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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 680: debated on Monday 14 September 2020

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Access to Benefits: Post Offices

What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that vulnerable people have access to welfare benefits through Post Office services. (905894)

Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy worked closely with the Post Office to ensure that vulnerable customers were able to access benefit payments during lockdown. It remains the case that at least 99% of customers with a bank, building society, credit union or Post Office card account can already access their benefit or pension payments at post office branches or post office ATMs.

Some 1.23 million people do not have a bank account. Given the DWP’s decision that new benefits or state pensions will no longer be collected using the Post Office card account, with the scheme officially closing in November next year, how will the Minister ensure that an estimated 300,000 vulnerable people can still access their benefits?

Any customer with a building society or credit union account will be able to continue to access their benefit or pension payments at a post office, even after the closure of the Post Office card account. That includes all bank accounts. There is also the ability to open a basic bank account, for which assistance can be given.

Welfare Benefits: Rent Arrears

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that welfare benefits for rent are paid to landlords to prevent rental arrears building up. (905895)

As my hon. Friend knows, alternative payment arrangements are already available to enable housing costs to be paid directly to the landlord. We have listened to feedback, and in May we introduced a new online system for private landlords, so that claimants who struggle with managing their money get the right support promptly. Landlords can now request that a universal credit tenant’s rent is paid directly to them online, rather than by email or post.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. As he will know, it is estimated that 125,000 people are now in rent arrears, with rent not being paid to landlords. Many of those people will be in receipt of either universal credit or housing benefit. What steps can he take to ensure that that rent will be paid to landlords, and to prevent spiralling debts that are impossible for people to repay, so that landlords are paid their rent and tenants do not fall into unnecessary rent arrears?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is a passionate and knowledgeable advocate on housing issues, and I always listen carefully to his representations. Alternative payment arrangements such as direct payment to landlords can be requested by the tenant, landlord or work coach, but if there is more that we can do, I am happy to explore it. I regularly meet my counterpart at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to discuss these issues, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Direct payments to landlords can help vulnerable tenants, but the issue remains that the design flaws in universal credit leave many tenants at risk. We now know that on average, new claimants of universal credit see a net fall of 40% of their income, one in eight tenants have built up arrears and there is a £440 million gap between what landlords believe they are owed and what tenants have paid. What immediate steps can the Minister take to deal with these structural problems, particularly the waiting period for universal credit, so that when the eviction ban is lifted next week, tenants are not at risk of losing their homes?

First, I welcome the hon. Lady to her place on the Front Bench. I am afraid that I have to start by disagreeing. It is wrong to attribute a rise in rent arrears solely to universal credit. We know that many tenants are arriving on universal credit with pre-existing rent arrears, which universal credit actually appears to be helping to clear over time. There is no wait for universal credit; people can get an advance immediately. We recognise that this has been a very difficult time for people on low incomes, and that is why we have injected more than £9.3 billion into our welfare system.

Terminally Ill People: Welfare Support

When she plans to publish the findings of her Department’s review of how well the welfare system supports terminally ill people, which was announced in July 2019. (905896)

I would like to thank all the organisations and charities that supported the consultation, which took longer than we had hoped owing to covid-19. It is clear that there are three themes: the need to change the six-month rule, the need to improve consistency and the need to raise awareness of the support. We are working at pace across Government to bring forward proposals.

Having supported a number of constituents with motor neurone disease, including a close friend, I have seen some of the challenges that people experience when faced with a terminal diagnosis. Can the Minister reassure me that the Government will not just replace the six-month rule with another arbitrary time limit of, say, 12 months? That would not solve the problem and would create barriers for patients and clinicians when it comes to navigating the special rules for terminal illness.

I pay tribute to the Motor Neurone Disease Association, which has been at the heart of this review. The Secretary of State and I are committed to delivering an improved system that raises awareness of the support, improves consistency and tackles the issue arising from the six-month rule. We are determined that this will be done as quickly as possible.

State Pension Errors: Retired Women

What steps her Department is taking to (a) investigate and (b) rectify errors made in the payment of the state pension to retired women. (905897)

What steps her Department is taking to (a) investigate and (b) rectify errors made in the payment of the state pension to retired women. (905899)

We are aware of a number of cases in which individuals have been underpaid category BL basic state pension. We corrected our records and reimbursed those affected as soon as the underpayments were identified, and we continue to check and remedy further cases that are identified.

With up to 130,000 women potentially affected, and with many of those women who have already contacted the DWP having been told, wrongly, that they are not entitled to any additional money, will the Minister say what more he is going to do, in the light of the miscommunication that affected thousands of women represented by the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign, to ensure that the women affected are contacted and given the correct information?

As the hon. Lady knows, I cannot comment on the live litigation in respect of the WASPI women, although I can say that at the first hearing before the judicial review, the Government were found for in respect of notification and communication—this Government, the coalition Government and the Labour Government whom she served. In respect of category BL pensions, we are improving the training and the ability of the individuals who are handling the cases.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) in paying tribute to the WASPI women. Estimates suggest that as many as 130,000 women could have been underpaid their state pensions. Will the Minister confirm the total number who have been affected by the Department’s error, and tell me how he intends to ensure that they receive the full amount to which they are entitled?

