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House of Commons Hansard
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09 October 2017
Volume 629

The Secretary of State was asked—

Universal Credit

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1. What progress he is making on the roll-out of universal credit. [901031]

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5. What progress he is making on the roll-out of universal credit. [901036]

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9. What progress he is making on the roll-out of universal credit. [901041]

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The roll-out of universal credit is proceeding to plan, gradually and sensibly. People are moving into work faster and staying in work for longer. The most recent phase of expansion will only take the proportion of the forecast claimant population receiving universal credit from 8% currently to 10% by the end of January.

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There is a great deal of support for the principles of universal credit. However, the roll-out has been characterised as

“operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving”.

These are not my words, but those of Sir John Major. If the Secretary of State will not postpone the roll-out—along with many other right hon. and hon. Members, I would like him to consider that again—will he consider two other remedies: to drop the waiting period, and to allow the benefit to be paid fortnightly?

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Let me be clear: as I touched on earlier, the evidence so far shows that those who go on to universal credit are more likely to be working six months later than they would be had they been on the legacy benefits, and they are also more likely to be progressing in work. That is really important, and it is not something that I want to deny people. I believe that we should roll out something like this gradually and sensibly, and make changes as and when necessary, but that is exactly what we are doing.

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Those of us who remember the chaos around the introduction of tax credits can see the good sense in a phased, gradual introduction to universal credit. However, I have to say to the Secretary of State that if we do not learn the lessons from the pilots, we frankly risk losing any advantage that we will gain. Some 57% of applicants for universal credit are having to borrow money before their first payment. Is not that alone enough to justify a pause?

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The system of advances is an integral part of the system. It has always been there, but we want to make that properly available. Nobody who needs support should have to wait six weeks before they receive any support. What we are doing is making it clear that people can receive an advance of their first month’s payment, which is then deducted over the next six-month period. That is helping people deal with cash-flow issues in that first month, which I think is a sensible and pragmatic response.

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A recently bereaved constituent of mine, a working single parent, has seen her income reduced by £300 a month since transferring to universal credit. For her, work does not pay. Will the Secretary of State urgently review the link between agreement to support payments and universal credit, and will he stop the roll-out until he has done so?

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The hon. Gentleman says that work does not pay. Let us be clear: universal credit always means that it is worth working an extra hour and worth taking a pay rise. It is always worth working more under universal credit, which was not the case with the legacy benefits. That is why the evidence is suggesting that people do work more and do work more hours than they do under the legacy systems.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why more people have gone out to work this morning than ever before in our nation’s history is that we as a Government have not ducked the challenge of welfare reform, we do not let people languish for years on out-of-work benefits, and universal credit is an essential part of the welfare reform programme?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It has been the consistent policy of this Government—including under my predecessors, such as my right hon. Friend—to ensure that we have a welfare system that puts work at the heart of it. That is one of the reasons why we have record levels of employment, as he so rightly says.

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No. 7, Mr Speaker.

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No, the hon. Gentleman was standing up on No. 1 and he has a very similar question, so he can unburden himself of his important thoughts now.

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7. My right hon. Friend is aware that I and many of my Conservative colleagues have pressed him on the issue of providing support for people during the six-week assessment and transition periods for universal credit. Will he confirm that jobcentres in Scotland will proactively offer such advances and support where needed? [901039]

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My hon. Friend is right to highlight that point. As I said last week, we are refreshing the guidance to DWP staff to ensure that people who need support—who will struggle to get through to the end of the assessment period without financial support—have access to that money quickly. Increasing the eligibility for advance payments is one of the best ways in which we can address some of the concerns that have been raised and learn from that experience.

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Although I believe that advance payments are treating the symptoms rather than the cause, I welcome the Secretary of State’s additional guidance to make sure that jobcentres offer them. Advance payments cover roughly two weeks’ worth of money: what support is in place for people waiting three, four, five, six or seven weeks?

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The level of advance payments of 50% is, we believe, the right balance between getting support to people early in the process—they can get it very quickly—and ensuring a reasonable level of deduction for that advance payment in subsequent months. Clearly, this is an issue that we will continue to look at, but 50% strikes the balance. I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for that announcement.

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Rent arrears, food poverty and in-work poverty have all rocketed in areas where universal credit has been rolled out. The third sector has united to join in our call for universal credit to be halted, and we know that pressure is mounting on the Conservative Back Benches for that to happen. Is not the Secretary of State’s apparent climb-down on crisis loans and advance payments an admission that universal credit is failing?

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Not at all. I come back to the point that universal credit is giving more people the opportunity to get into work and progress in work. The personalised support that is provided by jobcentres where universal credit has been rolled out is proving to be effective. To those people who call on me to stop the process, I say that once fully rolled out, universal credit is likely to mean that 250,000 more people will be in work than would otherwise have been the case. I will not deny those people that opportunity.

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The Secretary of State is either desperately deluded or ignorantly incompetent. In one of the areas in which universal credit has been rolled out, East Lothian Citizens Advice reports that more than half of its clients on universal credit are worse off by an average of £45 a week. The just under a third who are better off have gained just 34p a week. How much more evidence of social destruction will it take for the Secretary of State to have the strength to halt the roll-out?

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Universal credit is adding to what the Government have already been doing—ensuring that work is at the heart of welfare. That is why we have 3 million more jobs than we did in 2010. Welfare reform is part of the reason for that, and it is part of the reason why we will continue to press on with reforming the welfare state to encourage work and help people to progress in work.

