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Topical Questions

Volume 678: debated on Monday 29 June 2020

As I outlined to the House earlier, I am really pleased with the massive efforts that have been undertaken by members of the Department for Work and Pensions in responding to public needs during this important emergency. We are starting to return to normal and I look forward to jobcentres fully reopening so that they can help people to get ready again for the world of work.

Does my right hon. Friend agree on the importance of jobcentres and businesses working closely together to support employment and economic recovery, and will she join me in praising Pinewood studios in my constituency, which is a shining example of such practices?

As I outlined earlier, we want to ensure that we have that ongoing local support between jobcentres and businesses. I know that in Beaconsfield the local jobcentre staff are working with the local enterprise partnership to explore how they can collaboratively support people back into work. I am sure that the company to which my hon. Friend refers will also be looking at the Employer Help website, which provides a range of guidance and advice, including on identifying transferable skills, promoting opportunities to work in different sectors of the economy, and supporting staff.

Last week, the Pensions Regulator introduced an interim regime to cover so-called superfunds, which are funds that aim to bring together several corporate pension schemes to be run collectively. This is a sensitive area, because breaking the link between an employer and their pension scheme means that the employer cannot in future be called upon to fill any deficits. Given that sensitivity, will the Secretary of State explain, first, why the Government have not legislated for this area in the current Pension Schemes Bill; secondly, why the regulatory requirements for these superfunds are so much lower than they are for a buy-out from an insurance company; and, thirdly, whether the Governor of the Bank of England is right to say that this lack of action by the Government is a potential risk to the UK’s financial stability?

The independent Pensions Regulator published guidance on an interim regime for pensions superfunds. I want to stress that this is an interim regime, and that the Government will continue to develop the permanent regime before legislating with full and proper parliamentary scrutiny in the usual way. Market participants are well aware that they should not assume that the interim regime will automatically transfer into the permanent regime.

Not-for-profit organisations such as RCS Wales in Rhyl have provided critical employment support throughout the outbreak. Will my right hon. Friend do what she can to support such organisations and ensure that people with mental health difficulties are not left behind as they look for sustainable employment? (903941)

When it is safe to do so, I would love to visit and see the work of RCS. I pay tribute to the great work it is doing in its community. We understand the role of good mental wellbeing and helping individuals into the job market, and in Wales we have provided £1.3 million to test the new individual placement and support. We also provide contracted employment support programmes specifically tailored to disabled people and people with long-term health conditions, as well as administering the Access to Work scheme and the Disability Confident campaign.

Will the Minister confirm that senior management in the Department for Work and Pensions are suggesting that an additional 31,000 staff are needed to cope with increased universal credit claims? We have heard from Ministers that this week they are reopening jobcentres and reintroducing conditionality and sanctions, at a time when the Department has nowhere near the required number of staff available. Surely this action will heap stress and suffering on claimants and staff alike, so what measures will the Minister introduce to avoid this chaos? (903936)

I thank everyone who works in our jobcentres. Our Secretary of State has committed to doubling the number of work coaches. We put an individual focus on our claimants, and we will take a place-based approach to helping people into work. We are actively working with our operations to ensure that this is done safely so that people can get back into work.

Will my hon. Friend assure me that experiences of disabled people will be front and centre of the disability Green Paper? (903945)

I can absolutely reassure my hon. Friend that disabled people will be at the very heart of the consultation on both the Green Paper and the national strategy for disabled people. As soon as it is safe to do so, we will begin the roadshow of consultation across the whole country, making sure that all voices are heard and shape our future priorities.

The Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England estimate that by April 2020, around 230,000 families had been hit by the two-child limit, causing huge distress to children and their families in the middle of the pandemic, and that 1.3 million children will be forced into poverty—or, if they already face poverty, into deeper poverty. When will Ministers scrap this cruel and vicious policy that is punishing children? (903939)

We keep all policy under review. The particular policy change the hon. Lady references would not only cost around £2 billion a year but could not be operationalised now even if we wanted to, because all the focus is rightly on the Department’s response to covid-19. I say to her gently, though, that it is a policy based on fairness; those in receipt of benefits are faced with the same choices in life as those not in receipt of benefits.

