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Westminster Hall

Thursday 4 November 2010

[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

backbench business

Work and Pensions (CSR)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Miss Chloe Smith.)

2.30 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): I am delighted to have been given the opportunity, as Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, to open the debate, but I should thank the Backbench Business Committee, because this is one of the first Westminster Hall debates whose subjects have been chosen by that Committee. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). They did not quite suggest the subject of this afternoon's debate, but they put in suggestions relating to this subject, and I think that the Backbench Business Committee decided that the impact of the comprehensive spending review on the Department for Work and Pensions would be a worthy subject for debate. I agree, because that Department is to suffer some of the largest cuts of all the Departments, in terms of both the percentage of its budget to be cut and the money to be saved.

The Department is to face a budget cut of £18 billion per annum by 2014-15. That is made up of the £11 billion announced in the Budget and a further £7 billion announced as part of the CSR proposals. However, the Department for Work and Pensions is different from other Departments, as most of its budget is in the form of money paid straight to people who qualify for one benefit or another. It is not managing budgets or delivering services as other Departments are. Much of its money ends up in the hands of real people, who spend it in their communities. The Department's annually managed expenditure depends on how much money is paid out in benefits, which is where the large cuts are to be made.

It is quite easy, if we say it quickly, to cut benefits. We just do not give people any money. That can be a tempting thing for Governments to do, but of course the people do not go away; they still need the money to live. By my reckoning, there are four ways in which it is possible for the Department to cut the annually managed expenditure. It can reduce the amount that is paid out for certain benefits. It can change the criteria to narrow the number of people who qualify for a particular benefit. It can time-limit how long a person can qualify for a benefit. It can abolish a benefit completely. If we look at the proposals in the Budget and in the CSR, we see that the Government are doing a bit of all four of those things.

It is worth remembering that the cuts are being made against a backdrop of rising unemployment as other cuts in the numbers of people employed in the public sector take effect, and it is during times of high unemployment that the Department for Work and Pensions
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spending goes up, as more people qualify for benefits-benefits that many feel they have already paid for through national insurance contributions.

More than half the benefit spending of the Department goes to people who are over retirement age. The basic state pension and pension credit, for instance, account for 50% or slightly more of the Department's budget. Generally, the benefits received by retired people are not being cut, although there will be some cuts in the benefits that they receive, because of the proposed changes in housing benefit and the mobility element of disability living allowance for people in residential care, and possibly the changes in relation to council tax. Perhaps the Minister can explain what those mean in reality, because I have found that quite difficult to grasp.

While I am talking about the council tax proposals, I want to point out that they seem to fly in the face of other things that the Government are doing. I am referring to their plans for a universal credit to make the benefits system much simpler and more straightforward, which I would certainly welcome. To devolve payments in relation to council tax down to local authorities, which will all have their own criteria, seems to go against the principle that I understand the Government are trying to create for the benefits system.

Of course, I never let a chance go by to get in my own gripe with regard to people over 65. Someone who happens to be my age and is a woman may have started her working life assuming that she would receive her basic state pension at 60. Until a few weeks ago, I thought that I would receive my basic state pension at 65. That has now gone up to 66, and I cannot be alone in wondering whether, by the time I approach 66, the age will be 67 or higher and I will never get the chance to retire at all. However, my constituents might make the decision for me sooner than that.

The result of protecting the elderly from the worst of the spending cuts is that the vast bulk of the cuts will fall on those of working age, on families and on people who are disabled or ill. For those groups, the cuts are much harsher and deeper. Where are the Government planning to make those cuts? I said that they could consider four areas, so I shall go through those one by one. First, they could reduce the amount paid out for certain benefits. The clearest example of that is the proposed cap on housing benefit payments. However, all benefits that are currently uprated according to the retail prices index will be cut over time, because they are soon to be linked to the consumer prices index, which is usually below the RPI level. That means that the value of almost all benefits will diminish.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is interesting research in that regard? Conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, it suggests that linking benefits to CPI will reduce by £1 a year the value of the incomes of families on safety-net benefits. For a person on jobseeker's allowance, for example, that will mean a loss of £10 over 10 years, representing between 15 and 20% of their income.

Miss Begg: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Certainly I recognise the 15% figure. We are not talking only about benefits for those of working age. I was briefed this morning that if occupational pensions-both private and public pensions-are to be linked to CPI, the figure
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of 15% is not unrealistic. In fact, people on an average occupational pension could lose the equivalent of three years' worth of their pension if they were to live for the average time from retirement, which is 24 years.

The switch from RPI to CPI will, in the long term, mean that the amount of money that people on benefits receive is reduced. Let me explain what I find particularly perverse about the housing benefit changes. The difference between RPI and CPI is that CPI does not take account of housing costs. Again, perhaps the Minister can explain the rationale for why the CPI measure is being used for housing benefit when it does not take into account housing inflation, which runs at a higher level than consumer inflation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston suggested, the change in uprating will also affect levels of child benefit, income support, jobseeker's allowance and incapacity benefit, as well as the employment and support allowance and the carer's allowance. The value of all the benefits in payment will diminish with the changing of the linking rules or the indexation to which they are subject.

There will also be reductions in what can be claimed in such things as the child care element of the working tax credits, as well as changes to the eligibility rules for the working tax credits. Some of those changes would also appear to fly in the face of the perfectly correct cause being espoused by the Government-to ensure that those who can work do work. However, some of the changes might put barriers in the way of getting people into work.

The second way that the Department can reduce spending on benefits is by changing the criteria, to prevent many people who would have previously qualified for the benefit from qualifying in future. We shall see people who have been on jobseeker's allowance for a year losing 10% of their housing benefit, or people in residential homes no longer qualifying for the mobility component of the disability living allowance. I am glad that it is the Minister responsible for disabled people who will be winding up for the Government, because of a phrase in the CSR attached to the announcement about the mobility component of the DLA for people in residential homes being cut:

Can the Minister explain what that means?

Does that phrase mean that some people in residential homes will keep the mobility DLA, if their costs of travel and transport, presumably, are not being met from public funds? However, I am not aware of any residential homes that have a travel budget. I am not aware that public funds are available. Some people in residential homes might get a taxi card, for instance, but like, I suspect, many others, my local authority is tightening its criteria: Aberdeen has decided that someone on the upper rate mobility DLA does not get a taxi card. Anything that I can think of that might be the provision of travel from public funds does not, I think, apply to people in residential care.

On the issue of residential care, it is worth remembering that, generally, people in residential care who are on the mobility DLA will be a younger cohort, because people do not qualify for a DLA once they are over 65. Many
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of them might be in work-their care needs might require them to be in a residential home, but they might have work or go out daily to day centres or whatever. Without the DLA, they would not be able to get out of the confines of the residential home. Sometimes there is a perception that someone who lives in a residential home is elderly and not able to lead a fulfilling life, but nothing could be further from the truth. I would welcome some clarification from the Minister on that point.

Probably the best example of the Government's changing the criteria to exclude previous claimants is the move from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. This migration was always on the cards-it was introduced by the previous Government-but I get a sense that some of it is being accelerated. The other thing that is different is the numbers involved. The number of those whom the previous Government thought might lose out as a result of the migration appears to be quite different in reality, certainly in regard to the new benefits. At the moment, we do not know the actual figures for the number of people currently receiving IB who will no longer qualify for the new employment and support allowance. The first trials of the migration are taking place in Aberdeen and Burnley, and it will be at least a couple of months before we have any robust figures and find out how many people are not getting through the new gateway.

The Government expect somewhere between 30% and 40% of IB claimants will not qualify and will therefore end up on jobseeker's allowance. For those individuals, that is a loss of £20 a week. What makes me doubt whether that is the final figure is that we know that the number of new claimants qualifying for employment and support allowance is much less than the previous Government were projecting. While they thought that 20% might end up on the support element of the ESA, the figure is much lower, at around 4 to 6%, and it looks as though around 60% will not be getting ESA at all, because either they have dropped out of the system or they have been awarded jobseeker's allowance. As many as 60% of those who are currently on incapacity benefit might not qualify for the new ESA, therefore, but, as I said, the trials are going on in Aberdeen and Burnley, and we will have the figures in a couple of months' time.

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): Does the hon. Lady think that the change in those numbers is as a result of a change of Government or of the experience of having run the pilots?

Miss Begg: The original numbers I gave were those projected by the previous Government for new claimants, but they did not work out in practice-even for the previous Government. In other words, the work capability assessment, which is the test acting as the gateway to getting the benefit, is turning out to be much tighter than either the previous Government or, I suspect, this Government were expecting.

The figures are quite different from what the previous Government expected. I do not have any evidence to suggest that the new Government were expecting anything different. However, the reality is that many fewer people than expected are getting through the gateway of the work capability assessment, and they are accessing either the support element or the work-related element of the ESA.


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There has been a lot of criticism of, and a lot of research has been done by organisations such as Citizens Advice-nationally and in Scotland-about the operation of the work capability assessment. At the moment, I am not sure that it, as an assessment tool intended to look at employability, is very effective in determining who is fit for work and who is not.

I was not going to go into the issue, because it is probably a debate for another day, but part of the problem is that illness and disability are being mixed up. So, people who are ill at the moment are being declared fully fit for work when, clearly, they cannot work-but that is not to say that they would not be able to work in the future. The assessment also does not take into account the employability of an individual-because the end of the whole process is to get people into work, if they are not employable and employers will not employ them, then the process will have failed.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con) rose-

Kate Green rose-

Miss Begg: I give way to the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael).

Neil Carmichael: Thank you. Will the hon. Lady welcome, when it comes, the report of Professor Malcolm Harrington on the work capability assessment? He was appointed by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the summer, and he will be reporting shortly. She might find some good news in the report, in the context of what she is saying.

Miss Begg: I certainly hope so. I was not intending to go into the WCA and its faults, but the hon. Gentleman tempts me. I am looking forward to seeing the report by Professor Harrington. However, there is concern that by the time he reports, whether at the end of this month or the beginning of next month, the trial in Aberdeen and Burnley will be coming to an end, and there will not be a lot of time to change things. There might be time to change the procedure, but not to put in place any major changes in how the work capability assessments are carried out before the full roll-out begins in March or April next year. The volumes will be quite large and it will be interesting to find out, in Aberdeen in particular, whether Atos Healthcare can manage the volumes that will be coming through. It is a big process, but there are still some fundamental flaws in how the work capability assessment is in operation.

Does my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston want to intervene?

Kate Green: No-the hon. Gentleman for Stroud asked the same question.

Miss Begg: That leads me to the third way in which the Government are planning to cut the benefits bill: limiting how long a person can be on a particular benefit. Even if a person is successful in being assessed as only partially fit for work, and qualifies for the work-related activity part of the employment support allowance or ESA-it gets no easier to say, but I do not know another way of doing it but to use acronyms or to give the full title-the CSR proposes that they will qualify for the contributory element for only a year. That means that people who have worked all their lives, and paid their national insurance contributions in the hope that they will act as an insurance against ill health,
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will get the benefit for only one year unless their household income is below the qualifying level for income support.

That poses the question of how much the Government want to continue with the contributory principle. Already, people receive unemployment benefit, or jobseeker's allowance, for only six months, and the contributory element of ESA is to last only for a year, yet they will have worked all their lives thinking that was why they were paying national insurance.

