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House of Commons Hansard
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09 March 2020
Volume 673

The Secretary of State was asked—

Workplace Pensions

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1. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of people contributing to a workplace pension. [901381]

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You have impeccable timing, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Workplace pension participation rates have more than doubled since the introduction of automatic enrolment under the coalition Government in 2012, rising from 42% in 2012 to 85% in 2018. In West Worcestershire, my hon. Friend’s constituency, 9,000 eligible jobholders have been automatically enrolled, and thanks are due to the 2,600 local businesses that are supporting them.

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This has truly been one of the great policy successes of the last decade, but many would argue that people are still not saving enough for a comfortable retirement. Does the Minister plan to use other nudge techniques, such as automatic uplifts whenever a person gets a pay rise, to encourage saving for old age?

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We have the 2017 review, which we continue to monitor and will implement going forward. Automatic increases are not part of the Government’s present plans, but I am actively looking to learn from private sector companies that are carrying out similar initiatives. I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest and would be happy to discuss this in more detail.

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Auto-enrolment, the creation of the last Labour Government, has transformed the lives of millions, with 10 million more now saving into a workplace pension, but 5 million people are still not covered because they are too young, because they earn too little or because they are self-employed.

The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) is right that 8% cannot be the summit of our ambition to ensure security and dignity in retirement. Does the Minister agree that 8% cannot be right, and will he agree to cross-party talks on putting right that wrong?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, we frankly speak far too often—virtually on a weekly basis —to ensure a cross-party approach to pensions policy. He is right that automatic enrolment was conceived under a Labour Government, implemented under the coalition and brought forward by the Conservatives. I accept that 8% is not enough going forward, but we await the 2017 review, the implementation of that review and further discussions on an ongoing basis.

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This Government need to demonstrate that they stand on the side of self-employed people. Given that millions of self-employed people are not saving enough for their retirement, what update can the Minister provide the House on the incentives and encouragement we are providing for self-employed people to pay into a pension?

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As a formerly very fat, self-employed jockey and a self-employed white-collar barrister, I fully appreciate the issues concerned. I agree with my right hon. Friend that these are issues we have to address. He will be aware that we are trialling self-employment matters on an ongoing basis with the National Employment Savings Trust and a variety of private sector organisations. We welcome unions and other organisations that wish to be part of that, and it is front and centre of what we are trying to do.

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Too many young people do not save for their pensions, so how can the Minister ensure that young workers are better represented in workplace pension schemes?

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The statistics are actually getting better by the minute. In 2012, only 35% of young people aged between 22 and 29 saved into a workplace pension. Now 85% of 22 to 29-year-olds save, but there is more we can do, including for the self-employed. The 8% that is being saved has made a transformational difference, and the opt-out rate among the young is the lowest of all the cohorts.

Universal Credit

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2. What steps she is taking to provide support for people who require additional help transitioning to universal credit. [901382]

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6. What steps she is taking to provide support for people who require additional help transitioning to universal credit. [901386]

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18. What steps she is taking to provide support for people who require additional help transitioning to universal credit. [901398]

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The Department is working with a range of organisations to support claimants who are transitioning to universal credit. Help to Claim, which is being delivered by Citizens Advice, is working effectively for claimants, and we are in the concluding stages of detailed discussions for a second year of delivery.

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On a recent visit to my local jobcentre, it was clear that we have excellent staff and that they support universal credit. Will the Minister outline what plans are in place for outreach services for those who might be intimidated by a visit to the jobcentre or, indeed, who want to access support online?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for visiting his local jobcentre. All jobcentres have wi-fi and computers available for claimants to access the internet. For those who are still unable to access or use digital services, or who are not able to travel, assistance to make and maintain their claim is available via the freephone UC helpline. As I mentioned, Help to Claim offers tailored practical support to help people make a UC claim.

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As universal credit is rolled out, I welcome the use of new technology to help applicants, particularly in Hyndburn. What support is available to make sure applicants make the best use of the new systems?

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Universal credit has been designed to be as quick and easy as possible for the user, ensuring claimants receive money at the earliest available opportunity. It is designed to be a digital-first service, ensuring we make the best use of technology to design a modern and effective working-age welfare system. It is important to note that our UC claimant survey found that 98% of claimants have internet access and have claimed online.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Is he aware that in Lincoln we are pleased that the claimant rate is as low as 4.4%, which is a vast improvement on what it was when I was first elected in 2010? Will he outline what other initiatives his Department is undertaking, as well as the local jobs fairs that Conservative MPs organise in their constituencies, to assist the 2,500 or so claimants in my constituency?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for all the work he does in this area, and I welcome him back to his place. In recent years, the Government have made significant investment to improve work incentives, including the reduction in the UC taper rate from 65% to 63% and an extra £1.7 billion a year put back into UC to increase work allowances for working parents and disabled claimants by £1,000 a year from April 2019. That provides a boost to the incomes of the lowest paid and results in 2.4 million families keeping an extra £630 a year of what they earn.