This matter dates from 2008 and a Labour Government who introduced the particular changes. The Department continues to check for further cases, and if any are found, awards will be reviewed and any arrears paid in accordance with the law. We continue to encourage anyone who believes that they are being underpaid the state pension to contact the Department for Work and Pensions.

This issue is in addition to the UK Government’s continuing to deny justice to WASPI women at a time when women are disproportionately impacted, socially and economically, by the coronavirus outbreak. The Scottish National party believes that mistakes were made in the changes to the state pension age, and has repeatedly called on the UK Government to oversee a full impact assessment that considers the wide-reaching effects of the detriment felt by 1950s-born women. Will the Minister commit to a full impact assessment on both issues?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot comment on live litigation, but he also knows that when the High Court heard the judicial review, it found for the Government on all the issues that he outlines. I point out that sections 24, 26 and 28 of the Scotland Act 2016 give the Scottish National party Government in Holyrood extensive powers to intervene, if they choose to do so.

Up to 130,000 women who have been denied their entitlements through pension underpayments are awaiting justice. An investigation is under way; when will it finally conclude so that those women, many of whom are in their twilight years, get the justice that they deserve? To make a bad situation worse, the Government pledged in their manifesto that they would honour the triple lock; we now hear that they are considering scrapping the triple lock, at a time when UK pensioner poverty is the worst in Europe. Will the Secretary of State commit today that her party will not add to its long list of U-turns by scrapping the triple lock?

I really think the hon. Gentleman needs to talk to his good lady wife, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), because she was the Secretary of State in the Labour Government who so grievously underpaid state pensions that the coalition Government and this Government transformed the basic state pension. It is more than £1,900 a year higher than it was a decade ago, and that is thanks to the actions of the coalition Government and this Conservative Government. The House will be aware that the matters the hon. Gentleman raises in respect of category BL state pension were a result of the changes brought in by the regulations introduced under the Labour Government in 2008.

Employment Support: Local Labour Market

What steps her Department is taking to help ensure employment support is tailored to local labour market conditions. (905898)

What steps her Department is taking to help ensure employment support is tailored to local labour market conditions. (905911)

We recognise that some areas and some sectors of the economy have been more affected than others by the pandemic. The DWP, along with other Government Departments, will continue to work in partnership with mayors, local government, businesses and charities, acknowledging their expertise and links with their local labour markets. This includes working closely and at pace with regional partners during the development phase of the Government’s plan for jobs, which builds on and boosts the existing support offered by our Jobcentre Plus network.

The Government oversaw record employment at the beginning of this year, but, even in that buoyant labour market, there were areas of high unemployment, including areas in Wolverhampton North East. How will my hon. Friend make sure that those people struggling to find work before the pandemic are not forgotten over the difficult months ahead?

Our jobcentres have remained open throughout the pandemic, making more than 250,000 calls a week to claimants to help them look for work, and supporting those vulnerable claimants face to face. The Department, meanwhile, is doubling the number of work coaches in our jobcentres, with the first wave of adverts going live last week. I can confirm that recruitment in my hon. Friend’s constituency is going live next week. Work coaches are indeed at the core of our employment offer, and this new increase will provide all claimants with the tailored local support that they need.

Manchester Airport employs more than 25,000 people on site and supports a further 45,000 jobs in areas across the north-west, including Cheadle. Owing to the pandemic, many of those jobs have now been lost or are at risk. Can my hon. Friend confirm that she is working with the Department for Transport, Manchester Airport and local authorities to ensure that the right employment support is in place for airport workers, and for those ancillary workers whose livelihoods depend on the airport?

My hon. Friend has just outlined the work that Greater Manchester jobcentre has already done with key partners to ensure that the reach of our rapid response and redundancy service is extensive, fully working and accommodating all those who she outlined need it. We demonstrated the effectiveness of this service during the demise of Thomas Cook and Flybe—when they collapsed—and the evidence is that the DWP is ready to respond and support all those to find new employment and new career opportunities.

Support for Disabled People: Covid-19

My Department has supported disabled customers during the covid outbreak by automatically extending existing personal independence payment awards and new flexible access to work support for people to work from home as well as in the workplace and ensuring that disabled people can access new support, including kickstart.

We are heading into an important 12 months for policy development to help disabled people with the Government’s new national disability strategy. Many charities in my constituency in Beaconsfield and across Bucks are very keen to give feedback to this strategy. Can my hon. Friend reassure the House that he is meeting stakeholders from a diverse range of backgrounds to ensure the development of a disability policy that is inclusive to everyone?

For both the Green Paper and the national strategy for disabled people, we will be making sure that disabled people, disabled organisations and stakeholders are very much at the heart of shaping our future policies and service delivery.

We will be organising national, regional and local-led events and events in conjunction with stakeholders. I know that my hon. Friend is a strong advocate of the disability organisations in her constituency, and I urge her to encourage them to take part in the coming months.

This Government have spoken a lot about levelling up so that people are equally supported—something that people expect to be delivered. I asked the Minister on 11 May and then on 29 June how the Government were progressing with uplifting legacy benefits. As of February this year, 1.9 million people in Great Britain, many of whom are disabled, are desperate for the Government to sort this out. A DWP report stated that it would take four to five months to deliver. We are now four months on. Can the Minister update us on any progress made, specifically on uplifting legacy benefits?

