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Topical Questions

Volume 654: debated on Monday 11 February 2019

Today I am delighted to confirm that 10 million workers have now been automatically enrolled into a workplace pension. Since 2012 this policy has been transforming savings culture. The increase in pension uptake has been particularly marked in younger workers, women and those on low earnings. For many, a private workplace pension was once a pipe dream. Thanks to the action we have taken, it is now a reality. Today I am also bringing forward plans to strengthen the Pensions Regulator to protect final salary pensions, including a new prison sentence of up to seven years in certain circumstances. These measures show that the Government are on the side of workers saving for retirement and that we will protect their incomes from the reckless behaviour of a small number of unscrupulous bosses.

I have many female constituents who are self-employed or on zero-hours contracts. They do not have a set regular monthly wage, yet the DWP insists on a four-week assessment period to assess their earnings and determine their benefits. Those women are being forced into hardship by sudden cuts to their benefit payment and a lengthy appeals process, which can take up to three to four months. Why can the DWP not recognise the situation that those on fluctuating incomes are put in and revise its guidelines accordingly?

I hope the women the hon. Lady refers to are engaging with their work coaches, who try to provide a tailored service to enable individuals to realise how much better supported they are under this system. I would also point out that female employment is at a record high—jobs and support are out there. With the help of work coaches, we want to ensure that the women she refers to do not just get the average jobs they may start on, but have a real opportunity to develop careers.

T6. I join the Secretary of State in welcoming the fantastic news that 10 million people are involved in auto-enrolment. Could she tell us a little bit more about the measures the Government will be taking to enable them to increase their savings once they are in auto-enrolment? (909136)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his support. In his constituency, 21,000 people and 4,290 employers are now auto-enrolled. It is working well in his constituency. In April, we will increase the amount of contribution from employers.

Social security sanctions can be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of claimants, and, in extreme cases, push people into destitution. The Government’s response to the Work and Pensions Committee report was shocking. Apparently, they are only prepared to consider increasing the length of sanctions, not reducing them. What has happened to the concept of compassion? Will the Secretary of State end the Government’s cruel and counterproductive sanctions regime?

I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s description. I have been around jobcentres. I always make a point of speaking to work coaches, asking them about the way they impose sanctions and when. They always say to me that it is a last resort only done after a series of engagements. This is a personal choice that work coaches make. They have a lot of discretion and in my experience they are using it correctly.

T8. How will the Government ensure that the roll-out of universal credit continues to support the benefits of being in work, while providing the required flexibility for people who are often moving through life-changing circumstances as we support them back into the workplace? (909138)

I am happy to say that that is exactly the aim of universal credit: to ensure that it helps people while they are in work, gives them the additional funds they may need, and ensures that the taper rate, the amount of tax they pay as they move into more employment or a higher level of pay, does not adversely affect their ambitions and their ability to earn more.

The Government are about to enact an element of policy passed seven years, two Parliaments and two Governments ago without a debate or a vote. Mixed-age pensioner couples are set to lose £7,000 from their household income if the changes to pension credit go ahead. Surely, with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation saying that 300,000 more pensioners are in poverty now compared to 2012, the Secretary of State must seek a new mandate from this House for these cuts and have a debate and a vote?

The reality is that the absolute poverty rate for pensioners has fallen to a record low, with over 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty before housing costs. The state pension has also increased by over £1,000 in cash terms since 2010 by reason of the triple lock, as well as many other reasons.

T9. Will the Minister explain how today’s announcement will deter reckless bosses from mismanaging pensions? (909139)

My hon. Friend’s constituents in Southport will be reassured that the Government are cracking down on the mismanagement of existing defined benefit pensions, so that his constituents can ensure they get the pensions they deserve and have saved for.

T2. European Union citizens who have worked in this country primarily through agencies are at risk of failing the habitual residence test although they have lived here for many years, because their employment might not have been continuous. Will the Minister meet me to outline what protections are available for those EU citizens? (909132)

Yes, of course I will meet the hon. Lady. As she knows, there are set criteria in place before people are able to claim benefits or universal credit, but I am of course very happy to meet her.

