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Work and Pensions

Volume 678: debated on Monday 29 June 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: Meeting Increased Demand for Services

What steps she has taken to meet the increased demand on her Department’s services resulting from the covid-19 outbreak. (903907)

I want to praise our excellent jobcentre staff and all Department for Work and Pensions staff and contractors for their tireless work through this emergency in supporting an unprecedented level of new claimants as well as existing claimants. To assist this effort, we redeployed thousands of staff and streamlined our processes where possible. Looking forward, we are now working with local managers to start fully reopening jobcentres in July to help get Britain back into work. Over 1,700 people are now working remotely, and we have already recruited new people into the DWP to help with the increased demand.

Unemployment in Wolverhampton is above the country average, and covid-19 will have an impact on these figures. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the local jobcentre staff, who have been working tirelessly through this pandemic, will play an integral part in making sure our great city is not left behind?

My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to staff at his local jobcentre. Without the success of the furlough scheme introduced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, this could have been far worse. We are working hard across Government to help people in these challenging times to get back into work as soon as possible and to support an economic recovery that levels up all parts of the country, including Wolverhampton. I am sure my hon. Friend can refer people to the two new websites, job help and employer help, to signpost people to live vacancies and online support.

I would like the Secretary of State to pass on our thanks to her team for the tremendous work that her officials have been doing at this very difficult time, but does she agree that the digital nature of universal credit has enabled it to respond effectively in recent months?

My hon. Friend is spot on. The Department has acted at incredible pace to bring in measures as quickly as possible to help those most financially disadvantaged as a result of c-19. Through the digital universal credit system, we have enabled those changes to take place while meeting that unprecedented demand. The legacy system, which was heavily paper-based, would simply have been unable to cope.

I also pay tribute to all the frontline staff at the DWP for the way they have processed so many claims for support since the beginning of the crisis. It is important to recognise, however, that the universal credit they have been processing so far in this crisis is a significantly different product from usual. In particular, all sanctions and conditionality have been temporarily suspended. That suspension is due to end tomorrow. At a time when unemployment has risen sharply, the number of vacancies has dropped, people are shielding and schools have not yet gone back, threatening people with reducing their financial support if they do not look for jobs is surely untenable, so will the Secretary of State announce an immediate extension?

It is important that as the jobcentres fully reopen this week we reinstate the need for a claimant commitment. It is an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there are, but I know that I can trust the work coaches and jobcentre managers, who are empowered to act proactively with people. There will be some people right now who have not had to look for a job for the last 20 to 30 years, and they will need careful support, tailored to make sure they can start to look for the jobs that are available and those which I hope will soon become available.

Covid-19: Universal Credit Applications

What recent estimate her Department has made of the number of universal credit applicants awaiting a decision on applications made since the start of the covid-19 outbreak. (903875)

What recent estimate her Department has made of the number of universal credit applicants awaiting a decision on applications made since the start of the covid-19 outbreak. (903898)

What recent estimate her Department has made of the number of universal credit applicants awaiting a decision on applications made since the start of the covid-19 outbreak. (903902)

Since mid-March, we have processed about 3.2 million individual universal credit claims. Despite that surge, the system is standing up to the challenge and demonstrating the resilience and scalability that is a fundamental part of its design. From the peak of claims made, fewer than 1% of claimants have outstanding verification preventing payment. There is no way that the legacy benefit system could have coped with such pressure.

Citizens Advice found recently that more than half the people claiming universal credit for the first time during the crisis had experienced hardship and that many did not want to take out a loan because they were afraid of taking on more debt. A system where more than half of people are experiencing hardship is surely a system that is not working, so will the Minister reconsider proposals to end the five-week wait and replace loans with a cash grant?

I do not recognise the picture the hon. Gentleman paints. Universal credit advances are available for those who need them. They are interest free for 12 months and as of next year that will increase to 24 months. We get support to people as quickly as they need it. That is why the payment advance is available, usually within a couple of days.

When the job retention scheme is wound down, we will see, I am sure, a second wave of universal credit applications, on top of the 70% increase we have already seen in Hull. With unemployment in Hull forecast to get to about 16%, is it not time now to prepare to remove the five-week wait for universal credit and to make the £20 increase a permanent feature?