Lone parents will qualify for income support only if they have a child under the age of five. After that, they will be moved to JSA. If they do not get a job within a year, they will lose 10% of their housing benefit. I have been told by several Ministers that the Work programme will result in people being helped back into work. However, the lone parent whose youngest child has turned five will not go into the Work programme for a year. That is when lone parents are to lose part of their housing benefit.

Here we have an individual who has done everything that the Government have asked of her, or him. Such people will have turned up to all the work-related activities and may have moved house to find somewhere cheaper so that they are at the 30th percentile in the housing benefit changes. They will have done everything that the Government have asked of them, but in these economic times they simply cannot find a job. It is not that they have not tried. They will have been to lots of interviews, but not managed to find a job. Even then, they will still lose their benefits.

That is a fundamental change to our welfare system. Sanctions and taking benefits from people has always been linked to negative behaviour-the individual not doing what the Government ask of them. The worrying message that the Government may be sending out is that even if people do the right thing they could still be in danger of losing part of their benefit.

Kate Green: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct to say that there is confusion, with people doing the right thing but still facing sanctions. Does she agree that it is illogical to sanction one benefit in respect of behaviours that are desired in connection with participation in the labour market but that are covered by other benefits-in this case, the jobseeker's allowance-and with no suggestion that the individual will necessarily be facing a sanction?

Miss Begg: My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the issue seems to arise particularly with sanctions on housing benefit. When giving evidence to the Select Committee yesterday, Lord Freud suggested that sanctions on housing benefit would follow people wherever they went. The only way for them to get rid of the sanction would be to find a job, but some might simply not be able to do so. It could depend on where people live, as in some areas it is difficult to find a job.

Mr Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): I am pleased to hear that the hon. Lady will not be retiring. It is good news for our Select Committee, as she is an excellent Chairman. What is her take on the fact that, for the first time, we are to have a really focused Work programme and a universal credit? That will remove many of the problems with withdrawal rates that the Committee highlighted in the past. Of course it is an expensive thing to do, but it is the right thing to do. Is it
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not right to praise the Government for doing that rather than concentrating on the cost savings that need to be made to make it affordable?

Miss Begg: I shall call the hon. Gentleman my hon. Friend, as he is a member of the Select Committee. I shall deal with the universal credit in a moment. However, my hon. Friend is right about the Work programme.

The point is that the Work programme does not kick in until people have been out of work for a year, unless they have come through the incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance route or unless they are young and unemployed, when they will come into the Work programme after six months. The sanction will kick in before the individual has had the very expensive help that we hope the Work programme will rightly provide. It is a combination of there possibly not being a job and there not being any specialist help. Even if the youngest child has just turned five, lone parents might have been out of the workplace for 20 years looking after the older children. They will need extra help, but they will not get it because the Work programme does not kick in until the year is up.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): All Liberal Democrats support the Work programme-it is focused on the need to do things-and everyone understands incentives to get people into work and out of the benefit trap. However, I and many of my colleagues share the hon. Lady's concern about there being an absolute rule that when people have been out of work for a certain time they will lose a certain part of their income, through no fault of their own and irrespective of the job market in their area. It is too absolute, too draconian and too firm. I hope that the hon. Lady's measured argument about how it will have more impact on some than on others, together with the arguments put by my colleagues and me, will persuade the Government that this is one area that should be revisited in order to find a different answer.

Miss Begg: I echo that point. In many cases, we are not arguing about the principle but the detail.

The last way in which the Government can save money is to do away with some benefits. This aspect has both positives and negatives, as we heard from my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for North East Hertfordshire (Mr Heald). Extra money has been identified in the CSR, and £2 billion will be set aside over the next four years for the introduction of a universal credit. That will get rid of many benefits, and probably almost all working-age benefits, which will be subsumed into the universal credit. That is the right thing to do, and it certainly takes us in the right direction of travel, but as with all these matters the devil is in the detail. I look forward to the White Paper, which I hope will give more detail on how things should work. I hope that, within the next couple of weeks, the Minister will give us some indication of when it will be published. We are all waiting with bated breath, as it will make sense of some of the other things that the Government have been doing.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Given the hon. Lady's approach to the difficult question of restructuring benefits at a time of economic depression, from which we are slowly emerging, does she accept that for some of
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us the concept that benefits can only ever increase is philosophically difficult? For instance, in my constituency of Gloucester 10,000 jobs in the private sector were lost during the five or six years between 2004 and 2009, wages went down in many companies and people often worked fewer hours and fewer days to enable companies not to cut jobs. Charities prefer to see housing benefit linked to RPI rather than CPI, but RPI went down sharply in 2008-09. Does the hon. Lady not agree that, in that situation, benefits paid from taxpayer revenue have to be tailored according to how much is available-

Mr Andrew Turner (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be relatively brief.

Richard Graham: I apologise, Mr Turner. Does the hon. Lady agree that in this situation, whichever party was in power, it would be incumbent on the Government to find ways of reducing the ever-increasing benefits bill?

Miss Begg: There is no dispute about the fact that we would like to see the benefit bill reduced. The best way of doing that is to get those who can work into jobs so that they do not need benefits on which to live. As for pensioners, the Government, with their triple lock, have taken the decision that they do not want to see them getting less benefit. That is partly why the cuts have fallen so heavily on working-age people. The Government have protected benefits and increases in benefits for those who are on the basic state pension and other related benefits. They have made a value judgment and decided that some people deserve increases in their benefits while others do not.

Let us not forget the bigger economic argument. Poor people will spend their benefits in the local community. Problems can arise if benefits are cut: the money going into the local economy drops, jobs are lost and shops close. Cuts will cause problems in the local economy. Very often it is the benefits' pound that keeps many things working in some of the poorer communities. There is not an absolute answer as to whether benefits should go up or down depending on the economic wealth of the country, but there is an absolute measure of poverty in which we should not expect people to live. Sometimes, some of our benefits are at a level that keeps an individual living in poverty.

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): The hon. Lady said that when benefits are paid to individuals, the money is used in the local economy, and that that can somehow be helpful. I have heard such comments quite often and they are based, I believe, on an economic fallacy. If the Government did not make payments-benefits or otherwise-the money would not be borrowed by them in the first place, and those who had lent the money would have spent it in the economy anyway. Such a point is worth making because we should base our discussions on the known facts.

Miss Begg: We live in a welfare state and a civilised society, and we have benefits that are paid to people who are in work as well as to those who are out of work. One reason why we take such decisions is that we believe that it is bad for a society to have an enormous gap between the rich and the poor. That is partly why we have our tax and benefit system.


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Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): The hon. Lady is quoting a system that she appears to support, but is it not the case that over the past 13 years of the Labour Government, in which this type of policy was actively encouraged and pursued, the gap between rich and poor widened?

Miss Begg: The rich have got richer, which I would have thought the hon. Gentleman would welcome. The poor have also got richer, but the gap is wider because of what has happened at the top end. There is no doubt that those who live in poverty have a relatively higher income than they would have done without the measures that the previous Government put in place.

Richard Graham rose-

Miss Begg: I had better make some progress. I was going to read out a list of other organisations, but I need to make some progress. I am sure that other Members have lots of concerns to voice from organisations such as Mencap, the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion and so on. However, I have spoken for longer than I meant to. I thought that I had a 10-minute speech, Mr Turner, so I apologise.

In conclusion, the cuts in the DWP budget are not just to bureaucracy. They are far more profound than that. It is the benefits themselves that have been cut. The running costs of the Department are small in comparison to the costs of benefits paid. The DWP has already stripped £2 billion from its daily expenditure, so it is already quite efficiently run, which is why the big cuts have to come from the money paid out to individuals. None the less, behind the figures that I have mentioned are real people leading real lives. Finding £6 a week to make up the shortfall between the amount received in housing benefit and rent costs might not seem a lot to us, but it is a huge amount for someone who only receives £65 on JSA. That £65 has to cover all other living expenses, utilities and food.

Most people would feel the loss of £50 a week towards their transport costs. How much more acute is that loss for people who live in residential homes? Such people are to lose the mobility element of their disability living allowance. When their total income is only £22 a week as a personal allowance, how will they get out and about at all? I have given just two examples of people who will be directly affected by the cuts, but there are many more individuals who will be hit. Whatever Members believe philosophically about what the Government are doing, such individuals will have less income as a result of these decisions. It is beholden on all of us as politicians to recognise that for some of our constituents, life will be very hard as a result of the decisions in the comprehensive spending review. Even if Members believe that the Government are doing everything right, they should please remember that some of their constituents will have a really hard time in the years to come.

3.6 pm

Mr Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Chairman of the Select Committee has set out many of the arguments that are regularly deployed about the sort of cutbacks that are having to be made given the economic situation that this coalition Government inherited-the largest deficit in the G20 and a doubled
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national debt. However, she misunderstands, I think, what the Government's ambition is. The Government have a grand ambition to help people into work and to provide incentives for that and the necessary help.

If we think back over the Labour years, one of the things that was most disappointing about them was that, at the end of the period, we had 3 million households in which nobody worked. Adults of working age may have lived there, but nobody worked. Many of the people concerned had never been approached about working. They had been on benefits for years and had not really had any help to try to get back into work. That is what this ambition and plan is about. The Work programme provides something that the Select Committee has been talking about for years-I am glad that the Chairman has welcomed it-which is a personalised service to help people back into work. I agree that there are some people who would benefit from having that help earlier in their job search than is currently proposed. The worry is that if we start the system at six months, we will not get any of the benefits of deflection. The fact is that many people find work in the second six months of job search.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Does my hon. Friend have any ideas for jobcentres? They could take some practical and easy measures before the Work programme kicks in to help people get back into work.

Mr Heald: I do have some suggestions. If one talks to providers-the big companies that provide these employment services-young people who are looking for work and employers, the one thing that they all say is that young people are bad at applying for jobs. When the future jobs fund was in operation, the employers' reaction to it was generally quite favourable, but the one point that they almost all made was that the applications were poor. If one talks to job providers they will say that young people who have been out of work for six months will still not have a CV that they can leave with an employer. That is a classic thing that everybody knows about, and yet young people are not good at it.

The time has come for the Government to work the way that young people work: to put online simple information about writing a CV and how to get into work. Somehow, we are still missing that vital information. A lot of research shows that helping a young person with a job search early on, with simple information of that sort, is extremely helpful. It can be done through jobs clubs, a fantastic big society initiative happening in many parts of the country. That is just one idea on that subject.

It is refreshing to read Save the Children's briefing for this debate. Although I do not agree with everything in it, it does something that is a model for an organisation. Save the Children, a marvellous organisation, at least starts its briefing with the good news, saying that the Government are doing some things that it strongly supports. If other organisations that send briefings to MPs were more realistic and acknowledged the good-the intent-and then went on to say what they did not like, they might find that they are more persuasive. I notice that the hon. Ladies do not agree. It is important to be realistic in this debate and not to over-state one's case or make dramatic claims that are not borne out by the facts.


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I want to ask the Minister whether universal credit is a big bang initiative, where we will have a sudden launch-with the new system explained to people-or whether it is proposed to have a transition, where a portfolio of benefits gradually moves in that direction, with the withdrawal rates being lowered and the earnings disregards increased. What is the conception behind that process?

