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Topical Questions

Volume 680: debated on Monday 14 September 2020

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.