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House of Commons Hansard
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27 January 2020
Volume 670

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pension Fund Investments: Climate Change

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1. What steps she is taking to work with pension funds to encourage them to make investment decisions that help tackle climate change. [900392]

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3. What steps she is taking to work with pension funds to encourage them to make investment decisions that help tackle climate change. [900394]

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With over £1.6 trillion in assets, UK occupational pension schemes have a significant role to play in supporting the Government’s commitment to net zero by 2050. Our environmental, social and governance regulations, introduced by this Conservative Government in October 2019, mean that schemes are now required to disclose their policy on climate change. In March, we intend to publish game-changing guidance on climate-related financial disclosure. I have written to the 50 largest schemes in the country to urge them to act on their investment duties and to tackle climate risk.

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I welcome the progress that has been made on pension funds addressing climate change and ask the Minister to meet me concerning a constituent who is unable to access her pension fund without paying in excess of £2,000 in fees for independent financial advice —money she does not have until she accesses her fund.

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I welcome my hon. Friend to the House, and I am happy to meet him—that will happen very soon. His constituent should understand that Parliament collectively required a £30,000 threshold whereby no individual can withdraw their defined benefit pension without first receiving advice from an independent financial adviser. As a Conservative, I am of course very keen for individuals to make their own decisions about their own money, but this decision was made and it ensured that an individual is protected from a decision without advice.

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As my constituents in Rushcliffe save for their retirement, they want to know about the potential financial risk to their pension pots from climate change and that their savings are helping to tackle, rather than embed, the climate crisis. My hon. Friend has done a lot to ensure that ESG plays a key part in pension providers’ decision making. Will he consider requiring them to disclose their exposure to climate-related risk to their members?

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It is a pleasure to welcome my hon. Friend to the House. She obviously knows that Ken Clarke was a legend to us all, and I am sure that she will be a great champion on behalf of the citizens of Rushcliffe.

Sadly, too few schemes are making any form of disclosure about their environmental investments and their climate risk, and I am determined to change that. Every private occupational pension holder should be able to know, individually, how their fund is invested and be able to hold the trustees and asset managers to account.

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With Australia burning, South sea islands drowning, millions suffering from pollution and many dying, the world faces an unprecedented climate crisis. The power of pension funds is immense and, while I welcome the funds that have demanded that investment managers must, in the words of the Minister, “do the right thing”, so much more can, and should, be done. Will he therefore agree to cross-party, Front-Bench discussions, including on convening a pensions summit of all those with power, urging them to discharge their responsibilities to clean up our world?

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I have been fortunate to work with the hon. Gentleman on a number of policies over the two and a half years that we have both held this portfolio. Clearly, I will wait to see the details of his proposals, but I would be delighted, subject to having read and considered them properly, to meet him and, at the very least, discuss how we take these matters forward.

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It is important that there is cross-party working on things that are as long term as pensions, but will the Minister assure the House that this transparency, which we all welcome, will not be paid for by massively increased fees charged to savers?

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The hon. Lady will understand that there are two points to her question: the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures is a voluntary arrangement that organisations have already entered into, and ongoing disclosure takes place; and in respect of the fees, the Government have agreed to review the matter in 2020, and we will look at that.

Self-Employed People: Support

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2. What steps she is taking to support self-employed people. [900393]

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Our work coaches provide tailored support to self-employed claimants, helping support new businesses to thrive and working directly with them to increase their earnings. We have ensured that those who are gainfully self-employed and moved to universal credit are exempt from the minimum income floor for 12 months. We are extending that to all claimants who are gainfully self-employed from September this year.

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I thank the Minister for that answer and am pleased that she is supporting self-employed people—not only in Rother Valley, but across the country. However, does she agree that the current blanket approach of the IR35 rule will lead to some damaging unintended consequences? Will she ensure that no one forced to take a permanent job under IR35 will lose out, and that we will continue to be the party of business and entrepreneurship?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question and welcome him to his place. I am delighted that more than 5 million people are now self-employed; that is fantastic news. This issue is the priority for me, alongside progression and youth opportunity. The Chancellor has announced a consultation in January and I urge all Members to take part; it concludes in the middle of February. We are keeping a close eye on this sector, and it is absolutely right that we should stand up for the self-employed.

Work Capability Assessments: Claimant Health

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4. What recent assessment she has made of the effect on claimant health of the work capability assessment process. [900396]

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We recognise that attending a work capability assessment can be a stressful experience and have put measures in place to address that. Where possible, we will determine benefit entitlement based on written evidence alone.

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Jodey Whiting took her own life in 2017 when her social security support stopped after she missed a work capability assessment that she did not know about. Last week, a psychiatrist said that Jodey’s mental state was likely to have been “substantially affected” by the DWP’s decision.

Last week, Errol Graham’s death was reported in the news. He died in 2018, of starvation. He weighed four and a half stone—again, under similar circumstances. Will the Secretary of State consider, as a matter of urgency, an independent inquiry into the deaths of claimants in these circumstances?

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I thank the hon. Lady for that question; she has been a long-standing campaigner against Labour’s work capability assessment, introduced in 2008. We agree: that is why we commissioned five independent reviews and implemented more than 100 recommendations. Working with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, we are making sure that our frontline staff are fully trained to be in the best place to identify people at risk of suicide.

