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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
11 July 2016
Volume 613

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Disadvantaged Families and Children: Life Chances

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1. What steps his Department is taking to improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children and families. [905748]

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11. What steps his Department is taking to improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children and families. [905760]

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20. What steps his Department is taking to improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children and families. [905769]

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The Government are committed to tackling disadvantage and extending opportunity so that everyone has the chance to realise their full potential. Our life chances approach will focus on tackling the root causes of poverty, such as worklessness, educational attainment and family stability.

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While I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recognition that strong and stable families make an enormous impact on children’s life chances, will he spell out to the House precisely what his Department is doing to ensure that those relationships are fostered and strengthened, particularly in a coastal town such as Southend?

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My hon. Friend is exactly right: family stability is a really important part of our mission to tackle entrenched disadvantage. That is why we have doubled funding for relationship support to £70 million and are significantly expanding support for parents. In addition, through our local family offer, we are working with 12 local authorities, including his own in Essex, to learn how best to strengthen the support they offer to families.

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As my right hon. Friend might know, there is a 12-year difference in life expectancy between one side of my city of Plymouth and the other. What advice would he give to improve chances and life expectancy in Plymouth?

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My hon. Friend is right that such inequality is unacceptable in Britain today, and that is why our life chances approach includes a set of statutory and non-statutory indicators that will drive action to tackle the wide range of complex and deep-rooted factors that can trap people in poverty, damaging their health and preventing them from making the most of their lives.

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I would like to thank the Prime Minister for his amazing work on the life chances strategy. I hope that every Member, on both sides of the House, will continue to pursue this aim.

The troubled families programme has been a huge success, but does the Secretary of State agree that it could more positively be labelled the “supported families” initiative?

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I agree very much with my hon. Friend’s point about the leadership role that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has played—it has been critical in driving this agenda forward—and I am delighted that the future Prime Minister also shares his commitment. My hon. Friend is also right about the troubled families programme. It is important that we stay positive about the changes and that we do not stigmatise any particular communities, families or households.

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The Secretary of State has mentioned support for working parents several times, but those hit hardest by the Government’s cuts to in-work support for parents are single parents—those who least deserve it—so, on this issue and that of helping single parents, will he think again?

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I share the hon. Lady’s passion for helping single parents. The current statistics all demonstrate and underline that when lone parents are supported back into work, they can achieve remarkable things in bringing children in those households out of poverty. The trends are moving in the right direction. She should welcome initiatives such as universal credit and our support for childcare costs.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that efforts to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children and families will be undermined by neglecting the importance of current income levels?

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I have always been very clear that income levels are important—a regular income is vital for families in difficult circumstances—but it is important that we look beyond that and, for the first time as a nation, start to tackle the underlying root causes of entrenched poverty.

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Last year, child poverty increased by 200,000 as a direct result of the Government’s tax and social security policies, with two thirds of these children living in working households, and it is estimated that by 2020 more than 3.6 million children will be living in poverty. There is overwhelming evidence that child poverty has a direct and negative impact on children’s social, emotional and cognitive outcomes and ultimately on their life expectancy. Given the catastrophic consequences of Government policy implemented on scant evidence, will the Secretary of State do the right thing and repeal the damaging effects of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, which threaten the life chances of these children?

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I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position on the Front Bench. Given her work in the Select Committee, I am sure she will do an excellent job in the shadow role.

The 200,000 figure that the hon. Lady mentioned exactly points to what was wrong with the previous relative income approach, which her previous Government took to tackling poverty. When real wages grow, poverty rates increase, despite people’s incomes not falling. It is much more important to tackle the underlying causes of poverty—worklessness, educational failure, family stability, problem debt and addictions.

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My right hon. Friend will know that Norwich is challenged by social mobility as per the social mobility index of earlier this year. Does he agree with me that it takes all parts of the community to come together to address these kind of problems, including the private sector and the third sector, and that constituency MPs can also play a key role in leading these things?

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I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. The work she has championed in Norwich is a good example of local action, showing where local MPs can indeed be the champions. Much as we might want to talk about national levels of poverty and social mobility, it is much more important to understand what is going on at a local level and to drive local action with effective partnerships.

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Many disadvantaged families have an older disabled relative, including 2,000 in my constituency who receive attendance allowance. The Government have said that they will scrap attendance allowance and pass funding to councils. When are the Government going to consult formally on those plans?

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The Government have not said that they are going to scrap attendance allowance. We are looking at options for devolving it to the local authority level, but we have been absolutely clear that this does not mean a cut to supporting attendance allowance. It is about looking at more effective ways of delivering it at the local level to achieve what it is intended to achieve.

UK Pensioners Abroad

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2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on British pensioners living overseas. [905749]

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There will be no immediate changes, as a result of the referendum, in the circumstances of British pensioners. Negotiations for Britain’s future relationship with Europe will begin under the new Prime Minister.

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What discussions has the Minister had with European countries about the exchange rate and its effect on pensioners abroad?

