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Work and Pensions

Volume 656: debated on Monday 18 March 2019

The Secretary of State was asked—

Welfare Support

1. What comparative assessment her Department has made of the levels of financial support available through (a) universal credit and (b) the legacy system. (909829)

3. What comparative assessment her Department has made of the levels of financial support available through (a) universal credit and (b) the legacy system. (909831)

23. What comparative assessment her Department has made of the levels of financial support available through (a) universal credit and (b) the legacy system. (909851)

When fully rolled out, universal credit will be £2 billion per year more generous than the support it replaces. As a single system that integrates six legacy benefits, universal credit will enable 700,000 households to access approximately £2.4 billion of welfare that previously went unclaimed. Our welfare reforms are about targeting support at those who need it most.

At the Budget, additional funds, which are to come into effect in the new financial year, were allocated to pay for work allowances,. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on when those work allowances will come in, how much they will be, and how much extra the working people in my constituency who receive universal credit can expect to receive each week?

My hon. Friend is right that an extra £1.7 billion a year will be put into work allowances to increase them by £1,000 from April 2019. That will provide a boost to the incomes of the lowest paid that will result in 2.4 million families keeping an extra £630 per year of what they earn.

It is not just the financial support that is key, but the support provided by jobcentres in getting people work-ready. One of my constituents was languishing on benefits for a decade with no interventions. Now, under universal credit, she is being helped and supported to become job-ready. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we continue this approach, and that we reach out and support the work coaches in jobcentres?

I thank my hon. Friend and near parliamentary neighbour for pointing out the excellent work done by work coaches. The defining difference between universal credit and the legacy benefits that it replaces is that tailored, personal approach, which really helps individuals to get back into work.

What support is being given, through not only universal credit but schemes such as Access to Work, to those who experience mental ill health?

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out this important element of universal credit. We are determined to make sure that universal credit really supports the most vulnerable. We are piloting a new scheme in Milton Keynes in which people with mental health difficulties are given an early referral to make sure that their needs are dealt with early on, so that they can be given the appropriate, personal, supportive care that they need.

The five-week wait for universal credit assumed that everybody would have their last month’s pay cheque in the bank, but reality is not like that. Most claimants have to take an advance—a debt to the Department—the repayment of which often forces people to use food banks, as the Secretary of State has rightly acknowledged, or go into rent arrears. Will she scrap the five-week delay?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue; we have addressed concerns about the five-week wait by putting in additional measures. One measure now in place relates to the receipt of legacy housing benefit over two weeks. All universal credit applicants can get an advance, and we now find that 60% of applicants take up that opportunity. That obviates the need for concerns about the early amount of cash that people get.

I spent most of Saturday collecting a third of a tonne of food for our local food banks as part of our Winter of Compassion campaign. It is already clear that we will have to run such food-bank collections all year round. When will the Secretary of State join us in Birmingham to help collect the food needed to end the hunger that her policies are causing?

I totally reject the right hon. Gentleman’s assumption and comments. The issue with food banks is partly that the early roll-out of universal credit had some difficulties. We now know that 85% of applications for universal credit are paid on time and, as I said in answer to an earlier question, 60% of people get advances. I hope that that combination will enable people to access the cash that they need straight away.

Despite the recent funding, the levels of work allowances have still not recovered from the cruel cuts made to them back in 2015. Does the Secretary of State recognise that although the principle of simplicity behind universal credit is a good one, if universal credit is to have credibility, it needs to be funded properly?

It is because universal credit needs to be funded properly that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has, since 2016, put another £10 billion into different areas of it, to ensure that it does what it sets out to do, which is support the most vulnerable and help others into work.

The UK Government have removed the higher rates in universal credit for lone parents under 25. In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), the Minister for Employment had the audacity to claim that under-25s have lower living costs, and that

“this reflects the lower wages that younger workers typically receive”

as a result of state-sanctioned age discrimination, including through this Government. Will the Secretary of State tell me in what way it costs a 24-year-old less to be a single parent than it costs a 26-year-old?

