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Topical Questions

Volume 660: debated on Monday 13 May 2019

Employment is at a record high, with 32.72 million people in work. Overall, 3.6 million more people have entered work since 2010, which is on average 1,000 people each and every day, and the vast majority of them are in full-time, high-skilled jobs. I know that there are concerns about low-paid work, which I am determined to address. That is why I made announcements last week about new projects working with our excellent work coaches on job switching and with employers in the private sector, to see how we can help individuals across the country to access the better-paid jobs that will help them and their families.

If you were to look in the faces of the vast majority of people who have an acquired brain injury, you would not be able to spot anything wrong whatsoever, but inside is somebody who has a massive sense of fatigue. They might have major memory problems or have completely lost their executive function, unable to make proper decisions for themselves, but when the assessor from the DWP comes they will want to please them and will exaggerate the improvement in their condition. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that every single person who, on behalf of the DWP, goes to see somebody with a brain injury fully understands how brain injury can fluctuate?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that, and I know how much he has done to support people with brain conditions. We are ensuring that we do that through the welfare system, so that those with acquired brain injury and associated neurological complications receive the right support, but I recognise the issue he raises. We are doing more to ensure that our health assessors have all the necessary training, so that they are able to recognise different challenges, such as acquired brain injury.

T3. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, since 2010, 650,000 fewer children are growing up in workless households, giving them the benefit of a higher family income and providing them with a role model in the world of work? (910858)

I can confirm that. We are ambitious to ensure that we continue to take children and families out of poverty, and we acknowledge that there is more to be done. I believe that the best way to do that is to focus on growing a strong economy, with better-paid jobs, and ensuring that those on lower incomes can access those jobs.

Last week, the Secretary of State kept her name in the Tory leadership fray by admitting that social security sanctions can “undermine” the aim to help people into work and reducing the longest sanctions from three years to six months, which we welcome, but will her review of sanctions include the possibility of scrapping them altogether? If not, can she really make a name for herself by explaining how anyone is expected to live on fresh air for six months?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his cautious welcome of the announcement I made last week about ensuring that there will be no sanctions of more than six months, but, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work has pointed out, sanctions are usually no more than 30 days. I have had many conversations with work coaches, who have personal relationships with individuals, and they reassure me that they use sanctions only as a last resort. The work coaches who provide this tailored support also tell me—I would be interested if the hon. Gentleman has had a different experience—that sanctions are an important part of the tools they have.

T6. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) has fought a very good campaign to have a children’s funeral fund set up in England. She was told that it would happen within 12 months, and it has not. Does my right hon. Friend agree that all of us on the Government Benches have an obligation to fulfil promises that have been made, and that that is a very important one? (910861)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I absolutely agree with him. He may know that I campaigned with the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) before taking up my post. I am personally committed to this, the Department is committed to this, the Prime Minister is committed to this and we will deliver it.

T5. Access to Work is essential to enabling disabled people to get into employment, but does the Minister recognise that delays with processing applications are causing real difficulty, but particularly for people who are self-employed or, indeed, holding elected office in local government. May I ask him to meet me and one of my local councillors, Rosa Gomez, to discuss these particular challenges? (910860)

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I welcome the fact that record numbers benefited from Access to Work last year—an increase of 13%—but operational improvements still need to be delivered. I would welcome an opportunity to meet the hon. Gentleman to look at some areas of priority for us.

T9. Will the Minister’s Department close the loophole that allows terminally ill employees to be dismissed by their employers once one reasonable adjustment has been made, which does not allow for any more changes to the employee’s health because it is not covered by the disability legislation? (910864)

I thank my hon. Friend, who has been a real champion in this really important area of work. The Government are fully committed to protecting people with disabilities in the workplace and elsewhere. We welcome the fact that over 1 million employees are now protected by the voluntary employers charter, and this is a real step forward. There is more work to be done, and I welcome the fact that MPs are working together cross-party on this vital issue.

