be very happy for the hon. Gentleman to come and discuss with me and the Minister for Disabled People what more we can do, because we are determined to make sure that universal credit helps those in the deepest need as much as it possibly can.

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The Secretary of State told “The Andrew Marr Show” show on 6 December:

“Nobody will lose any money on arrival on universal credit from tax credits because they’re cash protected, which means there’s transitional protection. They won’t be losing any money.”

If there were any doubt about that reassurance, the Secretary of State repeated it earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). But according to the Library, only 27% of the final case load for universal credit will have got there through managed migration, so 73% of them will not have received transitional protection. Apply that to the current tax credit claimants in work, and 2.3 million families will be worse off as a result of moving from tax credits to universal credit. [Interruption.] Oh, I will give you the question. Will the Secretary of State apologise to those families for giving such nonsensical reassurances?

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I say to the hon. Gentleman that he is completely wrong on all that. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has made it absolutely clear that

“no family will take an immediate…hit”

when transferred to universal credit. That is a reality. They are cash protected. Therefore, as they move across, their income levels at the time will remain exactly the same. As we said earlier, we are transitionally protecting them. I just wish that the Opposition, unless they want to stay forever in opposition, would get with it and support universal credit instead of attacking it all the time.

Universal Credit

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7. What estimate his Department has made of the likely average change in income for a disabled worker as a result of changes to the universal credit work allowance. [904056]

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The effect of changes to universal credit work allowances cannot be considered in isolation. They form part of a broader package of measures, including the new national living wage and the increase in the personal tax allowance.

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I thank the Minister for that response, but the Library disagrees and suggests that next year, disabled people will lose £1,700 on average. May I suggest respectfully to the Minister that nobody chooses to be disabled, that they are that way through illness, accident or simply bad luck? Now is the time not to pile more misery on those unfortunate people, but to give them a bit of dignity by not making this dreadful cut.

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The only point I would make is that this Government are supporting more disabled people to get them back into work. I of course agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about dignity. We absolutely are providing dignity to individuals, by supporting them into work and also in giving them the financial support that will secure their employment in the long run.

Women and the State Pension

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8. What the average notice period was for women whose pension age was brought forward by the Pension Act 2011. [904057]

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Women whose pension age was increased had a notice period, between Royal Assent and their new state pension age, of between four years and eight months and 14 years and five months. The average notice period was 10 years and 11 months.

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One of the 1,400 women in my constituency affected by these changes recently told me that she is still waiting for official notification from the Department. Does the Minister accept the abject failure on the part of the DWP to communicate these changes to the women affected by them? Does he think it is acceptable that some women have found out only through the brilliant work of the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaigners?

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Between 2009 and 2010, over 5 million notices were sent to people, according to the records held by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. I would point out to the hon. Lady that, in 2012, only 6% of women within 10 years of state pension age thought that their state pension age would be at age 60.

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Given the rhetoric in the recent Opposition day debate about the state pension age changes, does the Minister share my surprise that the six options put forward by the shadow Secretary of State would not make much difference at all to many women born in the 1950s? Does he agree that it is time for the Opposition to be clear about the choices they would make and how they would pay for them, and also to be clear about the changes they would not make?

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Order. I know that the Minister will want to focus exclusively, and doubtless with loving care, on his own policy, and will not dilate on that of the Opposition, which would be disorderly. Knowing the hon. Gentleman, I do not think he does disorderly.

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You put that so eloquently, Mr Speaker, but I hope you will allow me to make the odd comment. It would be impractical to follow the Opposition’s policies because they have no sense of arithmetic.

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We are not just dealing with the issue of the notice period: there is a fundamental unfairness. Let us take an example: a constituent of mine born in 1953 would have retired at age 63, but a woman born on 10 February 1954 will not retire until July 2019, two and a half years later. That is patently unjust. What the Government can do is to mitigate the timetable so that people have time to react. That is the right thing to do, and the Government should act.

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The hon. Gentleman talks about mitigating things. May I just say to him that transitional arrangements were made at the time? Those transitional arrangements cost £1.1 billion. The period that women would have to work before they retired was reduced from two years to 18 months, and 81% of the women affected by that period of 18 months will not have an extension of beyond 12 months.

