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Topical Questions

Volume 624: debated on Monday 27 March 2017

I would like to draw the attention of the House to the more generous universal credit taper rate coming into effect over the Easter recess, on 10 April. It demonstrates our commitment to helping people to gain independence in their own lives by getting on and progressing in work. The new taper rate of 63% will boost the incomes of about 3 million families by £700 million a year; a couple with two children could benefit by as much as £425 a year. When combined with the introduction of the national living wage and increases in the personal tax allowance, those changes equate to the biggest pay rise for the lowest earners in a generation.

Newcastle has paid a high price for being the first city to go full service with universal credit, with claims routinely lost, delayed or repeatedly deleted. However, the six-week wait period is doing the most to drive so many into destitution and cause people to lose their home. With 80% of Newcastle council house tenants on universal credit now in rent arrears, will the Minister end the wait period, or will he explain how they are supposed to keep a roof over their head with no money?

I have two points for the hon. Lady. First, the National Federation of ALMOs—social housing providers—calculates that some 75% of tenants are in arrears under the legacy benefits, so she is not right in her suggestion.

Yes, quite; this has been happening for a long time. The idea that universal credit causes housing arrears is just nonsense.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) will know that my Department is working on a pathfinder arrangement with Newcastle City Council precisely to address the problems that may be there now and have been there for many, many years.

T2. I warmly welcome the latest fall in unemployment, particularly the 52% reduction since 2010 in my constituency. Will the Minister please endorse the work of Motiv-8 South West, which supports young people into employment and training, and continue to do all that he can to help those who are still struggling to find employment? (909464)

I welcome the news from my hon. Friend’s constituency, which has seen such a strong fall in unemployment. I certainly acknowledge the key role played by third sector organisations. We continue to work with outside organisations and on programmes such as work experience, sector-based work academies, the new youth obligation and, of course, the roll-out of universal credit.

We heard earlier about the cuts to PIP support for people with mental health conditions that were brought in 10 days ago. The Government estimate that they will affect 160,000 people. This time next week, half a million sick or disabled people who have been found not fit for work and have been placed in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group will start to see a cut in support of £1,500 a year. Given that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people and the recent analysis showing that that has increased significantly, how does the Secretary of State justify the cumulative cuts to disabled people?

First, when the hon. Lady talks about cuts to 160,000 people, she is of course wrong. Nobody’s original DWP award will receive a cut. She also asked me how I justify the changes to ESA, but disabled people and people with health conditions deserve better than the current system, under which only one in 100 ESA WRAG claimants leave benefit each month. I hope that the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), who is cheering from a sedentary position, agrees with me that we need to change the system. That is why we are proposing a huge number of different types of help across the board, including financial help and advice, which will help them into work.

T5. Some of my constituents have also raised concerns about changes to their personal independence payments. Will the Minister assure me that claimants will not see any reduction in their PIPs and that the changes are to ensure that help is targeted to those most in need? (909467)

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. There will be no change to award amounts, the budget or the policy. The benefit does not relate to a particular condition, but to how a condition has an impact on someone’s life. It is about the social definition of disability. I assure her constituents that that will continue to be the case.

T3. Last week, the Scottish Government wrote to the UK Government to express concern over how universal credit is pushing people into more hardship and debt. I also understand that the SNP-led Midlothian Council has written to the Minister to ask for a complete and immediate halt to the full service roll-out of universal credit, which is having an appalling impact on people across my constituency and a further knock-on impact on council resources. When will the Minister realise that the changes being pushed through are punishing some of the most vulnerable people in society? Will he heed warnings from the Scottish Government and others across Scotland that the process should be stopped now? (909465)

Universal credit is a massive reform. I know of no other country with a comparable system that stays with people from being out of work to supporting them in work. Are there challenges in implementing that? Yes, of course there are, but the transformational benefits in sight are immense.

