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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
18 December 2017
Volume 633

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Disability Confident Scheme

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1. What progress his Department is making on implementing the Disability Confident scheme. [902978]

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Over 5,000 employers have signed up to Disability Confident since its launch in November 2016. The Disability Confident business leaders group, made up of prominent national businesses, is promoting the scheme to other employers. I am pleased to report that all the main ministerial Government Departments have now achieved Disability Confident leader status.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that Disability Confident will prove to be an effective way of breaking down barriers for disabled people to get into work, particularly by addressing the issues of stigma that a lot of disabled people still feel? In that regard, would he consider attending my Disability Confident event in Halesowen on 26 January?

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I will certainly consider my hon. Friend’s kind invitation. I agree that a lot of Disability Confident events have been very productive in engaging employers at local level and encouraging them to see the benefits of employing disabled people. The Department for Work and Pensions continues to support local authorities and MPs in holding such events, so maybe I will have the opportunity to attend one in his constituency.

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The truth is that this simply is not working. My constituent, Alan, has just graduated with a BSc honours degree in computing technology. He is blind and has a guide dog to assist him, but when he tells prospective employers about this in advance, they just do not take his applications. He has applied for 857 jobs but he has got absolutely nowhere. What is he going to do?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. We have undoubtedly made progress in the last few years. We have 600,000 more disabled people in work than was the case in 2010, but there is more to do, which is why the Government have an ambition to increase the number from 3.5 million to 4.5 million over the course of 10 years. It is also why we published our recent Command Paper on the subject. It is really important to bring about a culture change among employers so that people like Alan can have those opportunities.

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How many of the FTSE 250 companies have signed up to this excellent campaign?

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That is a very good question, and I will have to write to my hon. Friend with the answer. I can tell him that businesses small and large have participated in the scheme, including large organisations such as Microsoft, GlaxoSmithKline, Sainsbury’s and Channel 4, as well as many small businesses up and down the country.

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May I take this opportunity on behalf of my colleagues on the Scottish National party Benches to offer our sincere condolences to Mr Deputy Speaker after the weekend’s tragic incident? Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to Lindsay and his family.

The Chancellor told the Treasury Select Committee earlier this month that

“far higher levels of participation by marginal groups and very high levels of engagement in the workforce, for example, by disabled people, may have had an impact on the overall productivity measurement”.

The Chancellor belittled the efforts and contribution of disabled people in the workforce. How disappointed was the Secretary of State by that unhelpful statement?

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First, I should like to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the Deputy Speaker, who has the thoughts of the whole House with him at this time.

In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s question, however, I disagree with him. The point that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was seeking to make is that we have made great progress in recent years on increasing the level of disabled people in work. That is a good thing to do, and he made it clear that he considered it to be a good thing. That is what the whole Government want to achieve.

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The small employment adviser at Rugby jobcentre has just signed up 15 new employers to become Disability Confident. Does the Secretary of State agree that the role of those officers in building links with small employers in local areas is crucial to ensuring that more disabled people get access to the workplace?

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Yes, I do. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is really important that that engagement happens up and down the country, and I am pleased that we are making progress. As I have said, we have over 5,000 Disability Confident employers, and I hope that we will continue to increase that number. My Department will certainly be doing everything it can to achieve that.

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In the recently published “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families” paper, the Government said that they wanted to work in partnership with employers to help them to draw fully on the talents of disabled people. However, following the Chancellor’s recent comments scapegoating disabled people as being the reason for low productivity, does the Secretary of State agree that there is a need for a clear and coherent message from the Government that employing disabled people can enhance productivity and make a real contribution to organisations and businesses across the UK?

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There is a clear and coherent message from this Government. We have seen significant increases in the number of disabled people in work, which is good for disabled people, but it is also good for the economy as a whole. That continues to be our message, and that is why we published our “Improving Lives” document. We will continue to work to improve the opportunities for disabled people in the labour market.

“Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families”

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3. What progress has been made on implementing the recommendations of his Department’s report, “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families”, published in April 2017. [902980]

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“Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families” aims to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children and is making good progress. For example, from next Spring, Public Health England will run a trial of individual placement and support, and our vital work on reducing parental conflict was boosted by the Chancellor’s announcement of £39 million in the recent Budget.

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I thank the Minister for her reply. As she will know, working households in coastal communities such as Cleethorpes face particular difficulties. There is much low-paid work, but not much to encourage young people to stay there. What additional support can she offer to those sorts of communities?

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The Government are committed to supporting coastal communities, such as those in his constituency of Cleethorpes and my constituency of Gosport. That is why I am pleased that the claimant count in his area is already down by 49%. Last March, we saw 248 families in north-east Lincolnshire achieve significant progress through our troubled families programme, and I know that the Secretary of State was impressed when he visited my hon. Friend and saw a programme that is helping troubled youngsters. More widely, the council was awarded a Coastal Communities Fund grant in April worth £3.8 million towards a scheme to enhance Cleethorpes’ role as a high-quality place to work, live and visit.

