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Work and Pensions

Volume 635: debated on Monday 5 February 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—

Carillion: Pension Protection

1. What steps she is taking to ensure support for former Carillion employees whose pensions will not be covered by the Pension Protection Fund. (903731)

Where all sponsoring employers of a defined-benefit pension scheme have declared insolvency, they will enter a Pension Protection Fund assessment period. The Pension Protection Fund will actively work with the scheme administrator to assess whether it is able to buy out the pensions at a higher level than the PPF benefits. Where a scheme cannot do this, PPF will provide compensation. Defined-contribution schemes do not need PPF help, because they do not promise a level of pension—the member keeps the pot they have built up.

The Government have presided over a regulatory scheme where a deficit of about £1 billion has been allowed to build up in the pension fund at the same time as shareholders were receiving dividends. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that all former Carillion employees will receive in full their due pension?

What the Government did successfully back in 2004 was set up the Pension Protection Fund, which is there to compensate people should their businesses become insolvent. This is what the fund will be doing: affording protection at 100% for those who have a pension. Those not yet on a pension will be getting 90%. The Government are ensuring that businesses are responsible to their employees and their pensions. We will be bringing in stronger corporate governance rules to make sure that boards, trustees, shareholders and stakeholders hold company executives to account.

Financial directors must not cause detriment to any private sector pension scheme. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the rules and regulations regarding the investigation of this sort of practice are toughened up, because we cannot allow this to happen in future?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government are seeking to ensure that the regulator will—our new Bill will come out later in the year—have more rights to fine, follow criminal procedures and look into mandatory clearance. Those of us who have studied corporate governance realise that the rules changed in 1991—the Cadbury report and the OECD corporate governance rules—and were strengthened in 2002. I believe that now, under this Conservative Government, we will be strengthening the corporate governance rules again.[Official Report, 8 February 2018, Vol. 635, c. 8MC.]

My constituents who have paid into pension funds deserve to have those moneys protected. Will the Secretary of State be a bit more specific? What specific changes to corporate governance does she want to see to ensure that high risk behaviour towards pension funds does not happen again?

We are getting feedback from various businesses on how they think we can best enable and support them. Any knee-jerk reaction might result in unintended consequences. Shining a spotlight on one area could close down loopholes, only for others to open up. This has to be looked at in the round, but, as I said, stakeholders, shareholders and the executive team should be held to account. We will make sure that that happens.

Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the UK’s pension protection system has responded effectively to the Carillion situation?

I can indeed reassure my hon. Friend that what it is doing, and the avenues it is pursuing, are correct and thorough. I met the regulator last week. It is making sure that it investigates these key matters and provides the necessary pension support. Where we need to strengthen in future, we will do so. Equally, I would like to make Members aware of what the pension regulator has done in the past. With regards to the British Home Stores fiasco, which is totally different from this situation, it employed an anti-avoidance measure and got Philip Green to pay his pensioners £363 million. Further prosecutions are coming forward for Chappell, who bought that company for a pound. That is the kind of good work the pension regulator is doing.

As the Government have responsibility for the pensions regulatory framework, how would the Secretary of State describe a regulatory framework that allows the administrator of a pensions scheme to help to bring about the downfall of the company and the employees it represents, and to profit from that downfall?

When I hear some of the hon. Lady’s comments, particularly those that are out of context, I think about the letter that she has received in the past two days from the UK Statistics Authority, which states that many things she has said are not accurate. The letter said that her remarks—whether about children waking up in poverty at Christmas or linking universal credit with poverty—were not supported, that they were not true statistics and that the sources could not be relied upon. If you will allow me to ask this, Mr Speaker, will the hon. Lady make a statement straightaway about the letter from the UK Statistics Authority?

I understand the rhetorical significance of the Secretary of State’s point, but I must exhort the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) to stick to her last. That is to say, this is not the occasion upon which she is invited to expatiate on the matter. She may find other opportunities if she is so inclined, but she should stick to the line of questioning that is relevant to the questioning of a Government Minister.

I will indeed do just that, Mr Speaker, especially as there was absolutely no answer to my original question. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people including my constituent, Philip Wild, have lost half their retirement income because of the Government’s failure to tackle pensions governance—from Carillion to Capita, and BHS to the British Steel Pension Scheme. How many more pensions scandals does the Secretary of State need to see before she introduces the robust regulatory oversight needed to protect people’s pensions for the future?

Obviously, in the light of the letter from the chair of the UK Statistics Authority to the hon. Lady, it needs to be put on the record that the vast majority of defined-benefit pension schemes are working very well indeed. When we do see instances of abuse or illegal goings-on, they are investigated and the people responsible are brought to account. We have a strong Pension Protection Fund, supported by other businesses that are looking after pensioners across the country.

Consumer Advice and Assistance

2. What steps the Government are taking to promote the delivery of effective consumer financial advice and assistance. (903732)

We are committed to ensuring that consumers across the United Kingdom have access to high quality, impartial and free pensions and money guidance services. That is why we are setting up the new single financial guidance body, which is presently in Bill Committee in this House. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Conservative Government’s commitment is to a debt respite scheme and a breathing space specifically to address debt.

In a recent poll conducted by Populus and The Guardian, 32% of British workers were found to have less than £500 in savings. What are the Government doing to promote long-term savings and to support employers such as the 1,340 in Chichester that have auto-enrolled their employees, currently benefiting 13,000 people?