T6. I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that, although no MP wants a DWP office closure, there may nevertheless be significant advantages if the King’s Lynn DWP office were to co-locate with the borough council, as there would be synergies, for example, on housing benefit. We could then create a public service centre of excellence for the borough council, the clinical commissioning group and the DWP. (909468)

I take that point on board, and we are embarking on a number of co-locations as part of the current programme. Co-location can be good both for claimants and for the taxpayer: for claimants because more of the services they need to access are in one place, and, of course, for the taxpayer by making better use of the public estate.

T4. My constituent obtained a court order granting him custody of his two sons, and they were handed over to his care. He informed the DWP but was denied tax credits because, although a letter had been sent to his former wife, she had not responded. During that time, the tax credits were still being paid to her, and it took four months and my intervention to ensure that my constituent received the tax credits to which both he and his young sons are entitled. Will the Minister review the process to ensure that that does not happen any longer so that people do not have to depend on food banks and the kindness of relatives? (909466)

The hon. Lady will of course be aware that tax credits fall within the remit of Her Majesty’s Treasury, and I will be happy to ensure that that is raised with the relevant Minister.

Forgive me, I could not hear the Secretary of State and did not lip read effectively, but I now realise at what he was hinting. No doubt an answer will be furnished in due course.

T7. Has any of the team seen today’s news about the one-hour-a-month contract offered by Santander bank? Will the Minister guarantee that under no circumstances will any job like that ever be advertised in a jobcentre in this country? (909469)

I cannot comment on an individual case, but I can say that, in general, we know that less than 3% of people report that they rely on a zero-hours contract. We know that, on average, those people get 25 hours a week and actually have above-average levels of job satisfaction. Zero-hours contracts are certainly not for everybody, but they do work for some people.

T9. Some 17% of the working-age population suffer from a disability. With labour shortage an issue in my constituency, I have committed to signing up 30 employers to be Disability Confident organisations. Given that I am meeting my chamber of commerce this week, does the Minister have a recruitment message for its members? (909471)

I thank my hon. Friend not only for signing up to be a Disability Confident employer himself but for accepting that challenge, as many Members on both sides of the House have. If every Member of this House accepted the challenge, we would sign up enough employers to reach a quarter of the working population of the UK. I thank him for his leadership in that and wish him well on his visit to his chamber of commerce.

T8. The Secretary of State spoke earlier about workers’ rights. Surely workers’ rights should also include the right to some certainty. Will he talk to his fellow Ministers in the Home Office about the fact that many European nationals have lived here for years, have British spouses and British children but are now told that they will have to have comprehensive health insurance in order to stay here? (909470)

The hon. Gentleman has made his point very forcefully. I am, of course, in constant discussion with ministerial colleagues in the Home Office about a wide range of issues involving the labour market.

T10. When it comes to women in work, Erewash leads from the front, with 83% of working-age women in full-time or part-time employment. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to help more women in other parts of the country to return to employment and follow the example set by my constituents in Erewash? (909472)

We have female employment at a near record rate, which is to be celebrated. We have seen the gender pay gap come down, but there is more work to do. A number of things have to fall into place for that to happen, but one of the key things happening this year is, of course, the extension of childcare to 30 hours a week for three and four-year-olds. Parents on universal credit get 85% reimbursement, rather than 70%, and we have tax-free childcare, too.

The Fawcett Society found last year that 25% of women over 30 are saving nothing for retirement, compared with 15% of men. What does the Secretary of State think is responsible for that, and what is he doing to change it?

Automatic enrolment was designed specifically to help those who were under-represented in pension savings, including women. With the current rate of £10,000 a year, 70% of the new people coming into the system in 2017-18 will be women.

Six out of 10 people with epilepsy who were migrating from DLA to PIP and were surveyed by Epilepsy Action saw their benefit removed or reduced. That compares with two out of 10 people who are migrating overall. Are Ministers confident that assessors and decision makers properly understand the fluctuating, sporadic and life-limiting condition of epilepsy, so that they can make the right decisions?