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The Prime Minister said last week that any workers who need to self-isolate because of the coronavirus and who are not eligible for statutory sick pay could claim UC. However, people have to meet a work coach at the start of a claim for UC, there is a five-week wait for the first payment and anyone asking for an advance also has to go to a jobcentre to have their identity verified. So how will people who have to self-isolate be able to claim UC?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As the Prime Minister set out last week, we will introduce, as part of the Department of Health and Social Care’s emergency Bill, provisions for statutory sick pay to be made from day one. Employers have been urged to make sure they use their discretion and respect the medical need to self-isolate in making decisions about sick pay. People not eligible to receive sick pay may be able to claim UC and/or contributory employment and support allowance, and staff at our jobcentres are ready to support people affected and can rebook any assessment or appointment that is necessary.

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That just does not answer the question, does it? Will the Minister therefore outline what happens where someone on UC has to self-isolate but has to go through work searches and is unable to attend a jobcentre? Will he expect that person to be sanctioned if she cannot turn up?

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Absolutely not, and discretion will, of course, be used.

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The Minister said last month that he of course thought that improvements could be made to UC. I agree, so perhaps he could outline some, starting with ending the two-child cap, ending the five-week wait and fully restoring the work allowances. Have those conversations been had between his Department and the Treasury, ahead of the Budget?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are a Government who listen. Let us look at the improvements that have already been made to UC: increased advances, of up to 100% of a full monthly payment; cutting the taper rate, so people keep more of their salary; increasing the amount someone can earn before their UC is reduced; scrapping the seven-day waiting times; introducing a two-week overlap of housing benefit; and, as of July, we are introducing a two-week overlap of various legacy benefits. There are lots of improvements to be made. They do, of course, require Treasury approval, and I am looking at these in a lot of detail.

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Like my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling), I recently visited one of the jobcentres that serves my constituency—it was in Grimsby and, along with the ones in Immingham and Barton-upon-Humber, it serves Cleethorpes. The staff there do an excellent job and they are very positive about UC. Will he congratulate the staff and do what he can to reassure those who are having problems transitioning to UC that the Government will be working to solve any of the existing problems?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for visiting the jobcentre, and he describes the same feedback that my Front-Bench colleagues and I receive when we visit jobcentres. UC is a modern, flexible, personalised benefit, which reflects the rapidly changing world of work. Conservative Members believe that work should always pay and that we need a welfare system that helps people into work, supports those who need help and is fair to everyone who pays for it. I can certainly thank the staff at that jobcentre for all the work they do.

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A major cause of difficulty in transitioning to UC is the five-week delay between applying and being entitled to benefit. The Work and Pensions Committee, at its first meeting last week, chose to make this the subject of its first major inquiry, and I am grateful to the Minister for the conversation we have already had about this. Will he confirm that the Department will do all it can to assist the Select Committee in its inquiry?

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I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his question. I start from the premise that we do not believe anybody has to wait five weeks for a payment under universal credit. Advance payments are available at the beginning of a UC claim and budgeting support is available for anybody who needs extra help. We have the two-week roll-on of housing benefit, and as of July this year we will also have the two-week roll-on of other legacy benefits. I will of course look carefully at the findings of the report by the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee.

Universal Credit and State Pension Payments

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3. What steps she is taking to reduce the length of time between a claimant’s last universal credit payment and first state pension payment. [901383]

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The Government recently announced that anyone reaching state pension age while claiming universal credit can receive a run-on until the end of the assessment period in which they reach state pension age. This removes any potential gap in provision, with such pensioners receiving, on average, an additional £350.

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The announcement in the written statement on Thursday was extremely welcome and a great victory for hundreds of thousands of pensioners throughout the country. I thank all Members from all parties who signed early-day motion 129, which highlighted the issue. As it was clearly a bad policy in the first place, what redress will the Government offer to those pensioners who have already suffered loss?

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First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for all his work in this policy area. As he rightly pointed out, the change does remove any potential gap in provision, with people reaching state pension age and leaving universal credit receiving an additional £350 on average. I stress that the process is already in operation on an extra-statutory basis, ensuring that nobody loses out on reaching state pension age. Legislation will be amended accordingly later this year.

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Will the Minister outline to the House what steps his Department is taking to support those citizens who have fallen into problem debt?

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Certainly—the breathing space policy is a prime example. If my hon. Friend would like to meet me or, indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who is the Minister for Pensions, we would be happy to do so to set out in more detail the action that the Government are taking.

People with Disabilities: Employment Support

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4. What steps she is taking to support people with disabilities into employment. [901384]

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11. What steps she is taking to support people with disabilities into employment. [901391]

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The Government are committed to seeing 1 million more disabled people in work between 2017 and 2027. We support disabled people to return to work through our work coaches and disability employment advisers. This is achieved through programmes such as the Work and Health programme, Access to Work and the new intensive personalised employment support programme.

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I welcome the news that 16,000 employers have signed up to participate in the Disability Confident scheme, which a fantastic initiative that helps employers to unlock the talent of workers with disabilities and is changing attitudes for the better. What plans does my hon. Friend have to expand the scheme further and encourage more businesses to sign up?