The Department has processed an unprecedented number of claims during this period. We have put over £6.5 billion into our welfare system to support those who need it quickly. As for what the hon. Lady defines as the five-week wait, nobody has to wait five weeks for a payment. An advance is available, usually within a couple of days, for those who need it.

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on manufacturing, particularly the automotive and aviation industries. In Rotherham, McLaren and Rolls-Royce face redundancies. As well as universal credit, what package of support can the Minister put in place to help these highly skilled workers if job losses do come their way?

Any job loss is regrettable, and the Department stands ready to support people who find themselves in that position. The £6.5 billion package included an increase in universal credit of over £1,000, a similar increase in the standard allowance for tax credits and an increase in the local housing allowance. That is over and above measures such as the job retention scheme, the self-employment income support scheme, the £500 million hardship fund via local councils and the £63 million local welfare assistance fund. As the Chancellor said, we will do whatever it takes to support people through covid-19.

Transition from Universal Credit to State Pension

What steps her Department is taking to ensure an effective transition between universal credit and the state pension. (903876)

The Government announced in March that anyone reaching state pension age while claiming universal credit will be eligible for a run-on until the end of the assessment period in which they reach state pension age. An estimated 200,000 people will benefit from this measure over the next five years, receiving on average an additional £350 each. I am pleased to confirm that regulations are being laid today to put this measure on a statutory footing.

In November 2017, my constituent Caroll Nash visited my advice surgery and told me about a shortfall of £530 as a consequence of transitioning from universal credit to the state pension. Her claim ended on 17 October in anticipation of her receipt of the state pension from 6 November. At that time, no facility for a part-payment was available, although we did manage to resolve the issue. Can the Minister confirm that, as a consequence of the test-and-learn approach that his Department has taken in respect of universal credit, that claimant’s circumstances today would result in a seamless transition?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right, and I am pleased to confirm that everyone who reaches state pension age while on universal credit will be eligible for the new run-on payment. That will mean no gap in benefit provision as people transition from universal credit to the pension-age benefit system.

Universal Credit (Reducing Poverty)

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of universal credit in reducing poverty. (903884)

There are now over 200,000 fewer people in absolute poverty compared with 2010, and universal credit is a fundamental part of this Government’s strategy to support people. As a result of the covid-19 pandemic, we have increased the UC standard allowance by around £1,000. An estimated 2.5 million households on UC will benefit from that straight away, as well as new claimants who will become unemployed or those whose earnings or work hours decrease because of the outbreak.

I would like to begin by saying that my party’s thoughts are with the victims of the terrible knife attack in Glasgow, and we want to thank the emergency services for their incredible bravery.

According to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, the DWP last published a full impact assessment of universal credit in 2012, and no formal impact assessment has ever been produced on advance payments. How can we have any idea of the effectiveness or otherwise of universal credit unless assessments are available for scrutiny?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I would like to echo his comments; we are certainly thinking of the people of Glasgow at this incredibly difficult time.

We keep all policy under review, but I think Members across the House recognise yet another attack on universal credit and the system. We know that the legacy benefit system simply would not have coped with the unprecedented demand we have seen during covid-19. Universal credit has done a superb job. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reflects on the role that universal credit has played in ensuring that over 3.2 million people have got the support they need as quickly as possible, he will take a different view about its success.

The Social Mobility Commission has highlighted that, in the last seven years, there has been “little or no action” by the UK Government on a third of its recommendations, including ensuring that child poverty is not exacerbated by universal credit. Indeed, its damning report criticised the DWP for failing to provide a detailed assessment of how benefit changes are tied to these poverty rates. On that basis, how can the Minister possibly know whether universal credit is increasing or decreasing poverty?

The statistics show that full-time work substantially reduces the chances of poverty. The absolute rate of poverty for a child when both parents work full time is 4% compared with 44% when one or more parents are in part-time work. We are supporting people into full-time work wherever possible, for example through our childcare offer, and universal credit, where work always pays, is a fundamental part of that offer.