I point out to the hon. Lady that we have made available more childcare that is both better and lower-cost. A person can now have 85% of their childcare costs paid under universal credit. We have also made sure, as I said in a recent announcement, that work coaches have the wherewithal, through the flexible support grant, to give that money to people who need it early on in the process.

Ministers may like to claim that nobody will be worse off on universal credit, but people transferring through natural migration get no protection against loss of income, even though they may just have moved home. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what the Government will do to ensure that nobody is left worse off?

I ask the hon. Gentleman to engage with the change that is universal credit. People were left to languish on previous legacy benefits, and were not helped into work at all. We now have a system where the money is focused on trying to help people into work. That is why we have seen the changes with the work allowance, and why we have seen additional support from the Chancellor. It is a different system from that point of view.

Universal Credit

2. What steps she has taken to ensure that universal credit is tailored to individual claimants’ needs. (909830)

12. What steps she has taken to ensure that universal credit is tailored to individual claimants’ needs. (909840)

Under universal credit, our work coaches provide vital one-to-one support to all claimants. Work coaches receive appropriate training to ensure that they can offer support to claimant groups with a variety of characteristics.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Will he say what support he is giving to people in my constituency to help them back into work?

I thank my hon. Friend and her parliamentary office for engaging with their local jobcentre in Stockport. I know that she has visited it and seen the one-to-one support provided. She asked for a specific example; in the past week, Stockport jobcentre has been working with claimants to prepare them for a sector-based work academy opportunity with the NHS, which will lead to 20 guaranteed interviews.

I have seen the positive effect that the roll-out of universal credit has had in the jobcentres in both Boston and Skegness, but it remains the case that some applicants’ assessment is overturned on appeal. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to get this right first time more often, and can he tell me what he is doing to make that happen?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He will know that earlier this month, the Secretary of State announced a range of measures to better support people with disabilities and health conditions, which of course included exploring whether we can improve the mandatory reconsideration process to reduce the volumes of cases going to appeal.

When I last read the claimant commitment, it was like a prison manual. The duties were all on the claimants’ side, with none on the Department’s. Will the Minister meet me and community groups that have designed a fairer commitment, in which there are duties on the Department to make a success of universal credit, as well as duties on claimants?

Of course I am always happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman. I would say, though, that claimant commitments are agreed with claimants. It is work that is done together; that is what is important.

15. In 2015-16 in Wales, 22,000 households were eligible for homelessness assistance. In 2017, universal credit was introduced. By the time the roll-out finished in 2018, the figure was 28,000—a 30% increase. Will the Minister acknowledge the harm that universal credit has done in promoting homelessness in Wales? What immediate help can he give to those people who are suffering? (909843)

The hon. Gentleman will know that, across Government, we have a strategy to tackle homelessness. He will also know that we have introduced measures such as the landlord portal, so that payments for rent can be paid directly to social landlords, and that, just a few weeks ago in January, the Secretary of State announced a further change that will allow rents to be paid to private landlords much more easily. We are keen to make sure that this works for everyone.

I thank my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for both coming to my Harlow jobcentre to see how universal credit works in practice. May I ask the Minister specifically what he is doing to help single parents who are moving on to universal credit?

My right hon. Friend is a huge champion for his constituents. He is extremely well regarded in the jobcentre, interacting with constituents and indeed with those working there. The Secretary of State has already referred to the fact that, from 1 April, we will be increasing work allowances by £1,000.

Four single mothers won a legal challenge against the Department for Work and Pensions in January because their universal credit payments did not take into account the way in which their incomes changed from month to month, yet the Government decided to apply for permission to appeal. This was turned down, with the judge saying that the way in which the Secretary of State had interpreted and applied the legislation

“was not only wrong as a matter of language, it produces absurd results”.

Why did the Government choose to spend public money seeking to appeal the original decision, and what are they going to do now to address this grotesque injustice?

As the hon. Lady will know, we are considering this case, so it would not be appropriate to comment at this stage.

Universal Credit: Disabled People

4. What assessment her Department has made of the financial effect of universal credit on disabled people. (909832)

20. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the introduction of universal credit on disabled people. (909848)

More people who are severely disabled will receive higher payments under universal credit. This means that around 1 million disabled households will gain on average around £100 more per month on universal credit than on legacy benefits. The universal credit rate for the most disabled people is up to £328.32, which is up from the employment and support allowance level of £163.15.

