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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
09 January 2017
Volume 619

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

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I call Mr Gerald Jones. Where is the feller? He is not here.

Self-employment

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2. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of self-employment. [908056]

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The Government support those who aspire to be their own boss. The number of self-employed people in the UK labour market has increased by nearly 800,000 since 2010 and by 129,000 in the last year alone. We continue to monitor and review the impact of self-employment on the wider labour market and benefits system.

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A Citizens Advice report in August 2015 said that there were as many as 460,000 people in bogus self-employment, with a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds in lost revenue. Is it not about time that the Secretary of State, rather than hounding disabled people, started tackling exploitative companies, many of which have lucrative public sector contracts, that are forcing people down the self-employment route?

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The hon. Gentleman is right that there should be no exploitation of workers, particularly through forced self-employment, but he will have noticed that the Government are on the case, having set up the Matthew Taylor review specifically to explore alternative employment structures and to consider how employment rules need to be altered to keep pace with changes in how people work in the modern economy. If, however, he is characterising the growth of self-employment as harmful to the jobs market, I would disagree. The new enterprise allowance is proving very successful at making sure that people who want to can work for themselves. I am sure that he, like me, welcomes the fact that in his own constituency self-employment is up by 7% since 2015, and that the claimant count in the last year has fallen by 12%.

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Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that rather than denigrating people who become self-employed, we ought to be celebrating the fact that they are prepared to take a risk that many others are not? Will he make it as easy as possible for them to take on new employees and become employers themselves?

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I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I have already mentioned the new enterprise allowance, which is designed specifically to help people to stop claiming benefits, set up their own businesses, and then carry on and employ others in a way that I hope everyone on both sides of the House would welcome. This scheme is proving extremely successful. A survey published last year showed that 80% of businesses that started with the new enterprise allowance were still trading, which makes it more than twice as effective as the old jobseeker’s allowance in terms of keeping people off benefits, so it is doing good work.

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Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that there is much closer co-operation between the single fraud investigation service and local authorities on the prosecution of abuse, including on self-employment status, so that councils can be confident that when they report possible scams, including by employers, they are properly followed up?

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I am happy to pass on the right hon. Lady’s message to the relevant bodies—councils and the fraud investigation service. Of course, while self-employment is a good thing, fraud involving any kind of employment is wrong, so clearly we must get ever more effective at combatting it.

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I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that online opportunities are giving many people the chance to set up a microbusiness. Does he agree that schemes such as the pop-up shop initiative that Torbay Council ran to help internet micro-retailers to take their first step on to the high street are the kind of thing we should be looking at in terms of self-employment, rather than some of the negative impressions we hear from the Opposition?

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I very much agree, and I particularly welcome Torbay’s pop-up shop experiment. I had such a scheme in my constituency a couple of years ago, and it did indeed prove successful in allowing microbusinesses to start and to develop into larger businesses, thereby creating more employment and wealth, so I am delighted to hear what is happening in Torbay.

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Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

Many self-employed people do not earn a great deal of money and will be losing out from cuts to tax credits and the introduction of universal credit. Should not the Government be supporting those who become self-employed?

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I am sorry, Mr Speaker, that I have not yet wished you happy new year publicly—I have done so only privately—as clearly that is becoming a compulsory part of this question session. I now wish you happy new year publicly.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of self-employed earners and universal credit. Universal credit reduces poverty by making work pay. It supports claimants to enter work, and then to be able to keep some of their benefits while they are at work if they are not receiving or earning very much money. Universal credit actually does the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman says—it helps people who are getting into work for the first time.

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But is not the biggest trend in self-employment the massive increase in women who are self-employed, with 70% of those newly self-employed in 2014 being women? Yet self-employment is the area where the wage gap is biggest. According to the OECD, self-employed men earn an average of £17,000 a year, but average earnings for self-employed women stand at £9,800. We know from the Department’s figures that women are less likely to access loans and so forth for self-employment. What is the Secretary of State doing to deal with gender inequality in self-employment?

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I agree with right hon. Lady that gender inequality and pay generally are issues that we need to do more about, and self-employment is one part of that. That is why we have introduced measures such as the new enterprise allowance—

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Only men take it up.

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The right hon. Lady says that only men take it up, but that is patently not true.

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It is disproportionately men.

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If the right hon. Lady is saying that it is disproportionately men who take the allowance up, I would urge more potential women entrepreneurs to take it up. We are improving the new enterprise allowance later this year to make sure that the mentoring and advice goes on for longer so that more people—men and women—will be able to benefit from the freedom of being able to start, set up and run their own business, which millions of people want to do.

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A happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to everyone.

Resolution Foundation data show that self-employment accounts for 81% of the net change in employment since 2008. The Government’s plans to abolish class 2 national insurance contributions could leave low-income, self-employed women paying five times as much to access maternity allowance. Given that nearly 2 million self-employed workers earn less than the national living wage, why have the Government decided to make social security support harder to access for so many of Britain’s entrepreneurs?

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They have not. Let me update the hon. Lady’s figures, which I know she has quoted before. Since 2010, 29% of the increase has been in self-employment, and in the last 12 months—

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Since 2008.

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I know about 2008; I am giving more up-to-date figures, as I said.