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that, despite the DWP’s temporary increase in universal credit, out-of-work households with children are, on average, £2,900 a year worse off than they would have been without cuts since 2011. Does the Minister understand that, far from doing a superb job, as he says, universal credit is leaving some families in serious difficulty and poverty, and will he commit to looking at the IFS findings?

Our focus today is rightly on what the Government can do to support people financially through these unprecedented times. However, our broader ambition remains to build an economy that ensures that everyone, no matter what their background, has opportunities to enter and progress in work where possible, while being supported by the welfare system in their time of need. I just gently remind the hon. Gentleman that, in this financial year, we have spent more than £120 billion on benefits for working-age people.

I welcomed the Minister’s confirmation last week of no appeal in the universal credit court case that the Department lost, but has he yet grasped the full scale of the problem that that issue has raised? He said in the House last week that, at most, 1,500 people were affected and suggested that 85,000 was a figure that had come from the Opposition. I wonder whether he has now had the chance to see that that 85,000 figure comes from the decision of Lady Justice Rose in the Court of Appeal last week. Did he also see that Lord Justice Underhill said:

“It is not simply a matter of uneven cash-flow…affected claimants will receive substantially lower payments”?

I answered an urgent question on this matter on Thursday for some 45 minutes, as the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I confirmed that we would not be appealing against the decision of the court. As I made clear to him, I am now considering options to address the issue and will keep the House updated on progress. The 85,000 figure, which he references, from the judgment, came, in my understanding, from the Opposition. It is referenced in the judgment, but it came from the Opposition and we do not recognise those figures.

My hon. Friends have highlighted the range of expert reports out over the past couple of weeks showing that the DWP has no idea how universal credit impacts child poverty. It has done precious little to address it and could have made it worse through systematic cuts, leaving families and children worse off since 2011. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children say that families need an extra £20 a week in the child element of universal credit and child tax credits. Will the Minister ask the Chancellor to make that happen?

As I just said, in 2020-21 we will spend more than £120 billion on benefits for working-age people. We spend more on family benefits than any other country in the G7, at 3.5% of GDP. The measure that the hon. Gentleman raises would alone add another several billion to that bill. We will continue to reform the welfare system so that it encourages work while supporting those who need help. It is an approach that is based on the clear evidence that work offers families the best opportunity to get out of poverty.

I note that the Minister did not answer my question. There is growing pressure on the UK Government to act here. The former DWP Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), has called on the Minister and his colleagues to accept the recommendations of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children and to uprate legacy benefits, too. The Poverty Alliance’s report today shows that UC is pulling people into poverty rather than acting as a lifeline, so will he agree to convene a cross-party meeting, including the former Secretary of State and a Treasury Minister, to look at ways to make that recommendation happen?

For a start, the hon. Gentleman knows that that is well above my pay grade, but I gently remind him that universal credit will be over £2 billion a year more generous when fully rolled out compared with the legacy benefits system that it replaces. He also fails to recognise the £6.5 billion to £7 billion that this Government have put in place to support people through covid-19. As the Chancellor has said, we will do “whatever it takes”, and this Government are doing that: we are supporting people, and this Department is getting that support to those who need it quickly.

Supporting Employment After Covid-19

What steps she plans to take with Cabinet colleagues to support employment after the covid-19 outbreak. (903878)

I am already actively working with a number of my Cabinet colleagues, particularly the Chancellor and the Secretaries of State for Education, for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, for Transport, and for Housing, Communities and Local Government—and, of course, the Prime Minister. This is a joined-up Government who are working hard to help people, in these challenging times, to get back into work as soon as possible.

Many of us are concerned about jobs in the aviation sector, particularly British Airways, which is not only making up to 12,500 redundancies but firing and rehiring virtually the remainder of the workforce, despite its group putting €1 billion into a new airline and BA staff putting 66% of profits into that group. What can the Government do to ensure that our employers do the right thing by the workforce who have previously delivered those profits?

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has previously said to my hon. Friend, we are concerned about the way that some companies are treating their workforce and we are actively looking into the issue. The furlough scheme has been a huge success in keeping over 9 million employees connected to their jobs, but companies should not be using it cynically to keep people on their books just to then get rid of them. The whole point of the furlough scheme is to help people to get back into their jobs and the country back on its feet.