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I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), for his ministerial visit to Macmillan call centre, which is based in my constituency. During his visit, he discussed the idea of people from the jobcentre and others having a dedicated helpline to the call centre so that they could discuss cases urgently. Will the Minister and his team make that a priority?

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Macmillan do fantastic work and engage regularly with both me and the Minister with responsibility for welfare delivery. I am delighted that there was such a productive visit to the call centre, which is making a real difference to people in need of support.

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I urge the Minister to look specifically at how those with acquired brain injuries are treated in the system. A woman constituent has come to me and said, “I know that I am meant to be using all my energy to try to heal my own brain, but I am having to use it all to go through the welfare system.” Is there nothing we can do to ensure that these people are treated more humanely in the system?

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I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who, as I know from first-hand experience, has raised this issue repeatedly. We are working with stakeholders, charities and claimants on how we can continue to improve the system, particularly when it comes to gathering evidence, so that we can get support to the people most in need as swiftly as possible.

Homelessness and Rough Sleeping

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5. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to (a) reduce homelessness and (b) end rough sleeping by the end of the 2019 Parliament. [900397]

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7. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to (a) reduce homelessness and (b) end rough sleeping by the end of the 2019 Parliament. [900399]

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9. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to (a) reduce homelessness and (b) end rough sleeping by the end of the 2019 Parliament. [900401]

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17. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to (a) reduce homelessness and (b) end rough sleeping by the end of the 2019 Parliament. [900411]

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As my hon. Friends will know, reducing homelessness and ending rough sleeping is primarily the responsibility of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but it is a key priority for the Government and the Prime Minister. I enjoy working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on the approach to delivering housing support to reduce homelessness, and I look forward to supporting his conversations with the Chancellor.

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Last Friday, I visited Northfield Community Partnership and The Project, which are doing fantastic work on reducing homelessness, especially focusing on mental health, access to welfare and debt. Will the Minister continue to commit to working with voluntary organisations to reduce homelessness?

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I commend my hon. Friend for the important work he does with the community partnership. Birmingham South West Jobcentre has an excellent relationship with the city council, delivering surgeries three times a week to help claimants with housing issues. My hon. Friend will be aware of the £6.5 million that the council received specifically to tackle the issue he raises. However, we will continue to work further with the organisations that he mentions, potentially through the new transformation challenge fund.

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My local jobcentre in Yeovil is very proactive in assisting the smooth transition to universal credit, but I still encounter cases in which rent arrears are a problem. What more can we do to ensure that we can intervene in cases in which arrears threaten to make people homeless?

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My hon. Friend will be aware of the money given to councils—including £359,000 for his own council—to help them to support homeless people. Issues such as this can often be addressed not only by discretionary housing payments but by the flexible support fund which provides hardship payments through local jobcentres.

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I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s earlier response, but will she please tell us what is being done to help ex-forces personnel into work?

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My hon. Friend—indeed, my hon. and gallant Friend—raises an important point. Last year we secured about £5 million in the spending review to bolster the role of our local armed forces champions, which means that in the forthcoming year we shall be able almost to triple the resources to support full-time champion posts so that we can try to ensure that veterans are given work that is fruitful and long-term.

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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her responses so far. Thanks to the work of the Government, the west midlands Mayor Andy Street and local authorities in the region, the Housing First project has made great progress so far, enabling 137 people across the region to move into their own homes and get back on track, apply for work and rebuild their lives. Will the Secretary of State join me in supporting Andy Street’s mission to end homelessness in West Bromwich East and the wider west midlands, and will her Department work with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government so that we can reach the Prime Minister’s target of ending homelessness and rough sleeping during the current Parliament?

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My hon. Friend is right to praise the work that is being done in the west midlands through Andy Street, and I commend her support for it. I shall meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government later this week, and our officials are already working together on a programme to tackle homelessness.

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The Scottish Government are spending £50 million to ensure that no one has to pay the bedroom tax, which is helping more than 70,000 households to sustain their tenancies. Will the Secretary of State make it her policy to abolish the bedroom tax so that we no longer have to mitigate this unfair policy in Scotland?

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I actually think that the spare room subsidy was an important part of a change to deal with the challenges of homelessness, which we have just been discussing. I absolutely believe that we will continue that policy, but, as ever, when there are problems, part of the role of the discretionary housing payments is to deal with them. The hon. Gentleman will be aware—I think I am right in saying this—that the Scottish Government have not introduced that policy quite yet, but intend to do so later in the year.

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Anyone who has visited a food bank or has met homeless people on their streets will know that welfare policy is the No.1 reason for the appalling rate of homelessness in our towns. As a simple starting point, if the housing element of universal credit were paid to landlords, we could make a start towards ending the appalling problem of homelessness that welfare policy is currently inflicting on our streets.

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, it already can be.

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One of the real concerns in my constituency is the inability of people who want to rent to do so privately with the money that is available. Will the Secretary of State look at local housing allowance rates to ensure that families who could be living in the private sector—because they cannot obtain social housing—are not living in single hostel rooms, as many of my constituents have been for many years?

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I am sure that the hon. Lady will welcome the increase in the local housing allowance from April 2020. I am conscious of the fact that two thirds of the people who are homeless are in London, and I really wish that the Mayor of London and his devolved authorities would get on and help to sort this out.

