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Topical Questions

Volume 631: debated on Monday 13 November 2017

This Department’s mission is to support people through all stages of their lives. Universal credit is being introduced slowly, and it is steadily and positively transforming people’s prospects by bringing about the satisfaction and financial security of entering work and increasing earnings. We are also helping citizens to prepare for later life with our work on pensions, and we are committed to helping people from all walks of life at all stages of their lives. We will continue to build on that body of work to achieve our aims.

How does the Department plan to respond to its own research, which shows that universal credit is a driver of rent arrears among families who rely on it for support?

As my ministerial colleagues have already said, we must recognise that a number of the statistics that have been quoted show that rent arrears have arisen before people have entered into universal credit, and that after time the numbers in rent arrears starts to fall. We continue to improve the system to ensure that payment timeliness is improved, for example, and that people are able to access advances when they need to.

T6. The Minister will know that motor neurone disease is a degenerative disease, so may I ask what plans the Government have to ensure that people who suffer from that terrible disease do not have to be re-assessed for personal independence payments? (901737)

I thank my hon. Friend for that very important question. The length of an award is based on an individual’s circumstances: it can vary from an award of nine months to an ongoing award involving a light-touch review at the 10-year point. It is very unlikely that somebody he describes would have another face-to face assessment with a healthcare professional.

We all know that the Government are bogged down in all manner of ways and that they have been slow to develop secondary legislation for several new Acts, but will Ministers tell the House when they will bring forward regulations to enact defined contribution and give pension savers the opportunity of the vastly increased benefits of those schemes that was predicted this week by the Pensions Policy Institute and Schroders?

T7. Can the Minister update the House on progress with the pensions dashboard and confirm that all pension schemes will be required to release the comprehensive data required to make that system useful? (901738)

I am firmly committed to delivering the pensions dashboard. Its introduction will clearly transform how people think about retirement. I will make a statement in the spring that will tackle some of the delivery challenges, including the point that my hon. Friend raises. There is an ongoing feasibility study and there will be a stakeholders’ meeting on 11 December, which I urge him, as well as many interested stakeholders, to attend.

T2. How does the increased conditionality associated with universal credit, such as the requirement to attend at jobcentres more frequently, square with the DWP’s estates review and the decision to close jobcentres, starting with Maryhill in my constituency—which, incidentally, I have visited? (901733)

We have a comprehensive network of jobcentres across the United Kingdom. There are more in Scotland than in England, and more in Glasgow than in other cities. Universal credit is a system that works to help and support people to get into work—it is the right system.

T8. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the inaccurate use of universal credit statistics can cause huge distress and concern to vulnerable claimants? Does he agree that everyone has a duty to check their facts before using them in this House? (901739)

I agree. May I give one example? Speaking from the Dispatch Box opposite recently, the Leader of the Opposition said:

“Gloucester City Homes has evicted one in eight of…its tenants because of universal credit.”—[Official Report, 11 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 324.]

If that were true, it would amount to 650 tenants being evicted due to universal credit. Gloucester City Homes has described this as “not factually accurate”. In fact, a total of eight—not one in eight—tenants on universal credit have been evicted, all of whom had considerable rent arrears well before moving on to universal credit. I understand that one tenant had not been resident in their property for 18 months.

T3. Many veterans with psychological injuries carry out physical activity as part of their rehabilitation process, but some report that they are being sanctioned because of this. Will the Secretary of State give his guarantee that the Government will no longer sanction recovering veterans? (901734)

I will look at the facts of the case, but I cannot make a blanket commitment, because one obviously has to look at the particular circumstances. Of course, we recognise and support our veterans at every opportunity.

A constituent who recently contacted me is concerned about how long they are having to wait for a tribunal hearing. Will my right hon. Friend make representations to the Ministry of Justice about the efficiency of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service?

T5. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s place, Mr Speaker.My local authority in Renfrewshire is having to set aside nearly £1 million to mitigate the devastating impact on families of the roll-out of universal credit. It is hiring extra staff to deal with rent arrears, which it expects to increase by 5%. With all levels of government in Scotland forced to pick up this Government’s slack, what further evidence does the Secretary of State need to see the huge systemic problems in UC and to understand that he must pause the roll-out now? (901736)

Universal credit will help to transform lives positively. It is already doing so by giving people the opportunity to work and to progress in work. The Scottish National party can join the Labour party in being on the wrong side of the argument, but history will not forgive it for that.