New analysis suggests that up to 1 million people could be added to the current jobless total unless more support is provided from August, with sectors such as aviation being harder hit. We have learned from covid to plan early and to work together. However, last week’s DWP Committee report said that the Secretary of State had not provided any persuasive reason for her refusal to share her economic downturn plans. Why is a plan that is the basis of how we get millions of people back into work such a secret? Will she now work with her colleagues for a back-to-work budget so that local partnerships can plan together for what is coming?

I think the hon. Lady is confusing the element in the Select Committee report with the emergency contingency plan, which is an operational document that is prepared by all Departments in the event of the sort of emergency that requires, for example, redeployment within the Department. In terms of her broader question on what I think she was really referring to, I assure her that, as I pointed out, I am actively working with Ministers across the Government to make sure that we will be there to help people get into the new jobs that we rely on the private sector to create, but will be working across the public sector too.

Covid-19: Processing Work Capability Assessments

What estimate she has made of the average time taken to process work capability assessments during the covid-19 outbreak. (903879)

We have temporarily suspended face-to-face work capability assessments so that we do not place people at unnecessary risk. Healthcare professionals continue to make recommendations based on paper-based evidence where possible, and we have introduced telephone assessments. We are in the early phases of delivering telephone assessments and are closely monitoring the processing times.

One of my constituents who has progressive multiple sclerosis and is partially paralysed on his left side had to undergo a work capability assessment by phone. This resulted in his personal independence payment being cancelled, and then reviewed and reinstated at a lower rate. The decision is now being appealed so that he can get the higher level of PIP that he was previously on. Does the Minister agree that stringent safeguards need to be in place when such telephone assessments are made to ensure that poor decisions are avoided?

I absolutely agree. We have independent audits looking at this. We are in the early stages of using telephone assessments, and there is a mix of the benefits because the WCA is separate from PIP. PIP is a few weeks further on in terms of telephone assessments. Stakeholders welcome the opportunity and it is something we will explore in the Green Paper. However, I am happy to look at the individual case.

Employment Support (Local Labour Market Conditions)

What steps her Department is taking to tailor employment support to local labour market conditions. (903900)

What steps her Department is taking to ensure employment support is tailored to local labour market conditions. (903904)

What steps her Department is taking to promote employment opportunities in rural constituencies as the economy reopens and the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (903905)

As the Minister responsible for this evolving labour market, I can say that the DWP is working hard to identify the most effective ways to support people back into work. We are clear that we are taking a targeted, place-based approach. I have attended regional stocktakes with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government economic recovery working group, which brings together mayors, local enterprise partnerships and other vital partners to share local knowledge.

I welcome not only the Government’s strong, effective measures on supporting employment through the job retention scheme but the extensive range of employment and support benefits. With that in mind, does the Minister agree that we need to support our next generation of agricultural workers, such as our farmers across Teesdale, whom we rely on not just to feed ourselves but for the future of our food security?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: we should recognise the areas that have a proud history of agriculture, such as Teesdale. Our farmers have done and continue to do a fantastic job feeding the nation during this challenging time. Alongside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the DWP has used our “job help” campaign to encourage farmers and employment agencies to use the Pick for Britain website to help them fill their vacancies.

One does not need to look much further than my own constituency of Dudley North—and those of my hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) and, indeed, for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes)—to see the terrible effects over a couple of decades of globalisation. Will the Minister reassure me and the House, despite the challenges posed by this pandemic, of her commitment and her Department’s commitment to the levelling-up agenda?

Our network of jobcentres is local and regional by design, and I mentioned earlier the place-based approach. We are ensuring that work coaches are ready to provide individualised support for claimants. The levelling-up agenda is a priority for this Government, and we have been building this into our discussions and plans when meeting Mayors, such as Andy Street, to get Britain back into work.

For my communities in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton, jobs are going to be at the centre of this recovery. Can I ask my hon. Friend to elaborate a bit more on the work that she has been undertaking across Government and locally with local partners, and will she agree to meet me to discuss a Black Country jobs strategy as we move out of this pandemic?

