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Topical Questions

Volume 649: debated on Monday 19 November 2018

Three days in, and I know that the Department for Work and Pensions is a force for good. It helps people in need, helps people into work and out of poverty, and gives support at the end of their lives. This is what we want for our families, our friends and our neighbours. This is the country we are; this is who we are. It is good that employment has risen to record levels of 75%, as stated just recently.

But I know that there are problems with universal credit, despite its good intentions. I have seen them for myself. I will be listening and learning from the expert groups in this area that do such good work. I know it can be better. I will make it my role to ensure that we deliver that through our discussions within the DWP and through discussions with the Treasury. We will have a fair, compassionate and efficient benefits system.

I thank the new Secretary of State for that response and add my congratulations to her on her return to the Front Bench. In her new role, will she, unlike her predecessor who was described by the UN rapporteur as

“almost entirely dismissive of criticisms of welfare changes and universal credit,”

take seriously his report on poverty in the UK and heed his calls for changes to the universal credit system?

The rapporteur does no credit to his report by making personal comments about the former Secretary of State in this Department, who did a fantastic job. Having said that, I have already acknowledged that we can make changes to the UC system: despite the tremendous good that it does, I know that there are problems with it and we will be focusing on fixing them.

T3. A constituent of mine who is currently claiming the personal independence payment has been told that she will need to undergo reassessment just one month before she is migrated on to the state pension. She is concerned that this will cost more than the amount she will get for that extra month; is this process correct, and what will happen when she gets her state pension? (907682)

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that really good question. People who qualify for PIP before retirement age are able then to carry on claiming PIP, so long as they are eligible, into retirement. That is in addition to pension or any other benefits to which they are eligible.

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said in his report that the rising level of child poverty is not just a disgrace but is a

“social calamity and an economic disaster”,

and that Government policies are locking millions of children

“into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping.”

According to Joseph Rowntree Foundation research published today, the current freeze on working-age benefits is the single biggest driver behind rising child poverty levels. Will the new Secretary of State end the benefits freeze and make tackling child poverty the priority it should be once again?

Of course, tackling all poverty is a priority for the Department for Work and Pensions, and we know that the best way out of poverty is to make sure people get into work. But more than that, we know that a strong economy will deliver the higher paid jobs, and that is what this Government are going to focus on, and we will listen and engage with non-governmental organisations and others to make sure we can deliver that.

T6. May I also say how nice it is to see the Secretary of State back on the Front Bench? Will she look at improving access to universal credit for those leaving prison, so that those who have left prison will not face delays in getting money in their pocket and thus be driven back into a cycle of crime? (907685)

My hon. Friend is being very active in this area, and it is a key priority for us that access to support is available from day one. We have 137 work coaches in prisons to help prepare for UC claims, and we now have three pilots—in Norwich, Wayland and Belmarsh prisons—to make sure we can test the difference that completing UC claims will make. This is a real priority.

We have always known that austerity is a political choice, but now, thanks to Philip Alston, we know that poverty is also this Government’s political choice as we consider his findings into areas like the near-£5 billion benefit freeze cut next year, the 1950s women who have been impoverished by pension changes, and targeting children with austerity via the two-child limit. What different choices can we expect from this new Secretary of State?

I have to say that I think the hon. Gentleman’s comments are outrageous. It is in no way our intention to do any of the things he set out in that way. The purpose of this Department—[Interruption.] It is what the hon. Gentleman said, and I think I have made my views on the UN rapporteur absolutely clear. The hon. Gentleman need only listen to what we are saying and actually look at the evidence—look at the evidence of people getting back into work, of people getting higher paid jobs. The political choice that we are making on the Government Benches is for a stronger economy to deliver the jobs that are wanted by his constituents and mine.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post and suggest she pays attention to what the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said a bit earlier, because that is very important in terms of cash flow and the position facing people coming on to universal credit? The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), made some welcome points in response to that question, but we need to build on that for the future and also build on the work my right hon. Friend’s predecessor did in this respect.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and he is absolutely right: I am well aware of the need to ensure that people have access to those cash benefits as soon as possible. We have already made some adjustments to that, and I will do all I can to ensure that we do better.

