Work and Pensions Questions

31st March 2014

Iain Duncan Smith answers back bench MPs’ questions on topics including helping families to budget, the effectiveness of the benefit cap and universal credit and its IT system.

Financial Inclusion/Family Budgets

5. Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to promote financial inclusion and to help families to budget. [903373]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): Through universal credit, the Department for Work and Pensions is investing £38 million in expanding credit union services to help more people to access affordable credit. A budgeting support package will be available to all those who need it through universal credit. At the same time, the Government are clamping down on loan sharks and doorstep lenders who have taken advantage of vulnerable people for too long.

Damian Hinds: In this 50th year of credit unions in Britain, may I commend the Secretary of State for what he continues to do to support the sector? Will he update the House on what is being done to tackle the excesses of the payday lenders he mentioned?

Mr Duncan Smith: The Financial Conduct Authority will limit continuous payment authorities, which allow payday lenders to take money out of people’s bank accounts, to two payments. The FCA will keep that under review. It is also preventing CPAs if a person would be left without money to buy essentials or for priority debts. We have already seen some payday lenders leave the market because it is being restricted in the right way. It is worth saying that before the last Government came to power, payday lending did not exist, but it spiralled to £1 billion-worth under them.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Has not the source of the pressure on family budgets been policies such as the freeze in child benefit and the cuts to tax credits, which have left families hundreds of pounds worse off?

Mr Duncan Smith: The biggest pressure on family budgets was the fact that far too many people lost their jobs as a result of the crash in the economy, in which GDP fell by 7.2%. Since then, we have reformed welfare. It is difficult when people are out of work, but we are doing huge amounts to get them back into work. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State has said, more people are in work, more women are in work and more young people are beginning to get into work, so we are getting more people into a position to look after themselves.

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): Financial resilience for families in my constituency can be a real challenge. One of the biggest impacts on the family budget can be the loss of a loved one. Does the Secretary of State think it is now time to consider whether social fund funeral payments should be index linked to inflation to ensure that they keep pace with the cost of funerals?

Mr Duncan Smith: I am certainly prepared to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend if he wants to come and see me about it. I keep that area of the social fund under review, as he knows. We localised about £200 million of the social fund to councils so that they could deal with the problems people face directly. We also kept the remaining money, so a total of about £1 billion goes out to all sorts of things, such as funeral payments, support for loans and support for people in hardship. This is a big push by the present Government to help people ahead of payday lenders.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Last week the BBC reported that just 6% of households affected by the bedroom tax had managed to move. Also last week, a report from Real Life Reform showed that nearly eight out of 10 tenants hit by the bedroom tax were in debt, with borrowing increasing by an average of £52 each week and families increasingly relying on loan sharks. Rather than preaching about careful budgeting, why do Ministers not just scrap this hated and unworkable tax, which is sending people spiralling into debt?

Mr Duncan Smith: It is interesting that the Opposition and the hon. Lady take the view that people moving is a bad thing. Let me just tell her—[Interruption.] It is interesting that they say that, but 30,000-plus people—I will repeat that: 30,000 people—who were in overcrowded accommodation have now had the opportunity for the first time to move into houses where they are not overcrowded. The hon. Lady and the Opposition left us with a quarter of a million people in that position—250,000—so in 10 months over 10% have had the opportunity to move and we are saving over £1 million a day. I call that a success.

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Benefit Cap

7. Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the benefit cap. [903375]

12. Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the benefit cap. [903380]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): The benefit cap is working. The latest statistics show that 39% of those who are no longer subject to the cap have since moved into work. We will evaluate the policy thoroughly, and expect to publish the findings in the autumn.

Ian Swales: The average yearly pay in my constituency is about £21,000 before tax and national insurance. Does the Secretary of State think that a benefit cap of £26,000 gives people outside London an incentive to work?

Mr Duncan Smith: The introduction of the benefit cap meant that, for the first time ever, people who were out of work could not end up with more than the average earnings of people who work hard and try to make their way in the world. That was the first stage of the process. Obviously, as with all our policies, we continue to look at it, but I currently have no plans to change the existing levels.

Stephen Metcalfe: Given that Members in all parts of the House have now supported a cap on benefit spending, will my right hon. Friend tell us whether he has received any representations on how it is possible to promise to repeal some welfare reforms such as the benefit cap while at the same time avoiding a breach of the overall cap?