Of course, I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and continue to engage with him on developing these local, place-based recovery plans. As I have said, we have been working closely with the West Midlands Combined Authority, building, importantly, on our learning from the employment and skills framework, which underpins the current joint approach to supporting people locally back into work in the Black Country.

My constituency of North Norfolk is rural, and it faces many challenges. It is heavily reliant on the tourism sector, and without the fat of a full summer season, it could struggle to get through the winter. What steps can the Minister take to see a wider compulsory offering of apprenticeship schemes to enable younger people to stay in a good job, and to stay in the area where they grew up—a longing that all of us recognise?

Supporting our young people is a priority for me in this job. Apprenticeships are a great way for young people to start their careers, giving them that crucial opportunity to earn while they learn. Alongside the Department for Education, we at the DWP are supporting employers, especially small businesses, to take on new apprentices this year, and we will provide further detail in due course. We will also ensure that there is sufficient funding this year to support small businesses wanting to take this up.

Covid-19: Support for People Self-isolating

What support her Department provides for people required to self-isolate as a result of exposure to covid-19 who are not eligible for statutory sick pay. (903901)

We have made changes so that statutory sick pay and employment and support allowance are payable to people who are self-isolating, including those who are shielding and who satisfy the conditions of entitlement. We have removed the waiting days, so these are paid from day one, and households may also be able to claim universal credit.

But the lowest-paid in this country and about 3 million self-employed and others are excluded from what is already one of the lowest rates of statutory sick pay in Europe. As test and trace is stepped up, many of those will be told to self-isolate, potentially multiple times, so how does the Minister propose that we can emerge safely from lockdown if people are not supported in these circumstances? What is he going to do about this group?

In addition to providing support through statutory sick pay, we are expecting employers to do the right thing, and we will be working with employers to make sure employees can transition back to work safely. That is underpinned by the Equality Act 2010, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Health and Safety Executive will continue to provide proactive guidance to employers.

At DWP questions on 11 May, I asked the Minister whether his Department would increase legacy benefits, such as employment and support allowance, to help shielding and disabled people cover the increasing costs of basic items such as food, toiletries and personal protective equipment for themselves and their carers. Seven weeks on, can the Minister update us on how much progress his Department has made? As we move towards planning for a potential second wave, it is vital that we get this right.

As a Department, we have rightly put an additional £6.5 billion into welfare support, on top of the £500 million hardship fund provided to local authorities. I welcome the further additional £63 million to boost council welfare support so that no one goes without food and other basic necessities in the coming months.

Covid-19: Promotion of Employment Opportunities

What steps her Department is taking to promote employment opportunities as the economy reopens and the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (903894)

What steps her Department is taking to promote employment opportunities as the economy reopens and the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (903903)

We have launched A Good Place to Start, a new labour market campaign that includes two key websites—job help and employer help—which provide additional information, tools and links to other sites, including DWP’s Find a job service, for current vacancies, and the Department for Education’s Skills Toolkit.

My constituency currently has the highest claimant count in the whole UK, as the crisis has exposed the dependence of my local economy on tourism and insecure seasonal work. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to support those in communities such as Blackpool who are currently out of work to retrain and acquire the skills needed to find future employment?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I highlight the work that our staff in jobcentres are doing tirelessly to support people with their claims throughout the pandemic, and that work continues. Indeed, our work coaches have made more than a quarter of a million outbound customer support calls each week, and they are also organising virtual job fairs. In Blackpool, they are working with the local authority on a virtual adult learning and education programme, hosted online and through Google Classroom. Upcoming from 4 July is a sector-based work academy for recruitment around the pleasure beach, and we are also training people through our mentoring circles. I encourage every Member in the House to contact their local jobcentre to find out about what we are already doing to support their local community.

As the economy reopens, it will look different. One sector that has grown fast and will continue to grow is the digital sector. The Federation of Small Businesses in North Yorkshire has told me that a key need of its members is increased digital skills—it wants to see more training. How will my hon. Friend ensure that as they work to match people with vacancies, jobcentres are handling the changing needs of employers in the digital economy?