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As I say, the negotiations proper will begin when we have a new Prime Minister. In the meantime, we have a European unit that has been set up in the Cabinet Office, and it will report to the new Cabinet in due course.

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But would it not make sense for the Department for Work and Pensions to do some investigative work now, when there are thousands if not millions of British pensioners living elsewhere in the European Union? Those people currently have free access, for example, to the NHS in their local areas without contributing, but they might suddenly find their finances to be in dire jeopardy and wish to return to this country. Should not the DWP act immediately? Let me gently suggest to the Minister that just waiting as if the new Prime Minister is going to be some way away might be a bit of a mistake?

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I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working closely with the new European unit set up in the Cabinet Office, to which I referred in my previous answer.

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This is about doing what is right. We are talking about British pensioners living overseas who have paid national insurance. Why not remove that uncertainty? Why not guarantee what they are entitled to? It is all about doing the right thing with a new Prime Minister. Let us get off on the right foot and make sure that happens..

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but we need to have the new Prime Minister in place before those negotiations can start proper.

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Is the Minister not aware that the role of pensioners is a very sophisticated and complex one? Many of them depend for support on free access for their relatives in this country and on freedom to travel, as do young people going to places such as Spain to work. Has the Minister not already looked at this in some detail?

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As I said, the result of the referendum came only some few days ago, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that detailed conversations are going on in the Cabinet unit. Let me provide him with the further assurance that Britain still remains a member of the EU. I want to reassure British people living in EU countries and those EU citizens who are living in the UK that there will be no immediate changes in their circumstances.

Workplace Pensions: Automatic Enrolment

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3. What progress his Department has made on auto-enrolling people into workplace pensions. [905750]

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Automatic enrolment has been a great success with nearly 6.3 million people automatically enrolled into a workplace pension by almost 143,000 employers. We will continue with our programme to get many more people enrolled.

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Auto-enrolment has met or exceeded all initial targets. However, to maximise pensions in the long term, we need to bear down on charges. Two years ago, the Government put in place a cap of 0.75%, which is half that permitted by the Opposition when they had one for stakeholders. The Government said they would review the level of the cap, with a view to it being lower in future. Will the Minister update us on the status of that review?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this very important issue. I can give him an assurance that, in 2017, we will review whether the level of the charge cap should change, and whether to include some or all transaction costs in the cap.

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The Minister will know that in September last year, in evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, the Economic Secretary said that if there was not transparency and comparability in fees, the Government would legislate. Does he think there has been transparency? If not, when will he legislate?

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The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. We are committed to transparency and openness, and, when opportunity allows, to putting them into place in legislation.

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I congratulate the Minister on the successful roll-out of auto-enrolment. What more could be done to help the self-employed to engage in the process?

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We are working very closely with the Pensions Regulator to ensure the whole programme of auto-enrolment is easily understood, in particular for self-employed people and those who have one or two employees, so that the rules are in very clear easy-to-use language on the website and in offline literature and any other offline facilities.

State Pension Age: Transitional Protection for Women

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4. If he will make it his policy to introduce transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. [905752]

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9. If he will make it his policy to introduce transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. [905758]

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Transitional arrangements are already in place. We committed over £1 billion to lessen the impact of the changes for those worst affected, so that no one will see their pension age change by more than 18 months compared with the previous timetable. We have no plans for further changes.

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My constituent who turned 60 this year has not received any information about the changes. She was the primary carer of her children and now cannot work because of disability. but now looks forward to having to work another six years. The Minister has been presented with many proposals, including transitional arrangements. When will the Government give these women the justice they deserve?

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The hon. Lady refers to notice. At the time of the Pensions Act 2011, more than 5 million affected people did receive notification. That was done using the addresses Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs then had. As far as the proposals are concerned, they all, regrettably, cost a huge amount of money. We therefore have no plans to go down that route.

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In reality, it is the 1950s-born women who are bearing the cost. My constituent is 62-years-old and is about to be made redundant in July. She suffers with diabetes, a heart condition and COPD. She tells me that, owing to limited childcare, she worked part-time when her family were young and could not contribute to her pension. She is now very anxious that she will never be able to secure another job, and will not receive her state pension until she is 66. She has a large black hole now in her life. How does the Minister advise her on facing that bleak future?

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I assure the hon. Lady that, under the coalition Government and the present Government, we have record levels of employment for women, including older women. That is something to bear in mind. We are working extensively with employers to ensure they appreciate the value of older workers, which they do. That is why we have record levels of employment, particularly for women.

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I suspect that most hon. Members have been acquainted with difficult cases like the one mentioned by the hon. Lady. Will my hon. Friend the Minister keep an open mind on pension credit arrangements for these people? They are, after all, means-tested and could deal with the worst hardship cases.

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We do have particular criteria and where people fit that criteria, they will of course qualify for whatever benefit it is they are seeking guidance on.