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I am really disappointed that the Minister still does not recognise that those women were given a totally inadequate notice period. Given that unfairness and the Secretary of State’s earlier comments—this Government are pretending they want to take people out of poverty—will the Minister look at the six options we have presented to the Government to deal with this injustice? Will he, as many Members of his party would support doing, allow those affected—[Interruption.] I am coming to that, if the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) would listen. Will the Minister allow those affected to take a reduced state pension at an earlier age and be paid a lower state pension for a longer period?

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As far as the six options are concerned, all of them have a cost. It is time that the Opposition started to think about where the money would come from. The hon. Lady lays the blame at the feet of this Government, but she might reflect on the 13 years during which her party was in power, when it did absolutely nothing. [Interruption.] She is chuntering from a sedentary position about £20-something billion. May I just say to her that the cost of undoing the Pensions Act 2011 would be £30 billion?

Unemployment

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9. What progress his Department has made on reducing the rate of unemployment. [904058]

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13. What progress his Department has made on reducing the rate of unemployment. [904063]

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In 2010, we inherited from Labour an unemployment rate of 8%. Since then, we have made excellent progress and the unemployment rate has continued to fall. It is now 5.1 %, which is the lowest rate in a decade.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. As I am sure all hon. Members are aware, this week is apprenticeship week. May I therefore ask her what steps are being taken to help to convert apprenticeship places into full-time positions, particularly in my constituency of Derby North?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right—this week is national apprenticeship week. In her area, there have been in excess of 5,000 apprenticeship starts. We are working with employers and have an employer engagement strategy across the Government, to ensure not only that we leverage our work in terms of encouraging more employers to take apprentices, but that apprenticeships are converted into careers—not just full-time jobs, but lifelong careers—for those young people who have the privilege of participating in those schemes.

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Many of my constituents work hard in the tourism industry but unfortunately become unemployed at the end of the season. Forward-thinking employers are annualising those seasonal contracts so that people are better able to plan their money and fewer people become unemployed. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what the Government are doing to encourage that good annualising of contracts?

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My hon. Friend is right, particularly about seasonal work and seasonal trends in local labour markets. Working with employers is crucial in ensuring that the Department for Work and Pensions and our jobcentres understand the flows and patterns in the local labour market. It is also crucial for us in the Department for Work and Pensions—we are doing this—to work with those individuals who find that seasonal work or changes in hours suit their individual needs and flexibility. Obviously, we work with Jobcentre Plus to ensure that we support people to fill those roles.

Women Against State Pension Inequality

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11. Whether he has had discussions with the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign; and if he will make a statement. [904060]

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It is fair to say that many in the House have had discussions or correspondence with members of the WASPI campaign. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in recent weeks, we have had a number of debates in which Members of Parliament on both sides of the House have expressed the views of their constituents.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and encourage him to continue the engagement with the WASPI campaign. One of its achievements has been to bring forward an army of women who say that they were not given proper and effective notice of what was coming towards them in terms of their retirement age. Whether that was the right thing or the wrong thing to do is no longer the issue. The fact is that it was done badly, and that now needs proper attention.

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I have a huge amount of respect for the right hon. Gentleman—I had the privilege of serving in the coalition Government Whips Office when he was one of the deputy Whips. At the time, he supported the Pensions Act 2011 and was responsible for persuading his Lib Dem colleagues to do likewise. One thing that was always the case with the Lib Dems before the coalition Government was that they blew with the wind. There was a temporary pause during the coalition Government. He is now proving that blowing with the wind is part of the Lib Dems’ DNA, and that they are back to normal.

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The Opposition suggestion that the Government could allow that group of women to take their pensions early from the age of 63 has not been fully costed by anyone. Will my hon. Friend share with the House what the implications might be in terms of cost, whether it needs primary legislation and whether men over the age of 65 will be affected?

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We have today published information regarding that. It would cost additional funds, and the Opposition and others who support that position might wish to take that into account.

