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Topical Questions

Volume 617: debated on Monday 21 November 2016

Since my appointment as Secretary of State, I have been determined to look at the benefits processes to ensure that they are working in a fair and proper way. As part of that ongoing work, I have announced an extension to the groups that can access hardship payments immediately following a sanction. Those groups now include people with a mental health condition and homeless people. This change will help to ensure that sanctions do not discourage those vulnerable groups from engaging fully with the welfare system, and that we have a system that is fair, that protects the most vulnerable and that supports people into work.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said to the House. The new figures from the Office for National Statistics show an increase of 590,000 disabled people in employment over the past three years, and I am particularly pleased that the employment rates for disabled people in my local authority areas of Hart and of Basingstoke and Deane are 16.3% and 14% above the national average. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming those figures? Can he also assure me that this Government will commit to building on this success by continuing to reduce the disability employment gap?

I am delighted to hear about the figures in my hon. Friend’s area, which reflect the national move that has narrowed the disability employment gap by 2.3% over the past year. There is an enormous amount still to do, which is why we produced the joint Green Paper with the Department of Health. It is a central task for this Department over the next three years, and we will pursue it with as much vigour as we can.

T5. New PIP criteria have meant a reduction in the unaided walking criterion to qualify for the Motability scheme from 50 metres to 20 metres. Three of my constituents originally failed under the new criteria and were threatened with the removal of their car if they could not pay for it themselves. Like 60% of appellants, they won on appeal. Will the Minister consider maintaining Motability payments during the appeal process and, more importantly, reinstating the 50-metres criterion? (907360)

That particular criterion, of which I am very aware, is obviously not the sole criterion—many other factors are taken into account. I wish to do more on Motability, and we are looking closely at the whole area.

T2. I continue to work with small businesses across my constituency while auto-enrolment is rolled out. I was heartened by last week’s Institute for Fiscal Studies report, which showed that that 22 to 29-year-olds in particular have seen a massive boost in pension coverage. What are the Government doing to ensure that everyone in my constituency and across the United Kingdom has the opportunity of saving for a good-quality workplace pension? (907357)

I can reiterate the fact that plans to expand auto-enrolment are happening, and hundreds of thousands of people are signing up, which is a significant improvement. As for the self-employed and other people who are not in the scheme, that is just the sort of thing that we should be looking at in our 2017 review of automatic enrolment.

T6. Given that the Department promised to increase the number of people supported by the Access to Work programme, will the Minister tell us why fewer people are now in receipt of Access to Work than in the last year of the previous Labour Government? (907361)

I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with the figures, but I do not recognise what he says. We have actually expanded such schemes, and the Green Paper asks what more we can do. We want to ensure that everyone who wants to get into work has the necessary equipment and support to do so.

T4. These days, many more people seem to be working until they are much older, and few things are more depressing than such people retiring after having worked and put into their private pensions and then getting hammered with taxation until they drop. Is the Department in discussions with the Chancellor about imaginative ways of rewarding people who have worked all their lives and have just done the right thing? (907359)

I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend does not work until he drops, but I take his main point that people are retiring later. As part of the policy of continually reducing taxation on people, I am sure that the Treasury will be looking at the matter in future. With pension freedoms and the tax-free element that pensioners enjoy, the good news is that there is much more scope for pensioners to do the kind of thing he mentions.

The IFS’s projections are for the IFS to explain, but I can give the hon. Gentleman the facts: the proportion of people living in relative poverty is near its lowest level for more than 30 years; and, since 2010, 300,000 fewer people, 100,000 fewer working-age adults, and 100,000 fewer children are in poverty. The whole House should welcome those figures.

T7. What are the Government doing to ensure that there is a whole-system approach to viewing work as a health outcome? (907362)

I point my hon. Friend towards the joint Department of Health and DWP Green Paper that we have just published. It represents a key opportunity. If we want to, it is early enough in this Parliament to reform things such as the work capability assessment to ensure that support—whether from our services or from healthcare—gets to the people who need it.