Turning to the Work programme, I want to make three points. The first is that at the moment there is a patchwork of schemes continuing. We have got half the country covered by the flexible new deal; we have many cities with employment zones; we have the new deal for disabled people in some places-contracts are just finishing on that; the future jobs fund is running for a bit longer, and so on. It seems that there is a ragged gap in time between the ending of a lot of these programmes and the start of the Work programme. I wonder whether there is any scope for running on some of those schemes, or finding ways of employing the people who work for the big provider companies in that gap. It will obviously be very disruptive if the Work programme starts with quite a lot of people who have not had the help that they would normally have had. Contractors will have to wind down their staffing levels and then crank them back up again over a two or three-month period. I am interested to know if the Minister is at least looking at the gap.

The second point I wanted to make is about the work capability assessment, which the Chair of the Select Committee mentioned. It is concerning that 40% of people affected are now appealing. That may be expected with a system that is starting anew. I think the review is very welcome and I hope that it will deal with some of the problems that have been identified. It is excellent that there is a panel now, with Paul Farmer from Mind on it, which is a very good idea. I wonder whether there is not another problem. I understand that research shows that in some parts of the country, the system works reasonably well and there are not too many problems, but in London there are a lot of appeals and a lot of concern is expressed about the way that it works. Part of the problem may be that adequate attention has not been paid to the needs of minority communities.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. I think there are regional disparities in how some of these measures have been brought in, although there are underlying national problems. Certainly, in Plymouth I have met women with terminal cancer who have been sent for interviews in Bristol. Surely, the hon. Gentleman would agree that that is not right. There is a significant problem outside London, and it is not specific to minority communities.

Mr Heald: Yes. These are the two worst examples I have heard. One person had terminal cancer, and the other attended a provider for a work discussion session with a drip. I think those problems have been ironed out to some extent. I hope that the review and the panel will help. There is possibly an issue about communication between the assessors and the people being assessed. Certainly in London, there are quite large minority communities, and I have been told by providers that one of the problems can be that Atos will have an assessor
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for whom English is not his or her first language, and the person being assessed may not have English as a first language. Apparently there have been quite a lot of problems as a result. Will the Minister consider whether there is a need to look at the question of communication, in London particularly?

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): Although I do not dispute the point raised by the hon. Gentleman, I do dispute the disparities around the country. In the Adjournment debate I had last week, we heard that organisations that had taken people to tribunal to appeal against assessments in Oxford had had over 90% of them overturned. In Derbyshire, people supported by welfare organisations have a 75% success rate. That goes to show that the issue is the involvement of welfare rights organisations rather than a question of minority groups.

Mr Heald: The hon. Lady makes her point. There is some research, which I do not think has been published yet, that looks at the eastern region and London. It comes to the conclusion that the work capability assessments are working far better in the eastern region than in London. Talking to providers about why that might be, they raise the point that about a third of the population in London comes from minority communities. I thought the Minister might want to look at that issue.

My next point is one I mentioned before about getting CVs and help to young people early on. I made the point about going online. I hope that that is something that the Government will look at.

With regard to the movement from incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance on to jobseeker's allowance, one issue that needs to be looked at is the fitness of our work force and the people who are moving from one benefit to the other. There is no doubt that there are a lot of people who start off with a back condition or possibly stress, and it is not treated quickly enough and becomes a chronic condition. I have made that point in debates such as this for years, and I think it is time that the Department of Health and the DWP looked more carefully at the issue of fitness. About two years ago, Dame Carol Black produced an excellent report about fitness and the work force. I know that she is still involved and I hope that it will be possible to build on her work and try to do more in this area, so that we end up with a work force who are fitter.

Miss Begg: Another problem is where employers employ occupational health professionals to assess people, and assess them as not being fit for work, when Atos has assessed them as fit for work for the work capability assessment. That is acting as a barrier very often for employers to accept people into the work force.

Mr Heald: That is right. Another point to make is that the Department of Health has a major group working on the issue of fitness, including aspects of fitness at work. I think that is something that the DWP should also be involved in. It should be a joint exercise, and Carol Black's work should be continued.

I want to make a point about the consumer price index, and then a few general remarks. The consumer prices index is the European measure of inflation. There is no doubt that the retail price index distorts the
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measure, by including mortgage costs, which are erratic. I believe that in the longer term CPI is the better measure, and I understand that in Europe there are discussions about how to include housing costs in it. Over time CPI will be improved, whereas RPI has been rather erratic over the years, and has often led to poor results.

The overall effect of the changes is to give value for money to the taxpayer. It is an issue of fairness. I know that people say, "Housing and other benefits are being cut, and that is unfair on individuals who may have to move or who will have to negotiate with their landlords for a lower rent." I understand that argument, but how can we explain to someone who takes home the average wage of £374 a week net that in difficult economic times, when they are hard pressed, it is right to spend more than £20,000 a year housing someone in a better house than they can afford? It is a hard argument to make.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): One can explain it by pointing out to them that the majority of housing benefit claimants are not living in properties of four bedrooms or more, and that the amount that the Government are presenting as the mean average for housing benefit claimants is wildly exaggerated, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows.

Mr Heald: The hon. Lady will have seen the briefings from certain organisations; I know she has read them. She will see in there the examples that are given-a family paying £400 a week in rent is a classic example. To someone who takes home £374 a week net, £400 sounds an awful lot of rent. That, of course, is the maximum.

Alison Seabeck: A number of the people who currently pay those higher rates moved into the areas where they live and into that type of accommodation 20 or 30 years ago; they have worked in low-paid work. The areas have gentrified over time and housing rents have gone up. That is not their fault. Their roots are there, and the expectation from the changes is that those people will be moved out of those areas, which is deeply unfair.

Mr Heald: I would contest what the hon. Lady says. Of course, it is true-I see the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) in his place, and I have a long connection with his constituency-that there are areas in London that have gentrified and changed over time; I agree. However, the sector of the market that we are discussing-the private rented sector-is not the one that the hon. Lady is really talking about. The private rented sector is the area of the market where people do not stay for 27 years. They move, regularly. It is a sector of the market in which people stay for a year or two. Something like 40 per cent. of that market is people who have been in their homes for less than three years.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is right; he knows Southwark as I do. However, the pattern is not uniform, and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) has a good case. To give one example, just over the bridge is a square called West square, where former Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers have lived. However, some of the houses, which are all privately owned, have been lived in by working-class families, who lived there all their lives. They are privately owned and rented, and
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have continued with private tenants. Scattered throughout my constituency, as well as Westminster and every London borough, are considerable numbers of people who have been for between 10 and 50 years in private sector rented accommodation, and who do not want to move.

Mr Heald: The hon. Gentleman knows Southwark like the back of his hand, and I accept that there are people who have been in the private rented sector for many years, but that is not the overall picture of that sector of the market, which is one of shorter-term lets. Of course, the nature of the contracts on those properties is short term.

Of course there should not be undue hardship. I agree with the hon. Members for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) and for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), and with my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, about that. That is why there is a fund to deal with cases of hardship. The Government have not gone into it saying, "This will be a harsh regime, with no possible exceptions." They have set aside £140 million to deal with those problems.

I think that it is wrong to overstate the problems against the background of the very difficult economic position that the country is in and the need to make cuts-any Government would have had to make cuts. There is a third point, which is that there must be fairness. We are all in it together, and I think that the balance that the Government have achieved is fair. It is wrong to view what is being done as though the overall ambition were to cut back the size of the state. The overall ambition is to get people into work. If we do that, that is how we will cut the welfare bills. I think that, with the economy and the measures that are being taken, things are looking quite encouraging.

3.25 pm

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on a continuing series of important debates. I congratulate, too, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on their role in securing it, as well as the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) on laying out the issues as she did. As she said, behind the statistics are real people and real lives, and there are concerns about many of the issues. Many hon. Members will have had correspondence about, for example, the mobility component of disability living allowance. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's comments, and I hope we shall receive reassurance about some of those things.

Although the debate is about the effect of the CSR on the Department for Work and Pensions, I suggest that, given the bold programme of reform that is being undertaken, it is not practical fully to separate the impact of the spending review and the deficit from what I accept is theoretically a different question-that of reforming benefits for the long term. There is also a distinction to be drawn between the direct and indirect impacts of the CSR on the DWP.

Among the things that strike those of us who are new to the public sector are the crazy names that get bandied about. One is "annually managed expenditure". It is crazy because that is precisely the expenditure that cannot be managed on an annual basis-at least not
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from within Departments. The key focus of the CSR, ultimately, is to build a sustainable recovery, and then steady growth, keeping interest rates low, which encourages investment and in turn creates the right atmosphere for job creation. That focus on growth could ultimately deliver the biggest single impact of the CSR on the bills that the DWP must foot; because as the hon. Member for Aberdeen South said, the best way to bring welfare bills down is for fewer people to be out of work.

The deficit that the new Government inherited requires economies. I know that the Opposition would like the running up of the deficit to be yesterday's story, and the debate to move on to the cuts and how terrible they are; but they are not different stories. They are two sides of the same coin. If the Opposition do not like the cuts that must be made, fine, but they should tell us the alternative-not "Oh, maybe we could do it a little more slowly, or the bankers could pay a bit more" or talk of 10 or 20%. Let us see the 100%. Where are their £44 billion of cuts?

That is the last party political thing I intend to say. From now on I want to strike a more consensual tone. There are four key issues on which the Conservatives and Liberals in the coalition, and Labour-or at least new Labour-find considerable common cause. First, with an ageing population, and relatively low levels of retirement savings, too many citizens in our country have been facing old age without the security that they should be able to look forward to. Secondly, certain working age benefits have gone out of control-particularly housing benefit, the cost of which has risen from £14 billion to £21 billion in a decade.

Thirdly, a lazy approach from the state has abandoned too many people, who get reclassified as being unable to work and therefore-coincidentally, of course-are removed from the headline unemployment statistics, leaving them without practical help, support or encouragement.

Finally in my list of four factors, as a nation we have allowed a benefits system to build up that overall simply does not do enough to incentivise work. Along with other factors, that leads to pockets of multigenerational unemployment and homes where children grow up never seeing an adult go out to do a day's work. Too easily, of course, those children can then slip into what we used to call "youth unemployment" but now, thanks to another fantastic rebranding exercise, they are called NEETS-those "not in education, employment or training".

All of that is happening at a time when policy makers and business men bemoan their inability to find people to fill their existing vacancies, not only at the highly skilled end but at the low-skilled end. Instead, they have been looking and continue to look for people from abroad to fill those vacancies.

These issues are truly pressing because they are long-term structural issues which are quite apart from the structural deficit, although they have of course contributed to that deficit.

I am pleased to say that there is less of a partisan divide on these issues than one might imagine from reading The Guardian'sSociety section since May. As I said earlier, I want to strike a bipartisan note in this debate and I am sure that Opposition Members will want to follow that approach. I know that they will
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want to join me in paying tribute to the spiritual fathers of these welfare reforms. Of course, I refer to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), alongside the Opposition Members' own erstwhile colleagues, Mr John Hutton and Mr James Purnell.

On pensions, it was the Turner report, which was commissioned by Labour, that was indeed the turning point in the debate. Automatic enrolment, increasing the rate of growth of the state pension and raising the retirement age are all changes whose origins came on the watch of the last Government and, of course, enjoyed support across the House. The new Government are moving faster and I welcome that.