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May I warmly welcome advance payments within five days and immediate needs payments the same day as a definite step forward? Given the reasonably high levels of adult illiteracy and poor computer skills in some areas, can the Secretary of State say something about how volunteers might be able to work alongside personal advisers to help people fill in the application form in the first place?

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It is important that people filling in forms receive the necessary support, but jobcentre staff provide that support. Voluntary organisations may be able to assist, but Jobcentre Plus staff are already giving the intensive support necessary to help people to complete the applications.

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Given the Secretary of State’s confidence in the roll-out of universal credit to another 150 Jobcentres Plus, can he give the House a guarantee that none of our constituents will face hunger or near destitution through lack of money over the Christmas period?

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Universal credit is about ensuring that our constituents are in a stronger financial position. That is what we are trying to deliver by enabling them to work and providing the support they need. As I said earlier, if we look at where we want to get to by 2022, 8% of claimants are already on universal credit and by January it will be 10%. The process is gradual and measured, and that is enabling us to learn from the experience and make improvements, which we will continue to do all the time.

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I support universal credit and its roll-out, but I am concerned about applicants with zero savings who, if they lose money for one or two weeks, have nothing to fall back on. Will the Department consider the possibility of jobcentres writing supportive letters to landlords to explain the situation in which benefit claimants find themselves, because the worst outcome for applicants is that they lose their home?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There is an obligation on social landlords, given the source of income through universal credit, to work constructively with tenants. If a tenant has a reasonable expectation of receiving housing costs as part of their universal credit payment but has not yet received them, the landlord should not take action and the tenant should not face risk of eviction.

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As we have heard, universal credit is causing debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness up and down the country, with many claimants already in work. Given that housing associations are saying that over 80% of rent arrears are down to UC, and that the Mayor of Greater Manchester is predicting that rough sleeping will double as a result of UC roll-out, how many more families does the Minister estimate will be made homeless this winter as a result of the Government’s refusal to pause UC roll-out?

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Let us be clear: no one needs to go six weeks without financial support when there is a system of advances in place. I make the point to all right hon. and hon. Members that if they are aware of constituents who have not received an advance, they can make it clear to them. Let us be realistic: the fact is that we are now moving towards a welfare system that does not put in place barriers to work and does enable people to make progress. It is no good Labour Members saying they are in favour of the principles, but then trying to obstruct the delivery of a reform that will give 250,000 more people a job.

Investment and Pension Scheme Charges

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2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the level of fees and charges applied to investments and pension schemes by asset managers. [901032]

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The Secretary of State has regular discussions with the Chancellor on a range of issues. The Department has had specific discussions with both the Treasury and the Financial Conduct Authority on the FCA’s proposed remedies in this area, and our plans to ensure that details of these costs and charges are published and given to pension scheme members.

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Is not the reality that for millions of ordinary people the only way to guarantee a sufficient income in retirement is a good state pension together with a state earnings-related pension scheme for all, with defined contributions and defined benefits?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will be aware that auto-enrolment has reversed the decline in work-based pension saving, with 8.5 million people signed up and further progress to be made. The reality is that, by reason of the coalition and this Government, we have a new state pension that is worth £1,250 more than in 2010.

Pension Arrangements for Women

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3. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on improving pension transition arrangements for women born in the 1950s. [901033]

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14. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on improving pension transition arrangements for women born in the 1950s. [901047]

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The Secretary of State has regular discussions with the Chancellor, but the Government will not be revisiting the state pension age arrangements for women born in the 1950s that are affected by the Pensions Acts of 1995, 2007 and 2011.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and I, Members of the Minister’s own party, and all Opposition parties in this House, including the Democratic Unionist party, have introduced a Bill, to be debated on 27 April, to provide for transitional arrangements to be put in place. Will the Minister support the Bill? If not, will he tell the House why not?

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I can only repeat the answer I just gave: the Government do not intend to revisit the state pension age arrangements for women born in the 1950s who are affected by the Pensions Acts of 1995, 2007 and 2011. The cost would be in excess of £70 billion.

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The Minister will be aware that, following the Brexit vote, bond yields dropped by 30%, increasing the public sector pensions bill by a hefty 30% to £1.8 trillion over the last year. Is this latest example of Government ineptitude the real reason WASPI women are being ignored, penalised and denied their pensions?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, but if her Government in Scotland disagree with any aspect of the UK Government’s welfare reforms, they have the powers to do something about it. I refer her to the letter of 22 June from Jeane Freeman, my opposite number, which specifically discusses the uses of Scotland Act powers to address individual cases.

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Will the Minister clarify whether, if the law on the state pension age were changed to favour women over men, it would be discriminatory or illegal?

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The reasons for the original changes were the changes in life expectancy and equality law. If the law proposed by Labour were to approach men and women differently, it would—with respect—be highly dubious as a matter of law.

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Will the Minister further clarify that point? Labour says that the previous pension age could come back and that we could return to a situation where men are discriminated against. Does he agree that such discrimination might be profoundly against the law?

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Those who seek to make the case for such a law would need to satisfy themselves that men would not bring a case against the proposers, because it would unquestionably create a new inequality between men and women.

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The ombudsman’s first rulings on whether the Government are guilty of maladministration for failing to give 50s-born women sufficient notice of their earlier retirement age are due soon. Maladministration or not—it will take years to resolve that matter—can I ask the new Minister to take this back, think again, tell us what he is prepared to do, and what research he is prepared to do, to alleviate their misery, and perhaps even consider our proposals on pension credit and allowing them to retire up to two years earlier?