By Wednesday’s autumn statement, it will be 505 days since the Government first announced the two-child policy and the rape clause in the summer Budget 2015. The Resolution Foundation estimates that that policy will put 200,000 children into poverty by 2020. The Government still cannot tell us how it will actually work, and there is a measly 38-day consultation in which the public can respond. When will the Government finally admit that the rape clause and the two-child policy are completely unworkable and scrap the policy?

Difficult decisions had to be made in welfare reform, and the vast majority of families with children have two children or fewer. This is one decision that had to be made, and it applies only to new cases and will not take money away from those already in receipt of help. On the exemptions that the hon. Lady mentions, these are some of the most difficult and sensitive topics. It is right that we have a full consultation and that we work closely with experts within the sector to ensure that we get the process exactly right.

T9. I was very pleased to hear last week from the Minister for Disabled People that she really understands the extra cost that people face in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group. She talked a lot about liquidity. She gave a reassurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) that the people who would no longer receive the extra ESA WRAG benefit would be compensated financially in other ways. Will she clarify that? (907364)

Yes, I would be very happy to give those reassurances. In addition to discretionary payments that can be made through the work coach with the flexible support fund—[Interruption.] Yes, it has always been the case. Those payments are in relation to the costs that people incur from getting into work. As for those other costs that are not directly related to getting into work, we are looking at how we can reduce those outgoings, and there are a number of other national and locally administered schemes that would mitigate those costs. I am very clear that we have to do both things. We have to ensure that someone can endure and cope with the situation in which they find themselves, but we must also bring forward that support in April to enable them to get out of a situation.

With around £4 billion of child support debts still outstanding and DWP’s own figures to March this year showing that 90,000 non-resident parents have not paid child support in full, will the Secretary of State tell the House where extra resources can be found to ensure that those parents who are due child maintenance for the care of their children receive it in full and on time?

We encourage paying parents to pay their maintenance on time and in full and to avoid the accrual of arrears. However, if a paying parent fails to pay on time, we aim to take immediate action to recover the debt and re-establish compliance. We have a range of strong enforcement powers, including seizing property and commitment to prison. We attempt to re-establish compliance initially through a one-off card payment, or negotiated agreement, deduction from the paying parent’s earnings, or deduction directly from an individual’s bank account. We are currently in the process of responding to a consultation run earlier this year on using powers to deduct from joint bank accounts.

T10. Will the Minister allow alternative payment arrangements for universal credit claimants with complex needs to begin right at the start of their tenancies, and will the Government take steps to ensure that such arrangements are delivered swiftly? (907365)

The DWP has long recognised the challenges that some claimants, particularly those with multiple or complex needs, may face in the transition to universal credit. That is why we have developed the personal budgeting strategy to ensure that claimants have access to suitable financial products and money advice. For the small minority who need them, alternative payment arrangements can be set up. All APA cases are dealt with urgently and the majority of cases are processed within the first assessment period and within a five-day average clearance time.

It was a long overdue victory for common sense that those people with chronic illnesses and long-term conditions will no longer be subject to the work capability assessment, but what about our brave veterans in receipt of war pensions? Why are they still subject to work capability assessments?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is one that I, as a former Armed Forces Minister, have discussed with the Department. That is why we have specific questions related to our armed forces in the Green Paper. It is a good idea.

The most challenging gap that we need to bridge in the disability employment statistics is the one relating to people with learning difficulties. In answer to a written question, the civil service was unable to break down the stats to show how many people with learning disabilities were employed. Does the Minister agree that those stats are vital to help us to provide policies and support for people in these circumstances?

I agree absolutely, which is why we are doing that at as local a level as possible. On 5 December we are holding a drop-in session to which every Member of this House will be invited. As well as giving them information about how they can run local events to encourage participation in the Green Paper consultation, we will be giving them some local data so that they can get that local focus on the people we are currently trying to help and the unmet need.

Why does the Secretary of State think that five of his colleagues voted for my motion last week calling on the Government to pause cuts to ESA and universal credit?