As a Government, we have provided an extra £9.3 billion-worth of support during the covid crisis, which has been very much welcomed. Specifically, in my area of disability, we will see spending increase this year from £19 billion to £20 billion, which is just shy of a 5% increase, and many disabled people will gain from the additional support provided through universal credit, through the increases in the discretionary housing payment, or through the £500 million given to local authorities as a hardship fund based on individual circumstances.

But the UK Government’s decision to exclude people claiming legacy benefits from the £20 per week covid uplift to universal credit—many of them are sick or disabled people and carers—is surely untenable. Nearly 300,000 people in Scotland are missing out on the £20 per week increase as a result. Does the Minister agree that people on legacy benefits deserve the same amount of support as everybody else, and if he does, will he put his money where his mouth is and push the Chancellor to extend the uplift and make it permanent in the upcoming Budget?

The Government are putting money where their mouth is with the £9.3 billion-worth of support, which is pretty much unprecedented across the world. I would urge all claimants, disabled or not, to talk to their work coaches and review their circumstances to see whether they could be better off moving over to universal credit. However, as I said in my previous answer, there has been a wide range of support, and as a Government we will always target support at those most in need.

Unemployment Trends

Unemployment was little changed over the second quarter, with the latest official Office for National Statistics figures showing it at 1.3 million. This is due to the unprecedented package of support that the Chancellor put in place, protecting millions of jobs through the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. We do recognise that there are difficult times ahead, but our ambitious £30 billion plan for jobs will support people during the next phase of our recovery, as we build back better and greener.

Unemployment is soaring, uptake in benefits has skyrocketed, and marginalised communities are bearing the brunt. Will the Minister urge the Chancellor to extend the job retention scheme to stop this vital safety net being snatched away from those struggling most in Portsmouth?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising issues in Portsmouth, where we are actively trying to help people to get back into work and to have the hope that he mentions. We are currently working with a pop-up business school in his constituency, and he may be interested to know that in his local jobcentre there is a new mentoring circle with Maritime UK Solent, which up to 20 young people will get a chance to join, seeing the different employer pathways that are available in Portsmouth. He will be interested to know that our work coach recruitment to help people back into work is open for local applications, and ends on Wednesday.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) just said, we face a tsunami of unemployment over the coming six to eight months, that I think the Minister would accept. Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, said this morning that covid will not end at the end of October, so why should the furlough scheme? Business representatives have said that the schemes in other countries, such as France and Germany, offer a competitive advantage that we do not. Will the Minister please speak to the Chancellor and seek an extension of the furlough scheme, particularly some sort of sectoral deal?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the need for local interventions in his constituency. I must say that his local jobcentre is doing fantastic work, particularly working with young people, and it already has new dedicated work coaches to help people as they seek to get back into work. We have a new virtual jobs board and we are also working on a local place-based plan to help fill roles in sectors which we already could not fill at the beginning of this, particularly in care homes. There are also roles with the DWP, which start next week, for which people can apply. But I do not think that keeping people in suspended animation and not giving them hope for the future is the way forward.

There is no doubt that the unemployment situation, bad as it is, would have been so much worse had it not been for the various schemes the Minister has talked about, which is why it is such a catastrophic error for the Government to end the furlough scheme in October. With that in mind, can the Minister tell us what estimate the Department has made of the level of unemployment this Christmas?

That is exactly why we have our plan for jobs—a £30 billion programme, including £2 billion for the kickstart scheme. I am going to be boring about this, Mr Speaker. There is so much good work going on in the DWP and our JCPs locally to tackle what the hon. Gentleman has spoken about. There was an amazing opportunity just recently in his constituency involving sector-based work academy programmes, and new virtual jobs fairs for kickstart are coming up there—as is more recruitment to help people get back into work, which will start near him next week. We are absolutely determined, with our plan for jobs, to see off that tsunami and give people the right skills and opportunities for the future.

Returning to Employment: Covid-19

What steps her Department is taking to support people of all ages to return to employment as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (905902)

What steps her Department is taking to support people of all ages to return to employment as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (905910)

What steps she is taking with her Cabinet colleagues to support back into the labour market people who became unemployed as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (905925)

The furlough scheme, as we have heard, has been a huge success in helping millions of employees to keep their link to their employer, as well as providing other opportunities for people who are self-employed, with support through grants or through the benefit scheme. Our plan for jobs is a cross-Government initiative that will promote employment opportunities for people of all ages. Our local jobcentres have fully reopened, and we will provide additional support for claimants by doubling the number of work coaches. We are also expanding SWAPs, the sector-based work academy programmes, and we have launched our ambitious kickstart scheme, which will provide a vital first step on the jobs ladder for many young people.

I am very supportive of the recent action the Government have taken to help young people into work. I have, however, been contacted by a number of older constituents who have unfortunately lost their jobs because of covid-19. I would therefore be interested to know what steps the Government will take to encourage employers not to overlook the skills and experience that those in their 50s and 60s can bring to the workplace when they are hiring.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the value that experience can bring to the workplace and to a potential new employer. SWAPs allow those looking to pivot into new rules to gain experience in that new area, and in the coming months our job-finding support package will draw on private sector expertise to help those who have recently lost their jobs, while our job entry targeted support scheme—JETS—will provide extra help for individuals who have been unemployed for three months or more and find themselves at risk of long-term unemployment.