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The Government strongly believe that there has been no maladministration by the Department for Work and Pensions, including during the 13 years when Labour was in charge of the Department.

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Is the new state pension not in fact removing injustices that have persisted for far too long, and are not the main beneficiaries women and low earners?

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My hon. Friend is correct. The new state pension is much more generous for the many women who were historically worse off under the old system. More than 3 million women stand to gain an average of £550 extra per year by 2030 as a result of these changes.

Employment and Disabled People

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4. What progress has been made on increasing the employment rate for disabled people. [901034]

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The employment rate among disabled people has increased to 49%, and the Government are committed to getting 1 million more disabled people into work over the next 10 years.

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In 2015, the Minister said the Government’s aim was to halve the disability employment gap by 2020, and in 2016 the Social Market Foundation said that that meant an extra 1.2 million disabled people in employment, but now the Minister tells us that the ambition is for an extra 1 million disabled people in work within 10 years. Why are Ministers becoming less ambitious for disability employment?

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When Labour was in office, it did very well in closing the disability employment gap—by raising the unemployment level among the general population. We will take a different approach. As I have said in this place before, we will look in great detail at the local numbers—for example, the numbers of people with a learning disability coming out of education; that is what we need to get people focused on.

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I warmly welcome the latest employment figures, particularly the youth employment figures. We are within touching distance of record youth unemployment. On young disabled people, will the Minister comment on Leonard Cheshire Disability and the great work it does, particularly its Can Do scheme? I think she recently met ambassadors of that scheme.

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I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to pay tribute to Leonard Cheshire. It has launched a number of interesting and effective initiatives, which are very much part of our Work and Health programme.

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A constituent suffering from mental health problems who came to my surgery at the weekend has been denied employment and support allowance. Her sister came with her to tell me that my constituent had attempted suicide four days earlier. What is the Department going to do to identify and help vulnerable people like her?

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In recent years the Department has introduced a number of measures to ensure that those who carry out assessments for either personal independence payments or ESA have had training so that they can recognise a mental health condition and flag up that condition or any concerns they may have. However, the work capability assessment itself is not working. It was introduced by the Labour party—[Interruption]—with the best intentions, but it has elements that do not work. Given the opportunities that will result from the work and health road map, I hope that Labour will work with us to reform those elements.

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I am organising a Disability Confident event in my constituency to try to encourage more employers to take on people with disabilities, and I am grateful to the jobcentre for its support. Would the Minister like to come along so that she can, in person, encourage employees in my constituency to take on more disabled people?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend and other Members on both sides of the House who have run Disability Confident events and signed up employers. Our 5,000th employer has just been signed up. If I cannot attend my hon. Friend’s event, I shall be happy to send a video instead.

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But I am sure that it is a personal ambition of the hon. Lady to go to her hon. Friend’s constituency. We look forward to getting an update in due course.

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May I address my question to the Minister who speaks for a party that has been in power for more than seven years? This morning my constituent, Debbie A, came to tell me that she had failed her ESA assessment, first because she had been told that she could hear her name being called from the waiting room, when in fact she had been told that it was being called by her son, who was sitting next to her; and, secondly, because the report had said that she had been hit by a bus, when in fact she had been hit on a bus. Does not the Minister accept that there are profound systemic problems in the assessment process?

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There are things that we can do to improve the assessment process dramatically and also, more critically, to prevent people from having to go through those assessments. The thrust of the health and work consultation paper that we issued this year is to bring about early intervention in healthcare and to use healthcare information to populate the welfare system, and that is what we are trying to do.

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What steps are the Government taking to use technology to help their equality agenda, specifically in respect of disabilities?

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We have just launched a platform called OpenLab, which brings together those working in technology and disability, and focuses primarily on accessibility issues. It will enable us to publicise problems that we are trying to solve, but will also enable that community to work together to arrive at solutions faster.

Universal Credit

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6. How many new claims for universal credit have been paid on time since its introduction. [901037]

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Payment in arrears has been in the design of universal credit since 2010, and was implemented by the coalition Government in 2014. Our latest data show that more than 80% of new claimants are being paid in full and on time, which is a significant improvement on the position earlier this year, and that more than 90% receive some payment before the end of their first assessment period.

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Universal credit is due to be rolled out in Torbay in May 2018. What further assurances can the Secretary of State give that resources will be made available to ensure that people in my constituency who make claims under the scheme will receive their payments on time?

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We are ensuring that sufficient resources are available in jobcentres. It is worth pointing out that we have made significant progress on universal credit timeliness this year—as I have mentioned, more than 80% of new claimants received their full payment on time, and more than 90% received part of their payment—and we expect to build on that positive trend. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming universal credit roll-out to Torbay next May.

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The problem is that “on time” means after a six-week delay, and that delay, as the Secretary of State knows well, is causing immense hardship up and down the country. Last week I met Maria Amos, who came within an inch of suicide because she had to live literally on nothing but water for six weeks, irreparably damaging her health. The Secretary of State can choose to ignore organisations such as Citizens Advice, but will he at least take some notice when Sir John Major calls for a pause?

