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Topical Questions

Volume 641: debated on Monday 21 May 2018

Further to our discussions in this House regarding Motability and my promise to seek a National Audit Office inquiry into it, I am pleased to announce that agreement has been reached and that the NAO will begin its inquiry into Motability.

I have a young constituent who has PKU, a rare inherited disorder that requires a strict diet and treatment for life. She had been in receipt of the disability living allowance, but now that she has turned 16, she has scored zero in every personal independence payment category. Will the Minister meet my constituent and me so that we can iron out this clear case of “the computer says no”?

I would be absolutely delighted to meet the hon. Lady and to go through this constituency case with her.

T4. Where are we on the transfer of welfare powers to the Scottish National party Government? Whose court is the ball in? (905462)

We always aim to work constructively with the Scottish Government. Fair Start Scotland is a recent scheme that we are supporting proactively. My hon. Friend makes a point about changes. Introducing changes such as automatic split payments is a complex policy area, and we are having a detailed dialogue with the Scottish Government. There are currently many issues for the Scottish Government to resolve.

Of course, balls in court are always preferable to balls out of court. I am sure that that is a point with which the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) will be well familiar.

The Secretary of State has said that the pensions regulator had concerns about Carillion pension scheme deficits in 2014 but failed to act. The Government went on letting contracts to Carillion, despite repeated profit warnings, and failed to act. Do the Government recognise that the consequences of their failure to act include the biggest-ever hit on the Pension Protection Fund—£800 million—and many thousands of pensioners losing out on their pensions?

It was a Labour Government who created the Pensions Regulator in 2004, and I think we can all agree that there are lessons to be learned from Carillion and other recent high-profile cases. However, there are two options. We either try to discredit an organisation and run it down or—this is my choice—support the regulator, give it the further powers that we set out in detail in the defined benefit pension schemes White Paper and stress that the vast majority of employers do right by their employees.

The DB White Paper proposes criminal charges for directors who neglect their duties. Would Carillion’s directors go to jail under the proposed changes to the law? If not, why not?

I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman as we steer the DB White Paper into legislation, but the legislation is looking at the future—it is not necessarily retrospective.

T6. Universal credit is scheduled to be introduced in Crawley on 6 June. What support will be offered to my constituents who will be affected? (905464)

Ahead of the roll-out, my hon. Friend’s local jobcentre will speak to local partners, such as the local authority and Citizens Advice, to ensure that claimants are supported as they come on to universal credit. My officials and I will host an induction session tomorrow for all colleagues who have UC rolling out in their area in the near future, so I hope that he will join us.

Being able to walk 20 metres is an essential part of the PIP assessment process, yet Ministers have told me in written answers that they do not have a policy for their assessment centres to have parking within 20 metres, nor do they know which centres have such a facility. Indeed, the centre that I visited recently had double yellow lines outside. Given that not everyone has access to a home assessment, what would the Minister say to somebody who turns up for an assessment and cannot walk to the door?

That is not only totally unacceptable, but absolutely unnecessary. When people are invited to come along for their assessment, there is an opportunity to talk about their mobility needs to ensure that the centre is totally accessible for them. Each centre must comply with the equality responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010, and people are also offered home visits.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the record levels of employment that this Government have delivered in office have predominantly involved full-time and higher-skilled roles? (905465)

I can confirm that. Since 2010, three quarters of the growth in employment has been in full-time roles, nearly 70% of employment has come from high-skilled work and, in the north-west, 227,000 more people are in work and unemployment has fallen by 141,000.

T2. People with progressive conditions are meant to be exempt from ESA reassessments, although my constituent Glenn, who has multiple sclerosis, has one coming up, but they will not be exempt from a PIP reassessment. Will the Minister commit to removing that cruel and unnecessary burden on people living with progressive conditions? (905460)

We have worked closely with a range of stakeholders, including the Multiple Sclerosis Society, to develop a series of severe conditions criteria, which mean that people will not be asked for face-to-face reassessments. Wherever possible, we will make decisions based on the paper-based evidence that is provided. We are also working carefully to ensure that those same criteria are applied to PIP assessments.

T9. With 1,000 more people in jobs in Harlow than in 2010, and with 5,000 more apprentices over the same time, will my hon. Friend congratulate Harlow College and Harlow’s jobcentre? (905467)

I of course congratulate Harlow College, but I also thank my right hon. Friend for the enormous amount of work that he does to promote employment both here and in his constituency.

T3. Recently, two constituents with serious and deteriorating cerebral palsy both scored zero points on their PIP assessments. Both require round-the-clock care, but both were forced to appeal the decisions. Is it acceptable that people with serious and deteriorating disabilities are being forced to go through the courts to get the support that they deserve? (905461)

It is well worth pointing out that the vast majority of people go through the process and get the support they need, and many more people are receiving higher-level support under PIP than under disability living allowance. However, when I hear of cases such as that, something has clearly gone amiss, so I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.