The residents of Hastings and Rye are full of potential and talent that need to be unleashed, but the recent pandemic has put pressure on local jobs. The kickstart scheme is engineered to help people between the ages of 16 and 25 to gain skills and employment. May I ask what my right hon. Friend is doing to help people over the age of 25 to get the skills and training they need?

Our £30 billion plan for jobs will see us support people of all ages in building the skills they may need to return to work. One of the key elements is the sector-based work academy programme, which is expanding the opportunities in priority areas such as construction, infrastructure and social care, and which can provide training, work experience and guaranteed job interviews for those people who are ready to start a job. Of course, older workers will be eligible for this and can gain important new skills, to pivot into sectors to secure employment.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response. There is no doubt that we must ensure that the younger generation gets the best chance in life post covid-19, but in North Devon we have a slightly older population. Many of my constituents have also lost their jobs, and need additional help and support to retrain. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that those who are a little bit older will not be forgotten?

Indeed, and key to identifying those important opportunities and ways to help people over the age of 25 will be our network of empowered work coaches who engage proactively with claimants to help them to identify the options they need to help to build their skills, increase their confidence and return to employment. We are already doubling the number of work coaches, and my hon. Friend will be interested to know that, in North Devon in particular, we have launched a 14-week IT connect 50-plus programme, an initiative supporting those over the age of 50 to develop digital skills and apply for jobs online.

The Secretary of State said in July that work coaches were the ones who could help to tease out the great skills that people have and what makes a good fit for a new role. She was right, but the pledge she made in July for 4,500 new work coaches to be in post by October has resulted in only 300 being in post to date, as was revealed last week. The crisis has now gone on for six months, and average work coach caseloads are already over 200, so can she tell the House what is going on and why, since April, she has been so slow to act?

The hon. Lady is perhaps far from what is going on. I think she has very recently visited her local jobcentre to discuss this. I want to encourage her by saying that a number of people can be on-boarded into the Department at any one time, given the comprehensive amount of training that someone needs to become a work coach. We have also done this in such a way that many existing DWP civil servants can move from being in the service centres in order to get promoted to being a work coach, building on their valuable experience. I can assure her that we are well on track for making sure that we have the right number of work coaches, and indeed replacement decision makers, on the agreed timescale.

Kickstart Scheme: Harlow

Applications only started on 2 September, and already thousands of employers have expressed interest in providing kickstart opportunities for young people. We are working hard to deliver the scheme. We have not yet developed data on the local level, but I am confident that the management information will start to become available so that we can identify right across the country exactly how we are providing support.

I strongly welcome the kickstart scheme and the incentives it gives businesses to employ young people in my constituency of Harlow and across the country. Will my right hon. Friend set out what further action the Department is taking to support skills and apprenticeships so that our town can be part of the apprenticeships and skills nation that we so want to be?

It is important that a wide range of choice is available to young people, in particular, as they set out in their career, so we will be having kickstart but we will also be having aspects of apprenticeships. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education announced an additional £2,000 of support for each new apprentice hired from the age of 25. In Harlow specifically, our jobcentre has been running virtual academies and designing SWAP schemes to support claimants, working with local employers, including the civil service. Additional funding for the National Careers Service will also mean that over a quarter of a million more people will receive individualised advice on training and careers through their local jobcentres.

Employment Support for Young People: Covid-19

What steps her Department is taking to support young people into employment as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (905904)

What steps her Department is taking to support young people into employment as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (905919)

We have a kickstart scheme, and I am delighted to be the Minister bringing forward our new youth offer, focused on those under 25. We are supporting our young people via a structured 13-week programme, rolling out new youth hubs across local communities, and boosting support for young people with our new DWP youth employability work coaches. This offer includes young people receiving support to get into apprenticeships, traineeships and sector-based work academy programmes.

I thank the Minister for her answer, and the whole DWP team for the support they have given my constituents during this exceptional time. In my constituency of Ynys Môn, I am working with M-SParc, Coleg Menai and the Bangor University team to put together an innovative jobs fair. Along with Alison Cork and Lynn McCann, I am putting together a Make It Your Business event to support women entrepreneurs. How is the Minister supporting innovation and entrepreneurs?

Supporting the self-employed and inspiring entrepreneurship is a real focus for me, as the Employment Minister. I had the pleasure of visiting north Wales not that long ago, back in January, and not too far from my hon. Friend’s beautiful constituency of Ynys Môn, where I met a lady who had started her own innovative charity helping other young women to succeed and thrive in the way that my hon. Friend has described. I want everyone to have the same opportunities to build their own business. The DWP’s new enterprise allowance scheme is open to claimants to support new and existing businesses to grow and thrive.

The local DWP team in my Workington constituency, whom I met on Friday, have worked incredibly hard throughout this pandemic to ensure that claims are being managed in a timely and efficient manner despite the huge increase in their workload. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to them as they enter the next phase of their plans to tackle youth unemployment and under-employment?

