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Topical Questions

Volume 635: debated on Monday 5 February 2018

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.