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I am pleased to report that as of last month we are at 17,353. We use Disability Confident to empower employers of all sizes to share best practice. Only last week, I met all the Health and Work programme providers to look at how they can work with those businesses that have signed up for Disability Confident to offer more opportunities for disabled people.

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I thank the Minister for his response. What is being done to support ex-forces personnel, who may have physical or mental disabilities, into employment, perhaps even through the auspices of bringing the armed forces covenant into statute?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who is the Minister for Welfare Delivery, has been doing a huge amount of work in leading on that issue. We are making sure that we offer resettlement support; support from our armed forces champions, for which posts there is a £6 million package of support; and early access to the Work and Health programme. The Office for Veterans’ Affairs is committed to putting the armed forces covenant on a statutory footing and it will have our full support.

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We all want to see more disabled people supported into work, but it is also vital that they receive the support that they are entitled to through employment and support allowance and personal independence payments. It has recently been reported that vulnerable and disabled people who have appealed against decisions to deny them those benefits are being pressured to accept unrecorded telephone deals that pay thousands of pounds less than they may be legally entitled to. The Minister’s Department is accused of telling some people that the offer would be withdrawn if they did not accept it within minutes. How can that practice possibly be acceptable?

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I thank the hon. Member for raising that issue, which was covered in the media. It is not something that should be happening. We have changed the mandatory reconsideration process so that we can try to support claimants who are challenging a decision to gather the additional written and oral evidence at that stage, rather than their having to wait for the lengthy independent appeal process. Stakeholders and charities are extremely supportive of that process, which is new and making a significant difference, but I am disappointed to hear that in some cases it has not been of the standard that it should be. We will review that.

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The trouble with many people who have had brain injuries, particularly traumatic brain injuries, is that the nature of their condition is such that it varies considerably from day to day, week to week. They can suffer from phenomenal lassitude, making it almost impossible for them to get out of bed—not out of laziness, but because their brain and their body will not work in that way. How can we make sure that everybody who is working for the DWP, whether they are assessing a person for a benefit or trying to help them into work, fully understands brain injury?

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I thank the hon. Member who has been a long-standing campaigner in this very important area. We work with claimants, charities and stakeholders in all areas to improve the training and awareness that all our health professionals and frontline staff have, and this is a very important area of work.

Child Poverty

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5. What recent assessment her Department has made of trends in the level of child poverty. [901385]

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There are 743,000 fewer children in workless households compared with 2010. The evidence shows that work is the best route out of poverty, and a child living in a household where all adults work is about five times less likely to be in poverty than children in households where nobody works.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. The Child Poverty Action Group has published a study that detailed the lives of children who go hungry and the impact on their health, education and friendships. It showed that some were ashamed to invite friends home because they have no food to offer them. When will the Government give child poverty the priority that it needs?

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I am conscious of CPAG’s report, which tends to use the relative “after housing costs” poverty measure. However, it is important to say this about the relative element; if we go back just over 10 years, we can see that just having a recession reduces relative poverty. We need to keep focused on what is really happening to families. That is why, if we use the absolute poverty measure, we will see that fewer people are in poverty than was the case 10 years ago. We will continue to work with parents to ensure that they try to earn the amount of money that they need so that they can continue support their children.

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Childcare costs place a huge strain on family finances. Will my right hon. Friend outline what help is being given to families with up-front costs of childcare?

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The way universal credit works is for people to have payments in arrears, but 85% of eligible childcare costs are covered, compared with 70% under the legacy system. It is also important to stress that the flexible support fund can be used to help with those sorts of costs, but we need to ensure that people are paying according to their salaries, as opposed to our simply giving grants up front.

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According to the Department’s own figures, the majority of households hit by the two-child limit are in work but on low incomes. This policy pushes working families further into poverty, when our social security system should be giving people a route out. Will the Minister have a strong word with the Chancellor and end this pernicious policy in this week’s Budget, and why not support the Daily Mirror’s “Give Me Five” campaign while he is at it?

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that child benefit continues to be paid for all children, as well as an additional amount for any disabled children. He is hitting the wrong note here, as is the Daily Mirror, when it comes to the “Give Me Five” campaign, as this is not a targeted policy to reduce child poverty. I simply say that, by keeping the two-child policy, providing support for a maximum of two children ensures fairness between claimants and those who support themselves and their families solely through work.

Special Rules for Terminal Illnesses: Review

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7. What progress her Department has made on the review of special rules for terminal illnesses announced on 11 July 2019. [901387]

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The Department is prioritising a full review in this vital area, evaluating how the benefits system supports people nearing the end of their lives and those with severe conditions. We are making significant progress on this, having engaged with claimants, clinicians and stakeholders to bring forward options.

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I thank the Minister for that update and the Government for taking the initiative in reviewing these rules. My North West Norfolk constituents suffering terminal illnesses want to see the six-month rule scrapped, so will he continue to work with Motor Neurone Disease Association, Marie Curie and others to find a solution that works for all of them?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Absolutely. The reason we commissioned the review was that the status quo needs to change. We recognise that, and I wish to pay tribute to the organisations that have been supporting a thorough review, including the MND Association, Marie Curie, Hospice UK, Macmillan, the Royal College of Nursing, Sue Ryder and NHS England.

