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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 682: debated on Monday 19 October 2020

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Job Entry Targeted Support

What steps she is taking to ensure that the job entry targeted support programme supports jobseekers to move into growth sectors of the economy. (907669)

Our new JETS scheme has started rolling out across the country and blasted off in my hon. Friend’s constituency on 5 October. The scheme has £238 million of funding that is dedicated to helping people who have been out of work for three or more months and may be at risk of long-term unemployment. JETS will see a variety of providers work at our local jobcentre networks to offer a range of bespoke services, including important advice on how people can move into new, growing sectors, as well as help with CV building and interview coaching.

I am glad that the scheme is already helping my constituents in Penistone and Stocksbridge, many of whom are now struggling to find work as a result of the pandemic. However, getting people back into work will require a national effort, so will he provide a broader update on the roll-out of the scheme?

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that tackling the impacts of covid will require a national effort, and the DWP stands ready to deliver this with our network of local jobcentres, which we will be expanding. The JETS scheme started two weeks ago and is now live right across England and Wales, and we are contracting anew in Scotland. We anticipate that as JETS continues to roll out across Great Britain, it will help 280,000 of our claimants to find work and build the skills to pivot into new sectors if required.

Covid-19 Support: Worst-affected Sectors

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for people in the sectors worst affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (907670)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, because he gives me the opportunity to highlight again what we are doing to help people in the sectors worst affected by the covid-19 outbreak. I have worked with my colleagues across government in forming and delivering our £30 billion plan for jobs to increase employment support, protect jobs and create new opportunities. He will be aware of the kickstart scheme, which particularly focuses on young people, but we will continue to help people of all ages to get back into work.

May I raise the specific issue of the support that is available to single parents when their child has to self-isolate? They are not able to claim statutory sick pay if their child is having to self-isolate at school age. In addition, if they were to apply for universal credit, they would have to restart the process each and every time. I have constituents who have had to self-isolate on multiple occasions because their school-age children have been told they have to stay at home and cannot stay at home on their own. Can the Secretary of State either tell me now, or come back to me on it in writing, what specific support can be directed towards constituents who need that additional support as single parents?

I will certainly ask the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work to look into that detailed issue on SSP. If a person is required to self-isolate as a consequence of somebody in their household having symptoms, then, in my view, they should be eligible for SSP. But given that it is such a legal and technical issue, I will ask my hon. Friend to write to the hon. Gentleman specifically.

Ending the furlough scheme early is going to put livelihoods at risk, so will the Secretary of State provide an update on her discussions with the Treasury about extending the covid-related increase to universal credit and ensuring that it is expanded to legacy benefits? While she is in those discussions, will she raise extending the furlough scheme and ask that the covid self-isolation grants be tax-exempt, as called for by the Social Security Secretary in Scotland, Shirley-Ann Somerville?

There are multiple questions there. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already responded by introducing the new job support scheme, which he updated for particular sectors, thinking of tier 3 in England, to extend even further the furlough scheme. It is clear that this Government are doing what is needed. In terms of the other things that the hon. Gentleman mentions, he will be aware that I continue to have regular discussions with my Treasury colleagues on the best way that we can help to support people during this pandemic.

Child Poverty: Covid-19

What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on levels of child poverty. (907671)

This Government’s unprecedented support package has supported the poorest working households the most, with Her Majesty’s Treasury’s analysis showing that the poorest 10% of working households have seen no income reduction, owing to the fast action taken by this Government in responding to the pandemic, including a £9.3 billion injection into the welfare system.

The problem with the Minister’s answer is that this crisis is only revealing problems with policies that we knew were there already. Members of this House are against it; members of faith communities are against it; leading charities are against it; and now Marcus Rashford is campaigning against it. So what is the Minister going to do to end the two-child policy for universal credit once and for all?