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Two thousand women in Dudley North worked hard to save and plan for their retirement, but have been affected by the changes. Will the Minister meet me, my constituent Hilary Henderson and the other women from Dudley North to discuss the changes in detail? If not, why not?

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I recently met the leaders of the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign, and I have met many members of the campaign in my constituency, so I am very well aware of all the details and facts. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there have also been a huge number of debates about the subject in the Chamber in recent weeks.

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Given the imminent takeover by the new Prime Minister, who herself falls into the category of women affected by the pension changes, would this not be the ideal moment to look again at the various proposals that have been advanced for much fairer transitional arrangements—such as the one from Mariana Robinson of Wales—for all the women who do not have a prime ministerial salary to fall back on?

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I remind the House that in 2012 the DWP conducted a survey and found that only 6% of women who were due to retire within the next 10 years were unaware of an increase in the pension age. As I said earlier, the Government have no plans to review the matter.

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A little over a week ago, thousands of women from across the United Kingdom came to Parliament in a display of solidarity that reminded me very much of the Dagenham women some decades earlier. Is not the Secretary of State’s refusal to revisit the financial issues faced by the 2.6 million women whose pension ages have been increased without adequate notice a slap in the face for those women? Given that the former Pensions Minister admitted that the coalition Government had got it wrong, why is the Under-Secretary being so unreasonable?

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I find it deeply regrettable that Opposition parties seek to make capital at the Dispatch Box, and indeed from the Back Benches, when they do not have a solid proposal. They cannot provide a proper, credible solution that will ensure that the financial position of the country is taken into account. I might add that if the Opposition parties are so keen on this issue, they should bear in mind that although the Pensions Act came into being in 2011, the issue was not raised in any of their manifestos.

Policy Implications of Leaving the EU

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5. What assessment he has made of the potential policy implications for his Department of the UK leaving the EU. [905753]

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12. What assessment he has made of the potential policy implications for his Department of the UK leaving the EU. [905761]

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21. What assessment he has made of the potential policy implications for his Department of the UK leaving the EU. [905770]

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22. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the outcome of the EU referendum on welfare spending. [905771]

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The British people have voted to leave the European Union, and the referendum decision must be respected and delivered. My Department is working closely with the EU unit that has been set up in the Cabinet Office, and we will be working with the next Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet as we forge a new path for the country.

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The European Union has provided a number of legal protections involving equality and human rights for disabled people. Given the delay in the publication of the Green Paper on the Work and Health programme, what plans has the Department to protect those rights following Brexit?

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No one with a disability or a long-term health condition should have any fear whatsoever about what will happen in the coming months and years as we negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union. We are absolutely committed to protecting rights for disabled people in this country, and the Green Paper, which we will publish in the autumn, will outline our proposals for reforming systems in order to give better support to people with disabilities and long-term health conditions.

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Last week the Under-Secretary of State for disabled people confirmed that the Green Paper and the long-promised Work and Health programme for disabled people remained a priority for the Government. In the light of the current uncertainty, will the Secretary of State give us an assurance and a clear commitment that sufficient funds for that support are ring-fenced and the programme is guaranteed?

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The money has already been announced by the Chancellor on successive occasions, and it is there, waiting to be used. When the hon. Lady reads the Green Paper, which we hope to publish later this year, she will see how we will use it to develop longer-term reform options to provide better support for people with disabilities and close the disability employment gap. I think there is cross-party support for that in the House.

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Cuts in support for people who have been placed in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group from April 2017 will leave many sick and disabled people in the dark, and potentially without the protections provided by the European Union. Will the Secretary of State, unlike the Brexiteers, give us some assurance that the Government actually have a plan for the Green Paper to give back, so that those who are affected by these changes are accurately assessed and are recognised and valued by the state?

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I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to recognise and protect people with these health conditions, and we are absolutely committed to doing that. I do not want to repeat the answer that I gave earlier, but we have money set aside, and we will publish the Green Paper later this year. It will set out clear reform options which I hope will command support from Members on both sides of the House, and also from disability organisations.

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Michelle Thomson—not here.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most important policy developments is the fact that, once we have left the EU, decisions by his Department relating to eligibility for benefits will no longer be at risk of being overturned by the European Court of Justice?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there will be that freedom in the future, but there are more options we can develop right now, even while we are still in the EU, for further ensuring that we have a fair benefits system that does not act as an unnatural draw for more migrants. We want people to come here, work and bring their talents, but we do not want the benefits system inflating those migration numbers.

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The impact of uncertainty on the economy following the Brexit vote is already being felt and ultimately will affect jobs, tax revenues and public spending. Before the referendum, the Government predicted that 500,000 jobs might be at risk, so what is the Secretary of State doing to protect these jobs and what is his estimate of the impact on social security spending?

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It is important that none of us talks up the risks and dangers to the economy. We need to be clear-sighted about the risks and challenges, but we should not be doing anything at the moment to talk down the British economy. The truth is that our economy is fundamentally strong: we have record numbers of people in work and, as we have seen from the announcement by Boeing today, continued investment in creating new jobs in our economy.