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Would the Minister consider using all the orphan funds swilling around in pension funds to create a new fund that could do something about this issue? On Wednesday night, I counted 15 people sleeping rough right outside our door in the tube station. Has she been to ask those men and women what brought them there? Could we not use orphan funds for that purpose and for fighting climate change?

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On a broader point, we are considering aspects of liquid assets, and we have seen the example of Legal & General, which is starting to get into the housing sector. I reiterate that when the Prime Minister was Mayor of London he made it a personal priority to ensure that no one spent more than one night outside. We have not seen quite that emphasis under this Mayor, but I am sure that he will seek to do this before the elections in May.

People with Disabilities: Assessments

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6. What steps she is taking to reduce the number of assessments undertaken by people with disabilities. [900398]

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We have made improvements to reduce assessments for work capability and personal independence payments. This includes reducing review frequency for pensioners and people with severe or progressive conditions. We are also exploring our manifesto commitment to ensure a minimum award review duration for PIP awards.

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I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks, but I would like to tell him about a constituent I met recently who suffers from a progressive condition and is bothered about the frequency with which she is required to provide information, often the same information, on a form that is both lengthy and complex. Does the Minister agree that once an award has been made, the frequency of assessments should be reduced? Might that be considered in the forthcoming Green Paper?

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My hon. Friend has worked hard in this area for a number of years. As part of the forthcoming Green Paper, we will be looking at how we can better use evidence, how we can continue to improve the claimant’s experience, and how we can reduce the need for unnecessary face-to-face assessments through the integrated assessment principle.

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The Government’s national disability strategy finally recognises that the assessment process for PIP and ESA is burdensome for disabled people. Given that the Government now admit to the failures of these assessments, given the mental distress that they have caused, and given that more than 70% of decisions brought to an appeal tribunal are overturned and thousands of disabled people have died after being found fit for work, will the Minister now do more than simply lessen the number of reassessments? Will he scrap these unfit-for-purpose assessment frameworks for ESA and PIP once and for all?

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The hon. Lady calls for something to be scrapped while not setting out what the alternative would be. We recognise that when Labour introduced the work capability assessment it needed significant improvement. That is why we had five independent reviews and implemented more than 100 recommendations. We are now exceeding 92% claimant satisfaction with the work capability assessment, and 82% of PIP claimants are satisfied with the service they get. That is why, as a Government, we are now proud to spend an additional £10 billion a year supporting those with disabilities and long-term health conditions.

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I often have constituents come to see me who suffer from ongoing conditions that might be considered invisible disabilities. They tell me that the current assessment process does not accurately capture their conditions. Will the Minister continue to keep the assessment process under review, to ensure that it is fit for purpose in assessing people with invisible disabilities?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As we have seen under PIP, 32% of claimants now access the highest rate of support, compared with just 15% under DLA. It is the hidden disabilities that have seen the most significant growth in that regard. For example, with mental health, 33% of claimants now get the highest rate, compared with just 6%—that is five times less—under the legacy benefits.

In-Work Poverty

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8. What recent assessment her Department has made of trends in the level of in-work poverty. [900400]

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May I welcome you, Mr Speaker, and the hon. Lady to your respective places? Since 2010, there have been more than 3.8 million more people in work and 730,000 fewer children growing up in workless households. Over three quarters of this employment growth has been in full-time work, which has been proven substantially to reduce the risk of poverty. But it is not enough to have just any job: we want people to be able to progress in the workplace. To do this, we are investing £8 million to develop the evidence about what works to support people to progress.

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Just 33 working hours into January this year, FTSE 100 bosses had already earned more than the average worker makes over the entire year. Since the Conservative party came into power, wages have faced their biggest peacetime squeeze since the Napoleonic era, and more than 4 million people are now in work but none the less still in poverty. It should be no surprise that the economy works for the super-rich and fails for everyone else, when the Conservative party is funded by a third of UK billionaires. Given that shameful record, why should my constituents believe a word that this Government say about tackling the scourge of poverty pay?

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As far as I am concerned, one person or family in poverty is one too many, and I will work to tackle that while I am in this role. The statistics show that full-time work substantially reduces the chances of poverty. The absolute poverty rate of a child when both their parents work full time is only 4%, compared with 44% when one or both parents are in part-time work. We are supporting people into full-time work where possible by offering, for example, 30 hours of free childcare to parents of three and four-year-olds. The jobcentre in the hon. Lady’s constituency is doing incredible work in this area, and I strongly recommend that she visit.

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What impact does the five-week wait for universal credit have on levels of in-work poverty and on poverty overall?

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Nobody needs to wait for an initial payment. An emergency or urgent payment of up to 100% of the first indicative award can be made within the first day in many cases. It is interest free and repayable over 12 months, increasing to 16 months as of next year.

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I am unsurprised that the Minister did not know the answer to that question because, in response to a freedom of information request from the Poverty Alliance, the Government said that they did not hold that information. Following on from the National Audit Office saying that there is no evidence that universal credit has any link to increased employment levels, we now know that the Government have done precisely nothing in an area in which MPs, expert charities, the Scottish Government and local authorities are screaming for change. Will this Minister encourage the UK Government to open their tin ears and fix universal credit?