T5. My constituent Natalie Tingle works hard in her job and as a student, but is £400 a month worse off after switching to universal credit and losing child tax credit. She now gets just £12 a month, as her student loan is counted as income, and she is getting into debt. Will the Minister investigate her circumstances and find a way to help? (907684)

T9. I am very grateful to Crawley DWP staff, who successfully helped with the transition to universal credit in June. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the support available to claimants who are transferring? (907688)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work with the jobcentre in Crawley to ensure that claimants get the best benefits. We have had some changes from the Budget, as he will be aware, and will bring forward more details of regulations to help to deliver those outcomes as soon as possible.

T8. May I also welcome the Secretary of State to her post on the Front Bench? In the past I have mentioned the problem of the lack of online access in the remotest parts of my constituency, but in addition there is the problem of people in my constituency who cannot, as we say in the highlands, work a computer. They do not have the skills. What is going to be done to address that issue? (907687)

Yes, it is a very important point and one that we are well aware of. We cannot assume that everybody can, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, work a computer. We have made provision in the arrangements to ensure that people can have access and that job coaches can work with people remotely via telephone and also engage in their communities, perhaps in different places from the jobcentre. However, I will keep a careful eye on this issue to ensure that we are delivering a truly comprehensive service, so that everybody, whether they can work a computer or not, can access it.

May I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her position and wish her every success? She will know that youth unemployment has fallen by half since 2010, so does she agree that ours is the party of opportunity and the party for young people?

Let me take the opportunity again to thank my right hon. Friend for the extraordinary work that she did in this Department, particularly on the Disability Confident campaign, but also on encouraging women into work. She is a particular champion of women and social mobility, so yes, I agree with her: it is this party that is the party of opportunity.

T10. I have received a letter from a constituent who is a universal credit caseworker. She describes overworked staff looking after so many cases that people receive payments only when they complain. Will the Minister respond to this whistleblower’s allegation of chaos? (907689)

If the hon. Gentleman has a particular case to raise, I am happy to discuss it, but I should say that I and my colleagues go up and down the country to jobcentres, and I am afraid that the characterisation that he described is not the one we find. We find work coaches who are really enthusiastic about delivering universal credit and supporting people on a one-to-one basis. When it comes to payments, 80% of people get their full payment on time for the first assessment period and 90% will be receiving at least part-payment, but of course we require information to be provided to us—for instance about childcare or other costs—before we can make those payments.

I have sat here patiently through questions, and there have been lots of congratulations from across the House, particularly to the Secretary of State and the previous Secretary of State, quite rightly, but the people who should be congratulated are those in jobcentres and those who have got the jobs. In my constituency of Hemel Hempstead, which is a new town—it is 70 years old, but we are a new town—we have the lowest unemployment ever. In 2010 it was 2,460; it is now 820. Those people should be congratulated.

I thank my right hon. Friend for pointing out the real benefits seen over the past few years and how important it is that the system helps individuals into work. It is the people who have got the new jobs who need the congratulations, but also the work coaches, who for the first time provide a personal service to ensure that every individual is helped into work.

Professor Philip Alston talks about things that those of us who choose to see them see in our constituencies every time we are back there. The new Secretary of State comes into a Department where her Ministers are on autopilot, denying the real, lived experiences of my constituents. Instead of showing the signs of Stockholm syndrome, why does she not give us a break from the past and not misrepresent reports, but actually listen to the UN special rapporteur?

The fact that I think that the UN rapporteur’s report is wrong does not mean that we do not listen to other reports and experts in the area. The hon. Gentleman does not seem interested in the facts surrounding the success of the scheme. We can hold these two things in our heads: overall, UC is being successful and work is at record levels—these are good things—while also acknowledging that there are not insignificant areas that need changing and addressing. We can do both those things.

In Morecambe, we have had universal credit for the past two years; we were one of the very first places where it was rolled out. It is a success. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on going from the Back Benches to the Front Bench again, and I invite her to Morecambe to see Gary Knowles and his fantastic team, to hear from them at first hand how they are making universal credit a success in Morecambe.