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What I would say—this is exactly the point I made earlier—is that I do not believe that anybody should be left without any support for six weeks when they do not have savings or an alternative source of income, which is why it is important that advances are available within the system. The majority of claimants now make use of advances. We need to ensure that that is properly communicated to claimants. I will certainly do that, as I am sure will all Members of this House.

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My constituency was one of the first to introduce universal credit, and it went on to full service in 2016. Staff in my constituency tell me that they are very familiar with the new system. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to ensure that what we have learnt from the pathfinder jobcentres is quickly rolled out to those now taking up the new system?

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We must constantly learn from experience—this is about testing, learning and improving. We must ensure that awareness of the advances system is high, and clearly that has increased in recent months. My hon. Friend makes a point about jobcentre staff, and my experience of meeting such people up and down the country is that they are enthused by what universal credit can do for claimants to help them to get into work.

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Twenty-four per cent. of new universal credit claimants wait longer than six weeks to be paid in full. Only one advance payment is allowed for a new universal credit claim, and the maximum award is 50% of the claimant’s estimated benefit, so how will advance payments really prevent families from getting into debt while waiting for their first universal credit payment?

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The timeliness of payments has improved since the figures that the hon. Lady cites were compiled, and we continue to improve it. As I have said, 90% of claimants receive some support within the six-week period. Advances are an important part of the system to ensure that people get the support they need. It is incumbent on all of us not to worry people that they will be left without any support whatsoever, but to draw their attention to the fact that they can access funds when they need to—generally waiting no more than five working days or, if necessary, receiving them straight away.

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According to the Trussell Trust, food bank referrals have increased at more than double the national average in areas where the universal credit full service has been rolled out. Does the Secretary of State agree that the social security system should prevent people from having to visit food banks, rather than exacerbating need?

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We are very keen to ensure that the advances system means that people can access funds so that they do not have to visit food banks. In recent months we have seen an increased use of that system, because we have done more to publicise it, and I want to go further on that. I think that is an important part of a system that, when we step back and look at it, is ensuring that more people are able to work and to progress in work, and that should not be forgotten.

Personal Independence Payments

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8. What steps his Department are taking to ensure that personal independence payment assessments are undertaken fairly and efficiently. [901040]

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16. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that personal independence payment assessments are undertaken fairly and efficiently. [901050]

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18. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that personal independence payment assessments are undertaken fairly and efficiently. [901053]

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We are committed to ensuring that people receive high-quality, fair and accurate assessments. The Department robustly monitors providers’ performance and independently audits assessments. Both providers are now increasing clinical support across their centres and providing more personalised coaching for their healthcare professionals.

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The Department seems to conclude that everything is hunky-dory with PIP assessments, just as it did—erroneously—with work capability assessments. The Disability News Service says it has more than 200 cases of inaccurate PIP assessments, and I have come across plenty in Southwark, including that of my constituent, Tarik Ali. Tarik was assessed as having no evidence of hearing loss, despite being deaf in one ear. He was awarded no points for needing support to manage medication, despite the fact that he sees a GP every three weeks and that his carer manages his medication on a daily basis. There was no mention of Behçet’s syndrome in his assessment, despite its having been included in five hospital reports, his GP records and his medication prescription. When will the Minister stop cutting vital help to genuinely disabled people, stop wasting taxpayers’ money on inaccurate assessments and fake mandatory reconsiderations, and finally end the glaring inaccuracies in PIP assessments?

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Currently, 3% of caseload is overturned on appeal, and in the last quarter the number of cases having to go to appeal dropped by 22%. We have introduced changes to get evidence in earlier and to improve the quality of assessments, but we will respond to all the things that Paul Gray has set out in his review this autumn.

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Two thirds of disabled people are successful at tribunal when they appeal PIP decisions. Given that the system is so clearly flawed, will the Minister commit to a full overhaul of the assessment process?

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We have opportunities to reduce the burden on individuals going through assessments through what we are trying to do with the work capability assessment and by enabling information used in health care and in ESA assessments to reduce the burden on people getting PIP assessments—and, hopefully, doing away with the volume of assessments that people have. However, I say to the hon. Lady that currently 3% of cases are overturned on appeal. We are doing our best to ensure that the right decision is made earlier, and that seems to be bearing fruit in the numbers of people going to appeal.

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In my experience as a GP, the impact of the conditions of people with anxiety and even agoraphobia is often not adequately assessed within PIP. I welcome the introduction of mental health nurses to the process, but how will the culture of the assessment be changed so that people’s physical and mental health capabilities are assessed holistically?

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One of the changes that we have recently made with both providers is that before they turn to the healthcare evidence and the other things that have traditionally formed part of the assessment, they talk with the individual about the impact of the condition on their day-to-day life. That, I think, has improved the assessment dramatically.

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PIP is causing misery for thousands of disabled people. Two disabled people who were in my surgery this Saturday are threatened with destitution because the money that they got as part of their lifetime award under the disability living allowance was stopped following their PIP assessment. The conditions they have had since birth have not and will not change. Why will the Government not exempt people with lifelong or progressive conditions from ongoing PIP assessments, as they are doing with the work capability assessments?

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The hon. Lady is right that we have made that change in employment and support allowance. I give her one example: about 84% of people with motor neurone disease are on the highest rates for PIP, but 16% are not. It is therefore perfectly possible that someone will not be receiving the maximum amount of support but that as their condition progresses, they will need additional support. As I said earlier, we are trying to reduce the burden on individuals going through assessments, but some people will still need to have assessments for PIP because their need becomes greater.