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Scotland has already shown what can be done when a Government put dignity and respect at the heart of their welfare policies—for example, by removing any time qualification for people who are terminally ill. Why has the Department for Work and Pensions not yet followed Social Security Scotland’s lead and what are Ministers waiting for?

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My understanding is that that has not yet been changed in Scotland. We are working with our Scottish colleagues and looking at all options. As I have said, our review will conclude shortly. Having consulted extensively with stakeholders, claimants and clinicians, and having looked at the international evidence, we will not be having the status review; we will be looking to improve the case for people towards the end of their life.

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Although face-to-face reassessments are very important in the normal processing of claims, do the Government accept that people living with and suffering from terminal diseases should be exempted from the stress that such reassessments impose?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We can typically turn around those applying under the special rules for terminal illness process within six days, ensuring that those who are most in need of support get it as quickly and as swiftly as possible.

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Does the Minister agree that it is inappropriate for terminally ill people who do not qualify for universal credit under the special rules for terminal illness to have to go to their jobcentre to discuss their career when they may not have very long left to live?

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As part of this review we are looking at consistency across DWP work, as well as working with the NHS and hospices to try to have a more consistent and sympathetic approach. Where claimants do struggle to get to jobcentres, there are always opportunities for home visits.

Access to Employment for Ex-offenders

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8. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on improving access to employment for ex-offenders. [901388]

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I work closely with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor as does the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince). The Under-Secretary also works with the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer). We have visited HMP Downview to see at first hand the excellent work of our prison work coaches, of which there are 130 based across the country. We have identified prisons that currently do not have a work coach as part of delivering on our manifesto commitment to break the cycle of crime.

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I am grateful for that progress, but can the Secretary of State tell me when we will be in a position where all prisons will have this provision? Will she also tell me what progress there has been in ensuring that all prisoners are able to claim universal credit before the end of their sentence, because it is well established that access to a job or honest, legitimate benefits is one of the best means of preventing reoffending?

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The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, is working carefully on the pilot scheme that is currently being rolled out in certain Scottish prisons, and we are working with the Prison Service to ensure that universal credit claims are made in a safe way. This includes booking appointments at the jobcentre in advance by using a telephony-based system to avoid the risk of IT crime that could happen as a consequence.

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The Secretary of State will know that many prisoners have conditions that are not seen as a disability upfront. For example, they might be on the autism spectrum or have special educational needs—indeed, they may well not be numerate or literate. As someone comes up for release from prison, could the Department work to identify the real talents that many of these people have and support them in these?

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is primarily the role of the Ministry of Justice to consider these issues and help people to prepare for release. We are keen to have a work coach in every prison so that when people do leave they can get back into the world of work as quickly as possible. This issue is very much front and centre, and the Prime Minister has set up a specific taskforce, which he chairs, to ensure that we try to crack this cycle of crime, especially when people leave prison.

Support into Self-employment

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9. What steps her Department is taking to support people into self-employment; and if she will make a statement. [901389]

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Supporting people into self-employment and backing them to grow their businesses is a priority for me, as the employment Minister. Since 2011, the new enterprise allowance has resulted in nearly 131,000 new businesses. We expanded this provision in 2017 to include universal credit claimants with existing businesses and provide them with specialist support to boost their earnings.

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That is very encouraging news indeed. As my hon. Friend will know, it was Adam Smith, not Napoleon Bonaparte, who said that Britain is a nation of shopkeepers. That is especially so in the west midlands, in that people have small businesses that expand into large businesses. When will she meet the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, to discuss how we can stimulate the economy there still further?

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. In fact, later today in the Chamber the west midlands will be standing proud as we see the debate on the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill. The legacy around jobs and skills from that will be very welcome indeed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be meeting Andy Street this Thursday; I am sure that everyone will be delighted about that. I recently held a roundtable to redesign how we look at self-employment going forward, listening to people across the country talk about how they can build, create and boost their businesses.

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I am very interested to hear about the Minister’s roundtable, because one of the great barriers to people in self-employment, particularly women in freelance-type occupations, is the fact that, unlike employed people, they cannot share their parental leave with their partner. Will she, as part of her roundtable discussions, and discussions with other Ministers, ensure that the Government change the system so that self-employed freelancers can share parental leave?

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Women were 41% of those taking up the new enterprise allowance recently, moving from table-top to large businesses. That is brilliant news and it is very encouraging. The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to hear that I was in north Wales to see about pop-up businesses, with many women involved in trying to move from ideas into successful businesses. We are redesigning this at the moment. I would be very happy to meet and hear from him.

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15. Freelance IT contractors in my constituency are already losing contracts because of the complexities and legal risks around IR35. Now that they face periods of self-isolation, possibly for days or weeks on end, the Government urgently need to clarify their entitlement to support from the welfare system, and also generally to outline what the Government are going to do to get them through this difficult period. [901395]

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I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. I know that other Members across the Chamber will have met constituents around this issue, as indeed I did on Friday. There are over 5 million people who are self-employed at the moment, with a huge amount of people coming into this area, which we are trying to boost, as I mentioned earlier. I am sure that as we go into the Budget, the new Chancellor will be listening to her very carefully.

