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Topical Questions

Volume 638: debated on Monday 26 March 2018

We are pleased with the progress we have made on the roll-out of universal credit, which is now live in 250 jobcentres. Universal credit is a modern, flexible benefit that helps people move into work and, importantly, progress in work through tailored support from dedicated work coaches.

The Department is always quick to act in cases of overpayment and sanction claimants for any breach of rules, yet an investigation by the National Audit Office revealed that the Department has underpaid an estimated 70,000 people over the last seven years. What will the Department do to ensure that those who have been left out of pocket are repaid the money they are entitled to as soon as possible?

When we have, or if we have ever, underpaid people, we will support them, make sure that it is correct and pay them back.

T4. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the new support for mortgage interest scheme has been specifically designed to maintain people in their homes and that none of my constituents should be concerned about the day-to-day payments on their mortgages? (904575)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, not least because we are approaching the deadline for the switchover of SMI from a benefit to a loan. He is absolutely right—this change is specifically designed to keep people in their homes. I urge people to ignore the scare stories being put around, look at the paperwork, take the phone call that has been made and ensure they make a good decision in time.

Had the Secretary of State read the full article that she refers to on Channel 4’s FactCheck, she would have seen that it said that our numbers were in fact correct.

Well, it did. I recommend that the Secretary of State rereads it.

In less than two weeks’ time, support for mortgage interest will change from a benefit to a loan. Government figures released on Friday show that, even at this late stage, the DWP has still not managed to contact 40% of claimants by phone to explain the change, and 30% of all claimants have already declined a loan. A large proportion of claimants are pensioners, and Age UK is warning that many may instead try to manage by cutting back on essentials such as heating. Why have the Government failed to give claimants adequate notice, and will they call a halt to this policy, which risks inflicting hardship on thousands?

We have been communicating the changeover with approaching 500,000 pieces of paper since last July, and well over 350,000 telephone calls have been made to the something like 90,000 people in receipt of this benefit. There are specific provisions, post the changeover, to deal with people who perhaps attempt to manage on their own and feel that they cannot do so in that, post the deadline, they can reapply for support and backdate it to 6 April if they so wish.

T8. The Government have done a lot to help pensioners, but far too many still suffer from poverty, particularly older pensioners. What more will the Government do to help that particular group? (904579)

My hon. Friend is right: we now pay £1,000 more in the basic state pension than in 2010. For those in employment, 23,000 people in his constituency have a private pension due to auto-enrolment. Pensioner poverty of itself has fallen dramatically, but I am happy to take this up and to discuss it with him in more detail.

I wish the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) a happy birthday on Thursday, which will be an important day in the life of the hon. Gentleman and I am sure of the people of Tewkesbury.

T3. What equality impact assessment have the Government and the Secretary of State made of the emotional and psychological impact on the women subject to the two child cap and the rape clause and, further, on the DWP workers who have to implement it? Does she agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who has fought so valiantly on this issue, that forcing women to relive abuse in an interview is an utterly disgusting and abhorrent policy? (904574)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. She will know—I was asked this question in a Westminster Hall debate last week—that we have attempted to deal with this issue with some sensitivity. The undertaking I have given to her hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central is that if she believes there are particular issues with the system in place for dealing with this, we are more than happy to look at them. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady as well to discuss it.

Will my hon. Friend give an example of a policy that has been strengthened, or indeed dropped, as a result of being subject to the family test?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and one with which I have been grappling since I was appointed to this position. He will know that a number of programmes across the Government are aimed at strengthening families, not least the troubled families programme, which has seen an investment of something like £982 million. On new initiatives, he may have heard me mention in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) that we are investing—newly announced in the Budget last year—£39 million in a programme designed to reduce parental conflict. That has been done on the basis of looking for parenting programmes that will create more stability and therefore happier outcomes for families.

T5. Thanks to the beast from the east, a lot more people now understand that how cold they feel has more to do with wind chill than with ambient temperature. Why do the Government not take wind chill into account when triggering cold weather payments? (904576)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, triggering cold weather payments is done on the basis of absolute temperature: it has to fall below 0 °C for a length of time. I must confess that, as someone who is married to a Canadian, I know only too well the effects of wind chill and the significant difference it makes. If he will allow me, I will take away that issue and have a look at it.

I welcome the comments from my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work about getting more people with disabilities into work. Given that there are 650 potential employers in this House, what more can be done to improve disability employment in the House and in our offices around the country?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work and his campaigning on this issue. He is himself a Disability Confident employer, as are all Work and Pensions Ministers. Some 70 Members of Parliament have now taken this step, and I really encourage all those who have not done so to come along to one of our excellent Disability Confident events so that they will have the confidence to employ people with disabilities and health conditions.

T7. When I was a child in receipt of free school meals, the majority of my peers growing up in poverty were in workless households. That is no longer the situation: today, the majority have one parent in work. Will the Secretary of State explain why? (904578)

You can’t have it that we are not helping enough people and then, on the other hand, that we are. What we have said is that this has always been for people who were not in work or those on low incomes. What we have done is slightly raise the threshold, and now more children who need free school meals are getting them. That is something that this Conservative Government are doing. I would also like to welcome the rise in employment in the last quarter in the south-west area and the hon. Gentleman’s seat by another 48,000 people. That is more people in work who can help their children.

Does my hon. Friend agree that young people with disabilities should have access to work experience while they are still at school? Will she join me in visiting Walsall College students on supported internships?