I regularly meet Ministers from the DFE and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that we are doing exactly that. Work includes figuring out how claimants can be supported to gain those key skills and to pivot into those sectors where there are vacancies as the economy recovers. Jobcentres work with their local training providers to ensure that a range of courses is available to help claimants to find that new opportunity or some better-paid work.

Support for the Terminally Ill

When she plans to publish the findings of the Government’s review announced in July 2019 of how the welfare system supports people who are terminally ill. (903885)

When she plans to publish the findings of the Government’s review announced in July 2019 of how the welfare system supports people who are terminally ill. (903893)

The evaluation remains a priority for the Department. We have made good progress and expect to be able to provide an update on the outcome of the evaluation shortly.

Motor neurone disease is an utterly wicked, terrible disease. Those who have it are locked in and see their bodies waste away, while their families watch their loved ones slowly slide away. However, only 50% of people diagnosed with motor neurone disease can claim under the personal independence payment special rules—about which the Minister knows—because of the six-month life expectancy rule; the others have to go through the standard procedures, which can lead to delays. The Department launched a terminal illness review more than a year ago. The Minister has it in his gift to change the rules and ensure that all people with motor neurone disease are allowed to claim under the PIP special rules. On behalf of all those families who are suffering—it is only a small number—I ask him: will he make that change today?

I thank the hon. Member for setting out powerfully the torment and challenges that MND sufferers face; he has been a champion of their cause in Parliament. I am grateful for the part that the Motor Neurone Disease Association, Hospice UK, Macmillan, Marie Curie, Sue Ryder, the national nurse consultant group and others have played in the evaluation. The Secretary of State and I are passionate about making changes: it will not be the status quo. Covid-19 caused a delay to the final part of the consultation with the medical professionals, but we will bring forward a change shortly.

I know that the Minister will be aware that the benefits awarded under the special rules for terminal illness last for three years, but on behalf of my constituent Doddie Weir, the former Scotland rugby player, who has been campaigning on the issue, will my hon. Friend consider scrapping the three-year limit on awards under the special rules to avoid distressing situations for those suffering with MND and other terminal illnesses?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this. I know that he has campaigned hard on the matter. We are reviewing all areas. The key three themes are the six months and not having the status quo; improving consistency; and raising awareness to ensure that all those who will benefit from the special rules know what is available.

Covid-19: Food Insecurity

If she will hold discussions with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on trends in the level of food insecurity among the poorest communities since the start of the covid-19 outbreak. (903887)

I regularly engage with my counterpart in DEFRA, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), on this issue, and participate in the ministerial Food and Supplies to the Vulnerable Task Force. In addition to welfare changes worth more than £6.5 billion, Departments have worked together throughout this period to ensure support for the most vulnerable. Funding of up to £16 million, including the £3.5 million food charities grant fund, is available so that charities can continue to provide food for those in need.

The Food Foundation has found that 5 million adults and 2 million children suffer from food insecurity, which the United Nations defines as insufficient nutritious food each day to avoid hunger. The 2019 national food strategy was shelved because of coronavirus. What plans has the Minister to introduce more money for those most in need so that we do not have growing numbers of people relying on food banks, and to prevent millions more from being plunged into hunger in the event of a second wave of coronavirus and a bad or no deal Brexit?

Over and above the £6.5 billion we have pumped into our welfare system, there is the more than £16 million for food redistribution charities, the £3.5 million for the food charities fund, which offers grants of up to £100,000 to support those charities, the £63 million local welfare assistance fund through local authorities that the Prime Minister announced two weeks ago and, of course, the free school meals voucher scheme. However, the hon. Gentleman raises a good point. We want to better understand food insecurity in this country. That is why we commissioned extra questions for the family resources survey. I look forward to looking at the results of that in great detail.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on her promotion to the shadow Cabinet.

The Government say that the aim of the benefit cap is to make people work more hours or move to cheaper accommodation. Neither of those options has been possible during the covid crisis, so what possible justification have the Government for persisting with that policy, which prevents families from receiving what the Department for Work and Pensions itself believes to be necessary?

The benefit cap does play an important part, but the hon. Gentleman may not be aware of the exemptions to it. New and existing claimants can benefit from a nine-month grace period when their benefit will not be capped if they have a sustained work history. Since 2013, nearly 220,000 households which were subject to the benefit cap are now no longer capped.

