Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 629: debated on Monday 9 October 2017

We are delivering our promise to reform welfare provision in this country. Universal credit replaces the outdated and complex benefits system of the past, which too often stifled people’s potential. Universal credit is a flexible and personalised system that offers unprecedented support. It ensures that people are always better off in work, with payment gradually reducing as earnings increase. It is working: under universal credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work for longer. We are fully committed to the scheduled roll-out for universal credit full service. It will be expanded throughout the country to the planned timescale, delivering a simpler system that encourages work and supports aspiration.

Several of my constituents have raised with me the importance of ensuring that assessment centres are as accessible as possible. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that, on an ongoing basis, accessibility is checked regularly and improvements are made where necessary?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. DWP officials visit assessment centres to check them against accessibility standards. He flagged up concerns about the parking drop-off points at the Peterborough centre; following his raising of those concerns, improvements have been made.

T7. Data for my constituency, Lewisham West and Penge, show that the number of claimants aged 50 or older who are seeking work has increased by 15.5% in the past year. In closing Lewisham jobcentre and migrating to a more internet-based system, how exactly is the Department going to help those with limited access to computers or limited computer literacy, or indeed those who will have difficulties travelling to a jobcentre that is further away? (900951)

On jobcentres, the Department is sensibly making use of the fact that a contract has ended to make a number of improvements to the service provided. Yes, that does mean that some jobcentres will close, but it also means that the provision of services throughout the country will be done in a modernised and effective way. On employment, the fact is that more people are employed than ever before, including older members of the workforce.

T3. In the light of the worrying figures, both nationally and for my constituency, will my hon. Friend the Minister outline the steps the Department is taking to reduce the level of personal independence payment reassessments, so that individuals in my constituency can access at the earliest opportunity the benefits that are due to them? (900947)

We have implemented a wide range of initiatives across the whole claim process, including speeding up the process to clear more claims, increasing the number of healthcare professionals and extending working hours, and making improvements to IT systems.

T9. Universal credit is to be introduced in my constituency on 14 December, which, in my view, is indecent. The introduction should be delayed, as it will be a catastrophe for many children at Christmas. As the Secretary of State believes the opposite, will he accept my offer now of a visit to my constituency the week after its introduction, in the run-up to Christmas, to see whether I am right or he is right and what the impact will be? (900953)

I visit jobcentres all the time and what I hear is that universal credit is providing a more personalised support that is helping to get more people into work and that it is an important reform. Those who stand in the way of it are failing to help the people who need support.

T4. I know Ministers take very seriously the responsibility of supporting those with mental ill health to stay in work. One of my constituents has contacted me about his concerns. He is suffering from mental health challenges and is finding that the constant threat of redundancy or reorganisation is taking a toll on his mental health. Can the Minister tell me now, or write to me, to explain what obligations employers have to take into account their employees’ mental health when they are making such decisions? (900948)

I am sorry to hear about the experience of my right hon. Friend’s constituent. As she will know, the Prime Minister commissioned a review of mental health in the workplace led by Paul Farmer and Dennis Stevenson. Their findings will be reported to this House shortly.

T10. As universal credit comes to Eastbourne, my constituents face the double horror of a 10-week delay for their first payment and no hope of benefit increases in the years ahead. Now that the latest research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warns that the benefits freeze will push a further half million people into poverty by 2020, will the Minister commit to lifting the freeze, thus avoiding the severe poverty trap that will affect my constituents and hundreds of thousands of people around the country? (900954)

The benefits freeze was a measure that this Government took to contribute to reducing the deficit. On the point about people having to wait 10 weeks before receiving universal credit, 80% get paid in full and on time after six weeks. The system of arrears is inherent in universal credit because the payment is based on how much a person has earned over the previous month. That has always been part of the design, and it was part of the design that, presumably, the hon. Gentleman voted for when the coalition Government passed the legislation.

T5. The Secretary of State has already made it clear that, when the jobcentre closes in Shipley, outreach work will still be carried out by the jobcentre in the constituency. Can he confirm what he has in mind, when the specific proposals will be announced and what consultation will be carried out in the local community to ensure that they meet the needs of my constituents? (900949)

Outreach is a vital front-facing service to claimants across a whole range of employability and related services. Of course it needs to be tailored to the needs of each area. The DWP is looking at partnerships with organisations in my hon. Friend’s constituency, including with the local authority. Throughout the course of that, we will be working with his constituents, and we will be happy to work with him, to ensure that those needs are met following the closure of the Shipley office.