T8. Anne Puckridge, a brave 94-year-old world war two veteran who served in three armed forces, moved to Canada in 2001 and now receives £72.50 a week, instead of £125.95 a week, of the state pension she is owed. She is not alone: 510,000 British pensioners are in the same situation due to the policy that awards an increase only to some overseas pensioners. The pensions Minister has responded on this topic, but will he agree to meet me to discuss Anne’s case and those of the many others struggling as victims of frozen pensions? (910863)

The hon. Lady knows that the policy pursued by this Government is the same policy that was pursued during the 13 years of the Labour Government and all other Governments since the second world war. It is a consistent approach that is absolutely endorsed by the present Government, and I am afraid there are no plans to change the policy at present.

T10. As has been mentioned, the proportion of self-employed people in South East Cornwall is higher than the national average, showing that my constituents have an entrepreneurial spirit. What is my right hon. Friend’s Department doing to support self-employed people in Cornwall and across the country to make their businesses an increasing success? (910865)

It is indeed interesting to hear of this success: the rate of self-employed people in Cornwall is 5.5 percentage points greater than the UK average. In Cornwall, jobcentres are working in partnership with the local authority and with Big Lottery funding to provide self-employment workshops. In addition, across the UK work coaches are trained to provide additional support to self-employed people. This includes the new enterprise allowance, with which mentors can support claimants to develop their business further.

Every week in my surgery I hear from people who have been wrongly assessed as being fit for work when they are so clearly disabled. I welcome the Secretary of State’s offer to sit down with us individually in the Tea Room, but I fear for all those constituents who do not think of going to their MP and the countless numbers of people out there who do not know how to access help. Surely it is now time for the Secretary of State to admit that the whole process of work capability assessments is flawed and in need of an urgent review.

I am aware of this, and a number of Members of Parliament have raised issues with me. As a Member of Parliament myself, I know that we need to do better at making sure that people do not have to wait so long for a tribunal, so I am looking again at what we can do. I am focusing particularly on making sure that the first decision collects more information, and that the mandatory reassessment has more content put into it. We are already looking into this, and I am seeing some extraordinarily good progress being made in making sure that the mandatory reconsideration has more information.

I will come back to the hon. Lady and others with more information in due course. I recognise that we need to do more, and I am on it.

What progress is being made to support more people in East Renfrewshire into an occupational pension scheme through auto-enrolment?

It was a great pleasure to visit Barrhead with my hon. Friend and meet his outstanding credit union, which is one of 1,290 employers providing 5,000 employees across his East Renfrewshire constituency with automatically enrolled pensions. It is a cross-party success story, with 10.4 million people now automatically enrolled.

If it is true that work is the best route out of poverty, why did food banks in Barnsley give out more than 1.5 million food parcels last year, many to people in work? Why is it that in the Secretary of State’s own constituency low income has overtaken benefit delays as the biggest reason people are referred to Hastings food bank?

I am aware of the challenges faced by people on low incomes, which is why I am focusing on making sure that there is better access to higher-paid jobs. I am working on a number of projects with jobcentres across the country to see what we can do to get better training for people, setting up projects relating to job switching, and working particularly with employers in the local area so that they can get more involved and recognise that there are opportunities for them to promote people and give better training to those on lower incomes to get them into higher-paid jobs.

For clarity, can the Minister confirm that the Scottish Government have power under section 24 of the Scotland Act to top up reserve benefits, including for anyone affected by future changes to mixed-age couples’ benefits?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to clarify that sections 24 and 26 of the Scotland Act enable the Scottish Government to make top-up or discretionary payments to any person in Scotland who is in receipt of any reserved UK Government benefit. Put simply, the ball is in the Scottish Government’s court.

A constituent of mine is being passed from pillar to post by the DWP and the Scottish student loans group, both of which say she is entitled to support. She wants to start studying full time in September but, as a single parent, cannot do so without appropriate financial support. Will the Secretary of State or one of her Ministers meet me to see whether we can find a way out of this Catch-22 situation and ensure that my constituent and other single mothers like her, who want to improve their families’ opportunities, have the support to do so?

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1.9 million pensioners now live in poverty, which is a complete disgrace. Given that 46,000 pensioners died prematurely last year, why has the winter fuel allowance not been increased for more than a decade?

It is not specifically the case that pensioners are in poverty compared with previous records, which show that pensioner poverty is coming down. I will write to the hon. Lady in respect of her specific point about the winter fuel allowance.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s earlier answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). It was simply not good enough because in just two days’ time changes by this Government to mixed-age couples’ benefits will make them ineligible for pension credit and force them both to apply for universal credit, which will result in many losing thousands of pounds. With one in six older people already living in poverty, is it not time that the Minister rethought the changes, or is he determined to increase those shameful levels of poverty?