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I recommend that the hon. Gentleman visits his local jobcentre and speaks to work coaches, because they will tell him about the impact of universal credit. More people are getting into and staying in work. Importantly, we do listen to hon. Members from across the House and to stakeholders within the Department. In addition to the measures I mentioned earlier, we now have a two-week run-on for housing benefit and will have a run-on for other legacy benefits as of October next year.[Official Report, 30 January 2020, Vol. 670, c. 8MC.]

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The reality of the so-called jobs miracle is nothing but a mirage for families up and down the country. Two thirds of children living in poverty are in working households, earnings have not even recovered to 2008 levels, and the use of zero-hours contracts went up by 15% last year. Will the Minister have a word with the Prime Minister and get zero-hours contracts kicked into touch once and for all?

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Employment has increased by over 3.8 million since 2010; the employment rate is 76.3%; unemployment is at its lowest rate since the ’70s, wage growth is outstripping inflation and wages are increasing at their fastest rate in a decade; and we have around a million fewer workless households and a record low 730,000 children in workless households. That is a record that we should be proud of. The hon. Gentleman talks about zero-hours contracts, but they account for 2.7% of the labour market and work very well for many people.

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With average weekly earnings having risen by 3.4% compared with last year, and with the national living wage set to receive its largest cash increase in April, does my hon. Friend agree that the Conservative party and this Conservative Government can rightly claim to be fighting poverty for hard-working Britons?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right that real wages have risen for over a year—22 months in a row. Total wages have risen by 3.2%, but we want to go further, which is why the Chancellor announced that the national living wage will rise to £10.50 by 2024 as part of our drive to end low pay.

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Trapping families in welfare year after year, which was a key feature of the last Labour Government’s welfare policy, never got anybody out of poverty. Does the Minister agree that the surest foundation on which to build a true anti-poverty strategy is to have an expanding workforce and increasing incentives for people to work?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Institute for Fiscal Studies slammed Labour’s pledge to scrap universal credit as uncosted and

“unwise…expensive, disruptive and unnecessary.”

We believe that work should always pay. We need a welfare system that helps people into work, supports those who need help and is fair for everyone who pays for it. Let us remember that no Labour Government have ever left office with unemployment lower than when they started.

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Can the Minister confirm that this Government’s numerous increases to the personal allowance since 2015-16 have taken a further 1.74 million people out of income tax altogether?

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Absolutely. Income inequality has been falling under this Government in real terms, and the national living wage will rise to £8.72 in April and to £10.50 by 2024. My hon. Friend rightly points out that our tax changes have made basic-rate taxpayers over £1,200 better off than in 2010. We have doubled the free childcare available to working parents of three and four-year-olds to 30 hours per week, saving them up to £5,000 per year per child.

Universal Credit Roll-out

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10. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of universal credit. [900402]

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A record 32.9 million people are in work in this country, up by over 3.8 million since 2010. Universal credit has successfully rolled out and is now available in every jobcentre, with a caseload of 2.8 million claimants. We continue to build evidence on the experiences of claimants through our ongoing programme of research and evaluation. The next phase of delivery is to learn how to safely move people across from legacy benefits, which we are doing through our “Move to UC” pilot.

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I have some extra information for the Minister’s research and evaluation. A problem regularly raised in my constituency surgeries is that claimants who receive two payslips in one month find themselves in real difficulty the following month. That is happening far too often for it to be loaded on individuals. Can something be done to alleviate these difficulties?

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The hon. Gentleman characteristically asks a very good question. Universal credit is based on real-terms earnings information, so it is a complex problem. We are subject to litigation on this matter, so I cannot go into too much detail, but I would be happy to meet him at a later point to discuss this issue further. I am keen to find a solution.

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The Government pushed through regulations on the managed migration of universal credit pilot only days before the summer recess without giving Members of this House a vote, as promised. In October, the Secretary of State said she was “surprised” by the small number of people who transferred in the pilot. How many claims have now been processed, and how can a pilot of up to 10,000 households possibly give a realistic picture of how transferring more than 2 million people could work?

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Universal credit provides a safety net but, importantly, does not trap people in welfare. The hon. Lady is right that we are running a pilot in Harrogate. The numbers are relatively small at the moment: just under 80, with around 13 having moved on to universal credit. [Interruption.] I can see that she is shocked, but it has been rather deliberate. My clear instruction to officials was to take this slow and steady, and to go at the pace the claimant requires. I want us to ensure that we have the information necessary to roll out universal credit without leaving anybody behind. We have to get it right.

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The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) raises an important point. This often occurs at Christmas, when helpful employers want to pay their staff early so they can afford to pay for all the things they need. Can the Minister assure me that the system will be fixed by next Christmas at the latest?

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As much as I would love to give my right hon. Friend that assurance, I cannot do so, but I assure him that I am working on it. Universal credit is based on real-time earnings data, so it is a tricky issue. No one loses out over the course of a year—that is an important point—but I understand that it causes budgeting issues for claimants.

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I thank the Secretary of State for recently visiting staff at the jobcentre in Holyhead on Ynys Môn. Can the Minister please confirm that universal credit will be more generous than the system it replaces?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I welcome her to her place. Compared with the system it replaces, universal credit will, in total, give claimants an extra £2.1 billion a year once fully rolled out. Around 1 million disabled households will receive, on average, around £100 more per month, and 700,000 families will get the extra money to which they are entitled. In short, the answer is yes.

