The Secretary of State was asked—
Disabled People: Government Support
On the day that the country is celebrating our Paralympic athletes, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in thanking them for a summer of thrilling and inspirational sport.
It is right that we continually review the way support is offered to and accessed by disabled people. That is why I was pleased to announce an end to stressful and bureaucratic employment and support allowance reassessments for people with the most severe lifetime conditions. We are also transforming the way disabled people access support through our new digital Access to Work platform and providing help to budding disabled entrepreneurs to set up their own business.
I am holding a round-table event on 31 October for those with disabilities, parents and employers, to try to remove the barriers to employment. Does the Secretary of State agree that for some the barriers are simply too high? Will he welcome the positive response from Disability Rights UK to his recent announcement that those with long-term and severe disabilities will not have to undergo regular repeat assessments of their condition?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the round table. He is right that there are too many barriers to work for disabled people, and this Government are determined to do everything possible to break down those barriers. Like him, I was pleased that a number of disability groups welcomed the announcement that I made on 1 October. I was particularly pleased to see the chief executive of the MS Society, Michelle Mitchell, say that it was a victory for common sense. She went on to say:
“We are therefore delighted that the Government has listened to our concerns and have agreed to stop reassessments”.
I am pleased that the sector was so pleased with the announcement.
It is not so much the conditions as the individuals. We apply the exemption on an individual basis, as there are clearly conditions where at some stages people will be able to work and at other stages they will not be able to work, so the exemption covers conditions that can only deteriorate as well as conditions that may stay the same. On timing, we will be consulting on a wide range of measures in the work and health Green Paper, which my predecessor promised would be with us by the end of the year, and I am happy to repeat that promise today.
I, too, welcome the announcement that people with severe lifelong conditions will no longer face repeated work capability assessments. My right hon. Friend has clearly recognised how stressful people find these assessments. Although mental health conditions can follow an unpredictable path, will he consider taking steps to reduce the stress and trauma experienced by people with long-term mental health conditions undergoing work capability assessments?
I am happy to try to reassure my hon. Friend about that because she is right. One of the things that has improved in the diagnosis field has been the number of people who have been correctly diagnosed with mental health conditions in recent years, and clearly this is a group who in some cases have particular difficulties in getting back to work. The stress and strain of constant reassessment may well contribute to that, so we are always looking at ways of improving the assessment that we do to make sure that they achieve what they are meant to achieve and do not just act as an increaser of strain on people.
Constituents who have been refused employment and support allowance tell me that they are experiencing barriers being put in their way when they apply for mandatory reconsideration of the decision. They tell me that they are being told to put the application in writing and to give reasons in advance, and then if the request is rejected they are not given reasons for the refusal. Will the Secretary of State take a look at this situation because it does seem that there is a deliberate attempt on the part of at least some officials to thwart people in having their cases reconsidered?
I am not at all aware of officials actively acting to thwart mandatory reconsideration. As the hon. Lady will know, the Social Security Advisory Committee supported the mandatory reconsideration, but there are a number of recommendations on the table that we are looking at and that will improve the process. With all these processes, there is a need for continuous improvement, and that is what we will seek to do.
My right hon. Friend’s announcement will be particularly welcome to a constituent of mine who is a long-term mental illness sufferer. He has been sectioned four times and is still required to have the work capability assessment. I very much hope that the process to which my right hon. Friend referred will be a quick one and that people such as my constituent will soon be able to benefit from this announcement.
Yes, I quite take the point my hon. Friend has made—certainly as he describes the constituency case he has taken up. Someone like that should not be reassessed while we are establishing the details of the appropriate guidance so that the new system can be put into effect.
I am glad the Government have said they are going to end the needless and distressing practice of reassessing work capability people with lifelong, progressive and incurable conditions. I hope the Secretary of State now accepts that his predecessors got this very badly wrong over recent years. Will he now take steps to overhaul the work capability assessment to ensure that all ESA claimants, including those with invisible and fluctuating conditions, are treated with dignity and respect?
I am grateful for the support for my announcement from those Benches, even though I sense it came through slightly gritted teeth. As I have said to previous questioners, we are constantly looking at ways of improving the work capability assessment, and of course that work will carry on.
I thought I was being quite restrained.
The other thing the Government have got badly wrong in recent times is the decision to cut financial support to ESA claimants in the work-related activity group—people assessed as currently unfit for work. At the time, that decision caused huge disquiet on both sides of the House, and deep anger and concern outside it. With those changes due to come into effect shortly, will the Secretary of State make representations to the Chancellor ahead of the autumn statement to reinstate that support, which sick and disabled people need so badly?
