6. Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): What support his Department is providing to young people seeking apprenticeships and employment. 
The Minister for Employment (Priti Patel): Apprenticeships give young people the chance to reach their potential, giving them the skills and training required to achieve a successful career. The Government have funded training elements of apprenticeships in England, and between 2009-10 and 2013-14 there has been a 40% increase in the number of young people starting one.
Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Conservative commitment to create an additional 3 million apprenticeships over this Parliament will give young people the skills they need to get on in life? Will she tell the House what she is doing to work with both the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that the quality of those new apprenticeships is top notch and improving all the time?
Priti Patel: Let me start by commending my hon. Friend and fellow Essex MP for his work in this area, particularly with his local employers, many of whom I have met and know. He is of course right to say that our commitment to create 3 million apprenticeships will give young people the vital skills to reach their full potential. We are already working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and employers as part of our apprenticeship reforms to ensure that Britain’s young people get a quality apprenticeship that will help them to reach their full potential.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): While there are indeed some excellent apprenticeships—there is no doubt about that—sadly, all too often there are employers who use them as, in effect, a rebranded youth training scheme or youth opportunities programme-type arrangement. What will the Minister do to publish details of employers who abuse the apprenticeship system, or does the scrutiny simply not allow for that?
Priti Patel: We all know, and this House recognises, that apprenticeships are vital. They give young people the chance to learn the skills to reach their full potential. [Interruption.] I hear an Opposition Member chuntering away. Employers play a vital role in this scheme. I have already touched on the fact that we are working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on our reforms and delivering 3 million apprenticeships. Employers will be at the heart of that, providing quality training and accountability in their role with apprenticeships.
20.  Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase) (Con): On a recent visit to Fuel Conservation Services in Hednesford, I saw the impact that access to apprenticeships and high-quality training has on young people entering the workplace. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the work of businesses like FCS in offering apprenticeships to young people? [Interruption.] Does she recognise the role that businesses can play in working with the Government on initiatives to tackle youth unemployment?
Priti Patel: Let me start by welcoming my hon. Friend to the House as a new Member of Parliament. It is interesting to hear the conversations among those on the Opposition Benches. They do not like success stories, such as that of the business in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I commend her local business. It is important that the House recognises the vital contribution that employers like FCS make in offering young people apprenticeships. She touches on a very valuable point: they support young people in the transition from school to the world of work, which we know is challenging for young people, and we will support employers in that.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Having served an apprenticeship under a dual system of high-quality apprenticeships, I ask the Minister to accept that employers have to play a much larger role in providing the skills space for our apprentices, and that just expanding level 2 apprenticeships is not sufficient.
Priti Patel: I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments. This is all about quality. The quality of the apprenticeships is where we should all be: working with employers in particular to make sure that they are giving our young people not just the hopes and aspirations but the skills they require for their own businesses and sectors to enable succession planning within companies and sectors. Also, we have made a commitment to deliver 3 million new apprenticeships makes, and we are absolutely clear that they should now provide parity with a degree-equivalent qualification. Employers play an important role in delivering that.
Child Maintenance Payments
9. Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow North East) (SNP): What arrangements are in place to prevent child maintenance payments from increasing when a parent is prevented from spending time with their child by the recipient of the payments. 
The Minister for Employment (Priti Patel): The issue of contact with children and that of the calculation of child maintenance, although related, are separate. In the calculation, we will reflect the level of care that a parent provides for any child for whom he or she should pay maintenance, but we have no power to direct what the level of care should be. That is a matter for the parents to agree either privately or through the courts.
Anne McLaughlin: I asked the question on behalf of a constituent, but obviously many others will be in the same situation. I do not agree that there is no link, because it clearly states on the Child Support Agency website that if someone spends less time with their children, they will pay more in child maintenance. Some people spend less time with their children because, through no fault of their own and with no suggestion of any detriment to the children if they were to see them, the partner prevents that from happening. Will the Minister examine this and stop punishing parents twice over?
Priti Patel: Child contact following the separation of two parents is always a difficult and emotive issue, and the child’s needs must be met by both parents, in terms of financial support, when they separate. We are investing in support for parents to help them make more family-based child maintenance arrangements, and we will continue to help and secure separated families so that they can do what is in the best interests of their child. The hon. Lady mentioned that she has a particular case, and I am happy to look into it.
Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The Minister rightly said that contact and payment are separate issues. In most cases it is right that a child stays in contact with both parents if they are no longer living together, but I wish to press her on something: it cannot be right that a payment should be linked to a right to see that child.
Priti Patel: My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. As I said, we know that this is an emotive issue for separating parents, and much of it is arbitrated in the courts system. It is all about balance in terms of parental support and parental access. Access is a matter for the courts, not for the Department for Work and Pensions. As I have said, we as a Department and as a Government are already investing in support for parents to make the right kind of arrangements. We will continue to do so and help separated families so that they can do what is in the best interests of their child.
13. Ms Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP): If he will make an assessment of the effects of the benefits sanctions and conditionality regime on use of food banks. 
14. Chris Law (Dundee West) (SNP): If he will make an assessment of the effects of the benefits sanctions and conditionality regime on use of food banks. 
The Minister for Employment (Priti Patel): We have looked at the issue extensively, and we agree with the conclusion reached by the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger that the reasons for food bank use are complex and overlapping. There is no robust evidence that directly links sanctions and food bank use.
