Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 11th March 2013.

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Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I welcome the recent introduction of mandation to universal jobmatch, which means that Jobcentre Plus advisers can mandate jobseekers to use the new service to help them find work and require them to demonstrate their progress. More than 2 million jobseekers are now registered, which is twice the number when I last updated the House. That shows just how quickly the system is revolutionising how jobseekers look for work.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee

This question was raised with me by my constituent, Mr Leonard Jolicoeur. He asked whether it is true that someone who is of pensionable age when the new single-tier pension comes in and who has a small occupational pension and therefore does not receive pension credit will get the existing state pension, but that someone who is in exactly the same financial circumstances and becomes of pensionable age after the single-tier pension comes in will get the new single-tier pension, which is some £40 a week more. What can the Minister say to persuade my constituent that it is fair or reasonable for somebody who is in exactly the same financial circumstances as his neighbour to get £40 a week more than him?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

That is not what would happen. People who have contracted out into an occupational pension, such as his constituent, currently get money off their state pension, which is called a contracted-out deduction. That will remain part of the single-tier proposition. Therefore, somebody such as his constituent who has contracted out would not get the £144. There is no cliff edge. There would be a deduction for past contracting out in both cases.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

Does my right hon. Friend agree that for Opposition Members to talk of the spare bedroom subsidy as a tax shows a profound lack of understanding on their part of what a tax actually is?

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

May I start by thanking the Secretary of State for briefing me and my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms on his plans for urgent legislation, about which his Department has commented in The Daily Telegraph this morning? Both he and I believe that sanctions are vital to give back-to-work programmes their bite. However, when he signed off the 2011 regulations that created sanctions for the Work programme, why did he not check that they were legally bullet proof?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the advice that we received made it very clear that the regulations would survive a challenge, and that was the view that we took. As he knows, the High Court upheld our position. It was the Court of Appeal that decided, on quite a technical line, to change that position. The position on human rights was upheld, as was the main point of our direction of travel.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I do not think that it is a technical challenge when three Court of Appeal judges unanimously quash the 2011 regulations because they are not in line with the law. That mistake puts in jeopardy about £100 million of sanctions that have been issued. I did not think that the Work programme could get any worse, but it has. We will support wise and sensible legislation that will fix the problem, but will the Secretary of State take personal responsibility and apologise for this mess, which may cost twice as much as the west coast main line fiasco?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that when Ministers make regulations, they take the fullest advice possible. That advice came to us; it was checked and it said that the regulations were fine. The High Court upheld them. It was the Appeal Court that decided that an element of that was not correct.

I do not wish to make this a political issue, and I take full responsibility for everything that goes on in my Department. I accept that we wish we were not in this position, but if the right hon. Gentleman supports the idea that people who have been mandated to do work, should take jobs and do work experience once they have volunteered without messing around otherwise they lose their benefit, I hope that we can look forward to his supporting the legislation that will ensure that we do not have to pay out money against a judgment that we never anticipated.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

Is the Secretary of State aware that Conservative Members support his courage and his battles in trying to reduce the crippling burden of the social security budget? In particular, may I commend his quiet courtesy this weekend in reminding the Archbishop of Canterbury that trapping people in dependency is not necessarily a Christian response? What the Secretary of State is doing is a good and positive way of making work pay.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have no issue whatever with the Church of England and the bishops saying whatever they believe. It is right and proper that they should argue with us and put pressure on us on a variety of issues. However, I do not agree that the way to get children out of poverty is to keep transferring more and more money to keeping people out of work. The reality is that we are having to reform a system that became completely out of control under the last Government and get in place a system that gets people back to work, because being in work is how people get their children out of poverty.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

Mandatory reconsideration after employment and support allowance is refused and when somebody wants to appeal can lead to people being without either ESA or jobseeker’s allowance. Will the Minister ensure that a short time limit is set on reconsiderations so that people are not left without any income?

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Mandatory reconsideration is in place to help accelerate decision making, so that the Department can revisit a case rather than have to wait for it to go to the tribunal. We try to keep delays as short as possible to ensure that we get the right outcome and get the right support to people as quickly as possible.

Photo of Paul Uppal Paul Uppal Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

As the Minister may be aware, the number of private sector jobs in the west midlands decreased under the last Labour Government. Will he welcome the news, as I do, that Jaguar Land Rover is increasing investment in the engine plant in Wolverhampton by £150 million, creating an additional 700 high-skilled jobs?

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend is right to celebrate the achievements of Jaguar Land Rover. In national apprenticeship week, I commend him for his work to promote apprenticeships in his constituency. He is right, and he points the way towards how a private sector-led recovery can increase employment. That is why we have seen 107,000 additional jobs in the west midlands.

Photo of Ann McKechin Ann McKechin Labour, Glasgow North

Local housing associations in my area are deeply concerned about their ability to provide services as a result of this year’s welfare changes. What assessment will the Secretary of State make of their credit ratings, both this year and next? Does he expect them to go down the way?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The best thing for me to do is to ensure that I write to the hon. Lady properly and place the reply in the Library of the House.

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire

Last week we discussed in the House the treatment of women across the world. To deliver equality and fairness of treatment in the United Kingdom, we must ensure equal access to work and remuneration. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to make a continuing assessment of the number of women in work?

