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Topical Questions

Volume 615: debated on Monday 17 October 2016

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.

T3. Will my hon. Friend join me in celebrating the extremely low rate of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in my constituency, which is currently half the rate in the north-east region as a whole? It is due to drop even further with the imminent arrival of a new Premier Inn hotel in Berwick, which will go some way towards countering the otherwise largely seasonal nature of tourism employment locally. (906604)

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.

T5. Given that only 15% of people with autism are in full-time employment, I was pleased earlier this year to join the Department’s Paul Maynard taskforce, which made 14 recommendations for improving access to apprenticeships for people with learning disabilities, including autism. What progress has been made with the implementation of those recommendations? (906606)

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.

T8. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the news that there are now more women in work, including in my constituency, than ever before. Furthermore, does he agree that this Government’s childcare offer, which ensures that universal credit covers 85% of childcare costs for claimants, is critical in helping families and in helping mothers back into work? (906609)

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.

T6. Last week, my constituent, Mrs Roberts, told me that, during the course of migrating her disability living allowance claim to the personal independence payment, she was asked to read out her bank details over the phone. That presented a problem to her because she is blind. For other Government services, she is able to use an adapted computer. Will the Secretary of State agree to review urgently that element of the PIP process so that reasonable adjustments can be made for all those with visual impairments? (906607)

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.

T7. Given the complaints about the conduct of assessors during the PIP assessment process, a failing in the absence of a recording and recordings made on mobile phones, tablets and computers not being accepted, what action is the Minister taking to ensure that recordings are taken as a matter of course and that claimants are not required to provide their own specialist equipment? (906608)

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.

T9. Given that delays in assessment have left my constituents waiting—in the case of Sandra Maley, more than two years—for their employment and support allowance payments, will the Secretary of State make a commitment to backdate payments to the point of application, so that my constituents suffering real hardship get the financial support to which they are entitled? (906610)

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?

This was part of the consultation on business rate retention and is being considered at the moment.

T10. As the Secretary of State will know, the north-east still has the highest unemployment rate in the UK, with far too many people desperate to find secure work. Is this what the Government mean by a northern powerhouse, or have Ministers abandoned the idea altogether? (906611)

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?

It is absolutely vital that we ensure that, whether in school or later in life, people with disabilities can participate in sporting activities. That is good not just for physical health, but for mental wellbeing. I would be very happy to meet Mencap.

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.