Then there is the case of the retirement age. Sadly but necessarily, given that there is still increasing life expectancy-to be clear, increasing life expectancy is itself a good thing, of course-and the triple hurdle for the formula for the uprating of the state pension, the coalition is now finally starting us on what will be a long road to providing a basic state pension, with less reliance on means-testing.

On housing benefit, the 2010 Labour manifesto read:

As I do not think that I can improve on that sentence, I will not try to do so.

Of course, there will be some hard cases and that fact is recognised; indeed, it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. No one welcomes the difficult situations that some families will find themselves in, and I am also glad the Government have made extra money available in discretionary housing payments.

However, we must also recognise-even if the most extreme projections about what will happen fail to materialise -that with a change to housing benefit as extensive as this one, all the economic logic suggests that there will be downward pressure on rents.

Alison Seabeck: I just want to know exactly where the hon. Gentleman gets his evidence from, because the National Landlords Association, residential landlords and London Councils, which is not a Labour body, all say that there is no evidence of such a downward pressure, partly because the private rented sector is already being squeezed on account of would-be young home owners who would like to own homes but who cannot afford them moving into that sector. There is not the evidence that the Government would hope for.

Damian Hinds: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention and for the opportunity to comment on it. I did not talk about evidence from various bodies or organisations. I said that "all the economic logic" suggests that with a change this extensive, there will be downward pressure on rents-it does suggest that.

Mr Heald: According to evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee from the landlords' bodies about 30% of landlords would reduce their rents; London Councils said that about 40% of landlords would reduce
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rents, and, in discussions in the Select Committee, members of the Committee were doing their arithmetic on the basis that 50% of landlords would reduce rents. So there is a body of evidence that a very significant number of landlords will negotiate lower rents.

Damian Hinds: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that matter for us.

I want to turn to the coalition's reforms of incapacity benefit. Of course, the genesis of those reforms also began in the last Government's time in office, when Tony Blair managed to tempt Sir David Freud out of retirement and Sir David found a kindred spirit in James Purnell. In May 2009, Mr Purnell said:

Again, I am not sure that that description of what needs to be done can be bettered and so, once again, I will not try to do so.

It is right that no targets have been set for the numbers of people who will go into the three different groups, because the programme has to be about identifying what is right for each individual, whether that is helping them directly into work, helping them to prepare for the world of work or offering them long-term and unconditional financial support at a rate that will be, of course, higher than the one that pertains today.

Clearly, there are some issues related to the early workings of the work capability assessment, as has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and others, including issues about intermittent conditions and certain mental health conditions. Of course, it is good that there was a pilot phase, so that these issues can be studied and tackled. I know that Ministers are conscious of the need to tackle them and I welcome the Harrington review, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), and the consultation with mental health charities.

The biggest issue of all is ensuring that work pays for everybody. It is not a new issue; it has been around for an awful long time. There is a difficult trade-off between, on the one hand, having a decent living standard for those who cannot find work and, on the other, incentives for those who can find work, and if there were a "third hand" it would be about avoiding the sort of sky-high marginal withdrawal rates, which are effectively tax rates, that create cliff-edges in terms of certain numbers of hours of work in a week or that completely discourage people from taking on some form of work. Of course, we must also try to keep the whole system simple and low-cost to administer. So it is an enormous challenge.

Twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate and we were talking about these issues, people used to talk about the 97% effective marginal tax rates at their peak and sometimes, in extreme cases, rates that were effectively more than 100%, once the additional costs of going to work and so on had been factored in. Of course, that situation existed under a Conservative Government, so I am not making a party political point. However, not enough has changed since then.


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The problem is that if we want to change that state of affairs, mathematically we either have to reduce benefits to levels that just would not be acceptable or withdraw benefits more slowly as people's incomes rise. That second route is, of course, much more attractive but it is also extremely expensive, at least in the short term. So I am delighted that the Government, despite what has been a very difficult trade-off for them over the summer, have managed to find the £2 billion that is necessary to fund the universal credit. As hon. Members know, that new integrated benefit seeks to simplify the system, improve incentives, smooth transitions into work, reduce in-work poverty and cut back on fraud and error. I believe that that £2 billion is money very well spent.

Taken together, the reforms to incapacity arrangements and the plans to make work pay are, of course, complemented by the Work programme, which was also referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire. That programme will treat everyone as an individual in a very practical way, while continuing the "Purnellian" principle of using non-state institutions to help people into the world of work and indeed into lasting jobs.

Collectively these measures, enabled by the comprehensive spending review and some of the difficult trade-offs that have to be made, can have an enormous impact on the DWP. That is because, as we have said already, the single biggest variable factor is the number of people who are in work compared with the number of people who are not in work. With these measures, we can encourage and help many more of our fellow citizens into work and in so doing we can create a more fulfilling future for them, a more cohesive future for our society and a much more sustainable future for our economy.

3.39 pm

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) for securing this important debate. I will begin by discussing the comprehensive spending review in order to highlight some of the key issues that we are confronting. The first is economic growth. Improving economic growth is one function of the CSR, in terms of overall macro-economic policy. The second is unemployment; we cannot be satisfied with so many people being unemployed for such a long time. Some 1.4 million people have been unemployed for approximately nine out of the past 10 years. At the same time, we have been sucking in labour from other countries. There are some big issues for us to confront.

The overall question about the CSR is this. If the Labour party thinks that cuts should be made, it would be handy-from our point of view, at least-to have some indication where they might fall. All the ding-dong about cuts does not distract anyone from the fact that there would have been cuts whether or not the Labour party won the last general election. Discussing only the CSR's impact on the Department for Work and Pensions is slightly misleading, because we must reform benefits anyway.

As I said, too many people have been unemployed for too long, and we need to tackle that. As a decent society, we must encourage people to think about how to get back to work. A decent society looks after people properly if they need to be looked after and focuses on those who need more help rather than those who need less, if any.


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Mr Heald: I am following the points that the hon. Gentleman is making about the most vulnerable people and not concentrating only on DWP. One great strength of the CSR that is not really about DWP is that tax credits have been increased to help the poorest children and ensure that we do not increase child poverty. That is part of the big picture.

Neil Carmichael: My hon. Friend the Member for-

Mr Heald: North East Hertfordshire.

Neil Carmichael: Thank you. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is much more about the overall impact of the CSR.

The changes that this Government are introducing were anticipated in some respects by the last Government. It is misleading to say that we are suddenly coming in with a wild charge to cut expenditure simply because we want to, or even because we need to, although we certainly do. There is a general feeling that changes in the pension benefits arrangements are necessary. A good example is moving incapacity benefit on to employment and support allowance. That was not our idea from just a few months ago; it was already the direction of travel of the last Government. I will discuss that in a bit, but I have four points to make.

The first is that the CSR has certainly propelled changes in the ESA; quite right, too, for the reasons that I have given. Secondly-it is important that we make, understand and keep repeating this point-people who really need help will not go without help. Severely disabled people will get appropriate support. It is critical to make that point, because we do not want anybody to be unnecessarily alarmed.

Natascha Engel: I was not going to intervene; I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. That is the big problem. The number of errors being made in the reassessment of people who are on ESA-and now, also, incapacity benefit-is so high that our worry is that exactly the opposite of what he is describing will happen. People are being left destitute who are already vulnerable and poor. That is exactly what we are worried about.

Neil Carmichael: I thank the hon. Member for-I will have to learn a few more constituencies.

Natascha Engel: North East Derbyshire.

Neil Carmichael: Thank you. The fact of the matter is that we are reviewing those processes. I have mentioned Professor Harrington and said that our processes must be fair and decent, and that is what the Government are working to ensure.

The saving from the changes to the ESA will be approximately £2 billion, which makes a difference to our target of saving money through the CSR. However, what is critical is helping people to get to work by introducing a Work programme that delivers and encouraging the voluntary sector to help with CVs and so forth. It matters that we help people fulfil their lives by getting work if they want it and can do it; we must recognise that.


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The key tool for transferring from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance is the work capability assessment, which was introduced in 2008. It has some imperfections that we will improve, but it was introduced by the Labour Government for precisely the purpose that we are discussing. That is another important point to make.

The assessment process, as I understand it, takes account of medical conditions, mental problems and so forth and considers carefully how health policy, initiatives and solutions are being advanced. It is a fair and relatively flexible tool-

Miss Begg: That is part of the problem; it is not flexible or sensitive to different conditions. It is very mechanistic. Some of the employability criteria from previous assessments for incapacity benefits have been removed, when those are the very issues that need to be assessed. Those of us who have examined it feel that that is a problem. It does not always assess the right things. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) pointed out, the wrong decisions are being made. People who are clearly not fit to work are being found fit to work and vice versa. That is a problem.

Neil Carmichael: I thank the hon. Lady. This might get a bit boring, but I will simply repeat that we look forward to Professor Malcolm Harrington's report, which I gather is coming soon.

To end on a political point, I note that the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for- [Hon. Members: "Paisley and Renfrewshire South."] Thank you. He said on "The Andrew Marr Show" that he recognised that the changes were necessary, that the Labour Government would have been interested in that direction of travel and that he did not reject all our proposals out of hand but welcomed a lot of them. That is the point that we should rest on. Labour's Front-Bench Members recognise the problems that we are dealing with, understand that people should be encouraged and helped to work and recognise the impact that that will undoubtedly have on the CSR. However, as I have stressed throughout my speech, we must give people a fair and decent chance to fulfil their lives. That is our view and, I hope, increasingly the view of the Labour party.

3.48 pm

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak, Mr Turner. I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) for securing this debate on an important and emotive subject. I speak as a constituency Member who brings to the table constituency observations, not experience from the Work and Pensions Committee or in-depth knowledge of the subject. However, I welcome the fact that the Government seem more and more willing to take difficult decisions that the previous Government unfortunately would not take. The comprehensive spending review is a vital part of starting to clear up the economic car crash-those are the only words I can find to describe the situation-that the new Government have inherited.

Today we have seen that when it comes to tackling the difficult issues, Opposition Members prevaricate and oppose. They come out with the odd titbit to give us a
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little taster of what they might think is the right thing to do, but they never seem to have a plan, or ever look like putting a plan forward. That is getting rather tedious.

Overall, the issue is that we have had a steep and astounding increase in the cost of benefits over the past five years. There has been a 45% increase in the cost of benefits over that time, which means that for every £3 that the Government spend, £1 is spent on welfare benefits. We as a country cannot sustain such a situation. Again, that shows how out of control the welfare situation was under the previous Government-just like the situation with the Budget deficit, immigration and a number of other issues that they failed to tackle.

As I have mentioned, thankfully, we have a coalition that might not always be perfect in its approach, but is willing to take the necessary decisions to put the country back on the right course. I think all hon. Members would acknowledge that we need to make it very clear that, as a civilised society, we must provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. I do not think anyone would advocate that as a country, as a Government and as politicians, we should not support those people in our society.

However, we should also strive to reform and arrest a situation in which many genuine people are trapped in the system. Such people want to contribute to society, to go out to work and make their own way, but unfortunately they are stifled by the current system. We also need to bear in mind-I do not think this has been mentioned in the debate-that for a very small minority of people benefits are a lifestyle choice. A number of colleagues have put it to me-I have heard this comment in my constituency-that some people consider that going to claim their benefits is tantamount to turning up for their wages. That is not acceptable in a civilised society. We must look after the people who should be looked after, but we cannot afford to allow people to choose not to contribute-unless, of course, they are willing to contribute to society in a financial sense for themselves.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Mr Heald) pointed out eloquently that many young people are growing up in households where they have never seen anybody work. That is not a new phenomenon. There are second and third generations of people who have never worked, and young people are growing up in those households with no role models. They have no one to look up to, copy in life or attach their thoughts to. I understand that there are now around 3 million such households. Again, that situation is totally unsustainable.