Personal Independence Payment Assessments and Outcomes

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10. What steps she is taking to reduce the time taken for claimants to receive personal independence payment assessments and the outcomes of those assessments. [901390]

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Reducing end-to-end customer journey times for PIP claimants is a priority for the DWP. We continue to work closely with both assessment providers, amending and refining current processes.

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Constituents in my patch of Bosworth can face up to 42 weeks for clearance of their case—that is, processing and determining the tribunal hearing either in Leicester or Coventry. The national average is 30 weeks. What steps can the DWP and the Ministry of Justice take to ensure that the process is swift and that claimants are kept up to date during this time?

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Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has developed a new digital system, and it is increasing the number of judges. This goes hand in hand with our changes to the mandatory reconsideration stage whereby we are proactively contacting claimants who are seeking to appeal their decision to see whether we can help to identify additional written or oral evidence to correct the decision at that stage, reducing the number of claimants who then need to enter the independent appeal process.

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As the Minister will be aware, PIP assessments can be incredibly stressful and traumatic for claimants. That is why I am working with Disabled People Against Cuts to provide recording equipment for anyone living in Hull West and Hessle who is going for an assessment. But it should not be down to individual MPs to provide that. So will the Minister look at providing recording equipment for every PIP assessment that takes place right across the country to improve transparency and fairness?

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The hon. Member has raised a very fair point. We have been piloting both audio and video recording of assessments. That pilot will be coming to a close soon. I certainly have a huge amount of sympathy around making sure that there is provision in place for audio recording for claimants.

State Pension Age: Life Expectancy

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12. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies on the state pension age of trends in the level of life expectancy. [901392]

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The Government are committed in legislation to undertake a review of state pension age every six years. The 2017 independent review was by John Cridland. The next review will be conducted by 2023 and will give consideration to the latest life expectancy projections. The latest Office for National Statistics projections of cohort life expectancy, published in January 2020, showed that it is projected to continue to increase, and the WHO Global Health Observatory data show that people in the United Kingdom have better life expectancies than European or world averages.

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The new Marmot review has shown that a decade of Tory policies, from cruel benefit cuts to the unfair treatment of the WASPI women, have stalled life expectancy and increased the years spent in ill health for the poorest in our society. Which Tory policy would the Minister reverse first to begin to undo that damage?

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I am afraid that the hon. and learned Lady is wrong. I will quote from the Marmot review, which says on page 13 that

“Increases in life expectancy have slowed since 2010”,

but then adds at page 15 that

“Life expectancy at birth has been increasing since the beginning of the 20th century.”

Claimants with Disabilities: Number of Assessments

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13. What steps she is taking to reduce the number of assessments undertaken by claimants with disabilities. [901393]

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21. What steps she is taking to reduce the number of assessments undertaken by claimants with disabilities. [901402]

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As our manifesto set out, we are committed to reducing the number of assessments that disabled people face. That will build on improvements already made, including reducing the frequency of assessments for those with severe or progressive conditions and removing regular reviews for PIP claimants over pension age.

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I thank the Minister for his response. A number of constituents with severe conditions that are not reasonably expected to improve have contacted me with concerns about the current process. What reassurance can he give my constituents that their predicament will be given consideration as part of any future changes that the Department makes?

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In the coming months, we will launch a Green Paper that will look at claimants’ experience, trust in the process and allowing claimants to lead full and independent lives. We will be doing a full review, working with stakeholders, claimants and charities to identify further areas of improvement on top of what we have already done.

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I welcome the Department’s announcement last week that it will create a single, integrated service for PIP applicants and users. Can my hon. Friend confirm that that will make the application process much smoother for my constituents in Workington?

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It will give us greater flexibility to try out new ideas that will be identified in the Green Paper, ensuring that we put claimants first.

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Before Errol Graham was found dead after his employment and support allowance was stopped, he wrote a letter to the Department for Work and Pensions, pleading with officials. He said:

“Please judge me fairly. I am… overshadowed by depression.”

That letter was revealed to the public weeks after the National Audit Office published a damning report showing that the Department has investigated 69 suicides linked to social security, which are just the tip of the iceberg. Will the Secretary of State finally make a statement on that report, and will she now commit to an independent inquiry into the deaths related to social security?

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The Secretary of State is absolutely passionate about the need to make improvements in this area and is leading very important work. On the specific point of the NAO report, we are working at pace to drive forward improvements and learn the lessons from any cases. We have already improved support and guidance for staff on how best to support vulnerable people. The NAO report notes action that the DWP is already taking, but we are now carefully considering the NAO’s findings and how they can help to further improve our excellence plan.

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That passion certainly does not seem to be demonstrated in recent tribunal cases—the Department for Work and Pensions has lost more employment tribunals for disability discrimination than any other employer in Britain. Is the Secretary of State shocked by her Department’s own disability tribunal record, given that it should be, as the Minister said, leading by example? What will the Secretary of State do to rectify that?