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Does the Minister think that the fact that she is failing to support people who are workless and still in poverty is one of the reasons why Alan Milburn resigned as chair of the Social Mobility Commission?

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We are actually doing more to get people into work than any other previous Government. We know that making a meaningful difference to people’s lives, including those of the most disadvantaged children and families, requires an approach beyond just welfare support. That means supporting people into jobs, because we know that employed people have much-improved chances and incomes. That also means focusing on the other key drivers of poverty, such as education, and on other things to support children.

Rights of Disabled People

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4. What steps his Department is taking to respond to and implement the recommendations in the concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, published on 3 October 2017. [902981]

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We are committed to improving the lives of disabled people, both in the UK and through our international development work, and we are constructively considering the UN’s recommendations going forward. We intend to provide an update to the UN next summer, as requested.

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The UN report specifically called on the Government to repeal the Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) (Amendment) Regulations 2017 and to ensure that eligibility criteria in assessments to access PIP, employment and support allowance and universal credit are in line with the human rights model of disability. Will the Minister commit to that today?

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We are absolutely committed to disabled people. We are world leaders in disability rights. We were disappointed that the UN did not consider all the information that we provided, and we strongly rebut much of what it had to say. I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in welcoming the excellent work on reviewing PIP that was published today by Paul Gray, which sets out a whole series of reforms showing that this Government are determined to ensure that we have a benefit system that really supports disabled people.

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Not only did the report seemingly fail to recognise that we now spend a record £50 billion on supporting people with disabilities and long-term health conditions, but it also failed to recognise the proactive work with charities and stakeholder groups that helps to shape policies. Will the Minister reconfirm her commitment to that proactive engagement?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I absolutely confirm that I will work with disabled people and organisations that work with disabled people. I pay tribute to the excellent work that my hon. Friend did when he held my position. I am sure that we will continue to build on the work that he did and will ensure that more disabled people have the opportunity to fulfil their full potential in our society.

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Will the Minister please consider a root and branch reform of PIP? Someone who came to Feeding Birkenhead was doubly incontinent due to cancer, but she received a nil rating for PIP. While she needed food, she also needed nappies. When she did not turn up after a few days, people went to see how she was, and she was washing babies’ nappies, because she wanted to get about and was too ashamed to come and ask us for more. Is there not something wrong with PIP assessments when those sorts of cases occur?

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this very sad case. Clearly something went wrong in that individual case. I look forward to answering questions and spending time with his Select Committee later this week. I point him to the response to Paul Gray’s evaluation of PIP that I published today. I am sure we will have more time to look at that in detail, but we remain utterly committed to making sure that we continue to improve PIP.

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At my surgery last week I met Frances, who has cerebral palsy. She made an application to the clinical commissioning group to get e-motion wheels for her wheelchair, which has been denied. Does the Minister agree that ensuring that people have the equipment to enable them to go to work is incredibly important and increases their self-esteem and their ability to contribute to the economy?

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My hon. and learned Friend raises an important point. Of course, PIP is a benefit that is available to people in work and out of work, and it is there to support everyone with the additional costs of their disability. Of course, mobility is really important. There is also the excellent Access to Work scheme, which each year is funding more people, enabling them to play their full part in society, including at work.

Poverty: In-work Households

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5. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of in-work households living in poverty. [902982]

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It is clear that work is the best route out of poverty, as the rate of poverty in working households is one third of that among workless households. Latest data shows there are 1.9 million working households in relative low income.

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One of the real impacts of increasing levels of in-work poverty will be in the changes that the roll-out of universal credit will bring. In a written parliamentary answer I received today from the Minister for Employment, I was told that universal credit will be rolled out in my Ogmore constituency in March next year, which is incorrect. According to the House of Commons Library, universal credit will be rolled out in March, June and November. How can the public have any trust in what the Government are doing with universal credit if they simply do not know the dates of roll out in particular constituencies when they answer MPs?

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We will certainly look into that information. It is important to point out that we know that work is the best route out of poverty, and that universal credit is helping people to move into work quicker, to progress through work faster and to stay in work longer. The smooth taper rate gives incentives to take on more hours because, unlike the old system, people see more money in their pocket for every extra hour they work.

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Does the Minister agree that one of the ways we can help those in work and on low pay is by introducing and increasing a national living wage, by increasing the personal tax allowance so that people keep more of the money they earn, and by helping with childcare costs? Is that not precisely what the Government are doing?

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I could not have put it better myself. There are 300,000 fewer working-age adults in absolute poverty now than in 2010. As my hon. Friend says, we are making sure that work pays through the national living wage and lower taxes. The lowest earners have seen their wages grow by almost 7 percentage points above inflation over the past two years.