Over the past year, 38% of the increase in employment has been in self-employment, so the figures are not as the hon. Lady suggests. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), the whole point of universal credit is that people, whether it be through self-employment or employment, are able to keep their income. We have reduced the taper so that less of their income is lost when they go up the earnings scale and get into work. I am afraid that the hon. Lady simply misunderstands what is happening in the welfare system.

Disabled and Terminally Ill Children

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3. What welfare support the Government are providing for disabled and terminally ill children. [908057]

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This year we are due to spend nearly £1.9 billion on supporting ill and disabled children through disability living allowance. We have special rules in place to grant immediate access to the benefit for those who are terminally ill.

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May I also wish you a happy new year, Mr Speaker?

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. The DWP family resources survey that was published last year showed that there were nearly 1 million disabled children—a 20% increase over the past 10 years. Will she outline what measures the Government are implementing to take account of that increase so that these children can access the support and the specialist equipment that they require?

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Local authorities and clinical commissioning groups have a requirement to meet the needs of children with a special educational need or disability, including by providing specialist equipment. In the past few months, my Department has set up a children and young person’s forum so that we can better understand the unmet need that is out there. My hon. Friend will know from the work that I have done with one of the organisations with which she is involved that we are looking to support charities, social enterprises and businesses that are providing these much-needed services.

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Many of us who liked some of the elements of the big society when we first heard about it now quite like some of the utterances about the shared society. However, if the programme is to work for children, and not just for those who are terminally ill but people with disabilities—some disabilities are abilities; I am thinking here of autism—it must have teeth, leadership and resources.

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Absolutely. The measures announced by the Prime Minister today will be accompanied by additional funding, and every age range in society will be taken into account. There will, for instance, be measures to help children and young people—I have just described what my Department is doing to ensure that their needs are considered—as well as new provision for those in the workplace.

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Some children with disabilities receive disabled students allowances. Given that a number of them are not eligible for personal independence payments or disability living allowance, why are the Government cutting DSA?

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We are very conscious of the needs of children and young people in particular, which is why we have set up an additional forum. Obviously we are concerned about people in the workplace, but if we get this right for children and young people, including students, we will avoid problems for future ministerial teams. I shall be happy to look into any particular case that the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise.

Health Outcomes: Work

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4. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on ensuring that GPs and other healthcare professionals take account of the value of work as a successful health outcome; and if he will make a statement. [908058]

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20. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on ensuring that GPs and other healthcare professionals take account of the value of work as a successful health outcome; and if he will make a statement. [908075]

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Can you issue a papal bull, Mr Speaker, stating that we do not have to say happy new year—but happy new year anyway?

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That is very welcome. We do not need to take up unnecessary time, but I appreciate the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.

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I shall not say happy new year again, Mr Speaker.

Evidence shows that being in the right work is good for health, and that being out of work can have a detrimental effect on health. That was why I launched the “Work, health and disability” Green Paper jointly with the Secretary of State for Health. The Green Paper expresses our intention of working with healthcare professionals to help people into employment, and our current consultations ask how we can best achieve that goal.

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Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, has rightly spoken about the burden of work on GPs. Notwithstanding that, what analysis has my right hon. Friend carried out of the effectiveness of fit notes in getting people back to work?

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I am keen to improve their effectiveness in that regard, and I also take my hon. Friend’s point about the pressure on GPs. In the consultation document we consider the possibility of extending the issuing of fit notes to other healthcare professionals, and I shall be interested to see what response we receive, not just from those who receive the fit notes but from the professionals involved.

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I strongly support my right hon. Friend in respect of this specific policy. Does he agree, however, that as the consultants—as it were—to whom patients are referred will be work coaches, it is critical that those people receive training that will enable them to deal with the hardest cases among those who are unemployed, particularly those with pressing mental health problems?

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I agree with my hon. Friend and am grateful for his support. I am happy to reassure him that all work coaches will complete specific training for their role, including a course that combines the knowledge, skills and behaviour that they will need to deal with the people with whom they work, particularly those with mental health conditions. Obviously, work coaches will need specific skills to handle the many issues that will arise from such conditions.

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22. The benefits of an autistic constituent of mine were taken away by a DWP caseworker after my constituent told that person that he enjoyed his hobby of being a disc jockey. He received a bill showing a fictional figure, invented by the DWP, representing the amount of income that the Department needed to recover. A work coach should be assisting individuals, not penalising them, so will the Secretary of State please do better? [908077]

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Obviously I do not know the details of the individual case, but if the hon. Gentleman writes to me or the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, we will look at it. I can assure him, however, that in the vast majority of cases, work coaches do their best and work very hard to help people to make the most of their lives, and to get into employment. That is at the heart of what we do.

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After the big cut in employment and support allowance takes place in April and the new Work and Health programme is established, will the Department be spending more or less on employment support for ESA claimants than is currently the case under the Work programme and Work Choice?

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I am happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman that as part of the changes there is an extra £330 million support programme for those in that group. We will target support more effectively to ensure that as many of them as possible can get back into work.

Ex-offenders

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5. What steps he is taking to help ex-offenders into work. [908059]

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There is a huge premium on helping ex-offenders into work for them, their families and their children’s life chances, and for reducing costs to society. Jobcentre Plus now has a dedicated resource of 150 prison work coaches who are helping to support prisoners nationwide.