I join my hon. Friend in his thanks to all our DWP staff who have worked so extremely hard during the pandemic. The DWP is supporting all claimants in focusing on getting them back into work. The jobcentre in his constituency is playing a vital role in his community through key outreach, including the Maryport GP surgery. Our work coaches are based in that surgery every Tuesday, taking referrals to deliver work advice to patients and ensuring that everyone gets tailored support.

Support for Shielding People: Covid-19

What financial support her Department plans to make available to shielding people affected by covid-19 local lockdowns. (905907)

What financial support her Department plans to make available to shielding people affected by covid-19 local lockdowns. (905913)

Those in a local lockdown area who receive a notification that they need to shield will remain eligible for statutory sick pay and new-style employment and support allowance, subject to the wider eligibility criteria.

Clearly local lockdowns will present local challenges, and we would expect most employers to be responsible, but will the Government offer support to employees to hold their employers to account when they are not following the guidelines and making their workplaces covid-secure?

The Government, through the Health and Safety Executive and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, are continuing to issue improved guidance to make it as easy as possible for employers to make reasonable adjustments. Employees who still have concerns can either talk directly to their employers or raise them with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service or the Health and Safety Executive to try to get them resolved. I think most employers want to do the right thing, and we are doing everything we can to give them as much help as possible to get it right and make their workplace covid-safe.

Last week, the TUC made it clear that two fifths of workers will be unable to pay bills if they have to self-isolate for two weeks. Statutory sick pay will have to go up for test and trace to work. Will the Secretary of State increase it to ensure that no one is left behind and keep the country covid-secure?

We have already made changes in the eligibility for statutory sick pay so that people can qualify from the first day rather than waiting until the fourth day. We have extended it to those with symptoms, those who need to self-isolate, or those who need to self-isolate ahead of a hospital procedure. Those on low incomes also have the opportunity, subject to their personal circumstances, to obtain additional financial support through either universal credit or new-style ESA.

Universal Credit: Bonuses

What assessment she has made of the effect of bonuses on the level of payments made to universal credit claimants. (905908)

Bonuses are earnings and are treated in the same way as any other earnings in the calculation of universal credit awards, reflecting HMRC guidance and ensuring fairness across the working population, many of whom do not claim welfare. UC is more generous than the legacy benefits that it replaces. The Government have already made significant investment to increase universal credit’s generosity by cutting the taper rate to 63% in 2017, with an extra £1.7 billion a year put into work allowances by 2023-24.

My constituent, a key worker in a pharmacy, received a one-off bonus of £120 for her efforts supporting vulnerable people during the coronavirus pandemic. That reward for hard work was eroded when £172.69 was subsequently deducted from her monthly universal credit payments. Does the Minister agree that that is no way to treat people who have stepped up to support us all during these difficult times? Will he consider temporary changes in the work allowances and taper rate to enable key workers to receive these bonuses in full?

I want to thank all the key workers across our country who have done so much during the pandemic. Universal credit makes sure that people are always better off in work. Under the legacy benefits system, claimants would not have kept all their bonuses; in fact, in many cases, the legacy withdrawal rate could be as high as 91% for each additional £1 earned, compared with a maximum of 75% under universal credit.

Kickstart Scheme: Young People

What steps her Department is taking with employers to help ensure as many young people as possible benefit from the kickstart scheme. (905909)

What steps her Department is taking with employers to help ensure as many young people as possible benefit from the kickstart scheme. (905921)

What steps her Department is taking with employers to help ensure as many young people as possible benefit from the kickstart scheme. (905922)

My Department is working closely across Government to encourage all employers, big and small, to apply for the kickstart scheme. I urge all colleagues to work with their local jobcentre networks to help us to deliver this.

The six-month job placement created by the kickstart scheme will be a vital way in which we can help young people in Ipswich to get on the careers ladder during the current challenges. Will the Minister also place a high priority on the excellent wellbeing and skills programmes run by charities such as Inspire Suffolk in my constituency, which are setting young people up with exactly the kind of support network and knowledge that they need at a vital time in their lives?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the scheme, which is really positive news for his constituency, adding to much similar work there. Our work coach recruitment is now open in Ipswich and we are looking at a potential youth hub there, so there is good news in Ipswich. Locally, we are also involved with the employers Seven and Service Central, which are working together, hopefully to find some key roles for their young customers in kickstart, and we are working with the East Anglian gymnastics team on a potential new apprenticeship position—so there is plenty of good news in Ipswich.

I warmly welcome the kickstart scheme, which is a vital step towards ensuring the future prosperity of so many young people across our country. In Buckinghamshire, organisations such as Buckinghamshire Business First are helping to co-ordinate firms that cannot offer as many as 30 places. What steps is my hon. Friend taking at national level to ensure that small rural businesses are able to participate fully?

I am delighted with the interest in the kickstart scheme across the country, including in rural areas, and including smaller companies in that is key. We want applicants from across the country to benefit by bidding for those placements, perhaps via an intermediary or gateway organisation. Small employers, whether rural or not, will have the key support they need from that intermediary, which will help to create high-quality roles and provide additional support so that all our young people get the most out of this placement.

From the jobs plan I know that my hon. Friend is determined to do what it takes to help young people find access to the work that is so vital to their futures. What other support is available, in addition to the kickstart scheme, that will help young people in Basildon and Thurrock to recover from the effects of the pandemic and secure future opportunities?