Disabled People: Independent Living

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10. What steps he is taking to support disabled people to live independently. [901042]

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Supporting someone to live independently is an essential part of enabling that person to pursue their goals, whether they are personal or career goals. Education and independent living support are the two highest priorities for the Office for Disability Issues.

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Every week around 800 Motability vehicles are taken away from disabled people across the UK as a result of the transition to PIP and, according to the most recent DWP statistic on reassessments, 48% of claimants receive a lower level or no award when transferring from DLA to PIP. Does the Minister really believe that taking money away from disabled people on low incomes will help them to live independently?

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The hon. Gentleman will know that in spring we announced changes to Motability to enable people to keep their cars pending appeal. We are looking to make changes to Motability, and I am pleased to say that many in this House have supported the campaign led by Together for Short Lives to extend the Motability scheme to under-threes. We have been in discussions with Motability and the Family Fund about extending Motability to under-threes. Individual constituents will not need to apply; they will be referred by the Family Fund. This is a big step forward in enabling families with small children who have heavy equipment to socialise and go out together.

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My constituent Jacci Woodcock has been campaigning for some time for Dying to Work. She has a terminal illness and was hounded out by her employer. She would like more employers to sign up—employers such as Derbyshire County Council and Rolls-Royce Aero Engines, which have just done so. Will the Minister say what steps she would like to see to ensure that people have more dignity when they have a terminal diagnosis?

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I thank my hon. Friend for what she has done on the campaign and also Rolls-Royce and her local authority for signing up. I also thank her for bringing Jacci Woodcock to the Department for Work and Pensions to meet me. I think that all Members owe Jacci Woodcock a great debt of gratitude for the campaign that she has run in very trying and difficult circumstances. I have listened to her with great care, and we will take on board her recommendations as part of the health and work road map, which we will publish later this autumn.

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The stress and exhaustion caused to my constituent by the removal of her Motability car led to her losing her professional post and being redeployed to a role on half the salary. Will the Minister look again at the ridiculous situation whereby the Government are prepared to spend more on Access to Work payments for taxis—in this case nearly £4,500—than on PIP mobility support, which would offer real independence to disabled workers?

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The hon. Lady makes a very good point; indeed, we are looking at precisely that. There are lots of pots of money out there—PIP and Access to Work, which she mentioned, are just two—but very little reference between them. We have been working on that and we hope to make some announcements shortly.

Health and Work Programme

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12. What progress is being made on the Health and Work programme. [901044]

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I am pleased to announce to the House that six contracts between the Department and the successful suppliers to the Health and Work Programme were signed on 29 September.

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It is clear that the Health and Work programme presents an opportunity to bring a lot more disabled people into work. Will the Minister tell the House what requirements are being put on contract providers?

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The key to the programme is that participants will receive much more personalised and tailored support. We need to provide bespoke things to individuals who have complex needs if we want them to be successful. We will be looking for providers to forge links with employers, nationally and locally, but also with health and social care and other local services.

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The Government have backtracked on their commitment to halve the disability employment gap, and the funding for the Work and Health programme will be as little as £130 million a year, which is a fraction of what was set aside for the Work programme. Given the recent report from the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which condemned the Government’s progress, can the Minister advise when they will finally publish their response to the “Work, health and disability” Green Paper? Will the Government respond to the UN’s concerns and include high-quality, impairment-specific support, which disabled people have been calling for?

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May I start by welcoming the hon. Lady to her post?

Despite the weeks of the general election, we are still going to meet our original timetable to publish the health and work road map, which will set out in detail not just the Health and Work programme, which is only one small part of what we are planning, but a full comprehensive package to deliver personalised, tailored support for disabled people, support for employers, healthcare reforms and welfare reforms.

The Office for Disability Issues is looking at the UN report; we volunteered to put ourselves through this process, and there is more we can do to lever in some of the things in that report to help achieve some of our ambitions, particularly on accessibility.

Universal Credit

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13. Whether he has plans to reduce the taper rate for universal credit claimants. [901045]

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We have already made the taper rate more generous by reducing it from 65% to 63% in April this year, which means that recipients can keep more of every pound they earn.

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A taper rate of 63p in the pound is, in effect, a tax rate of 63% on net income. Surely the Minister accepts that that is a punitive rate and a barrier to work.

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This all has to be seen in the context of our reducing the benefit withdrawal rates and making it more attractive to go into work. Of course I understand the attraction of reducing the taper rate, which is why we have done it, but there is also always a trade-off with costs; reducing the rate from 65% to 63%, as we have done, carries a cost—an investment in the system of £1.8 billion.

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Is not the whole point of a pilot to test a system and then change it before it is rolled out further? Many of my constituents are in the universal credit pilot scheme. Given my caseload from them, I was horrified today to receive letters about all the rest of the jobcentres in my constituency getting universal credit roll-out. This needs to be looked at, along with the taper and many other issues, before it is rolled out further.

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In days of yore, such big changes used to be done via a big Gantt chart on the wall and then one day things going live. That is not how universal credit has been designed or rolled out; it is a very gradual process and has been being rolled out since 2013. The full service is now in more than 100 jobcentres, and we continue to update, evolve and improve it at every turn.

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If the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who has a similar inquiry at Question 17, were standing, I would call him, but if he is not, I will not—

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rose—

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He is now, so I will.