Benefits: Administrative Errors

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11. What assessment she has made of trends in the level of administrative errors made in the processing of applications during the roll-out of (a) universal credit and (b) personal independence payment in Hartlepool constituency. [900403]

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Each UC or PIP application is judged on its own merit, taking into account the information provided by the claimant, and robust quality assurance processes are in place to reduce administrative errors.

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My constituency was a pilot and trial area for UC, and my office is still receiving complaints about simple administrative errors that have resulted in constituents losing money. When will the Department get its act together on this?

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Last year, administrative errors in UC fell from 2.3% to 2.1% in respect of wrong payments. We recognise that this is still a relatively new system, and we will continue to work with claimants, charities and stakeholders to make sure that UC can continue to offer personalised, tailored support to unlock all people’s potential.

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The day after the general election, the Government had the audacity to sneak out the fact that more than 650,000 disabled people lost out financially when transferring from the disability living allowance to PIP, which is 46% of all former DLA complaints. This should not be swept under the carpet, so will the Secretary of State explain why the Government have cut support for more than half a million disabled people?

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The reality is that under PIP 32% of claimants now receive the highest rate of support compared with just 15% under the legacy system—that is worth £15.05 per week—and there are now 257,228 more people benefiting from PIP than did so under the legacy system.

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UC smooths the transition into work and it smooths progression in work. Since it became the default benefit for newly unemployed people, we have had month after month after month of positive employment news. Is it not bizarre that Opposition Members want to scrap that system and return to the Labour system that saw millions of people either trapped in the 16-hour economy or shut out of work altogether?

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Obviously this is all tied in with Hartlepool.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for what he says, and it is absolutely clear to someone who visits a jobcentre anywhere in the country: for the first time, work coaches feel empowered to offer personalised, tailored support, working with external agencies to provide as much opportunity as possible. We must remember that under the legacy benefits £2.4 billion per year went unclaimed because the system was too complex for some of the most vulnerable people in society. That was not acceptable.

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Some 45% of disabled claimants in my constituency have, as was mentioned in a previous question, lost out when they have moved from DLA to PIP. I ask the Government: has a target been given to assessment centres to take money off the disabled?

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I can confirm that there is absolutely no target, and on PIP, DLA and attendance allowance combined we are now spending an £6 billion more than we did in 2010 and rightly so.

Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination

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12. What recent discussion she has had with Cabinet colleagues on protecting employees that are (a) pregnant and (b) eligible for maternity leave against discrimination at work. [900405]

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I remind everyone in the Chamber that the law is clear: pregnancy and maternity discrimination against women in the workplace is unlawful. This area is led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I can confirm that this Government want to do more and we have set out plans to boost vital legal protections.

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By some margin, Dudley North is not showing the same fantastic rate of progress we are making with people on employment in the black country and around the country. Will the Minister use all the business-friendly measures she can, such as promoting shared parental leave, to encourage people back to work?

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Whether it is shared parental leave or flexible working, we need to do everything to get more people into work and progressing. In a recent survey, four in five employers felt that it was in their interests to support pregnant women and bring them back to work. I remind the House that, under this Government, unemployment, in all nations and regions, has fallen since 2010, with 80% of employment since then in higher-skilled occupations—we are talking about 3.1 million people. If my hon. Friend is not seeing this in his constituency, I am keen to meet him to explore why.

Universal Credit: Monthly Assessment Period

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13. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the monthly assessment period for universal credit is able to reflect a claimant's fluctuating income. [900406]

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Monthly assessment periods align to the way the majority of employees are paid and also allow UC to be adjusted each month. They scrap the “cliff edges” that blighted the legacy benefits system and mean that if a claimant’s income falls, they will not have to wait several months for a rise in their UC.

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Salary payments that do not align with assessment periods have caused real problems for my constituents, not only in respect of the actual money that they receive but in respect of cash flow. Why will the Government not follow the recommendation of Unison and the Child Poverty Action Group and allow people to adjust the dates of their assessment period when they are paid very close to the end of the month?

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As I have already said in answer to two other colleagues, the amount of universal credit paid to claimants reflects as closely as possible the actual circumstances of a household during each monthly assessment period, so over the course of a year it levels out and people do not lose out. I appreciate, though, that there is a budgeting issue, and I am keen to find a solution.

Universal Credit: Personal Finances

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14. What recent assessment her Department has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on the personal finances of claimants. [900407]

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In total, universal credit is £2 billion a year more generous than the legacy system it replaces. For those who can work, universal credit ensures people take home more of their earned income and are supported to work more hours, whereas for those who cannot work, the higher disability element is more generous, meaning that 1 million disabled claimants will gain, on average, £100 a month.

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Last week, a report from the debt charity StepChange found that 65% of clients said that universal credit had made it harder for them to budget and manage their finances. Given the DWP’s oversight of the UK financial wellbeing strategy, what will the Department do to ensure that universal credit helps people to recover from debt and does not make the problem worse?