Benefits for People with Severe Disabilities

What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of benefits for people with severe disabilities. (903889)

As a Government, we are currently spending £55 billion supporting disabled people and those with long-term health conditions. The level of financial support will reflect the level of disability or condition of the claimant.

I thank the Minister for his advice the other day regarding my disabled constituent Tom Hipgrave. Although the support provided by PIP is vital, what more is my hon. Friend doing to help those with severe disabilities, like Tom?

My hon. Friend is a very diligent representative of his constituents, as I saw with the casework he raised. Our forthcoming Green Paper is key, as is our national strategy for disabled people, in which we will explore other ways to offer greater support, such as advocacy, signposting and removing barriers across Government and in wider society.

Women: State Pension Uplift

What recent estimate she has made of the number of women who have been underpaid their state pension uplift as a result of an administrative error. (903891)

We are aware of a number of cases where individuals have been underpaid category BL basic state pension. The Department has already taken action to correct our records, and we reimbursed those affected as soon as any errors were identified.

Informed commentators say that more than 100,000 women will be impacted by this error. Many will be older women and more likely to be living in poverty. To put this right, will the Minister agree to an investigation of this issue? Will he look again at the rules on backdating to ensure that those women are treated fairly in the future?

I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and we invite anyone who thinks that they have failed to claim a state pension increase for which they are eligible to contact the Department through the Pension Service helpline. Alternatively, Pension Wise can assist.[Official Report, 8 July 2020, Vol. 678, c. 4MC.]

Case after case is being uncovered of retired women being underpaid their pensions. To this day, many do not know about the Department’s mistake, and some have tragically died before learning of it. This must be properly investigated. Crucially, those women deserve justice. When will the Department work out how many women have been affected, and who they are? Will it bring forward a plan to contact them so that the women who built Britain get the justice in retirement that they deserve?

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, this dates from March 2008, when married women receiving a low-level state pension based on their national insurance record should have had their entitlement reviewed when their husband reached state pension age. The Department for Work and Pensions is looking into the matter, and we invite any individual who feels that they are affected to claim a state pension increase by contacting the Pension Service helpline or Pension Wise.[Official Report, 8 July 2020, Vol. 678, c. 4MC.]

Extended Income Support: Seasonal Industries

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of providing extended income support for people in seasonal industries. (903892)

I have regular conversations with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who is responsible for the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme, which have supported 9.2 million and 2.6 million people respectively—nearly 12 million people in total. He has set out how the schemes will be phased out during the autumn. The furlough scheme continues until the end of October.

The position for people in the visitor economy in my constituency is particularly acute because of the highly seasonal nature of the trade. It has been described to me as being like three winters in a row. Does the Secretary of State accept, and will she prosecute the case within Government, that if some industries in some areas are to have a viable future, there will need to be special consideration?

I too have a coastal constituency with a significant tourism economy. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said, we are looking to get the tourist sector up and running as strong as possible, and extending it for as long as we can. That is a key part of the campaign. When it is back, we will invest heavily and ensure that we have a major campaign to encourage British people to take British staycations.

Covid-19: Support for Pensioners

I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend on his outstanding maiden speech last week, for which credit is due. The Government are committed to ensuring that older people are able to live with the dignity—[Inaudible.]

To echo my hon. Friend, the Government are committed to ensuring that older people are able to live with the dignity and respect that they deserve. The state pension is a foundation of state support. In April, full amounts of the basic and new state pensions increased by 3.9% to £134.25 and £175.20 per week respectively. We continue to work with the Post Office to ensure that vulnerable customers have access to cash when shielding.

People in Broxtowe affected by the closure of Equitable Life are increasingly worried as they approach retirement age. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what measures the Government will take to ensure that soon-to-be pensioners get the compensation they deserve and are supported in their old age?

My hon. Friend raises a long-standing issue. I am aware that during the 2010 Administration, extra money was put in after the original proposal in order to support those on Equitable Life, but this is a matter for my right hon Friend the Chancellor and I would encourage my hon. Friend to follow it up with him directly.

Topical Questions

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.