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17. Many of my constituents get paid weekly, and real cash-flow problems can be caused if they move from a weekly payment to a monthly payment cycle. Will the Minister set out what we are doing to help deal with these cash-flow problems? Will we keep these measures under review to make sure we provide a workable solution? [901051]

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Although most people these days are paid monthly, quite a lot of people are still paid weekly. When people move into a new job, they could then be getting paid weekly or monthly. There are two important things to mention here: advances, which have been extensively discussed during today’s questions, and the personal budgeting supports we offer to people to help them deal with changes in their cash flow.

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Universal credit claimants must wait a minimum of six weeks for their first payment, which does not reflect the world of work. Advance payments are not a remedy for that, because they are a loan, entrenching poverty and debt. Is the Department really going to ignore the unanimous plea from support and advice agencies to pause this roll-out?

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It would be wrong to pause the roll-out, because that would mean fewer people would have the benefit of universal credit, more people would be stuck on 16-hour jobs and fewer people would be able to claim the higher rate of childcare reimbursement. Universal credit is working; we know that people are getting into work quicker and that, once they are there, they can see clearly that working more will always pay.

Personal Independence Payments

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15. If he will take steps to ensure that people applying for personal independence payments are seen by a specialist at their initial assessment. [901048]

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Personal independence payment assessments require specialist skills, which is why they are undertaken by qualified health professionals, who are experts in disability analysis, and focus on the effects of health conditions and impairments on an individual’s daily life.

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That is not the experience of some of my constituents, including one who has a rare condition and is on the highest level of DLA, and so should automatically be entitled to PIP, but whose assessor had no knowledge of the condition and refused the PIP application. Will the Minister specify the exact training, experience and competence requirements an applicant would have to demonstrate to qualify as a healthcare professional who could undertake PIP assessments for the DWP?

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I have stated many times in the House the categories of healthcare professionals who can work as PIP assessors—it is a long list—but I should point out that these people are not carrying out health assessments. They are not there to diagnose; they are there to record the impact of someone’s condition on their personal life, which is quite different. As I have said in answer to previous questions, we will introduce some new measures on PIP as part of our response to Paul Gray’s second review.

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We are well out of time, but we will take the last question because I do not want the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) to feel left out. Let us hear him.

Comparative Unemployment Rates

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19. What recent comparative assessment he has made of rates of unemployment in the UK and in other European countries. [901054]

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The UK has the joint fourth lowest unemployment rate in the European Union. At 4.3%, UK unemployment is the lowest in 42 years. It is 3.3 percentage points below the EU 28 average and half that of the euro area.

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Our unemployment rates continue to fall faster than the EU mean. How is universal credit helping that?

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Universal credit is an absolutely integral part of our overall approach to employment. It not only simplifies the system but makes it easier for people to go into work, because they do not have to think about whether subsequently they might have to restart their benefit claim. Once people are in work, it means that they can make progress more easily because there are none of the cliff edges of the old system.

Topical Questions

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T2. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [900946]

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We are delivering our promise to reform welfare provision in this country. Universal credit replaces the outdated and complex benefits system of the past, which too often stifled people’s potential. Universal credit is a flexible and personalised system that offers unprecedented support. It ensures that people are always better off in work, with payment gradually reducing as earnings increase. It is working: under universal credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work for longer. We are fully committed to the scheduled roll-out for universal credit full service. It will be expanded throughout the country to the planned timescale, delivering a simpler system that encourages work and supports aspiration.

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Several of my constituents have raised with me the importance of ensuring that assessment centres are as accessible as possible. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that, on an ongoing basis, accessibility is checked regularly and improvements are made where necessary?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. DWP officials visit assessment centres to check them against accessibility standards. He flagged up concerns about the parking drop-off points at the Peterborough centre; following his raising of those concerns, improvements have been made.

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T7. Data for my constituency, Lewisham West and Penge, show that the number of claimants aged 50 or older who are seeking work has increased by 15.5% in the past year. In closing Lewisham jobcentre and migrating to a more internet-based system, how exactly is the Department going to help those with limited access to computers or limited computer literacy, or indeed those who will have difficulties travelling to a jobcentre that is further away? [900951]

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On jobcentres, the Department is sensibly making use of the fact that a contract has ended to make a number of improvements to the service provided. Yes, that does mean that some jobcentres will close, but it also means that the provision of services throughout the country will be done in a modernised and effective way. On employment, the fact is that more people are employed than ever before, including older members of the workforce.

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T3. In the light of the worrying figures, both nationally and for my constituency, will my hon. Friend the Minister outline the steps the Department is taking to reduce the level of personal independence payment reassessments, so that individuals in my constituency can access at the earliest opportunity the benefits that are due to them? [900947]

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We have implemented a wide range of initiatives across the whole claim process, including speeding up the process to clear more claims, increasing the number of healthcare professionals and extending working hours, and making improvements to IT systems.

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T9. Universal credit is to be introduced in my constituency on 14 December, which, in my view, is indecent. The introduction should be delayed, as it will be a catastrophe for many children at Christmas. As the Secretary of State believes the opposite, will he accept my offer now of a visit to my constituency the week after its introduction, in the run-up to Christmas, to see whether I am right or he is right and what the impact will be? [900953]

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I visit jobcentres all the time and what I hear is that universal credit is providing a more personalised support that is helping to get more people into work and that it is an important reform. Those who stand in the way of it are failing to help the people who need support.