There are people who are genuine losers in our benefit system. I am aware of many constituents with physical and mental disabilities, and learning disabilities and difficulties who have little chance of ever working. I would like the Minister to make it clear that those people will definitely be protected under the changes to the benefit system. We must make sure that we protect them if we are to be considered a civilised Government.

We also need to ensure that we make every effort to try to help people on incapacity benefit and ESA, who are rightly being asked to take work capability assessments. We must consider the fact that when people go to the assessment their condition might not be taken into account on the particular day they attend. People with multiple sclerosis, myalgic encephalomyelitis, rheumatoid
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arthritis or conditions that can be quite different on a given day could experience such a situation. What does the Minister propose we do to try to make sure that assessments are fair for those people?

I would also like to make hon. Members aware that I have constituents who are in what I would call the middle ground. They are between being able and unable to work, and are on the edge of being able to enter the workplace. The current system deters those people from going into the workplace because they do not seem to have the necessary support to enable them to get a taster for work, which would encourage them and give them the necessary opportunities.

I welcome the back to Work programme and the package of support that will be offered, particularly the help for people to get back to the workplace. I am encouraged by the personalised nature of that programme. We need to ensure that such packages are personal because, as Members from all parties have said, this is not a one-size-fits-all situation. It is extremely important that we put more of the onus on the back to work providers and that we ensure they are doing the job properly and in a sustainable way. We can help to do that through payment by results.

I have been made aware of a particular case from my surgery; it involves a very genuine woman who has been through a horrendous experience. She is currently receiving ESA and wants to go back to work but, in the words of her specialist, she is not yet in a position to do so. At the moment, there seems to be no middle ground between ESA or jobseeker's allowance. I think she has just been told that she must choose the JSA route, which means she will receive pretty poor and confusing support to get back into work.

I welcome the announcements made by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), which will, indeed, start getting people back into work. However, I have concerns, particularly for my constituent, who feels as though she is wading through treacle trying to get the skills, support and confidence to go back to the workplace. I fear that the reforms that will come in next year will not be expeditious enough for my constituent. What is the Minister doing to advise and direct various organisations-Jobcentre Plus and other agencies-on what can be done to help such people now, rather than waiting until next year? I expect that most Members would rather we helped people as expeditiously as we can as a Government, than waited for legislation to come into force.

I now turn to the limits that are being put on benefits. I understand why hon. Members, particularly those in London, have concerns about the cap that will be put on benefits. Many hardworking people in my constituency have said that they would be absolutely overjoyed to earn £25,000 after tax and spend £20,000 a year on housing. However, unfortunately, they are not in a position to do so. The decision to put caps on the amount of benefit that people can claim has been greeted with some enthusiasm in my constituency. In many ways, such an approach is progressive; although I take into account the difficulties that some Members may have, particularly those with London constituencies.

Although my constituents have welcomed the announcements, they are not mercenaries, and I do not think anyone here would profess to be so. My constituents
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want to support people to get back into the workplace, but they also want to ensure that, as a Government, we do not allow the situation to get out of control. My constituents welcome the discretionary housing payments that will be allowed to go to the poorest in our society.

Some Opposition Members have used the politics of fear around the issue and have talked about social engineering. My theory is that trapping families in a financial position where they are totally dependent, and beholden to politicians who are edging ever closer to taking complete control of individual lives, is social engineering of the worst form.

We must encourage an economy in which we bring the necessary training, jobs and employment to sustain the people who have become dependent on benefits. The Government are on the right lines in making sincere proposals for getting people back into work. It will sometimes be difficult to put those things into practice, and there will be some anomalies, but I am sure the Minister will tell us how they can be ironed out. I welcome the moves that have been proposed and sincerely hope that they will help people in constituencies such as mine to move forward from the difficult and prescriptive place where many have found themselves trapped, particularly those who have been unable to source work for many years.

4 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I start by thanking you, Mr Turner, and hon. Members present for your tolerance in allowing me to resume my participation in the debate. I have been attending a Public Bill Committee sitting for the past hour. I am sorry to have missed the contributions of other Members and encourage them to intervene to repeat points that might already have been made that relate to my remarks.

I am pleased that the Backbench Business Committee selected the subject for debate this afternoon, not only because it was partly in response to representations I made to the Committee, but because this set of policy announcements is one of the most significant that the coalition Government have made. It will have far-reaching implications, not only financially for families now, but for the philosophy surrounding welfare provision. It is beginning to take us into new territory and challenges some of the assumptions and positions that have pertained for the past 60 or 70 years. The debate is an important opportunity to start to talk about that.

It is notable that we have had several debates in this Chamber and on the Floor of the House that speak to concerns right across the House about the implications of some of the Government's proposals, particularly in relation to housing benefit reform. I want to address some of those points again this afternoon and, inevitably, speak much more widely about the broad range of financial support for families that is provided by the welfare system and by the benefits and support programmes that are the responsibility of the DWP.

One of the great difficulties when looking at financial support for households is that it is provided by a number of Departments. It is difficult to disentangle the implications of one benefit change in one Department's area of responsibility and look at it in isolation when assessing the overall impact on low-income households. I hope
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that we will have some leeway this afternoon to look beyond the rigid parameters of the DWP. That was certainly already the case when I had to leave the debate earlier.

Mr Heald: Does the hon. Lady agree that the increase in child tax credit is a vital part of the overall picture?

Kate Green: That is the kind of point that it is important we recognise in debate. I recognise that the increase in child tax credit is one of a tiny number of measures, if not the only one, that we have seen so far from the Government that try to redress some of the reduction in or withdrawal of financial support elsewhere. Ministers have highlighted the fact that the increase is significant in ensuring that there is no rise in child poverty as a result of the measures that have been proposed overall. I regret such paucity of ambition, as the intention is simply not to see child poverty increase. Previous Labour Governments were criticised-rightly, I guess-for not achieving as much as they had set out to do. The proposed increase seems a poor and rather limited attempt to move forward, which I very much regret. I would welcome hearing from the Minister how the Government expect to catch up on the target to eradicate child poverty by 2020 when they expect to make no progress at all between now and 2012-13.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Miller): I want to build on the hon. Lady's point that the issues of child poverty that the Government are addressing go well beyond DWP and remind her of the £7 billion investment we have made in the fairness premium, which is being delivered through measures introduced by my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Education. At the risk of incurring your wrath, Mr Turner, I remind the hon. Lady that when the Government came into office the figures on child poverty were deteriorating. What we have done in the emergency Budget and the initial spending review measures is to stop that deterioration and stabilise the situation. In March, we will be setting out a strategy to show how we will take things forward.

Kate Green: First, let us be absolutely clear about the alleged deterioration in child poverty performance. It deteriorated in two years, 2005-06 and 2006-07, and the measures that were introduced in the 2008 and 2009 Budgets were already turning that position around. It is welcome that the Government have not decided to reverse those measures. I am pleased that they have retained the progressive announcements made by the previous Chancellor, but it is a pity that the new measures that they have announced will tend to work against that progressiveness.

Secondly, I absolutely take the Minister's point about the importance of the spending measures being rolled out by the Department for Education. I regret that some of that is moving money around, rather than bringing additional money into educational institutions and settings. None the less, there is considerable evidence, as she is well aware because we have discussed it on many occasions, that any spending on education, health or a range of other outcomes for children is hampered if they grow up in households with inadequate income. Income is a prerequisite of the success of other social programmes. That is why I am concerned about the long-term implications of some of the Government's measures in relation to household income.


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Let me list some of the Government measures that will reduce incomes across the piece. We have the freeze on child benefit, and its removal in cases where an individual in the household is in the higher tax band. We have the freezing of working tax credit. We have an increase in the number of hours that a couple are required to work in order to claim working tax credit. We have a reduction in the child care element of the tax credit. We have the linking of benefits to the consumer prices index. We have the time-limiting of contributory employment and support allowance to a period of 12 months.

We have the removal of the mobility element of disability living allowance for those in residential care. We have the promise of more testing before disability living allowance can be accessed.

We have many changes to rules for eligibility for housing benefit, including the room cap, the reduction to the 30th percentile, the removal of the £15 excess, the cut in housing benefit for those on jobseeker's allowance for more than 12 months, changes to non-dependent deductions, which are now to be uprated in line with the CPI, and there will be an increase in the age at which people are able to come off the single room rent rate. We have changes to council tax benefit. We have the removal of the health and pregnancy grant, child trust funds and the saving gateway. We have the reduction in funds available for social housing and an overall cap on benefits.

I hope that I have not forgotten anything, because that sounds bad enough. Not all of those policies will have an impact on every household, but none the less together they will put many low-income households under great financial pressure, and I am very concerned about that.

Maria Miller: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Green: No, I will not. I also want to highlight the fact that when we look at which households will particularly feel the brunt of those changes, we see that women will bear much of the pain. Women are hit twice as hard as men as a result of the reduction in income that will result from those changes.

Women receive 70% of tax credits, 60% of housing benefit and 94% of child benefit-perhaps unsurprisingly, because that payment is particularly well targeted at mothers-and 65% will be affected by the changes in the rules for savings credit as part of pension credit.

The disabled are suffering several reductions to their benefits: the removal of higher rate disability living allowance for those in residential care; the changes to eligibility for employment and support allowance, which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) highlighted earlier; the impact of the work capability assessment, which seems to be proving harsher than was acknowledged earlier and harsher than the previous or present Governments might have expected; and the loss of contributory ESA after a year.

Families with children in every income decile are being hit hard by the changes-harder than households without kids. I am concerned about the differential impact of the changes on different kinds of household structures, and I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that.


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Another area that I would like to open up for debate and would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on is how the measures will work against the Government's absolutely correct wish to incentivise people to move into increased hours of paid work. The first prerequisite of being able to look for work is a stable income. It is hard for people to motivate themselves to go out and look for a job if they are struggling to hold things together day to day, and worrying about creditors banging on the door, or whether they can afford to pay the bills, keep healthy food in the fridge, keep the house in a decent state of repair and keep their clothes clean and laundered. With all those basic needs proving a barrier, it is difficult to think about going out to look for work.

The second thing that is crucial for people looking for paid employment-we hear this again and again from homeless charities-is a stable address. Many of us are concerned that the impact of the housing benefit changes will be to force people to move, perhaps more than once or twice, as the changes are introduced in waves. In some cases, lack of a stable address is likely to prove a barrier to moving into paid work. Clearly, a third important prerequisite for parents being able to move into paid work is having child care in place.

Changes to housing benefit will not only disrupt the stability of a family's accommodation but may move them further from areas where jobs can actually be found, and from the support networks on which they rely. I am concerned that reducing the element of working tax credit support that is available to help meet child care costs will make it more difficult for parents to afford those costs.

A number of the measures that the Government have already announced will actually worsen marginal deduction rates. The cuts to working tax credit will worsen the return that people get from paid employment, and the loss of free school meals for some families who were expecting to receive them from this September, and the increases in VAT and travel costs, will make the decision to return to work much more economically unattractive than the Government might wish. I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that.