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I know that the hon. Lady has focused on this issue for a lot of her professional career, as well as for a lot of her parliamentary career. We do important work through the Money and Pensions Service to make debt advice available, and that is an important avenue to which people can be referred. We also work closely with Citizens Advice on the Help to Claim service, to help to provide that alternative holistic approach for which we fund the CAB.

Contracted-out Health Assessments

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15. What recent assessment her Department has made of the (a) accuracy and (b) efficiency of contracted out health assessments for (i) employment and support allowance and (ii) personal independence payment. [900408]

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We are committed to ensuring that individuals receive high-quality assessments that are used to decide entitlement. Providers are monitored against a range of measures, including independent audit, to improve accuracy of the advice they provide.

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Atos, Capita and Maximus constantly fail to meet their targets for acceptable standards of assessment, and many claimants in North Tyneside have suffered as a result. Will the Minister tell my constituents how his Department will remedy such failures and explain why the Government have seen fit to reward those companies with extended multimillion-pound contracts?

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As I have set out in previous answers, we are now spending an additional £6 billion through personal independence payments to support some of the most vulnerable people in society. Under the work capability assessment, we have 92% satisfaction, and under PIP it is 82%. We are ambitious for more and will continue to work with claimants, stakeholders and charities to improve the experience.

Universal Credit: Transitional Support

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16. What steps she is taking to provide support for people who require additional help transitioning to universal credit. [900409]

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20. What steps she is taking to provide support for people who require additional help transitioning to universal credit. [900415]

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The Department is working with a range of organisations to support claimants transitioning to universal credit, building on the success of the Help to Claim scheme, which is delivered by Citizens Advice and has helped more than 180,000 people. From April 2020, a new £10 million transitional fund will provide extra help to the most vulnerable, improving access to welfare and labour market opportunities.

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If someone is on a four-weekly payment cycle, they will be paid twice in one month every year. That cocks up their universal credit claim as well as their cash flow. Until we fix the system, would a simple solution not be to give an interest-free loan to tide them over that period?

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I am getting a strong steer that Members would like me to take a good look at this policy area, and I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestion. As he knows, we are always looking at ways to improve the UC system. The amount of UC paid to claimants reflects as closely as possible the actual circumstances of a household during each monthly assessment period, and those periods align to the way that the majority of employees are paid. I am of course willing to look into the issue, though, and am happy to meet my hon. Friend in due course.

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The Minister will know that Warrington was one of the first pilot towns to move to universal credit, back in 2013. Today, the town has record levels of employment. However, problems have been reported to my office: new claimants often have to wait beyond a reasonable timeframe to access help. Will the Minister come to Warrington to work with me to identify changes that will speed up the process for claimants, so that we can help even more people back into work?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question and welcome him to his place. He is a strong local champion, hence his election. I would of course be very happy to visit Warrington.

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Universal credit and transitioning to universal credit are causing real hardship in Nottingham, with more than 26,000 people using food banks for emergency supplies in the past year alone. Will the Minister accompany me to my constituency to see for himself the destitution and desperation caused by his Department’s policies?

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I visit constituencies all around the country. Only last week I was in Scotland visiting numerous jobcentres.

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We were not notified!

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SNP Members were certainly notified that I was coming.

If I get the opportunity, I would very much like to visit the hon. Lady’s constituency. It is important to say that, once fully rolled out, universal credit will give claimants an additional £2.1 billion a year. It is a more generous system and I would be happy to work with her and her jobcentre to see how it is working with her constituents.

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In 2013, I set up a food bank with various community leaders, not only because of the poverty and deprivation that existed, but because, at that time, there was the impending prospect of universal credit. Do the Government see food banks as a long-lasting feature for those of our population who happen to be dependent on universal credit?

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I do not want anyone to feel that they have no choice but to visit a food bank. What is really important for me is understanding the drivers of food bank use. I work very closely with the Trussell Trust and independent food bank providers. Representatives of the Trussell Trust, whom I regularly meet, tell me some of the issues involved, and we are looking at addressing them. Also important for me is understanding food insecurity, as it is the key to tackling the root causes of the problem. We have also put a question on the family resource survey, which launched in April.

Benefits: Tribunal Awards

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19. How many and what proportion of applications for (a) disability living allowance, (b) employment and support allowance and (c) personal independence payment that were considered by a tribunal resulted in a benefit award. [900414]

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These are the figures for the most recent period for which data is available: DLA 69%; ESA 77%; and PIP 76%.

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These numbers are far too high, and I suspect that one of the reasons that they are so high is that requisite paperwork is not provided until it reaches the tribunal stage. What can the Minister do to ensure that the paperwork from the applicants is provided earlier ?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is often the case that additional written and oral evidence is presented at the tribunal stage, which is why we have made significant changes to the mandatory reconsideration stage where we proactively contact claimants to try to assist in gathering that data. We rolled that out halfway through last year. It is now in all the mandatory reconsideration assessments, and we have seen a significant uplift in the number of appeals overturned at the MR stage, and that is a good thing.

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Since PIP was introduced, 30,000 people in Scotland have had to undergo stressful appeals, with 21,000 people having to go to court to receive their correct entitlement. Will the Minister’s Department overhaul the PIP assessment so that it works for disabled people, and not against them, or does the Minister intend to wait until Scotland can fix that for itself?