Ms Ahmed-Sheikh: While all Members of this House will commend the work carried out by charities such as the Gate food bank in Alloa in my constituency, it is absolutely clear from all independent evidence that the sanctions regime is having a heartbreaking effect on people such as David Duncan from Fife, who, as reported in this morning's Daily Record, was sanctioned after missing a jobcentre appointment, despite being in hospital recovering after major surgery following a serious heart attack. Will the Minister commit to an immediate review of the conditionality and sanctions regime to put a stop to this relentless and heartless assault on vulnerable people in this country?
Priti Patel: Food banks play an important role in local welfare provision. I do not accept anything that the hon. Lady has said. In Scotland, the number of jobseeker’s allowance sanctions has decreased from 84,000 in 2013 to 55,000—
Stewart McDonald (Glasgow South) (SNP): Thanks to the Scottish Government.
Priti Patel: Well, we are devolving welfare, and we can have this debate next week on the Floor of the House. It is also important to emphasise that the purpose of sanctions is to encourage claimants to comply with reasonable requirements to help them develop and move into the world of work. That is vital.
Chris Law: I thank the Minister for her response, but in the year following the introduction of benefits sanctions, approximately 2,500 people were sanctioned in my city of Dundee, leading to a 51% increase in referrals to Dundee’s Trussell Trust food bank, including of many parents with young children. The number is rising year on year, despite what she just said about falling figures. Does she not accept that there is an intrinsic link between the two, and that it is an absolute disgrace to have rising food poverty in the 21st century?
Priti Patel: Sanctions were in place for a significant amount of time before this Government and the previous Government. Let me reiterate the point, made in the recent Oakley review of benefits sanctions, that sanctions are a
“key element of the mutual obligation that underpins both the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system.”
For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman, let me say that we have accepted all the recommendations made by Oakley. This brings us back to the fact that sanctions play an important role in encouraging and supporting people to go back to work.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Does the Minister agree that those who pay for these benefits through their taxes expect an effective mechanism to be in place, such as sanctions, to ensure that the rules are complied with?
Priti Patel: My hon. Friend is right, because at the end of the day we are speaking about hard-working taxpayers who support and contribute to the welfare system. Of course, we have a duty to support those who are seeking work and who are in receipt of benefits, but at the same time, hard-working taxpayers want to ensure that their taxes are spent fairly.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): All I know is that those at Mission Trinity, an excellent independent non-political food bank in Goole, tell me that benefits sanctions are driving people to use it. I support the benefit sanctions system, but one issue that seems to be a problem is the consistency with which sanctions are applied. May we have a review of this and ensure that the recipients of the sanctions properly understand the consequences?
Priti Patel: I commend my hon. Friend’s local food bank, and him, on the work done in his constituency. If he has specific examples that he would like to draw to my attention, I will happily discuss them with him.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): May I welcome the Minister to her new role? Before the election, we had a most unsatisfactory debate on benefits sanctions with her predecessor. I have to say, Mr Speaker, that in a disappointing election for Labour, the result in Wirral West was one bright spot.
One person in four is now being sanctioned, and sanctions are cited as one of the top reasons for people to visit food banks. Will the Minister take steps to make sure that DWP staff apply the good reasons code correctly and end these vicious and arbitrary sanctions?
Priti Patel: I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome, although I must say I thought her comments about my predecessor were ungracious.
Regarding sanctions, I assure the House that for those in genuine need, hardship payments are on offer, as is support for those who have been sanctioned. Support is there for those who can demonstrate that they require financial assistance to buy essential items. It is absolutely right that in our jobcentres and in the interactions with claimants, we give them the right sort of support, guidance and advice, and I assure the hon. Lady that that does take place.
T2.  Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): What support is the Department giving young people in my constituency who are seeking apprenticeships and employment?
The Minister for Employment (Priti Patel): I commend my hon. Friend, who is a strong and assiduous champion of young people and apprenticeships. I assure him that we are engaging with young people in his constituency, promoting nine apprenticeships that are available with his local authority and working in partnership with Kirklees College to promote traineeships. In 2013-14, 616 apprenticeships were started in his constituency.
T9.  Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The latest employment statistics show that under this Government record numbers of women are in work, yet there are 2 million more women who would like to be in employment but are not. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues to ensure that the barriers that those women face are being removed?
Priti Patel: My right hon. Friend is right. We are all about ensuring that more women get employment and enter the labour market. On the barriers to women entering the labour market, she will be aware of our work, for example, on shared parental leave, increasing the availability of childcare places, and increasing the provision of childcare from 15 free hours to 30 free hours. In relation to women and pay, the Government will require large employers to publish information on the gender pay gap.
Heidi Allen (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): As the employment figures tell us, the work plan is working. Before I came to this place, I ran my own business, and when I saw the same CVs coming back six months or a year later, I would choose to email or call those people and try to give them some coaching. It is a great opportunity for businesses to mentor individuals who are not being touched by the work plan.
Priti Patel: I congratulate my hon. Friend on coming into the House. I think she was referring to the Work programme, in particular. She is absolutely right. For us, if the Work programme is to be successful—and it is succeeding; we have record numbers of people in employment because of it—it will be through working with employers to find the right kind of work experience that helps them to fill vacancies and to make a big difference too. Work programme providers have the freedom to design and deliver, with employers, the support that is most appropriate for claimants.
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): My constituent, Mr Geoffrey Thomas, found that the DWP was deducting £8.43 from his ESA because it falsely claimed that he had taken out £400-worth of social loans. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is a disgraceful way to have treated my constituent? Will he make urgent inquiries to make sure that this is not happening to any other people across the country?
Priti Patel: The hon. Gentleman has highlighted a constituency case, and I would be very happy to discuss it with him and look into the details.