T10. Last week, I was interviewed on Bolton FM—[Interruption.] Last week, I was interviewed on Bolton FM by a group of young carers who make an immense contribution, but who are concerned about the level of support they receive. Will my right hon. Friend outline what support is available? (909140)

I am sure that it was a fantastic interview, which we will all be looking to hear in the archives online. As set out in the earlier questions, we are doing a huge amount to support care leavers. I am very grateful for the support of charities such as the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s, who are helping to shape that. Only last week, I met a group of care leavers from the Big House charity in London, who were able to give me their personal wish list of things that we can do. We will continue to work with care leavers, charities and support organisations so that they can have the maximum opportunities, which many take for granted.

It is always pleasing to see a happy Member. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) is convulsed with mirth. She is in a state of almost uncontrollable hysteria. Well, I hope she is very happy. I do not know what it is that has amused her, but it is good to know that she is a happy spirit in the Chamber.

T3. Oxford & District Action on Child Poverty recently met me to discuss the devastating impact of the two-child limit on working families in Oxford. It said, “You literally could not have designed a better policy to increase child poverty than this one,” with estimates suggesting that over a quarter of a million children will be pushed into poverty as a result. Will the Minister listen and not just tweak, but scrap this punitive policy in its entirety? (909133)

This was a policy that was introduced and voted on in the House in 2012. It is right that some people who are paid very low wages and are paying taxes should not have to pay for other people to make different life choices that they feel they cannot afford. The hon. Lady is probably aware—I hope she is—that we changed the retrospective nature of that policy to ensure that families who were already in existence before 2012 were not adversely affected by it. I think that is the right balance.

The House will know that the Government are doing more than ever to support people with disabilities in the workplace. Will the Minister tell us what is currently being done to safeguard the dignity of long-term sufferers on employment and support allowance and universal credit?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Safeguarding the dignity and wellbeing of people with the most severe lifelong conditions is of paramount importance. A number of Members have raised cases with me where people were receiving the highest levels of support, including in personal independence payment, and they were then reassessed as not needing any support. I was very concerned to hear about that, so I am now ensuring that DWP decision makers review all such cases to make sure that we get the right support to the right people at the right time.

T4. The three-year benefit freeze, on top of three years of capped increases, has caused financial hardship for too many and for too long. Surely enough is enough, and the benefit freeze must be brought to an end in the forthcoming financial year. (909134)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s approach to this, but I must remind him of the terrible financial inheritance that we took on, which required belt-tightening, from which we are now getting some of the benefit. I also point out to him that now wages are rising faster than inflation, this is a significant change for people in receipt of it.

A constituent of mine, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, works part time in a catering assistant role, which she began as a volunteer. However, last April, she was informed that the entire year of ESA would be reclaimed due to a mistake in the reporting of her hours and salary. Does my right hon. Friend agree that claimants can often be vulnerable to errors, and would she agree to meet me to discuss this very difficult case?

Of course, I will meet my hon. Friend to ensure that the right decisions have been made, but I would point out that she has drawn attention to one of the benefits of universal credit: a monthly assessment allows a much more accurate payment to be made to individual applicants.

T5. The Minister referred earlier to record levels of employment, but is it not a fact that this is only because the Tories are running a slave economy, with 4 million people on bogus self-employment, zero-hours contracts and agency work, waiting to know whether they are going to be working from one day to the next? (909135)

As I was able to say earlier, only under 2.5% are on zero-hours contracts. The facts do not support the hon. Gentleman’s approach. He can have his own views; he cannot have his own facts.

Additional cold weather payments are paid over the winter months when average ambient temperatures fall below zero degrees for a period of seven days. It is a welcome measure, particularly in Scotland, but may I ask my hon. Friend, on behalf of my constituents around the Banff and Buchan coast, if wind chill factor could be taken into consideration in any future review?

My hon. Friend has been campaigning hard on this issue, which is important to his constituents, and, following the fantastic private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), we have committed to carrying out a full review, working with the Met Office, so that we can get more detailed assessments of where cold weather payments are needed, using technology such as satellites, technology on ships, buoys, and so on.