Another thing I would like to consider is the support the Government will put in place to enable people to move into paid work. We look forward to receiving details about the single Work programme, which I believe Members across the House are keen to welcome. Labour Members in particular see many elements of the single Work programme, in so far as we know about it, drawing on the new deal and the recent flexible new deal. In fact, I have been struggling to identify the philosophical differences between the single Work programme and the flexible new deal. I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that.

There is potential for more risk being put on providers, who will be required to perform over the longer term. That may make it more difficult for some smaller providers and, in particular, voluntary sector providers to join in with provision of the single Work programme. I know that Ministers are concerned about that, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on it.

There is perhaps even more alliance than we saw with the flexible new deal on the so-called black box approach. My worry about such an approach is whether the most vulnerable will transparently receive appropriate support and be properly advocated for in a system where there
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are conditions, requirements and obligations on them. Who will negotiate for them if the requirements that are imposed are unreasonably onerous? The black box approach has some merits, obviously, in that it offers flexibility to good providers, but how we will ensure that the actions of providers who may put inappropriate pressure on clients to take up unsuitable employment, or to take up unsuitable programmes to prepare them for employment, will be transparent and exposed in the single Work programme that Ministers intend to introduce?

My final point is about the universal credit, which I think many Members on the Government Benches have suggested will provide a solution to concerns about the measures that are being introduced more immediately. First, even if the universal credit proves to be the panacea that we are assured it will be, I am concerned about the hardship that will be experienced by households now, before it is actually in place. I am not setting out today to oppose the universal credit by any means, but it might be helpful, as we are clearly at an early stage in the Government's thinking on what it might look like, if I highlight some concerns about where care will need to be taken in its design.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for being here for only part of the debate. On the universal credit, does my hon. Friend have any insight into the logic of how the Government's announcement on, for example, the localisation of council tax benefit-and, by the way, the 10% cut-fits with the DWP's approach of trying to design a universal credit, but apparently without that element in it?

Kate Green: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Points raised in favour of the universal credit were that it would remove administrative complexity and clarify people's entitlements in and out of work. Clearly, where there is variance across the country in terms of entitlement to help with council tax, we have lost all the advantage of administrative simplicity, and transparency and clarity. That is one of the anomalies that I would be interested in hearing the Minister address.

I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on some of the risks of putting all our eggs in one basket. That may have the virtue of simplicity, but as we know, administrative systems and Government are not famous for smooth running in favour of low-income claimants. If the universal credit should happen to fall over, perhaps because of IT difficulty or for other reasons, there will be absolutely nothing else coming into households to carry them through. I very much hope that the IT will perform smoothly and that there will be no such administrative difficulties, but there are risks. It is important that we hear from Ministers what the contingency plan is, because both DWP and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs have been quite slow to compensate for difficulties in getting payments through quickly; for example, emergency payments and social fund payments have not been particularly easy to access when things have gone wrong.

From the point of view of low-income households, there is some merit in having payments coming in at different times through the month. It assists household budgeting if people know that another chunk of money will be arriving in the next few days.


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I hope that the design of the universal credit will recognise that there is an issue not just of distribution of income to poorer households but of its distribution within those households. I want to be sure that we design a credit that does not disadvantage women in the household in particular by assessing and paying a credit at household level that in practice may not reach her and, therefore, may not be particularly effective in reaching her children.

The intention to introduce real-time calculation of entitlement to the universal credit will also mean real-time clawing back of benefit overpayments. It would be exceptionally difficult for low-income families to plan for that, and I would welcome the Minister's comments.

In conclusion, the Secretary of State and the Department have an ambitious vision, and an extensive range of changes will be introduced in the near term in somewhat indecent haste, without the implications being clearly thought through. I am grateful that we have had an opportunity to raise some of our concerns. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South said earlier, there are real concerns about the devastating impact that the loss of even a few pounds can have on low-income households, and I look forward to the Minister's response.

4.19 pm

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) for starting our debate today. She has talked about retiring, and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Mr Heald) has mentioned the contribution that she has made on the Select Committee-a contribution that I heartily admire. I hope that she does not mind my saying that I hope that she does not need to retire, because across the country she is a role model for and an inspiration to disabled people. If, however, she does feel the need, I am sure that I could find an excellent Conservative candidate in Aberdeen to fill her spot. The Conservatives do, of course, need more Members of Parliament from Scotland.

I welcome the proposals in the comprehensive spending review for the Department for Work and Pensions and, in particular, I welcome the Secretary of State's radical and strategic look at the support that is given to 20 million customers, including those who receive benefits and state pensions, those who need help to get work, and disabled and older people. The CSR is courageous in what it has presented, and it is transformational because it is about giving people who can work a way to transform their lives, build their confidence, feel worth while and contribute to their family and to society as a whole. It is about giving them hope for the future, because the reality is stark. After I deal with this point, I shall move on to a more positive note. Britain today has 5 million people claiming out-of-work benefits, one in five households entirely dependent on benefits, with no one working, and nearly 1 million people who have never worked. We cannot leave people to languish on benefits with no opportunities to change their lives for the better, and I believe that all of us in this House, no matter which side we are on, are trying to change lives for the better.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen South talked about the gap between rich and poor, and I sometimes feel frustrated by how we approach that. We have to help the people at the lower end of the spectrum to get back
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into work, and to support the people who cannot work. However, it is not about penalising people who have achieved something in life. There is something about the British culture that means that when we talk about people who have achieved something we have to try to find fault. To anyone who has gone out there, worked hard, tried to find work and achieved something for themselves and their family, I say, "Well done," and I hope that everyone else does too.

I would particularly like to focus on the issue of getting people back to work and on how the Work programme can support that. There is no doubt that we need to improve the way in which we help people get back into work. According to International Labour Organisation figures, we have nearly 2.5 million people unemployed, which is 7.7% of the economically active population. That is below the G7 unemployment rate of 8.3%, but some of those 2.5 million people are not contributing economically to our society and are being held back from reaching their full potential. In a YouGov poll in July this year, 43% of people who had visited a jobcentre in the previous 12 months said that they were treated as a statistic, with no focus on their individual needs. That figure rises to 59% for those in the 55-plus category, and that is something that we must change.

In my constituency of Brentford and Isleworth in west London, the latest figures from September showed that 2,315 people were claiming jobseeker's allowance. That figure was down 10% on the previous year's, but the number of people who have been claiming jobseeker's allowance for more than a year had increased by 47%. Being out of work long term is damaging for all concerned. It is damaging for the taxpayer, because we lose out on the potential economic contribution of that individual and, more importantly, it is damaging for that individual themselves because of what it does to them and to their families.

Some 60% of people claiming jobseeker's allowance in my constituency are aged between 25 and 49, and it is that age group that particularly needs help to get back into work. Currently, there is a confusing array of programmes out there. People who have been claiming jobseeker's allowance for 12 months must take part in the flexible new deal, which is delivered through Jobcentre Plus by private providers. Some people who do not receive a job through the FND will possibly move back on to jobseeker's allowance. Recent figures provided by the Department for Work and Pensions show that since the scheme was implemented in 2001, more than 500,000 of the 2.7 million people leaving the scheme have returned to jobseeker's allowance. We need to simplify things, to improve the accountability and to focus on results, and I really believe that the Work programme can do that.

The Work programme is one of the biggest employment and back-to-work programmes in the world, and will offer targeted, personalised help for people who need it most, sooner rather than later. The programme will be delivered by experienced organisations in the private and voluntary sectors, which will be given the freedom to design the right programmes for claimants. However, those organisations will be paid by results, and the Government will pay them only when they get welfare claimants back into work, and keep them there. Are there people out there who can deliver that? I believe
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that the answer is yes, and I want to give a couple of examples of how things are currently working, and can work in the future.

The first example is Reed in Partnership, which I recently visited in Hounslow. The organisation states that it seeks to

Since 1998, Reed in Partnership has helped 100,000 people move from welfare into employment, and has focused not only on building the skills and confidence of individuals to get back into work, but also on building partnerships with local businesses that offer the work opportunities. The organisation has many strong partnerships across the business sector. The view of the chief executive, Chris Melvin, is that the

I met the Hounslow branch manager, Shirley Allen, who talked to me about the organisation's work with people on health-related benefits, and about some of the opportunities it sees for the future. I also talked to some of the individuals who were going though its programme and who really did want to find work. They felt that organisations such as Reed were helping them to build their confidence so that they could go out there and change their lives for the better.

The second example is in the voluntary sector. I recently met an organisation called Helxx5, which is committed to building a mechanism that brings together business and the community for the benefit of all. The Bridge UK is the charitable arm of Helxx5, and that is the part of the organisation that I visited. The Bridge UK has so far focused on using a cross-section of unemployed people to renovate disused buildings and transform them into a multi-media hub that will bring business to the area. It has employed locally, in Brentford, some 100 unemployed people, who have cleared yards and decorated buildings, learning a whole host of skills along the way. Some of those people come from second and third-generation benefit households. It was pretty hard initially to persuade some of them that there was a good reason to get out of bed in the morning, but The Bridge UK has done that successfully, and real results are being achieved.

The ultimate goal for The Bridge UK is to continue to work with unemployed people from Jobcentre Plus, taking them through training modules with a view to them finding a way to stabilise their life, and providing the skills base that will allow them to secure future work. In effect, it is helping people to cross the bridge from welfare dependency to future employability. What makes this work are the leaders of the organisations-in this case Cain Gerrod. He brings knowledge of coaching, business experience and local contacts, and his former tough-guy ex-Chicago life probably enables him to communicate with the individuals in the programme. When I visited it last week, I found a group with energy and creativity in abundance. Its approach works and, in my view, totally fits with what we are looking for as a successful part of the Work programme. I also visited National Grid's programme with offenders in prisons. It works with more than 100 organisations and businesses
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to create opportunities for offenders and support them to find work. It gets them into work, then supports and mentors them for two years.

The common theme running through the coalition Government's proposals is that they cannot do all this on their own. Getting people back to work is an example of that; we need businesses, charities, the Government, neighbourhoods, families and individuals all to play a part in helping people to get back to work.

There are two areas that I would like to mention: work experience and mentoring. Gaining employment in this country is dependent on having experience, which many people who have been unemployed for some time do not necessarily have. Without experience, they cannot get a job and, without a job, they cannot get experience. We need to break that cycle by persuading more companies to give people work experience.

Kate Green: The hon. Lady is right about the importance of workplace experience. Employers look for it, and it is important in giving confidence to individuals in applying for jobs. Therefore, is it not regrettable that the future jobs fund, which gave people a sensible amount of work experience-a minimum of six months-and, crucially, paid them a wage, which is one of the most important features of feeling that it is a genuine work experience, has been abandoned by the coalition Government?

Mary Macleod: We need to find people sustainable, long-term employment that they can do in future and will support them. We can work with businesses in our local areas. I will be encouraging all the businesses in my constituency to give more people the work experience that will help them to gain future employment. All Members can do that in their constituencies.

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady accept that the future jobs fund has been successful in placing young people in permanent work? Only last week, I spoke to several employers and young people in my constituency, and due to being on placements through the future jobs fund, those young people now have permanent work.

Mary Macleod: There will be examples of people gaining experience and managing to find work, but the problem is that there have been so many different schemes, not one coherent strategic approach to getting those people into long-term and sustainable work. People have not had the individual support to make that happen, which the Work programme will allow.