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The lack of planning by this Government post-Brexit is complacency verging on neglect. The FTSE 250 has already lost 10% of its value since the referendum outcome and that will impact on pension funds. Given that 5,000 of the 6,000 defined benefit pension schemes are currently in deficit and that the pensions regulator has raised concerns of additional risks to these schemes following the Brexit decision, what is the Secretary of State doing to protect the pensions of the millions of people who will be affected?

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Nothing fundamentally has changed since the outcome of the referendum: the economy continues to perform well and, as I said, we need to be careful that we do not do our bit in talking down the economy at the moment. I agree with the hon. Lady that there is a very real systemic issue with DB pension schemes that we need to look at, and my Department will be discussing it further in the months ahead.

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One thing that we do know has happened is the fall in the pound. That has resulted in making our exports much cheaper and imports more expensive. Employers have already said that that will lead to more business and jobs. Does the Minister agree that that would be helpful to him in reducing the number of unemployed?

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The truth is that right in front of us now, since the outcome of the referendum, we have a mixture of opportunities and challenges. It is incumbent upon us to turn those challenges into opportunities, and we are determined as a Government to do so. If the Opposition want to do their bit, they can stand up and not talk down the British economy at this time.

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Already during this Parliament the Government’s austerity cuts have taken more than £12 billion out of the pockets of low-income households, mostly through changes initiated by the DWP. With many economists predicting a further recession as a consequence of Brexit, and the pound now less stable than Bitcoin, will the Secretary of State assure me that he will not allow those on low and middle incomes to bear the brunt of further economic downturn?

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On previous occasions I have set out the broad approach I take to welfare reform. With regard to issues in Scotland, with which I know the hon. Lady is primarily concerned, she should be aware that I had a very constructive meeting last week with her colleague Angela Constance, the welfare Minister in the Scottish Parliament. We remain absolutely committed to giving the Scottish Government the new welfare powers agreed to in the Scotland Act 2016.

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In the past week, for the fourth year in a row, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority has given the roll-out of personal independence payments an “amber/red” rating, indicating that

“successful delivery of the project/programme is in doubt with major risks apparent in a number of key areas”

and adding that “urgent action” is needed to address the problems. What is the Secretary of State going to do to fix these problems, and how does he intend to protect his Department’s projects from the impending doom of a Cabinet full of Brexiteers?

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Any big project, whether it is the introduction of universal credit or the roll-out of PIP, carries substantial risks, and I think the IPA report recognised that fact. In the past four months, since I have been in the Department, I have been committed to driving through improvements to the PIP process. PIP still commands broad support across disability organisations, which recognise that it is a much better benefit than the old-style disability living allowance.

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On the one hand, Lush cosmetics has just announced that it is going to move most of its production overseas, because it says that its workers do not feel welcome here, while on the other hand there are those in the food and farming sector, 38% of whose workforce comes from overseas, who are saying that they could go out of business because they will not be able to find people to employ. What is the Department doing to protect jobs in the south-west in the wake of the Brexit vote?

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The Department has clear plans in place for any significant increase in unemployment, whether in a particular local region or right across the UK. We have contingency plans for dealing with up-ticks in unemployment. However, we need to be really careful that we do not exaggerate the bad news that the hon. Lady might think is out there. There are opportunities for this country in terms of trade deals and of securing new investment, such as the investment from Boeing that was announced today. There are also serious risks and challenges, and we need to be clear-sighted and prepared for those.

Workless Households

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6. What progress his Department is making on reducing the number of workless households. [905754]

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The number of workless households is now the lowest on record. Since 2010, it has fallen by more than 750,000.

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In Rhyl and district, the number of people requiring support through the Work programme for the long-term unemployed has dropped from 400 to 150 over the past 18 months. That is good news, but jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance claimant rates in parts of Rhyl remain concerning, and the Work programme delivery company has recently closed its principal office in the town. Can the Minister assure me that the new Work and Health programme will take particular account of individuals who are less receptive to intervention and who need more intensive input?

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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The new Work and Health programme is being designed precisely to help those people who face multiple and complex barriers to getting into work. Beyond that, our upcoming Green Paper will look at the additional ways in which we can reduce the disability employment gap in the longer term. Of course, GPs play a key role in supporting those people, and I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend and his GP colleagues to discuss these important issues further.

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Given that the Work programmes have been cut by 87% and that the Secretary of State now knows who the next Prime Minister will be, will he confirm today that he will lobby her to increase the funding for the system that the Green Paper will produce? Will he also confirm the timetable for its roll-out?

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I am pleased to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that the next Prime Minister of this country absolutely shares my passion and commitment to a one nation vision of our society, to breaking down barriers and disadvantage and to ending inequalities. We await the specific decisions that the new Prime Minister will take on the important issues we are discussing today.

