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Topical Questions

Volume 633: debated on Monday 18 December 2017

Since automatic enrolment was introduced in 2012, 9 million people have been enrolled in a workplace pension by over 900,000 employers. Today, I can announce the Government’s ambition to extend automatic enrolment to support more people to achieve greater financial security in later life. The Government’s 2017 review of automatic enrolment, published today, sets out the next steps we intend to take as we continue to develop a culture of routine pension saving. We will help young people to save by lowering the age for automatic enrolment from 22 to 18. We will also enable people to start saving from the first £1 of their earnings to provide a better retirement income for lower earners and for those in multiple jobs. I have today tabled a written statement setting out further detail, including trialling a number of targeted approaches to identify the most effective ways to increase pension saving among the self-employed.

The universities superannuation scheme is a strong pension scheme that recently closed its defined-benefits section, moving to a defined-contribution scheme and, in effect, transferring all risk to the employee. Many argue that over-cautious accounting rules drive these changes, creating a poorer scheme that leaves many people less well off in future and puts pressure on our universities. What is the Secretary of State doing to protect the future of our higher education sector?

Any changes that might be made to this scheme are a matter for the scheme’s joint negotiation committee, not for the Government. The independent Pensions Regulator remains in ongoing discussion with the USS’s stakeholders. Nothing has been brought to the DWP’s attention that we consider to be of concern. It would be improper for the Government to tell the joint negotiation committee how to run the scheme.

T2. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recent announcement of the extension of auto-enrolment to 18 to 21-year-olds. In the meantime, does he have any figures on how many people have started saving and benefited from auto-enrolment in individual constituencies, including mine? (903005)

Since 2012, 7,000 employees in Ochil and South Perthshire have benefited from a workplace pension through automatic enrolment. Our thanks are also due to the 820 local employers. State pension has risen by £1,250 since 2010, but we want to do more. We are extending auto-enrolment to 18 to 21-year-olds in his area, where we also have targeted interventions for the self-employed that I believe will be of assistance.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the crisis engulfing members of the British Steel pension scheme, with advisers cashing in by persuading them to sink their pensions into all manner of dodgy, high-cost schemes, and he will be aware of the Financial Conduct Authority’s apparent failure to deal with the situation effectively. He will know that today the negotiations on the future of the universities superannuation scheme are coming to a head, with the threat of industrial action—something that should be interesting the Government. I am surprised that he is simply sitting back and leaving these matters to those who are directly involved. Surely, he can tell us today how he is going to get involved and take action to protect members of both schemes.

The position in relation to both matters is that they are worked through with the Pensions Regulator and the Pension Protection Fund, particularly in relation to British Steel, to ensure that members get information on the effect on their pension rights of staying with BSPS or moving to BSPS II. That includes newsletters, a website and bespoke option packs. The Financial Conduct Authority has also stepped in and banned a variety of organisations, and it is providing proper advice.

T4. What steps has the Department to taken to help older people who are looking, perhaps after redundancy or caring responsibilities, to get back into work? (903007)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are more working people in older age groups now than there ever have been, but much more needs to be done, which is why we published our “Fuller Working Lives” strategy. Of course, many employers are waking up to the possibilities in jobcentres, and we are also making sure that we have more older worker champions to represent that group fully.

Reports suggest that the Foreign Secretary, the Environment Secretary and others used this morning’s Cabinet meeting to start the campaign to scrap the working time directive after Brexit. That directive protects us when it comes to hours worked and paid holidays, as well as giving extra protection to night shift workers. Can the Secretary of State confirm what representations he has made at Cabinet to ensure that his Brexiteer colleagues are not successful at ripping up our workers’ rights?

As I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said, “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.” The Government are committed to protecting employment rights.

T8. I thank my right hon. Friend for the flexibility he has shown in the budget in terms of the changes to universal credit. Will he continue with the dialogue and the flexibility as the roll-out continues? (903011)

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to listen to constructive critics and those who want to make sure that universal credit works. In doing so, I thank him for his positive and constructive engagement. It is very clear that Conservative Members are united in ensuring that we deliver universal credit successfully.

