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Topical Questions

Volume 664: debated on Monday 7 October 2019

It is a pleasure to be in the Chamber as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, leading a fantastic Department that serves people from the Shetlands to the Scilly Isles, with more than 20 million customers across the country. In my short time in this role, I have already witnessed at first hand the inspiring and incredible work of civil servants throughout the country, and they are benefiting as well in seeing our employment rate continuing at a joint record high and an unemployment rate at its lowest since the ’70s. There is more to do, however, and I will keep focusing on improving the payment of universal credit and ensuring that we support everyone in society.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s sunny disposition in outlining her priorities, but the retirement plans of millions of women born in the 1950s are in ruins because of a decision by the previous Conservative-Lib Dem coalition Government to accelerate the increases in the state pension age. Last week, a decision in the High Court made it clear that only a political decision could deliver a just solution for these women, so will the Government now give the WASPI women dignity in retirement? Some 197 MPs have signed early-day motion 63 calling for justice for the WASPI women and for this historic injustice to be put right.

The High Court set out quite clearly that successive Governments had taken a measured approach in recognising the inequality in the state pension age and the need to increase the state pension age. Indeed, it was the Pensions Act 2007 that started the trigger going beyond 65. It is important to recognise that and the efforts made to communicate it, but I can assure the House that, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there are record numbers of women in employment. We will continue to support them in fulfilling their careers.

T7. I am privileged to have the universal credit processing centre for the south-west in my constituency. The staff there do an incredible job making sure the roll-out of universal credit is successful. They have done so well they have been asked to take on processing for several London boroughs, but they are currently experiencing very high case loads because of the transfer of employment and support allowance to universal credit. Will the Secretary of State make sure they get all the resources they need so that we can support these incredibly hard-working frontline staff? (912589)

My hon. Friend is right to praise the people who work for the DWP in his constituency. We have more than 4,000 civil servants in service centres nationally and we constantly monitor the volume of work as universal credit grows, but I assure him that sufficient resources will be in place to support those workers in his constituency.

T2. Last month, I met my constituent Dr Karen Gilmore, a specialist in pain management, and several of her colleagues and members of the independent assessment service. We discussed how the personal independence payment assessments in particular do not meet the needs of people living with chronic and severe pain. Will the Minister meet Dr Gilmore and me to discuss how we can improve these assessments? (912584)

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and her colleague. We are determined to continue to improve PIP—31% of claimants now access the highest rate of support, compared to just 15% under the legacy benefits—but I would welcome any additional information.

As we have heard, many 1950s-born women have now reached the age at which they expected to receive a pension but are not, and many are struggling. Given that the judicial review is now out of the way, will the new Secretary of State agree to meet me and my co-chair of the all-party group on state pension inequality for women, the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), to discuss the proposals in the transitional arrangement document we produced? Can she also give us an estimate of how many women are affected in this way and whether they are in work?

That was about four questions in one. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) in due course.

T3. The benefits freeze has driven increased food bank usage in my constituency, as family incomes have fallen far below rising costs. The freeze is supposed to end in April. What work is the Secretary of State doing now to assess the real minimum income levels necessary to avoid destitution? (912585)

Such decisions need to be made fairly soon, and I am conscious of the analysis presented to me and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), as we make decisions on that matter.

On Friday, I visited the new Barnstaple Work Club, a fantastic initiative giving support to those seeking employment, particularly those with disabilities. Will the Minister join me in welcoming this new initiative and in thanking the volunteers as well as Barnstaple library for hosting it?

It would be a pleasure to thank those volunteers doing so much to create new opportunities for disabled people, which is something I know my hon. Friend, as their MP, regularly champions, as I have seen at first hand on some very good visits there.

T4. This morning, at the start of Challenge Poverty week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report entitled “Poverty in Scotland 2019”, which looks into some of the reasons why poverty levels in Scotland are not quite as bad as those in the rest of the United Kingdom. One of the major factors that it identifies is the much greater availability of affordable housing, and, in particular, the impact of nearly 20 years of council house building, and the fact that the Scottish Government have built 87,000 affordable houses since 2007. Does the Minister agree that, while he may claim that work is the best way out of poverty, unaffordable housing is a sure-fire way into poverty? Will the UK Government learn the lessons of what is happening in Scotland, and make social and council housing something to be celebrated instead of something to be demonised? (912586)

I do agree with the hon. Gentleman that secure and stable accommodation is one route out of poverty. It will come as no surprise to him that I raise this issue regularly with my counterpart at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. I have been pushing the Ministry to consider providing more affordable homes, and homes for social rent, as one of its policy initiatives.

As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for youth employment, I warmly welcome the Minister’s announcement about additional support for our young people. Can he confirm that mentoring will be an important part of that, given that it has been proved that it will help, in particular, those furthest from the labour market and the most vulnerable into work?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. In the middle of last year, there were 63 new mentoring circles in operation. The circles originally focused on the race disparity audit, but they are now being rolled out across the country, as was agreed last January. I recently met the members of one circle in Basingstoke, where they were having a real effect on local young people who know what is around them. Mentors, businesses and employers can do a great deal to change young people’s lives locally.