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Fair and respectful treatment is a right, and we do not tolerate discrimination in any form within the workplace, including within ours. We have instigated a review of our processes and actions to ensure that all employees are treated fairly and with respect. I am proud that, as a Department, since 2014, when 6.8% of our workforce were identified as having a disability, we are now at 15.3%, which is well above the civil service average of 11.7%. We are keen to be a fully inclusive and diverse workforce to benefit from their full potential.

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Many of my constituents reduce the number of assessments they face by discontinuing their applications themselves, because they find it far too traumatic to have to repeat their life story over and over again to every public body they come across. When somebody dies, the Government have a “Tell me once” principle to help bereaved families cope by only notifying a public entity on a single occasion. As the Minister draws up his Green Paper, can he look at whether we can have one single source of truth for each claimant to reduce the trauma they face in going through this process?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely spot-on. This comes up time and again, and it is driving our desire to bring forward the integrated assessment: where a claimant has already secured sufficient evidence, with the claimant’s permission, and only with the claimant’s permission, that information can be used to increase the chance of a paper-based review and reduce the need for a full face-to-face assessment for other benefits.

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For a decade, disabled people and disability organisations such as the Disability Benefits Consortium have highlighted the absurdity of testing people with learning disabilities and progressive conditions every six months, as well as the stress for them and the cost to the taxpayer and the NHS. The Minister says those assessments will be reduced. When can they expect them to be reduced?

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We have already made changes—for example, in the PIP process, where we no longer routinely assess those of pensioner age and those with the most severe conditions—and that work will continue to be brought forward as our knowledge of different conditions improves. As part of the ambitious and exciting Green Paper we are bringing forward in the coming months, claimants, charities and stakeholders can further identify how we can make the claimant experience much better. I know that the hon. Member has done a huge amount of work in this area, and I hope he will contribute to the Green Paper.

People with Disabilities: Financial Assistance

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14. If she will hold discussions with her Cabinet colleagues on ensuring that people with disabilities receive financial assistance in addition to welfare payments for costs related to their disability. [901394]

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I commend my right hon. Friend for his passion and work on this particularly important issue. The year 2020 is crucial for our work on disability with not only the Green Paper, but the cross-Government national strategy. Of course, I will continue to speak to my Cabinet colleagues about supporting people with disabilities into work, making them wealthier in their own right and helping them live fulfilling, independent lives.

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What assistance are the Government giving to apprentices with disabilities to help them with their travel costs or any other costs they may incur, and what are the Government doing—specifically and currently —to get more people with disabilities to do apprenticeships?

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My right hon. Friend may not be aware of this, but people with disabilities undertaking an apprenticeship can receive assistance from the Access to Work scheme to overcome workplace barriers. In addition, our flexible support fund can support eligible claimants with a variety of the costs associated with starting work, whether initial travel costs or, indeed, things like clothing.

Working-age Social Security Benefits: Four-year Freeze

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16. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the four-year freeze in working-age social security benefits on levels of poverty. [901396]

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The benefit freeze will end next month, and working age benefits will rise with inflation. We will spend an additional £1 billion on working age benefits in 2020-21.

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A 1.7% increase in working age benefits does not make up for the damage caused by the four-year freeze: affected benefits and tax credits will be about 6% lower in 2020-21. If austerity was really over, the UK Government would be making up the shortfall. Has the Secretary of State asked the Treasury to make up that shortfall?

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As I have just said, the Government have already announced that working age benefits will rise in line with inflation next month. As the hon. Lady will know, the Secretary of State has a statutory obligation each autumn to conduct a review of pension and benefit rates for the following year. This review will begin in October for implementation in the following April.

State Pension Age Equalisation: Financial Support for Women

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17. What plans she has to provide financial support to women affected by the equalisation of the state pension age. [901397]

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Changes to state pension age were made by successive Governments from 1995, including the Labour Government from 1997 to 2010, and addressed the long-standing inequality in pension age. This includes the Pensions Act 2007, which I believe the hon. Lady supported. Women continue to have the same eligibility for support from the welfare system as men with the same date of birth, and this country presently pays more in welfare support than ever before.

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Approximately 6,100 of my constituents have been affected by the equalisation of the state pension age, and many have told me of the financial hardship that they and their families are suffering because of the change and their inability to work any longer. Last week, there was another lobby of Parliament that I, together with lots of people who will be in the House today, attended—it was packed. Another one is coming up soon. These women stressed to me last week that they are not going away and are not going to give up, so what is the Minister going to do to give some justice to those amazing women?