Work experience is a win-win situation for all concerned; the company gets support from individuals for their business and the individuals gain vital work skills. One barrier that has stood in the way of that in the past is that people feared losing their jobseeker's allowance if they undertook any volunteering work. I received a letter from a constituent on that. I am pleased that that issue has been addressed and that unemployed people are now encouraged to take on work experience voluntarily, without fear of losing their jobseeker's allowance-as long as they are still actively available for and seeking employment at the same time. Therefore, a part-time work experience assignment will not prevent them from
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continuing to claim benefits in the short term, but may, I hope, help them not claim them in the longer term by finding suitable long-term work.

As MPs, we can all persuade businesses and individuals in our communities to create and develop mentoring schemes to support those people who have been long-term unemployed to get back into work. I hope that we can create something good and sustainable with a mentoring scheme in my constituency.

In summary, I believe that the Government have taken bold and radical steps in addressing welfare reforms that were long overdue. We will replace a confusing array of support programmes with the Work programme, which will provide personalised support to get people back to work. The priority will be to ensure that the Work programme is delivered in a way that encourages the active involvement of strategic companies and third sector organisations, without introducing red tape and bureaucracy. Beyond the Work programme, we can encourage the building of vital skills by providing more opportunities for people to volunteer in workplaces to gain vital experience to get back into work. I look forward to working with businesses in my constituency to do just that, and to get more people from welfare into work, so that we change their lives for the better and they can go on to create a strong and sustainable future for themselves and their families.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr Andrew Turner (in the Chair): I will call the Front-Benchers from 4.57. I can see three Members standing up; I call Richard Graham.

4.35 pm

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Thank you, Mr Turner, I shall try to be brief and build on the points made by other hon. Members, including, most recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod). I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) for securing the debate on a topic that is crucial to dealing with our old, weak and vulnerable, and for all of us who work. The debate is on a subject responsible for a third of all Government spending and, therefore, crucial in that sense as well.

We have been debating the impact of the CSR on the work of the Department for Work and Pensions. What the CSR did, above all, was endorse a radical change of direction in that most crucial of Departments. We have effectively seen a signal to the end of accepting ever more people with very little motivation to work, people who are not working living in properties that they would not be able to afford if they did work, Britain's ever-increasing number of people on incapacity benefits-there are 2.9 million people on a category of benefit that does not exist anywhere else in Europe-and an ever-increasing proliferation of an array of benefits that no one, not even the distinguished hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), can understand.

Kate Green: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Richard Graham: I regret that there is no time to give way.


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It will also mean an end to the continuation of the trend for increasing numbers of young people with illnesses and disabilities who do not wish to follow the stirring examples of the hon. Member for Aberdeen South and my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) and for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who set strong examples. I do not believe that the hon. Member for Aberdeen South wishes us to continue to accept those things.

The radical new approach endorsed by the CSR is a philosophy for a 21st-century welfare state and a complete restructure of benefits, which I describe as getting "back to Beveridge", under a single universal benefit, a single larger basic state pension, which should have been introduced by the previous Government years ago, and the principle that work always pays and benefits should not exceed the average salary. That amounts to an ambitious programme that many of us endorse; indeed, all the voluntary organisations that gave evidence to the Select Committee explicitly embraced the goals, if not the details, of the implementation. As Opposition Members have said, we are close to consensus on the aims-whatever the shadow Secretary of State may have said on television recently-which is appropriate given the sector with which we are dealing.

What differentiates us is simply how much money should go to whom, when and where. Those who believe, as some hon. Members have indicated today they do, that no benefit should ever change, let alone decrease, are missing the point. If we accept the principle behind the goals of the direction of the Department for Work and Pensions, we much also accept that, to get rid of the disincentives to work and to make work worth while, the principle means significant changes to how benefits are delivered.

The natural corollary to the strategy that we all-or most of us-accept is the plan for implementation. We now have the plans for changes to housing benefit, testing people on incapacity benefit, new ways of handling people on jobseeker's allowance, the introduction of the Work programme and the introduction of the single universal benefit, which, in a sense, is the most important. Those changes are under way. The Minister and her colleagues are aware of the sensitivity of individual issues that will come up as this great programme is put into place, and I believe that they will respond with contingency plans and funding if difficulties come up. We must trust the Minister to do that.

Let me give an example of what can be inspiring from a new approach to work. In Parliament, I employ a woman who is a registered epileptic. She does a fantastic job, and there is no reason why many others like her should not be able to do the same thing. As the programme unfolds, I believe that we will see many inspiring examples coming forth. Therefore, I urge hon. Members from all parties to embrace the strategy and work to make it a success.

There is much that we can do as individual MPs. For example, I will be doing three things. First, I will hold a seminar so that disabled jobseekers can meet employers, and employers can hear from those who work successfully, such as my friends the blind receptionist and the deaf warehouseman. Secondly, I will continue to encourage my jobcentre to experiment with new ways of helping people on jobseeker's allowance to find jobs. One new experiment in Gloucestershire has halved the number of
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people on the waiting list over the past few weeks. Thirdly, I am holding an apprenticeship fair for young people, and a seminar on engineering for women.

I would like to hear other ideas from hon. Members from all parties, so that we can go out and do our bit in our constituencies to help people into work. There is an alternative approach, which I would summarise as that of continuing to snipe from the sidelines, saying that things cannot work, complaining that funding has decreased, and effectively letting down young and working-age people in our constituencies. I believe that we should embrace the strategy, hold the Department to account on the scheme's implementation as it unravels, and make it a success so that we get our country working again.

4.41 pm

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I am present almost by accident, because my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott) would normally have been the Liberal Democrat spokesperson. In many ways, she is a greater expert than me. I am afraid that I have broken the spell-there would have been women leading for all three main parties, together with the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) and the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). We men would have had to muscle our way in. I apologise for that, but I hope that in spite of my lack of technical expertise, I can none the less share something from my experience. Like the hon. Member for Aberdeen South and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Mr Heald), I am one of the old hands in such a debate.

I welcome the Minister to her post, and I endorse what was said earlier. The approach taken by the Secretary of State and the Minister responsible for pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) has shown encouraging, progressive and challenging new thinking that looks to restructure an important Department. I welcome the opportunity to look at how that will be done.

I speak not only as an old-school Liberal, with Beveridge and Lloyd George as my political forebears, but as someone who has lived and represented the inner city for all of my time in this place, and half of my life. I know how important it is to have a strong welfare state, but that we must always encourage those who can to find and stay in good-quality work.

A friend of mine, the deputy head of a primary school in Leeds, once showed me how they were taking 10-year-olds to do work experience in their final year of primary school. More than half the youngsters in that school had nobody at home who went to work, so a role model who worked was missing in their lives. I hope that at the end of the five-year coalition programme, difficult though it will be in some areas because of our financial position, we will have a more equal society, a greater percentage of people in work and a higher skill base, but that we will still always protect the poor and the vulnerable from falling through the safety net.

I commend the single Work programme. I have long felt the need to pull together the ways in which people are assisted into work. From my constituency experience,
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I have to say that the system has not been working. As the Government implement the single Work programme, I ask them to take heed of what is stated in the coalition agreement:

The disparate contract system has not worked, and there have been some poor providers. It has been a mixed scene, and we need a more reliable network of ways in which people can go into the system.

I also commend the ambitious plan for a system of universal credit. That is what we should aim for. The system has seemed complicated, and if it is complicated for us and the Department, it will be doubly complicated for people who have to navigate themselves through it as users, often during other pressures in their lives as well.

From my experience, the "tell us once" initiative, is beginning to work. That is when someone reports a death-a bereavement-and all the systems of government are notified. That approach needs to be expanded at central and local government level so that people can feed into the system.

I am not in the Chamber to give a eulogy or a set of plaudits, because there are one or two things that the Government should take on board and improve. However, some things are really encouraging, as was the speech by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham).

The first point in the relevant part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto is immediately to restore the link between the basic state pension and earnings:

One of the first announcements made in the Budget and reflected in the comprehensive spending review-proving that the coalition is a partnership and that both parties contribute-was that pensions will be linked to earnings again. That is welcome because it is an important subject and one of the biggest issues that pensioners have raised with me in Parliament ever since the link was broken under Mrs Thatcher's Government.

It is important that we are moving towards equality in pension age, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South, but it is right for that limit to be set at a higher level. Frighteningly, I heard the other day that average life expectancy for men is now 88. That is extremely disturbing in many respects, although of course we welcome people of that age and beyond. If life expectancy is 88 for men, it will be older for women because women are more resilient and better able to survive, do well and keep working than men.

I welcome the fact that winter fuel payments have been maintained, which was a manifesto pledge made during the election. I know that the issue is controversial and debatable, but in the end that pledge was honoured. All those initiatives are welcome, especially those relating to pensions and elderly people.

The announcement on child tax credit was good, as that will help families with children to have the funding they need. It is good that we have not backed away from our ambitions on child poverty. In her intervention, the Minister rightly said that we must start by saying how
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we will ensure that things do not get worse. The Labour Government were disappointing in many social ambitions, such as those on fuel poverty, child poverty and so on. They let the gap between the rich and poor widen. It is important that we hold on to our ambitions and, as the Minister said, seek to build on them and take our youngsters out of poverty.

I thought it was understandable and right to try to deal with the child benefit issue, although I know that it is controversial, particularly in the Conservative party. I understand the difficulties and I do not pretend that there is a perfect cut-off in terms of the wage level at which the benefit is set, or the choice between a one-wage or two-wage family. We can come to different conclusions about that, but there is a good case for saying that people on high incomes should not get the same level of universal benefits as everybody else. I understand the logic behind the argument for universal benefits, but when hard choices have to be made and budgets saved, everybody must share the responsibility.

I am glad that we will have permanent cold weather payments, rather than the rabbit-out-of-a-hat payments that we had under the Labour Government, when if we were lucky one year, there was an announcement. That change is positive.

I am pleased that there will be additional money for youngsters as part of the pupil premium. That scheme crosses Departments in relevance, and means that poor and disadvantaged youngsters will be better supported when they are under five, as well as when they go to primary school.

I have a couple of concerns, which I flagged up with the Deputy Prime Minister and this morning in the Department with my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate and Lord Freud. As I pointed out in an intervention on the hon. Member for Aberdeen South, I want the Department to look again at future legislation relating to the 10% automatic cut in jobseeker's allowance after one year of unemployment. That decision is not sustainable for some people. I understand the incentive argument, but there are some areas-they may be very different from my constituency-where there are few jobs and people have to travel a long way to find them. There are no opportunities, however hard people try. To say that there should be a reduction in the benefit seems harsh, and I hope that the Government will revisit that.

I shall make one other substantive point before leaving the Minister with a final thought or two. There may be a moment for another colleague to intervene. For me, the real issue of the moment is the housing benefit debate. I am conscious that coming down the track are regulations that will change housing benefit for next year. I shall concentrate on one of the proposals, in respect of which I hope that there is some scope for modification without breaking the superstructure of the plan and which is of more national, UK-wide significance than the capping issue. That is of more significance in central London, where of course I have an interest. I am referring to the proposal to reduce the housing benefit payment from the 50th percentile of the rents in the broad rental market area to the 30th percentile next year.

