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Work and Pensions

Volume 662: debated on Monday 1 July 2019

Universal Credit: Roll-out

The national roll-out of universal credit was completed in December 2018. As of May 2019, there are now more than 2 million people claiming universal credit, and of those, 34% are in work. We now plan to begin “the move to UC” pilot later this month.

The right hon. Lady’s Government promised that

“universal credit should not leave councils out of pocket.”

Yet Highland Council has nearly £3 million of additional costs, including £640,000 of indisputable administration costs, directly as a result of universal credit. Despite letters, questions and meetings with officials and Ministers, where details and data have all been provided, there is still no settlement. When will this debt to highland households finally be repaid?

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter before and has had a number of meetings with the Minister for Employment. As a result of some of those meetings, we have already increased the additional funds available to councils such as the one to which he refers. There has been an increase in the total amount of new burdens money that has been paid out, but we have also said that we will investigate further. I want to reassure him that this is not finished yet, and that I will continue to look at it myself to ensure that there is satisfaction.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for her very successful visit to Stirling last Thursday and Friday? When we met the work coaches and the other staff of the Department of Work and Pensions team at Randolphfield, was she struck, as I was once again, by their degree of dedication and their genuine concern for the claimants with whom they work? They are a credit to themselves and to the DWP team. Does she agree that, rather than spread fear and scaremongering, Scottish National party Members should be encouraging the people who live in their constituencies to go to the DWP to get the help that they need, confident that they will be respected and treated with genuine dignity?

I thank my hon. Friend for his important question and for setting up the visit, which was so useful and purposeful. I do note that when I went to the jobcentre and met the work coaches, they were passionate about delivering the right outcomes for their constituents. When we asked them what they would change about universal credit, they said the publicity, because they are so committed to getting the right outcomes for the right people. These are people who are doing good work for good people.

Will the Secretary of State confirm for the record that any EU national who has been granted settled status in the United Kingdom is regarded as being habitually resident for the purposes of applying for and receiving universal credit?

That is largely correct. The only issue here is about the evidence that people now have to supply which they did not have to supply before. I know that there are a number of places where people were able to claim benefits and they now no longer qualify for universal credit. We are looking at those individually to see whether it is an issue with their application for settled status or something else.

21. Universal credit was rolled out in my area last year. Staff at my local citizens advice bureau found that, last year, 1,882 people contacted them in relation to debt linked to universal credit. Surely that is an indication of how many people are finding difficulty in managing during that initial five-week wait. Will the Secretary of State tell me when the Government will act to end the misery of the five-week wait? (911662)

In answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which is about assistance in getting the applications through, we announced in April this year the help-to-claim arrangements so that applicants who are struggling to apply for universal credit can have the additional support they need from citizens advice bureaux. I hope that he will find that that is working well in his local bureau. On the second part about getting money to people earlier, as he will be aware, we have made advances available and we are extending the amount of time over which people have to repay it and the amount that is deducted from their core amounts so that they do not feel it as badly as they would have previously.

Research released last week from the Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England shows that women are being forced to choose between poverty and an abortion because of this Government’s two-child cap—that is the reality facing families with three or more children. It appears unlikely that the Secretary of State will face another Work and Pensions Question Time, so will she make it her legacy to scrap the two-child cap and avoid impoverishing half of all children in those families?

I will try not to be distracted by the hon. Gentleman’s slightly personal remarks. He might know that I visited Scotland last week, and the Scottish Government have taken their own steps on what they feel is the way to address child poverty. Those of us on the Government side of the House feel that the best way to address child poverty is to help more people into work. I am proud of the fact that there are now 1 million more people in work and that over 600,000 children are no longer in houses where no people work.

I note that the Secretary of State did not answer my question. I would like to compare and contrast, because CPAG has said of the two-child cap,

“you could not design a policy better to increase child poverty”,

but last week it described the new Scottish child benefit, to which the Secretary of State referred, as

“an absolute game changer in the fight to end child poverty”.

Therefore, on the 20th anniversary of the reconvened Scottish Parliament, is this not yet another example of where Holyrood empowers, Westminster impoverishes?

Again, I point to the fact that there are different ways of addressing poverty, both child poverty and family poverty: one is to hand out money, which is what the Scottish Government have chosen to do; and another is to focus, with laser-like attention, on ensuring that we build the economy and create employment and that there are good jobs so that people can support their family.

Departmental Organisation

2. Whether she has made an assessment of the potential merits of splitting her Department into two separate Departments. (911640)

There has been no such assessment. As one Department, we have rolled out universal credit, providing a holistic benefits system to ensure that everyone is given the support they need. As one Department, we have seen record levels of employment and the lowest unemployment rate since the 1970s.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. However, she will be aware that there is a significant difference between the benefits of universal credit, disability benefits and pensions. She will also be aware that certain newspapers are prone, when talking about the allegedly outrageous amounts of money that people on unemployment or disability benefits get, to look only at the Department’s overall spend. Of course, as she will be aware, 90% of that spend is on pensions. Would it not be simpler, easier and more straightforward simply to split DWP into two Departments, so that both can focus on what they should be focusing on?

Although I recognise the good work that the hon. Gentleman has done in many of these areas, I respectfully disagree. I think that it is right that those elements are held together in one Department. If we look at the results, we are seeing record levels of pensioner poverty—[Interruption.]

I say quickly to the hon. Lady on the Opposition Front Bench that we are seeing the lowest levels of pensioner poverty, as well as the highest levels of employment.

I very much welcome the recent decision to move the Office for Disability Issues into the Cabinet Office, creating a super-hub of all equalities work right across Government. Will the new hub be leading the reform to statutory sick pay so that it is better enforced, more flexible and covers the lowest-paid workers, and when will the consultation on this vital reform take place?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and may I take this opportunity to pay homage to the extraordinary work that she did to ensure that took place? The point of having an equalities hub in the Cabinet Office is to ensure that we have strong enforcement to deliver on the disabilities changes across Government. With her help, following the work she put in, we are able to do that.

