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Topical Questions

Volume 619: debated on Monday 9 January 2017

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.

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?

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.

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?

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.