Youth Employment

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17. What steps his Department is taking to help young people into employment. [904067]

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We are determined that young people should not slip into a life on benefits, but that they are either earning or learning. That is why we have launched Jobcentre Plus support in schools and will introduce the youth obligation in 2017, to ensure that young people get the best possible start in life.

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In my constituency of South Leicestershire, we have seen a welcome fall of 81% in the youth claimant count, from 505 in 2010 to 95 now. That has been achieved through the strong joint working between my right hon. Friend’s Department, local authorities such as Blaby and Harborough District Councils, local enterprise partnerships, and not least businesses. Does she agree that it is through empowering and devolving responsibilities to those closest to the communities that we are most able to provide the support needed to help young people to get back to work?

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I pay tribute to all the local stakeholders in my hon. Friend’s constituency who have been providing vital employment support to people to get the claimant count down so low. He is right to say that local decisions help to get people into work. That is why we are always mindful of local labour market trends.

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Next month, Bexhill will be holding its first jobs and apprenticeships fair. This event, which I have put on in partnership with Jobcentre Plus and other local organisations, will allow constituents to meet 50 participating organisations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that local organisations working together can help us towards the goal of full employment?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I speak with experience of not just my own constituency but the many other constituencies I have visited where jobs and apprenticeships fairs have taken place. The crucial point is that they can only happen with the support of local employers. The Department will continue to work at national and constituency level with local employers to support jobs and apprenticeships fairs like the one to which he refers.

Private Sector Jobs

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18. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of private sector jobs; and if he will make a statement. [904069]

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Supported by welfare reform and the Government’s long-term economic plan, we have seen worklessness fall. This has helped to boost private sector employment. There are now a record 26 million people working in the private sector, up by 2.7 million since 2010.

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Is the Minister aware that since 2010 unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 67% from 1,900 to 624? Does she agree that one should look behind those statistics to all those lives that have been transformed: families with hope for the future and pride in themselves?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Work and employment turn around the lives of families and communities. In his constituency and region, we have seen record levels of employment. That is down to the Government’s policies and, as I said earlier, to the support we have had from employers, who are, ultimately, the job creators in our economy.

Workless Households

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19. What progress his Department has made on reducing the number of workless households. [904070]

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When we took office almost one in five households had no one in work and about 1.4 million people had been on benefits for most of the previous decade. Since 2010, the number of workless households has fallen by more than 680,000 to its lowest level since records began. The number of children in workless households is at a record low, down nearly 480,000 since 2010.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that making progress in reducing the number of people in workless households is key to improving the life chances of millions of children?

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I do agree with my hon. Friend. From all the evidence, we know that children in workless households grow up without the aspiration to achieve, something they might have if they grow up in driven families who are in work. They are almost certain to repeat the difficult lives of their parents and we want to turn those lives around. Since 2010, the number of workless households in the social rented sector has fallen by more than 280,000 to a record low. It is worth remembering that when we took office in 2010 the number of households where no one had ever worked had nearly doubled under the previous Labour Government.

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I call Angus Brendan MacNeil. He is not here. Where is the fellow? I call Naz Shah.

Child Poverty

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21. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of recent changes to benefits on levels of child poverty. [904072]

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I congratulate the hon. Lady on getting her question in.

We have seen relative child poverty fall by 300,000 since we came to office. The number of children living in workless households is also down 480,000 to a record low. Living standards are up 3.3% and income inequality, which rose under the previous Labour Government, is down since 2010.

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In the light of research published by the Children’s Society, which shows that 104,000 children in Bradford are adversely affected by the benefit freeze and that in my constituency alone 29,500 children are living in poverty, does the Minister not think he would be better off arguing with his Chancellor about his Budget rather than needlessly pushing more families and children into poverty?

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I simply do not agree with the hon. Lady, because the figures do not bear it out. It is worth remembering that in-work and out-of-work poverty rose under the last Labour Government. Under this Government, out-of-work poverty, which affected 71% of households with children in 2009-10, has fallen to 61% and is still falling. As we know, three quarters of poor children living in families that move into employment leave poverty altogether. A child poverty transitions report made that very clear. I think we should all celebrate getting people and families back to work, as we have been doing, and giving them a real chance to earn and have aspiration.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [904040]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that further.