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Building on the point about the significantly reduced amount of funding available for the Work and Health programme, what assurances will the Secretary of State be able to give us if, in the light of Brexit, we see a significant increase in the number of people looking for work generally? How on earth will a reduced programme be able to serve everybody?

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The important point to make to my hon. Friend is that the Work and Health programme is just one part of a wider package of initiatives that we are taking forward to close the disability employment gap and to provide better support for people with long-term health conditions. I shall not repeat what I said in response to earlier questions, but the Green Paper that we are publishing later this year will outline the full range of reform options that we are interested in taking forward.

Child Poverty

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7. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of recent changes to benefits on the number of children living in poverty.

[905755]

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We know that work is the best route out of poverty. The number of people in work is at a record high and the number of children living in a household where no one works has fallen by 450,000 since 2010.

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My constituency has the third highest level of child poverty in the country, and 13,600 families currently receive tax credits, leaving them vulnerable to the Government’s cuts to universal credit. In his aborted bid for the Tory leadership, the Secretary of State said that he had a

“strong grasp of…the social and economic divisions in our country”.

If that is true, does he agree that cuts to universal credit will only compound the social and economic divisions in our country? Will he now commit to reversing those changes so that our children do not have to pay the price of his Government’s political choices?

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I absolutely stand by what I said. There was a massive expansion of tax credits under the previous Labour Government, but it did not do a single thing to tackle the underlying causes of poverty. Universal credit is just one part of what we are doing. There is the national living wage, which the Labour party used to support at one time, and the increase in personal allowances. We are in the business of transforming the landscape for people on low incomes. That is why the figures are moving in the right direction.

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Whatever the recent changes to benefits, they do not seem to have dealt with the big issue of personal independence payments—PIP. I recently had to deal with a horrendous case in which an individual in my constituency should have received PIP, but did not and had to go through the appeal process. I wrote to the Minister and the Government just ignored it. What are the Government doing to ensure that people who should be in receipt of PIP get it early and are not left to wallow while waiting for a long time, as they have been recently?

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People or I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that specific case. As for the broader principles behind the question, we are improving the PIP process, speeding up applications, decisions and appeals. If the hon. Gentleman has specific concerns, I would be happy to meet him to discuss them further.

Disability Employment Gap

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8. What steps he is taking to support people with disabilities and health conditions who are looking for work. [905757]

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15. What steps he is taking to support people with disabilities and health conditions who are looking for work. [905764]

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16. What steps he is taking to support people with disabilities and health conditions who are looking for work. [905765]

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This Government are committed to halving the disability employment gap. In the spending review we announced a real-terms spending increase on supporting disabled people into work. In the past two years, 365,000 disabled people have entered employment. Our forthcoming Green Paper will set out our plans to support more disabled people into work.

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Over 99% of vat-registered enterprises in my constituency are small and medium-sized enterprises. Will my hon. Friend update the House on what he is doing to help smaller businesses get the support they need to recruit people with disabilities and health conditions?

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As someone who owned a small business for 10 years, I absolutely understand that point. We currently have three successful pilots, concentrating on a small employer offer and matching up those with a disability to the 45% of jobs that are available through SMEs.

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Britain has an astonishing 30% gap between disabled and non-disabled people in work. What steps are being taken to ensure that disabled people are afforded the same professional opportunities as those without disabilities?

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The Government are committed to halving the disability employment gap. We are ensuring that disabled people have the skills and confidence to enter work through a named coach in universal credit and we are upskilling our Jobcentre Plus staff and our employment support programmes. We also recognise that we need to create opportunities, so we are working with businesses through the Access to Work programme, the Disability Confident campaign, the small employer offer, and our reverse jobs fairs.

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I recently attended a celebration at Petroc college in North Devon to thank employers and congratulate the students who took part in the successful supported internship programme, which provides valuable work experience for young people with additional needs. Will the Minister join me in congratulating everyone concerned? Does he agree that such schemes play an important part in the Government’s policy of bringing people with disabilities closer to employment?

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend because I had the pleasure of meeting the students and staff at Petroc at his own reverse jobs fair, where he took a proactive approach to linking employers with the greater opportunities provided by organisations such as Petroc.

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This has been mentioned previously but it did not get an adequate response. Given that the prominent Brexit campaign called for a bonfire of EU protections for workers, what guarantee can the Minister give that all the current protections extended to disabled people by our membership of the EU will be safe?

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This Government have a proud record on this issue. We spend over £50 billion a year supporting people with disabilities and long-term health conditions—up £2 billion since the previous Parliament—and will continue to work in this area.

Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign

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10. What recent representations he has received from the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign; and if he will make a statement. [905759]

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The Pensions Minister, Baroness Altmann, and I recently met WASPI representatives to listen to their concerns. We made clear the Government’s position that we will not be unwinding past decisions and that there are no plans to change policy.