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On behalf of my party, may I add my condolences to those already expressed in this Chamber? I am sure that all our hearts go out to Mr Deputy Speaker’s family.

One of the biggest problems facing in-work households living in poverty is fuel poverty. Altnaharra, which is in the middle of my vast constituency, is the coldest place in the UK every year, so fuel poverty is a colossal problem for my constituents. Will the Minister have meetings with the Scottish Government to take forward ways of tackling this terrible problem, particularly in the remotest and coldest parts of the UK?

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I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Mr Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about fuel poverty. The Government have been doing so much to ensure that people are aware that they can cut down on household energy bills by switching, and we have been making it easier for people to switch. We also know that the Scottish Government have devolved powers to support people more with their benefits, if that is what they decide to do, and they are free to develop their own approaches to addressing poverty.

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Is it not time to have a grown-up conversation about the measure of poverty? Under the relative measure, thousands would be lifted out of poverty by a recession, by a significant number of job losses or by a reduction in the median level of household income. Surely that cannot be the best measure and it is right that we look to work as the best route out of poverty.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this matter. If we look at progress since 2010 across all four of the most commonly used measures of poverty—relative, absolute, before housing costs and after housing costs—without cherry-picking any of the statistics, we see that people are no more likely to be in poverty today than they were in 2010. Indeed, on three of the measures the likelihood of being in poverty has reduced, and the incomes of the poorest 20% have increased in real terms by more than £300.

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20. CPI—consumer prices index—stands at 2.8%, food inflation is at 4.2%, its highest for four years, and the big six energy companies have announced price increases of between 8% and 15% this year. That comes against a backdrop of freezes on working age benefits, so is it surprising that people are having to go to food banks? [902997]

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The Government are committed to building an economy that works for everybody, which is why we have committed to raising the national living wage—we are talking about an increase of 33p. This will be equivalent to a 9% increase in the national living wage since its introduction in 2016. It represents an increase to a full-time minimum wage worker’s annual earnings of more than £600.

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On behalf of Labour Members, I would like to express our condolences to Mr Deputy Speaker. Our thoughts are with him and his family.

Disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people because of the extra costs they face. The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently estimated the cumulative effect of Government cuts since 2010 at £2,500 a year for a disabled adult, but when the Government discovered that they had underpaid approximately 75,000 disabled people who transferred on to ESA support between 2011 and 2014, they announced in last Thursday’s written statement that they would only be repaying claimants from October 2014. How many of the 75,000 disabled people will receive an arrears payment? Given that attempted suicide rates among ESA claimants doubled between 2007 and 2014, what estimates have been undertaken on the impacts on claimants’ mental health as a result of this Department for Work and Pensions error?

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I am sure that I can write to the hon. Lady with the details on that. As well as being very mindful of the impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing, we must apply the law. We have to value disabled people in our workplace, which is why the Government are making sure that many, many more disabled people are able to access work and get into work.

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Recent data shows that 8 million working families are living in poverty. Despite Government rhetoric, work is not the route out of poverty.; four out of five people who are in low-paid work now are likely to be in low-paid work in 10 years’ time. But in his interview on yesterday’s “The Andrew Marr Show”, the Secretary of State failed to mention that, under universal credit, sanctions have escalated and are being applied to people who are actually in work. The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have both raised concerns about the impact of sanctions on debt, rent arrears and homelessness. So why is the Secretary of State intent on punishing people in low-paid work by sanctioning them?

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Sanctions are applied only as a very last resort and there are mitigations in place to support people when this is done. The hon. Lady is wrong to say that people in work are more likely to be in poverty; a key driver of in-work poverty is the part-time work that people were trapped in when her party was in government—people were trapped working fewer than 16 hours a week. The Labour Government were literally paying them to stay poor, whereas our reforms are about supporting people to progress in work and keep more of the extra money that they earn.

Universal Credit: Food Bank Usage

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6. If he will make an assessment of the effect of the length of waiting time to receive universal credit on levels of food bank usage. [902983]

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15. If he will make an assessment of the effect of the length of waiting time to receive universal credit on levels of food bank usage. [902992]

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There is no reason for people to go without support while they wait for their first UC payment. New benefit claimants starting on UC today will be able to access an advance. This is normally paid within five working days, but can be delivered in a day if needed. Changes announced in the Budget will allow claimants to receive larger advances and for advances to be recovered over a longer period.

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Given the waiting period for universal credit, people face a choice: they can have no money to buy food, so either use a food bank or starve, or they can get a loan, as the Secretary of State says. Does he agree that pushing people who are already on a low income because they are on a benefit into debt in this way is totally unacceptable?

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I do not accept the hon. Lady’s categorisation at all. The complaint that has been made about universal credit is about the cash-flow point—that people have to wait a period of time before they get their first payment. To address the cash-flow point there is a system of advances in the universal credit system so that people have the flexibility to receive the money earlier. It is an advance, they get it paid earlier—they do not get it paid twice, I accept that, but they get it paid earlier—and it is a perfectly sensible way to address a cash-flow issue.