And my tie has whales on it, Mr Speaker—Japan comes to mind. The fact of the matter is that the Secretary of State knows that she has some really good people working in her Department—certainly the people working in my patch are very good—but the trouble is that they are not well managed or well led. Splitting is not the answer; the answer is to get in some managers who can tackle things such as the awful situation for people on universal credit who do not have a bank account, because she has still not tackled that.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are working with Lloyds, for instance, to ensure that basic bank accounts are more available. May I also take this opportunity to join him in praising the work of the staff at the jobcentre in Huddersfield to help people in his constituency?

Child Poverty

Tackling poverty will always be a priority for this Government, and I take these numbers extremely seriously. In the latest low income statistics, child poverty increased in three of the four measures. The evidence shows that work is the best route out of poverty, and there are 667,000 fewer children in workless households compared with 2010.

Summer holidays are fast approaching, and far too many families will be struggling to feed their children. The Childhood Trust states that two thirds of London children living in poverty—that will be 2,000 in Kensington—could go hungry without access to charitable donations. While the Mayor’s Fund for London supports hungry children across the capital, what is the Minister doing, long term, to tackle the causes of child poverty, including in-work poverty?

As I have said, the latest statistics show that full-time work substantially reduces the chance of poverty. The absolute poverty rate of a child where both parents work full-time is only 4% compared with 44% where one or more parents are in part-time work. We are supporting people into full-time work where possible—for example, by offering 30 hours of free childcare to parents of three and four-year-olds. Over three quarters of the growth in employment since 2010 has been in full-time work.

Without knowing the exact figure, it is too many. My role within the Department, and the role of the Department itself, is to address that. My hon. Friend will know too well that the best route out of poverty is work. That is why our focus is on universal credit. Universal credit is working in terms of getting more people into work, and more people are staying in work.

The best way out of poverty is probably properly paid work. The real problem for many of my constituents and their children is the fact that they have very low levels of savings, so when somebody loses their job, perhaps because a company closes, the real danger is that when they go on to universal credit they have to wait for five weeks for a payment and have nothing to fall back on. I really do beg the Government to reconsider the issue of the five weeks. The worst possible thing of all is saying, “You can borrow some money”, because suddenly a family ends up in debt, and that is when the children end up not having food unless it comes from a food bank.

I recognise the passion with which the hon. Gentleman raises his point, but, in terms of the five-week wait, nobody has to wait for their first payment of universal credit, as 100% of their indicative advance is available on day one. It is interest-free, repayable over 12 months—and, as the Secretary of State has said, that will in future be moving to 16 months. That is available and about 60% of people are currently taking it up.

Given that the majority of families affected by the two-child limit are working, why did the Department for Work and Pensions make the following statement in response to the recent report by the Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England:

“This policy helps to ensure fairness by asking parents receiving benefits to face the same financial choices as those in work”?

Could the Minister clear up this confusion for the House?

The policy to provide support for a maximum of two children helps to ensure fairness by asking parents receiving benefits to face the same financial choices as those in work. Safeguards are in place and we have made changes this year to make the policy fairer. Tackling poverty remains a priority. We are spending over £95 billion a year on welfare and providing free school meals to more than 1 million children.

People with Disabilities: Employment

We support disabled people into work through initiatives like the Work and Health programme, the Personal Support Package, and the new Intensive Personalised Employment Support programme launching at the end of 2019. Access to Work approved support for nearly 34,000 disabled workers last year, and we engage with employers through the Disability Confident campaign.

The 19% disability employment gap in Cheadle highlights our untapped talent and the challenge facing the Government in getting a further 1 million disabled people into work over the next eight years. Greater flexibility in working hours, managing time and accommodating medical appointments are just some of the ways to close the gap, but there is clearly more to be done. Does my hon. Friend agree that employers should be encouraged to think creatively about how to make work more accommodating to disabled people?

My hon. Friend is spot on. I was at Employability Day on Friday, celebrating, meeting disabled people who had got into work and, crucially, meeting employers who had often made very small changes. The key message was that it is a win-win. The 950,000 more disabled people who we have got into work are making a real difference to businesses that have taken those steps.

I recently met the charity Root Experience at Chichester library, where it was launching a book called “Hidden Stories”. The book puts a spotlight on hidden disabilities such as epilepsy or autism and how they impact people on a day-to-day basis. Would my hon. Friend be happy to receive a copy of the book? What steps is the DWP taking to promote education and awareness of hidden disabilities in the workplace?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that fantastic book. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland) and I recently went to Swindon Council library and were handed a copy of this excellent book. It is currently sitting on the back seat of my car. It is a brilliant edition, and I hope that as many MPs as possible can see this proactive and constructive way to champion opportunities that people with hidden disabilities can offer.

I am sure the Minister will agree that we want all our pupils to stay in full-time education until they are 18, including those with special needs and disabilities. However, at 16 these pupils face the change of moving from disability living allowance to personal independence payment. That is out of step with changes faced by other children. For example, other children aged 16 in full-time education are able to continue to claim free prescriptions, free eye tests and free dental checks, but children with special needs and disabilities have to face this change in benefits at 16. This is extremely stressful—it is stressful enough for these children to be going on to college, let alone having to change benefits. Will the Minister look at changing that, so that children in full-time education at 16 do not change benefits until they finish?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that important point. I recognise the points that she made, but it is a balance. The decision to do this has been in place for a long time, to allow for everything in be in place for when they get to 18, but I am happy to meet her to discuss this further.

Can the Minister explain the very long delays in the limited work capability assessment to qualify for the working element of universal credit, and why disabled people who are trying to work are being penalised because of the apparent inefficiency of the contractor, Maximus?