When the debt respite scheme and the breathing space are put into law, the provisions will make a manifest difference to how people are dealt with in respect of debt, as will the single financial guidance body. I would be failing in my duty not to pay tribute to the 1,340 employers in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Chichester that are doing a brilliant job in ensuring that there are more people in auto-enrolment, adding to the 9.1 million people across the country who are now auto-enrolled in a private pension—something that we should be very proud of.

Some 11 million people a year use price comparison sites to gain information on insurers and other products. The Financial Conduct Authority found in 2014 that such sites were not delivering fair and consistent practices. The Competition and Markets Authority has now said the sites should be using the CARE model; that is, they should be clear, accurate, responsible and easy to use. What can the Government do to ensure that these sites are straightforward and easy to use?

The simple answer is that I will take that matter up with my colleagues at the Treasury who are handling that point, particularly in relation to the FCA. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am in a Bill Committee with the exact same Minister and will probably have an opportunity tomorrow—with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey)—to have a discussion about this point.

A Port Talbot shift supervisor was badly advised by a pensions predator preying on him who made him take the wrong choice. “I will never forgive myself”, he said, “because all 20 on my shift followed my lead.” In an otherwise welcome Bill, in the words of Baroness Altmann,

“the Government seems to have bowed to industry pressure and proposes to weaken consumer protection for pension customers. By removing a clause introduced in the House of Lords…more people are at risk of losing their hard-earned savings in scams, frauds and unwise pension withdrawals.”

She is absolutely right. Will the Government think again?

I am grateful to have the opportunity to replay the same debate that we had in the Bill Committee last Thursday. I will give the same answer, which is that, with no disrespect to Baroness Altmann, she is incorrect on this point. The Government are addressing pensions guidance. We have introduced very stringent new laws. We have improved on the point raised by the Work and Pensions Committee, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), who sits on that Committee, agreed in the Bill Committee last Thursday.

Mortgage Interest: Effects on Claimants

3. What assessment she has made of the effect on employment and support allowance claimants’ income of changes to support for mortgage interest. (903733)

All claimants will be offered a support for mortgage interest loan paid at the same rate that is currently available as part of their benefit entitlement. There will therefore be no impact on their income. Claimants will pay back the loan only on the sale or transfer of the property, when the loan will be recovered from any available equity.

My constituent, who is registered blind yet has paid into the system all his working life, asks how it can be fair that tenants continue, quite rightly, to get support now, but 100,000 or more people like himself are losing that interest support with their mortgages. It is not good enough to say that they will get it back at the end. This is affecting people now. People are worried about their futures and worried about their incomes now. It is not good enough.

Mortgage support is being offered at exactly the same rate as currently. The only difference is that it is now being deferred as a loan recoverable against any equity available in the house should it be sold in the future. Current participants in the scheme should see absolutely no difference unless and until they sell or transfer the house, at which point the taxpayer will recover the support offered.

21. This change to support for mortgage interest will hit very hard thousands of low-income households, half of whom are pensioners. Does the Minister acknowledge that this change has not been well publicised and that, at the very least, the Government should pause and communicate what it will actually mean for people financially? (903754)

We have to recognise that we are dealing with support for people who are accumulating what is often a very significant capital asset, and it seems only right that when equity becomes available the taxpayer is able to recover some or all of the support. There has been significant communication on the scheme with the people who are participating in it, and that is continuing. There will be between four and six written communications, and people will be invited to call a telephone number where they can obtain information from a third-party adviser before we get to April, when the scheme comes into play. I am confident that the people who are participating in the scheme at the moment will have enough information. Certainly, large numbers are making a decision either way at the moment.

I have been contacted by a number of constituents about this issue, including a Mr Milne, a veteran who is surviving just now on a meagre state pension. He fears that this change will force him to sell his house or to have it repossessed. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of this change, particularly on pensioners?

There is absolutely no reason for anybody to fear forced sale or repossession of a house, not least because the scheme is specifically designed to avoid exactly that. If Members have specific cases where constituents have concerns about the operation of the scheme, I will be more than happy to take them up. If the hon. Lady writes to me about that case, I will provide a response.

Supported Housing

4. What steps the Government are taking to ensure the continuation of funding for supported housing. (903734)

We have recently completed consultations on the funding models for short-term supported housing and sheltered housing, and will provide a response in due course. We will come forward with our proposals for long-term supported housing by 2020.

My hon. Friend is making some useful and valued changes. Will he assure the House that accommodation costs for short-term supported housing such as women’s refuges will continue to be funded at existing levels, with the new grant to local authorities being ring-fenced?

It is typical of my hon. Friend that she has the welfare of her most vulnerable constituents at the forefront of her mind. I can confirm that the current proposal on which we have just consulted is that the section 31 grant paid to local authorities for provision of refuges and other short-term supported housing will be ring-fenced.

The Government’s proposals are an improvement on their initial proposals, but one element has brought criticism from virtually all providers, and that is with regard to short-term supported housing. My Select Committee has recommended that for emergency very short-term accommodation of around 12 weeks, there should be a ring-fenced grant to local authorities. The Government have changed the definition of short term from 12 weeks to two years, which all providers have condemned. Will the Government think again and bring accommodation lasting two years into the welfare system?

We are in receipt of a significant number of responses to the consultation, which only closed a couple of weeks ago, and we will consider those over the months to come. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss those concerns with his constituents if they wish to do so.

The Government have promised that all short-term provision currently funded by the welfare system will continue to be funded at the same level by local authorities until 2020, but will the Minister confirm that there will be no cut in funding after that?