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The Peabody Trust estimates that 60,000 households will have made a new universal credit claim in the six weeks before Christmas and will not receive their first payment before the holiday period. The need is already being felt in my constituency, where last week Norwood food bank provided food for an extraordinary 128 people in a single session. What is the Secretary of State’s advice to families who are trying to provide a happy Christmas for their children without the means to afford even basic necessities?

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We should be clear: if people need cash before Christmas, they are able to get it under the universal credit system, which is designed so that they can do that. People trying to discourage claimants from taking an advance, which I am afraid is the tone that we hear too often from the Labour party, are causing unnecessary anxiety for claimants.

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The chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority has recently warned about high levels of debt among young people incurred just by their covering basic household bills such as rent. Young people aged 18 to 21 are not entitled to housing support under universal credit. Why did the Government ignore a Social Security Advisory Committee recommendation that young people on the edge of care should be exempted from that?

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As the hon. Lady will be aware, there are a whole host of exemptions that do allow 18 to 21-year-olds to access housing benefit, if those exemptions apply to them. I have to come back to this point, which the Labour party does not seem to accept: the best way in which we can sustainably lift people out of poverty is to have a welfare system that encourages them to work and to progress in work. That is what universal credit does and it is what the legacy system failed to do, which is why we are making these changes.

Youth Unemployment

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7. What recent assessment he has made of trends in youth unemployment. [902984]

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Unemployment among 16 to 24-year-olds is 523,000—down 60,000 on the year and down 416,000 since 2010.

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I welcome that news from the Minister. I am a strong campaigner for apprenticeships, including in my constituency, where we have just 70 young unemployed people. Does the Minister agree that making apprenticeships far more available helps young people into jobs, not only in Wealden but throughout the country?

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My hon. Friend has indeed been a great campaigner and a great champion for apprenticeships. Apprenticeships—including the 620 starts in Wealden in 2016-17—are one of the key policies that have contributed to our successful labour market, in which employment now stands at 75%.

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What is the trend in unemployment for young people with learning difficulties?

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We absolutely accept that of course young people with learning difficulties need additional assistance and additional understanding of conditions and so on, which is why we have very much focused on providing that in jobcentres to make sure that they get the support they deserve.

Personal Independence Payments

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8. Whether his Department has set a target for the time taken for a personal independence payment claim to be processed from application to decision. [902985]

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The DWP does not set a target for processing PIP claims. The Department takes all reasonable steps to obtain evidence of claimants’ individual needs, including independent assessment. We make decisions as quickly as possible based on the available information in order to reach the right outcome. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be pleased to know, as I was, that the median time from start to end is currently 13 weeks.

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Notwithstanding further appeal by the Department, will the Minister restore benefits after a successful first-tier decision for the applicant?

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My right hon. Friend raises a very important question, but the Department takes the view that, because we are appealing the decision and it is based on an error of law, that really would not be appropriate. I just want to reassure him and all hon. Members that there are always exceptions, and this could arise where a suspension would cause financial hardship. For most benefits, this is considered before suspension is imposed, but, in all cases, the suspension letter sent to claimants invites them to contact the Department immediately if they are in financial hardship so that we can help them.

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Sixty five per cent of PIP tribunals find in favour of the claimant, meaning that hundreds of disabled people are being denied the support to which they are entitled. This puts an intolerable strain on whole families, including my constituents Chris and Cathryn Stoney who, having coped with Cathryn’s bowel cancer surgeries, brain haemorrhage and cardiac arrest, now face a further ordeal appealing against an unjust assessment. Will the Minister agree to meet me, the Stoneys and Nottingham advice services to hear how the system is failing disabled people?

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I would be very pleased to meet the hon. Lady and her constituents to talk about that case or to listen to their concerns more widely, but we really should put the situation in context: 8% of decisions are appealed and 4% of them are upheld. I am very aware that behind every statistic is a person, but it is actually a small percentage of the millions of people who do receive their benefits, and we are continuously focused on making the right decision, right from the outset, which is why we commission independent reviews. We welcome the findings of the latest independent review by Mr Gray, which has been published today, and we have accepted all his recommendations.

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Does the Minister agree that Paul Gray’s recommendations in the second independent review of personal independence payments that the routine provision of the assessment report to the claimant would both improve identification of error and incentivise better performance at the assessment stage, and will she fully accept that particular recommendation?

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As I have said before, I am really delighted with the review and to have received its findings. We have accepted all the findings in the review. At the moment, those reports are available, so that everyone can request them. We do not think it is a good use of taxpayers’ money to provide them to people who are happy with the result, who will not be going on to make any further appeal and who are actually getting on with receiving their benefit.