My hon. Friend is exactly right, and we are rolling out youth hubs across the country so that our young people can access that important wider support. Those hubs will be co-located and co-delivered with our network of external partners, including members of the youth employment group. Our jobcentres are already delivering activities at local level to support our young people, including mentoring circles, virtual job fairs and sector-based work academy programmes.

Adequacy of Benefits

The Government introduced a package of welfare measures worth more than £9.3 billion this year, to help those facing the most financial disruption during the pandemic. We introduced a series of measures to support people, including an increase in the universal credit standard allowance for 12 months, worth up to £1,040. Increased local housing allowance rates have put an average of £600 into people’s pockets, and we made statutory sick pay available to employees from day one.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but ending the £20 universal credit uplift could see food bank use increase by 10%, according to the Trussell Trust, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has warned that 16 million people could lose £1,000 a year overnight, which would plunge 700,000 more people into poverty. Will the Government remove that cliff edge and make the £20 uplift permanent?

The increase was introduced for an initial period of one year as part of the Government’s measures to assist with the financial consequences of covid-19. It was part of a £9.3 billion increase in the welfare system that ensured that it was able to stand up and support the millions of extra people who needed it. Future decisions on benefit rates will be made at the appropriate fiscal event.

Universal Credit: Covid-19 Income Support Schemes

What assessment she has made of the potential effect on universal credit claims of the end of covid-19 income support schemes. (905917)

Since mid-March we have received more than 3 million claims for universal credit, which ensures that people have a welfare safety net in their time of need. I am proud that more than 90% of new eligible claimants were paid in full and on time, proving that universal credit can stand up to the challenge. The Government’s support for people and businesses is not ending, and we are now focused on delivering our plan for jobs. I hope that the hon. Lady will support that plan, particularly the new £2 billion kickstart scheme, which will create hundreds of thousands of new, fully subsidised jobs for young people across our country.

I appreciate the Minister’s response, but with coronavirus support schemes being wound down and the Government seemingly unwilling to contemplate their extension, what actual steps is he taking to ensure that towns such as Rotherham are not faced with a generation of mass unemployment, empty shops and closed factories as a result of the pandemic?

The hon. Lady is right to say that the coronavirus job retention scheme has been a huge success—it has protected up to 10 million jobs—but it is important to point out that support for furloughed employees does not end in October. In the Chancellor’s summer statement, he announced the new job retention bonus, which will pay employers £1,000 for every employee still in post by the end of January. For those who, sadly, are made redundant or lose their jobs, Jobcentre Plus stands ready to assist up and down the country.

Employment Opportunities: Post Lockdown

What steps her Department is taking to promote employment opportunities as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (905926)

I met the Mayor of London and some of his team as part of the M9 Group engagement with key stakeholders and other Government Departments on the importance of local recovery plans and action. We now have 890,000 more people claiming universal credit in London. The Mayor of London needs to work with local DWP teams to drive that number down and help build a strong recovery for our economy.

My constituency is part of Greater London, and I have met many businesses in Carshalton and Wallington that are keen to expand employment opportunities, including Dotty’s Teahouse in Carshalton High Street, to which I would love to invite the Minister. Given London’s critical role as the engine of the UK economy, does she agree that the Mayor needs to step up, show more leadership and do more to encourage employment opportunities, not just in my constituency but across the capital?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point about the critical role in turning London around. Dotty’s Teahouse sounds like a really lovely place to pop down to, to see whether they have any gluten-free cake.

The pandemic has changed the labour market landscape and it is absolutely right that the Mayor of London steps up and delivers on behalf of London, otherwise, as we know, someone else is waiting in the wings to do it.

Topical Questions

It has been less than two weeks since the Government launched the kickstart scheme, which will help thousands of young people on to a vital step on the jobs ladder. Thousands of employers have already expressed an interest, and I am pleased that several have already had funding approved. Smaller organisations that do not expect to take on more than 30 kickstarters during the scheme will gain access to funding through an intermediary. I know that several organisations are applying to that gateway, for example Suffolk County Council and Suffolk chamber of commerce. We are having productive discussions with the Federation of Small Businesses, which very much wants to be part of the solution for small businesses and young people.

This is a Great Britain-wide £30 billion plan for jobs. I know that the Scottish Government are undertaking their own initiatives, but I am sure my hon. Friend will want to ensure that we put the full efforts of the UK Government into helping people in Scotland to get back into work.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that young people in Scotland are not disproportionately affected by the economic fall-out from covid-19, given that we were suffering from a higher rate of unemployment when the pandemic hit?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that Scotland was already starting to struggle with unemployment rates compared with other parts of the United Kingdom, but I assure him that we will not only work with kickstart, but ensure that we have a Scotland-specific job entry: targeted support—JETS—programme so that we can tackle people who may need either support to pivot into different sectors, or intense support which recognises that they may have been unemployed for some time. We will ensure that the people of Scotland have the full support of the UK Government.

It is a tragic consequence of the pandemic that some families of NHS key workers have lost their loved ones to covid-19 after they contracted the virus while serving on the frontline. It is absolutely right that they receive compensation for that. May I ask the Secretary of State to justify the news that low-paid relatives who receive the compensation payment are to be stripped of their benefits? That is not the case with comparable payments in, for instance, the Grenfell and Windrush compensation schemes, so why are NHS families being treated in this way?