As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, no one who is already claiming ESA in that group will see a cash loss. What we are seeking to do is to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to get into work, because doing a job is, for most people, the best route out of poverty. The various changes announced by my predecessors were all aiming at that end, which is the best one for the vast majority of people receiving these benefits.
The Government’s climbdown regarding their discredited work capability assessment is welcome, but given that 60% of people who appeal against their WCA decision are successful, that academics estimate that between 2010 and 2013 an additional 590 suicides were associated with WCA and that the Government’s data show that the people who have been found fit for work are four times more likely to die than the general population, why will the Work and Pensions Secretary not scrap the WCA process immediately and completely?
Because the work capability assessment, which was, of course, introduced by a Labour Government, has been reviewed five times since 2010, and each time we have improved it. I am glad that the hon. Lady has welcomed the recent improvements that we have introduced. [Interruption.] I would be grateful if she waited for her next question before she asks it. One thing I would particularly take issue with her over is her implied link between suicides and the work capability assessment. I do think that that is an unhelpful use of what is always clearly a deeply tragic situation for political ends. I think she will have known that there is no direct evidence to support that, and I do not think it is a very constructive way to seek to improve the work capability assessment.
Just as a point of fact, these are academic estimates, and the Government’s data show that people have died.
Unlike with the work capability assessment, the Government plan continually to assess all disabled people for the personal independence payment, regardless of their disability or condition, regardless of the fact that 59% of PIP appeals are successful and regardless of the wholly inappropriate process. After the outcry over proposed cuts to PIP in the Budget, and having had to abandon proposals to restrict access to PIP by changing eligibility to the daily living component, the Government are looking for alternative ways to make cuts to PIP—this time by changing the guidance and making it harder for disabled people successfully to appeal PIP decisions. Are the Government not ashamed that they are putting disabled people in such dire circumstances?
I am not at all ashamed of the introduction of PIP or the fact that many more people are eligible to receive PIP than were eligible to receive disability living allowance. It is a better benefit, and most of the disability support groups recognise that it is a better benefit, so I simply do not recognise the hon. Lady’s characterisation of PIP.
Personal Independence Payment: Autism
The personal independence payment assessment is designed with all health conditions and impairments in mind, including autism. About 38% of those with autism are currently receiving higher rates of PIP.
Autism is a complex medical condition, and there is a fundamental failure in the personal independence payment system in that assessments are being made by people who have no detailed knowledge of the medical condition involved. Will the new Secretary of State and the Minister assess whether it is possible to have real medics and people with professional medical opinions carrying out assessments, so that these people can be looked after?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the important fact that the assessment and the person’s experience of it are appropriate. He is quite wrong to say that these are not healthcare professionals. Both our assessment providers’ training covers autism. Capital and Atos give their health professionals specific information that has been developed by the National Autistic Society.
Work is the best route out of poverty. There are 557,000 fewer children in workless households than in 2010. The Prime Minister is clear that tackling poverty and disadvantage, and delivering real social reform, is a priority for this Government. To that end, I will be returning to the House with a number of announcements over the coming months.
The latest OECD figures show the that the risk of income poverty is growing for young people, and that was before the impact of the coming into force of benefit cuts hitting children. Will the Secretary of State accept the warnings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that child poverty will increase by 50% in the next few years and abandon the cuts to universal credit, which will punish low-paid workers, especially single parents?
I simply point out to the hon. Lady that since 2010 there are 100,000 fewer children in poverty in this country, and, overall, 300,000 fewer people in poverty. I have already said that work is the best route out of poverty. I am sure that she, like me, will welcome the fact that we have far more people in work in this country than most other advanced countries. That is the best long-term way to ensure that children do not suffer poverty.
I very much welcome the change of tone since the Secretary of State took up his new position, but what I would really like to see now is a change in policy. He should be ashamed that the IFS is predicting a staggering 50% increase in child poverty over the course of this Parliament under his Government, who are still committed to a policy where a living wage does not pay enough to live on and where tax and benefit changes will be directly responsible for that increase in child poverty. When will the 2.5 million children who currently go without enough food to eat—who go hungry in this country—see some real action from this Government?
I disagree with the hon. Lady on the points that she makes on income and on tax. On income, the introduction of the national living wage means that a full-time worker who was previously on the national minimum wage is now £900 a year better off, and many children will benefit from that. On tax, over the course of the previous Parliament, we took 4 million of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether. Those are practical measures that help people on low incomes and help children in low-income households.