The two-child policy in universal credit is one of fundamental fairness, and it means that those who are in receipt of benefits should be in the same position as those who are not. I am not a particular football fan, but I certainly know Marcus Rashford’s name now, and I congratulate him on his MBE. We welcome the establishment of the taskforce and will carefully consider its recommendations as we approach the spending review.

We already know that child poverty rates have been rising across north-west England, and that is before the economic impact of the restrictions consequent upon tier 3. The Chancellor talks about the way that the job support scheme and universal credit protect income, saying that it leaves households with 90% of their income, but many households will get nothing like that, and those who lose their jobs entirely sometimes go on to universal credit at 30% of income. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the restrictions on child poverty in the north-west and how that compares with a local furlough scheme that protects all jobs that are at risk?

I will look carefully at the points that the hon. Lady raises, but I stress that this Government have implemented an unprecedented support package, including the job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme, which has helped families to cope with the financial impact of covid-19. For those most in need, we strengthened the welfare system with an additional £9 billion this year. That is in addition to the around £5 billion increase to benefit rates as part of the 2020-21 uprating, including around £400 million more on children’s benefits.

Supporting People into Work

This Government are working hard to help people into work with our £30 billion plan for jobs. Kickstart will provide a high-quality paid work placement for young people across the UK, and our new job entry targeted support scheme—JETS—will help those who have been unemployed for more than three months move into new and growing sectors. Our additional job finding support service will provide targeted support for the newly unemployed, with local provisions available now and a national contract due in place from 21 January.

In Carshalton and Wallington, we know that the self-employed are the risk takers, and the pandemic has shown that we need to be there for them. Work coaches have done a good job of knowing what is fair and reasonable and are able to apply discretion when setting work search requirements, so will my hon. Friend assure me that self-employed claimants will also benefit from this personalised, discretionary approach as the minimum income floor is reintroduced?

I can assure my hon. Friend that claimants will always be contacted before the minimum income floor is applied to them. Universal credit claimants who were subject to the minimum income floor prior to the pandemic will be given the opportunity to review their self-employment status and activity, ensuring that their current circumstances are reflected and their business continues to be viable before any reintroduction of the MIF. My hon. Friend will be aware that the regulations to relax the MIF are in place until November, and I will update the House on arrangements beyond that in due course.

I joined my caseworker on a recent covid-safe visit to Huddersfield jobcentre, which is rolling out a seven-day-a-week operation to support jobseekers. Will the Minister join me in thanking all the team at Huddersfield jobcentre and continue to give them all the support required as they recruit the extra staff they need to support my constituents into work via kickstart and other schemes?

I am more than happy to extend my great thanks to the DWP team in Huddersfield, as well as their new colleagues. They have done sterling work in setting up a new youth hub with Kirklees Council, as well as other activities involving kickstart, using sector-based work academy programmes—SWAPs—and mentoring circles and working with local employers to help more people in Huddersfield back into work.

Does the Minister share my concern that young people in Bolsover and elsewhere are at risk of being held back by the coronavirus pandemic? Will she commit to doing everything possible to ensure that opportunities are available to enable them to move forward in their careers and ensure that they reach their potential?

In September 2020, we started the implementation of our new DWP youth offer for all 18 to 24-year-olds making a claim for universal credit who are in the intensive work search group. We are on track in our ambitious plan for young people to open around 100 DWP-led youth hubs nationally, and many are already in place, supporting our young people to progress.

Pension Schemes Bill: Net Zero Carbon Emissions

What steps she is taking through the Pension Schemes Bill to support the Government’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. (907673)

As my hon. Friend knows, we want safer, better and greener pensions. This Government were the first in a G7 country to legislate for net zero by 2050. We lead the way on environmental regulation of pensions, and we are introducing transparency of climate-related financial disclosures in the Pension Schemes Bill that require schemes to take account of climate change goals, including net zero.