The hon. Gentleman will know that when people have a substantial amount of money—and I recognise the route he indicated on how they have received that—it usually takes them over the £16,000 threshold for support through the welfare system. He specifically referred to some other programmes, and it is absolutely acknowledged that there has been a complete failure within Government in that regard. I suggest to him that that is not the case in respect of the NHS, but I am sure, as the NHS is a separate employer from the Government, it will continue to work with its employees and the relatives of people who have sadly died.

I find that answer lacking in reason and compassion. There was news this morning that the country’s largest food bank network has warned that UK destitution rates are set to double by Christmas. We know that the Government believe they deserve praise for the fact that universal credit has not collapsed like the test and trace system, but the real test of a social security system is whether it gives people the support that they need. The food bank statistics prove that that is just not happening at the moment. Clearly this will get worse as the furlough scheme ends. We have set out our further suggestions on how to prevent the looming disaster. What are the Government’s plans to prevent it?

We have set out the unprecedented steps we took to ensure that vulnerable people would not go hungry as a result of the pandemic, focusing especially on children. While schools were closed to most children, free school meal vouchers were still in operation if schools could not provide a meal. Further support was given through the summer food fund, money was provided to food charities to help get food to people who were struggling, and 4.5 million food boxes were given to vulnerable people who were shielding. Together with the extra £9.3 billion in welfare support that has been given to households across the country, we believe that this is a strong way to have supported people in these difficult times.

I have been contacted by several of my constituents about the Child Maintenance Service. It is understandable that the CMS team has helped the fantastic DWP efforts on universal credit during the pandemic. However, will the Minister assure me that staff are now back at the CMS chasing arrears, arranging payments and helping my constituents? (906005)

First, no one will get away with giving false information. Those who are found to have been abusing the system are subject to the full extent of our enforcement powers, and the Child Maintenance Service will pursue them where appropriate. Parents were asked to report any changes via the self-service portal to ensure that receiving parents did not lose out in the long run. Cases will be updated and people will be notified of any changes. Where payments have been missed, the service will take action to re-establish compliance and collect any unpaid amounts that have accrued.

The National Audit Office told the Work and Pensions Committee two weeks ago that the “sophisticated” analysis of the Trussell Trust has established an association between universal credit roll-out on the one hand and rising food bank demand on the other. Association is not the same as causation, so what plans do the Government have to commission research, as the National Audit Office recommends, into the impact of universal credit on food bank demand?

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his question. As he knows, I gave evidence to the Committee recently on this very matter. I have worked closely with food bank providers—the Trussell Trust and others—over the course of the pandemic to ensure that our support has reached those who need it quickly. We continue to understand better the reasons for food insecurity. That is why we have put additional questions in the family resources survey. We keep all policies under review, and of course we listen to the findings of reports such as that of the Trussell Trust.

The impact of covid is felt unevenly across different roles and sectors. With more being done online, digital access has never been more important. What measures is the Department taking to help people facing the greatest barriers to employment to access job search and other online services to help them find jobs? (906007)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are investing £10 million of European social fund support to get 20,000 disadvantaged people across England who are without access to the internet online. People who receive ESF support will be loaned devices, such as a tablet or a laptop, and will be provided with three months’ data allowance. That will enable them to access the increasing range of online services to support their job search and, importantly, their journey towards securing employment.

In the north-east we have seen the devastating impact of mass unemployment, but that was in the 1980s when we had properly funded public services and a welfare system that did not seek to punish claimants. In Newcastle, we have 7,000 claimants, 13,000 people on furlough and a further 3,000 self-employment claims. What estimate has the Minister made of the number of claims there will be when support for those people ends next month, and how will she protect them from the devastating consequences of unemployment? (906006)

First, let us remind ourselves of where we were in January. We entered the pandemic with employment at a record high of 33 million.

The hon. Lady’s area is on my list to visit: we will be up there to see what the local jobcentre is doing. We have an ambitious plan for jobs—£30 billion in the next phase of our recovery—to ensure we build back better, greener and stronger. Extending the furlough scheme will just keep people in suspended animation. I am absolutely determined to use my role to get back to where we were in January.

Ministers will know that I am particularly concerned about airline and airport staff in Wycombe, so will they tell me what they are doing across Government to ensure that people who sadly lose their jobs through the coronavirus pandemic are helped into work as quickly as possible? (906008)

I could not be more excited about what we are doing near my hon. Friend’s constituency, which is a key local example of cross-Government and local partnership. We have an innovative and unique scheme, with the DWP, the Department for Transport and the Department for Education. Where people are being made redundant from the aviation industry or its supply chain, they will be able to pivot across to the film industry, bringing their skills to a growing and booming industry. That will be facilitated by our flexible support fund grant and involves key local partners, including Pinewood Studios, ScreenSkills, and the excellent Buckinghamshire local enterprise partnership and the M3 enterprise LEP.