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I have just set out the answer. The hon. Lady does not need to wait. We actually made significant changes last year to gather that missing additional written and oral evidence proactively, making a huge difference, and we will continue to work with claimants, stakeholders and organisations to identify other areas to improve the experience.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [900417]

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In the week that we leave the European Union, I am pleased to say that our labour market continues to thrive. Employment has reached a new record high of 76.3% matched by a record number of people in work, pulling Britain forward into the new decade. That includes 15.5 million women—more than ever before—and 1.3 million disabled people have joined the labour market since 2013. This shows a bright outlook for our buoyant economy as we continue to grow and enhance the labour market in this new era for our country.

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Discrimination against women during pregnancy or periods of maternity leave remains a particularly problematic form of workplace discrimination, and it has affected many of my constituents. What steps is the Minister taking to improve the take-up of shared parental leave to remove the onus and the spotlight from new mothers at that particularly vulnerable period in their working lives?

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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy leads on this issue. I assure my hon. Friend that we encourage people to take up the options and we support their efforts. We will continue to do more with our work coaches on helping people to get the most out of working.

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The Government have said that the aim of the Pension Schemes Bill is to support pension saving, putting the protection of people’s pensions at its heart. However, this weekend, we learned that the Financial Conduct Authority is preparing to write to just over three quarters of firms that advised individuals on pensions between 2015 and 2018 about “potential harm” in their defined benefit transfer advice. How can the Government claim to have a joined-up pension policy when pension freedoms can be exploited, giving licence to rogue financial advisers to put at risk people’s savings for retirement? Some have paid a terrible price, impoverishing them for years to come.

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The hon. Gentleman will realise that FCA rules already require an individual to seek independent advice when making a DB transfer, but I urge the FCA both to crack down on transfer scammers and to ensure that the quality of advice is fit for purpose. I welcome the FCA’s action at this stage.

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T7. With take-up of entitlements such as pension credit and attendance allowance sitting at about 60% nationally, what material does my hon. Friend have to increase awareness of the benefits locally, and thus increase the number of claimants? [900423]

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My hon. Friend is right to raise that important point. We already publicise pension credit as much as we can, but we are working hard to get material into jobcentres and local authority premises to ensure that take-up is as high as possible.

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T2. Benefit claimants are two and a half times more likely to need a food bank if they are on universal credit than if they are on one of the predecessor benefits, and the main reason is the five-week delay after applying for universal credit compared with seven working days in the past. Will the Minister look at significantly shortening that delay, which is doing such harm? [900418]

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As I said earlier, no one has to wait five weeks for their first payment. People are able to get their initial payment on day one, repayable over 12 months—16 months as of next year. We have the two-week roll-on of housing benefit and a further two-week roll-on of additional benefits starting next year. I am considering other measures we might take, all of which will require Treasury approval, but I am happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss any ideas he has.

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T10. As my right hon. Friend knows, EU structural funds have been used extensively to support training programme in constituencies such as mine in west Wales. What progress is the team making in discussions with the Welsh Government about how to use the shared prosperity fund to continue to support high-quality training and skills programmes? [900426]

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My right hon. Friend is right to point to the creation of the shared prosperity fund. Discussion is ongoing within the Government. I know that the Wales Office is already engaged in conversation; we will engage in due course, once we have got through the initial design internally.

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T3. My constituent Anna Ward has been waiting five months for a PIP home assessment, but it has been cancelled twice at very short notice. Atos tells me that currently there are no appointments for home visits available in the Cambridge area. In any other walk of life, that would be totally unacceptable, so why do the Government think it is okay to treat disabled people so badly? [900419]

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The hon. Gentleman flagged up that issue with me earlier. We are investigating urgently, because that should not be the case.

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T4. There are now more than 84,000 people on universal credit in Birmingham, including more than 9,000 in my constituency. They include large numbers of disabled, unemployed and single-parent claimants, which is exactly the profile of claimants that the Resolution Foundation found will be worse off on average once the benefit is fully rolled out. If the Government are serious about levelling up economic outcomes across the country, why are they so determinedly ignoring the true impact of universal credit in areas such as mine? [900420]

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I recently visited a jobcentre in Birmingham, where I found an incredibly vibrant and positive labour market, particularly ahead of the Commonwealth games, working with women in construction and reaching out for youth employment opportunities. I am happy to speak to the hon. Lady if that is not her experience, but I implore her to pop into the jobcentre, where she will hear a very different, vibrant message.

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T5. Coventry South is home to one of the largest food banks in the country, which provided more than 20,000 emergency food packages last year. I pay tribute to the food bank and its volunteers, but the need for food banks is a national scandal. There are more food banks in Britain than there are McDonald’s restaurants—a company that I know recently paid off its fired British boss with roughly £30 million. Does the Minister accept that it is a gross injustice that nurses are forced to use food banks while fat-cat bosses receive obscene pay-outs? [900421]

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The hon. Lady is right to praise volunteers at her local food bank who support vulnerable people in their area. I visited a similar food bank in my own constituency that has been working together with food redistribution schemes. Marrying the two is a perfect way to try to address the challenges that people face at difficult times in their lives. The hon. Lady will be aware of the work that we have been trying to do with the Trussell Trust, and I am pleased to say that we will also be having a roundtable of independent food banks to understand how we can help them and their customers to move forwards.