Mr Duncan Smith: Interestingly, the Opposition voted against the imposition of the benefit cap, which they subsequently claimed to support. Last week they did a U-turn and voted for the welfare cap, which is the overall setting of the level of welfare. They plan to get rid of the spare room subsidy, but they have not told us where they will find the money. So here we go again: it will mean more money in taxes, more money in spending, more money in borrowing, and a bust economy once more.

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Universal Credit (IT Specialists)

14. Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): How many IT specialists are working on the digital solution to universal credit. [903382]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): We continue to build up the Department’s digital capability, having launched the Government’s first digital academy and brought in a man called Kevin Cunnington, who was previously global head of online at Vodafone. Some 370 people are working full time on the universal credit change programme. The aim of any multidisciplinary team is that individuals should come and go, reflecting requirements at each stage. A team of 50, of which 25 are digital specialists, is currently working alongside other experts, and it is steadily building and on track.

Chi Onwurah: It is my understanding that the Secretary of State plans to continue the development of the existing, discredited universal credit IT system while building a new system in parallel, on the recommendation of the Government Digital Service. Will he confirm whether that is the case, and set out how much extra that double development is going to cost? Also, how is he going to recruit the skills he needs, given the current shambles?

Mr Duncan Smith: First, on the skills side, we have been recruiting and we have also been educating internally at the DWP, which has been a big success. The digital process, which is about improving this, will carry on. It is the development that was recommended for the longer term. In the meantime, the live service is running, and the system is not discredited. It is working, with the pathfinder rolling out through the north-west, and it will continue to roll out. The vast majority of the equipment being developed in that will be used within the digital system, so those who say that the money being spent on that is being wasted are simply wrong. It will be used in the medium and longer term for all of the universal credit roll-out.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): In developing universal credit and its IT system, what lessons have the Government drawn from IT projects conducted by the previous Government?

Mr Duncan Smith: The reason why we are doing this in a way that tests it at each stage, so we make sure we have got it right before rolling it out and taking more numbers on board, is because we want to make sure that taxpayers’ money is protected through this process and that the system works. I recall, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that when the Labour Government launched tax credits it was a total disaster; we had loads of people in our surgeries with real problems relating to payments. This Government will never revisit that, which is why I will never accept any advice from the lot who wasted billions on failed IT programmes.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I know the Secretary of State loves to argue that black is white and white is black, but how on earth can he possibly stand here and suggest that this project is “on track”? The Government promised that 1 million people would be on universal credit by tomorrow—by 1 April this year—but how many are on it? He said at the beginning of the month that there were 6,000, but the figures given by the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), show that fewer than 4,000 are. So precisely how many people are working on the IT? Is it 50, as the Secretary of State just said, or is the figure eight, as the Minister of State said earlier this month?

Mr Duncan Smith: I know the hon. Gentleman likes to get up and speak, but sometimes he needs to be aware of the facts that have been given to him. I have just given those facts, but because he was not listening I will give them again. Of the team of 50 working on the digital system, 25 are digital specialists—there will be more as we develop it and report back. May I simply say that instead of moaning about this system, Opposition Members might like to visit it, as many other MPs have done, because they will see how successful its rolling out has been? Some 90% of the claims for JSA as a result of universal credit are now made online, and 78% are monthly payments—these are people confident to receive those payments. [Interruption.] The reality is that the systems the Labour Government implemented were failures, whereas this will succeed and change many people’s lives.

Mr Speaker: Order. Mr McCann, I say to you in all courtesy and in all charity that the role of the Parliamentary Private Secretary—you are sitting in the PPS slot—is to nod and shake the head in the appropriate places, and to fetch and carry notes, not to shriek from a sedentary position or gesticulate in an unseemly manner.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend confirm, and remind the House, that universal credit is set to deliver £35 billion of benefit to our economy?

Mr Duncan Smith: Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend on that. The National Audit Office report said that a minimum of £38 billion would actually be the positive elements brought to the UK economy and those who are in need. The real problem is that the Opposition say they support it, but they carp about it. The reality is that every change they ever brought in was a failure. They wasted billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. We will implement this carefully and because of that, people will benefit, rather than suffer, as we all recall they did when Labour introduced tax credits.