Universal Credit: Sanctions

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9. What estimate his Department has made of the number of sanctions that will be applied each month as universal credit is rolled out. [902986]

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The Department does not forecast numbers of sanctions that will be applied. We do not want sanctions to be incurred, but they do play an important part in reasonable conditionality.

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Well, what an answer! Never would I accuse the Minister of dedolence, but I must say that that sort of Panglossian response shows an absence of empathy or understanding, particularly of the empirical evidence that we have had to date. My constituents see universal credit as a rock rolling down a hill next April. However, as this is Christmas and we are in the spirit of giving and generosity, will the Minister join me in my impetration to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for additional secretarial support during those dark days when this awful universal credit is rolled out and over our constituents?

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I think the hon. Gentleman is going to the west end to perform on the stage. He would feel so fulfilled. In fact, I think that he has already done so—perhaps just now.

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I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that when I say that sanctions are considered to be a part of reasonable conditionality, it was also the approach that was taken up fully by the previous Labour Government. With regard to universal credit over Christmas, we have in place—as we do every year—robust processes to make sure that claims get paid. We can bring claims forward to make sure that things go smoothly, as we always seek to do before Christmas.

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There is a matter of some dispute here between the Chair and the Table. I think that the hon. Gentleman is a representative of a petrocurrency, but Mycroft in front of me is not wholly convinced, so the matter remains as yet undetermined.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I refer the Minister to the question I raised with the Leader of the House on Thursday. Will the Minister provide an assurance that when the Department makes mistakes in the administration of universal credit, claimants will be fully compensated in claims backdated to the point where they will be no worse off?

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question. I have written to him today on this specific case. I do not know whether the response has yet come to hand following his question on Thursday, but I am happy to meet him and discuss it in detail. I understand that there was an issue about some of the information at the time the claim was made, and that there has been some backdating. We will talk about the matter later.

Job Creation

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10. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the number of jobs created since 2010. [902987]

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The number of people in employment has increased by more than 3 million since 2010 to reach 32 million in the last quarter. The employment rate is close to the record high and has increased by almost five percentage points since 2010.

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Despite a small recent decline in total employment, unemployment has continued to fall. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this suggests that the Government’s policies and the work of our great jobcentres across the country are making all the difference in matching jobseekers with available jobs? As it is Christmas, would he thank Ian Spalding—the manager of the Newark jobcentre—and his fantastic staff for ensuring that unemployment in Newark is now at 1%?

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I will very happily join my hon. Friend in thanking Ian Spalding and, indeed, Jobcentre Plus staff up and down the country, who do a fantastic job in helping to reduce unemployment. I think that the claimant count in Newark has fallen by 42% since 2010. In the meetings that I have had with jobcentre staff across the country, I have seen that they are enthusiastically implementing universal credit because they can see that it will help them to make further progress.

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Is the Secretary of State not aware that hundreds of thousands of people in this country are yearning for a good and well-paid job? Many are young people who cannot get an apprenticeship. Apprenticeship starts are down by 62% this year and further education colleges are in trouble. When is he going to do something about training young people and really giving them the chance of a good job on good pay?

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the recent apprenticeship numbers were affected by a spike at the end of the previous period, but the reality is that we have substantially increased the number of apprenticeships in recent years. We have introduced the apprenticeship levy, which puts apprenticeships on a sustainable financial footing. It is this Government, with our industrial strategy, who are ensuring that we create the highly skilled jobs that the country needs.

Personal Independence Payments: Mental Health

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11. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the personal independence payments application process on people with mental health issues. [902988]

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The claiming process for personal independence payment was co-produced with disabled people, carers and organisations supporting them, including mental health charities. We will continue to explore opportunities to monitor and improve the process, making use of customer testing and engagement with disability groups.

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The charity, Rethink Mental Illness, surveyed PIP claimants, and found that two in five felt that delays in decisions led to deterioration in their mental health, and that one in five had to take higher doses of medication to cope with the increased stress. Does the Minister think that that is acceptable, and will she look at the findings of the survey and review the assessment process in the light of them?

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I pay tribute to Rethink and its campaign—I have read the findings of its survey with interest—as well as to Mind. These organisations are key stakeholders that help the Department to get these things right. No, I do not want people to be stressed by the process, which is why we are implementing a wide range of reforms that we have worked on with our stakeholders. We will make a paper-based decision wherever possible—wherever the information enables us to—and people also have the opportunity to be assessed at home.

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Constituents and support agencies in North West Durham have told me that the assessment to determine entitlement to PIP is too black and white, and is not able truly to capture a person’s day-to-day life with all the nuances that involves, especially when assessing mental health problems. This is leading to traumatic and humiliating experiences, and claims being refused to people who really need them. Will the Minister please look into this process in detail for those with mental health problems?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her comment. We keep the process under constant review, and we have it independently assessed to make sure that, if there are any problems at all, we will work to overcome them. However, I can assure her that, compared with the previous benefit—disability living allowance—many more PIP recipients with mental health conditions are getting the enhanced rates.