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T6. Many constituents have raised concerns with me about their PIP assessment, and the accuracy of the information contained in the assessor’s report. All too often they say that the report does not accurately reflect how their condition affects them or what happened at the assessment. Can the Minister tell me what mechanisms are in place to ensure that assessments are carried out appropriately, so that we can be sure that the correct decisions are made on people’s claims? [900422]

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We rightly welcome the fact that we are now providing an additional £6 billion to some of the most vulnerable people in society through the PIP system, but we recognise that more needs to be done to gather evidence early. Through the forthcoming Green Paper, we will be looking at how we can work better with claimants to ensure that as much evidence is presented as early as possible in order to get the right decision first time.

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T8. In August 2018, leaked documents from the DWP showed that the Department was conducting a study into factors driving food bank usage. This appeared to show that at long last the Government were acknowledging the widespread rise of UK hunger as a direct result of their cruel welfare reform policies. I have since had it confirmed that the study is now complete. Where is it? [900424]

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To be open, I am not aware of the study to which the hon. Lady refers. I will find out about it after questions, so I can send her an answer in writing. As I have mentioned to the House before, food bank use is not what we want to see in the long term. The best way to get out of poverty is through work, which is why we will continue to help people up the escalator of career progression.

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Disability Direct in my constituency has a success rate of more than two thirds when helping claimants to overturn disability-related assessment decisions. Do Ministers not recognise that a welfare system that is so wrong so often is simply broken?

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The proof is in the pudding. Under PIP, 32% of claimants get the highest rate; that figure was only 16% under the legacy benefit. However, we have rightly identified that the majority of people whose cases have to go to appeal are providing additional written and oral evidence, which is why we are now more proactive at the mandatory reconsideration stage. That is already making a significant and welcome difference for claimants.

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The Scottish Government have used 15% of social security that has been devolved to Holyrood to exempt the war disablement pension from the assessment of income, meaning that our veterans get the full worth of that pension in Scotland. When will the Department and the Secretary of State make the same commitment for all social security benefits?

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The Scottish Government are already undertaking a series of policy changes that they recognise will take some time to work through the system, while they also create their own. I think it is best to ensure that those policies are well established before we consider any further devolution.

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Will the Secretary of State assure the House that there are no plans to reintroduce employment tribunal fees?

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I am not aware, because as the hon. Gentleman will know, employment tribunals are basically managed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, rather than the Department for Work and Pensions. I therefore encourage him to table a written question to BEIS instead.

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My constituent did not wait five weeks for a universal credit decision. She waited five months and then started to receive payments, but there has been no mention of the backdated five months or whether a decision has been made. Will the Secretary of State urgently look at that case? If she lets me know the next time she sends one of her Ministers to my area, I will take him along with me and he can explain to my constituent why she nearly went bankrupt.

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I suggest that the hon. Lady lets the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), know directly about her constituent’s particular circumstances so that he can follow up on that individually. I know that he believed that he had let hon. Members know about this matter. We take the issue seriously, and we will check after Question Time what happened regarding the communication.

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Greggs in Newcastle has, as we know, given its workers a £300 bonus to share in its success as a company. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is the right thing for employers to do? Does she see why so many of the employees who are on universal credit will lose so much of that bonus because it is treated as a monthly income rather than an annual income, which is what it is?

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It is a one-off payment, so, in effect, it is treated as income as it would be for tax purposes. Over the course of a year it would of course balance out. It is important to stress that under the legacy benefits system it would have attracted a marginal tax rate of 91% maximum as opposed to only 75% under universal credit.

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The Secretary of State’s answer to my earlier question about homeless people’s universal credit payments going to their landlords missed the point completely. Many people who are homeless have alcohol or drug abuse issues. Giving the money to them directly is not solving the problem; it needs to go to the landlord. Rather than saying that it is a choice for them, that choice should, in many cases, be made for them.

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I will have to repeat the answer: that can happen.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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I am going to take points of order. This is exceptional—it would not normally be the case—but the Minister wishes to respond so it makes a lot more sense.

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Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) pointed out, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), was in several of our constituencies last week and did not give any of us the courtesy of informing us. I would suggest to the Minister that rather than gadding about eating deep-fried Mars bars and patronising us, he might want to meet the Glasgow Disability Alliance, whose hustings I attended during the election campaign. Its fury at Tory incompetence on the benefits system is well known in the region, and he should meet it rather than disrespecting all of us.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister was also at Ibrox stadium in my constituency, where he met the Rangers Charity Foundation, and again we were not notified. For the benefit of new Ministers, can you inform the House of the protocol for Government Ministers visiting constituencies for which they are not the home Member?

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The protocol is that all Members—whether they are Ministers, shadow Ministers or Back Benchers —who are carrying out political business in those constituencies should inform the MP that they are going there. I think it is wrong to break that protocol. I do frown upon it. It is not good practice, and it is a practice that I do not want to see happening again. In fairness, I am going to allow the Minister to come back on this, but we certainly know my position.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I have now checked with departmental officials and I apologise unreservedly that such notification was not given. I think that the hon. Members know me well enough to know that such notification would have been given. In fact, they would have been very welcome to join me on those visits, which were very interesting and very informative. When I return, I will certainly be giving notification and inviting them along.