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Work and Pensions

Volume 676: debated on Monday 11 May 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Disabled People: Protection

What steps her Department is taking to support and protect disabled people during the covid-19 outbreak. (902418)

To provide greater financial security at this time, we have automatically extended by six months PIP—personal independent payment—awards for existing claimants that are due to be reviewed or reassessed and have suspended all face-to-face assessments of disability benefits for three months.

Disabled people are facing increased costs for food, medicine and personal protective equipment for carers, yet there has been no uplift in legacy benefits to match the £20 increase to universal credit and working tax credits. What steps is the Department taking to rectify this? I am aware that issues with the system have made this difficult to deliver at speed, but what is the Department doing to ensure that some of the most vulnerable members of our society are not left out of pocket during this crisis?

On behalf of the ministerial team, I would like to welcome the new shadow ministerial team. I look forward to working constructively with them.

In addition to the more than £1,000 increase to the universal credit standard rate, we have seen the annual benefit uprating of 1.7% across all our benefits. With disability benefits in particular, we have continued to make sure the gateway remains open, that claimants can have their assessments reviewed and that those with a terminal illness are being fast-tracked. We are doing all we can to get support to the most vulnerable people as quickly as possible.

Can the Minister give further guidance specifically on PIPs? I have been contacted by several constituents who are either looking to access them for the first time or due a reassessment. With face-to-face assessments understandably suspended due to the pandemic, will the Minister confirm what action the Department is taking to ensure that my constituents can access this vital support as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend is diligent in championing the issues that his constituents face. We have rightly continued to accept new claims; we are allowing reviews where claimants accept them, particularly where their condition may have deteriorated and they could be eligible for greater financial support; and we are prioritising terminally ill claimants. I know that that work has been very warmly welcomed by stakeholders.

Carer’s Allowance

The Government recognise and appreciate the vital role played by unpaid carers now more than ever. We have already made changes to the carer’s allowance rules to reflect changes to patterns of care during the current emergency. Since 2010, the rate of carer’s allowance has increased from £53.90 to £67.25 a week, meaning nearly an additional £700 a year for carers.

My constituent, Natalie Hay, is a full-time unpaid carer for her son, who has Lyme disease and ME. She is entitled to that paltry £67 per week as long as she does not earn any more than £128 per week, but with the pandemic, she is having to shield her son and home-school two children and has lost all respite care and additional support, so a few hours’ paid work is out of the question. She feels completely forgotten about by the Government. Does the Minister think it is possible to live on the equivalent of £1.91 per hour, and will he commit—

Rightly, we target support at those most in need—those with low incomes—and they could, through universal credit, receive an additional £1,950 per year through the universal credit carer’s element, plus the extra £1,040 universal credit standard rate increase, which is the equivalent of the jobseeker’s allowance rate. I would encourage the claimant to look at all available support that they are entitled to.

Access-to-work Costs

What steps she has taken to help ensure prompt payment of access to work costs during the covid-19 outbreak. (902431)

The access-to-work support has prioritised payments, including those to key workers, and where possible is making payments the same day. Key worker and new employee applications are being cleared urgently. Additionally, I am pleased to announce access-to-work recipients can now email claim forms as a reasonable adjustment.

On 4 May, the Secretary of State assured the House that the Government would provide an automatic extension of PIP awards that are due to expire during the coronavirus virus pandemic. Can the Minister confirm that this extension applies to all claimants, including those who received an award following an appeal?

Obviously, PIP is different from access to work. There was an issue for those on fixed-term, short awards, but we have now addressed that, and those claimants will continue to get an automatic six months’ extension if it is due in the next three months.

Universal Credit

Since mid-March, we have processed around 2 million universal credit claims. Despite that surge, the system is standing up to the challenge and demonstrating that resilience is part of its design, with over 90% of new eligible claimants expected to be paid in full and on time. There is no way that the legacy benefit system would have been able to cope with such pressure.

I am grateful to all the jobcentres, and particularly the one in Gloucester, which has done a remarkable job of registering so many of my constituents. Some people discover when they register that they lose child tax credit before any new benefits are payable. What can my hon. Friend the Minister do to help provide our constituents with better tools to assess what will happen and whether they will be better or worse off when they first register for universal credit?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for rightly praising DWP staff for the work they are doing. That issue has been raised by a number of colleagues, and I am looking at data and exploring options. We have been working closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to encourage people to check their eligibility before making a claim and ensure that tax credit claimants understand that when they have claimed UC, their tax credits will end, and they cannot return to legacy benefits.