On 12 July, universal credit was rolled out in York. Many of the families affected also receive free school meals and therefore had a devastating time of food poverty over the summer. Will the Minister learn lessons from the pilot scheme and ensure that universal credit is not rolled out in advance of school holidays?

Universal credit was rolled out in 29 job- centres in July. It is important that we continue to make progress in the roll-out. We are doing it gradually and sensibly, but we are moving towards a system that helps more people get into work. Of course we are constantly learning lessons and finding ways to improve things, but it is a system that is helping to deliver more people into work.

T6. The higher rate of tax is 45% on gross income and the effective rate of tax on universal credit claimants is 63%. How can the Minister justify that? (900950)

I return to what I said earlier: with universal credit, we are improving the incentives to work. This has to be seen in the context of the previous system, where far more people would face considerably higher marginal withdrawal rates. This important reform means that people can always see that they are better off going into work and, once there, they can see that they are better off always progressing in work.

I find the Minister’s previous response surprising because a response to a recent written question showed that about two thirds of decisions against awarding PIP and ESA in Barnsley East are eventually overturned on appeal, with these appeals taking an average of 15 weeks to be decided. Does the Minister believe that it is acceptable to make my constituents who are eligible for vital financial assistance wait nearly four extra months?

No. That is why we are trying to get better decisions earlier in the process. We have made progress. As I said, the number of PIP cases going to appeal has fallen by 22% over the last quarter. We will continue—

They are published; they were published a few weeks ago. We will shortly bring forward our response to Paul Gray’s second review, which will contain further things that I hope the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) will welcome.

T8. I recently met the excellent local branch of the charity Scope in Boston. It praised the Government’s work on changing the testing regime for those with long-term conditions, but asked what progress are the Government making on their continued bid to simplify the bureaucracy of the forms and the application process for benefits to which people are entitled? (900952)

The severe conditions criteria are a big step forward and will save people from having to go through reassessments. I have already stated that we intend to do more on PIP and the work capability assessment. The severe conditions criteria also allow us to save bureaucracy at local government level. If we can passport that information to local government, it will help with things such as the blue badge scheme and other forms that people have to fill in that are not directly supplied by DWP or the Government.

I would invite the Employment Minister to visit my local jobcentre, but he is busy circumventing his own criteria to shut it down. In view of the problems with universal credit, why does he not revisit those decisions, keep jobcentres open and stop forcing some of the most vulnerable people to travel for hours just to get the benefits that they are entitled to?

We had an estate that was underutilised. As the Secretary of State said, coming to the end of the large contract that covered very much of the estate, there was an opportunity—indeed, a requirement—to review all our needs to ensure that we had the best possible estate for the future. We had clear criteria for determining which of those sites should be open to public consultation. Where those criteria were met, of course there was a consultation.

I am sure that the Secretary of State and everyone in this House would agree that parents should fulfil their financial obligations to their children. But do they agree that much more should be done to combat those who are shamefully using legal loopholes to avoid paying child maintenance?

Where a parent fails to pay on time or in full, we aim to take immediate action to recover that debt and to re-establish compliance. Where someone’s personal income appears suspicious in any way, caseworkers may refer that case to our newly beefed-up financial investigations unit.

I wrote to the Secretary of State on Friday about my constituent, Danielle Brown, who lost her leg at the age of two. She has now lost her PIP and her Motability car. Will the Minister look into this case and assure me that I will get a reply as soon as possible?

I would be happy to look at the hon. Lady’s case. We changed the rules on Motability to ensure that people could go to appeal and not lose their car in the meantime. It sounds as if something has gone wrong in this particular case. I cannot make a decision, but I can look at the case and see what we can do to help.

I am grateful to the Government for the assistance given to my constituent, who had to leave Dominica because of the terrible damage caused by the hurricane. But on her return back to this country with her 22-month-old son, she has discovered that she is not entitled to any benefits whatever for three months. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can ensure that we have a right and proper system to make sure that people in such circumstances really are entitled to benefits?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point. We will certainly look at it and ensure that she has the opportunity to meet us to discuss it.

East Lothian is a pilot area for universal credit, and the third sector—particularly the citizens advice bureau and East Lothian’s local authority welfare service—has kept universal credit going by supporting a very high percentage of applicants. Will the Minister confirm when there will be additional funding for the third sector, so that it can carry on supporting the DWP with universal credit?