As the Secretary of State will know from his recent visit to my constituency, earlier this year I worked with local Bath charity St John’s Hospital to set up the Action Against Child Poverty group in Bath, bringing together over 50 charities and £100,000 of funding to tackle the issue of the one in five children who live in poverty in my constituency. Will he agree to meet Action Against Child Poverty in Bath, this time in London—don’t worry!—to learn about the group’s work and extend his congratulations on its work?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the group in his constituency. It is exactly the sort of thing that one wants to hear that the third sector is doing, and I am happy to meet the group. I am grateful that he is depriving me of yet another trip to Bath. I am always happy to go there, but I quite like to spread myself around the country a bit.
Helping parents on jobseeker’s allowance or income support to start their own business is one way of reducing child poverty. Will the Secretary of State support the new enterprise allowance, which helps unemployed people to start their own business and raise household incomes?
The new enterprise allowance is indeed an extremely helpful tool in our armoury of ways to help disabled people. We have seen 20,000 firms started up—20,000 disabled people helped—through the new enterprise allowance. I intend to continue and expand the scheme, which is so good for disabled people.
The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) said in March 2014 that he believed the Government would eradicate child poverty by 2020, yet, as has already been mentioned, the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted last week that child poverty is set to rise by 50% by 2020. Does the Secretary of State agree with the former Secretary of State or with the Child Poverty Action Group, and are the Government still committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020?
The Government are certainly committed to reducing child poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group made a number of specific demands. One demand was to expand childcare support, which the Government have done, extending the 15-hour offer to the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. Universal credit now reimburses up to 85% of childcare costs, up from 70%. CPAG also demanded support to progress in low-paid work—it is absolutely right about that—and we are undertaking a number of trials to deliver evidence on in-work progression, which will be delivered by Jobcentre Plus, because I agree with CPAG that that is an extremely good step forward.
In 2011, the Government said that universal credit would lift 350,000 people out of poverty. By 2013, that had been downgraded to just 150,000. The Office for Budget Responsibility published its report on welfare trends last week and made it clear that the cuts going ahead under universal credit will mean that it will be less generous than tax credits. How many children, if any, do the Government expect universal credit to lift out of poverty?
Universal credit, which is now being paid to more than 300,000 people, has already shown that people will get into work and progress in work faster and that they are more likely to seek work. If the Opposition accept, as I think they do, that work is the best route out of poverty, they will welcome universal credit because, when it is paid to more parents it helps children in those families to be in households where there is work. That will be the best way to get them out of poverty.
State Pension Age: Women
Transitional arrangements are already in place. We committed £1 billion to lessen the impact of the state pension age changes on those who were affected, so that no one would experience a change of more than 18 months. In fact, 81% of women’s state pension ages will increase by no more than 12 months, compared with the previous timetable.
Last week, I and more than 100 cross- party colleagues presented petitions in support of the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign. Will the Minister acknowledge that those women have been subject to a grave injustice and that now is the time for the Government to introduce appropriate transitional payments for the women most affected by the pension changes?
I can only reiterate to the hon. Lady what has been said many times before. The Government made transitional arrangements that came to more than £1 billion. [Interruption.] She is chuntering at me from a sedentary position. I could not hear, but will try to imagine what she was saying. The Government have made the transitional arrangements, and no further moves will be made to assist those women, all of whom will benefit in time from the significant increase in the new state pension.
There are shocking reports of women affected by the changes introduced last April being left destitute. Many of them who have been on low pay all their lives where occupational pension schemes were not open to them have taken on caring responsibilities, saving this country lots of money. What immediate measures will the Government take to address this appalling situation and put these wrongs right?
I pay tribute to Rosemary Jordan and the north Lincolnshire WASPI group. The Minister is better than the answers he has just given. These women are being badly affected. The Prime Minister has given a commitment to this nation to look after those people who are just managing, and the women I have seen in my surgery are just managing as a result of these pension changes. The transitional arrangements that were made back in 2011 are not good enough. I urge the Minister to go back to the Department and improve the offer.
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, I have said many times, as have other Ministers, that the transitional arrangements have cost more than £1 billion and there are arrangements in place for those people in destitution. It becomes a question of the public money that is spent. At the moment, the new state pensions are costing £89 billion a year, plus pension credit and everything else, and there is no further money available.