Contracted-out Health Assessments

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12. What recent assessment he has made of the (a) accuracy and (b) efficiency of contracted-out health assessments for (i) employment and support allowance and (ii) personal independence payments. [902989]

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We are committed to ensuring that claimants receive high-quality, accurate assessments. We monitor assessment quality through independent audit. Decision makers can return reports for rework or additional advice. A range of measures, including provider improvement plans, address performance failings when we experience standards below what we want. We continually look to improve the assessment process.

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Forty people in Wakefield have written to me with their concerns that, at their employment and support allowance or PIP assessment, they were not seen by an appropriate person. That includes one person with mental health problems, who was assessed by a paramedic. The Work and Pensions Committee recently heard that Atos and Capita employ only four doctors between them, and statistics released by the Minister’s Department today show that those contractors have consistently failed to meet their targets for the number of unacceptable assessments, so how can sick and disabled people in Wakefield have any confidence in the assessment process?

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I am looking forward to discussing this matter in more depth with the Select Committee when I come before it on Wednesday. However, I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that all the assessors receive absolutely appropriate training for what they are there to do. These are functional assessments, and people are properly trained to make those assessments—there are doctors, nurses, paramedics and physiotherapists. We constantly keep the accuracy of the process under review, and that includes the experience of the claimants themselves.

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We are immensely grateful to the Minister.

Pension Transition Arrangements

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13. What recent representations he has received on pension transition arrangements for women born in the 1950s. [902990]

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I receive a variety of representations, whether that is orally, in correspondence in writing, or in debates.

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I thank the Minister for that non-answer. Figures I received from the House of Commons Library show that tax giveaways on things such as inheritance tax and corporation tax will cost the Treasury over £60 billion by 2025. Should a caring Minister and Secretary of State not argue that, instead of giving money to the rich, they could use it for transitional arrangements and ending austerity?

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I refer the hon. Gentleman to two particular points. The first is that we have differing views on taxation. The Government believe that cuts to corporation tax assist job creation—the jobs we need to pay for the public services we have. Secondly, I refer him to the fact that, under the letter of 22 June from Jeane Freeman, my opposite number, the Scottish Government have powers in terms of working-age people and to take action on the specific points that he keeps raising, but that the Scottish Government fail to do anything about.

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As the Minister will be aware, it was clear in last week’s debate that a number of colleagues behind him on the Government Benches supported the call from a lot of colleagues on the Opposition side of the House for the Government to look at transitional arrangements for WASPI women. I therefore ask the Minister, as I did last week, why not call a binding vote so that the House can advise him to do the right thing for WASPI women?

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In days gone by, the Liberal Democrats were a party of fiscal discipline. In 2011, when this matter last came before the House for debate, the hon. Gentleman and I accepted the need to take the decisions that were made, and he joined me in the Lobby to vote for them. It is a shame that he has forgotten those views now.

Universal Credit: Torbay

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14. What assessment he has made of the level of preparedness in Torbay for the roll-out of universal credit. [902991]

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We carry out a range of implementation activities well in advance of activation to ensure that sites are well prepared, and we have successfully rolled out to 235 jobcentres to date.

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I thank the Minister for his answer. Roll-out of full service universal credit in Torbay is due to happen in September 2018. It is vital that claimants fully understand the system and their options. Will the Minister therefore confirm what work his Department is doing with Torbay’s local advice services to ensure that claimants can easily get such support if needed?

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Yes, we are ensuring that stakeholders, including the key advice services, have a proper overview of universal credit, and we work closely with the citizens advice bureau and others. A dedicated employer and partnership team engages directly with local authorities, landlords and others to ensure there is a joined-up approach to supporting claimants.

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rose—

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I will interpret the Minister’s answer as being wide and therefore admitting of other constituencies, although it is not clear beyond peradventure. I will give Members the benefit of the doubt.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. There will be problems in Torbay and elsewhere if the universal credit calculation is wrong. The Minister told me in a written answer that there is no specific initiative called Late, Missing and Incorrect, but it turns out that there is, run jointly by his Department and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Will he confirm that if real-time PAYE—pay-as-you-earn—information is late, missing or incorrect, then the universal credit calculation will be wrong?

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We all admire the right hon. Gentleman for his deftness in getting from Torbay to that point. He and I have had quite an extended correspondence in parliamentary questions on the subject of real-time information in its various aspects. Of course we want to continue to make sure that every aspect of universal credit is working entirely as it should, and he has my commitment that we will do so.

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The right hon. Gentleman will experience a long journey from East Ham to Torbay. We empathise with him on his long journey.

Social Security Spending: Working Households

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16. What assessment his Department has made of trends in the level of spending on social security for working households since 2015. [902993]

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Since 2015, the level of social security spending for families on in-work benefits has reduced from £28.9 billion to £26.7 billion in real terms. This has happened during a period when we have introduced the national living wage, employment has reached record levels, free childcare has doubled, the personal allowance has increased and income inequality has continued to fall.