As the chief executive of the Trussell Trust says in its latest report, we are in the eye of a storm and the decisions the Government make now will either offer people a lifeline, saving them from destitution, or cast them adrift. If the Secretary of State still believes that work is the best way to end poverty, why does she not urge the Chancellor to rethink the impending cliff-edge of the furlough scheme coming to an end and keep more people not in suspended animation but in their jobs? (906009)

We have had unprecedented Government intervention since we headed into the coronavirus crisis. Last week, I met G20 Ministers who were hoping to learn from what we have done in the UK and, above all, to learn about our next stage, which is our plan for jobs and the forthcoming £2 billion kickstart scheme. This is about moving forward, not holding people back or in suspended animation.

The pandemic is still having an obvious impact, and it is really important to have Government Departments working well together. What conversations has my right hon. Friend had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Education and the business community to ensure that there are opportunities for individuals in Bosworth and across the UK to get into education or work following covid? (906010)

My hon. Friend asks an important question about our work with the business community and across the Government. The DWP has been an integral player in the development of the plan for jobs. Together with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for BEIS and for Education, we have had several roundtables with the business community and others to ensure that people who are looking to enter employment can develop skills and have additional funding, going down the apprenticeship or traineeship route, as well as kickstart. I also have regular discussions with other Cabinet colleagues about the creation of new opportunities wherever possible.

I spoke yesterday with the manager of Brixton and Norwood food bank, who told me it had delivered as many parcels in the five-month period from April to August as it would normally deliver in a year—an extraordinary effort from a dedicated team of staff and volunteers for which our whole community is deeply grateful. However, they are very worried about the planned withdrawal of the £20 uplift in universal credit at the end of March, which would result in thousands more families across the country being unable to make ends meet indefinitely. Will the Secretary of State act now and confirm that the uplift will continue, or will she expect food banks up and down the country to scale up their efforts even further after March to continue to backfill for the Government’s failure to stop food poverty? (906011)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Department has an ongoing positive relationship with a range of food bank providers. It has regularly engaged with them throughout the coronavirus pandemic and will continue to do so. We quickly introduced welfare changes worth an additional £9.3 billion, and worked closely with other Departments on the cross-Government taskforce on food and other essential supplies. Further to my earlier answer, the hon. Lady will have to wait for future fiscal events when benefit rates are set.

Harrogate was one of the first areas to see a full pilot for universal credit, and we are the location for the legacy benefits managed migration trial. The pandemic has led to an increase in claim numbers, but the team performance really has risen to the challenge. Will the Minister tell me how he ensures not just that the operational capacity of our jobcentres is maintained, but that best practice is shared so that everybody works at the pace of the best? (906012)

My hon. Friend rightly pays tribute to the incredible team at Harrogate Jobcentre Plus. As he knows, we have seen a surge of over 3 million claims since mid-March, and I agree that UC has stood up to the challenge, with payment timeliness remaining high at over 90%. We will continue to closely monitor our services across the country, and will continue to keep staff numbers under review. As he also knows, we have committed to doubling the number of work coaches.

This afternoon, I am meeting carers from across my constituency. They are concerned about their financial position. Will the Secretary of State commit to raising the attendance allowance until it matches universal credit payments? (906014)

As a Government, we absolutely recognise the support that carers provide. We have made a number of changes during covid-19 to maintain that support, including allowing emotional support and allowing for breaks due to covid. By 2024-25, we expect to be spending £3.6 billion on supporting carers, which will be more than double that spent when we first came to office.

Can the Minister assure me that her excellent new kickstart scheme will not sit in isolation but will dovetail with other Government, apprenticeship and infrastructure efforts, so that towns such as Winsford can give their young a trade, not just a job, including helping to deliver brilliant broadband across Eddisbury? (906013)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising kickstart. This is a huge programme for young people, providing 25 hours a week and an opportunity to get a foot on the employment ladder. We do not want our young people to be left behind because of the impact of the pandemic—we know that the scarring can affect them most. Kickstart will change that, and I ask all employers to get involved and to be part of it.

I have constituents who have been waiting more than six months for a decision following a work capability assessment. Is that not a bit ridiculous? (906015)

We rightly took a decision to suspend face-to-face assessments following Public Health England’s guidance. We continue to keep this under review, but wherever possible, we are doing either a paper-based review or a telephone assessment, and we are automatically renewing reassessments that are due within three months by six months, and we review that on a regular basis.

I recognise that the national living wage has increased, but will my hon Friend ensure that the full rise in the national living wage, to two thirds of median earnings by 2024, goes ahead as planned? (906016)

My right hon. Friend is a passionate advocate for hard-working people. He tempts me to set Treasury policy, which I fear the Chancellor of the Exchequer would not take kindly to, but I urge him to make representations to Her Majesty’s Treasury instead.

There are 4,500 people in my constituency in south Cumbria and 3 million across the country who have been excluded from any covid-specific support over the last six months—those who have recently become self-employed, directors of small limited companies, and people who were new starters in March. After six long, desperate months, will the Minister support a compensation package for those people? (906036)

I go back to our £30 billion plan for jobs. We have to move forward, absolutely understanding what we learned coming into this pandemic—that we have the highest employment rate going. Going back to square one for some of these people is a real challenge. That is why we have stopped the minimum income floor for people who are self-employed and we are supporting people to get back into work. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is asking, but we need to focus on the plan for jobs —a £30 billion scheme, with interventions coming down the line. We need to move forward and give people hope.

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.