I am very surprised that no Government Members want to ask questions about this topic. The Prime Minister celebrated her 60th birthday earlier this month, making her part of that sisterhood of 1950s-born women who have been so shabbily treated by her predecessor’s Government. My hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) have already referred to the mass petitions organised by WASPI, and we have heard about the amazing change of mind of not one but two previous pensions Ministers, who have acknowledged that the whole thing was wrong and a bit of a mess. Unlike other members of the special sisterhood, the Prime Minister will probably not have to rely on the state pension, but will the Minister appeal to his boss to use the power she has and to compensate some of the most needy women in our society?
Personal Independence Payments: Applications
Department for Work and Pensions visiting officers can assist people with the completion of their PIP forms in their own homes, as can family and friends. Claimants can also authorise another person or organisation to help them handle their PIP claim.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but completing the forms can be a particularly difficult experience for those with mental health conditions. I was pleased to hear what the Secretary of State said earlier about reassessments, but what specific help and support is provided to that particular group of applicants?
We want to help people with the form as much as possible. That is why we give them up to a month to complete the return form, as well as additional time if they require it. We provide guidance online so that friends and family can look at it and go on to assist the person with the completion of the form. We also allow them to use their own words to describe their condition and to provide as much detail as they would like, or as much as their condition allows.
My constituent John Mullen had been working abroad for two years when he fell ill earlier this year with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. When he came back to this country, he was told that he would not qualify for personal independence payments until January 2018. Given what the Secretary of State has said about relaxing the cuts in welfare payments, will the Minister look at his case personally and make sure that my constituent has the money that he needs right now?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we cannot intervene in individual cases, but if he sends the detail of the specific problem with regard to those who have lived abroad and moved back, my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work will be delighted to look at it.
Benefit Eligibility Assessment: People with Disabilities
The Department is committed to improving continuously assessments for all our benefits, and we have responded to a range of recommendations from a number of independent reviews. As part of our continuous review of the work capability assessment, we will be consulting on further possible improvements in the forthcoming Green Paper.
I welcome the Government’s recent announcement. May I ask the Department to consider creating an individual health statement for each disability claimant to give every local and national agency that is responsible for paying benefits access to the relevant information, so that we can end the practice of repetitive form-filling and evidence gathering? That would reduce individual stress on the vulnerable and reduce bureaucracy in our essential public services.
That is a sensible suggestion, and I thank my hon. Friend for making it. If we can use all the data that Government hold—for example, care plans or evidence for someone’s war pension—better to reduce stress and bureaucracy for individuals and arrive more quickly at a good result on the assessment, we should do so.
How confident is the Minister of the robustness of emergency payments for disabled people who lose their ESA or PIP? What would she say to my constituent who suffers from chronic lymphoedema? He wrote to me two weeks ago, having lost his benefit:
“I can’t seem to concentrate on what I should do. I have no money at all. My electricity and my gas have run out. As for food I don’t know what to do.”
How can we have a system in which people are left in such a predicament?
I am sorry to hear of the circumstances of the hon. Lady’s constituent. Enormous numbers of decisions are made on ESA, PIP and on all sorts of other benefits. In some cases, the wrong decision is taken and it is overturned on appeal. We need to concentrate on ensuring that we arrive at the right decision in the first place. That has been our focus over the last few weeks, and we are doing a lot of work to ensure that medical and other evidence is submitted earlier in the process so that such circumstances do not arise. I would be very happy to look at the situation of the hon. Lady’s constituent.
Personal Independence Payments: Assessments
Our policy is developed by utilising service user panels. Provision is strictly monitored and measured by independent audit, and the provider is held to account through the contract that we have with them.
For the fourth year in a row, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority has said that the roll-out of the personal independence payment project is
“in doubt with major risks…apparent in a number of key areas.”
What action is the Minister taking to address the urgent problems with the PIP assessment, which is causing further hardship to disabled people trying to access vital support?
I start by pointing out that PIP is a vast improvement on what went before. It is a more targeted benefit and it takes into account a whole raft of other conditions, such as mental health and sensory conditions, not just physical disability. It is a vast step forward in that respect. We cannot rest on our laurels, however. We must continually improve, and there is a robust improvement process, based on user and claimant feedback, which looks at the assessment and also at record keeping and a raft of other areas.