I thank the Minister for his response. Climate change is the single biggest threat not only to mankind, but to the planet. Does he agree with me that if we are to meet the climate change targets set out in the Paris agreement, more needs to be done to ensure that large financial institutions, including institutional investors such as pension funds, channel more investment into areas that do not actively harm our environment and contribute to climate change?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government are setting a regulatory framework and enabling pension funds to make sustainable investments happen, whether that is through the Bill itself or through our illiquid investments proposals, which will see renewables, hydrogen and potentially new nuclear. We do not believe in divestment, but we welcome the change in investment practice that is already beginning to take place, although we want to see more.

With David Attenborough urging pension funds to move away from fossil fuels, it is hugely welcome that the Government have joined Labour to incorporate in legislation, for the first time ever, climate change commitments on pension funds. Now we must translate our ambitions into action. Previously, the Minister has received positively our proposal for a pension fund summit. Will he now agree to work with us—across party and bringing together the world of pensions to save our planet—to organise a cross-party climate change summit, because this is the biggest form of investment potentially worldwide in climate change pension funds?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are already working with a large number of pension funds and also with companies. We all want to see a safer, better and greener pension system. I am happy to work with him on an ongoing basis, and I am happy to reach out on a collaborative basis on this particular issue, which matters to all of us.

Legacy Benefits and Universal Credit

What steps her Department has taken to support an effective transition between legacy benefits and universal credit. (907674)

What steps her Department has taken to support an effective transition between legacy benefits and universal credit. (907685)

My Department continually reviews its processes and the service it provides to claimants using a long-standing test and learn approach. In July, we introduced a two-week run-on of DWP income-related benefits, which is in addition to the existing two-week extension of housing benefit that is already payable to eligible claimants. Claimants who believe they may be better off on universal credit should check their eligibility before applying, as legacy benefits will end when they submit their claim and they will not be able to return to them in the future.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. With difficult times ahead for Stoke-on-Trent families hit by the economic downturn caused by coronavirus, does my hon. Friend agree that it is more important than ever for universal credit to offer any necessary flexibility to ensure people get the support they need to return to work, particularly those affected by local lockdown restrictions?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Universal credit is designed to support people into work. It supports those who need help and is fair to everyone who pays for it. Throughout the pandemic many, sadly, have lost their jobs or seen their incomes reduced. Thankfully, universal credit and the Government’s £9.3 billion investment in the welfare safety net have been there to help catch many of those affected, and that has been vital for the 3 million people who have made a benefit claim since March.

Our plan for jobs will help people get the skills they need at every stage of their lives and delivers on our promise to level up opportunity across the country. Work coaches will play a crucial role in delivering that agenda and helping people back into work, so will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the brilliant work coaches of Workington jobcentre, and commit to increasing the number of work coaches across the jobcentre network?

I too pay tribute to the brilliant work coaches in Workington Jobcentre Plus, who I know have done an incredible job in particular around partnership working, and I can point to the Maryport GP surgery outreach work, the youth hub, the sector-based work academy programmes and the virtual mentoring circle by Workington jobcentre. That is brilliant work and, yes, I can absolutely confirm that we are investing £895 million in doubling the number of work coaches and Jobcentre Pluses by March 2021.

The £20-a-week uplift to universal credit has been a lifeline for many during the pandemic, yet this vital extra support continues to be denied to legacy benefit claimants, many of whom are disabled. I raised this with Ministers in the Chamber on 11 May, again on 29 June and yet again on 14 September, each time getting a non-answer. To date, the uplift could have given legacy benefit claimants £600 of extra support. Minister, can we please have a straight answer today: will anything be done to rectify this?

The hon. Lady is right is that she has asked this question on three occasions, and she has had three answers. The legacy benefits were increased by 1.7% in April 2020, following the Government’s announcement to end the benefit freeze. It has always been the case that claimants on legacy benefits can make a claim for universal credit if they believe that they will be better off. There are special arrangements for those in receipt of the severe disability premium, who will be able to make a new claim to UC from January 2021. But it is important—I stress this—that claimants should check their eligibility before applying to universal credit as legacy benefits will end when they submit their claim and they will not be able to return to them in the future.

