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Topical Questions

Volume 670: debated on Monday 27 January 2020

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.