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The hon. Lady will be aware that full restitution would cost something in the region of £215 billion and that a case was before the courts last year: on all grounds, these ladies lost their case. Clearly, that matter is subject to appeal, but the case was lost in respect of every ground, including notice.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [901406]

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The coronavirus is currently dominating my work at the DWP. The Department is fully prepared for all eventualities and has conducted extensive planning against reasonable worst-case scenarios. I have been in discussions with the Chancellor and will continue to work across Government to prepare. If claimants cannot attend their jobcentre appointment in person because of self-isolation, work coaches can exercise discretion, so claimants should engage with them—they will not be sanctioned as long as they let us know before the appointment.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out last week, nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing. That is why the Government safety net also extends to those who are self-employed or who work in the gig economy. They can apply for universal credit or new-style ESA, and advances are available for universal credit immediately. These are exceptional circumstances and we will support workers to do the right thing for the protection of their health and public health.

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The local housing allowance is designed to cover the cheapest third of rents, but in Lewisham claimants face on average a shortfall of £40.22 per week between their rent and their benefits, and that is the case up and down the country. Has the Minister made any representations to the Chancellor ahead of the Budget to ensure that the local housing allowance once again reflects the true cost of renting?

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LHAs will of course go up by 1%; I signed that off last year. The hon. Lady will also be aware of the discretionary housing payments that we have been making widely available to councils across the country. But let us face the reality: the Mayor should be building more homes in London.

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T2. What steps is the Department taking to enhance the workplace savings programme for my constituents in Kensington? [901407]

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As my hon. Friend will be aware, this was introduced in 2012 and has been a cross-party success story. It is fantastically good news for her constituents in Kensington, where 39,000 residents are signed up to an 8% automatic enrolment. Due thanks need to be given to the 5,300 local businesses who are supporting individual constituents, who are receiving 8% per annum workplace savings.

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The Government tried to justify introducing the new bereavement support payment in April 2017 on the grounds that it modernises support, but couples who are not married or not in a civil partnership are not eligible. Last month, the High Court in England found that that is incompatible with human rights legislation and discriminates against children of unmarried parents. The Prime Minister has admitted that that is an injustice, so when will the Government put it right?

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This is one of the issues on my agenda for us to take forward a consistent and coherent approach, recognising the issue of cohabitees and the impact this can have on children. We are working on particular solutions.

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T3. May I take up the Secretary of State on her comment at the beginning on sanctions in the context of coronavirus? Currently, jobseeker’s allowance requires claimants to attend jobcentres in person every two weeks and prove that they have been looking for work—they must show evidence that they have been applying for jobs and going to interviews. Claimants can be sanctioned if they fail to attend the jobcentre, turn down a training course or fail to go to an interview. The Secretary of State said that the sanctions will not be applied if jobcentres are informed in advance, but the process of going through self-isolation may be shocking to the people involved; it may be disorganising what may already be disorganised lives. Can the Secretary of State tell the House that the Department will retain sufficient flexibility to ensure that people will not be punished for doing what the Government recommend? [901408]

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I have tried to make clear to the House that people will not be penalised for doing the right thing. It is important that people have that conversation with their work coach. As I emphasised to the House, work coaches can exercise discretion but the important thing is a claimant’s ongoing conversation with their work coach.

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T4. I am not sure that anyone will be desperately reassured by the idea of exercising discretion on something quite so fundamental. The Government need to be much more robust in their advice. When will that advice be published for jobseekers, advisers and those us whose job it is to scrutinise what the Government do? [901409]

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We are working, right across Government, on a number of different scenarios. We are preparing guidance carefully and I assure the hon. Gentleman that rapid progress is being made. The Government will always be guided by the advice of our chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, particularly on self-isolation.

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T8. From initial submission to award of benefit, how long does the average personal independence payment application take? Will the Government reduce the time period? [901413]

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The average time is 14 weeks. We continue to review the process. As I set out earlier, with the forthcoming Green Paper we will be looking to identify further ways to improve the claims experience and make it easier to get supportive evidence that increases the likelihood of a paper-based review without the need for a face-to-face assessment.

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T5. I have a constituent who cannot walk without aid and has severe depression currently going through the appeals process. That has already taken months, during which time no payments have been awarded to them. My constituent has had to rely on handouts from friends simply to survive. What advice can the Secretary of State give my constituent, or any other person in that situation, to help resolve the situation? [901410]

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I thank the hon. Member for raising this matter. If he wishes to share the details of the case with me afterwards, I will be happy to look into it. Without the details, I can only give a broad answer. We are doing additional work on the management reconsideration stage to ensure we can help all claimants gather the additional written or oral evidence that could help to change the claim, so that they are less likely to be in the long independent appeal process.

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T9. Many of my constituents are taking advantage of the online application for advance payments of universal credit. I recognise that it is a useful facility, but no bank would lend to people in this manner. Will the Minister work to ensure that claimants receive proper debt advice before requesting an advance and look to significantly extend the repayment period? [901414]

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Advances are an important tool to help the most vulnerable claimants receive the money they need to live on. As part of the application process, proposed repayments and advance payment are explained. All claimants are advised to request a level of advance that is manageable when considering the repayments required.

We have announced that from October 2021 the repayment period will extend to 16 months, but I am very sympathetic to extending it further and am looking at that in detail.