Under universal credit, from the initial conversation with a work coach, individual claimants—including those with disabilities—can get support. We continue to make improvements to the work capability assessment, following the five independent reviews. Over 100 different recommendations have been taken on board. I work very closely with stakeholders, as do all the ministerial team. We look to continue to improve the process.

Support for disabled people in work should be a top priority for this Government, but on several occasions I have raised with Ministers a fundamental flaw under universal credit for disabled people in work, which is that to qualify for in-work support, such as the work allowance, one must be found unfit for work under the work capability assessment. That contrasts with legacy social security, where someone qualifies for in-work support by being in receipt of DLA or PIP. Does the Minister agree that this is absurd, and will he commit today to rectifying this illogical and damaging policy?

I will commit to continuing to do everything we can to ensure that all people with disabilities and long-term health conditions have the maximum chance to get into work. I am very proud of the fact that over the last five years alone, 950,000 more disabled people are in work, and we continue to make good progress towards our target of a further 1 million disabled people in work by 2027.

Universal Credit: Food Banks

5. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on the level of referrals to food banks. (911643)

There are a range of reasons why people make use of food banks. The key for the DWP is to ensure that welfare claimants are able to access funds in a timely manner. That is why advances are available, so that no one has to wait five weeks for their first universal credit payment.

Even before universal credit was rolled out in Hull, the use of the Hull food bank was very high because we have widescale in-work poverty, and a third of the children in Hull are living in poverty. The Trussell Trust has said that nearly half of all food bank referrals are due to a delay in benefits being paid when universal credit is rolled out, which happened in Hull before Christmas. Does the Minister now accept that, and what is he going to do about it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We continue to provide a strong safety net through the welfare system for those who need extra support and, as I have said, people use food banks for many and varied reasons. We review research carried out by organisations, including the Trussell Trust, to add to our understanding of food bank use. I intend to work far more closely with the Trussell Trust and other food bank providers, including other stakeholders in this area. I want food bank providers and jobcentres to work far more closely together so that we can better understand the issues and then put in place the interventions to make the situation better.

A few weeks ago, I and a colleague of mine visited a major food bank in Coventry. One of the lessons we learned from the food bank in Coventry—it has nine outlets throughout Coventry and Warwickshire—is that universal credit is forcing people to use food banks. What is the Minister going to do to sort out the problem that people have who are forced to use food banks? Surely we should have another look at universal credit and abolish it, because it is not working.

I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman’s example. If I get a chance to visit his local food bank, I will certainly do so, but I have to stress that no claimant needs to wait more than five weeks to receive their first regular universal credit payment. We have listened to feedback on how we can support our claimants and made improvements, such as extending advances, removing waiting days and introducing housing benefit run-on. I will continue to work with the Trussell Trust and others to improve our system in any way we can.

I am afraid to say to the Minister that the advance payment is missing the point. The biggest driver of people going to food banks is the five-week wait. Because of the benefit freeze, the basic amount people have to live on, particularly the very vulnerable, is not enough. We cannot then expect them to live on less by taking away their advance payment, which is a debt. There is a simple way to deal with this. Some 60% of claimants are already taking advance payment, which tells us they cannot wait. The money is already going out of the DWP’s door. Make it a grant. It should not be repayable for the most vulnerable people in society.

I respect the hon. Lady’s knowledge in this area on the Select Committee, but I would say that advances are not loans from a separate fund; they are the claimant’s benefit paid early, which is then recovered over an agreed period. So they are in place to ensure that those in genuine need are able to receive financial support and are not reliant on illegal or high-cost lenders. But if a claimant considers they are facing financial hardship because of the amount that is being deducted from their universal credit award, they can ask the Department to consider reducing their deductions. As of October this year, the maximum deduction goes down from 40% to 30%.

Universal Credit: Working People’s Incomes

6. What steps her Department is taking to increase working people’s incomes through universal credit. (911644)

One of the key transformations that universal credit provides is to support people who are in work, ensuring they can increase their earnings and develop in their career. It removes the 16-hour cliff edge, which held so many back on legacy benefits, and gives improved, tailored support through jobcentre work coaches.

Will the Minister join me in thanking the excellent DWP staff on the Isle of Wight, some of whom I met in Newport a few weeks ago? I am sure he and the team will seek to make further improvements to universal credit, but it was clear to me, talking to those staff, that universal credit enables them to do more good for more people than the inflexible system that preceded it.

I thank my hon. Friend for being a huge champion for the Isle of Wight and working so well with his local jobcentre. I am very pleased about that and he is absolutely right. As a result of universal credit, people are able to get the support—that one-to-one support—that is so vital. Since 2016, an extra £10 billion has gone into the system.

My constituent, Amanda, who is a single mum with significant mental health problems, had her UC claim closed—unknown to her—at the beginning of May. She was told by the DWP that this was a sanction because she failed to complete an online review. I should also mention that she was in the last few weeks of her pregnancy. Given that Amanda is clearly a vulnerable person, will the Secretary of State commit to ensure that all work coaches are aware of their obligations following last year’s High Court judgment, which demands that they should treat vulnerable claimants appropriately?

Of course. The Secretary of State, I and all colleagues want to ensure that absolutely every single person claiming universal credit gets the appropriate support and the right level of support. I would be very happy to look at that individual case with the hon. Lady. I would just say on sanctions that these are not just handed out; there is a clear process. I can tell her that, in February 2019, only 2.45% of those who were under conditionality requirements actually had a sanction and the average sanction’s length was 30 days. But I will look at that case for her.

My constituent, Craig Ferguson, has Asperger’s, but works in retail. He broke his leg, was not entitled to statutory sick pay and was advised to switch to UC. He then lost his severe disability premium. His UC has automatic deductions for an employment support allowance overpayment and, at times, he receives no UC award at all, which means that he has to depend on savings. How is that fair? Can his case be reviewed?