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Between 2016-17 and 2025-26, more than 5,000 women in my constituency alone will be affected by the changes. Some of them will need to work six years longer than they had anticipated. For the last time, I ask the Minister to show some leadership. Rather than shrug his shoulders, will he step up to the mark and end this injustice?

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No one is shrugging shoulders. As I said, no credible alternative has been put forward by any of the parties in this House; it was not in their manifestos. Members do not help the WASPI women by leading them to have expectations when the position of the Government is absolutely clear. A £1.1 billion concession was made in 2011; the period involved was reduced from two years to 18 months; and for 81% of the women affected the period concerned is no more than 12 months—81% of the women will not be affected by more than 12 months.

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A few moments ago, the Secretary of State made a statement saying that Britain’s economy was booming—or words to that effect. [Interruption.] It was as near as dammit. If it is that good, why does he not make sure the WASPI women get the proper pensions, and not this load of crap the Government are chucking out now?

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Let me just correct the hon. Gentleman: my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the economy was fundamentally strong. As for the other issues, it would have been helpful if the hon. Gentleman had listened to some of the answers I had given earlier, while he was rehearsing his question. If he had listened, he would have appreciated—

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You are in the Government.

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If he had listened to the questions, he would have found that I said a £1.1 billion concession was made in 2011.

Employment Trends: East Anglia

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13. What recent assessment he has made of job creation and employment trends in East Anglia; and if he will make a statement.

[905762]

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In the east of England, the number of people in employment has increased by nearly 300,000 since 2010, and the employment rate is close to the highest on record.

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Is the Minister aware that in my constituency unemployment has come down from 4.3% in 2010 to 1.5% last month, and that only last Friday Mars Food announced a very welcome £23 million investment in its King’s Lynn plant, thus creating more well paid, skilled jobs? Does he agree that in this post-Brexit climate we should all be doing what we can to flag up such successes?

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That is yet another sign of just how fundamentally strong our economy is, which is helping us to deliver record numbers of people in employment.

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rose—

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I did not study geography at university, but the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is a little way away from East Anglia.

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indicated dissent.

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I am in a generous mood. I have known the hon. Gentleman for 30 years, and if he wants to persuade me that Bedford and Kempston is a hop, skip and a jump away from the constituency of the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), he has a taxing task, but let us hear it.

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I am very grateful for your indulgence, Mr Speaker. As a lifelong watcher of Anglia Television from the heart of Bedford, I can say that we are very proudly members of East Anglia. In Bedford, a small town, we have only small employers—we do not have a large private sector employer. What steps are the Government taking to encourage small businesses to take on young people and others who are unemployed?

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I would never have done anything like what the hon. Gentleman has just done when I was a Back Bencher.

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As a Government, we recognise that 45% of private sector jobs are created by small businesses, and so such businesses are key to the success of creating new opportunities. This will be very much at the heart of the Green Paper, making sure that they are aware of initiatives, particularly the commitment to have 3 million more apprentices by 2020.

Young Disabled People: Work

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17. What steps his Department is taking to assist disabled young people into work. [905766]

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The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions have received the recommendations from my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) and agree that the requirement to achieve level 1 English and Maths in an apprenticeship is a hurdle for some young people with learning disabilities. Therefore, subject to a candidate demonstrating need, we will look to adjust this requirement to entry level 3 as soon as possible and monitor the impact.

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Last month, I received a wonderful letter from a 13-year-old constituent, Eleanor, who wrote to me about her 20-year-old brother. Richard has autism and learning difficulties, and struggles to find work with the right support. The news about the educational assistance is therefore very welcome. However, he is met with frustration and discrimination in employment. Eleanor said:

“seeing how the public can treat him is terrible and it’s hard on me, him, and the rest of our family. Please help him and people with disabilities to have a fairer life with employment opportunities.”

Does the Minister agree that the enormous contribution of disabled employees such as Richard is not yet fully recognised by employers?

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The point about employers is absolutely right. That is why we have worked with Autism Alliance to improve knowledge and awareness across our Jobcentre network. We have specialist teams to assist with access to work, and the small employer offer will specifically match employers with the support and help that is available to create more opportunities for disabled people.

Personal Independence Payment Assessments

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18. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that personal independence payment assessments are undertaken fairly and appropriately. [905767]

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Provider performance is measured across a range of service level agreements setting out the Department’s expectations for a quality service. This includes an assessment report quality audit. Contractual remedies are in place if the provider fails to deliver against the service standards.

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Given that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s rating of the Department’s PIP programme is once again amber/red, meaning that successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of areas, what urgent action is the Minister taking to ensure that problems with assessment are addressed and that disabled people do not continue to bear the brunt of the Government’s policies?

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We have seen that of those who go through the PIP process, 22.5% of claimants secure the highest rate of benefit, compared with just 16% under disability living allowance. We have a constant evaluation, including working with charities and stakeholders, and currently a claimant can expect to have their assessment process over a median of 13 weeks end to end, which is well within expectations.