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T4. I know Ministers take very seriously the responsibility of supporting those with mental ill health to stay in work. One of my constituents has contacted me about his concerns. He is suffering from mental health challenges and is finding that the constant threat of redundancy or reorganisation is taking a toll on his mental health. Can the Minister tell me now, or write to me, to explain what obligations employers have to take into account their employees’ mental health when they are making such decisions? [900948]

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I am sorry to hear about the experience of my right hon. Friend’s constituent. As she will know, the Prime Minister commissioned a review of mental health in the workplace led by Paul Farmer and Dennis Stevenson. Their findings will be reported to this House shortly.

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T10. As universal credit comes to Eastbourne, my constituents face the double horror of a 10-week delay for their first payment and no hope of benefit increases in the years ahead. Now that the latest research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warns that the benefits freeze will push a further half million people into poverty by 2020, will the Minister commit to lifting the freeze, thus avoiding the severe poverty trap that will affect my constituents and hundreds of thousands of people around the country? [900954]

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The benefits freeze was a measure that this Government took to contribute to reducing the deficit. On the point about people having to wait 10 weeks before receiving universal credit, 80% get paid in full and on time after six weeks. The system of arrears is inherent in universal credit because the payment is based on how much a person has earned over the previous month. That has always been part of the design, and it was part of the design that, presumably, the hon. Gentleman voted for when the coalition Government passed the legislation.

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T5. The Secretary of State has already made it clear that, when the jobcentre closes in Shipley, outreach work will still be carried out by the jobcentre in the constituency. Can he confirm what he has in mind, when the specific proposals will be announced and what consultation will be carried out in the local community to ensure that they meet the needs of my constituents? [900949]

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Outreach is a vital front-facing service to claimants across a whole range of employability and related services. Of course it needs to be tailored to the needs of each area. The DWP is looking at partnerships with organisations in my hon. Friend’s constituency, including with the local authority. Throughout the course of that, we will be working with his constituents, and we will be happy to work with him, to ensure that those needs are met following the closure of the Shipley office.

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On 12 July, universal credit was rolled out in York. Many of the families affected also receive free school meals and therefore had a devastating time of food poverty over the summer. Will the Minister learn lessons from the pilot scheme and ensure that universal credit is not rolled out in advance of school holidays?

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Universal credit was rolled out in 29 job- centres in July. It is important that we continue to make progress in the roll-out. We are doing it gradually and sensibly, but we are moving towards a system that helps more people get into work. Of course we are constantly learning lessons and finding ways to improve things, but it is a system that is helping to deliver more people into work.

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T6. The higher rate of tax is 45% on gross income and the effective rate of tax on universal credit claimants is 63%. How can the Minister justify that? [900950]

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I return to what I said earlier: with universal credit, we are improving the incentives to work. This has to be seen in the context of the previous system, where far more people would face considerably higher marginal withdrawal rates. This important reform means that people can always see that they are better off going into work and, once there, they can see that they are better off always progressing in work.

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I find the Minister’s previous response surprising because a response to a recent written question showed that about two thirds of decisions against awarding PIP and ESA in Barnsley East are eventually overturned on appeal, with these appeals taking an average of 15 weeks to be decided. Does the Minister believe that it is acceptable to make my constituents who are eligible for vital financial assistance wait nearly four extra months?

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No. That is why we are trying to get better decisions earlier in the process. We have made progress. As I said, the number of PIP cases going to appeal has fallen by 22% over the last quarter. We will continue—

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Will you publish those figures?

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They are published; they were published a few weeks ago. We will shortly bring forward our response to Paul Gray’s second review, which will contain further things that I hope the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) will welcome.

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T8. I recently met the excellent local branch of the charity Scope in Boston. It praised the Government’s work on changing the testing regime for those with long-term conditions, but asked what progress are the Government making on their continued bid to simplify the bureaucracy of the forms and the application process for benefits to which people are entitled? [900952]

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The severe conditions criteria are a big step forward and will save people from having to go through reassessments. I have already stated that we intend to do more on PIP and the work capability assessment. The severe conditions criteria also allow us to save bureaucracy at local government level. If we can passport that information to local government, it will help with things such as the blue badge scheme and other forms that people have to fill in that are not directly supplied by DWP or the Government.

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I would invite the Employment Minister to visit my local jobcentre, but he is busy circumventing his own criteria to shut it down. In view of the problems with universal credit, why does he not revisit those decisions, keep jobcentres open and stop forcing some of the most vulnerable people to travel for hours just to get the benefits that they are entitled to?

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We had an estate that was underutilised. As the Secretary of State said, coming to the end of the large contract that covered very much of the estate, there was an opportunity—indeed, a requirement—to review all our needs to ensure that we had the best possible estate for the future. We had clear criteria for determining which of those sites should be open to public consultation. Where those criteria were met, of course there was a consultation.

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I am sure that the Secretary of State and everyone in this House would agree that parents should fulfil their financial obligations to their children. But do they agree that much more should be done to combat those who are shamefully using legal loopholes to avoid paying child maintenance?

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Where a parent fails to pay on time or in full, we aim to take immediate action to recover that debt and to re-establish compliance. Where someone’s personal income appears suspicious in any way, caseworkers may refer that case to our newly beefed-up financial investigations unit.

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I wrote to the Secretary of State on Friday about my constituent, Danielle Brown, who lost her leg at the age of two. She has now lost her PIP and her Motability car. Will the Minister look into this case and assure me that I will get a reply as soon as possible?