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I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He will know from his own experience, and from the excellent report on supporting offenders by the Work and Pensions Committee, which my own Select Committee would endorse, that getting a job is one of the best means of preventing reoffending. As well as the work that is being done, will he consider what can be done jointly with the Ministry of Justice to ensure there is better collaboration between job centres and community rehabilitation companies so that they are joined up, given that people currently risk the cliff edge to which the report refers?

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We work closely with the Ministry of Justice on numerous joint initiatives locally and nationally, and we are supporting the development of the MOJ’s new offender employment strategy, but I recognise that we need to improve opportunities for ex-offenders, so I welcome the continued attention of my hon. Friend and his Committee, as well as the Work and Pensions Committee report, to which we will respond in due course.

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Her Majesty’s inspectorates of prisons and probation found that not a single prisoner had been helped into employment by the Through the Gate provision, which is the Government’s flagship programme for achieving a step change in rehabilitation. Did that surprise the Minister, and what is his response?

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First of all, my response is that this has been a challenge for successive Governments for many years. We do need to do better, but there is good work going on. Ultimately, to improve the situation, we need more prisoners to be work-ready, and we need more employers to be willing to take the plunge and take on a prisoner. Having governors controlling skills provision in prisons will have a beneficial effect on work-readiness, but we all need to encourage more employers to step forward. Initiatives such as the See Potential programme can play an important part in that, as can Ban the Box and the Employers’ Forum for Reducing Re-offending, but of course we need to do more.

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The Minister will be aware that people on the autistic spectrum are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and that people with autism have great difficulty in finding jobs. Can he reassure me that when he looks at the consultation on the health and disability Green Paper, he will look specifically at people with autism and ex-offenders with autism, as only 16% of people with autism are currently in employment?

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My right hon. Friend highlights an important point. I know my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work will be looking very closely at the issue of people with autism. This also highlights that one of the key determinants for post-release employment is what happened with the individual before they were convicted, and it highlights again the importance of making sure nobody is left behind. In our work, we pay particular attention to all these groups who face particularly difficult barriers in getting into work.

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Our Work and Pensions Committee report found that reoffending costs £15 billion to the public purse, yet fewer than one in four ex-offenders goes on to find work. Alarmingly, Westminster Council’s report on rough sleeping that was published before Christmas found that one in three of its rough sleepers had come directly from prison. Why is the Department unable to provide proper transitional support for people leaving prison to make sure that they are not on the streets and that they are assisted into employment?

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It is vital that ex-offenders and people on release from prison have help with finances, employment and housing. Among the things we have done to help on housing is to ensure that there are no waiting days in relation to universal credit and to keep the housing element in universal credit open for 26 weeks rather than 13 for certain types of prisoner in order to ensure that we can enhance their support.

Pension Investments

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6. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that people have the information they need to make informed decisions about how they use their pension investments. [908060]

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Mr Speaker, were I allowed to wish you a happy new year, you can be assured that I would do so.

Pension Wise provides guidance to people aged 50 and over with a defined contribution pension pot on their options under the pension flexibilities. We are consulting on a single financial guidance body to provide debt advice and guidance on money and pensions.

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In thanking the Minister for his reply, I cannot resist wishing him, and indeed the whole House, a happy new year. Can he tell me what information the Government are providing to let people know about their entitlement to the state pension?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his salutations and for his question. The Department for Work and Pensions continues to run a multi-channel communication campaign that includes radio, press and social media to raise awareness of the new state pension. As well as directing people to information on gov.uk and working with stakeholders to deliver key information, our priority has been to provide personalised information to individuals so that they know how much state pension they are likely to get, and from when. Since February 2016, the online Check your State Pension service has had more than 2.1 million views.

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The Minister’s warm words will do nothing to reassure the women in my constituency for whom the Government’s advice on pensions has a terrible reputation because of the injustices highlighted by the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign. The one thing the Government could do to persuade the public to believe their pronouncements on pension entitlements would be to give justice to the WASPI women by looking again at the 2011 changes.

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The hon. Lady will be aware, because the WASPI women have been discussed in the House and I have discussed this matter personally with her on many occasions, that the changes affecting them were in the Pensions Act 1995, and that a lot of time and resources were devoted to informing them of the situation, including millions of letters being sent out from 2011.

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A happy new year to you and everyone in the House, Mr Speaker, and particularly to the WASPI women. I hope that they have a better year this year.

The leaflet entitled “Ways to save in 2017” recently published by the Treasury mentioned the junior ISA, the help to buy ISA, premium bonds, cash and stocks and shares ISAs and the new lifetime ISA, but it completely omitted to mention pensions. That is an absolute disgrace, and it confirms my fears that the Government have downgraded the role of pensions and are using the gimmick of ISAs to distract attention from pensionable savings. Does the Minister agree that pensionable saving is the best form of saving for retirement? Will he establish a pensions and savings commission to ensure that dignity in retirement is promoted and protected?

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I must totally disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the importance that the Government place on pensions. A lot of effort goes into communicating with people, on television and elsewhere, about auto-enrolment. The auto-enrolment of so many people has been one of the great successes of this Government and of the coalition, and I hope that that continues.