Of course, I am happy to look at that individual case. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will get in touch with my office after this session.

Local Housing Allowance

7. What recent assessment her Department has made of the adequacy of levels of local housing allowance. (911645)

Welfare reforms were designed to ensure a fair balance between public spending and supporting vulnerable people to meet their housing costs. LHA rates are not intended to meet all rents in all areas. However, the Secretary of State and I have committed to end the freeze to LHA in March 2020.

Local housing allowance is supposed to cover the lowest 30% of market rents, but research by Shelter found that that is not possible in 97% of England. For example, in south-east London, local housing allowance will cover only the bottom 10% of rents. We have a housing crisis across the country and local housing allowance is not fit for purpose. Does the Minister agree that it must be raised to reflect the true cost of renting?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As I said, LHA rates are not intended to meet all rents in all areas. Housing benefit claimants have to make the same decisions about where to live as people who do not receive benefit. In 2019-20, targeted affordability funding has been used to increase over 80% of rates in London. Nevertheless, we recognise that this is an issue. The Secretary of State and I are alive to it and we are looking at several options ahead of a spending review bid.

Does the Minister recognise that recent changes to the tax treatment of the private rented sector, particularly the buy-to-let sector, will mean an increase in rents across the board? That will have a very real read-across to the local housing allowance. Will he give some assessment of what allowance he will make for that increase?

That is, of course, a question for the Treasury. Any rise or potential rise in LHA rates has to go hand in hand with addressing supply. I urge my hon. Friend to address that issue with my counterparts in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and, indeed, the Chancellor and Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

I welcome what the Minister said the other day about reviewing how local housing allowance areas need to be redefined. Does he accept that, because Stroud is in the same area as Gloucester, we are now losing a significant number of people from the private sector because they cannot afford to top up? Will he therefore look at this as a matter of urgency?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is right that the broad market rental areas have some anomalies. I have officials looking into this. It is a huge and complex piece of work, given that there are approximately 900 of those areas. It is therefore not something that can be done quickly, but I recognise the issue and I am working on it.

Pensioner Poverty

The overall trend in the percentage of pensioners living in poverty has fallen dramatically over recent decades. Relative pensioner poverty rates before housing costs have halved since 1990 and rates of material deprivation for pensioners are also at record lows. We want to maintain this achievement.

On Friday, I met constituents and campaigners from Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign Scotland. Those women told me that they are suffering poverty, distress and significant inequality as a result of a pension decision taken in the name of equality. At a time when the Tory leadership candidates are promising billions of pounds of public spending, those women would like to know why the Government cannot find the cash to right the wrong done to the WASPI women.

It is not the Government’s intention to change the Pensions Act 1995, the Pensions Act 2007 or the Pensions Act 2011. There was a £1.1 billion concession in 2011. The policy was conceived in 1993, continued under the Labour Government for 13 years, continued under the coalition and will continue under this Government. I should also point out that a judicial review is pending. I cannot comment any further than that.

Does the Minister think it right that the UK has the lowest state pension in the developed world?

The reality of the state pension in this country is that it has risen by £1,600 in real terms through the triple lock. It also needs to be looked at in the context of the significant high private pensions that, thanks to automatic enrolment and other reforms, show that this is comparable to many other European countries.[Official Report, 9 July 2019, Vol. 663, c. 2MC.]

Free TV licences for older pensioners used to be a proud part of DWP policy. Ministers were warned that they would go under the Government’s TV licence plans, so please do not tell us that pension credits are the answer when thousands of pensioners in our area have small occupational or widows’ pensions, which mean that they are just above the threshold but are still on tight budgets. They will be hit by the free TV licence being taken away. What are the Government going to do to support those pensioners and to reverse this unfair plan?

The right hon. Lady will be aware that this is a matter for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. In the 2015 funding settlement the Government agreed with the BBC that responsibility for the concession would transfer to the BBC after June 2020. I reassure the House that the Government recognise the importance of this, but we are very disappointed with the BBC and we expect it to continue the concession.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who is a keen young pup in the House, is perched as though he is about to expatiate. However, I had him down as coming in on the next question. [Interruption.] He wishes to expatiate now. Well, our delight is unanimous.

The pensioners who built Britain deserve nothing but the best in retirement, yet there are 1 million households in poverty because, according to research conducted by Independent Age, the Government have held on to a staggering £7 billion since the general election in unclaimed pension credit, increasing to over £17 billion by 2022— £10 million a day. What has been the Government’s response? An online toolkit used by 2,000 people last year. How do the Government begin to justify plunging 1 million pensioners into poverty? What will they do to ensure that all pensioners get the security and dignity they deserve?

The hon. Gentleman will know that, actually, pension credit applications are up significantly. It is also the case that successive Governments have attempted to promote pension credit. I share the frustration of colleagues that it is not higher than it presently is, but I want to emphasise that the DWP uses a variety of means to communicate and we urge all pensioners to apply for pension credit through the usual manner, whether through trusted third parties, jobcentres, local authorities or the like.

Pensioners’ Incomes

Due to automatic enrolment, 10 million workers have been automatically enrolled into a workplace pension, including 17,000 in my hon. Friend’s Walsall North constituency. In addition, the Government’s commitment to the triple lock has meant that the full basic state pension is now worth about £1,600 a year more in cash terms than it was in 2010.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but 3,440 households in my constituency will lose their free TV licence as a result of the BBC’s recent decision. Can he assure my constituents that pensioners with increased costs will be at the forefront of the Department’s decision making during the comprehensive spending review?

Clearly, I cannot comment on the specifics of the comprehensive spending review—I suspect that will be for the new Prime Minister—but the reality of the situation is that the triple lock and the various reforms we have introduced have meant that pensioners have done considerably better. We spend £120 billion on pensioners, of which £99 billion is on the state pension. That is a record sum.

