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Topical Questions

Volume 621: debated on Monday 20 February 2017

Today, we published our Green Paper on defined benefit pension schemes. The schemes provide an important source of income in the retirement plans of millions of people. The majority of the nearly 6,000 defined benefit pension schemes are run effectively. We are fortunate to have a robust and flexible system of pension protection in the UK. However, it is clear that experiences differ from scheme to scheme. Some employers are clearly struggling and the system may not be working optimally in all circumstances. The Green Paper is an opportunity to look at the schemes to ensure the system remains sustainable, while still ensuring members’ benefits are protected.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on universal credit inquiries on behalf of constituents, does the Secretary of State not accept that putting in this extra hurdle is disadvantaging people who are in a very vulnerable situation and flies in the face of Information Commissioner guidance?

As my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment explained, the data are now held in a different way. They are entirely owned by the claimants, who can and should give any Member of Parliament permission to act on their behalf. With that permission, all of us can do our job, as we traditionally have, on behalf of our constituents.

T5. Last October, the Secretary of State announced that people with severe lifelong conditions would be exempt from reassessments for employment and support allowance. This was welcomed by leading charities in the sector. Will motor neurone disease fall within the exemptions? (908749)

May I first praise the work of the all-party group on motor neurone disease, and the work of my hon. Friend as its vice-chair? Following the announcement, we are working to develop a set of criteria to switch off reassessments for people with the most severe health conditions or disabilities. We have sought feedback from stakeholders, including many motor neurone disease organisations. They will not be about a specific list of medical conditions; they will be based on a number of other factors, in particular how conditions are impacting on people.

In April, the Government’s two-child policy will mean that a woman who has a third child after being raped will have to prove that fact if they are to get child tax support. At the same time, the Government are cutting widowed parent’s allowance by an average of £17,000 for each bereaved family. In 2015, that benefited 40,000 children who had lost at least one parent. Will the Secretary of State please think again about these punitive measures?

I do not agree with the hon. Lady that the measures are punitive. To take just one of the two that she brought up—bereavement payments—as she knows, this measure is bringing three payments into one. The original system was devised for a world in which women often would not work at all and so needed lifelong support, rather than the extra support that they will be offered after such a tragic event. I think she will find that the new system is much fairer and more effective at providing support when it is most wanted.

T9. Does the Minister agree that it was important to introduce the cap on out-of-work benefits to deal with the excesses of a system that used to see a single household being given £100,000 a year in housing benefit? (908754)

My right hon. Friend is right to point out that the benefit cap is working. It has brought about behavioural change, and evaluation of the current cap level has found that capped households are 41% more likely to go into work than similar, uncapped households. More than that, 38% of those capped said that they were doing more to find work, a third were submitting more applications and a fifth went to more interviews.

T2. New recipients of support who are in the work-related activity group will cease to receive the work-related activity component payment as of this April. As we have only a short six weeks until those claimants are hit by this change in policy, can the Minister tell us exactly what additional support they will receive? (908746)

The first thing I would say to the hon. Lady is that although the policy is being introduced in April, it will not start to have an impact on individuals until the summer. There is a personalised support package—13 measures that are outlined in the Green Paper—and she will know that we are also looking at ways in which we can reduce an individual’s household outgoings that are not related to finding work.

Does the Minister agree that we must do all we can to support into work people with mental health issues, disabilities and learning difficulties, but that, equally importantly, we must ensure that businesses are equipped to help them to sustain their employment?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. This is about people being able to reach their full potential and make use of all the benefits that come with having a pay packet—all those opportunities and that choice. Employers have a huge role to play. I have been very encouraged by the results of the consultation, particularly from employers wanting to do more, and we must ensure that they have the tools and expertise to do more.

T3. As part of the Government’s welcome proposal to halve the disability employment gap, will the Minister ensure that a work support plan is in place before a disabled person is made a job offer, thus increasing the chances of success and reducing the risk of wrongly applied sanctions or accusations that the person does not want a job? (908747)

This consultation affords us an opportunity to look at a person’s whole journey. Generalising, the earlier someone can have a conversation with somebody about their ambitions and the support they will need, the better that journey will be, so I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I suspect that the Employment Minister may not be aware of the Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act 1920, but it is a concern to the Heritage Railway Association and others, who have had advice from leading counsel that young people cannot volunteer in industrial undertakings. We have now written to the Health and Safety Executive, but I wonder whether the Minister will meet me to have a conversation about it.

I would be very happy to meet my right hon. Friend about that issue. There is a huge amount of work going on to ensure that young people, but others as well, can make use of all opportunities to expand their horizons, and I would be happy to meet her about the specific points she raises.

T4. Of the 17,000 sanctions on benefit claimants in Bradford West in the past six and a half years, how many could have been avoided if the Government had the yellow card warning system in place? Why has it not been rolled out nationally, following a successful trial in 2016, and when are this Government going to get it done? (908748)

We are looking at the early warning system trial that took place in Scotland. We are still evaluating it. We will publish the results of the evaluation shortly. Obviously, we will have to do the evaluation first before we decide what to do next.