T10. What action are the Government taking to make sure that parents cannot hide earnings from their child maintenance payment calculations? (905468)

The Child Maintenance Service is working hard to improve its recovery efforts and will be increasing the number of individuals assigned to the financial investigations unit. The Child Maintenance Service is working much more closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to make sure that we have as full a picture as possible of people’s earnings and to ensure that people take responsibility for their children.

Dupuytren’s contracture, or miner’s claw, as it is commonly known, is a progressive condition that causes the fingers gradually to curl up, occasionally requiring amputation. It is a very common disease among former miners, and the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council has made it clear to the DWP that there is a link between the use of percussive tools and miner’s claw. Why has the Secretary of State chosen to ignore that expert advice, and will she explain why the condition has not been added to the industrial injuries disablement benefit list of conditions?

I am working very closely with the independent advisory board, which advises on which conditions should go on to the list for which people can receive severe disability payments. My meetings with the board are ongoing.

A small number of my constituents do not have the digital skills or the equipment to be able to process their universal credit online. What is the Department doing to help them?

Ninety-nine per cent. of universal credit claims are made online, and those who need support to gain basic digital skills are offered digital support as part of our universal support offering.

T5. My 20-year-old constituent Lucy has severe autism and learning disabilities. She has been told that she must attend a medical assessment to transition from employment and support allowance to universal credit. Medical advice says such an assessment will cause unnecessary stress and anxiety, but that advice has been ignored by the DWP. Will the Minister commit to reducing this burden on the most vulnerable in society? (905463)

When people apply to go on to universal credit their existing ESA remains in place, so it might be that Lucy was coming up for her regular periodic assessment. It is really important to us that people get the right support but, of course, I will happily meet the hon. Lady to look into this case.

A number of my constituents have reported difficulty with the Child Maintenance Service on issues such as undeclared income and missing payments. What is being done to ensure that complaints about the CMS are dealt with in a timely manner?

It is typical of my hon. Friend that the welfare of children in his constituency should be uppermost in his mind. As I said previously, we are putting significant extra resources into the financial investigations unit and into making sure we are able to track down as much of the income as possible of parents who should be paying for their children. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that I recently instituted monthly meetings with the Child Maintenance Service to ensure that it lives up to the high standards of customer service that we expect.

T8. This morning I was contacted on behalf of a constituent who has an inoperable tumour on her spine all the way down to her pelvis, leaving her unable to walk and compounded by arthritis and severe depression. Her ESA has been suspended, her housing benefit has been suspended and she is now threatened with the possibility of eviction. Can the Minister help me make sure my constituent is protected? Can she also help me understand why so many disabled people feel they are living in a hostile environment? (905466)

Of course I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady urgently, because she raises a terrible case. [Interruption.] Let us remember that the vast majority of people claiming ESA or PIP get a really good service and get the benefits to which they are entitled.

According to The Guardian on Saturday, a report shows that the share of employees who are officially classified as low paid has fallen to 18%, the lowest level since 1982. Does that not show the Conservative party is the party of getting more people into work and ensuring they remain in work? What will the Government do to ensure that that continues?

My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), who does so much for her constituents, is spot on. The report was published by the Resolution Foundation. Over the past eight years, we have got a record number of people into work—we have got 3.24 million more people into work. That was step one. Step two was increasing the pay of the lowest paid, which we have done. Step three has to be about career progression and moving up the ladder, and that is what we will now be doing.

Atos staff are being asked to squeeze extra assessments into their working day, and one constituent had her assessment cancelled several times because the assessors were ill. The two things are clearly linked, so how will the Minister change the system to ensure that staff are not made ill by the job and people like my constituent can get their cash?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As part of the contract process, we ask healthcare professionals to make sure that they provide a high-quality service. Officials at the Department for Work and Pensions monitor those contracts carefully. We do not ask for extra appointments to be squeezed in.

A recent report by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions showed that there are massive gains to be made by deploying assistive technology to help people with disabilities into work. What are the Minister and her Department doing to extend this technology to people who need it?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. I am pleased that we have got more than 600,000 people with disabilities into work in the past four years, and assistive technology plays an incredibly important part in that. I have recently announced changes to the tech fund in the Access to Work programme, removing barriers so that people have access to assistive technology, and there is much more that we want to do.

The loss of the protected places scheme is likely to have a devastating impact on disabled workers, particularly in my constituency, where Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries employs 250 people, half of whom have a registered disability. What has the Minister done to assess the impact this move will have on disabled workers?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman asked that question, because this was totally misreported in The Times today; we are not going to close down any organisation at all that is supporting disabled people into work. I have been in ongoing discussions with the sector to make sure not only that we have the existing scheme, but that it is enhanced and mainstreamed into a new, improved programme.