Pensioners who apply for disability living allowance after the age of 65 are not eligible for the higher mobility component and are therefore not able to access the Motability scheme. The regulations are not new—they date to 1991—but our understanding of what it is to live a good life in retirement has changed in the intervening three decades. Will Ministers reconsider the regulations, so that pensioners continue to have the opportunity for full social participation?

State Pension

The Department does not publish statistics on the number of people who receive a state pension below the full new state pension amount. As of November 2018, the average amount of the new state pension that people received, including any protected payments, was £154.91 per week.

I thank the Minister for that answer. While he may not have that figure, I can tell him that two of the people who do not receive that amount are Bob and Hilary Heyes from my Stoke-on-Trent constituency. Had they started to claim their state pension under the new state pension, they would have received the full amount because they had 35 qualifying years, but because they were born before 1951 and 1953 respectively, they receive considerably less. What would the Minister have me tell Mr and Mrs Heyes when they come to constituency surgery next?

It is hard for me to comment on the specifics of the particular case. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me in advance of the forthcoming constituency surgery, I will write back to him and he can hand over the letter.

Disability Confident

11. Whether she has discussed with Cabinet colleagues the potential merits of making all public bodies join the Disability Confident scheme. (911651)

Disability Confident is a very effective voluntary scheme, so compulsory options have not been discussed with Cabinet colleagues. Public bodies are already subject to the public sector equality duty. All main Government Departments are level 3 Disability Confident leaders, and 80% of local authorities are Disability Confident.

I hope I can be forgiven for saying—because I am going to say it anyway—that the House of Commons is a Disability Confident employer. It is absolutely right that we should be, but in case there are Members here who were not aware of that fact, they are now.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. My Harlow constituent, Lacey-Rose Saamanthy—a deaf lady—had a catering assistant job offer retracted by the Mid Essex Hospital Services NHS Trust on the basis that it could not mitigate against the so-called risks of her employment. This is despicable, so what steps is the Department taking to ensure that all employers, including the NHS, are signed up to the Disability Confident scheme and are aware of the funding available through the Access to Work scheme, as advocated by the National Deaf Children’s Society and others?

I know my right hon. Friend has championed the case of Miss Saamanthy and I understand that the trust has contacted her to discuss alternative roles in the organisation, including roles that staff with hearing disabilities have successfully been recruited into. I also encourage that particular NHS trust to sign up to the Disability Confident campaign.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme, which offers paid internships with training. The graduates graduated just last week. The one that I had the joy of hosting did very well out of that, and that was on the disability strand, hence my question. Will the Minister add his support to the disability strand of the scheme and also look at strengthening the learning from that scheme, so that we can help more employers in the public sector be better employers under Disability Confident?

Absolutely, and I am really encouraged to hear about that. Through the Disability Confident scheme and the Access to Work scheme, we want to do everything that we can to support these new opportunities being created, because ultimately, the employers benefit when disabled people’s talents are unlocked.

Thanks for the “young”, Mr Speaker.

The Minister seeks, in the Government’s proposal, to promote Disability Confident employers, but does he not recognise that, in April 2019, 85% of all mandatory reconsiderations for personal independence payment modified the original decision? Does he not agree that there seems to be rank hypocrisy in promoting Disability Confident employers while the Government are impoverishing my constituents in West Dunbartonshire and those across the United Kingdom?

We have over 2 million claimants on PIP, and only 5% of the applications have been taken to appeal. I recognise that those who go through the independent appeal process will, more often than not, have a decision overturned, which is why we have been working extremely hard, through a series of pilots within PIP, on the mandatory reconsideration stage and the independent appeals stage, so that we can get hold of the additional oral and written evidence earlier, which is what is often used to get the decision changed. This is an absolute priority for the Secretary of State and we are making sure that we are doing everything we can, as quickly as we can.

Universal Credit: Vulnerable Claimants

12. What steps the Government are taking to increase financial support for vulnerable universal credit claimants, compared with the legacy system. (911652)

15. What steps the Government are taking to increase financial support for vulnerable universal credit claimants, compared with the legacy system. (911655)

Universal credit ensures that support goes to those who need it most by simplifying the previously complicated legacy system, allowing 700,000 more people to receive approximately £2.4 billion in unclaimed benefits. Since 1 April this year, the Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland Help to Claim service has been in place, providing free, confidential and impartial support to help people, including those who are vulnerable, to make a universal credit claim.

I acknowledge the work that the Minister and the Secretary of State have done to improve universal credit, though concern remains that the five-week wait for the first payment is presenting a serious challenge to many people. To address this, will he accept the recommendation of the Bright Blue think-tank for one-off, up-front helping hand payments?

Those moving to universal credit will get more than 25% of their award through two weeks of additional housing benefit and, as of next year, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance and income support. Advances are available to cover the interim period, but we recognise the concerns about the payments in arrears and would welcome further ideas.

Vulnerable universal credit claimants often need to travel, sometimes long distances, to regular hospital appointments. What can the Minister do to help give these people the financial security they need to attend those regular and important appointments?

Universal credit claimants may be able to claim a refund for the cost of travelling to a hospital for treatment through the NHS healthcare travel costs scheme. To claim travel costs, claimants should take travel receipts, as well as their appointment letter or card and proof they are receiving a qualifying benefit, to a nominated cashiers office, which will be located in the hospital or clinic that treats the claimant. I should advise my hon. Friend that costs can be claimed back up to three months after an appointment.

The requirement for explicit consent built into universal credit makes it difficult for organisations such as Macmillan to support claimants as they did those on legacy benefits. When will the Government meet their commitment to review this requirement with the Social Security Advisory Committee, how will they engage stakeholders and when do they expect to report their findings?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point—it concerns me too. We have agreed to work collaboratively with the Social Security Advisory Committee to consider how current practices could be enhanced, and to publish a report on our joint conclusions.