My colleague is a fantastic champion for his constituency, and he is absolutely right: every young person should have that opportunity of work experience. I will be delighted to visit Walsall College with him to see the excellent work on supported work experience.

T9. Despite the Secretary of State’s assurances to the contrary, we have heard time and again in this place about the problems with universal credit, which will roll out across Paisley and Renfrewshire North in September. The SNP Renfrewshire Council has set aside £800,000 to mitigate the worst elements of UC. Does the Secretary of State think that it is local government’s responsibility to plug gaps in her Government’s failed welfare reform? (904580)

In Scotland we have seen a rise of 207,000 people in employment. This is what universal credit is doing too: making sure people are in work, and making sure they are in work quickly. We are sorting them, and work coaches are supporting them. We have given Scotland the flexibility to do additional work on the ground.

Auto-enrolment has been a great success, but does my hon. Friend agree that we need to do more to encourage the self-employed into it? What steps is he considering in that regard?

Myself and my opposite number, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), were extraordinarily trendy: we were at a hackathon this morning, which is taking place over two days in Hoxton. The Government are working very hard to make sure that the self-employed have the benefits of auto-enrolment.

T10. My constituent, Emily Johnson, having worked all her adult life, gave birth to a baby daughter in December. Because she moved into an in-work training programme in September, she has been denied maternity pay and maternity allowance. Because her husband is self-employed, universal credit assumes he earns enough to support all three of them, although this is demonstrably not the case. Why is a woman who has paid into the benefits system all her adult life denied any support at this time? (904581)

The hon. Lady raises what sounds like quite a complicated case in terms of entitlement. If she would like, I am more than happy to arrange for a meeting in the Department to make sure that her constituent is getting the help and support that she needs.

I am trying to help colleagues, but I would ask colleagues to help each other. A short sentence each would suffice, and then you are not denying somebody else the chance.

On Saturday, I was delighted to launch a new bus route from Ilkeston to East Midlands airport, through Long Eaton and Sandiacre, which will undoubtedly open up more opportunities in terms of the many vacancies in the logistics hubs at the airport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that transport providers and employers working together will really make sure that my constituents have every job opportunity?

It has always been about everybody working together. This Government, and this Department in particular, want to make sure that we step outside the silos and work across Departments and that work coaches stand outside what they need to do to make sure that they are reaching into people’s lives to help them progress.

What is the Minister going to do about employers such as the one in my constituency who sacked a lot of young people without paying them the wages they were owed, with the result that one of them—a pregnant woman—ate nothing but Smash for three weeks?

The best thing the hon. Lady could do is give us the name of that employer so that we can see what he has done and what he is doing, because this Government will not stand by any bad employer. We want to help workers and make employers do the right thing.

We often hear from Opposition Members that all the new jobs created are zero-hours contract jobs. Given their track record on accurate information, will the Secretary of State set out what proportion of workers are on zero-hours contracts and how many new jobs are actually full-time jobs?

Zero-hours contracts or flexible contracts—whichever way people want to see them—are at 2.8%. This year, over 90% of jobs are permanent. From 2010, there have been 75% permanent and full-time jobs. Most of those this year are professional.

A number of childminders in my constituency are reporting problems with late payment from their customers who are in receipt of universal credit, partly because of the waiting time for the first payment and partly because of bureaucratic requirements. Will the Secretary of State or one of her colleagues meet me to discuss this pressure on childminders?

We would be happy to meet the hon. Lady, who does so much in this area. What I will say, however, is that I do not understand why Opposition Members voted against advance payments up to 100%, why they voted against the two-week home payment and why they voted against the extra support we are giving.

On Friday, I met a number of Corby employers who were all raving about the apprenticeship route. What steps is the Department taking to promote apprenticeships to jobseekers?

Apprenticeships are a great opportunity for people of all ages. I am particularly keen to support the new measures the Government have brought in to make it much easier for people with disabilities to get an apprenticeship and make progress in work.

The abolition of support for mortgage interest has been characterised by the poor provision of information to vulnerable claimants with learning disabilities and a very low take-up of the new loan scheme. Will the Secretary of State cancel the abolition of SMIs, or at the very least delay it while these issues can be resolved?

We will not be cancelling or delaying, but we are of course sensitive to vulnerable claimants, in particular those who lack mental capacity and may need assistance or representation when dealing with their financial affairs. There is a separate process for enabling their transfer across and they will not be subject to the deadline. Indeed, our contractor, who is making contact with recipients thus far, has people who are specifically trained to identify those who may have become incapacitated or vulnerable during their receipt of the benefit to make sure they too are not subject to the current deadline.

Does the Minister agree that everyone should have the opportunity to travel? Is she as disgusted as I am by the recent case of Frank Gardner, who was left stuck on a plane at Heathrow for two hours because the airport had lost his wheelchair?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for her constituency and she is absolutely right to raise this case. Today, I have already written to the managing director of Heathrow airport. I will be working with my wonderful sector champion, Michael Connolly from Birmingham airport, to bring the industry together with airports to make sure we deal with this issue in the strongest possible terms so that disabled people can absolutely have access to air travel.

Before we come to the urgent question I should advise the House that there is a prime ministerial statement to follow and a heavily subscribed debate. Exceptionally, therefore, I am not looking to run exchanges on the UQ very fully. There will be a brief opportunity to contribute. It will be an initial airing in the Chamber of this issue. Please do not be disappointed if you do not get in today. There are other pressing demands on parliamentary time.