I have a constituent with a severe brain injury who applied for universal credit in August 2018 and immediately lost his severe disability premium. Since then, he has lost over £1,500 in benefits. What are the Government doing to ensure that extremely vulnerable claimants who have lost their severe disability premium are given the back payments to which they are entitled?

If the hon. Lady writes to me personally, I will ensure that officials sit down with her and go through what seems to be a very difficult case. I have suffered from a brain injury, so I know the difficulties involved. The hon. Lady will be aware that the transitional payment and the gateway are available for those receiving the severe disability premium, and that these elements provide protection long-term. Over 1,200 staff are working to ensure that repayments are made.

Our experience in Sheffield is that many people with learning disabilities cannot manage digital applications and are not easily granted access to non-digital routes, and that others who start on digital applications with support, but struggle once they are on their own, are not allowed to return to non-digital routes. Will the Minister therefore agree to assess demand for non-digital applications, and to publish clear guidance for jobcentres to make it easier for people with learning disabilities to be granted access to non-digital claims?

It is a pleasure to answer this question, because both the hon. Gentleman, who is a friend of mine, and I have suffered from the disabling effects of brain tumour. The House will be aware that this is Brain Tumour Awareness Month and that it is Wear A Hat Day on Friday. I will ensure that the points he raises are addressed. He will be aware of the help to claim service, which is already in existence, and of the work that we are doing with Citizens Advice, which will come up to speed in April. A great deal of effort is also going into home visits for vulnerable claimants. However, he raises a legitimate point that we will most definitely look into.

The Employment Minister will recall the case of my constituent Ben Seaman, who received a payment following underpayment of ESA; his parent was concerned that as a result, he would be unable to receive ESA in future. I am very grateful for the letter that the Secretary of State has written to me, which arrived today. Will the Minister confirm that those transferring from ESA to universal credit, who have to log this collection of underpayment within a month, will be told in advance of transferring?

I am delighted to hear about the very welcome development that has been communicated by the Secretary of State today. I can confirm what the Employment Minister has set out today, and I am delighted that this progress has been made.

I am glad that 145,000 more people with disabilities have found work in the last 12 months, leading to a total of 930,000 moving into work in the last five years. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s declared target of helping 1 million people with disabilities into work could be rather more ambitious than it is?

One million is a great start, but I believe that there is capability for more. I encourage all employers up and down the country to consider the many talented disabled people who want to join the workforce. The numbers are up all over the country already, as my hon. Friend outlines, but there is a lot more that can be done.

Those with disabilities have been contacting me from across the United Kingdom in my position as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, telling me that they still find it extremely difficult to access home assessment for benefits, and that they are then being penalised by having to provide GP letters, for which they are charged. Will the Minister respond to this situation and ensure that these people are not being penalised twice for their disability when accessing the benefits system?

I am happy to assure the hon. Lady that her concerns will be taken up by the Department; a Minister will meet her to go through her complaint.

I was recently visited by a constituent who was very distressed during his personal independence payment assessment because he felt that the assessor had not understood his case or his records and did not have the full facts. When will we introduce video recordings, so that our assessors can be held to account?

My hon. Friend raises a legitimate point. Video recording is an important step forward introduced by this Government. The pilot from last November appears successful, and we are looking to do a full roll-out later this year.

Universal Credit: Telephone Applications

5. Which criteria her Department uses to decide whether people can make an application for universal credit by telephone. (909833)

Any claimant may claim universal credit by telephone. Each request will be considered on its merits, through discussions between the Department and individuals to see which method of claiming is most suitable and beneficial. After those discussions, phone claims are available to any individual who wishes to proceed with one.

What efforts are made to engage by telephone with those who are considered to be in need of making a claim, who may include elderly, disabled or rural claimants with poor or no internet access?

There is a freephone line. Last month, in February, 1.2 million calls were received on the universal credit full service line, and for those who are particularly vulnerable, home visits are also available.