I have recently been contacted by a number of beauty salons, such as the Beauty Academy in Ipswich, that have serious concerns about not being able to reopen their doors as expected on 4 July alongside hairdressers. Many beauty salons under pressure have already shut their doors for good, causing a number of job losses. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Business Secretary about preventing further job losses, including by allowing beauty salons to reopen on 4 July and giving them the certainty they need so that they can plan over the coming weeks? (903954)

We are actively working with colleagues across Government, including the Business Secretary, with whom I have had several roundtable discussions, to get people back into work and business opening up as soon as possible. The Government are committed to reopening businesses in a phased approach, guided by the science, when it is safe to do so; I confess to an absolute personal need for these sectors to reopen. However, where there are job losses, DWP staff are on hand to work with claimants to support them to get back into work.

Schemes such as Access to Work are vital in helping many disabled people start and remain in work. Will my hon. Friend outline how the Department is flexing existing support to help those disabled people, many of whom are now required to work from home? (903956)

That is a very important point. We are looking at additional ways we can support people, through Access to Work, to travel to and from their home to work and to have ability to work from home. There are opportunities for us to make some of those changes more permanent as we start to return to normality.

The Minister talks of fairness with regard to the two-child limit, but how can it be fair that the 60,000 families who have made a claim since lockdown began, who could not have anticipated having to claim universal credit, are now struggling to feed their third or subsequent children? They could not have planned for this; how is that fair? (903942)

We recognise that people face unprecedented financial pressure as a result of covid-19. That is exactly why the Government have invested £6.5 billion in our welfare system, increasing universal credit by £20 per week, increasing tax credits and increasing the local housing allowance.

Many people in my constituency rely on their summer earnings as a contribution towards their annual budget to make ends meet. Tourism is very seasonal, but what it brings has a knock-on effect across all sectors in Cornwall. Will my hon. Friend look at what more can be done if the summer does not produce the savings people need for the lean months? (903959)

I absolutely understand the importance of tourism to very many areas of the country; it is vital to jobs in my hon. Friend’s constituency and many others. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has said that we are looking to get the tourism sector up and running as strongly as we can and to extend it for as long as we can for visitors and tourists. Meanwhile, our welfare safety net, the UC standard allowance rate, has been increased by £20 a week for this year to support people.

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the Government intend to keep their manifesto commitment to maintaining the pensions triple lock? (903952)

The Government are absolutely committed to fulfilling their manifesto commitments. It is fair to say that we have some situations ahead of us, but it is something I am in discussions about. This is not about abandoning the triple lock in any way, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are some consequences—of which he may not be aware—if average earnings fall during this year. We may need to rectify things to make sure that aspects of the law that are already in place cannot be set aside.

Universal credit has supported millions of new claimants since March, many of whom will now be looking for new job opportunities as the economy reopens. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the inherent strengths of universal credit is its flexibility in incentivising and rewarding employment? (903961)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and he is absolutely right. The amount paid in UC reflects as closely as possible the actual circumstances of a household during each monthly assessment period. This allows UC awards to be adjusted on a monthly basis, ensuring that if a claimant’s income falls, they do not have to wait several months for a rise in their UC. UC pays up to 85% of childcare costs to support working parents, compared with 70% in the legacy benefits system.

ExcludedUK estimates that around 3 million taxpayers are ineligible for the furlough and self-employed income support schemes. Among the left behind are thousands of freelancers on short-term PAYE contracts, particularly in the creative industries. What is the Minister doing to ensure that support is reaching those who make such a vital economic and cultural contribution to this country? (903958)

The Treasury has put forward an unprecedented package to support people as widely as possible through this pandemic. The labour market sits with me, and I am working with the Department to make sure that we understand the challenges of self-employment, as we have jobcentres reopening, and that we support claimants who perhaps need to look at the next stage of their work journey, moving on from self-employment, or coming back into it.

With the possible increased uncertainty over employment in these times, many of my constituents will be relying on the good work of the jobcentre to secure future opportunities. Will the Minister outline how jobcentres are using technology to help with employment and to help find opportunities faster for my constituents in Eastleigh? (903962)

I confess that I know my hon. Friend’s jobcentre extremely well; I thank it for its response to the pandemic, and all those who have been on the frontline in this emergency. From the start of June, our work coaches have made over a quarter of a million outbound customer support calls each week. Understanding the digital needs as well, we will be using technology to host virtual job fairs—they have already started—working with employers to deliver online mentoring circles and facilitating sector-based work academies, which I am sure will come to Eastleigh.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.