Let us examine that claim. My constituent Leila Kennedy lives with dwarfism, and her Motability car was removed from her after a PIP assessment. She had to use public transport, which she was unable to do, and she lost her job as a result. Does the Minister really think that Government policy is delivering compassionate outcomes in such cases?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will write to me with further details of that case. Under PIP, more people are entitled to use the Motability scheme, but clearly we want to make sure that any decision taken on a PIP assessment is the right one. A key part of that, as we know from looking at cases that have been overturned on appeal, is getting the evidence submitted earlier in the process.
Reports suggest that Capita rewards its assessors on the basis of how many assessments they complete every month, which leads to rushed assessments where applicants are not given enough time to describe how their condition affects them daily. What is the Minister doing to ensure that applicants are given enough time and that such a reward system is not operating?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question because it gets to the heart of what I have just described. If we do not have a good-quality assessment and good quality in all the evidence needed early in the process, we will end up causing distress to an individual who has to go to mandatory reconsideration or an appeal. We are doing work in the Department to address this, including giving a bit more flexibility for certain cases at that early stage, with the hope that the evidence we need will then be submitted at that stage. That is recent work, and we are rolling it out at the moment.
For those with a mental health condition, the PIP assessment has transformed opportunities. Under disability living allowance, only 22% accessed the highest rate of benefit; yet under PIP, the figure is 68%. With more people with mental health conditions being identified, what more can be done to signpost them to the wider support of the NHS, charities and the Government’s pilots?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work he did at the Department on these issues. He is absolutely right that mental health now has the priority it needs, and that PIP is delivering for such people. I would give him one example, which is the work we are doing to build on the excellent work that he did with the Disability Confident scheme. We have further beefed up the scheme, which will give employers a general grounding in these matters, and act as a platform for organisations such as Mind and others that can offer bespoke advice.
Most Members in this House will have someone come along to their advice surgery every week with a problem about PIP. The area that worries me most is Motability, because people come to my surgery who are clearly going to win at the tribunal stage, but their Motability is removed right at the beginning of the process. Can we not look at a change of policy, whereby the Motability stays until all the appeal processes have been concluded, which would be a great help to many people?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Historically, we have not paid benefit during an appeal. The key to cracking this is to ensure that the assessment is done correctly. I would point out to him that the mandatory reconsideration process would be over before the person had to return the vehicle.
Disabled People: Recruitment and Retention
Building on the work of my predecessor, we have introduced a new Disability Confident scheme to identify the value that disabled people bring to businesses and to give employers the tools and techniques they need to recruit, retain and develop them. The new scheme went live in July, and it will be formally launched soon. I must thank my hon. Friend for being an early adopter.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and I pay tribute to her predecessor. Earlier this year, I held my fifth annual jobs and apprenticeship fair at Mid Cheshire College in Weaver Vale. In July, I undertook my first Disability Confident fair, where I signed up 19 Cheshire businesses to become Disability Confident employers. Will my hon. Friend tell the House what steps the Government are taking to encourage more small and medium-sized enterprises to take up this very important role?
In addition to the Disability Confident scheme, we are trialling the small employer offer, which will provide some additional support to those who may have less capacity within their own organisation. We are also working closely with the Health and Safety Executive, with its reach to SMEs, to target our services better.
Recent analysis suggests that as well as an employment gap, there is a wage gap of about 13% between disabled workers and their non-disabled counterparts. What is the Minister going to do to raise employers’ awareness of this abuse?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point. We quite often talk about getting people into work, but we clearly also want them to have a career: we want them to develop, reach their full potential and pursue all their talents. The Green Paper, which we will publish shortly, will look at some of these issues, but the beefed-up Disability Confident scheme will also be very effective in doing that.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. We need to do more to ensure that the support we offer is understood by employers. Disability Confident will help with that. We also need to raise employers’ awareness of what they are missing: huge talent and huge insight in their workforce. We will shortly bring forward schemes which will do just that.
The Minister may be aware there is a massive pool of talent among people who suffer from neurolinguistic difficulties and challenges, and autism and dyslexia. What more can the Government do to show that, if we recognise their challenges, these young and old people make very good employees?
Absolutely; part of the solution is ensuring that our own staff are fully aware and able to encourage employers to take on these people. There are many other things we can do to highlight the positive contribution they have made. We are doing a huge amount of work with Hidden Impairment, including training our staff and our ongoing communication with employers.
Sixteen million adults have less than £100 in savings, with younger adults, larger families and single parents most at risk of struggling with their personal finances. The all-party group on financial education for young people, which I chair, has, supported by Young Enterprise, concluded that people need better money management skills in life. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to increase financial education and money management skills for young people and those in receipt of benefits?