I hope that the Government will reconsider the proposal, because there are all sorts of reasons why it may not deliver the ability for people to find housing in the community they come from, and communities are important. As
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the hon. Member for North East Hertfordshire knows, there are communities just as much in Southwark, Westminster, Chelsea and Hounslow as there are in any other part of the country. To expect someone to move from a place that they are renting-I could cite West square, just over the bridge in Southwark, or it could be Covent Garden-and where they have lived all their life to somewhere four boroughs away, where they have no relatives, no friends, no links, no community and no history, is unreasonable.

I understand some of the issues, but there are ways in which the Government could be positive in dealing with them. As I understand it, 70% of the housing benefit claims in Blackpool are in the private sector, so by definition if the level is lowered, that has a huge effect on the market. Of course there is a difference between a place such as Blackpool and a place at the bottom of the league table such as Southwark, which is 31st out of the 33 London authorities and where only 13% of housing benefit claims are in the private sector. There, a Government change does not automatically change the culture of landlords and the market. I hope that the Government will bear that in mind.

Where demand exceeds supply, by definition there will not be available supply in a place around the corner for someone to move to. In addition, there are people whom we should not be asking to move when there are significant reductions in their benefits. I have seen the figures in the Government's own impact study, which they produced in July. It states that the estimated percentage of losers varies from 71% in London to 90% in Yorkshire and the Humber, and the average loss per loser varies from £7 a week at the bottom end to £17 a week in the London region. Those are significant changes. Suddenly to have to find £17 extra a week in London, for example, may just not be possible, however careful people are with their household budget.

My suggestion is that the Government should consider, first, phasing any change, rather than going from the 50th percentile to the 30th. I know that it is not happening on one day, because it happens over a year on the date of the anniversary of the renewal of the claim. Secondly, they could consider treating people who are already in housing and recipients of benefit differently from new claimants. I am happy to continue to engage in debate with Ministers, as are other colleagues, to try to find a way forward. I am trying to be non-partisan; I am not making party political points, but I think that there must be a new way of being able to deal with what is an impending problem.

There are concerns among colleagues from around the country about the age for the shared room rate being put up from 25 to 35 in areas where accommodation is very difficult to find. I just pass that on, so that it can be on the agenda. There are also concerns about the transfer of council tax benefit administration to local authorities in due course, with a reduction in the amount available. That will be on the agenda of the Minister and her colleagues and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The one thing we need to do as we implement some very radical but very good policies is to ensure that as people may be losing jobs in the public sector for a while and we are trying to create jobs in the private sector, we have in place organisations and people to assist them in moving from one form of employment to
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another in a very organised local and regional way. I have started to talk to colleagues about that. There is willingness on the part of the Government to consider it. If we are really to ensure that people do not feel frightened and insecure but feel encouraged and supported, we need not just changes in structure, but support systems to help people to make the life transitions from one form of work to another, or from no work to work, which are very important.

Mr Heald: On the idea of phasing, is the hon. Gentleman thinking that we would go to the 40th percentile? What is his idea?

Simon Hughes: I am seeking to explore ideas. It may be possible to move in the first place to the 40th percentile and later to the 30th. I am conscious that we do not want to force people to move twice. I do not think that would happen if there were much smaller reductions in the benefit and therefore people's budgets were less hugely affected. I do not pretend that there is only one answer, but I am keen that we ensure that we are not uprooting people and assuming that they can find somewhere. This is all about predictive markets and how the market will respond. It is very difficult to know what the outcomes will be. Whatever the experts say, I do not think that we can predict things with surety. Therefore we need to err on the side of caution rather than risk, because we are dealing with people's lives and homes, and for people with insecure lives and insecure incomes, having secure homes is very important.

4.56 pm

Margaret Curran (Glasgow East) (Lab): Like the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), I am a new Member and might struggle with constituency names, so any help will be gratefully received-please feel free to help me out.

I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on securing this terribly important debate about the impact of the comprehensive spending review on the Department for Work and Pensions. Of course, the changes announced will shape the levels of poverty and employment in this country for years to come and it is right that we have the opportunity today to examine them in detail and to understand the impact that they will have on our welfare system and, as has been said, on communities throughout the country.

This has been an interesting debate and later I will rise to the challenge of some of the political temptations put before me, but first I want to say that welfare reform and the work undertaken in this area in the DWP has been centre-stage in the work of the new Government, so the debate on how we reform welfare and get more people into work will continue for the immediate and foreseeable future. I am sure that we shall have many discussions. Of course, that is as it should be, as the proposals announced so far will impact on the lives of so many people in great need. What may appear to be a technical point in our consideration represents in many cases a major shift in the living circumstances of a family or an individual. That should always be at the forefront of our minds and any of our discussions.

Whatever our disagreements-I will come to them-there are some starting points, as the hon. Member for Stroud said, on which we can agree. On behalf of the Opposition,
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I make that clear. It has been said before that we are prepared to work alongside the Government to consider the challenge of welfare reform, because we do need to reform the welfare state to face the challenges of the 21st century: an ageing population, more people in need of care and the need for a stronger work force, less dependent on benefits. As the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) said, if we could create a more equal society, of course we would all be up for that.

The Secretary of State has made strong commitments and promised to deliver a welfare system that will make work pay. He has acknowledged, in doing so, that he is continuing the work of the previous, Labour Government-some hon. Members referred to that-particularly by moving people from incapacity benefit to the new employment and support allowance, but there have been many other dimensions to that, too. As I understand it, there is a history of our working together when we have recognised challenges in the past. I think that the previous Government worked closely with the Opposition on pensions reform. I hope we can build on that.

The Secretary of State is familiar with Easterhouse, in my constituency. I think that visits to that area persuaded him of the need for reform. He is on record as saying that his aim in the reform is to improve the lives of others and not to reduce standards of living-that test will be centre stage as we progress with our discussions.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg), the distinguished Chair of the Select Committee. I have known my hon. Friend for many years and pay tribute to her authority in this field and the respect that she commands. In her contribution, she gave a strategic outline of some of the challenges that we are facing. Unfortunately, I cannot cover all the points made in the debate, but I will refer to a few of them in my brief contribution.

One point highlighted by my hon. Friend was the depth of concern about the change in the rating, which will take place when we shift from RPI to CPI. I listened to the arguments in favour, but it is incumbent on us to understand the real impact that the change will have on the standards of living of the people that we seem to care most about. I am not terribly sure that the impact is appreciated yet, but the shift does not rest easily with a commitment to let no one's living standards change as a result of the acts of the Government and to protect everyone. If we look at the evidence from a number of organisations, they would say, "Actually, this reflects an effective and a real cut in benefits."

Not surprisingly, the universal credit has been mentioned by just about everyone contributing to the debate-my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made some telling reflections. It is important that we recognise that of course there is a move to support universal credit and to simplify the benefits system, and we would support anything possible that would make work pay and encourage and incentivise people to work. However, the theme that seems to be emerging in the debate is that, while the Government genuinely seem to be driving reform in that way-I have to say that of the Minister and her colleagues-that is undercut by their other actions. I ask the Government to think about that seriously.


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The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned the changes in the council tax benefit-apart from reducing it by 10%, which alone could cause some difficulty, the very nature of devolving its decision making immediately cuts across the drive to simplicity. The change will have an impact on housing benefit, income support and jobseeker's allowance. I am told by those involved that it is, by all definitions, very complicated-on the one hand, we have a drive to simplicity, on the other an action that complicates it.

Not surprisingly, housing benefit has concentrated a lot of minds this afternoon. There are many detailed discussions to be had. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston, with a notable and highly acclaimed record on child poverty, as she amply demonstrated this afternoon, spoke about some of those complications, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), when she was present.

We can have our debates about the impact on different parts of the country-I willingly acknowledge that the impact might be slightly different in my part of the country from what it would be in London-but we have to listen to the outside organisations, such as Shelter and Crisis, which are telling us that we need to think about it in great depth. Perhaps most tellingly, they are asking, "Do we need to rush at this?" There might be a principle that we need to discuss and grapple with, but let us not do it with undue haste-there might be implications that the Government do not intend. Thinking about that is important.

I wish to highlight one issue that has particular resonance for me and my constituency, to which reference has been made-the intention to reduce housing benefit by 10% for those on jobseeker's allowance for more than one year. The Government need to acknowledge that this is one of the most contentious proposals, and one that is causing deep concern throughout the country.

Anyone with a knowledge of Easterhouse or an understanding of the regeneration within such communities will realise that housing associations are often the drivers of change. If we reduce the benefit for many people who, genuinely, cannot find work because it is not readily available, we give the housing agencies two choices-to give just one example of the problems with the proposal. Either the housing agencies can evict people, which would cause enormous difficulties and create cost in other ways, or their business plans are undercut because they cannot reap the necessary benefits, so undermining our efforts.

That illustrates, again, that what I think are genuine attempts by the Government to reform welfare are being undercut by other actions-actions by the Treasury, undercutting actions by the DWP.

I do not have much time to go into the reform of disability benefits, but I make one request of the Minister. She has indicated that she will work with disability organisations on the disability living allowance and other changes. Will she acknowledge that it is vital that we engage with the disability movement in tackling any such changes?

I want to refer to child poverty, which was mentioned by a number of hon. Members in the debate. I am so tempted to roll up my sleeves and fight for the record of the previous Labour Government, but we could continue like that for some time. Let me just say that,
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according to the statistics and briefings mentioned, from Barnardo's and Save the Children, the Labour Government lifted 600,000 children out of relative poverty and made substantial progress on absolute poverty. Those organisations recognised that as a substantial achievement, which made significant progress in improving the lives of so many people.

There are real challenges in what the Government are doing across the board to tackle child poverty-that was well articulated in the debate-in particular when looking at the child care element of the working tax credit, which will now only cover 70% of child care costs rather than the previous 80%. We know that child care presents an important barrier to people returning to work, so the change again seems to contradict efforts to reform and improve the move to get people back to work.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies report, produced after the Budget, outlined how many of the measures disproportionately affected the poorest families. A number of organisations are now saying to the Government, "When you look at the impact you are having on the poorest families and at the timing of when some of your commitments will come through, particularly two, three or four years down the line, how can you possibly say that child poverty figures will be protected?"

Added to that is recent research by the House of Commons Library on the impact of the Budget on women-to which, again, reference has been made. The fact is that the cuts announced in the comprehensive spending review will hit women twice as hard as they hit men. There are big cuts in support paid directly to mothers, including cuts in child care, child benefit and tax credits. Also, the significant cuts to the public sector will, disproportionately, hit women hard-in employment and in the services they need to support families, which are vital in tackling poverty. There is much concern about that.

The Minister has already put on the record that her Department will issue an equality impact assessment of the cuts on women and, indeed, disabled people. Can she indicate when we might get that report?

That brings me to the fundamental concern about the Government's approach. Not only will they undermine their own efforts to reform welfare, but they will destabilise growth and increase unemployment across the country. The extent of the cuts to the welfare budget announced in the June Budget and in last month's CSR seems to reflect the political ambitions of the Chancellor rather more than those of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. In both those announcements, we have heard too much about cuts and not enough about reform-I acknowledge that reform was the tenor of the debate today, but it is not always like that with the Government.

I have said that we will work with the Government as they intend to progress with reform, but there is a fundamental flaw in their approach so far. Their welfare reform is based on the premise that it is best to get people back to work and that work pays-so far, so good. However, it falls down with what happens when there is no work to go to.


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