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Universal Credit

15. Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effect of universal credit on employers. [903383]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): The Department has consulted widely with employers over the past 12 months to ensure that universal credit works in the best way possible for them. The Minister with responsibility for welfare reform recently met national employers, trade bodies and employer representative groups, and we know that universal credit will have a positive impact on employers through the flexibility it brings to their work force—unlike tax credits.

Mark Pawsey: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He will be aware the Rugby jobcentre is among the first six offices to introduce universal credit. Will he join me in complimenting the staff there on achieving a successful roll-out in a complicated procedure? Given recent concerns about child care, will he reassure the House about the availability of child care support under universal credit for families in work?

Mr Duncan Smith: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue, because under universal credit we will increase the child care level to 85% of the cost. We will be investing a further £400 million a year in a steady state, and 500,000 families will gain. These are positive incentives to go back to work. Child care costs are now paid up to a maximum of £646 per month for one child and £1,108 for two or more children. In universal credit we are removing the 16-hour rule, which exists in tax credits and is a major disincentive for many lone parents and others to take jobs—that has been abolished, and some extra £200 million will help 100,000 families back into work.

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Child Poverty Target

17. Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of whether the UK will meet the 2020 statutory child poverty target. [903386]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): The Government are committed to the Child Poverty Act 2010 and to ending child poverty by 2020. It is not possible accurately to project child poverty figures, but already we are seeing progress in tackling the root causes. Just last week, we learned that there are now 290,000 fewer children living in workless households compared with 2010, and that has a net impact and effect on child poverty.

Catherine McKinnell: The Secretary of State mentions reducing the number of children in workless households, but today child poverty is overwhelmingly a problem for working families. Since 2010, the number of parents who work part time but who want to work full time is up 45%. What are the Government going to do about the prevalence of low-paid insecure work that is trapping families in poverty?

Mr Duncan Smith: The last figures that covered people who were in work and in poverty were misrepresented by those who talked about them. In truth, those figures reflect what happened under the previous Government, when we saw an increase of 500,000 families who were in work and in poverty. That has been flat since the election. We are working on that to ensure that we get as many people out of poverty as possible. The reforms that we are changing and making to get people back to work, which the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) has talked about, will have a huge impact on those who are in poverty now. People are better off in work. Despite what Labour did, people have more chance now to change their circumstances and more likelihood of coming out of poverty. Let me remind the hon. Lady of one little fact. Labour spent £175 billion of taxpayers’ money on one benefit—chasing a child poverty target that it simply did not achieve. That was wasted money.

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Topical Questions

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): We were pleased this week to find elements of—that new families formed were no longer breaking up. These figures came out last week to ensure that we are making our programmes work for very good reasons. Families are now staying together. Stable families in households being able to—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. May I gently interrupt the Secretary of State? I thought that he was going to give a brief rundown of his departmental responsibilities in answer to the first topical question.

Mr Duncan Smith: I was talking about the figures that came out last week on new families forming and staying together.

Mr Speaker: That is what the right hon. Gentleman was seeking to do?

Mr Duncan Smith indicated assent.

Mr Speaker: We are grateful. We will leave it there for now.

Mary Macleod: May I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he and his Department are doing in transforming lives and getting people back into work? In preparation for my jobs and apprenticeships fair on Friday, will he confirm the job vacancy figures for both London and Brentford and Isleworth?

Mr Duncan Smith: At the end of last week, there were 927 active vacancies and 1,493 active jobs in the Brentford and Isleworth constituency. The vacancies were largely in retail, travel, transportation and tourism. The jobcentre has also worked with Asda and Premier Inn to deliver work experience and sector-based work academy opportunities.

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): Just 46% of disabled people are in work, while 40% of disabled people not working report that they want to work. Helping disabled people into work provides them with security and dignity as well as helping control the costs of social security. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what proportion of disabled people referred to the Work programme get a job?

Mr Duncan Smith: The Work programme has been successful for those who are furthest from the labour market. The group of people the hon. Lady is talking about who suffer from sickness and disability have, for the first time, been worked with and helped back into work. The figures that we are seeing now are slower than we would have wished, but they are, none the less, improving all the time. Let me remind the hon. Lady that no one has ever attempted to get these people back into work. The Work programme is succeeding in helping into work those who were never in work before.