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T6. Evidence from Macmillan Cancer Support shows the availability of home visits for people suffering from cancer and claiming universal credit varies considerably across the country, with some waiting up to a year. Even before the advent of coronavirus, people with cancer should not really have attended a jobcentre if they were undergoing chemotherapy and were at risk of infection. What advice will the Minister give on that? Will he publish the figures on the availability of home visits for universal credit across the country? [901411]

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I thank the hon. Member for raising this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who is the Minister with responsibility for welfare delivery, and I regularly meet and work with Macmillan, which is a brilliant organisation. I am disappointed to hear that it feels it is proving too difficult for some claimants to access a home visit. We will take up that matter and look into it.

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I recently met jobcentre and citizens advice bureau employees who expressed their grave concern about personal independence payment assessors. Can the Minister give me an assurance that the scheme’s assessors are of the highest calibre and able to judge each case on a proper basis?

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We strive for 100% accuracy with high quality, objective, fair and accurate assessments. All our assessors are health professionals and experts in understanding the effects of a health condition on an individual’s daily life. They are occupational therapists, level one nurses, physiotherapists, paramedics or doctors with at least two years’ experience. We continue to monitor performance, share best practice, and work with claimants, stakeholders and charities to improve training and guidance.

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T10. The Health Secretary has said that changes will be made to provide financial support to workers currently ineligible for statutory sick pay. Will the Minister confirm that those changes will include emergency legislation to remove the £118-a-week threshold that currently excludes 1.8 million low-paid workers from receiving sick pay—a measure supported by both the TUC and the Confederation of British Industry? [901415]

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The hon. Lady will be aware that the £118 a week is an average over eight weeks, and it will swing about whether people are eligible or not. I have tried to make it clear to the House, reinforcing the comments of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Health Secretary, that people who are working will not be penalised because they cannot work in this regard. We continue to work across Government to bring forward the necessary legislation or other changes required.

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It was encouraging to hear about the work coaches programme in prison. Do Ministers agree about the importance of independent civil society organisations, as well as DWP staff, in supporting prisoners who are preparing for release? Will they work with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that more prisons can give access to local community groups?

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. When it comes to jobs, community progression and our jobcentres, working through outreach with civil society and local charities is absolutely vital. My hon. Friend in the other place, the good Baroness Stedman-Scott, is very keen to continue doing this, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) is very keyed up on it. We will not waste time and we will get on with it as soon as possible.

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The gap between local housing allowance rates and average rents for a two-bed property in Southwark is now over £1,000 a month, and raising the local housing allowance in line with the consumer prices index will do almost nothing to close the gap. By continuing to ignore the issue, the Secretary of State is continuing to contribute to entirely unnecessary homelessness. If the Government are serious about ending homelessness, will the Secretary of State urge her right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to use this week’s Budget to re-link the LHA to the bottom third of rents?

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As the Secretary of State said a moment ago, local housing allowance rates are not intended to meet all rents in all areas. The LHA is designed to ensure a fair balance between supporting vulnerable people to meet their housing costs and public spending. From April 2020, LHA rates will be increased by inflation, but I join the Secretary of State in urging the Mayor of London to do far more in terms of supply.

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In 2015, our election manifesto rightly committed us to halving the disability employment gap. By 2019, unfortunately, we had watered that down merely to reducing it. 2015 was also the last year that we published Fulfilling Potential indicators, allowing us to monitor the gap. As the Minister pulls together his new national disability strategy, I urge him to reinvent the wheel and provide robust statistical indicators to allow us to monitor the narrowing of the gap.

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In the last six years alone, there have been 1.4 million more disabled people in work; in the last two years alone, there have been 404,000 more disabled people in work, bringing the figure to 54.1%—a 9.9 percentage point increase in the last six years alone. The disability employment gap has fallen by 5.6 percentage points in the last six years. We are making progress and we continue to be ambitious about unlocking everybody’s potential.

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Will the Secretary of State ensure that during the coronavirus epidemic, any social security claimant who fails to attend a work capability or work-related activity assessment will also not have their social security support stopped?

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I have tried to make it clear to the House, and will again, that—as has been said quite often—people who do the right thing, whether they are required to self-isolate or are actively ill, will not be penalised for doing so.

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My constituent, Jennifer Bell, was made redundant following the collapse of Thomas Cook, but secured a job with Jet2 late last year, which fell through given the DWP’s refusal to pay for a training course. She has now landed a job with Virgin Atlantic, which involves five and a half weeks’ training in Crawley. However, her application to the flexible support fund at Renfrew jobcentre for accommodation costs has been denied, despite other former colleagues having secured funding at other jobcentres. Will the Minister please look into this discrepancy for Jennifer?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, which came through to us in jobcentres after the collapse of Thomas Cook. I am happy to take it away as a learning point. We are doing all we can on the Flybe issue, and I urge anybody affected to go to their local jobcentre and ask for support and benefits.

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Four out of 10 older people say that the TV is their main source of company, yet as a result of Government decisions, millions of older pensioners are about to lose their free TV licences. The Budget is the last opportunity for the Chancellor to step in and overturn this unfair policy. Will the Secretary of State urge him to do so?

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As the right hon. Lady knows only too well, this is a BBC decision. The Government remain very disappointed at its decision and urge it to think again.