We obviously continue to engage with the voluntary sector. I know what the CAB was campaigning for, but it did welcome what I said last week about advances; indeed, I am meeting the CAB later this week to further discuss how we can work together to deliver a very important welfare reform.

While the increase in advance payments is welcome, does the Secretary of State not share my concern that the CAB has said that, on average, claimants have only less than £4 a month to pay back creditors? Therefore, advance payments are simply storing up problems for the future. Will he commit to giving the House a statement on the numbers who are coming into universal credit, the time it takes to pay them and the numbers who are forced into debt, rent arrears or hardship because of this policy?

We do update the House on information, as we have it, about the number of claimants for universal credit, the timeliness details and other details, and we will continue to do that. When it comes to advances, there is a concern across the House that people are left six weeks without receiving any support. Ensuring that advances are there and that they are made known to people is really important, and I hope all Members will do that.

A constituent who relies on agency work from the shipyards finds himself in rent arrears of over £900 as a result of being on universal credit. Does that not show that the concerns of social housing providers should be listened to, or does a social housing provider have to go under before its concerns are addressed?

The DWP has been working closely with social housing providers on putting in place what is described as the landlord portal, which enables information to flow between social landlords and the DWP. It has already been piloted and will be in operation later this month. That is one of the things we are doing to ensure that this process is constantly improving and that we can verify identity and get the right money to the right people as quickly as possible.

How much does the Secretary of State estimate is being paid out through housing benefit, or will be paid out under the housing-related costs of universal credit, for unfit accommodation in the private rented sector? All too often, I meet vulnerable tenants living in completely unfit accommodation. A huge amount of taxpayers’ money is being used to line the pockets of dodgy landlords. It is a complete and utter disgrace, and I would like to know what the Secretary of State’s estimate is of the size of the problem and what he is going to do about it.

We are always concerned about substandard rental accommodation, and we do keep in touch with the relevant bodies. This is something that is generally of concern to the Department, and it is something we will keep an eye on moving forward.

The all-party parliamentary group on deafness recently heard compelling evidence about the disproportionate and damaging impact the cap on awards under the Access to Work scheme is having on people who use British sign language as their first language, with deaf people having job offers withdrawn, withdrawing from their roles and giving up on their careers. The Government say they are committed to improving disabled people’s opportunities at work, but this policy is destroying them. Will the Minister think again?

We have looked in great detail at many aspects of Access to Work, and although it is a popular scheme, there are many things we want to change in it. I very much recognise that the scheme is not just about giving someone a piece of technology to enable them to communicate; it is about giving them the services they need to be their best—to thrive and to be their most creative in the workplace. For some, that will involve British sign language interpreters. This is very much an area we are looking at, and it will be something we bring forward and report back on in the health and work road map.

When one compares rates of poverty with those before the change of Government in 2010, we see that none of the four main measures has worsened and, in fact, three have improved.

As of November 2016, youth unemployment in my constituency of Wolverhampton South West was 27%. Now, we are due to have the roll-out in December and this will see the enforcement of the youth obligation. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that young people who reside in constituencies such as mine are provided with support into employment, while the transition to the full UC service is implemented?

I had the pleasure of visiting Wolverhampton just last week and had the opportunity to speak to my colleagues in jobcentres in the area about youth unemployment. Of course, the figure for young people who have left full-time education and are unemployed has dropped below 5% for the first time since that data series began. As we know about the scarring effect of any period out of work for a young person, we continue to work hard through things such as work experience and sector-based work academies, and that is showing great success.

Order. We have run out of time, but I shall call one further questioner, a Member with an insatiable appetite for these matters and a detailed, some would say anorakish, knowledge of all the most complex formulae. I am referring, of course, to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms).

I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. Apart from shocking delays, Citizens Advice highlights two big problems with universal credit. One is that it is too complicated; people cannot understand it. The second is that when there is a problem, there is nobody there to help people. I am glad that the Secretary of State is meeting Citizens Advice, but will he have anything to say to them on those two specific problems?

The personalised support available in jobcentres to people claiming universal credit is much more advanced than that which we have had in the past. In terms of complexity, universal credit is a much simpler system than that which has existed up to now, with six different benefits, leaving us in the absurd position in which people were unwilling to take a job that required them to work more than 16 hours because they would move from one benefit system to another, knowing that their hours might fall in the future, so they would move back to a different system. That complexity has discouraged people from working more hours and we should all seek to tackle that. That is exactly what universal credit does.