I commend my hon. Friend for her work with the all-party group, which has been particularly effective. In jobcentres, the first work search interview provides the opportunity to identify barriers, including financial capability. Under universal credit, personal budgeting support can be offered in partnership with jobcentres, local authorities and other local service providers.
I thank the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) for asking that very important question. The new Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, of which I am a member, highlighted that it is so much harder to recover from mental illness if one is in debt. Adults with mental health conditions are three times more likely to be in debt than adults without mental health conditions. What specifically is the Minister doing to ensure that people with a mental condition who are in receipt of benefits and in debt are supported appropriately?
The most important thing we do is work in partnership at a local level with mental health organisations such as Mind to increase understanding of jobcentre operations on these issues, as well as to extend help to individual claimants. It is very important to understand the full range of barriers and challenges that somebody may face.
The Secretary of State announced in a written ministerial statement on 15 September 2016 that we will be deferring the application of local housing allowance rates for supported housing until 2019-20. At that point, we will bring in a new funding model.
In Lewisham, funding for supported accommodation has fallen by more than half since 2010. My constituent Winston Morris suffers from multiple sclerosis and is wholly reliant on his wheelchair. He was made homeless and had to move into his sister’s living room, where he sleeps, eats, uses the commode and bathes. More than a year later, he is still there. Despite being on the housing waiting list, there is no clear timeframe for when he will be rehoused. This is completely unacceptable. Will the Minister meet me to discuss his case to prevent other vulnerable people from falling into similar situations?
Local authorities are absolutely best placed to make decisions on supporting vulnerable people in their own areas and commissioning supported services that are needed locally, which is why I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the specific issues she raises. It is important that we work to establish the best funding model for supported housing.
First, I very much welcome the Government’s announcement to exempt specialist providers such as women’s refuges from changes to housing benefit. I know that the Government have a plan to help refuges and women’s refuges remain sustainable in the future, so I would like to hear what they plan to do for all other sorts of supported living accommodation for elderly people, people with learning difficulties and some of our ex-servicemen and women who, as I heard on the radio today, are having their services shut.
I commend the hon. Lady for the sterling work she has done on refuges. What we know is that there is a massive variety of types of providers of supported housing, and it is critical that in the consultation process we find a solution that works for all of them.
Pensions: Long-serving Employees
We have a well-established regime of checks and balances in place, for example the Pension Protection Fund and the Pensions Regulator. The Government keep this framework for pensions under constant review, and amend it when evidence demonstrates that such change is needed.
As I have stated previously, one of the welcome provisions in the Pensions Act 2014 was the raising of the Pension Protection Fund cap. Will my hon. Friend update the House on when that clause might be implemented, because two years on it has still not been put in place and pensioners in my constituency are suffering the consequences?
Let me first acknowledge the work that my hon. Friend has done to ensure that the long service cap was established. Pensions legislation is, as he knows, a very complex and technical area, and it is important that the secondary legislation for the cap operates as it was intended in all circumstances. This process can take time. However, I can assure him that this has been a priority for me from my first day in office. As I recently announced, I intend the long service cap for the PPF to come into force in April 2017.
My own personal occupational pension scheme has just been reduced. It is not a problem for me personally with my generous parliamentary salary, but it is symptomatic of the problems facing occupational pension schemes and pensioners. Is not the real long-term solution to establish a compulsory universal state earnings-related scheme for all, with defined contributions and defined benefits?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, this was looked into by the Turner review and by many people and institutions since. Automatic enrolment is in place, which is a great step forward. Millions of people have now enrolled. I hope that, as time evolves, this will become the main form of pension for people other than the new state pension.
For PIP, it is 3%; and for ESA, it is 14%.
As I stated previously, we have been doing some work in this area. One of the key things that will help is ensuring that we have more flexibility early on in the process so that where cases are complex, the evidence is submitted. There is also huge scope for using the information that the Government, and different parts of the Government, have to cut down on the bureaucracy altogether. The Green Paper will look at all these issues.
My constituent receives ESA and has been seeking a review of her action plan by Ingeus, but neither Ingeus nor the DWP will take responsibility for reviewing it, despite the Secretary of State having a statutory obligation to do so. Will the Secretary of State investigate my constituent’s case?
