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Topical Questions

Volume 656: debated on Monday 18 March 2019

Today I can announce that this Conservative Government will deliver on their promise to legislate to create a new type of pension scheme: collective defined- contribution schemes. These schemes will help improve retirement outcomes for members, while also benefiting employers. Savers’ contributions are paid into a pooled fund, which is invested to achieve a target benefit. At retirement, savers receive a regular pension income. This is a major promise delivered. It shows this Government are meeting their objective to protect private pensions and provide security for hard-working savers in retirement.

I thank my right hon. Friend for updating us on her Department. Will she comment on how the Government are helping young people in my constituency into work?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important matter, and I thank him particularly for the great work he does in his constituency for young people. I have looked into this, and there are many different initiatives taking place in his constituency, but I particularly commend the Prince’s Trust, which does such great work across country, and which attends the jobcentre fortnightly to provide targeted support for 18 to 24-year-olds.

Shocking reports have emerged today that ill and disabled people are being left without vital social security, as the Department for Work and Pensions has sent misleading letters to GPs advising them that they no longer need to provide fit for work notes to patients who are refused employment and support allowance. Patients need those notes to access the assessment rate of ESA if they are appealing the decision, and this obviously results in many being left close to destitution and in rent arrears. Will the Secretary of State commit today to reword these letters and immediately prevent any further harm to any ill and disabled people?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to set the record straight. These letters simply inform GPs when a claimant has been found fit for work, and are not intended to dissuade them from issuing fit notes for ESA appeal purposes. To claim otherwise is inaccurate. We are committed to ensuring our communication is clear, which is why the wording of this letter was cleared by both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners. However, we will of course consider feedback when revising the letter.

T7. Several constituents have arrived at the disability assessment centre in Coventry only to find that they are not able to access their appointment because the centre is on the first floor. Will my right hon. Friend look at this issue to see what more can be done to make sure all these assessment centres are on public transport routes and are completely accessible to disabled people? (909860)

Of course. My hon. Friend is right. I will take a careful look at that issue to ensure that is the case. We care enormously about making sure there is correct access for disabled people. If I may say so, nobody cared more than my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), who did such great work for everybody with disabilities and who will be sorely missed in the Department.

My SNP colleagues and I have been seeing a growing number of constituents who are EU and European economic area nationals and who were previously entitled to social security payments but who are now seeing their universal credit claims rejected because they have failed the habitual residence test. Can the Minister tell me categorically whether DWP guidance has been issued or changed on this matter, and whether this is just an extension of the hostile environment?

The hon. Lady may have written to me about this previously, but let me just make it clear that the right of EEA nationals under freedom of movement is not an unqualified one. EEA nationals who stay in the UK beyond the initial three months must be exercising treaty rights, and this means they must be working, studying, self-employed or self-sufficient.

A mother in my constituency is struggling due to a lack of financial support from the father of her children. The woman’s ex-partner is not in work, but he gets considerable income from several properties he owns. However, that income is not considered by the Child Maintenance Service when calculating maintenance for his children. What can the Minister do to make sure the Child Maintenance Service focuses on not only salaries but other forms of income?

I will be very happy to look personally into this case and to report back. Actually, we do have powers to investigate further—these powers were opposed by the Labour party in January. We believe that everything should be done to help the receiving parent get the support they are entitled to.

T2. Like many WASPI women, my constituents Jane Yates and Glenys Daly have worked hard for 45 years and still cannot get the pensions for which they have paid. They feel robbed of their hard-earned money, not to mention the loss of benefits such as the winter fuel allowance and bus passes. The Secretary of State often talks about her support for the economic empowerment of women. When will she give WASPI women the pensions that they have paid for? (909855)

The Government will not be revisiting the state pension age arrangements for women born in the 1950s who are affected by the Pensions Act 1995, the 2007 Act, introduced by the Labour Government, or the 2011 Act, introduced by the coalition. A High Court ruling on this matter will proceed to a full hearing on 5 and 6 June, so further comment would be inappropriate.

Is my right hon. Friend’s Department holding up the transfer of welfare powers to the Scottish Government?

Absolutely not. We work closely with the Scottish Government to ensure that their proposals, which sometimes differ from ours, are met, and we are bending over backwards to ensure that we assist them. We are still waiting to receive further information so that we can deliver on their ambitions.

T4. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I did not quite hear you at first. In the west midlands, workers involved in the administration of universal credit recently voted to strike over an oppressive workplace culture and understaffing. Does the Minister believe that the roll-out of universal credit has been affected by understaffing, and is there an oppressive workplace culture coming from the top? (909857)

Our frontline staff deliver vital support to more than 20 million people across the country, and of course we are committed to supporting them in their roles. That includes monitoring staff levels and ensuring that their caseloads are indeed manageable.