Last week, I attended two excellent business breakfasts in my constituency—one organised by the Rockingham Forest hotel and the other organised by Corby Business Group. There was a lot of expertise and experience there. In what ways does the Minister think we can use that experience to support young people entering the world of work through mentoring?

Mentoring has a critical role to play, and I would encourage those employers in my hon. Friend’s constituency, if they are not already doing so, to get in touch with local schools and colleges and to seek out more opportunities.

T7. Will the Minister look at the assessment of people with long-term progressive conditions who are applying for PIP, in the light of some of the issues that have been raised? Would she consider removing the need for continued assessment of people with long-term progressive conditions when, by the nature of those conditions, they are getting worse and not improving day by day? (908751)

The hon. Lady makes a good suggestion. We are looking at that, and if we can share data better—not just across our own systems but with local government—we could improve things, because we could cut down on a huge administrative burden for claimants.

Have Ministers identified the critical difference that makes a recipient of universal credit so much more likely to get into work than someone on jobseeker’s allowance?

There are multiple features of universal credit that make that so much more likely. The critical thing is to remove the barriers that create differences between being out of work and being in work. Having the rent paid directly to the individual is one thing; there is also the additional support that people get from the work coach in the jobcentre; then there is the fact that people know how much they will retain for every extra hour worked and extra pound earned.

T8. Brixton jobcentre, which serves many of my constituents, is situated in one of the most deprived areas of London. How can the Minister justify deciding to close Brixton jobcentre and dozens of others across the country before any assessment of the equalities impact has been undertaken and without any consultation with the public? (908753)

We are very mindful of our duties under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, and we do indeed carry out the equality impact assessments that the hon. Lady mentions. She and I have had a chance to talk about the specific jobcentre. What we are doing is making sure that we have a good spread of jobcentres across the country that are accessible to the people who need to use them, but also utilising space better.

Last week, I visited a number of successful factories in my constituency that were taking on additional employment. Does the Secretary of State agree that our long-term economic plan has worked and that the Opposition Members who opposed it should now be contrite? Does he also agree with me that it is rather surprising that until two minutes ago there has not been a single Liberal Democrat Member in the Chamber?

The Minister is not responsible for the presence of Liberal Democrat Members. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman wants to ventilate, I am sure he will do so.

I am grateful for your advice, Mr Speaker, because I would be horrified if I were responsible for the attendance record of Liberal Democrats. I am happy to agree completely with my hon. Friend about the long-term economic plan. Our labour market is in its strongest position for years, which is a tribute to a successful economic policy for the past seven years.

On behalf of my constituent, Miss Leslie, may I ask the Secretary of State to get personally involved in her case? The victim of a house fire when she was 12 weeks old, she has no hands and has multiple physical problems. In the migration from DLA to PIP, she could not open the envelope telling her to go for her assessment. On 1 February, all her benefits ceased, and on 10 February, her Motability car was taken away. This cannot be right; please help.

If the hon. Lady wishes to contact me directly and urgently about that case, we will take it up.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no evidence to suggest that we are going to lose 3 million jobs, as we were so often warned would happen if we left the European Union? Given the recent announcements that thousands of new jobs would be located in this country by the likes of Google and Amazon, does he agree that this country remains a very attractive place in which to do business?

It is perfectly clear that this country is an extremely attractive place in which to do business. I am delighted at the number of big companies—particularly in the tech sector, but in others as well—that have decided to move jobs to this country in recent months, and the Government will do all they can to ensure that that economic success continues.

Leytonstone jobcentre, in my constituency, is threatened with closure, which has spread alarm and despondency among some of the most vulnerable people whom I represent. The nearest jobcentre, in Walthamstow, is more than 3 miles away, which breaks the Minister’s own guidelines. Will he undertake a proper impact assessment and publish the results?

Of course I will look into the position, but the criterion is that consultation takes place if a jobcentre is both more than 3 miles away and more than 20 minutes away by public transport. Within that, if either of those conditions is met, it is reasonable to ask people to move.

On Friday I visited Shipley jobcentre to hear at first hand the concerns of staff about its closure, and their concerns for its clients. Will the Minister agree to meet me so that I can go through that list of concerns and, hopefully, he can find a way of addressing them?

Of course I shall be happy to meet my hon. Friend, just as I have been happy to meet other Members on both sides of the House to discuss such concerns.

I am astonished that the Secretary of State said that the rape clause was not punitive, given that, in their response to the consultation, the Government said that many respondents considered it

“unacceptable for Government to ask women to re-live the ordeal of a rape just in order to make a claim for benefit.”

Will the Minister and the Government accept that the policy is simply unworkable, and absolutely despicable?

I do not accept that, and I do not think the hon. Lady’s description of the exemptions to that clause accord with reality. The system that we are proposing is not remotely punitive; it is entirely sensible and workable.

What plans has the Secretary of State to reduce the cost of telephone calls to his Department, which can now cost up to 55p a minute? Is he still having discussions with the Social Security Advisory Committee, which believes that all telephone calls to the Department should be at no cost to claimants?

I am, obviously, in constant contact with the Social Security Advisory Committee. People who phone the Department always have an opportunity to ask to be called back if they do not wish to continue their own calls.