Rachel Reeves: The truth is that just 5% of disabled people on the Work programme end up in work. If that is a success, I would like to know what failure is. It is worse than doing nothing. It is a disgrace to let disabled people down in such a way. In the Budget, spending on employment and support allowance was revised up by a staggering £800 million because of delays, incompetence and the complete failure of the Work programme. Will the Secretary of State now agree to take action to help disabled people and give them the support they need and reform the failing Work programme?

Mr Duncan Smith: Let me remind the hon. Lady that, as I said earlier, for these people, and the previous Government made no effort whatsoever to get them back to work—[Interruption.] No, 2.5 million people were written off on sickness benefits under the previous Government. No one worked with them and about 1 million were left without anybody seeing them for nearly 10 years. That is the record of the previous Government. I simply remind the hon. Lady that since we came to power, some 22,000 have started a job for the first time and many thousands more have worked with the Work programme to get ready for work without a requirement to go to work. The programme is succeeding and improving all the time and this is the first time that the thousands who are going back to work have ever had help—they got none from the previous Government.

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Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): What recent assessment has the Secretary of State made of the innovation fund in helping disadvantaged young people?

Mr Duncan Smith: The innovation fund, which started with £30 million put in by my Department, has helped to build up the concept for social impact bonds, which will help to invest in the sort of projects that my hon. Friend is talking about. The trials have been to help children from the ages of 14 to 16 get remedial education and to be job-ready. That has been a huge success and we will in due course publish the figures, but it opens the marketplace to new money from private investors and trusts.

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David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): Given the German Government’s determination to clamp down on EU migrant benefit abuse, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is growing support among key EU member states for this Government’s agenda on this vital issue?

Mr Duncan Smith: Yes, there is huge support in other countries. Recently, Mrs Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, said:

“There is a need for clarity: who is entitled to claim social security in Germany, and under what conditions.”

The deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands, among others, has said exactly the same. I am in discussions with many of my counterparts across Europe to make sure that we, as individual independent nations within the EU, will be able to impose the conditions we require to stop migrants coming here just to get better benefits than they would in their own country.

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Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that, when it comes to a jobs guarantee, in the real world there is no such thing as a guaranteed job and that new, genuine jobs can be created only by growing companies?

Mr Duncan Smith: What is interesting about the Opposition’s view of a jobs guarantee is that their future jobs fund failed. We have introduced work experience, which costs a tiny proportion of what the future jobs fund cost—some £300, as opposed to £6,000 or nearly £7,000 a job—and as many people get into work and come off benefit as did under the future jobs fund. Labour’s make-work schemes do not work, but our schemes, which get private sector employers to help, do. We are getting people back to work.
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Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): More than 15,000 people in my constituency, which is over 40% of those in work, earn less than the living wage. For millions of people the employment figures hide the reality of underemployment, zero-hours contracts and part-time, low-paid and insecure work. I wonder whether the Secretary of State can tell me how many of his constituents earn less than the living wage.

Mr Duncan Smith: I never heard Labour Members moan much about the living wage when they were in government, but all of a sudden it becomes an issue. The reality is that we are doing more to get people back to work, which gives them a chance to improve their living standards and incomes. The reality is that I took the decision to ensure that my Department pays the living wage, including to the cleaners. The Opposition never did that. I think that we stand ahead of them in that matter.

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Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Has the Secretary of State noticed that when the spare room subsidy was first removed the Opposition and their mouthpiece of choice, the BBC, complained that too many people would be removed from their homes, yet last week Labour BBC was complaining that too few people have been removed from their homes? In the interests of fairness, surely taxpayers not on housing benefit who cannot afford a spare bedroom should not be expected to pay for a spare bedroom for people on housing benefit.

Mr Duncan Smith: The first and principal point is that this programme is saving over £1 million a day for hard-pressed taxpayers, many of whom, as my hon. Friend said, cannot afford a spare room themselves but were paying taxes to subsidise those who had spare rooms. The second point is that over 30,000 people who were once in overcrowded accommodation, left behind by Labour in terrible conditions, are now moving into better houses. This programme is a success. The Opposition did nothing about those people the whole time they were in government.


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