T5. When Bright Blue surveyed claimants for its new universal credit report, it found that the five-week wait was their biggest concern. According to the report: “Only a handful of interviewees said they had enough…to cover their expenses in this period.”The Secretary of State cannot justify the five-week wait. Will she scrap it? (909858)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are introducing measures to help people gain early access to money so that that eventuality does not occur. They can receive benefit advances of up to 100%, which 60% now access, and can access the housing benefits run-on, which is additional money, and, from next year, other legacy benefits, which are also additional money and which will be paid within that two-week period.

T6. Council tax payers in the highlands are continuing to bear the burden of additional administration expenses amounting to many hundreds of thousands of pounds as a result of universal credit. The Minister met me in January, and his officials have subsequently met council officers. The situation is clearly unfair. When will it be sorted out, and the money reimbursed? (909859)

I thought that we had a constructive discussion. As the hon. Gentleman says, my officials have also talked to the council, but I am always happy to have another discussion. I should add that the total amount of new burdens funding is increasing from £14 million to £18 million in 2019-20.

T8. Disability Direct, an advocacy organisation in my constituency, has a staggering 89% success rate at tribunals where its clients appeal against judgments on employment and support allowance and personal independence payments. Do Ministers really not accept that when they are losing nearly 90% of the time, their system is not working? (909861)

That, of course, applies to 4% of the overall decisions that are made. However, I acknowledge that we need to do better, for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and those of the rest of us. That is why I have already announced that we will look again at the mandatory reconsiderations to ensure that fewer people proceed to the necessary tribunal reviews.

T9. Given that 72% of PIP assessments are overturned, and that, as we have heard, many of those who are assessed are vulnerable or have learning disabilities, what support is available to them when they are faced with highly paid DWP lawyers at legal tribunals? (909862)

I have just answered that question, in terms of making sure that we do better and that the mandatory reconsiderations will have additional support to ensure that a greater proportion of those reviews do not have to go forward and so are not overturned.

George Osborne said in his 2015 summer Budget that the welfare system should always support the elderly and the vulnerable. Does the Secretary of State agree? If so, why are we seeing stealth cuts to pension credit for mixed-age couples—a loss of £7,320 to some of our poorest and most vulnerable pensioners?

These changes were introduced in the Welfare Reform Act 2012. We have always made it clear that mixed-age couples already claiming pension credit or housing benefit for pensioners immediately before 15 May will not be affected for as long as they remain in receipt of either benefit after that date. Just to be clear, there is no impact or effect on their state pension.

Were the Secretary of State to get a tax rebate she would be very surprised if she was taxed on it, but my constituent saw an abatement by 63%. Will the Department sort out the reductions to universal credit when people get tax rebates?

I am very happy to look at the individual case the hon. Lady raises, but, as she knows, under UC we have a taper that works: it incentivises people to take on extra hours because they get to keep more of the money that they earn.

Like the Secretary of State, I will miss the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton); she was working with me on my Access to Welfare (Terminal Illness Definition) Bill—a critical Bill at a time when the Scottish Government are consulting on new standards for clinicians to decide when someone is terminally ill. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the Bill and move it forward?

I am aware of the good work that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth was doing with the hon. Lady; I am aware of the campaign and how important it is, and I will be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to see how we can move it forward.

My constituent received a UC sanction for accompanying her younger sister, who has severe cerebral palsy and for whom my constituent cares, to an appointment at the children’s hospice at Loch Lomond. Surely that is an inhumane way to treat young carers under the UC system.

I am very happy to look at the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raises. Of course, he will be aware that easements are available in the system, but I will be very happy to talk to him about that specific case.

My constituent has a connective tissue disorder that has left her bedbound for three months because she regularly dislocates her joints. Despite evidence from her GP and chiropractor, the Centre for Disability and Health Assessments has refused a home assessment because she takes taxis to her GP appointments. Does the Secretary of State think that decision is fair? If not, will she look into it to overturn it?

It sounds to me like the hon. Lady’s constituent should have had a home visit, but I hope that the hon. Lady will have received the email I sent out inviting Members of Parliament to an open hour that I am having tomorrow so that they can bring any individual cases. Sometimes it is best to have a one-to-one over individual cases, rather than deal with them on the Floor of the House.

I would like to press the Secretary of State further on the assurances she gave to the Opposition Front Benchers. As part of the review, will she be prepared to ensure that the original wording is reinstated so that claimants are not left without benefits while appeals are pending?

I am always willing to look at new ideas on how to improve the offer we have, and I will certainly take a look at what the hon. Lady sends to me.