A constituent of mine, Claudette, lives with her son, who is disabled, in private rented accommodation. She is in receipt of universal credit, but she did not receive her April rent payment, and the Department is refusing to investigate. Prior to that and ever since, universal credit has covered her rent. Will the Minister meet me to review this case, as my constituent fears eviction?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that individual issue. I would like her to raise Claudette’s case with me. My door is always open, as I know are those of other Ministers in the Department, and of course I would be delighted to meet her.

At the last oral questions, I raised the case of single parent Alicia in my constituency, who had seen fraudsters claim universal credit for her. The Minister promised to investigate but still has not. In the meantime, we have seen hundreds more cases across Greater Manchester, including that of my constituent Sarah, who has now, in spite of reporting the fraud, been asked to attend an interview under caution and been further victimised by the Department. Will the Secretary of State please make sure that victims of fraud and crime are not further victimised by her Department?

We take fraud incredibly seriously, and I believe that the matter in question is being investigated. If the hon. Lady has further cases, she can refer them to me or the Minister for Employment, and we will look at them very carefully.

The pilot of the Government’s ill-conceived managed migration of universal credit is meant to start this month, but the Government have been very slow in coming forward with details. Is this because the level of payment to severely disabled people who lost out when they transferred to universal credit was found to be unlawful by the High Court?

The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work has been very clear on this. We are still considering it and will come back to the House in due course.

The Government have repeatedly responded to criticisms of social security cuts—and have done so today—by claiming that they are targeting those who need support the most. How does that accord with spending nearly £200,000 on legal battles with severely disabled people and single mothers who have lost out under universal credit?

Let me gently point out to the hon. Lady that we are spending more than £6 billion a year on the main disability benefits.

Personal Independence Payment

13. What steps her Department is taking to support claimants whose mobility awards were (a) reduced and (b) stopped when they moved from disability living allowance to personal independence payment. (911653)

Let me answer the hon. Gentleman’s question and provide an important update on the Government’s work with Motability.

When PIP was first introduced, the Government worked with Motability to design a £175 million transitional support package to support Motability scheme customers who have not been awarded the enhanced mobility component on reassessment from DLA to PIP. Motability announced today that it would provide substantial additional financial support, including £1,000 for customers who lose eligibility for the scheme as a result of a PIP reassessment. It will also fund grants for personal contributions to the Access to Work scheme, and will accelerate the programme that is being undertaken with Family Fund to help many more families with severely disabled children under the age of three. I pay tribute to the proactive and constructive work done by Motability Operations in further supporting disabled people in society.

Notwithstanding what the Minister has said, some 52% of UK claimants who were claiming a mobility element under DLA found that it was either reduced or stopped altogether when they moved to PIP, and 2,370 people in the highlands have been hit in that way. Obviously, getting around in the highlands is not easy, and access to transport is not easy. Will the Government please look at this issue? My constituents are losing out, and it seems to me extremely unfair that those figures are so high.

Among those who have made the transition from DLA to PIP, an extra 144,000 who did not qualify for the enhanced mobility rate under DLA now do so under PIP. We have continued to work with Motability in respect of the additional transitional support that it has announced, and we will continue to keep a close eye on this important area.

Given the time constraints, it would be helpful to the House if the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) were to shoehorn her inquiry in the next question into this one.

14. My constituent Siobhan Fennell spends a great deal of time training local businesses in Belper in how best to accommodate customers with disabilities such as autism and dementia and conditions that cause limited mobility, and she has made a huge difference to the local community. Will my hon. Friend commend her work, especially given that she is in a wheelchair herself? She is passionate about her mission. (911654)

I absolutely commend my hon. Friend’s constituent for the work that she does in her community. I also congratulate Ms Fennell on receiving the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s birthday honours, as well as a national citizenship award in recognition of her work: a true tribute.

Universal Credit: Access to Legal Aid

16. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on universal credit claims and access to legal aid. (911656)

The Ministry of Justice is responsible for access to legal aid, and we will continue to work closely with it as it reviews the means test for entitlement. However, that is not the only initiative on which we have been working together. For instance, I recently announced an ex-offenders pilot scheme, which will provide enhanced employment support and help with access to universal credit in order to lift people out of the cycle of reoffending.

Solicitors in my constituency have told me that the DWP is refusing to supply written confirmation in the precise legal format that is required for legal aid applications made by people on universal credit. It is a case of one Government body refusing to comply with the rules of another. Is the Secretary of State aware of how deep these problems go, and will she ensure that no universal credit claimant misses out on legal aid because the DWP cannot follow the rules of the Ministry of Justice?

I am surprised to hear that question from the hon. Lady. According to my experience and the evidence that I have received during my conversations with the Ministry of Justice, there is no problem and it has been possible to passport in the same way. I hope that that will continue, but, as the hon. Lady knows, the Ministry of Justice is conducting a review. If she will write to me about that particular case, I will look at it myself.

Pension Liabilities: Plumbing Industry

18. What recent discussions she has had with representatives from the plumbing industry on section 75 pension liabilities. (911658)

I met plumbing representatives from Lancashire recently, and those in Angus and Perth last year. We also debated this matter in the House last year. There are nearly 1,000 last man standing multi-employer schemes. Most respondents to the Green Paper on defined-benefit pensions felt that the current buy-out basis was a clear and fair way in which to calculate an employer debt.

My constituent Margaret Briggs, having paid £21,000 over 11 years with four employees into a pension scheme, has in the past four weeks received a demand for £331,000. How is she expected to pay this, and how can that possibly be rational and fair?