We are starting on this work; I made reference to the speech that the Secretary of State made earlier this month. However, if my right hon. Friend has a specific case to raise, we will be very happy to take it up.

Welfare Support: Kettering

6. How many people in Kettering constituency receive (a) personal independence payment, (b) employment and support allowance and (c) universal credit. (909834)

I am pleased to say that since 2013 the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits in Kettering has decreased by over a third. The latest published statistics show that there are 3,520 people on PIP in Kettering, 35% of whom are getting the highest rates, compared with 14% of working-age disability living allowance recipients in the area when PIP was introduced.

It is taking too long for those who are refused PIP to successfully appeal against the decision. Across the country, it takes 190 days, and the worst 10% of cases in the east midlands now take 300 days. What percentage of PIP refusals are successfully overturned on appeal?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern that it is taking too long, and that too many appeals are indeed overturned. That is why I committed in my most recent statement to making sure that we look again at mandatory considerations to make them more effective, so that we can start to reverse this. I share his concerns and I am addressing the issue.

By his deployment of the words, “Across the country”, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) has helpfully enabled the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) to come in on this question, as it now refers to a wider area, and not simply to Kettering.

The Secretary of State is a fair-minded person. This morning, I have been looking at her constituency stats, the Kettering stats, and my stats in Huddersfield. However, I appeal to her to raise her vision beyond just the stats and the data, and to look at the evidence from children’s charities such as Action for Children, which will tell her that in her patch, in Kettering and in my patch, child poverty has not diminished.

I am very mindful of what we are delivering on the ground to individual constituents, families and children. We attempt, we hope, to protect the vulnerable and help people into work, but I know that my Department has a part to play in reducing poverty, and I am focused on that.

Employment: Hampshire

There are more people in work across our country than ever before, wages are growing at the joint-fastest rate in a decade, and Office for National Statistics data estimates that in the year to September 2018 there were 938,400 people in work in the great county of Hampshire.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. That is great news, but what more will the Government do to help people who find themselves out of work into new jobs?

Under universal credit, as we have noted before, work coaches provide that vital one-to-one support and advice to help people into work. The disincentives of the legacy system are gone, and the reforms are working. In my hon. Friend’s constituency of North East Hampshire, the number of claimants is down by 42% over the past five years.


8. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of her Department’s policies on levels of poverty. (909836)

Household incomes have never been higher. In 2016-17, there were 1 million fewer people living in absolute poverty than in 2010. In Scotland, whichever way we look at poverty—relative or absolute, and before or after housing costs—in the three years to 2016-17, no measures are higher than in the three years to 2009-10; in fact, three are lower.

A few weeks ago, a young family with a newborn baby appeared at my constituency office in Helensburgh. They were halfway through their four-week universal credit assessment period. This was a family in crisis. They were penniless, and the father had not eaten for three days. They did not even have enough money to buy baby milk and had been refused healthy start vouchers because they ticked the wrong box. Is that not the reality of the poverty being created by the Government?

I am sorry to hear about the circumstances of that case, and I am happy to look into it further. One of the recent announcements we have made is that there will be Citizens Advice support within every jobcentre from April onwards. That is the sort of case where Citizens Advice can step in and provide independent support and advice, to ensure that people get their full entitlement.

Be it universal credit, the benefit freeze or Brexit, the poor are being hit the hardest at the moment, yet according to research from the Resolution Foundation, overall tax and benefit changes will take £100 from families in the bottom fifth of income distribution and give £280 to those in the top 10. Does the Minister think that that is fair?

That is not something I recognise. Through the additional money being put into universal credit, record employment, the changes to the income tax personal threshold and rising wages, the poorest fifth in society are now £400 better off in real terms than in 2010.

Does the Minister agree that, with employment at record levels and wages rising in real terms, the best approach to helping people out of poverty is the one that this Government are delivering?

My hon. Friend is spot on. Only 5% of children whose parents work full time are in poverty, against 63% for families where there is only part-time work, which is why our delivering record employment in all regions of the UK is making a real difference.