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I know that the Minister agrees with me on the need for greater transparency in the pensions world, particularly around costs. He will therefore be keen to address the widespread criticism of the Government’s failing to act to ensure that people get the best possible returns. The Financial Conduct Authority’s interim report in November highlighted a number of failures in the asset management industry relating to the transparency of costs and charges applied to pension investments, stating that “weak price competition” was having a “material impact” on investment returns. Labour is committed to implementing all the FCA’s recommendations. Are the Government?

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Children in Relative Poverty

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7. What recent estimate his Department has made of the number of children living in relative poverty in the UK. [908061]

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There are 100,000 fewer children in relative poverty than in 2010 and 557,000 fewer children living in workless households. The forthcoming Green Paper on social justice will identify and address the root causes of poverty, building on the two statutory indicators set out in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016—namely, worklessness and educational attainment.

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I note that the Minister uses the figures for relative poverty, and I am a little surprised. We know that absolute poverty in this country has been in decline for the past 10 years, except among children. We know that 500,000 more children in this country are living in absolute poverty than was the case in 2010. What responsibility does he think this Government and the previous Government have for that?

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The Government have a responsibility to make sure that as many households as possible have work, particularly households with children. Working-age adults in non-working families are almost four times more likely to be living on a low income. The “Child Poverty Transitions” report of June 2015 found that 74% of poor children in workless families who moved into full employment exited poverty. That is what we can do, and are doing, for children who have been in poverty.

The hon. Lady neglected to say it, but there are now 500,000 fewer people living in absolute poverty than in 2010. The key point is about getting people into work. As a reasonable Opposition Member, I hope she would acknowledge that achieving historically low levels of unemployment is actually the best thing we can do for children—it is the best way to get children and the households they live in out of poverty. I am happy to tell her that, in her constituency, the claimant count is down by 47% since 2010 and the youth claimant count has fallen by 2% in the past year.

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All of us in the Chamber can learn about the merits of brevity from the right hon. Member for New Forest West, who will not disappoint me.

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However the problem presents in my surgeries, scratch the surface and, nine times out of 10, the swiftest cause of poverty is family breakdown, which will be a much harder nut to crack.

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Absolutely. That is precisely why this Government, and previously the coalition Government, have decided that having a simple income-based measure and target is not the right way. We need to look at the root causes of child poverty, and having a range of indicators and targets—one of which is on family breakdown—is the best way to make sure that we have as few children as possible living in poverty and that more and more children are able to emerge from it.

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A good new year to you, Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State has focused so far on the value of work in tackling child poverty, but the reality is that the average working family in receipt of universal credit will be more than £1,000 a year worse off by 2020. According to the Resolution Foundation, some working parents will be more than £2,500 a year worse off. With child poverty projected to rise dramatically over the next three years, why do the Government continue to downplay the role of income poverty in determining children’s future health, job prospects and even life expectancy, in spite of all the evidence?

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I am not downplaying the role. I am talking about the underlying causes and about making sure that we take a range of measures across the board that help to eradicate child poverty. That is the only sensible way to do it. Simply focusing on individual incomes or, indeed, individual benefits does not represent the whole realistic picture. We need to be much more wide-ranging in our approach.

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The Prime Minister has been talking over the weekend about the pressures faced by people who are just getting by on low and average incomes and about our shared responsibilities to them. Those are fine sentiments, but does the Secretary of State not accept that they sound utterly hollow when the Government’s planned cuts to work allowances will slash the incomes of exactly those families who are just getting by? Does he accept that the Government have a responsibility to support parents who are working hard in average and low-paid jobs, rather than cutting their already stretched, precarious incomes?

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No. Indeed, I would point out to the hon. Lady that this Government’s introduction of the national living wage last year gave the lowest earners their biggest pay rise in 20 years—an increase of 6%. That is an example of a Government measure introduced by employers. I cannot think of a better early example of the shared society.

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What assessment have the Government made of how many more children will be pushed into poverty given the cuts to the work allowance under universal credit?

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As I have said to a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House, the solution lies in a wider range of issues, and that is what we are introducing. We have the social justice Green Paper, about which I am sure we will have many discussions in this House and elsewhere. The root is making sure that as many people as possible can earn a salary and work. I am sure that the hon. Lady, like me, will welcome the fact that unemployment has come down by 53% in her constituency since 2010. That means thousands of families who are able to work and control their own lives, possibly working their way out of poverty. She ought to welcome that.

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It is a poor Government who fail to understand the value of the nation’s children. In addition to the universal credit work allowance cuts, this Government have abolished the child poverty unit and frozen social security payments, and are removing tax credits from third and subsequent children. Does the Minister think child poverty will go up or down as a result of those measures?

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I have already given the hon. Lady a number of figures relating both to adult poverty and child poverty—

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Up or down?

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Well, the fact is that since 2010 there are 100,000 fewer children in relative poverty. I would hope that the hon. Lady would welcome that and the fact that the child poverty unit is now covering a much wider range of policies and is based inside the Department for Work and Pensions.

Self-employment

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8. What steps the Government are taking to support self-employed people. [908062]

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14. What steps the Government are taking to support self-employed people. [908069]

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21. What steps the Government are taking to support self-employed people. [908076]

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This Government are committed to supporting new enterprises. We are building on the success of the new enterprise allowance, which has already supported 96,000 claimants to start a new business. From this year, eligibility for NEA support will be extended to include universal credit claimants who are already self-employed.