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend will celebrate, as I did on international women’s day, the fact that there are record numbers of women in work and that the number of women unemployed has fallen by 29,000 over the past year. We need to do more to get women in work, and universal credit will help, but it is important also to celebrate the flexibility of the labour market, which enables more and more people to work part time to meet their responsibilities.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

Why is the Secretary of State disregarding research by the National Housing Federation which shows that the discretionary fund to provide help with the bedroom tax is £100 million short of what is required?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

We are not. We listen to councils and everybody else who talks to us about these things, and ensure that we adjust accordingly. In reality, more than £280 million is going in discretionary payments direct to councils over two years to resolve these issues. That is more than ever before and I believe it is enough. We are asking councils to make sensible judgments that benefit the maximum number of people—tenants and those on housing benefit—in their areas.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

What assessment has the Minister made of the support available to disabled people through the Access to Work programme?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Last year 30,000 disabled people were supported through Access to Work. We have extended that programme and added an extra £15 million, and it is working very well.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development)

This afternoon I received a message in my inbox that was sent to all MPs and marked “importance: high”. It said that one-bedroom apartments, located in the most convenient and sought-after positions in the heart of St James’s, and including a spacious reception, double bedroom and fitted kitchen, were advertised at £390 per week although the landlord would take an offer to fall-in with the parliamentary allowance. Would the Secretary of State advise one of my Caernarfon constituents, currently luxuriating in a two-bedroom flat, to apply?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

No, I would not, and I hope that nobody else in the Chamber would be able to apply either—otherwise we may find out exactly what they are worth. The changes we are making with the spare room subsidy are to get rid of the subsidy that ordinary taxpayers are paying for people to under-occupy houses while many others live in overcrowded accommodation.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

There is significant concern across the country about the likelihood of welfare dependency as a result of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria from January 2014. Will the Minister look urgently at the habitual residence test within the context of the free movement directive and ensure that such issues are addressed in good time?

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I assure my hon. Friend that we apply a habitual residence test to see whether people moving from other EU states are entitled to means-tested benefits. We will continue to look at that test and at what more can be done to strengthen it.

Photo of Susan Elan Jones Susan Elan Jones Opposition Whip (Commons)

Will the Secretary of State consider introducing a compulsory jobs guarantee for people who have been unemployed for two years or more?

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Lady should be commended for trying to trot out a policy that I thought the Opposition had dropped two or three weeks ago. When such a scheme was piloted under the previous Government, it demonstrated that it was not good value for money or good for the unemployed. The hon. Lady should welcome the measures the Government are taking to get people into work. That is why record numbers of people are in work and unemployment has continued to fall for 11 months in a row.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Although the Labour party thinks that the benefit cap is too low, the majority of my constituents think it is far too high. May I urge the Secretary of State to ignore the left-wing bishops, who probably do not even speak for the majority of people who go to church each week, let alone the vast majority of the British people?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I listen to everybody who gives me advice although I do not necessarily follow it. The Government are doing the right thing in bringing in a benefit cap, and for the first time ever people on low and average earnings will realise that at last those on benefits will not be paid more through their taxes than they themselves earn.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Labour, Corby

I met the mother of Hayden, a three-year old boy in my constituency, who has just received a letter stating that she must now pay the bedroom tax. Hayden has sleep difficulties and often has disturbed nights. Should he be forced to share a room with his four-year-old sister who will now also be disturbed, or will it all be okay because there is a tiny amount of discretionary funding?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I do wonder that the Labour party, which sat in government for 13 years, never once raised the issue of people living in overcrowded accommodation, and never once seemed to care that huge numbers of people were on the waiting list. Nevertheless, Labour Members bleat about those who are under-occupying and are being subsidised by poorer people who cannot find accommodation.

Photo of David Mowat David Mowat Conservative, Warrington South

The Pensions Minister will have seen the recent press coverage about the high margins generated by annuity providers. That comes as no surprise given the complete market failure that has occurred in large parts of the private pension industry. Will he consider imposing a uniform product structure—as has been done in energy—and will he enforce legally the open market option?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend has a good track record of challenging the issue of charges and value for money. The Association of British Insurers has just published its code of practice, to which members have to sign up, to ensure that instead of people just defaulting to the provider they save with, they shop around. We will monitor closely whether that makes the market more effective. [Interruption.] Opposition Members are shouting “Do something”, but they did not do something when they were in power.

Photo of William Bain William Bain Shadow Minister (Scotland)

A constituent I met on Saturday is a divorced lone parent who works hard for a low income, and his children stay with him on three evenings a week. Why does the Secretary of State believe that such a hard-working individual should lose £12 a week under his hateful bedroom tax?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Again, another hon. Member who does not know the difference between a subsidy and a tax. The reality is that those who do not occupy all the rooms in social housing are being subsidised by many of those who live in overcrowded accommodation. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman—Opposition Members do not like to be reminded—that under local housing allowance for the private social rented sector, which was introduced by the previous Labour Government, people were not allowed to occupy houses that had spare bedrooms.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

The Government’s under-occupancy policy relies on people being able to move into appropriately-sized housing, but in specific parts of the country that is very hard to achieve. Does the Secretary of State agree that no benefit reduction should take place until people have at least been offered somewhere appropriately sized and located? Will he make sure that there is enough discretionary housing budget for councils to ensure that that is the case?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I agree, particularly with the last part of the question. We have set aside £280 million over two years for councils to be able to negotiate and work out with their tenants the best and most amenable way to go. My hon. Friend’s question is constructive, in sharp contrast to the Opposition. All they can do is moan about a policy, but in 13 years they did nothing about overcrowding, with the lowest level of house building since the 1920s.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

When the bedroom tax is introduced in my constituency, some people, who will be unable to move because properties are not available, will be left with £18 a week to live on. During the recess, I tried that to see what it would be like. I have had a lot of messages from members of the public asking me one question: will the Secretary of State try for a week to live on £18?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

When we made changes to local housing allowance, the hon. Lady and others prophesised that hundreds of thousands of people would be made homeless—they went up and down the country scaring everybody. The figures now show that our homeless figures are lower than the peak under the previous Labour Government.

Several hon. Members:

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