Hon. Members are entitled to vote in this House as they like. I am not sure that the Chief Whip would agree with me at all times, but it is a fact. I disagreed with the case that the hon. Gentleman made in that debate. As has been explored over the past hour in this Question Time, a balance clearly has to be struck between keeping the public finances in order and ensuring that our benefits system works as well as possible to help as many people as possible into work. That is what we have been doing successfully for many years now, and that is what we will continue to do.

Universal credit was rolled out in Waveney on 25 May. I am sorry to report that at present it is not going well and many vulnerable people are finding themselves in difficult situations. Can the Secretary of State assure me and my constituents that everything is being done to address these technical issues as soon as possible so that universal credit can play the role for which it was intended?

I am always happy to talk about any technical issues that arise as we roll out this important benefit, and if my hon. Friend wishes to bring them to my attention in detail, I will happily talk to him about them.

Should not those people who were damaged in the contaminated blood scandal by the NHS be passported on to the new PIP regime if they are already in receipt of DLA?

I do not know whether this is an issue that the hon. Lady has raised before. I am sorry if I am not aware of the previous correspondence that she has had with the Department. I would be happy to meet her to discuss that.

PIP continues to lead the way in identifying and supporting those with mental health conditions to a significantly greater degree than DLA, so what more can be done to signpost the people identified to additional support provided by the NHS, charities or the Government pilot?

We have been trialling a number of measures—for example, the mental health trailblazers, which combines employment support advice with psychological support delivered through the NHS, and we are going to roll that out nationally.

Does the Secretary of State understand that the dismissive answers that the Under-Secretary of State for Pensions, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), gave about the problems faced by WASPI women are a slap in the face to women who have worked all their lives and in many cases have retired to look after sick or elderly relatives, thus saving this country millions of pounds? It is time that Ministers recognised that those who have done the right thing ought to be looked at and their situation alleviated.

Since the original legislation was passed more than 20 years ago, and since the Pensions Act 2011, the Government committed £1.1 billion to lessen the impact of the changes for those affected. In the end, we have to address the issue that having the same pension age for men and women is fair, and that at a time when we are all living longer it is necessary, if we are to keep a credible pensions system going, for the pension age to go up gradually for both sexes. [Interruption.] I am sorry that many people in the Labour party do not seem to accept those basic facts of arithmetic, but they are basis facts and the mitigations that were put in place mean that no one has seen their pension age change by more than 18 months compared to the previous timetable—[Interruption.] For 81% of those women the increase will be no more than 12 months. Finally, for the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) who is shouting from the Front Bench, other countries have done this faster than the UK. In nine European Union countries, including Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, all of which run extremely sophisticated welfare systems, the state pension age was 65 for women as far back as 2009, so the Labour party will have to accept these basic facts.

I was hoping there would be time for the remaining two questioners. There is not, but it will have to be found anyway.

On Saturday evening, I met one of my constituents, who came to see me about PIP reassessments for those with deafness-related conditions. The question he wanted me to put to Ministers was whether, as part of the ongoing review of the reassessment process, they will look carefully at the situation relating to this group of individuals.

Yes, the Green Paper will afford us the opportunity to do that. Around certain disabilities, there are some very sensitive issues about how someone might need assistance provided—for example, they might prefer to use sign language, as opposed to assistive technology—which we also need to take into account, and we will do that.

I was recently contacted by a constituent who was asked to complete an evaluation form at the end of a PIP assessment and who alleges that the Atos healthcare professional who conducted the assessment stood over her and watched as she completed the paperwork. I am sure the Minister will share my alarm that people may feel menaced into giving favourable feedback. Will she agree to personally look into this as a matter of urgency?

If the hon. Lady can give me any more specifics about that, I would be very happy to look into it. In terms of the satisfaction reviews that are done, the satisfaction rating is high, and I do not think—[Interruption.] No, we need to give credit where credit is due. But if that kind of practice is going on, or if any Member of this House has evidence or further examples of it, I will be very happy to look into it.