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Will my right hon. Friend look again at the regulations requiring small businesses and the self-employed to use online systems for their tax affairs? Does he recognise that these people often do not have the equipment, knowledge or broadband capacity to download the complex forms, and that the process often costs time and money?

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I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that tax affairs are not my direct responsibility, but the Treasury will have heard what he had to say. What I can say is that Jobcentre Plus is always keen to help small businesses with individual problems they may have, such as with the use of online forms, and I hope that businesses in his constituency would find the jobcentre a helpful place to consult.

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In Cornwall, unemployment has continued to fall year on year to record low levels, and the county now has 61,000 self-employed people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that only under a Conservative Government can we continue to increase employment in Cornwall and further improve the creation of small businesses in those communities?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I know that in his constituency self-employment has increased by 7.6% since 2010. As I said in answer to previous questions, the UK labour market is in its strongest position for years. Clearly, the best way to promote new growth in jobs is to promote growth in small businesses, and I am delighted to hear it is going so well in Cornwall.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that universal credit can help the self-employed, along with the other forms of benefit the Government are putting forward for them, because it can help people who are working as well as trying to set up on their own?

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One difference between universal credit and the previous benefits it is replacing is that people can and do continue to receive it when they are still in work. It is particularly good at coping with people who may have fluctuating earnings, as many self-employed people do, because it can be flexible enough to adjust to that. The introduction of universal credit is another brick of the edifice of helping people to set up their own businesses.

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What is the Secretary of State going to do about people who are classified as self-employed because of their contract of employment? They are classified as such not because they have set up their own small business, but because their employer requires them to sign a contract saying that they are self-employed, which means that they get no sick pay and no annual leave. How is he going to help them?

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I agree that that is an issue, which is precisely why we have set up the Matthew Taylor review. It is investigating precisely the new types of employment structures that have been set up in recent years and making sure that employment laws keep up with new types of employment.

National Living Wage

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9. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the increase in the national living wage announced in the autumn statement 2016 on levels of employment in the north of England. [908063]

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The number of people in employment in the north of England has increased by 112,000 over the past year. The national living wage has already given 1 million people a pay rise, helping to build an economy that works for all.

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I thank the Minister for his reply, but has he considered the implications of the national living wage coming in so quickly for small and medium-sized businesses, particularly those in the manufacturing sector? What would he say to those businesses that will not be able to adjust in time, or that simply will not be profitable because the national living wage is being introduced so quickly?

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Everybody should benefit from a strong economy, but as well as introducing the national living wage the Government have announced plans to reduce corporation tax further to 17% and to increase the employment allowance, which could be worth up to £3,000 a year.

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Is it not perverse of the Government to have reduced work allowances and universal credit at the same time as we have seen increases in the national living wage, meaning that the overall benefit to individuals in work is actually reduced?

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The Government have done a range of things. Universal credit is completely different from the legacy benefits it replaced, so it does not make sense to make a direct comparison with tax credits. We have to see it in the context of greater help with childcare and the introduction of the national living wage. Of course, the increased income tax personal allowance also means that people get to keep more of what they earn.

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When my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) introduced the national living wage, the Office for Budget Responsibility said that it would cost 60,000 jobs. Does the Minister think that that is a price worth paying, or is that another forecast from expert economists that we should ignore?

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My hon. Friend is entirely correct about the OBR’s projection at that time, but he will have noticed that that came in the context of considerably larger projected employment growth.

Mental Health

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10. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that people with mental health conditions are supported into work. [908064]

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We are investing significant resources, including increasing coverage of Talking Therapy services by 600,000 people a year by 2020. Mental health is a key feature of our Green Paper “Improving Lives”, on which we are currently consulting. I thank Members on both sides of the House who came to our drop-in event on the Green Paper and who are helping with the consultation.

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I welcome the Minister’s response and the Prime Minister’s intervention today on mental health. Does the Minister agree that in order better to support those with mental health conditions into the workplace, we need to transform the way we deliver mental health services for young people before they reach working age?

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I agree with my hon. Friend absolutely. When I ask healthcare professionals who work in Department for Work and Pensions services what the single most significant transformative healthcare intervention would be, they say mental health support services for young people. The Prime Minister’s announcement on that was very welcome.

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The “Five Year Forward View for Mental Health”, which was published a year ago, contained two specific recommendations for the Department for Work and Pensions, one of which was on employment support. Will the Minister update the House on the progress on that specific recommendation?

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There were two targets, but the Department has set out a range of initiatives. Good progress has been made on all fronts, including the development of specific mental health support for the services we run, such as Access to Work. Considerable work has been going on, as the Prime Minister referred to earlier today, but she also said that we need to pick up the pace on this issue, and I agree with her absolutely.

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The proposed closure of eight Glasgow job centres will result in increased travel times and introduce further barriers for people with mental health conditions who are seeking help to get into work. How will the Minister ensure that people with mental health conditions continue to receive the help that they need?

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My hon. Friend the Minister for Employment has met all the MPs who are concerned about those locations across Glasgow, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform has met Scottish Ministers to discuss the issue. We are aware of the concerns that Members have raised. If the hon. Lady has any subsequent comments to make, she is more than welcome to have meetings with either me or my colleagues.