Given that I am not a Treasury Minister, I am not in a position to confirm that, but it would certainly be our aspiration to provide the current level of support, or indeed enhanced and better performing support, which is the purpose of the changes, in the future.

Universal Credit

6. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of universal credit in helping people into work. (903736)

Universal credit has had a positive impact since its start, as shown through published research and analysis. Independent research shows us that people are spending more time looking for work, applying for more jobs and even doing jobs they would not have considered doing before.

Constituents in Gordon will face longer waiting times for payments due to the Scottish Government’s policy of fortnightly payment. What support can my right hon. Friend offer the devolved Administration in Edinburgh to help reduce those times?

The advice would be to take the approach of England and Wales. As my hon. Friend says, the Scottish approach delays payment at the end of the assessment period, with 75% rather than 100% of money on time, due to the fortnightly payment.

The introduction of universal credit is not helping to keep 250 highly skilled HMRC staff working on tax credits in Dudley in work. They were told they would be transferring to the Secretary of State’s Department to work on universal credit. Last week, they were told that her Department has cancelled that, their office will close and they will be made redundant. Will she ensure that the transfer goes ahead as originally planned, so that my constituents can keep their jobs, and will she meet me to discuss it?

I will indeed meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that. Back in 2016, HMRC announced that move and transfer of jobs. It now seems that as many jobs were not needed for UC. I know that it wants to retain the staff and their skills and knowledge, but I will meet him to discuss the best way forward.

Does the Secretary of State agree that universal credit is helping all those people who are stuck in a situation where they are only paid to work 16 hours a week and that it is fairer to those employees, the other employees in those businesses and taxpayers, who end up supporting the bill?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The reason we are making this significant change from the legacy system is to ensure that every hour of work counts. We will not have a situation where people are stuck not working or paying punitive rates of income tax of 90% and above if they take work after 16 hours. This is cutting-edge technology. The UK is leading the way on flexible benefits that accompany flexible working, which nowhere else has.

May I welcome the Secretary of State to her position? Perhaps she might think to show a little more humility when answering some of these difficult questions on universal credit. Has she considered some of the other benefits that are not included in universal credit, such as free school meals, free uniforms, free bus passes and so on? Many low-paid working families will lose out on those benefits under universal credit, which will make them worse off in work than if they were still on benefits.

These are precisely the things that have been considered in bringing forward universal credit. What support are we giving? The extra childcare support. What is the extra support? Tailor-made career advice and support. We all need humility, but, equally, we all need to hand out and deliver the correct facts to people, not embellish them, resort to sound and fury or drama, or provide obviously incorrect information, as the UK Statistics Authority has levelled against the Labour party.

Last month, I visited Grimsby jobcentre, which serves my constituency, and it is very clear that the staff are handling the changeover to universal credit very efficiently. Will the Secretary of State join me in complimenting the staff, including the work they do in motivating claimants and improving their self-confidence so that they can seek employment?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I have actually met the tremendous work coaches in his constituency. I go out to speak to work coaches all the time, and they are saying to me that the change we are delivering through universal credit is the best thing they have ever delivered. The support they can give—[Interruption.] Rather than Opposition Members laughing, they would be well advised to come and join me or others in meeting work coaches. I will tell them how we know this is working: if it were not working, we would not have an extra 3.1 million people in work.

Contrary to the “SNP bad” broken record from the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark), will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the Scottish Government’s recently introduced flexibilities for universal credit payments, and will she consider implementing Scotland’s model down here, especially as her colleague in the Scottish Parliament, Adam Tomkins, has said he is “very much in favour” of them?

The underlying principle of how we get people into work is working right the way across the United Kingdom. It is working in Scotland, and that is correct. Equally, we agree with giving extra powers to devolved Governments, and Scotland has the right to do things in its own way. As we pointed out earlier, however, some of the changes taken on board in Scotland have actually resulted in slower payment to people who need their benefits.

Unemployment Rates: Europe

7. What recent comparative assessment she has made of rates of unemployment in the UK and other European countries. (903737)

The UK has the joint fifth lowest unemployment rate in the EU—better than France, the Netherlands and Denmark. The UK’s unemployment rate, at 4.3%, is the lowest in 42 years. It is less than half that of the euro area, which is 8.7%, and 3 percentage points below the EU28 average of 7.3%.

Unemployment in my constituency of Chelmsford is now less than 1.5%, and those who are able to work are finding jobs, but will the Secretary of State reassure my constituents who need our financial support that they will continue to be supported when universal credit is rolled out later this year?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work she is doing as a new MP, and her constituents on the work they are doing to find employment, getting on in their careers and moving forward. As I have said, this Government believe in hand-up support and opportunity. The support of universal credit—a benefit that supports people in and out of work—will continue not only for her constituents, but for people right across the country.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that of those who have gone into work as a result of this Government’s policies—and that is a good thing—many are living in poverty because of low pay and the inadequacy of our benefits system?

It is interesting how differently people measure getting into work, poverty and life chances. Children born into workless households are actually five times more likely to be in poverty than those in working households. Under this Government, we have seen 3.1 million more people in work, and the number of workless households has gone down by over 600,000. We are helping people out of poverty: we are helping them get a job.

Earlier the Secretary of State mentioned dodgy statistics from the Opposition. I have heard people say that lots of the new jobs created are on zero-hours contracts and for part-time work. Can she say what the actual figures are for the number of jobs created that are full-time, permanent jobs?