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With 8 million people living in poverty in working households and 28% of my constituents earning below the voluntary living wage, what action is the Secretary of State taking to address labour market inequalities with low-paid, low-skilled and insecure work?

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Let me give the hon. Lady two examples. First, there is the industrial strategy. Secondly, if we want to address in-work poverty, one way in which we can do that is to ensure that people are able to work extra hours. We need a benefits system that does not trap them in working 16 hours a week, because if they can work extra hours, they can increase their income.

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Looking back over these trends, has the Secretary of State drawn the conclusion that every Labour Government leaves office with higher unemployment than when they took office? What impact does he believe that that has on working families?

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My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We heard a very revealing comment earlier when it was said from the Labour Front Bench that work is not the route out of poverty. If work is not the route out of poverty, exactly what is?

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [903003]

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Since automatic enrolment was introduced in 2012, 9 million people have been enrolled in a workplace pension by over 900,000 employers. Today, I can announce the Government’s ambition to extend automatic enrolment to support more people to achieve greater financial security in later life. The Government’s 2017 review of automatic enrolment, published today, sets out the next steps we intend to take as we continue to develop a culture of routine pension saving. We will help young people to save by lowering the age for automatic enrolment from 22 to 18. We will also enable people to start saving from the first £1 of their earnings to provide a better retirement income for lower earners and for those in multiple jobs. I have today tabled a written statement setting out further detail, including trialling a number of targeted approaches to identify the most effective ways to increase pension saving among the self-employed.

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The universities superannuation scheme is a strong pension scheme that recently closed its defined-benefits section, moving to a defined-contribution scheme and, in effect, transferring all risk to the employee. Many argue that over-cautious accounting rules drive these changes, creating a poorer scheme that leaves many people less well off in future and puts pressure on our universities. What is the Secretary of State doing to protect the future of our higher education sector?

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Any changes that might be made to this scheme are a matter for the scheme’s joint negotiation committee, not for the Government. The independent Pensions Regulator remains in ongoing discussion with the USS’s stakeholders. Nothing has been brought to the DWP’s attention that we consider to be of concern. It would be improper for the Government to tell the joint negotiation committee how to run the scheme.

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T2. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recent announcement of the extension of auto-enrolment to 18 to 21-year-olds. In the meantime, does he have any figures on how many people have started saving and benefited from auto-enrolment in individual constituencies, including mine? [903005]

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Since 2012, 7,000 employees in Ochil and South Perthshire have benefited from a workplace pension through automatic enrolment. Our thanks are also due to the 820 local employers. State pension has risen by £1,250 since 2010, but we want to do more. We are extending auto-enrolment to 18 to 21-year-olds in his area, where we also have targeted interventions for the self-employed that I believe will be of assistance.

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The Secretary of State will be aware of the crisis engulfing members of the British Steel pension scheme, with advisers cashing in by persuading them to sink their pensions into all manner of dodgy, high-cost schemes, and he will be aware of the Financial Conduct Authority’s apparent failure to deal with the situation effectively. He will know that today the negotiations on the future of the universities superannuation scheme are coming to a head, with the threat of industrial action—something that should be interesting the Government. I am surprised that he is simply sitting back and leaving these matters to those who are directly involved. Surely, he can tell us today how he is going to get involved and take action to protect members of both schemes.

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The position in relation to both matters is that they are worked through with the Pensions Regulator and the Pension Protection Fund, particularly in relation to British Steel, to ensure that members get information on the effect on their pension rights of staying with BSPS or moving to BSPS II. That includes newsletters, a website and bespoke option packs. The Financial Conduct Authority has also stepped in and banned a variety of organisations, and it is providing proper advice.

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T4. What steps has the Department to taken to help older people who are looking, perhaps after redundancy or caring responsibilities, to get back into work? [903007]

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are more working people in older age groups now than there ever have been, but much more needs to be done, which is why we published our “Fuller Working Lives” strategy. Of course, many employers are waking up to the possibilities in jobcentres, and we are also making sure that we have more older worker champions to represent that group fully.

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Reports suggest that the Foreign Secretary, the Environment Secretary and others used this morning’s Cabinet meeting to start the campaign to scrap the working time directive after Brexit. That directive protects us when it comes to hours worked and paid holidays, as well as giving extra protection to night shift workers. Can the Secretary of State confirm what representations he has made at Cabinet to ensure that his Brexiteer colleagues are not successful at ripping up our workers’ rights?

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As I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said, “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.” The Government are committed to protecting employment rights.