We believe that people need more support during this crisis, but we acknowledge and welcome the changes that the Government have made. Those include increasing the core amount of universal credit by £1,000 a year, but that rise is only for 12 months. If the Government believe that this level of support is necessary during lockdown, why do they believe that people will need less money when lockdown ends and the normal costs of living will apply? Surely it is inconceivable that anyone still unemployed by March next year could see their benefits being cut.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome him to his new position. As he knows, we have announced measures that can be quickly and effectively put in place that will benefit as many disadvantaged families as possible who are currently facing financial disruption. We at the DWP have been under huge increased demand, and we have prioritised the safety and stability of our benefits system overall. All things of this nature will be kept under review, but at the moment, as he rightly points out, the funding has been secured for a 12-month period from Her Majesty’s Treasury.

Can we speed up questions and answers, to help us get through the list? We now go over to Neil Gray in Scotland.

The two areas of universal credit causing the greatest hardship are the five-week wait and the two-child cap—both need scrapping. Taking a UC advanced loan means that payments will be lower than the already impossible to live on levels, so why will the Government not look at the idea of making the advance loan a grant when a person has been confirmed as eligible for UC? That stops the fraud excuse. The only barrier is political will.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I have said, we have announced measures that can be quickly and effectively put in place that will benefit as many disadvantaged families as possible who are facing financial disruption. We are under huge increased demand, and I have had to prioritise the safety and stability of the benefits system overall and put that above any structural change. I will always prioritise ensuring that people get their money in full and on time, over and above system change.

Universal Credit: Five-week Wait

What assessment she has made of the potential merits of ending the five-week wait for universal credit during the covid-19 outbreak. (902423)

What assessment she has made of the potential merits of ending the five-week wait for universal credit during the covid-19 outbreak. (902443)

In these uncertain times, we would like to be absolutely clear that no claimant has to wait five weeks for a payment. Advances are available, enabling claimants faster access to their entitlement. Since mid-March, we have issued more than 700,000 advances to claimants who felt that they could not wait for their first routine payment, with the majority receiving money within 72 hours.

In Croydon, all our food banks have seen a massive increase in demand. In fact, the number of food banks and soup kitchens has quadrupled in Croydon since the covid crisis began, with organisations such as the British Bangladeshi Society and the Fieldway Family Centre stepping up to the plate. One of the main reasons they cite for this need is the five-week wait for universal credit. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of people forced to use food banks because of that five-week wait? I ask him again: why can he not replace the emergency loan with a grant, so that people do not have to pile debt on debt?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. Over and above answers to previous questions, I would stress that non-repayable advances could not be implemented without significant development of the UC system and would require measures that have been previously announced to be deprioritised. In the light of current events and the huge pressure on our system, the Department’s focus is firmly on ensuring that new and existing claimants continue to receive their payments on time. We do not have the capacity to look at that kind of structural system change.

Over the past seven weeks, the demand on Liverpool’s local welfare scheme for crisis payments for food and fuel has increased by 164% compared with this time last year. Will the Minister consider easing the plight of many living through this crisis by doubling child benefits and lifting the benefit cap, as requested by the Food Foundation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have increased the universal credit and working tax credit standard allowance by more than £1,000 a year, and we have increased local housing allowance rates, putting an average of £600 into people’s pockets. On the benefit cap, it is important to stress that those with sustained work records may benefit from a nine-month grace period in relation to the cap. Exemptions continue to apply, and I feel many people would agree that the equivalent of £24,000—or £28,000 in London—is fair and reasonable.

From the 1940s on, we had a social security system based on handwritten forms that was capable of making the first regular benefit payment within a few days of a person applying; now, after the Government have spent several hundred million pounds on what we were assured was agile technology, that job takes five weeks. That long delay is the main reason why people on universal credit are so much more likely to need a food bank than people on the legacy benefits. Surely the Minister must recognise that that problem must be fixed.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, for his question. He knows that we introduced an agile, dynamic online system because the legacy benefits system, which was largely paper-based, was fraught with issues and errors. That is why we moved over. Notwithstanding the points that he has made, I stress that the previous, paper-based system, which relied on face-to-face contact, would not have coped in this situation. It is because of universal credit that we have been able to process more than 2 million claims since mid-March.

Food Banks

What recent discussions local officials of her Department have had with operators of food banks on referral of benefit claimants to food banks during the covid-19 outbreak. (902425)

Ministers and officials have had regular discussions with food bank providers and other stakeholders during this time. Flexibility and innovation in local jobcentre arrangements for signposting to food banks, within the parameters of the existing guidance, is encouraged during the covid-19 outbreak.