It was not me talking about dodgy statistics, it was the chair of the UK stats authority who said that, but I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. The overwhelming majority of jobs are full-time and permanent jobs, and the vast majority of those in part-time jobs have chosen to be in part-time jobs.

On job searching, has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to review the very helpful and generous offer made by Liverpool City Council to her predecessor to provide office space for closure-threatened jobcentres? There are two jobcentres in my constituency—not one, but two—that her Government wish to close, leaving my constituency with zero jobcentres. They are due to close in just a few weeks’ time. Has the Secretary of State had an opportunity to review that offer, to ensure that my constituents continue to receive employment support?

It is really important that everybody gets the support they need, and a lot of the support going forward will be outreach work, so that people do not need to go to Jobcentre Plus, thanks to further support in the community. Obviously I am pleased that in the Liverpool city area—and in the north-west area—which is my hometown, employment is now far higher than it was in 2010. The unemployment rate under the Labour party was 2.8 million in 2008, even before the banking crisis, but now it is 1.4 million, so we are supporting people and we will continue to support people, because that is what this Conservative Government do.

Universal Credit: Disabled People

8. What assessment she has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on the number of disabled people living in poverty. (903738)

I do not want to see anyone living in poverty, and no Conservative Member of Parliament wants people living in poverty. Disabled people are some of the biggest beneficiaries of universal credit, with around 1 million disabled households having on average around £110 a month more on universal credit than they would have had on the legacy benefits.

As disability charity Leonard Cheshire has pointed out, many disabled people do not have internet access, assistive technology or the necessary support to fill in the online form to apply for universal credit. Does the Minister agree that the application process needs to be more accessible, so that disabled people can easily apply for these benefits?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point about accessibility of the benefits system for everyone, which is something we all take very seriously. I am grateful for the support that the Leonard Cheshire foundation and a whole range of stakeholders give us in designing the process, to make sure that it is as accessible as possible.

Does the Minister agree that it is important that we are absolutely scrupulous in our presentation of the facts about universal credit? As the Secretary of State referred to earlier, I wrote to the UK Statistics Authority to query the shadow Secretary of State’s claim that

“40,000 children will wake up in poverty on Christmas Day because the Tories refuse to pause”

the roll-out of universal credit. On Friday, Sir David Norgrove told me:

“It is clearly important that statements by a political party should be fully supported by the statistics and sources on which they rely. We do not believe”—

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. He has got the thrust of his question across, and the House doubtless will be grateful to him, but this is not a debate; it is Question Time about the policies—

No, no, the hon. Gentleman has finished for today on this. This is about the policies of the Government. The Secretary of State has made the point about the Statistics Authority, which I allowed her to make, perfectly properly, but it is not now the occasion for dilation on the attitude of the Opposition. This is questions to Ministers about the policies of the Government. That is the situation. Minister, very briefly—please, do not dilate on that matter, because it is out of order.

It is very important that anybody who stands up in this Parliament takes their responsibilities towards the truth extremely seriously.

Some specialist employment services for people with disabilities such as drug, alcohol or mental health problems—for example, Agoriad in my constituency—are subcontracted to these small local agencies, but minus a management fee and with unsatisfactory remote control. Would not direct contact with these small local agencies provide more resources where they are needed, as well as better value for money and more people in work?

The hon. Gentleman raises the important issue of specialist providers of employment. This is a very important sector, which the Government have a proud tradition of supporting. I meet stakeholders regularly, and we are always looking to see what more we can do to help them sustainably provide the invaluable employment opportunities that they do.

Despite the Government’s claim that no severely disabled person moved on to universal credit would be worse off, we now know that that is not the case: scrapping the disability premiums will have just that effect. Transitional protection for existing claimants can easily be lost where there is a change in circumstance, such as if someone moves into work and if that job does not last. What assessment has the Minister carried out of the impact of abolishing these disability premiums on disabled people, and does she agree that transitional protection should be retained, so that it is not lost where there is a change in circumstance?

Unlike the previous system, universal credit is more targeted, and support is focused on those who need it most. Transitional protection is available for people who move into universal credit from other benefits, provided their circumstances stay the same. When giving evidence to the Select Committee last week, my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment said that he was aware of the situation, and he is thinking carefully about this issue.

Universal Credit: Household Debt

9. What recent assessment her Department has made of trends in the average level of household debt for people on universal credit. (903739)

The Government have taken a number of steps to reduce the risk of problem debt, including capping payday lending costs and promoting savings.

Within universal credit, we also have interest-free advances and a system of priority deductions to help claimants who have got into arrears.

The Government’s own data shows that rising numbers on universal credit are falling into rent arrears, and many claimants in my constituency are going to food banks or approaching payday lenders. Although an advance is available, this is a loan, which is to be repaid at 40% of the standard allowance. Another 40% can be deducted to repay creditors—for example, utilities. That is a total of 80%. Can the Minister reassure me that 80% of the individual allowance cannot be deducted, and that affordability checks, like those that all payday lenders have to do, are carried out before any deductions are actioned?

Of course the hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight that we want to make sure we help those who are in arrears. She will know that research done by the National Federation of ALMOs—arm’s length management organisations—has reported that three quarters of tenants were in rent arrears already before they moved into universal credit. She talks about deductions; the percentage is 40%. However, I am happy to meet her to discuss this matter further.