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Will the Secretary of State intervene personally in the case of one of my constituents, who suffered a stroke, has severe eyesight problems and is almost completely wheelchair-bound? He was refused PIP and as a result his wife has been refused carer’s allowance. He has not had a reassessment since November last year and that is not acceptable.

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I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this specific case.

Welfare Reform: Effects on People with Disabilities in Scotland

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19. What assessment he has made of the effects of welfare reform, benefit sanctions and work capability assessments on people with disabilities in (a) Glasgow and (b) Scotland.

[905768]

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The Government set out our assessment of the impact of the welfare policies in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 on 20 July 2015, with similar assessments for previous changes. Spending to support people with disabilities and health conditions will be higher in real terms in every year to 2020 than it was in 2010.

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Scotland and in particular my constituency, Glasgow East, has higher levels of long-term health problems and disability compared with the UK as a whole. People living with disabilities tend to be more dependent on benefits for a longer time and are therefore more vulnerable to changes to disability benefits. Given that this Government and their predecessor embarked on the biggest overhaul of the welfare state in living memory, does the Minister agree that it is vital for the Government to undertake regular cumulative impact assessments of welfare reform on those with disabilities?

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The Treasury already publishes cumulative distribution analysis, including welfare spending, health spending, employment support and infrastructure investment, but we also need to consider increases in employment, increases in hours and earnings, universal credit, PIP, personal tax allowance changes, health spending, employment support and investment in infrastructure.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [905773]

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On 6 July I appointed Paul Gray to lead a second independent review of PIP. A call for evidence has been published today, seeking evidence from individuals and organisations to inform the review. The review will consider how effectively further evidence is being used to assist the correct claim decision. It will also look at the speed and effectiveness of information gathering, as well as building on recommendations from the first review. I am today announcing the Department’s intention to conduct an evaluation of PIP, with initial findings to be published by early 2017.

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To help deliver our manifesto commitment of bringing a million people with disabilities into work, will my right hon. Friend consider extending the current exemption from employer national insurance contributions for apprentices both to additional apprentices and to full-time employees with disabilities, so that, like the US, the Netherlands and Ireland, our tax system benefits employers who see the abilities as well as the disabilities of all our constituents?

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When it comes to closing the disability employment gap, I am absolutely clear that no options have been left off the table. We want to look at the widest possible range of solutions, including financial incentives such as our small employment offer, which will support small businesses to increase local job opportunities for disabled people.

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In May, after a two-year fight, the Government finally published redacted reports of 49 social security claimants who had died between 2012 and 2014, revealing that 10 of the 49 had died following a sanction, and 40 of the deaths were associated with a suicide or a suspected suicide. Another nine social security claimants have died since 2014. When will the Secretary of State publish the reports into their deaths, or will we have to wait another two years for those as well?

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I hear the hon. Lady’s point, but it is important not to infer too many causal links between the factors that she is raising, and she needs to be extremely careful in how she describes those cases at the Dispatch Box. I am happy to discuss the matter with her on another occasion.

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T2. What support is my right hon. Friend’s Department offering to those in later middle age and older who are seeking work? [905774]

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My hon. Friend raises a very good point. We are doing a number of things in this area. For example, as well as access to a full Jobcentre Plus offer of personalised support, the Department for Work and Pensions introduced older claimant champions in each of the seven Jobcentre Plus groups to work with work coaches within jobcentres to raise the profile of older workers, highlight the benefit of employing older jobseekers and share good practice.

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T5. Will the Secretary of State explain to the WASPI women from the north-east, some of whom have already retired in the mistaken belief that they would be receiving their state pension sooner and who live in a region that continues to have the highest level of unemployment in the country, how they are to make ends meet? [905777]

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The hon. Lady is well aware that a number of benefits are involved here. The DWP survey in 2012 found that only 6% of the women who were due to retire within 10 years were unaware that the state pension age had increased.

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T3. Thanks to the work of this Government, the unemployment rate in Bath is just 1.5%. Does the Minister agree that, as well as providing a steady income, working also provides health benefits, both physical and mental? [905775]

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I fully agree that being in work has many benefits beyond the immediate economic security that it brings. It gives us a sense of value and can greatly benefit our mental and physical wellbeing, which is why this Government are championing the transformative role of work. With more people in work than ever before, we are making sure that the whole of society benefits from our growing economy.

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T7. With an 87% budget cut by the UK Government in the first year of employability services in Scotland, will the Secretary of State tell us precisely what his Government are doing to support people back into work in Scotland? Perhaps he can take this opportunity to congratulate the Scottish Government on the £20 million of extra support that they have been giving to help people back into work when this Government have been letting down the people of Scotland. [905779]

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I totally disagree with the hon. Lady. We are continuing to roll out universal credit across Scotland, and the early results from Scottish jobcentres are very, very positive. As I said earlier, I had a very constructive and useful meeting last week with Angela Constance, the Scottish Minister with welfare responsibilities. I recognise that the Scottish Government have some separate choices and priorities, and we are committed to giving them the powers to take those forward.