We are aware of that. That is one reason why we have increased the clinical support that is available to assessors. They are all healthcare professionals, so they will have that expert advice on hand in the assessment centres. That is something that we brought in recently.

Has the Secretary of State watched or listened to an appeal hearing for PIP applicants? I have received information and representations from a number of constituents who feel intimidated and misrepresented by the process. What steps is he taking to ensure that the people involved in the process are treated with the respect, dignity and compassion that they deserve?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. We think about every stage of this process. Clearly, if people appeal and those appeals are upheld, we have not got it right earlier in the process. I have mentioned some things that we are doing to build trust, confidence and support. We are also introducing a video relay service in April, which will be of particular help to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. There are a number of small changes like that that we can make to ensure that we get a good result earlier in the process.

I have a 28-year-old constituent who was injured in the line of duty in 2010. He was awarded a tier 3 military pension, which is reserved only for the most severely injured, but he is due to lose his Motability vehicle and that decision was upheld on mandatory reconsideration. Is that seriously the type of person the Government wish to leave housebound?

I would say two things in response to that question. First, we have been considering particular issues around our armed forces in the Green Paper, which gives opportunities not just for ESA but for PIP. We are also looking at being able to passport information that may be in someone’s war pension record or medical history into our benefits system. I am quite happy to look at the case the hon. Lady raises with regard to Motability.

What does the Minister say to the private landlord who came to see me with his tenant with concerns about future eviction rates if there is no option under universal credit for rent to be paid directly to landlords?

There is, of course, the facility for rent to be paid directly to landlords where necessary, and we are streamlining the process for doing that. However, we think that the general principle is right that most people in receipt of universal credit should know what their housing liabilities are and pay their rent when they are out of work and when they are in work.

We have been reminded that new claimants of employment and support allowance will get a much lower rate of benefit, starting in about 10 days. Some of those people will find themselves in serious difficulty. Do Ministers have any new proposals to help?

We do. In addition to the support offer, all the elements of which are in place, the Department has been doing a number of things, one of which is a big piece of work on social tariffs, which is about enabling people to have the right tools and information to reduce their household outgoings and giving them budgeting support.

In November last year, my motion calling on the Government to at least pause employment and support allowance cuts until mitigation or Green Paper proposals were brought in was carried unanimously by the House. Given that this is the last parliamentary week before the cuts take place on 3 April, will the Minister confirm whether the mitigations she promised will be laid before the House for scrutiny?

They are already in place. I think this is a misunderstanding that the hon. Gentleman had. The elements that were outlined in the Green Paper were not speculative or things that we would be consulting on; they were things we were going to do. All the elements, including all the recruitment for all the community partners around the country, are in place now.

Let me return to the issue of the DWP estate and travel times. Given that this information has been gathered via Google Maps, which has been shown to be inaccurate as some bus services are no longer operational, will the Minister tell me what tests have been carried out to check the accuracy of the information? If there is a possibility of the ministerial guidance being breached, will any further proposed closures will go to public consultation?

The hon. Gentleman and I, and many of his colleagues and others from across the House, have had a number of opportunities to debate these matters and to go through individual cases, on individual locations, one by one. We used a variety of sources to determine travel times and “reasonableness” of travel. The ministerial criteria say that if somewhere is within 3 miles or 20 minutes by public transport, it is reasonable to ask somebody to make that journey; otherwise, we have a public consultation.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

A constituent of mine, whom I have spoken of before, lost her job on Christmas eve. She is denied universal credit because she is over 60 and she is denied jobseeker’s allowance because her husband has a small private pension. This couple’s lives have been thrown into financial turmoil. Does the Minister agree that it is time the Government paid some compensation to this constituent, as she has paid in all her life?

Jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit should be available to people of working age. I will have to look at the details of the case the hon. Lady mentioned, if she would like to get in contact.