[Inaudible.] In my constituency, the jobcentre is not referring people to the Widnes food bank. It is important that the Minister intervenes and ensures that referrals do take place so that the people who need help get it quickly.

I think I did, Mr Speaker. I gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that jobcentres are working with local partners to signpost claimants to the support available in their local area. The Trussell Trust and the Independent Food Aid Network are putting in place appropriate solutions where food banks are in operation. I stress that local councils in England will be able to use funding from the new £500 million local hardship fund to provide further discretion to support vulnerable people.

Universal Credit

What steps her Department is taking to help ensure that people with multiple and complex needs can access universal credit. (902427)

Dedicated DWP staff continue to be available in jobcentres throughout the country. For claimants with the most complex needs, if we are unable to help by phone or online, face-to-face support is still available. In addition to that, the Help to Claim service is undertaken on our behalf by Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland.

I thank the Minister for that answer and congratulate him, the Department and the original designers of universal credit on their success in registering so many new claimants. As he knows, the original idea was for a universal support system, alongside UC, to help people with multiple and complex needs. Will the Minister consider reviving that idea to help the most vulnerable people and make the UC system work better?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he shares my passion for supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society, who often have complex needs, which is exactly why we introduced Help to Claim to support people who need support to access the welfare system. It has been a huge success over the past year, helping more than 250,000 people. I am pleased to say that we have commissioned the service for a second year.

Vulnerable Children

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Education on support for vulnerable children during the covid-19 outbreak. (902429)

I have regular discussions with the Minister for children and families, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), and others on mitigating the effect of covid-19 on vulnerable groups. We are providing them with support as they implement the free school meals voucher system, and we have increased universal credit and working tax credit by more than £1,000 a year over the next 12 months, which will benefit more than 4 million households.

Given that we know that nearly 90% of vulnerable children are not at school or learning and that there are new frontiers of vulnerabilities in children suffering from possible domestic abuse and mental health issues, what further work, other than that which the Minister has mentioned, is the Department doing specifically with the Department for Education to help those children learn and to give them and their families proper financial support?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. We are committed to ensuring the safety and protection of vulnerable children and young people, particularly during the current period, and that is why we have invested an extra £6.5 billion in our welfare system. I know that he has huge expertise in this area. In addition to my work with the Minister for children and families, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), and others across Government, I would be very happy to work with him to explore other ways that he thinks we may be able to support vulnerable children.

Housing Allowance

What assessment she has made of the adequacy of levels of local housing allowance during the covid-19 outbreak. (902430)

In April, in response to covid-19, we introduced increased local housing allowance rates for housing benefit and universal credit claimants to the 30th percentile of local rents, providing additional support for private renters. This significant investment cost almost £1 billion and ensures that more than 1 million households will see an increase, on average, of £600 per year.

Thousands of families in Britain are at risk of being pushed into homelessness as a result of this crisis. What urgent steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the most vulnerable will not lose their homes as a result of the covid-19 outbreak, at a time when there is no option to find cheaper accommodation to move to?

Over and above the measures introduced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, we have increased universal credit and working tax credits by more than £1,000 a year, and increased the local housing allowance rates. In this respect, in southern Greater Manchester, which covers Stockport, the two-bedroom LHA has been increased by £76 a month—£900 a year—and the four-bedroom rate in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency has increased by over £200 a month. That extra £6.5 billion going into our welfare system is supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society.

Economic Recovery

The Department for Work and Pensions is leading a joined-up approach across and beyond Government to address the unprecedented impacts of the covid-19 outbreak. This includes working with colleagues across Whitehall as well as employer representatives, think-tanks and others.

I thank my hon. Friend for her response. The black country still remains the workshop of the United Kingdom, and nowhere exemplifies that more than the communities that I represent in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton. It is likely that many skilled workers in my constituency will need to be redeployed or reskilled as a result of this crisis, so what work will my hon. Friend be undertaking, alongside our west midlands Mayor, Andy Street, to ensure that communities such as mine are not left behind as a result of this crisis?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. My Department works closely with Mayors such as Andy Street on the devolution in skills deals. In the west midlands, we are also working with the combined authority on its local industrial strategy, skills advisory panel and innovation pilots. We are engaged with regional labour market issues and pressure points so that all regions and communities can benefit from the recovery.