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People with mental health conditions are more likely to fail the work capability assessment and more likely to be sanctioned. At the same time, we know from independent research how damaging work capability assessments and sanctions are for people’s mental health. The Prime Minister made her announcements today, but when will the Government take responsibility for the impact of their policies on mental health and ensure that timely, evidence-based support from trained mental health professionals is available for claimants with mental health conditions? Will the Secretary of State commit to scrapping the work capability assessment and punitive sanctions, as Labour has?

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I refer the hon. Lady to three things: the Secretary of State’s reform speech in which he announced that his focus was on the particular issue of sanctions for people with mental health conditions; obviously, the Prime Minister’s statement today; and the Green Paper, a major tenet of which is that we are consulting on the work capability assessment—a Labour policy that is not delivering. I am very pleased that enormous numbers of Labour MPs came to our drop-in on this and will be helping us with the consultation. This is an important issue, and we should get it right.

Contracted-out Health Assessments

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11. What recent assessment he has made of the (a) accuracy and (b) efficiency of contracted-out health assessments for employment and support allowance and personal independence payments. [908065]

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Over 93.5% of assessments for personal independence payment and over 90% of work capability assessments for ESA are deemed of acceptable quality through independent audit. Those that are not deemed acceptable are returned to the provider to be reworked. The Department closely monitors all elements of providers’ performance and holds those providers to account through their contracts.

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Will the Minister consider introducing and funding the mandatory use of body-worn cameras by all contracted-out assessment providers, which will improve the accuracy and efficiency of the much-disputed health assessment reports and safeguard claimants and assessors, and which is proving to be very successful when used by emergency services across the UK?

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There are detailed improvement plans for both PIP and ESA. Another thing that is being considered is how assessments are recorded. If the hon. Lady wants to write to me with any specific suggestions, I will be very happy to look at them.

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The vast majority of successful appeals are due to additional late submitted evidence. What more can be done to access and share medical evidence between health professionals and assessors ahead of the appeals decision?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will know that the Department has carried out a number of pilots to look at being more lenient at the early stages of assessment to give people time to get that health care information in front of assessors. That move is paying dividends, and we hope that it will be rolled out.

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Order. On this question, I would call on the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) if she were standing, but as she is not, I cannot.

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rose—

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As she is standing now, I will call her.

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23. I am afraid that many of my constituents have been refused home assessments for personal independence payments, and others have been unable to have their assessments recorded at home with the DWP. Given that it was recently reported that 61% of 90,000 claimants who appealed against a PIP decision at the tribunal period up to September 2016 won their case, will the Minister today commit to a root-and-branch review of the assessment process? [908078]

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Although we are consulting on ESA, the Green Paper consultation affords us the ability to look at PIP assessments in the round and at a person’s whole journey. I have previously said that we are looking at what more we can do in recording assessments. If the hon. Lady knows of cases where people need home assessments and they are not getting them, I urge her to flag them up with me.

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In my own constituency of Rossendale and Darwen, those who are waiting for their PIP appeal to go through are having to wait three, six or, in some cases, nine months to have that appeal heard. Given that they receive no benefit during this period and can lose their vital Motability car, will the Minister tell us what efforts the Department will make to speed up the appeal process?

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I am sorry to hear that that is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency. That is a very unusual length of time to be waiting for an appeal. If he would like to give me the details of those cases, I would be happy to look at them.

Motability

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13. Whether his Department plans to publish data on the number of people who have lost their Motability scheme vehicle following their reassessment for personal independence payments. [908068]

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Motability is an independent charity responsible for its own management information, including what data it publishes. There are 70,000 more people with a Motability car than there were in 2010.

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My constituent Evelyn Campbell had her Motability car removed on 20 December following a PIP assessment, leaving her housebound and distressed over Christmas. It will take months for her appeal to be heard. In the meantime, her car has been sold. Is this not another cruel policy from this Government? Given that 60% of PIP appeals are successful and that the cars have to be reprovided, is it not also a totally false economy?

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Those who lose their vehicle receive transitional support through Motability, including the right to buy the vehicle and a £2,000 lump sum. Although only a small proportion of PIP decisions are appealed and overturned—

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It is 60%.

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That is of those going to appeal, not the case load. I am exploring a range of options to support claimants pending appeal, and I will be working closely with Motability on this.

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I am encouraged by what the excellent Minister has just said. The key point is that I do not think the car should be withdrawn until the appeal process has finished. As it is only a small number, as the Minister has said, could she be encouraged to look at that route?

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We are looking at this issue. We are also looking at those who might wish to travel overseas, for whatever reason, whether for work or a travel option, and we are working very closely with Motability to see what can be done in those instances.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [908095]

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As part of the comprehensive package of reforms to improve mental health support announced by the Prime Minister this morning, my Department will be undertaking an expert-led review on how best to ensure that employees with mental health problems can be supported. That will involve practical help, including promoting best practice among employers and making available free tools to businesses to assist with employee wellbeing. We will also be conducting an internal review of discrimination in the workplace against people with mental health conditions. Those reviews will build on our Green Paper consultation to help to establish the evidence base around mental health and employment.

