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Topical Questions

Volume 662: debated on Monday 1 July 2019

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 That job offer was then rescinded because it said it was too difficult.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.