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T4. Starting a new business is one of the best ways out of worklessness. Will the Secretary of State join me in encouraging entrepreneurial jobseekers from Havant and across the country to apply for the Government’s new enterprise allowance? [905776]

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We absolutely do want to support more people to move into self-employment and to help develop the entrepreneurs of the future. The new enterprise allowance has now successfully supported the start-up of nearly 85,000 new businesses and I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency to see some of those businesses in action.

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T8. For obvious reasons, refugee families and children are not usually required to meet past residence requirements when accessing benefits, so why on earth are the Government trying to overturn a recent tribunal decision so as to deny disabled refugees, including children, access to disability living allowance on the grounds of those very residence criteria? Is that not particularly absurd given that many of them will have been resettled here specifically because they have such a disability? [905780]

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That is an issue on which we are considering taking legal advice.

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T6. As Paralympians from Cardiff, elsewhere in Wales and across the United Kingdom prepare for the Paralympics in Rio, how can we use the Paralympics to change the perception of disabled people, and what are the Government doing to prepare for that? [905778]

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I would like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for hosting the announcement of the tennis Paralympic team for Rio. I pay tribute to Channel 4, which will be showing over 700 hours of the Paralympics, with 75% of the presenters having a disability. This is a fantastic opportunity to showcase people’s abilities, and we are all in for a real treat next Friday, when Channel 4 launches its fantastic video promoting the opportunities offered by the Paralympics.

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I am extraordinarily grateful to the Minister for giving me my cue. First, let me take this opportunity on behalf of the House warmly to congratulate Gordon Reid on his great success at Wimbledon yesterday. Secondly, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in congratulating most warmly Andy Murray on an outstanding performance in winning his second Wimbledon title and his third grand slam so far.

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T10. The disabilities Minister just agreed to meet a Member of Parliament and their constituent regarding an issue they were concerned about, so can I try again with the Pensions Minister? Will he meet me and some of the 10,000 women born in the 1950s who are affected by the pension changes? Will he come to Hull to meet some of these people and hear directly from them? [905782]

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I have met the leadership of the WASPI campaign, and I have met my own constituents. The hon. Lady has articulated the views of her constituents, as have many other MPs on a regular basis. I know very well all the facts; the issue here is that Members such as her should not be giving expectations to women, when the position has been made absolutely clear at the Dispatch Box: the Government have no intention of changing their policy.

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I thank the disabilities Minister for accepting the recommendations of the review I chaired into learning disability apprenticeships. Will he confirm that he will look into which of those recommendations can now be applied to other hidden impairments, such as hearing loss and sight loss?

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I would like to thank my hon. Friend, as his taskforce concluded its work within a month, and we have now secured agreement from my Department and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to open up in the apprenticeship programme greater opportunities for those with a learning disability. I am sure we will be coming to my hon. Friend very soon to help to extend the remit of the taskforce, which I am sure he would be delighted to chair.

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The Government are trialling distributed ledger technology, or blockchain, for the payment and spending of claimants’ benefits. It is a fantastic new technology, but the Government’s own report says that it needs a regulatory, ethical and data framework. How do we know that vulnerable benefits claimants are not being forced to share their data without giving proper informed consent?

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I thank the hon. Lady for that very interesting question. This technology is very new, and I confess that I am not an expert on it—the person who is is my noble Friend Lord Freud, who is, of course, in the other place. When it comes to security of claimants’ data, we are absolutely committed to the very highest standards of protection. However, in terms of the wider technology issue the hon. Lady refers to, I look forward to discussing it with her in more detail.

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Currently, children under three are not eligible for Motability benefits. However, during my time in children’s hospices, I saw first hand how critical transport is for children with life-limiting illnesses, particularly given all the equipment they need. Will my hon. Friend agree to look at the issue again to see whether these young people can get the support they need?

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My hon. Friend has been campaigning on this issue for some time, using his first-hand experience. We are acutely aware of the issue, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss further opportunities.

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I do not want to upset anybody on the Labour Front Bench by showing passion and anger about the Government’s failure to tackle unscrupulous employers who give no guarantee of employment, no contract, no certainty and no pension—nothing but zero-hours contracts, with people being hired from agencies—but when will the Government take on these rotten employers?

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Zero-hours contracts, of course, form only a very small proportion of the overall jobs in the labour market. The thing that is particularly pernicious about zero-hours contracts is the exclusivity clauses—that has been recognised as widespread—and we are the Government who actually took action to deal with that.

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In my constituency we have an initiative with the DWP and the Salvation Army food bank whereby when people come into the food bank, the DWP helps them in any way it can by placing an officer there. Would my right hon. Friend like to come to Morecambe to see at first hand how this initiative is working out?

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Yes, I would like to go to Morecambe to see that project. I am very clear that something we need to be doing far better, and more of, through our job centres at a local level is integrating with local services, whether they are provided through the Salvation Army or any other charity.