May I ask the relevant Minister whether I have got this clear, because I thought that this understanding was given to Parliament: where someone appeals against the loss of their personal independence payment, their Motability car will not be taken away from them until the decision is made by the independent tribunal? Have I got that right?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. If somebody has appealed their PIP decision, they can keep their car.

Unemployment in my constituency now stands at 7.1%, which represents an increase of 1,200 on this time last year. What is the Department doing to support people into decent, well-paid and secure employment?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have record levels of employment across the country. There are more than 800,000 vacancies in the economy and help is available at jobcentres, with one-to-one personalised support.

Will the Minister consider changing how budgeting loans are administered, as they currently do not take into account personal debt and so, ironically, can make budgeting harder?

Budgeting loans are indeed available, but under universal credit we also have budgeting advances. If my hon. Friend has any specific cases she wishes to raise, I would be happy to talk to her about them.

Constituents who cannot afford a driving licence or a passport cannot do an initial online verification of their universal credit claim, meaning that they have to wait up to two weeks in order to be seen for a personal appointment. That is driving people to see loan sharks in some cases, so will the Minister look at it?

I will look at it, but if the hon. Lady would come forward with specific cases, that would make it easier.

Between 2010 and 2017, the basic state pension rate rose by £1,250. What will the Minister do to ensure that pensioners in my constituency continue to be protected and looked after by this Government?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the state pension has been enhanced and increased; the new state pension has gone up to £164-plus. There is fantastically good news on auto-enrolment in her constituency, and I will write to her with the specific details.

My constituent was called back early for a PIP assessment, which made no reference to the fact that he has an inoperable brain tumour, which has led to his having intractable epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. Can the Minister explain why he was recalled for an assessment?

I am sure the whole House will appreciate that without looking at the details of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s case, it is impossible to do that. As I have explained, the process is designed to treat people with compassion, accurately looking at the medical evidence that it is presented, alongside their assessment of their conditions.

My hon. Friend the pensions Minister is doing a lot of work on auto-enrolment for the self-employed. Has he looked specifically at the so-called worker category, in which a person might do their self-employed work for one large firm that could, with willing and regulatory help, roll them into its employee scheme?

I would be delighted to take up that specific example and will definitely take it forward. I remind my hon. Friend that 12,000 people have been auto-enrolled in his constituency.

The latest quarterly figures show that in Coventry, 81% of PIP, 76% of ESA, 83% of income support and 100% of jobseeker’s allowance appeals heard by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service were decided in favour of the appellant. Does the Minister accept that the high proportion of successful appeals highlights the flawed nature of the DWP’s decision-making processes?

It is really important to put all those numbers in context. Let us be absolutely clear: we want to make sure that we make the right decision the first time and we are working really hard to make sure that that is the case. We have recently recruited 150 presenting officers, who now work in the courts, providing invaluable feedback so that we can improve the situation.

I recently had the privilege of attending a Disability Confident event in Ayrshire. What more can the Government do to encourage or incentivise employers to invest in disabled young talent?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for leading a Disability Confident event. Disability Confident is growing from strength to strength. The most recent numbers show that more than 6,500 employers have signed up. Of the largest companies in the country, more than a quarter of the workforce is covered. Each year, we see more people with disabilities go into work. We are utterly determined to close the disability employment gap and get a million more people with disabilities into work.

My constituent of working age suffered two strokes and has now been diagnosed as suffering from vascular dementia. He has been found to be fit for work, even though he has major problems with his short-term memory. He will have to appeal the decision and faces a wait of up to 30 weeks before he gets any kind of hearing or has his benefit restored. How can this possibly be a system that is working or acceptable?

I would of course be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to go through the specifics of that case.

The hon. Gentleman wishes to raise a point of order that flows from his question, and therefore exceptionally I will take it now.

Earlier, in response to my question, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) indicated that I said one thing during the coalition and another thing post-coalition on the issue of rent payments to private landlords. The Under-Secretary was not a Member of Parliament at that time, so he will not know that I am on the record, both as a member of the Work and Pensions Committee and with the then Secretary of State, as having consistently opposed throughout the coalition the idea of paying direct payments to tenants and not to private sector landlords.

I am extraordinarily grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his perspicacity in raising the point of order, and for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of the gravamen of it. If everybody in the Chamber was not previously conscious of the particular stance taken on this matter by the hon. Gentleman over a sustained period, they all are now. I do not cavil at the hon. Gentleman, but in fairness to the Minister—this is why I think no response is required—my sense of the subject was that the Minister’s critique was collective, rather than applying exclusively or in particular to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that that reassures him. He can reassure the good people of Eastbourne that he has volunteered his views with force and alacrity, and they are on the record.