It is a genuine pleasure to welcome the Minister to his place and, through him, to thank his Parliamentary Private Secretary for arranging a visit for me to see universal credit working in his constituency this Friday. Further to the question, will my hon. Friend outline the steps being taken to ensure that organisations on the ground help vulnerable people access 100% of universal credit advances rather than get into debt?

Yes, I can confirm that work coaches and those who perform the interviews at jobcentres make people aware that they can access 100% advances, which are of course interest free, as I said. The other aspect that is available is personal budgeting support, which individuals who need it can also receive.

Older Workers

Since 2010, 1,272 new jobs have been created in South Basildon and East Thurrock—an increase due in no small part to my hon. Friend’s efforts. He will be aware that older worker employment levels are at a record high. In his region, 850,000 50 to 64-year-olds are in employment—an increase of over 120,000 people since 2010—and 120,000 people aged 65 and over are in employment. Again, that is another increase of 45,000 since 2010.

Does my hon. Friend agree that encouraging businesses to be flexible in how they employ older workers is one way to bridge the skills gap and keep older workers in the employment market for longer, sharing their experience and knowledge?

My hon. Friend is correct. The fuller working lives strategy, launched by the Department last year, is there specifically to support over-50s into employment and provide them with the skills and retraining that they need, and which businesses specifically value. There are a number of exemplar businesses. He will also be aware that individual people have created over 26,000 new businesses since 2011—that is for the over-50s.

Many older workers are not necessarily there by choice. I think in particular of the WASPI women, who are having to work because of the inadequacies of their pension provision. What are the Government going to do about this?

The Government have no intention of revising the Pension Acts of 1995, 2007 or 2011 introduced by previous Governments and by the coalition, but I make the point very strongly that average employment among the over-50s and the over-64s has increased dramatically since 2010.

Universal Credit

Universal credit transforms the welfare state and the rollout is proceeding to plan, with universal credit now available in one third of all jobcentres in Great Britain.

Easterhouse Housing and Regeneration Alliance is a coalition of eight independent housing associations that has been based in my constituency and operating for pretty much my entire lifetime. It has profound concerns about the rollout of universal credit in Glasgow. Given that the Government have given a lot of commitment to go and meet various people on their Benches today, will the Minister come to my constituency to meet it and listen to its concerns?

When we have rolled out universal credit, we have done it in a manner that makes sense and works. Right now, 9% of those who will eventually end up on universal credit are on universal credit, and it will reach 11% by June this year. I am, of course, undertaking a whole range of visits to jobcentres across the country. I will make sure that I make a visit to Scotland, and we can have a discussion about whether there is an opportunity to visit the hon. Gentleman as well.

A terminally ill man has won the right to raise a landmark challenge to the Government after the introduction of universal credit left him significantly worse off. Having already acted unlawfully to 1.6 million PIP claimants at a cost to taxpayers of £3.7 billion, does the Minister guarantee that his Government will not be found guilty of unfairly treating the terminally ill?

I want to be absolutely clear: the changes that we are making in universal credit and in the benefit system are there to focus on protecting the most vulnerable. That is the underlying policy of universal credit and we will continue to do that.

Has the Minister had any discussions with colleagues in the Department for Education about their proposals for the eligibility of universal credit claimants to free school meals? If the current proposal were to go ahead, it would introduce a huge new benefit trap into the system, far worse than anything in the old system. Universal credit was supposed to remove such traps, not create new ones.

Currently, 1.1 million young people—students—receive free school meals. If the policy that has been put forward as part of the consultation goes ahead—where there is an earnings threshold of £7,400—an additional 50,000 young people will benefit from free school meals.

Universal Credit: Child Poverty

13. If she will make an estimate of the number of children who will no longer be living in poverty as a result of the roll-out of universal credit. (903744)

15. If she will make an estimate of the number of children who will no longer be living in poverty as a result of the roll-out of universal credit. (903747)

Both hon. Ladies are right to recognise the role that welfare reform is playing in alleviating child poverty. Work is the best route out of poverty, and universal credit strengthens the incentives for parents to move into and progress in work. However, it cannot be considered in isolation: it is a key component of a broader strategy to move Britain to a higher wage, lower welfare and lower tax society.

Owing to policies pursued since 2010, we now have 20,700 children in poverty across Hull, and food poverty and holiday hunger are growing, including, despite what the Secretary of State says, in working families. Will restricting free school meals in universal credit create a cliff edge and make the situation even more dire in the most disadvantaged communities?

Undoubtedly, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, children are five times more likely to be in poverty if they are in a workless household. The Government’s entire thrust is to get as many people into work as possible, and we would never contemplate anything that would get in the way of those kinds of incentives. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment said, nobody will lose out under the current proposals on free school meals; in fact, there might well be more recipients in the future.

Figures published last month show that 27% of children in my constituency live in low-income households—and these are families who rely on universal credit. Does the Minister believe that it is acceptable that families living in poverty in Lincoln have to rely on food banks, particularly when due to problems with the roll-out of universal credit?

I am sure that the hon. Lady, like me, welcomes the 43% fall in the claimant count in her constituency over the past few years—[Hon. Members: “That wasn’t the question.”] On her question, as she and many Members will know, the causes and drivers of people going to food banks are complex. [Interruption.] In my constituency, for example, the food bank was established in 2006—at the height of Labour’s conduct of the economy and welfare system—but the Department needs to think carefully about some of these issues, and we will be doing so in the future.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to his place. Does he agree that, on the important subject of children living in poverty and universal credit, it is important to have a sensible, grown-up discussion and debate, rather than bandying around unqualified figures?