I am pleased to update the House on our continued efforts to support disabled people to access essential services and support more easily. Last month we launched a new digital service for Access to Work, so people can now apply online, making the application process quicker, more convenient and more efficient. Statistics published today show that already around 500 people a week are now making claims online, on average taking less than 20 minutes to complete a claim—a huge improvement from the delays and difficulties many experienced with the old system.
I am glad that the Secretary of State feels so complacent. Only weeks ago the House was assured that tax credit cases would be expedited as a matter of urgency, but claimants are still waiting for weeks without their cases being resolved. The Secretary of State’s Department is responsible for dealing with child poverty. Will he tell us what he will do to push the system forward and make it work?
I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that I absolutely take the point that the system is not perfect, and, one suspects, will never be perfect, but, as I have said, we are taking steps to improve it in every area. The hon. Gentleman mentioned child poverty. As I have said before, there are many thousand fewer children in poverty than there were in 2010. Overall, there are 300,000 fewer people in poverty than there were then, and there are 100,000 fewer working-age adults in poverty. I hope the whole House agrees that work is the best route out of poverty, and that using the benefits system to try to help people into work is the best thing that we can do for them in the long term.
I welcome both those pieces of news, and the employment that will be brought to my hon. Friend’s constituency. What she has said about the opening of the hotel reflects a national trend. We know from surveys that the demand for staff in the hospitality industry continues to be strong, and it is one of the factors that are helping us to achieve a record level of employment.
According to the International Monetary Fund, a series of forecasts has shown that the vote to leave the European Union will lead to low global growth and rock-bottom interest rates for years to come, and that as a result, despite the saving of trillions of pounds, workers who are due to retire in the next few years will not even have their basic needs met. Today, as the deputy Governor of the Bank of England defends the Bank’s approach to the economy to Members of Parliament and outlines his concerns about pensions, will the Secretary of State tell us what the Government are going to do to shore up the pensions of people who have done the right thing and earned their retirement?
The best thing that the Government can do—and, of course, it is what we are doing and will continue to do—is ensure that our underlying economy is strong and continues to create jobs as it has over the past six years, because, as we know, that is the best way to preserve and enhance both the state and the private pensions systems in the future.
I pay tribute to the taskforce, and also to my right hon. Friend’s work with the all-party parliamentary group on autism. We have introduced a number of measures. We have a contract with Autism Alliance UK, and I am grateful to the alliance for training more than 1,000 of our own staff. We will introduce further measures, and the Green Paper will focus strongly on autism, outlining not just our ambitions but what we intend to do now.
I call Mr Virendra Sharma.
Where is the fellow? He was here a moment ago, and now he has beetled out of the Chamber. All this beetling out of the Chamber is a very unhealthy phenomenon when an hon. Member has a question on the Order Paper. Members should look at the Order Paper a bit more carefully. I call Caroline Flint.
It has been brought to the attention of the Public Accounts Committee that universal credit is paid per calendar month, which, as has been pointed out by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, affects those receiving four-weekly pay very badly. I know that, since our evidence inquiry, the Minister’s officials have met representatives of the union to discuss their concerns. May I ask the appropriate Minister to follow the matter up? It is an anomaly that affects a great many retail workers who are ending up without their universal credit being paid.
The right hon. Lady identifies the issue around four-weekly versus two-weekly versus monthly cycles of pay. As she mentions, it came up at the Select Committee. I know that Lord Freud is considering what the implications are and is continuing his discussions.
Indeed, I welcome the news of the record levels of female employment. My hon. Friend is right that enhancements in childcare are an important part of this. Within that, the extension in universal credit support from 70% to 85% of costs is important, coupled with the fact that it applies at lower levels of hours, which will enable some mums to get back into the workplace sooner than might otherwise be the case.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that case. Reading out bank details over the phone is bad enough and, clearly, if his constituent is blind there are additional problems. If he will write to me, I will ensure that we look at that matter carefully.
I hope that Ministers were as concerned as I was that not one of the offenders leaving prison earlier this month who were mentioned in the chief inspector of probation report found work? Will Ministers commit to raise that issue with all employers they meet, not least in the public sector, where our record is still not good enough, so that we can all be safer?
My hon. Friend is right to identify the importance of helping ex-offenders into work. We know that, if they get into work, they are much less likely to reoffend. The See Potential campaign is important in that regard. Many employers have signed up to that and I commend them for doing so. I and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), the Minister with responsibility for prisons, are in regular contact about how we can further improve our offer for ex-offenders and we will continue to work on that.