I cannot speak on the specifics of the individual scheme, but the majority of the employers in these schemes are incorporated and are not personally liable for any debt. The flexible apportionment arrangement can be used to help unincorporated employers who wish to incorporate, and the plumbing pension trustee has a streamlined flexible apportionment arrangement process that employers can use. Alternatively, where the employer debt arises in multi-employer schemes as a result of an employer cessation event, there are a number of mechanisms in the occupational pension schemes employer debt regulations that can be of assistance.

Topical Questions

Now that we have moved from the design to the implementation of universal credit we continue to seek ways to ensure that it is a fair, compassionate benefit that takes account of people’s circumstances. I know that there have been concerns across the House about how overpayments of benefits that result from fraud or error are recovered from claimants, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) for alerting me to this issue.

I am able to announce today that in cases where a claimant has been convicted of defrauding the Department and their only considerable asset is their home, we will take account of this prior to instigating Crown court proceedings to recover assets under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. This ensures a proportional response that should not result in the claimant having to subsequently apply to the Department for housing benefit. We believe this provides the right balance between pursuing what is owed to the Department and acknowledging the deprivation debt recovery can cause some claimants.

I had intended to ask another question, but I want to refer to the answer given to me by the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work; he is a very serious Minister but gave a very disappointing answer worthy of Sir Humphrey. The fact is that my constituent Lacey-Rose Samaanthy, who is deaf, was offered a job by the NHS in mid-Essex; I saw the letter. That job offer was then rescinded because it said it was too difficult. She then got another very similar job in another organisation and it was able to adapt to her needs. This sort of thing should not be happening; it is incredibly unjust, and I want to know what the Department is going to do about it by being humane and showing compassion to my constituent.

I thank my right hon. Friend for being such a great champion of people with disabilities and tackling the challenges they have in the workplace, and I must say that the example he has given is very disappointing, because we would always hope and expect employers to show compassion and support where they have applications and the opportunity to employ disabled people. The work that this Government are doing will always try to address that, and with my right hon. Friend’s help we will make sure we get it right.

The two men competing to be the next Prime Minister have both said they would be willing to push through a catastrophic no deal. That is despite long-running warnings that disabled people will be hit hard by a no deal, with risks to vital medical supplies and the recruitment of care workers and the loss of the European social fund. However, last week Ministers revealed that the Government have not carried out any assessment of the impact of no deal on disabled people, so will the Minister commit to carrying out such an assessment, and could he in good conscience be part of a Government who pushed through such a reckless act?

The hon. Lady may be aware that I have some concerns about no deal; I would much prefer that this country chooses to leave the European Union on the basis of a deal, and I am hopeful that when we have a new leader in place we will be able to arrive at that position, possibly even with the support of the hon. Lady, to try to ensure that we get an exit that supports disabled people as well as everyone else.

T6. I established a universal credit action group in my constituency to track local progress and add performance indicators to see how the roll-out is going in Clackmannanshire. What measures are in place to track local success and progress? Are Ministers willing to meet me to discuss the progress of my action group? (911669)

I thank my hon. Friend for the energy with which he is supporting his constituents on universal credit. One of the key performance indicators is, of course, payment timeliness, which has improved significantly over the past couple of years, and that progress is matched in Alloa jobcentre. His local jobcentre staff will be happy to interact with him and, of course, I am also happy to meet him.

T2. I have the honour of chairing the all-party parliamentary group for terminal illness, and we have been taking evidence over recent months on the challenges that dying people face in accessing social security due to the six-month rule. Incidentally, the Scottish Government are already committed to allowing clinicians to make judgments for PIP, with their limited powers. We will be launching the report on Wednesday at 4 o’clock in the Members’ Dining Room, so will the Minister attend and agree to meet me and Marie Curie to discuss the report’s findings? (911665)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work in this area, and I reassure him that there have been several meetings with Marie Curie on this subject. I will take an interest in the report that is coming out on Wednesday, and I can tell him that we are once more looking at this matter again.

T8. Will the Minister provide an update on the Department’s work to help people who are out of employment back into work, particularly in the Black Country and, more specifically, in my constituency of Walsall North? (911671)

As my hon. Friend knows, more people are in work now than ever before. Indeed, the employment rate is higher in every region of the country than in 2010, including in the Black Country. Specifically, he may already be aware that Willenhall jobcentre is working closely with major employers on employment opportunities and, of course, that our mentoring circles programme is being rolled out for 18 to 24-year-olds to help them increase their employability skills.

T3. I want to ask the Secretary of State about my constituent who hanged himself shortly after losing his personal independence payment. I wrote to her asking whether she would establish an inquiry, whether that inquiry would be independent, whether it would be headed by somebody who knows something about this area, whether it would report in three months, and whether the report will be made public. (911666)

I am taking this case very seriously, and I have had the right hon. Gentleman’s letter. At the moment, we are doing an internal inquiry, and if the right hon Gentleman will leave that with me, I will come and talk to him if anything additional is required.

T10. Earlier this year, I visited the Friendly Autism Moray Experience in Lossiemouth. FAME is paid for by the Lossie Entertainment Academy and works in collaboration with the DWP and Moray’s autism services. Local DWP manager Jane Munro has seen people on the project and believes that their contribution increases both their capabilities and their confidence. Does the Minister agree that we should support this valuable project? Will he also wish everyone involved with FAME all the best for the future? (911673)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting such a fantastic proactive example that is making a real difference, and I support anything further that we can do. The number of applicants to the Access to Work programme with a learning disability increased by 22% in the last year alone. That is an encouraging trend, and we must do much more in this important area.

T4. With £7 billion of unclaimed pension credit since 2017—equivalent to two out of five pensioner households entitled to that credit not getting it—how will Government respond to Independent Age’s “Credit Where It’s Due” campaign to ensure that everyone who is entitled to pension credit gets it? (911667)

I saw the report, which was published last week, and noted the findings on page 15 and the four recommendations, many of which we are already doing. Whether through jobcentres, third parties, local authorities or our various other communications, we want more people to be claiming pension credit, and we are trying to do everything possible to make that happen.