My hon. Friend makes a strong point, and he is absolutely right. National statistics, on a number of measures, have shown child poverty falling. In particular, we have seen 200,000 children over the past few years move out of absolute poverty.

For too long, parents have been able to hide their earnings from their child maintenance payment calculations, creating and adding to child poverty. What action are the Government taking to stop this?

As my hon. Friend knows, the child maintenance system was put in place to enable greater co-operation between parents, on the basis that that often results in a much better outcome for children, but there are parents who fail to do that, and for those circumstances, we have invested significantly in the financial investigations unit of the Child Maintenance Service. We will be consulting further on what more we can do to strengthen our enforcement powers.

I welcome the Minister to his place. When the benefit freeze was introduced in April 2016, inflation stood at 0.3%; it is now over 3%, and food prices in December were over 4% higher than a year earlier. A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that one in four of Britain’s poorest households are struggling with problem debt, and new figures from the End Child Poverty coalition show that in some parts of Britain, such as Bethnal Green and Bow in London and Ladywood in Birmingham, over half of children are living in poverty. Their families are no longer just about managing. Will the Government end the social security freeze that is pushing families into poverty?

I would advise the hon. Lady to be slightly careful about the statistics she is using. As we heard earlier, there are some particular problems, but in that report in particular there were enormous caveats saying that the measures were not accurate and the numbers not necessarily reliable, particularly on a constituency basis. The Government are committed to a strategy to tackle poverty that involves work, and since 2010 we have 954,000 fewer households in unemployment and moved into work. That is the best thing we can do for their futures.

Disability Confident Scheme

20. What progress her Department has made on the implementation of the disability confident scheme. (903753)

There are 5,550 employers currently signed up to the disability confident scheme. The disability confident business leaders group, comprising prominent national businesses, is promoting the scheme to other employers, and all main Departments have now achieved disability confident leader status. I encourage all hon. Members to come along to a drop-in centre I have organised on Wednesday 21 February, 3 pm to 5 pm, in Portcullis House, Room Q, so that they too can become disability confident employers.

It is always useful to have a little bit of additional information, and we are deeply obliged to the Minister.

Last year, I attended a disability confident workshop in my constituency, where unemployment now stands at an all-time low of 1%. Also present were representatives of the DWP and the local council, as well as local employers, many of whom signed up to the scheme immediately. Will my hon. Friend give further feedback on the national roll-out of a programme that encourages employers to take advantage of keen, loyal staff who are disabled?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his local support for the disability confident scheme. I urge all Members to become involved in these wonderful events, where we see hundreds of people signing up to the scheme. It is important for us to continue to build on the constructive and positive feedback that we receive from employers by giving them practical support, so that they can employ more disabled people.

I recently visited the excellent Oak Wood School in my constituency, whose leaders are working hard to get talented young people with special needs into work and work placements when they finish school. Will my hon. Friend, like me, encourage employers in my area to join the disability confident scheme, so that we can give opportunities to those young people, and not just give them hope for the future, but provide the labour market with a number of people who will be able to bring a vast amount of experience and difference to our workplaces?

I was very pleased to hear about the important work being done by Oak Wood School. Last year, more than 500 young people took part in supported internships, and this year the Department for Education has made available just under £10 million of additional funding, which will provide more work placements, particularly for young people with special educational needs. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is vital for us to ensure that more of those young people are given the opportunity to work.

I am grateful to the Minister. I am sure that Members will have an opportunity to pore over her comprehensive reply by moving speedily to the Library, where copies will, I am sure, be located within minutes.

Topical Questions

We had a record-breaking 2017 for employment, and I am delighted to see the trend continue as we enter the new year. The proportion of people in work is at an all-time high at 75.3%—so 32.2 million people are now in work, 415,000 more than were working last year. Figures also show that there are a record 810,000 vacancies in the economy at any one time, which proves that the Government are delivering on our promise to build a strong economy.

No child in modern Britain should grow up in poverty, but figures from both the End Child Poverty coalition and the Secretary of State’s own Department reveal that we face a growing crisis. Does she seriously believe that ploughing ahead with universal credit will do anything to help the millions of children who are trapped in avoidable poverty in our country or will bring that number down?

One thing on which both of us will agree—on which, indeed, Members in all parts of the House will agree—is that no child should be growing up in poverty. If we take action to ensure that families are working, those children will not be in poverty. We know for certain that if a child’s family are working, that child is much less likely to be in poverty when it grows up and is more likely to attain higher school qualifications. That is the action that this Conservative Government are taking.

T3. Ryedale citizen’s advice bureau has seen a significant drop in the number of universal credit problem cases as a result of the measures introduced by my right hon. Friend and her predecessor, but we are seeing instances of advance payments being used to clear debts. What help and advice is being given to claimants in respect of budgeting and support, so that they can clear problem debts sensibly and sustainably? (903723)

Through universal credit, we are providing personal budgeting support, which is available through conversations with work coaches. That is making a great difference to those who need such help.

Front Benchers will have to be very brief, because we are running short of time on account of the length of questions and answers. A pithy sentence, or whatever, will suffice.

What is the Secretary of State’s response to the report from the European Committee of Social Rights that said statutory sick pay and support for those seeking work or the self-employed is “manifestly inadequate” and therefore in breach of the legally binding European social charter?