I thank my hon. Friend for his invitation, and I would be delighted to take him up on it. I encourage all colleagues from across the House to take the opportunity, if they have not done so yet, to go into jobcentres and speak to the work coaches, who will show them how the system works and how this personal approach is so different from what has happened in the past and so much more constructive for individuals.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) has perambulated within the Chamber, but there is no dishonour in that.

In advance of the imminent urgent question, I want to say that universal credit is due to be imposed on the north of my constituency just before Christmas. I wrote to the Secretary of State’s predecessor twice asking for it to be delayed, if only until the new year. Will the new Secretary of State please look favourably on this request?

We are not stopping, ceasing or pausing the system, but we always make sure that we change it where it needs to be changed, to ensure that it operates in people’s best interests.

I am delighted to welcome the new Secretary of State to her place, and I thank the old Secretary of State—[Hon. Members: “Former!”] My apologies—I thank the former Secretary of State for all she did, not least in acquiring the additional money for universal credit. I am delighted to say that we now have record disability employment in this country. Will the Minister confirm that the Department will continue to work on giving assistive technology to disabled people to help them to find work?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question about a really important matter. It is great to see the use of the tech fund in access to work. We are always working on this, and on Wednesday we should have a really good announcement to make on expenditure through the challenge fund, which will enable even further use of technology to support people into work.

In congratulating the new Secretary of State, may I commend to her the “Panorama” programme that was filmed in my constituency last week? It showed chaos in the universal credit system, poverty and people being evicted, as well as landlords not accepting that the system worked in their interest. Will she watch that programme and report to me on its contents?

I am always grateful for suggestions of programmes to watch. I will try to do so, but I cannot promise to report to the right hon. Gentleman, as he requires.

Youth unemployment is at record lows; more women are in work; and we have the lowest unemployment rate in this country since the 1970s, with unemployment down by more than half from 2010 in Corby and east Northamptonshire. What role does my right hon. Friend believe universal credit has played specifically in delivering that success?

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding the House of the tremendous benefits of universal credit and the tremendous advantages of an economy that is growing and providing so much new work for our constituents. Yes, of course universal credit has an important part to play in delivering those advances.

In March, I wrote to the DWP regarding a systematic error in the housing element of universal credit that was incorrectly deducting £70 from claims. I was assured that the fault was known and the fix was on its way, but eight months later my constituents are still having their money taken. When will the Government sort out this mess?

If the hon. Lady would like to have a discussion about this case, I will of course look into it. Quite a lot of the time, I find that when Opposition colleagues raise issues, they do not always follow up with the individual cases. I hope that on this occasion, she will do so.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, not for the first time and assuredly, I predict, not for the last. Demand massively outstrips supply, but time is our enemy and we must now move on.

The point of order will come after the urgent question. [Interruption.] I hope that it is not a point of argument or of advocacy, but a point of order requiring an authoritative ruling from the Chair. I am sure the hon. Lady is an honest seeker after truth.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Although I was very disappointed with the dismissive response from the Secretary of State and Ministers to the UN rapporteur’s report on poverty in the UK, it was nothing compared with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on “The Andrew Marr Show” yesterday in response to a question regarding the report and the dire circumstances faced by Emily Lydon. Emily is brain damaged, following her mother contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease when she was pregnant. She is being forced to sell her home as a result of transferring on to universal credit. The hon. Gentleman absolutely dismissed her plight, and he brought shame not only on the Government, but on this House by the type of remarks he made. Have you had any indication that he will be making an apology to Emily and to this House? If not, how can I take this further?

The short answer is: no, I have received no such indication of any plan on the part of the Minister or any other Minister to make a statement on that matter. However, the hon. Lady, using the parliamentary guile she has nurtured over a period of years in this place, has registered, with some force, her—and possibly others’— concerns, to which I feel sure, through parliamentary means, she will return before long. If there are no further points of order flowing from questions, or purporting to flow from questions, we come now to the urgent question.