Pension credit is intended to provide long-term support to economically inactive pensioner households. It is not intended to support working-age claimants. This change ensures that people cannot access pensioner benefits before they have reached state pension age, so taxpayer support is directed to where it is needed most.

Earlier this year I met representatives of those who carry out work capability assessments and representatives from the previous disability Minister’s office. I was assured that those carrying out capability assessments were well aware of unseen conditions such as ME, but since then I have been overwhelmed with correspondence saying that people with ME are being declared fit for work. What work is the Minister doing to ensure that the assessors are aware of conditions such as ME?

There is a real emphasis on ensuring that assessors are best placed to identify how fluctuating health conditions and hidden disabilities will impact on the assessment. I am disappointed to hear what the hon. Lady reports and I would be happy to meet her to discuss it further.

My caseworkers recently updated me on the thousands and thousands of pounds of public money that they have helped to recover for constituents who are entitled to it, often after many months of delays. I am not satisfied with that; I am angry that this Government Department is keeping so many of my constituents and, I presume, others across the country in poverty for so long when they are owed this money. What is the Government doing about reviewing DWP’s shameful record on paying people money to which they are entitled?

I would just point out to the hon. Lady that, under the legacy benefits system, there are £2.4 billion of unclaimed benefits. That is changing and being fixed under universal credit. If she has specific cases, she will know that this ministerial team is always happy to talk to Members of Parliament to try to resolve issues. If she wants to talk about specific cases, I would be happy to do so after this session.

Visits to one of the food banks in my constituency have increased by 20% since the roll-out of universal credit. Trussell Trust referrals have risen by 52% since the roll-out of universal credit. Everything suggests that universal credit is not lifting people out of poverty, but pushing them further into it. Was that the Government’s intention with the roll-out of universal credit, because that is what is happening?

Universal credit is a vast improvement on the legacy benefits. There were six different benefits and three different places; the system was incredibly difficult to navigate, and there were vast numbers of complaints and problems with it. This new system is easier for people to navigate. Overall, it will be more generous, when it is fully rolled out, than the last system. I believe it is absolutely the right approach in making sure that we support all our constituents.

The Verify identification function for those claiming universal credit online does not work properly. When the Secretary of State is looking at that, will she also look at the problem that requires couples making a joint claim to verify their identity in person at the same time, which causes those sharing childcare and working shift patterns difficulty in claiming?

I am happy to discuss any issues around Verify with the hon. Gentleman, but, as he will know, there is more than one way for someone to verify their identity. Of course, they can use Verify, but they can also use documentary evidence or a biographical test. Those are known, recognised tests, and they are all available in the system.

The Secretary of State just said that universal credit is better than the legacy system, yet evidence published this weekend shows that twice as many children will be pushed into poverty by universal credit, the two-child limit and the benefit cap. On top of that, universal credit is actually increasing infant mortality—the first time we have seen an increase in 100—

I am sorry, but there is irrefutable evidence on this. Instead of the cursory responses that we have had from the Government, will the Secretary of State commit to review the up-to-date evidence and get back to this House with some detailed explanations of how she is going to stop these things?

I totally reject the hon. Lady’s approach to this. Universal credit is a welfare benefit system that, overall, is more generous and much more straightforward than the previous system. I wonder whether she has talked to any Members of Parliament who had the experience of having to navigate the six legacy benefits, of three different places to go to, and of annual tax credits. The complications were totally out of proportion compared with the challenges that people sometimes encounter now. Above all, there was the difficulty people had with the 16-hour threshold, where they could not take up new work if they were on a certain amount of benefits. We have reformed the system so that it works for people—it works for families, and it works for people trying to better themselves and get better access to work.

Centrepoint’s evidence to the DWP Committee showed that 96% of the young people it surveyed were not offered a traineeship or work placement if they were still on the youth obligation for six months. Does the Minister think it is worth having a closer look at what more could be done to improve the youth obligation?

I share the hon. Lady’s desire to make sure the youth obligation support programme works properly. We are looking at extracting information from the system, and I hope shortly to come and report on the findings from that.