T5. Childcare in York can cost more than £1,000 a month, and those on universal credit are being asked to pay that amount upfront. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that providers have the resources that they need and claimants are not having to pay? (912587)

Childcare provision is far more generous under universal credit than it was under the legacy benefits system. Another recent change is that the flexible support fund can now be used to pay deposits or first month’s payments.

I call Toby Perkins. [Interruption.] I did not call a Conservative Member because I know that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) is normally paying the closest possible attention, and none of the hon. Members sitting on the Government Benches wished to contribute to the proceedings. I therefore alighted on the oratorical opportunities offered by the hon. Gentleman.

T6. There is literally nothing else to say about Conservative welfare policy. The truth is that anyone who has met people who work in a food bank, or people who work with the homeless, will recognise that there is a direct link between welfare policy, the sanctions regime, and the increase in homelessness and poverty. What serious work will the Government do to address that link—or will they at least have the decency and honesty to admit that that increase in homelessness and poverty is an absolutely accepted part of Government policy? (912588)

That is simply not the case. The first time that I became involved with a food bank was in 2006, when people were falling between the gaps. One of the things that make me proudest of the Conservative Government and the coalition is that people are better off in work than out of it unless they cannot work, and we have championed the vulnerable. Universal credit is ensuring that people can have more and more income, and I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.

T8. What training is in place to make jobcentre and other DWP staff properly aware of the needs of claimants with learning difficulties? A claimant in my constituency has been left with just £40 a month to support his family because of the lack of support that he received in a jobcentre. (912590)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that important issue. We have doubled the number of disability employment specialist advisers, and we are ensuring that we do everything in our power to identify claimants who need additional support. That is a real priority for us.

T9. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on DWP budgets of the failure to promise to uprate pensions for UK citizens in the EU for more than three years, and also to guarantee their healthcare for more than six months, in a no-deal scenario? (912591)

The right hon. Gentleman will know that we are still in the middle of a negotiation for how we leave the European Union at the end of the month. It is important to stress that we have decided on a three-year rise unilaterally. We encourage other European Union countries to do exactly the same and we will continue to support those who have relied on UK pensions.

People with a terminal illness want the choice of whether to work or not, and they should expect help and support from their employer. Does the Minister support the TUC’s Dying to Work campaign, which asks businesses to sign up and promise not to sack employees who have a terminal illness, and will she encourage more businesses to sign it?

The TUC has done really good work here. We are working with employers to highlight the importance of making those sorts of changes, and this is an area where I am sure there would be cross-party support.

There are over 5,700 WASPI women in Inverclyde. Many have worked their entire adult lives. They have paid their dues and they were expecting a pension, not a benefit. If we mucked around with MPs’ pensions in the same fashion, many Government Members would be standing and asking questions. Will the Secretary of State commit to undertaking an impact assessment for all women affected by changes in the state pension age and, once completed, offer a payment acknowledging any disadvantages caused?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be speaking to his own Government, who have the power under sections 24, 26 and 28 of the Scotland Act 2016 to take interventions and address the problem that he has raised.

Why are the Government not tracking young people when they leave the youth obligation? As such, how do they know whether the scheme works? [Interruption.]

Order. This is very unseemly. The hon. Lady was asking her question and there is a lot of very noisy chuntering taking place between the SNP Benches and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who luxuriates in the lather of the Treasury Bench. It is very unfair on the hon. Lady, very unseemly and very uncharacteristic of the hon. Gentleman, who is normally a most emollient fellow.

The youth obligation programme is now being fully rolled out and looks at 18 to 24-year-olds making a new claim on universal credit. We had an internal evaluation report in April 2018 that identified a need for what the hon. Lady raises. We believe it is too soon to be looking at this, but I know that she and I share a great interest in how we can support our young people, and I am happy to speak to her further about this.

One way that the Government could start to put right the injustices done to the women born in the early ’50s who were denied their pensions is to have a discussion with their colleagues in the Department for Transport and local authorities and provide free bus passes. That would help them a lot.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the judgment given by the High Court on Thursday and, obviously, any individual local authorities that wish to address that point in a particular way.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) is being addressed by her leader, which is a very solemn matter. Nevertheless, I intrude, in the hope that she still wishes to ask a question.

Further to the points already raised by other hon. Members, there are 6,500 women in Edinburgh West who were born in the 1950s and who have been affected by last week’s Court judgment. Can the Secretary of State assure me that, in the meeting that she has agreed to with the chairs of the APPG, there will be a meaningful attempt to address the poverty that these women face and not just sweep it under the carpet like an inconvenient problem?

I refer the hon. Lady to the judgment that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has already raised. She might also wish to speak to her party leader, because she joined me in the Division Lobby when we made the changes that we did in the Pensions Act 2011. [Interruption.] Or rather, at least that the coalition Government did. I wish to make sure that we have a sensible conversation going forward, but the judgment stands. It is open for the ladies to appeal, but I can assure the House that we have made every effort, as did the Labour Government before us, to ensure that people knew about these changes.