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I would be happy to look at the hon. Lady’s case. We changed the rules on Motability to ensure that people could go to appeal and not lose their car in the meantime. It sounds as if something has gone wrong in this particular case. I cannot make a decision, but I can look at the case and see what we can do to help.

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I am grateful to the Government for the assistance given to my constituent, who had to leave Dominica because of the terrible damage caused by the hurricane. But on her return back to this country with her 22-month-old son, she has discovered that she is not entitled to any benefits whatever for three months. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can ensure that we have a right and proper system to make sure that people in such circumstances really are entitled to benefits?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point. We will certainly look at it and ensure that she has the opportunity to meet us to discuss it.

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East Lothian is a pilot area for universal credit, and the third sector—particularly the citizens advice bureau and East Lothian’s local authority welfare service—has kept universal credit going by supporting a very high percentage of applicants. Will the Minister confirm when there will be additional funding for the third sector, so that it can carry on supporting the DWP with universal credit?

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We obviously continue to engage with the voluntary sector. I know what the CAB was campaigning for, but it did welcome what I said last week about advances; indeed, I am meeting the CAB later this week to further discuss how we can work together to deliver a very important welfare reform.

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While the increase in advance payments is welcome, does the Secretary of State not share my concern that the CAB has said that, on average, claimants have only less than £4 a month to pay back creditors? Therefore, advance payments are simply storing up problems for the future. Will he commit to giving the House a statement on the numbers who are coming into universal credit, the time it takes to pay them and the numbers who are forced into debt, rent arrears or hardship because of this policy?

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We do update the House on information, as we have it, about the number of claimants for universal credit, the timeliness details and other details, and we will continue to do that. When it comes to advances, there is a concern across the House that people are left six weeks without receiving any support. Ensuring that advances are there and that they are made known to people is really important, and I hope all Members will do that.

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A constituent who relies on agency work from the shipyards finds himself in rent arrears of over £900 as a result of being on universal credit. Does that not show that the concerns of social housing providers should be listened to, or does a social housing provider have to go under before its concerns are addressed?

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The DWP has been working closely with social housing providers on putting in place what is described as the landlord portal, which enables information to flow between social landlords and the DWP. It has already been piloted and will be in operation later this month. That is one of the things we are doing to ensure that this process is constantly improving and that we can verify identity and get the right money to the right people as quickly as possible.

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How much does the Secretary of State estimate is being paid out through housing benefit, or will be paid out under the housing-related costs of universal credit, for unfit accommodation in the private rented sector? All too often, I meet vulnerable tenants living in completely unfit accommodation. A huge amount of taxpayers’ money is being used to line the pockets of dodgy landlords. It is a complete and utter disgrace, and I would like to know what the Secretary of State’s estimate is of the size of the problem and what he is going to do about it.

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We are always concerned about substandard rental accommodation, and we do keep in touch with the relevant bodies. This is something that is generally of concern to the Department, and it is something we will keep an eye on moving forward.

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The all-party parliamentary group on deafness recently heard compelling evidence about the disproportionate and damaging impact the cap on awards under the Access to Work scheme is having on people who use British sign language as their first language, with deaf people having job offers withdrawn, withdrawing from their roles and giving up on their careers. The Government say they are committed to improving disabled people’s opportunities at work, but this policy is destroying them. Will the Minister think again?

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We have looked in great detail at many aspects of Access to Work, and although it is a popular scheme, there are many things we want to change in it. I very much recognise that the scheme is not just about giving someone a piece of technology to enable them to communicate; it is about giving them the services they need to be their best—to thrive and to be their most creative in the workplace. For some, that will involve British sign language interpreters. This is very much an area we are looking at, and it will be something we bring forward and report back on in the health and work road map.

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Are levels of child poverty falling or rising?

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When one compares rates of poverty with those before the change of Government in 2010, we see that none of the four main measures has worsened and, in fact, three have improved.

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As of November 2016, youth unemployment in my constituency of Wolverhampton South West was 27%. Now, we are due to have the roll-out in December and this will see the enforcement of the youth obligation. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that young people who reside in constituencies such as mine are provided with support into employment, while the transition to the full UC service is implemented?

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I had the pleasure of visiting Wolverhampton just last week and had the opportunity to speak to my colleagues in jobcentres in the area about youth unemployment. Of course, the figure for young people who have left full-time education and are unemployed has dropped below 5% for the first time since that data series began. As we know about the scarring effect of any period out of work for a young person, we continue to work hard through things such as work experience and sector-based work academies, and that is showing great success.

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Order. We have run out of time, but I shall call one further questioner, a Member with an insatiable appetite for these matters and a detailed, some would say anorakish, knowledge of all the most complex formulae. I am referring, of course, to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms).

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I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. Apart from shocking delays, Citizens Advice highlights two big problems with universal credit. One is that it is too complicated; people cannot understand it. The second is that when there is a problem, there is nobody there to help people. I am glad that the Secretary of State is meeting Citizens Advice, but will he have anything to say to them on those two specific problems?

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The personalised support available in jobcentres to people claiming universal credit is much more advanced than that which we have had in the past. In terms of complexity, universal credit is a much simpler system than that which has existed up to now, with six different benefits, leaving us in the absurd position in which people were unwilling to take a job that required them to work more than 16 hours because they would move from one benefit system to another, knowing that their hours might fall in the future, so they would move back to a different system. That complexity has discouraged people from working more hours and we should all seek to tackle that. That is exactly what universal credit does.