Next year, the benefit freeze will leave the poorest 20% of families with children £900 worse off on average. In January, the Secretary of State said that the benefit freeze was the right policy at the time, but both she and the Chancellor have signalled that it will not be renewed in 2020. If it is not the right policy now, why are the Government continuing with the freeze for another year?

The hon. Lady continues to object to any measures to restore fairness to the benefits system. Under the last Labour Government, we saw welfare spending increase by £84 billion and an additional tax burden of £3,000 per hard-working household. This is about fairness and supporting people, while having a good safety net for those most in need.

Universal Credit: Debt

9. What assessment she has made of the effect of the five-week wait to receive universal credit on claimants’ levels of debt. (909837)

No one has to wait five weeks for the first part of their benefit because, as the hon. Lady is aware, they can get an advance of up to 100%, and 60% of people do that. We have also introduced a two-week run-on of housing benefit, and from next year a further two-week run-on of employment and support allowance, jobseeker’s allowance and income support will be available. Those payments are in addition to each claimant’s universal credit benefit award.

I am afraid to say that the five-week wait issue is not going to go away until the Government recognise that it is driving some people to food banks. I was in Glasgow on Friday with the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), and we will continue on our tour of the UK, taking a camera crew with us and shining a spotlight on poverty until the Government change their mind on this. For the most vulnerable in society who have zero financial resilience, the four-week assessment period makes no sense at all—they have to wait four weeks to prove they have no money. I have suggested that there is a need to identify the most vulnerable claimants—those with no financial resilience—and hand-hold them through the system, and either make the assessment period start at minus four weeks or make those advance payments non-repayable grants, not for everyone but for the vulnerable.

I am always willing to look at suggestions for how to improve universal credit. The hon. Lady is well known for bringing forward a lot of suggestions for us to look at. However, we need to be careful not to create incentives that are counter to our intention to help people into work. I do believe that advances work well, and the work coaches I talk to—I also go around the country talking to people about it—do tell me that they make a significant difference.

A constituent of mine, a working mum with two little girls, had to wait the five weeks for her universal credit claim and then a further month for assistance with childcare costs because the Department insists on paying childcare in arrears. We all know that, in the real world, nurseries have to be paid in advance, so why cannot the system recognise that simple reality?

We have acknowledged that issue. I have announced that work coaches now have access to the flexible support fund so that they can give that money in advance and do exactly what the hon. and learned Lady is suggesting—giving that money to the people who need it when they are ready to pay for childcare to get into work.

Benefit Cap

10. What assessment she has made of the financial effect of the benefit cap on claimants who are not required to undertake a work search. (909838)

An evaluation of the cap, covering these groups, is expected to be published in spring 2019. Some claimants might not be required to look for work, but they are expected to undertake activities designed to help them prepare for and move closer to the labour market. Those needing additional help adjusting to the cap can apply for discretionary housing payments.

But this is really missing the point. As the Work and Pensions Committee report made absolutely clear, the benefit cap should not apply to people who are not required to undertake a work search. Why are constituents such as mine having to find £50 out of their child benefit and child tax credits when they are in homeless accommodation and have no say over where they are accommodated and how much rent they are paying, or when they are exempted from a work search, including, in one case, when a mother had been fleeing domestic violence?

There are automatic exemptions for claimants on DLA, PIP, carer’s allowance, guardian’s allowance, working tax credits when working over 16 hours a week, universal credit when earning over £542, ESA support or the UC higher rate. Where they are not covered by that, discretionary housing payments can be used, and in that case they certainly should have been looked at favourably.

On 29 January, the Minister told me in a written answer that the Department does not know how many resettled refugee families may be subject to the benefit cap. Can he give me an assurance on the Floor of the House that the Government will start to look at that data and guarantee that no such family will be left unable to access the financial support they need?

I thank the hon. Lady. I have met a number of stakeholders to discuss this issue and wider issues connected to refugees. It is an area of priority for the Department, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss this further.

Older Pensioners

11. What steps she is taking to increase the income of older pensioners; and if she will make a statement. (909839)

This country spends £121 billion on pensioners every year, with an increasing budget. My hon. Friend will be aware that the state pension is up well over £1,000 per annum in cash terms since 2010. In addition, there are 12 million winter fuel payments, at a cost of about £2 billion, specifically for the over-80s, with a payment of £300 a year to the individual.