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I welcome the news that 95,000 businesses have been helped by the new enterprise allowance. Can the Minister tell me how many of those are in North Cornwall, or in Cornwall as a whole?

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I too welcome those figures. I can tell my hon. Friend that the new enterprise allowance has helped to create nearly 100 new businesses in North Cornwall since it began. We are moving to a second phase, beginning this April, with an improved NEA. Since it began, over one in five businesses supported by the NEA have been started by disabled entrepreneurs, which is an extremely encouraging development.

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It was great to hear earlier that there is consensus on the need to implement in full the Financial Conduct Authority’s recommendations on transparency in pension scheme costs. We hope that that will be soon, and we will hold the Government and the Minister to account on that.

Let us try another subject. Labour is committed to the state pension triple lock. Are the Government?

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The Government are committed to the triple lock for the whole of this Parliament.

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T3. Waveney District Council has been working proactively with the Department for Work and Pensions to support the roll-out of full-service universal credit. Although the council has committed considerable resources to the work, local people are still facing challenges. Can the Secretary of State assure me that his Department will urgently seek to resolve those issues that have been raised constructively by the council and other authorities through the national steering group? [908098]

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I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. He and I have exchanged correspondence on this—he may not yet have received a letter from me offering a meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment. We absolutely want to work through any teething issues with local councils.

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T2. The Motor Neurone Disease Association and Parkinson’s UK have welcomed Government proposals to scrap reassessment of ESA for people with severe lifelong conditions. The Secretary of State has described that reassessment as pointless, bureaucratic nonsense. Will the Government therefore now agree also to scrap reassessments in the same circumstances for people with lifelong conditions for PIP and continuing healthcare? [908096]

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PIP is slightly different. For example, someone’s needs might increase and they need a reassessment to receive more support under PIP. The Green Paper affords us the opportunity to look at all these things together. I think there are opportunities for PIP perhaps to have a lighter assessment, but we need to get the whole process right.

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T7. I wrote to the Pensions Minister on 16 December about my constituent, Ruth Saunders, who drew to my attention the fact that there are certain defined-benefit pension schemes where increases are not being paid for amounts paid in before April 1997. He very kindly responded on 5 January. The point is that there is discrimination because only 10% to 15% of companies are not paying these increases. The issue is whether the amount can be corrected going forward. I would suggest that this is one of the burning injustices that the Prime Minister was talking about, and I would like a meeting with the Minister and my constituent to discuss the issue further. [908102]

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I would be delighted to have a meeting with my right hon. Friend and her constituent.

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T4. The Government have thus far been reluctant to consider the fair transitional arrangements for the WASPI women, who have been unfairly disadvantaged by the changes to the women’s state pension age. What action is the Secretary of State taking at present and what changes does he propose? [908099]

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As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government have given £1.1 billion of transitional relief for WASPI women. The issue has been discussed in this House very many times and the Government have no plans to do anything further in that respect.

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T9. Will the Minister reassure Leonard Cheshire Disability, which has a base in my constituency, that the welcome move to the Work and Health programme will not result in a large reduction in funding to help disabled people get back into work? [908104]

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I can give my hon. Friend those reassurances. We are absolutely committed to closing the disability employment gap. We are picking up the pace on the programmes we are running, and asking businesses and employers to do more.

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T5. The Government have pledged to halve that disability employment gap by 2020. However, I would like to know what the Government have been doing recently to look at the impact of job cuts on the public sector. A third of the redundancies at the Equality and Human Rights Commission involve people with disabilities. [908100]

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The right hon. Gentleman will know that the disability employment gap has been closing under both this Government and the coalition Government. We recognise that we need to do more, and I think the public sector can do more. Part of that is identifying particular roles that individuals can take up. The Government are picking up the pace on the issue and we are in a much better situation than the one that existed under the previous Labour Government.

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I welcome the fact that more than 1 million more women are in employment now than in 2010, but will the Minister confirm what the Government are doing to support women with children who might find it difficult to return to work because of childcare responsibilities?

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Our aim is to help parents to get into a job that fits around their caring responsibilities, which is why we are doubling the amount of free childcare offered to working parents to 30 hours a week. Last year, we spent a record £5 billion supporting parents with the costs of childcare and the figure will rise to more than £6 billion by 2020.

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T6. Finland has become the first country in Europe to pay its unemployed citizens unconditional monthly sums with the aim of boosting employment and reducing poverty. When will the UK Government fund research into similar schemes such as a universal basic income? [908101]

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As I understand it, the Finnish scheme is a small pilot in a local area. I have read a lot of the literature—it is clearly an interesting idea—all of which suggests that that kind of scheme is fantastically expensive and that some of the losers from it are those who are on the lowest incomes at the moment. The polite response is that I am unconvinced by the proposal.

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Seasonal agricultural workers have benefited from auto-enrolment into pensions, but many accrue only very small pension pots. What can the Government do to ensure that the bureaucratic burden does not fall disproportionately on the employers of these vital workers?

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My hon. Friend brings up a very good point. The Government have to find a balance between wanting as many people as possible to have pensions, and economic sense when there is an impact on employers. My officials have discussed the issue with the National Farmers Union. We understand it and it will be looked into in the course of the 2017 review.