Since 2010, this Government have overseen remarkable levels of job creation. My predecessor, who used to sit on the SNP Benches, has just secured a very well-paid media position with Russia Today. Does the Minister agree that people must be flexible about their career choices to get on?

We sometimes hear enough fake news in this Chamber, but it is disappointing to see the former leader of the SNP employed by a purveyor of fake news, even if we welcome employment opportunities in the round.

T9. Universal credit is proving to be a real challenge for self-employed people as it fails to account for fluctuations in income from one month to another, meaning that many are losing out on hundreds of pounds of benefits. This is totally counter to the aspirational vision of universal credit that the Government preach, so will the Minister commit to immediately reviewing the benefit’s suitability for the self-employed and fixing this anomaly? (901740)

On the contrary, universal credit specifically responds each month to what a person’s earnings have been in that month. That is at the heart of its design. We want to help people in self-employment to grow their earnings and to ensure that they have sustainable remunerative work, so we have introduced a programme within the new enterprise allowance to help people to do just that.

Great unhappiness continues to surround the issue of pensions and the WASPI women, many of whom have come to see us in our constituencies. I believe that there will be a debate next April on a private Member’s Bill on the matter. Given the continuing accusations and counter-accusations about whether people were told about the changes, does my right hon. Friend agree that such a debate will be worthwhile?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, and I have no doubt there will continue to be debates on this matter. However, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has declared, we are not going deviate from the policy we have set out.

T10. In Southwark, 12% of council tenants on the universal credit pilot accumulated £5.3 million of rent arrears. Given the Secretary of State’s astonishing refusal in the face of such evidence to pause the universal credit roll-out, will he say precisely what he is doing to stop more of my constituents being made homeless as a consequence of this decision? (901741)

Again, I come back to this throwing around of accusations. We had the Leader of the Opposition claiming that 650 people had been evicted because of universal credit. We are not seeing evictions in the social rented sector and there are clear reasons why that does not happen. What we are getting for potential universal credit claimants from the Labour party is scaremongering, which is creating unnecessary anxiety.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Broxtowe citizens advice bureau, which I met on Thursday? Universal credit is being rolled out for us next year, and the CAB is already putting together all the relevant agencies to make sure that we are ready. Will my right hon. Friend also have a look at whether, for a very small amount, my CAB could have one person to deal with all the cases so that we can make this system work as we all know it should?

I will take that as a spending bid from my right hon. Friend. She is right to highlight the role of citizens advice bureaux. I met citizens advice bureaux in St Albans and Bedford last week, and where a CAB works closely with jobcentres, it helps to deliver the support that people need, which I very much welcome.

My Tollcross constituent Margaret Laird was moved on to universal credit in January 2016. She has been given a 132-day sanction. She is being treated by psychiatric services and helped by the local food bank. Will the Secretary of State undertake to look into her case, because it is very sensitive?

I am happy to receive representations from the hon. Gentleman on that case. Obviously I cannot talk about the individual case, but I am happy to look at it.

When a non-resident parent fails to pay on time or in full, we endeavour to immediately establish compliance before enforcement action is needed. There is a range of strong powers that we can take, including the forced sale of property, disqualification from driving or, indeed, commitment to prison, but we are exploring options to expand those, and they will form part of our new compliance and arrears strategy, which will be published shortly.

Members of the British Steel pension scheme need to decide whether to go into British Steel pension scheme 2 or the Pension Protection Fund by 11 December, but there is still a lack of clarity around the position of high/low pensioners in the PPF and whether that might change after the point of decision making. Will the Secretary of State look at this so that the information is available to people before they make that decision?

I acknowledge the issue that the hon. Gentleman sets out. If he writes to me, I will sit down with him and go through it in more detail. Clearly it is a matter for the trustees on an ongoing basis as to what particular decisions are taken.