I thank the Minister for delivering that good news to the House. While automatic pension enrolment will certainly help people as they move into retirement, can we make sure that we do not take our eye off the ball with older pensioners, with particular reference to fuel poverty, because there is still a problem?

My hon. Friend makes two points. The first is that auto-enrolment is a massive success in Tewkesbury, with 23,000 men and women now saving up to 5%—going up to 8% in April—for their long-term retirement. In addition, on fuel poverty, he will be pleased with the warm home discount scheme, which supports over 2 million low-income and vulnerable customers each year with direct assistance with their costs. However, I accept that there is always more that we can do.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, one in six pensioners now live in poverty. Last year, 46,000 pensioners died prematurely, and the winter fuel allowance has not been increased for 15 years, so what is the Minister doing about that? The Government are cutting pension credit for couples at the same time.

The reality is that pensioner poverty is at an historically low level. The hon. Lady will be aware of the 12 million winter fuel payments, at a cost of £2 billion, with £200 for households with someone who has reached state pension age and £300 for households with someone who is over 80. In addition, there is the warm home discount support I just outlined.

I welcome the Government’s response this morning to the collective defined-contribution scheme consultation. What does it mean for posties in East Renfrewshire, a number of whom are looking forward to meeting the Minister when he comes up to Barrhead on Friday?

We believe that collective defined-contribution schemes are a positive step and a welcome innovation to help postmen and women up and down the country to have a sustainable long-term retirement. I welcome the support of the Communication Workers Union and Royal Mail, and the role my hon. Friend has played in the House of Commons. I look forward to meeting some of his posties early—very early, I believe—on Friday morning.

My constituent Christine Paris is a vulnerable 60-year-old women, who has a rare birth defect causing severe learning disability. She has never been able to work and she cannot even travel alone, yet she is being placed in the work-related activity group and forced to face yet another humiliating fit for work assessment. Will the Minister look into her case personally? Does he agree with the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments, which says that the assessment process is unfit for people with learning difficulties, and will he conduct an urgent review?

If the hon. Lady sends that case to the Department, I and the Minister concerned will look into it specifically.

In legislating to allow 140,000 Royal Mail workers to benefit from the CDC scheme, will the Government also legislate as soon as possible to compel employer contribution with the pensions dashboard and to strengthen powers and criminal penalties available to the regulator, to provide a better pension for tens of thousands of workers, to help all workers to plan for their retirement, to protect workers and to send an unmistakeable message to the Philip Greens of this world that those who rob workers of their pension security will end up in the dock?

The hon. Gentleman and I are united in our desire for a Bill that addresses collective defined-contribution, compulsion on dashboards and the defined-benefit reforms that we all agree are both required and necessary. I am confident that with a constructive, cross-party approach, over the next few months, with the hon. Gentleman and other political parties, we can introduce those measures very soon.

Universal Credit: Food Banks

13. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on the level of referrals to food banks. (909841)

18. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on the level of referrals to food banks. (909846)

Our own evidence does not show a direct link between the increase in food bank use and the roll-out of universal credit. As the Trussell Trust has said, it is impossible to identify one single cause. Universal credit spends £2 billion more than the system it replaces, and it incentivises work, providing a pathway out of poverty.

In my surgery on Friday, I met a family with very young children who have been without benefits to which they are entitled since before Christmas, due to mistakes by the DWP. They are already in housing rent arrears and reliant on the local food bank. Without resolving those errors, the DWP is now moving them on to universal credit, where the terrifying prospect of a five-week wait and no funds to repay an advance pose a real risk of homelessness. I want the Secretary of State not only to look into this case but to deal with the incompetence and cruelty in her Department, which are causing such misery for far too many people.

First, I give a commitment that, yes, I am very happy to look into that specific case. It highlights the problems with the legacy benefits, whereby £2.4 billion a year of benefits were missed. It was a complex, bureaucratic process where mistakes could happen and claimants—particularly vulnerable claimants —did not take what they were entitled to. Under universal credit, with personalised, tailored support, mistakes can be rectified more quickly.