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T8. How can the Government meet their target to reduce the disability employment gap—in fact, to halve it— when they are cutting by 80% the resources available to do that? Are those not just empty words? [908103]

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I think the hon. Gentleman is confused: we are actually putting more resources into these initiatives, and also asking others to do more. Obviously, we are consulting in the Green Paper, but even some of the announcements the Prime Minister made today included additional resource. We very much want to meet that target, and we are putting the resources and the policies in place to do that.

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Last month, I asked the Government to introduce mandatory video recording of all DWP employment and support allowance assessments because a constituent of mine in Twickenham was treated with less respect than the character in the fictional film “I, Daniel Blake”. When will mandatory video recording commence?

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We are looking at a range of issues to improve the assessment process for PIP and ESA and the person’s experience of it. The recording of assessments is one of those things, so we are looking at that issue.

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For many young people, staying in the family home is not an option, so housing benefit is a lifeline not a lifestyle choice. When will the Government finally clarify how their scheme will not see these people lose vital support?

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The regulations regarding the removal of housing benefit from 18 to 21-year-olds have yet to be published. We will provide full details, particularly of the exemptions that will be involved, in March.

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I would like to say thank you to the scores of businesses in Corby and east Northamptonshire that provide important work experience opportunities for our young people. These introductions to the world of work are crucial, so will Ministers continue to make sure they remain at the forefront of cross-departmental discussions?

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We know that one of the most important things in being able to get a job is to have had a job and to have demonstrated employability skills. Specifically on the work experience placements we do through Jobcentre Plus, people spend 49 days longer on average in employment as a result of having done one, so the answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes.

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May I urge the Secretary of State personally to review what is happening to the Motability scheme? Some 41,000 people have had their cars taken away as a result of PIP assessments, including a severely disabled Castleford constituent who now cannot get to work and may be about to lose her job, and a Pontefract constituent with metal rods in her joints who now cannot get out of the house and is at risk of slipping into depression as a result. On the day when the Prime Minister rightly raised the issue of mental health injustice, will he take seriously the serious impact on people’s mental health of being isolated in this way?

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I am happy to assure the right hon. Lady that we are looking very closely at the whole Motability scheme, which, as she knows, is an independent charity. We have formed a working group to look at the various issues that gave rise to it, so we are looking at this very carefully.

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Following on from the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), my constituent Ms Brookes, who has limited mobility because of a stroke, received a Motability car last year, and that car was a lifeline. Last week, the car was removed from her, and she is now struggling to get her children to school and then to get to work. She is appealing the decision, and I hope she will win, but in the meantime she is finding it incredibly hard to manage her disability as well as her responsibilities as an employee and, more importantly, a mother. Will the Minister look at this case as a matter of urgency to ensure that my constituent gets the help and support she needs?

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I would be happy to look at the particular case the hon. Lady raises. We are looking at that issue in the Motability scheme, but also at other issues that mean that people are perhaps not able to take up work or travel opportunities. We recently met Motability on these issues and have formed a working group with it to work through them. We hope to be able to make some announcements very soon.

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Indicators of child poverty are important, as the Secretary of State said earlier, but so are targets. Will he therefore agree to adopt the provisions in the Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), which would establish statutory targets for the reduction of child poverty?

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That old-fashioned approach is not necessarily the best way forward. Having the whole range of issues that can give rise to child poverty addressed by Government policy is the best way to do it. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s response to the social justice Green Paper that we will publish in the coming months.

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In the London borough of Wandsworth that houses my constituency, last year there was a 25% increase in food bank use. Shockingly, almost 50% of these users are children. Do the Government agree that this is an absolute disgrace, and what will they do to assure us in this House today that the children and adults of Tooting shall no longer have to rely on food bank use?

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As I said in response to previous questions, the best route out of poverty is work, and one of the great successes of the economic policy of this Government has been that more people are in work, more women are in work, and fewer children are growing up in workless households than ever before. I just wish that Labour Members would accept that getting more people into work and reducing unemployment is the best attack on poverty that any Government can make.

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It is now four weeks since the Employment Minister promised Members of Parliament from Glasgow data on the new boundaries by which he wants to close half the city’s jobcentres—so where is that information?

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I met the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, and we had a Westminster Hall debate as well. I committed to a number of things, one of which was that we would have an online consultation, and that is indeed proceeding. As I said to him and his colleagues when we met, if there is other information that they want to bring forward, I am absolutely sure that they will do so.

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There are 13,000 children in my constituency living in poverty—almost a third of the total poverty figure for the whole district—so will the Minister explain to my constituents his decision to close the child poverty unit?

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The main function of the child poverty unit was to support Ministers in meeting the Child Poverty Act 2010, which has now been superseded by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, whereby the response specifically to poverty is being led by my Department, so the unit is now working inside the Department for Work and Pensions. That is the straightforward answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question.

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Does the Secretary of State have any new year’s resolutions? If not, perhaps I can help him out: he could resolve to make sure that no one is sanctioned at Christmas. Will he review the operations of his Department, as I asked him before Christmas, to make sure that nobody goes without over the festive period?

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My new year’s resolution is, as ever, to make sure that my Department continues its successful work in getting ever more people into work, and to make sure that we have a benefits system that helps people to get into work and a pensions system that provides security and dignity in old age.