T5. Some 68% of personal independence payment decisions taken to tribunal are being overturned by judges, so is it any surprise that my constituent Mr Parish and others in his situation have no faith in the assessment process? What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the accuracy of PIP assessments in the light of statistics that show that there has been a ninefold increase in complaints to the Department in just one year? (903008)

I thank the hon. Lady for the opportunity to make this clarification. As I have mentioned before, 8% of decisions are taken to appeal, and only half of those are upheld. I appreciate that every one of those people is disappointed with the result, and we are working tirelessly to improve the process. But, overall, most people get a good decision on time, and their benefits.

On Friday, I visited my local jobcentre and saw the genuine enthusiasm that work coaches have for the new universal credit system. Will my hon. Friend confirm that additional help is available for users who are not too tech savvy?

Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend is quite right about the enthusiasm of jobcentre staff for universal credit, because it enables them to do more of what they want to do, which is to help people to get on and get into work. I can confirm to him that, yes, computers are available in jobcentres, and assistance is available when needed.

With the uncertainty of universal credit payments following the roll-out in Swansea last week, my local paper, the South Wales Evening Post, has co-ordinated the collection of food and warm clothes to help those in need. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the South Wales Evening Post on doing what the Government are failing to do, and making sure everyone has a good Christmas?

What I would say to anyone—Members of Parliament, newspapers, advisory bodies and food banks—is that we need to make sure that the facts are set out to new claimants: if they need to get access to support, they can get it quickly; they need to get in contact with their jobcentre; and they are able to access an advance, and they can get that money before Christmas.

Does the Minister agree that auto-enrolment has been a success to date and it is right to lower it to the age of 18, but that politicians—of all hues—and the pensions industry must work together to meet the savings and pension challenges facing this country?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I am delighted with the fact that we now have 9 million people signed up to auto-enrolment, utterly transforming workplace pension savings. In his constituency, 8,000 employees and 680 employers have signed up—and great credit to them.

T6. A constituent of mine in Bradford West had three same-day assessments cancelled in a period of five weeks. Eventually, she got an appointment—a home visit—after seven months. What assessment has the Department made of same-day cancellations of work capability assessments by Maximus-employed health professionals—the number, the reasons given and the impact on the mental health of applicants? (903009)

I assure the hon. Lady that we have a very robust quality assurance process. Clearly, the case she has highlighted today is unacceptable. If she would like to bring me that case and discuss it with me, I would be very happy to do so.

Every year, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is lost due to fraud or errors in benefit claims. Will the Secretary of State say whether the introduction of universal credit will improve this situation?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the areas of good news about universal credit is the fact that it will enable us to reduce fraud by over £1 billion. That in itself is an important step, and there are of course many other very positive reasons why universal credit is a good thing.

T7. I recently met Hope Rising action group, which works in my constituency to support those affected by the Government’s benefit cap, and heard stories about just how hard people are being hit by a policy that is so cruel the High Court found it unlawful and guilty of causing misery. Will the Minister tell me how many people in Bradford will be affected by this policy? (903010)

We must ensure we have a welfare system that is fair not only to those in receipt of welfare, but to those who pay for it. The lower cap is fair to both working households and the taxpayer. Before the cap, the Department for Work and Pensions disproportionately spent £10 million a year on just 300 families.

For jobseekers in my constituency of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, it is overwhelmingly the “can do” attitude of professionals and the dedication of the work coaches, whom they value, that will help them to find work. Especially at this time of year, we as a House should definitely pay tribute to them. May I ask my hon. Friend how the new work coaches will boost the chances of jobseekers in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, as well as those elsewhere, to find work?

I can confirm that we have been recruiting work coaches in every nation and region of the UK. We are seeking to do more to provide support with universal credit, and to ensure that what in-work support is needed is available.

Two constituents came to my surgery on Friday, concerned that the switch of support for mortgage interest payments will force them into the private rented sector and on to housing benefit, and will therefore cost the taxpayer more money. Will the Government review that policy? Is it not more evidence of Tory austerity hitting the poorest the hardest?

The conversion of SMI from a benefit into a loan is intended to retain support for owner-occupier claimants in a more sustainable way, while increasing fairness for taxpayers, many of whom cannot afford to buy a home of their own.

What steps is the Department taking to ensure that DWP staff are aware of military covenant issues, so that they are best able to support our brave men and women when they leave the armed forces?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. Veterans make a considerable contribution to our country and it is right that we support them as they move on in their careers. DWP staff receive continual training to ensure that they can signpost veterans correctly. The “See Potential” campaign champions veterans and encourages employers to see the incredible skills they bring to the workplace.