Our economic recovery will depend much on public confidence, yet polling this morning found that almost half the population believe that the Prime Minister has gone too far. Many have deep concerns that they could put themselves and family members at risk if they cannot properly social distance when they return to work, and it is clear that the workforce and management must agree safe arrangements that people will trust. Will the Government adopt the TUC’s proposals for employers to publish covid-secure risk assessments and urgently increase funding for the Health and Safety Executive, which the Minister knows has been cut by a third since 2010, to enforce these measures?

I thank the hon. Lady and welcome her to her place. I am very interested to hear her policy priorities, ideas, thoughts and views, and I am keen to meet to discuss what the Department for Work and Pensions is doing. It is absolutely right that, as people look to return to work, we have published our plan—a cautious road map—this afternoon. We recognise that this is not a short-term crisis. I can tell her that our Secretary of State has been engaged in broader support for the HSE, which has done a magnificent job—

Order. Too long, Minister, far too long. We have to get through to the questions to the Secretary of State, which are coming further on in the order. Claire Coutinho is waiting with her substantive question. Can you please answer it?

Employment Support

Thank you, Mr Speaker. We have launched two key new websites, “Job help” and “Employer help”, to provide additional information tools and links to the DWP’s “Find a job” website, which has approximately 1.7 million users signed up and over 145,000 public and private sector employers registered. The DWP is currently considering a wide range of options on how best to support people back into work.

I commend Ministers and civil servants for the tremendous work they have done to get millions of people on-boarded over the last few weeks. What steps are being taken to get self-employed people, in particular, back on their feet in the next stage?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have temporarily relaxed the minimum income floor to allow self-employed claimants to access UC at a more generous rate. Meanwhile, the Treasury’s self-employment income support scheme online service is available from 13 May, and the DWP is providing mentoring and business support through our new enterprise allowance programme. As the economy restarts, we will continue to keep under review how we can best support all of this cohort.

Workplace Safety

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that people who cannot work at home are able to work safely at their place of work during the covid-19 outbreak. (902424)

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that people who cannot work at home are able to work safely at their place of work during the covid-19 outbreak. (902426)

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that people who cannot work at home are able to work safely at their place of work during the covid-19 outbreak. (902434)

The Health and Safety Executive is involved in safer workplaces and, across Government, this work is being led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The DWP has put a number of measures in place itself. We have closed jobcentres to the public; suspended appointments, except in exceptional circumstances; introduced social distancing, extensive communications and a route for staff to raise concerns; and deployed up to 15,000 laptops to allow people to work at home.

Trade bodies play a key role in helping businesses to comply with coronavirus workplace safety measures. What engagement has my hon. Friend had with the major trade bodies to keep workers safe?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is vital that we work with trade bodies, which play a vital role in supporting businesses and ensuring the right messages reach employers within their sectors. In the last few weeks, I have been listening to and engaging with key stakeholders such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and UKHospitality. One key theme in getting across the message is confidence for both employers and employees to be able to come back to work together.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is clear from the Government’s publication today that many employers that closed initially, out of an abundance of caution, can actually stay open provided they can do so safely. I welcome the covid-secure guidance that is going to be published. Could the Minister set out how the covid-secure guidance will be publicised, and will there be a PR campaign to make sure that employers that can be open do open?

As the Prime Minister announced yesterday, those who can return to work safely should do so, and I do encourage all employers and employees to use the safety at work guides due to be published later this week to help, support and inform decisions about safety in the workplace. Colleagues will have an opportunity to hear more from the Prime Minister when he makes his statement to the House shortly.

Many employers and employees in my constituency in the Scottish borders are very keen to go back to work. They want to do so as safely as possible, so could the Minister outline what the Government are doing to foster good relations between employees and employers to allow that to happen, and also to allow them to adjust to the new normal way of working?

As I said previously, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is leading the way on safer workplaces. There are lots of opportunities to build relationships between employers, employees and trade unions as we open up the economy, and the guidelines will be published in due course. The Health and Safety Executive is an arms-length body of the DWP. It has been actively involved in each of the work strands in the sectors. Our Department takes an interest in recruitment, helping to build confidence so claimants can return to work or take up new employment.

That concludes what are referred to as questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The arrangements for hybrid proceedings allow Departments to reorder questions according to the answering Minister, but I do not believe that it was the House’s expectation that this would lead to the Secretary of State not answering any questions and to important issues raised by Members from the Opposition parties being relegated to the bottom of the list. I will raise this matter with the Leader of the House, and I do not expect to see this repeated.