I am happy to have a discussion with the hon. Gentleman on this point. All the policies we have put forward are based on being as fair as we can be to all recipients.

T7. We have heard a lot today about universal credit, and making it work properly will depend to a great extent on DWP staff. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the staff in Sittingbourne and Sheerness jobcentres, who are showing immense dedication and enthusiasm to ensure that benefit claimants in my constituency are not adversely affected by the roll-out of UC? (903728)

Of course I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the staff at Sittingbourne and Sheerness jobcentres. When I have spoken to work coaches in the visits I have made, they are incredibly enthused: they tell me this is the first time they are able to do what they want to do, which is help people into work.

The behaviour of Philip Green on BHS pensions was outrageous; likewise, Carillion paying dividends and big bonuses, while running up a £900 million pensions deficit. We expect better from our universities; does the Secretary of State agree that it cannot be right that they are proposing to cut the pension benefits of staff just when one vice-chancellor alone at Edinburgh university has accepted a 33% salary hike as part of a package worth £410,000?

With respect, this is not a matter for Government to respond on. The joint negotiating committee, which is made up of trustees, employers and unions, is responsible for approving an appropriate recovery plan to ensure the scheme is adequately funded. The universities are subject to regular assessment of their overall financial sustainability management and governance, and I am sure the Pensions Regulator will therefore be watching this situation.

Developing a theme from this side of the House, I had the pleasure of visiting my local jobcentre on Friday. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the hard-working staff who are delivering record levels of employment in my constituency?

Absolutely: I congratulate the staff in my hon. Friend’s jobcentre, and by the end of the process of rolling out UC, we will have 5,000 extra work coaches across the country.

T2. About 20,000 people in Liverpool have had their personal independence payments cut due to the blatantly discriminatory regulations that the Secretary of State has now accepted were unlawful. When will my constituents get their money back and their entitlement returned? (903722)

The first decision I made was to make sure we did not appeal that question about PIP and what we on this side of the House were going to do to live up to the expectations of PIP, and I think it is a very true, honourable and correct thing that we have done. However, to make sure we deliver it correctly and give the correct amount of money to the people who need it, it will take time for us to thoroughly research what needs to be done.

The attractiveness to many of the two-weekly payments of UC are obvious, but does my right hon. Friend share my concerns that the Scottish Government’s decision to offer this to my constituents and other people across Scotland will leave those who choose it to be worse off than claimants in the rest of the UK?

It is absolutely the case that under the Scottish system individuals will be at a cash-flow disadvantage after a number of weeks. I would point out that, of course, alternative payments are available in England, too.

T4. Following last December’s High Court ruling, can the Secretary of State tell me by what date all 1.6 million PIP claims will have been reviewed: will it take weeks, months or even years? (903724)

This reviewing will be an administrative process, so we will not need to see the people, but what is most important is that the right people get the right amount of money, and that will take the time it needs.

We had a very interesting session on assistive technology in the Select Committee on Work and Pensions recently. Will the Government commit to looking at how assistive technology can be used to help more disabled people into work?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I really welcome the work that the Select Committee is doing. I believe that the fourth industrial revolution has the most enormous potential to transform the lives of disabled people, and of course I will read that report thoroughly.

T5. My constituent Mrs Allinson suffers from multiple sclerosis. She has been receiving the personal independence payment for 24 months, but was recently reassessed and denied it on the ground that she can work, although only part time. Given that she is no longer getting that money, she is working full time and damaging her health. Do the Government recognise that disabled people need support to stay in work for as long as possible? Will the Minister meet me and ensure that Mrs Allinson’s case is reviewed? (903725)

Of course I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the case of her constituent. Let us be clear that we want to achieve the maximum amount of support for people who want to and can get into work as well as ensuring that the right support is available for those who cannot do so.

The Child Support Agency was set up to pursue absent fathers who were not paying anything at all towards their children’s upkeep. Too often, the Child Maintenance Service seems to file those people under “too difficult” and just pursue people who are already paying. Can the Minister guarantee that the Child Maintenance Service will continue to go after people who are not paying anything at all towards the upkeep of their children, rather than just pursuing those who are already making a contribution?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that that will indeed be the case, and we will shortly be consulting on what more we can do to enforce against those who are unwilling to support their children.

T6. One of the challenges in the design of universal credit is that it does not take into account the fluctuating incomes of people who are freelance. They can earn a low amount one month and a high amount the next, but universal credit does not manage that properly. A self-employed person who has earned £15,000 in a year will get less under universal credit than an employed person who has earned the same amount. Will the Government commit to fixing that anomaly? (903726)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, universal credit works on a monthly basis. When someone earns a large amount in a month, we apportion that over the following months. It is worth pointing out that it is entirely possible for people with those kinds of earnings to budget over the year, just as many businesses do.

The GKN takeover proposal announced last Thursday seeks to pay a £1.4 billion sweetener to shareholders, despite a £2 billion pension deficit. Does the Minister agree that the Government should act to protect the interests of GKN pension fund members?

Of course the Government agree that we have to look after the concerns of the GKN workers. Here we have actually seen the trustees of the pension fund coming out, being bold and wanting reassurance from the other company that it can indeed pay for the pension scheme. We can look at the argument from two sides. GKN has to be strong and robust, but also Melrose should voluntarily ask the regulator to look into the implied costs in that benefit scheme to make sure that it can afford to take over the other company.