Last week I had a meeting with a Parkinson’s support group in my constituency and was told about the many struggles that sufferers face. Will the Minister review the 20-metre rule, so that more people with Parkinson’s who have mobility problems can qualify for essential support, such as the blue badge scheme?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss this further. It is a rule of thumb, but we have to look at whether somebody can repeatedly, regularly and safely travel 20 metres. I welcome the fact that, under PIP, 55% of those with Parkinson’s qualify for the highest rate of support.

T5. I spoke to a constituent at the weekend who has a lifetime disability living allowance award, but she is now being told that she has to apply for personal independence payment. She is obviously very worried about the situation, not least because there are so many cases online of people with indefinite awards being turned down for PIP. Why can we not transfer the data over so that somebody who has been assessed as having a lifetime need can automatically qualify for lifetime PIP? (911668)

I understand why the hon. Lady raises that question but, under DLA, only 15% of claimants actually got the highest rate of support, whereas the rate under PIP is now 31%. One of the key things is that 70% of DLA claimants were on lifetime awards, yet one in three claimants’ condition had significantly changed within 12 months and they would have been entitled to a different rate—predominantly a higher rate, rather than a lower rate—and we do not want people to miss out. That is why, under PIP, we are now spending an additional £6 billion a year to support some of the most vulnerable people in society.

There has recently been a noticeable increase in the number of my constituents in receipt of personal independence payment who, on reassessment, have had it stopped or reduced. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss this worrying trend and to see what we can do to sort it out?

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend. We work closely with stakeholders to look at how we can continue improving the system, but I repeat that we are now spending an additional £6 billion and that a significantly higher rate of claimants are now on the highest level of support, and rightly so.

T7. With the childcare element of universal credit being paid in arrears, many people, particularly women, face a real barrier to entering work. Will the Secretary of State look at either paying that element in advance or paying for the first month of childcare for free so that all parents can access the employment market? (911670)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this question, and I am mindful of the Select Committee report that addressed some of it. We have now made changes so that women going into work for the first time from benefits—either universal credit or a legacy benefit—will be able to access advance payments for that first month so that they do not have to find the money themselves. I am making sure that work coaches have more independence to support people back into work; that is one of the changes I have made.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Government remain committed to tackling poverty so that we can make a lasting difference to long-term outcomes. I am pleased to say that the Government have lifted 400,000 people out of absolute poverty since 2010, and income inequality has fallen.

We have made substantial responses to Philip Alston’s report. We have acknowledged some of his suggestions, and we will look at changing our assessments on poverty by using the Social Metrics Commission’s proposal. Otherwise, we are disappointed by the very political nature of his approach.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, when fully rolled out, spending on universal credit will actually be £2 billion a year higher than is currently spent on the equivalent legacy benefits, and that this will be worth some £300 a year to each recipient family?

I can confirm that, and it is refreshing to be able to point out that universal credit is, compared with the legacy benefits, a more generous, more effective and better-targeted system, and it is also better funded.

My 16-year-old constituent has a severe hearing impairment and has been on DLA since the age of three. My constituent has recently been reassessed and is now receiving no support whatsoever. How do the Government justify such decisions?

Without having the full facts of a case it is difficult to comment, but I am happy to look into that specific one. When we compare DLA with PIP, we are talking about an additional £15.04 of benefit support a week per claimant.

Okay, I will take the point of order now. The hon. Gentleman has been jumping up and down like a veritable Zebedee, and so I shall accommodate him on this occasion, but I advise him that in the ordinary course of events points of order tend to be taken after statements. [Interruption.] It is not obligatory, and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care can wait for his statement. I know he has all sorts of other activities in which he wishes to be busily engaged, but I am afraid he will have to wait.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you very much for finding the time for this. I am standing next to the Leader of the Opposition, whose fitness is legendary. I wonder whether you have received an application by a Minister to make a statement to the House on the principle of civil service neutrality. I ask following the undemocratic and unconstitutional public intervention attributed to senior civil servants and based on a falsehood printed in Saturday’s The Times. No doubt you will agree that since the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan reforms the professionalism and objectivity of our public servants has been admired throughout the world, and it is a cornerstone of our democracy. But there must be no hesitation at all in condemning the kind of behaviour reported, and I would hope that the Government will root out any miscreants who have behaved in this way. Finally, I wonder whether you can do anything to encourage Ministers, if they have not already approached you, to make a statement in the House or arrange time for a debate about this very important principle.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I have not received any indication that a Minister is planning to make an oral statement in the House on this matter, although it is perfectly open to a Minister to offer to do so. The Northcote-Trevelyan principles are of the utmost importance, and I hope they will be upheld by Governments indefinitely. They have existed for a long time because the principles involved—permanence, anonymity and neutrality—are absolutely sacred. I simply suggest that the hon. Gentleman pursues the matter with his characteristic persistence and vigour, and I feel sure that, using the Order Paper and the resources provided by the Table Office, he will be happy to do so.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I just want to reassure the House that we have complete confidence in the fairness and independence of the civil service. It has said that it will respond and I frankly question the good judgment of the shadow Minister for bringing this up in the House at this stage, before it has had the chance to do so.

I do not want to dwell on this matter. Suffice it to say that the Leader of the Opposition looks perfectly healthy to me; I have known him a long time and he is a very healthy-living fellow in my experience. On a serious note, I do think that the convention is sacred and it really should not brook of any dispute across the House. It might be best to leave it there. I gently suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he has made his point with considerable lucidity and let us leave it there.

We come now to the statement from the Health and Social Care Secretary, which he has been eagerly awaiting. I know that he will want to deliver his own words with every ounce of aplomb at his disposal. I call Secretary Matt Hancock.