Rent arrears are deducted from jobseeker’s allowance at £3.70 a week, but for universal credit the deduction is £31 a month, while overpaid benefits and advance payments are deducted at even higher rates. Some of my constituents are having over £100 deducted from their monthly universal credit payments, forcing them to dip into their rent money and use food banks just to get by. They would not find themselves in this position if they were not waiting up to five weeks to receive their first payment. The Secretary of State says she has put in measures to address that, but they clearly are not working. When will Ministers face the facts and scrap the five-week wait?

Those transferring from legacy benefits would get two weeks’ housing benefit run-on, no strings attached, in addition and would automatically be offered the advance payment. We have lengthened the time over which that would be repaid and lowered the rate at which it would be claimed back.


The number of people in employment has never been higher, with a record 32.6 million people in employment. That is up by more than 3.5 million since 2010. The UK’s employment rate is at a joint record high of 75.8%.

More people in Southampton, Itchen are in work than has been the case for years, but many of them are in jobs with poor prospects and low pay. What are the Government doing to create jobs with higher pay and better prospects, not just in Southampton, Itchen, but across the country?

Well, 75% of the jobs that have been created since 2010 are permanent, full time and in high-level occupations that attract high wages. Of course, my hon. Friend is right that we need to do even more to upskill people and help them enter better-paid work. That is why, across the Government, we are investing in higher level apprenticeships, technical skills and a national retraining scheme.

Last month’s unemployment figures showed rises in six areas, including the north-east. There are more than 800,000 people on zero-hours contracts and wages are £9 a week lower than in 2008. Will the Minister describe how he intends to address job insecurity, low pay and the clear failure of the Government to tackle regional inequalities?

The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, be aware that since 2010 employment has gone up in every region and country of the United Kingdom. As I have pointed out, 75% of the new jobs are in high-level occupations. He talked about zero-hours contracts. He will know that there has been a drop in the number of zero-hours contracts over the past year. Ultimately, he talked about failure. The only failure we recognise is that absolutely every Labour Government have left unemployment higher than when they entered office.

We are glad to hear that employment has gone up in every region of the country. Will the Minister at some stage, if not today, put out a written statement on why it is thought that unemployment always rises with a Labour Government and employment increases with a Conservative Government?

We can all have our theories, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that that is precisely what happens. What the Labour party should be doing is congratulating the Government on the work we have done over the past nine years to get employment up.

Health Assessments

17. What recent assessment her Department has made of the (a) accuracy and (b) efficiency of contracted-out health assessments for (i) employment and support allowance and (ii) personal independence payment. (909845)

25. What recent assessment her Department has made of the (a) accuracy and (b) efficiency of contracted-out health assessments for (i) employment and support allowance and (ii) personal independence payment. (909853)

We are committed to ensuring that individuals receive high-quality assessments. Providers are closely monitored against a range of measures, including through independent audit, to improve the accuracy of the advice they provide to decision makers. We continually look to improve the efficiency of the assessment process by working closely with our providers.

Quite apart from the problems with and maladministration of work capability and PIP assessments, I have requested that Ministers consider the passporting of people who were affected by the contaminated blood scandal, so that the benefits they are currently on are passported on to the new benefits. I do not understand, when there is a public inquiry into the scandal, why these people are still having to go through the assessments.

I know that the hon. Lady has campaigned for a number of years on this incredibly important issue, and I pay tribute to the diligence of her work. I would be very happy to meet her to discuss the matter further.

Some 72% of personal independence payment appeals were successful in the first three months of last year, which is an appalling failure rate. It is my understanding that Scottish Ministers have had power over the administration of personal independence payment since the Scotland Act 2016 came into effect, and that they would have the power to usurp the failed system and adopt a new one. Why is it taking so long to do it?

From my former role as Minister for Disabled People, I know that Scottish Ministers had the opportunity to take that forward. We are willing to work with their officials to make that possible if they wish to proceed. The ball is very much in their court.

