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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.