As I mentioned earlier, we have identified a number of things through the PIP continual improvement process. Some recurring trends have been down to straightforward things—for example, the failure of computer systems to integrate. However, we have the standards to which she has alluded. Where that is not happening, I would be grateful if hon. Members would let me know. We have a rigorous process to look at and to audit where these things are and where they are not taking place.
Disability Confident is an excellent initiative, but there are still far too few disabled people in employment, particularly those with learning disabilities. Can the Minister look at what we might do to give financial incentives to employers to take on people with disabilities, because it seems that getting people to give someone a go is the best way to show that any doubts they have about employing people with a disability are unfounded?
This is a very important issue. The Green Paper will look at it, but outside that, if we are really serious about closing the disability employment gap, we have to look at job creation and create opportunities for everyone, including those who may have particular needs, to do meaningful activity, to work and to have flexibility. Therefore, we are looking at those things.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing up that individual case. Obviously, if he wants to send details, I will look at them. Clearly, each case has to be assessed on its merits, so I cannot give any blanket commitments at the Dispatch Box, but I will certainly look at the individual case.
Does my hon. Friend agree that with more powers over health and social care being devolved to local government, it makes sense to at least consider transferring the administration and responsibility for attendance allowance to them too?
Ministers have absolutely not abandoned the idea of the northern powerhouse, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows, but we are also equally determined that the benefits of the high employment, low unemployment regime we have established over recent years are spread to all regions of the country, including her own. We will continue the very successful work that we have done in that field over the past six years during the course of this Parliament.
I know the Minister is passionate about sports opportunities for disabled people, especially with today’s homecoming parade for our Paralympian champions. However, Mencap today highlighted that only nine out of 252 Paralympic events are open to those with a learning disability. Will the Minister meet Mencap urgently to look at how this can be addressed?
Youth unemployment in Wolverhampton remains stubbornly high despite recent progress. City of Wolverhampton Council is running an excellent project to help young people back into work, which is part-funded by the European Union. The Secretary of State and I campaigned to remain in the EU. Can he guarantee that such projects will be funded by the Government once we leave?
As the hon. Lady knows, a statement has been made about the European social fund and what happens to projects at different stages. I commend what is happening in her constituency and welcome the fact that in Wolverhampton North East youth unemployment has fallen by 54% since 2010.
I do not know whether it is just in my area, but at every weekly surgery I will have one person who has been refused PIP who is clearly entitled to it. I had a lady this week with multiple sclerosis; she is clearly entitled to it and will get it when she goes to the independent tribunal, but why do such people have to wait until then? Surely this can be corrected at an earlier stage.
We now have mandatory reconsideration, but I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration. The key to this is to ensure that we get the decision right in the first instance. We are looking very closely at those cases that have gone to appeal and been overturned to see why the right decision was not taken earlier in the process. I have mentioned some of the things we are going to do and the Green Paper will have more, but I absolutely hear my hon. Friend.
Dozens of Women Against State Pension Inequality petitions with thousands of signatures have been presented already across the UK, with more on the Order Paper today and tomorrow. The Secretary of State needs to accept that these women are not going anywhere and a solution is needed. Does the Minister agree that if there is no money for pensions, there is no money for weapons of mass destruction?
The Government have already made a concession to the WASPI women. The state pension is very much part of public expenditure and always will be, and it is absolutely not the case that defence expenditure and that on the state pension can be compared.
The most recent Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs figures show that my constituency now has the highest level of child poverty in the country, and we know that two thirds of children living in poverty live in working households. For my constituents this is not a country that works for everyone. Will the Secretary of State now agree that he must come to this House and reverse the cuts to universal credit so that my constituents and others are supported, rather than penalised for this Government’s choices?
I hope the hon. Lady will recognise that the figures I have quoted on a number of occasions show that child poverty and the number of children living in workless households has fallen. Clearly, there will be different percentages in different constituencies around the country, but we will continue on a path that gets more people into work and means that fewer children are in workless households, so that the prosperity can be spread across all parts of this country.
The Minister will be aware that independent research commissioned by the Scottish National party has found that the Government’s figures on a solution for the WASPI women were wrong. Instead of £30 billion, mitigation could cost much less, at £8 billion. Given that there is a surplus in the national insurance fund, why does he not do the right thing and ensure that those women get mitigation?
Since September, the Scottish Government have had the power to pay benefits in many new areas; they can create new benefits and top up reserved benefits. The days when this Chamber was just a relaxing place where SNP Members could come to whinge are over. They now control a Government who have the power to do something about this and put their money where their mouth is.