I declare a family interest in the answer to my question. The undoubted problems with health assessments are causing delays in the appeal process right across the board, not just with PIP and others, but with disability living allowance and mobility allowances. Will the Minister agree to see me and discuss how we can accelerate the process, because some appeals take more than 39 weeks to come to fruition, with the effect that children have to wait over a year before they get their proper allowances?

I am sure that the Minister will agree to see the right hon. Gentleman. It would be extraordinarily reckless and foolhardy to refuse to do so, and I am sure that the Minister would never be reckless or foolhardy.

It will be a pleasure to meet my right hon. Friend. We have been working very closely with the Ministry of Justice to improve the capacity within the tribunal system, to speed up the process. The Secretary of State has set out ambitious plans to improve the mandatory reconsideration stage to reduce the number of decisions that are going on to the independent appeal part.

Will the Department and Ministers join me in paying tribute to Disability Support Project in Redditch, which does some great work to help disabled people to navigate the bureaucracy surrounding the system? Will the Minister outline when we will see a difference on the ground from some of the measures that he is putting in place to improve the transparency of the assessment procedures?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the fantastic work that her local organisation does. Those with that frontline experience have to be at the heart of the improvements that we take forward. We engage very proactively and constructively with stakeholders, national and local, and they are helping to shape the improvements.

22. In a written answer, the former disability Minister, the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), said that DWP auditors can grade health assessment reports as amendments required and that the DWP is not prescriptive in how changes should be made to health assessment reports. Will the Minister confirm that while changes are not prescriptive, the auditors, who are not present during assessments, can mandate required sweeping changes that can drastically affect a person’s claim? (909850)

We are always reviewing that process and we work very closely with stakeholders, with their wealth of experience, to make sure that we continue to deliver improvements.

Domestic Abuse Victims: Welfare

21. What steps the Government are taking to support victims of domestic abuse through the welfare system. (909849)

Domestic abuse is a devastating crime and my Department will always do what it can to support victims of domestic abuse. Departmental training and awareness is now better than ever, but I can confirm that, by the summer of this year, we will ensure that we have domestic abuse specialists in every jobcentre to help everybody who needs it.

What steps are the Government taking to increase the provision and quality of supported housing for such vulnerable people?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Of course, supported housing is essential for vulnerable groups, including those fleeing domestic abuse, which is why we announced in August last year that we will maintain funding for all supported housing and housing benefit. I am going to work closely with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Chancellor and local authorities to ensure that quality and value for money are always available in supported housing provision for domestic abuse victims.

Making sure that the system prevents domestic abuse, including financial abuse, is as important as supporting those, rightly, who are affected by it. The Secretary of State made a statement a few months ago regarding single payment of universal credit. What progress has she made on that to make sure that women and the children they support as main carer can directly receive the support that they so rightly need?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. She is right and I announced recently that I want to make sure that it is the main carer who receives the benefit. I am working with jobcentres to ensure that we have a new approach so that there is effectively an early question in their process where they find out who the main carer is, who is usually a woman, so that we can ensure that potential victims of domestic abuse are more likely to have access to the overall funds.

Universal Credit

Universal credit is now available in all jobcentres across the country and is helping people into work. The universal credit claimant survey published last year showed that, under universal credit, the likelihood of being in work almost doubles between the point of making a claim and nine months into the claim.

Of the claimants who have been transferred from legacy benefits on to universal credit, what proportion are now receiving more money than they were under legacy benefits, what proportion are receiving the same and what proportion are receiving less money than they were?

The hon. Gentleman is referring to where people have a change in circumstances. That is not anything new under universal credit: changes in circumstances exist within the legacy benefits system. People get a different calculation in terms of the amount of money, and that has not changed under universal credit.

The Minister will know that universal credit uses Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs real-time information to determine the amount of money a claimant will receive each month. Late submissions by employers have led to claimants having reduced or cancelled payments because of money they earned a long time ago. Does the Minister not agree that this issue needs to be looked at if universal credit is to be an effective system that does not increase poverty?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We make sure, working with our colleagues in Her Majesty’s Treasury, that employers are made aware of the fact that they need to get the right date into the RTI system.

Topical Questions

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.