T8. On 14 December last year, I asked the Minister not to ignore the voices of the 7,000 women in my constituency who are affected by state pension inequality, because we are not going away. Is the Department now any closer to paying us what we are due? (903729)

The position has not changed. The Government do not intend to change the Pensions Act 1995, or the 2007 and 2011 Pensions Acts. I would point out that a £1.1 billion transitional arrangement was put forward in the 2011 statute.

Some 70% of the rise in UK employment involves higher-skilled jobs. This is true in Wiltshire, which expects more than 2,500 jobs from Dyson alone. What work is the Minister doing with other Departments to tackle the science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills gap in the UK, so that Wiltshire can benefit from those jobs?

I have started to have conversations with ministerial colleagues, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to work as one Government to ensure that high-skilled jobs are created across our country.

Given the significant rise in household debt and the fear that payday lenders will seek to take advantage of that situation, is not this the right time to seek a significant expansion of credit unions across the UK? What might the Minister do to facilitate such an expansion?

The hon. Gentleman and I have a meeting in our diaries for, I believe, a week Monday, when I hope to expand on that specific point. He will know that credit union membership has doubled in the past 10 years, and I can assure him that we are discussing these matters with the Treasury, which has ultimate control over credit unions.

I am a mathematician and a mother, so I am concerned that the head of the UK Statistics Authority had to write to a shadow Minister to point out that statements that they made were not based on real sources or real statistics. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the shadow Minister should apologise?

My hon. Friend puts it so eloquently. It is about time that Opposition Members apologise for their scaremongering.

Even mothers and mathematicians have to respect the method, and the method in the House is that Members question Ministers about the Government’s policies. I do not blame the Secretary of State for taking the opportunity to ram home her point with force and alacrity, but Members must understand that this is not Question Time about the policies, tactics or preferences of the Opposition; this is Question Time about the policies of the Government. Even if there is some Whip handout saying, “Ask the Minister about the behaviour of the Labour party,” that does not make it in order. It is not in order—end of subject.

T9. Thousands of women born in the 1950s are being left in serious hardship as a result of accelerated changes to the state pension age, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) said, they are crying out for justice. In the week when we celebrate the centenary of the first women gaining the right to vote, how dare this Government ignore their voices? (903730)

The hon. Lady will know that the policy continued for 13 years under the Labour Government, and her Government could have done something about it between 1997 and 2010, but she maintained that it was the right policy. This Government continues to maintain that it was the right policy, and if individuals require assistance, the Government give over £50 billion to the disabled on an ongoing basis.

I am going back and forth, so the hon. Gentleman can have another go. In fairness to colleagues who have not asked questions, a short sentence—one, that is—will suffice.

Seven thousand employees are now signed up, and 900 employers are doing the right thing and are providing auto-enrolment to my hon. Friend’s constituents.

Later, we will debate benefit uprating, which will maintain a freeze on many key working-age benefits even while the consumer price index sits at 3%. We all know that the freeze is pushing people into crisis, so will the Minister take this opportunity to lift the freeze to ease claimants’ suffering—yes or no?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the freeze was enacted in primary legislation, and we would need a vote of the whole House to change it. I am afraid that it forms part of a general suite of welfare reforms that have driven an enormous number of people into work and out of poverty.

Will a Minister look at how universal credit is paid into credit unions? My local credit union is raising real concerns about the DWP’s efficiency and organisation in doing so.

I am happy to take representations from the right hon. Gentleman, and I will look at that point with my colleagues who handle universal credit.

Bearing in mind the Secretary of State’s call for clear statistics, will she welcome today’s Library paper, which clarifies that 113,000 children will cease to receive free school meals under the proposed changes to universal credit, withdraw the claim that 50,000 more children will benefit at one point in time and bring that to the attention of the House?

A consultation is taking place, and the Department for Education will respond to it. Everyone who is currently on universal credit will have that benefit protected as long as the children remain in that education setting.

Order. I am advised that we have had 23 topical questions, and we must now move on. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues who have waited. I try to extend the envelope a bit, but the time comes when we must move on.

Further to the comments made by the Secretary of State during oral questions, Mr Speaker, I seek your guidance on how I can place my response on the record. I agree it is important for everyone to use data responsibly and to provide the sources and contexts of those data, but I will take no lessons from this Secretary of State or her cohort, who accuse us of scaremongering as a way to distract from the reality of their Government’s cuts. We know what happened last time they accused Opposition Members of scare- mongering about the impact of cuts and universal credit: the Government introduced £1.5 billion of measures. Our concerns were accurate and well founded, and the Child Poverty Action Group found that cuts to universal credit will force 1 million more children into poverty.

The shadow Secretary of State has found her own salvation. She asks me, I think rhetorically, how she can put her thoughts on the record, and she knows perfectly well that she has just done so through the device of a purported—I use the term advisedly—point of order. One day somebody will do an academic analysis. I have not done so myself, but, in my experience in the House, at least 90% of points of order are bogus. The hon. Lady has made her point.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you clarify whether or not that was an apology from the shadow Secretary of State? It was not entirely clear.

I think not. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is gesticulating at me in a mildly appealing fashion, but she has made her points with considerable force and requires no further opportunity now.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I will lay the letter from the UK Statistics Authority in the Library, so that other people can read it.

That is a perfectly reasonable course of action for the Secretary of State to take, but it is not a point of order. It might be called a point of information that some colleagues will find helpful.

Is the right hon. Gentleman seeking to raise a point of order, or is he stretching his legs? [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) says he is keeping himself awake.