T7. Will the Government commit to footing the bill for free TV licences for over-75s if the BBC decides it cannot afford to continue funding them? (909137)

I certainly hope that that does not come forward, but I think this is the responsibility of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to put that question to its Secretary of State.

Some people are paid four-weekly, not monthly, so one month of the year, they will get two payments. Will the Minister ensure that universal credit can cope adequately with this situation?

As my hon. Friend knows, we discussed this in an earlier question. Of course, the key thing is to get support to people, and where they have two payments in one assessment period and none in the following period, they should expect to receive their full universal credit payment.

Does the Secretary of State think that, if the regulator had the power to commit to prison for seven years individuals who wilfully or recklessly mishandle a pension scheme, Sir Philip Green would now be in prison?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the extraordinary work he did that has led in part to our announcement that there will now be prison sentences for people who commit the sort of criminal activity we have seen. I cannot be drawn on that individual case, unfortunately, but I believe we will see a different regime going forward.

We have now had 10 consecutive months of real growth in wages. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this is the strongest real-terms wage growth in this country for 10 years?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing attention to that fact. It is good news for people who are earning and people living on lower incomes, and I certainly hope that it continues.

Many people across the House will have been shocked by the pictures of my constituent Stephen Smith, who has a progressive lung disease and was hospitalised at 6 stone. He had repeated failed appeals and tribunals, and the Liverpool CASA, his advocate, said:

“We were unable to solicit any reply from the DWP”.

He was readmitted to hospital because he was so unwell, and it was only after I intervened that the DWP overturned its decision, but it should never have got to that. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that no one in our country faces such an injustice in seeking the support they are entitled to and deserve?

I share the hon. Lady’s indignation. We have apologised to Mr Smith and his ESA payment has been repaid and reinstated in full. I will take a personal interest in ensuring that, where errors were made, they are corrected.

Under our benefits system, serious or terminally ill students have to abandon their courses to claim benefits. It is wrong for us to be telling students to give up on the hope of getting better and to abandon their courses just to claim benefits. We have to put this right.

I thank my hon. Friend for his campaign. I share his view that we need to take action. We are developing policy and I will make sure that he is the first to know what action we do take.

Turning back to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), does the Secretary of State not share the outrage of many people that her Department is pushing through cuts to pension credit with no legislative procedure? Will the Government bring the statutory instrument to the House for debate so that Parliament can discuss this enormous cut to low-income pensioners and the double whammy to many women born in the 1950s?

This year, we continue to spend more than £120 billion on benefits for pensioners, including £97 billion on the state pension, which goes up. Mixed-aged couples already claiming pension credit or housing benefit for pensioners will continue to receive those benefits and will not be affected while they remain entitled to either.

On 2 November, my constituent won his ESA appeal—the DWP did not even bother to attend—but three months on, it is still arguing about whether he should get the full back pay. At what point did the Department become above the law?

Something has clearly gone amiss, and I should be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and see what we can do to sort it out as soon as possible.

I recently met a group of people who, despite having severe and unstable epilepsy, had been denied benefits. The questions asked by the assessors appeared to be completely irrelevant to their condition. For instance, one assessor’s report referred to a person’s complexion. How does the Department intend to ensure that assessors are appropriately trained to deal with different conditions?

I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to go through the report. I assure the House that healthcare professionals are thoroughly trained and often work with leading national charities that represent people, including those with epilepsy, but of course there is always more we can do, and I should be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that.

I am told that many PIP claimants in Coventry with severe mental illnesses are being forced to attend medical assessments miles away in Birmingham. The assessors are rarely mental health professionals, and many of them fail to understand the complexities and fluctuating nature of the claimants’ conditions. Will the Minister commit herself to ensuring that Coventry claimants are assessed in Coventry and that all assessors are appropriately qualified?

Let me reassure the hon. Lady. People with severe conditions, including severe mental health conditions, can have home assessments; and many more people are benefiting from PIP than benefited from the legacy benefit, disability living allowance.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but demand exceeds supply, and we must now move on.