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T8. I thank my right hon. Friend for the flexibility he has shown in the budget in terms of the changes to universal credit. Will he continue with the dialogue and the flexibility as the roll-out continues? [903011]

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I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to listen to constructive critics and those who want to make sure that universal credit works. In doing so, I thank him for his positive and constructive engagement. It is very clear that Conservative Members are united in ensuring that we deliver universal credit successfully.

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T5. Some 68% of personal independence payment decisions taken to tribunal are being overturned by judges, so is it any surprise that my constituent Mr Parish and others in his situation have no faith in the assessment process? What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the accuracy of PIP assessments in the light of statistics that show that there has been a ninefold increase in complaints to the Department in just one year? [903008]

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I thank the hon. Lady for the opportunity to make this clarification. As I have mentioned before, 8% of decisions are taken to appeal, and only half of those are upheld. I appreciate that every one of those people is disappointed with the result, and we are working tirelessly to improve the process. But, overall, most people get a good decision on time, and their benefits.

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On Friday, I visited my local jobcentre and saw the genuine enthusiasm that work coaches have for the new universal credit system. Will my hon. Friend confirm that additional help is available for users who are not too tech savvy?

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Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend is quite right about the enthusiasm of jobcentre staff for universal credit, because it enables them to do more of what they want to do, which is to help people to get on and get into work. I can confirm to him that, yes, computers are available in jobcentres, and assistance is available when needed.

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With the uncertainty of universal credit payments following the roll-out in Swansea last week, my local paper, the South Wales Evening Post, has co-ordinated the collection of food and warm clothes to help those in need. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the South Wales Evening Post on doing what the Government are failing to do, and making sure everyone has a good Christmas?

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What I would say to anyone—Members of Parliament, newspapers, advisory bodies and food banks—is that we need to make sure that the facts are set out to new claimants: if they need to get access to support, they can get it quickly; they need to get in contact with their jobcentre; and they are able to access an advance, and they can get that money before Christmas.

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Does the Minister agree that auto-enrolment has been a success to date and it is right to lower it to the age of 18, but that politicians—of all hues—and the pensions industry must work together to meet the savings and pension challenges facing this country?

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I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I am delighted with the fact that we now have 9 million people signed up to auto-enrolment, utterly transforming workplace pension savings. In his constituency, 8,000 employees and 680 employers have signed up—and great credit to them.

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T6. A constituent of mine in Bradford West had three same-day assessments cancelled in a period of five weeks. Eventually, she got an appointment—a home visit—after seven months. What assessment has the Department made of same-day cancellations of work capability assessments by Maximus-employed health professionals—the number, the reasons given and the impact on the mental health of applicants? [903009]

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I assure the hon. Lady that we have a very robust quality assurance process. Clearly, the case she has highlighted today is unacceptable. If she would like to bring me that case and discuss it with me, I would be very happy to do so.

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Every year, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is lost due to fraud or errors in benefit claims. Will the Secretary of State say whether the introduction of universal credit will improve this situation?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the areas of good news about universal credit is the fact that it will enable us to reduce fraud by over £1 billion. That in itself is an important step, and there are of course many other very positive reasons why universal credit is a good thing.

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T7. I recently met Hope Rising action group, which works in my constituency to support those affected by the Government’s benefit cap, and heard stories about just how hard people are being hit by a policy that is so cruel the High Court found it unlawful and guilty of causing misery. Will the Minister tell me how many people in Bradford will be affected by this policy? [903010]

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We must ensure we have a welfare system that is fair not only to those in receipt of welfare, but to those who pay for it. The lower cap is fair to both working households and the taxpayer. Before the cap, the Department for Work and Pensions disproportionately spent £10 million a year on just 300 families.

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For jobseekers in my constituency of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, it is overwhelmingly the “can do” attitude of professionals and the dedication of the work coaches, whom they value, that will help them to find work. Especially at this time of year, we as a House should definitely pay tribute to them. May I ask my hon. Friend how the new work coaches will boost the chances of jobseekers in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, as well as those elsewhere, to find work?

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I can confirm that we have been recruiting work coaches in every nation and region of the UK. We are seeking to do more to provide support with universal credit, and to ensure that what in-work support is needed is available.

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Two constituents came to my surgery on Friday, concerned that the switch of support for mortgage interest payments will force them into the private rented sector and on to housing benefit, and will therefore cost the taxpayer more money. Will the Government review that policy? Is it not more evidence of Tory austerity hitting the poorest the hardest?

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The conversion of SMI from a benefit into a loan is intended to retain support for owner-occupier claimants in a more sustainable way, while increasing fairness for taxpayers, many of whom cannot afford to buy a home of their own.

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What steps is the Department taking to ensure that DWP staff are aware of military covenant issues, so that they are best able to support our brave men and women when they leave the armed forces?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. Veterans make a considerable contribution to our country and it is right that we support them as they move on in their careers. DWP staff receive continual training to ensure that they can signpost veterans correctly. The “See Potential” campaign champions veterans and encourages employers to see the incredible skills they bring to the workplace.