Benefit Sanctions and Welfare Conditionality: Covid-19

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of resuming (a) benefits sanctions and (b) welfare conditionality during increased levels of unemployment as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (907675)

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of resuming (a) benefits sanctions and (b) welfare conditionality during increased levels of unemployment as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (907692)

Evidence suggests that active labour market policies can be even more effective during recessions. We will continue to encourage claimants to prepare and look for work where it is safe to do so. Claimants will not be subject to conditionality until they have agreed a new or updated claimant commitment. We firmly believe the best way to support claimants is through empowered work coaches who engage proactively with claimants to help them identify the options they need to build on their skills, increase their confidence and return to employment.

Non-existent jobs. Liverpool has had the second highest unemployment increase in the country since March 2020. Our claimant rate has more than doubled from 12,000 to 32,000, and we now have the highest unemployment rate in the country. There are a further 27,000 people on furlough in our closed hospitality sector who will either be let go or have to survive on 67% of their wages come November. With benefits sanctions being reintroduced and welfare conditionality being reinstated, what evidence do the Government have that this is benefiting claimants and preventing a return to the high unemployment of the ’80s?

I stress to the hon. Lady that sanctions are only used when claimants fail to meet their conditionality requirements without good reason. As I said in my previous responses, work coaches will work to ensure that any requirements set are reasonable, taking into account the claimant’s circumstances and, crucially, the situation in the local labour market, while allowing them to adhere also to public health advice. We are absolutely determined to help people back into work, giving them the power to do that, and the way we can do that locally in Liverpool is through the flexible support fund and other measures.

In Manchester, Withington there are 3,000 more people needing to claim unemployment benefits than this time last year, and unemployment is rising and will get worse at the end of the furlough scheme, so there are not 3,000 jobs for those people to go to. Suspending sanctions and welfare conditionality was the right thing to do in the crisis, but we are still in that crisis. Does the Minister not accept that we need to be more supportive and less punitive at the moment?

I hope the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will acknowledge that, despite the reintroduction of conditionality and sanctions, we fully recognise that these are difficult times. New jobs are being created in the digital, green and logistical sectors that can be carried out safely in line with social distancing and public health rules. There is a recognition that in some sectors there will be challenges, while in others there are opportunities, but we will always make sure that jobcentres respond suitably to local alert levels and always set that conditionality in line with individuals, helping them to progress and always listening to them; if they have a good reason and cannot adhere, we will support them and take that individual approach.

In July, the Government chose to reinstate benefit sanctions and conditionality, against the advice of experts. We are now in the covid second wave, with businesses closing, unemployment rising and vacancies halved since March, but last week the Government said that the clinically extremely vulnerable and those they live with could have their benefits cut if they refuse a job that puts them at risk from the virus. Is that really the Government’s policy? Is it not time to end the threats and re-suspend benefit sanctions, or are we no longer in this together?

I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but if someone cannot work and must stay at home, there are ways of getting additional support, and I would urge anybody concerned to use the benefits calculator on gov.uk. I again remind the House that work coaches will always work to ensure that requirements are reasonable, always taking into account the claimant’s circumstances and the situation in the local labour market, and continuing to adhere to public health advice. Claimants who fail to meet the conditionality requirements without good reason may be sanctioned, but as I say, the rates are extraordinarily low—in fact, they have never been lower—and we are determined to help people back into work with the right individual support, based on their individual circumstances.

Universal Credit: £20 Covid-19 Payment

What recent discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on extending the £20 additional universal credit payment during the covid-19 outbreak. (907677)

The 2020-21 universal credit increase was included in a package of welfare measures worth around £9.3 billion this year to help people with the financial consequences of what has happened with the covid-19 pandemic. I continue to work with the Treasury on the best ways to support those receiving benefits. I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that we must act in a way that recognises social justice, and that is the motivation of those on the Government Benches.

Does the Secretary of State still intend to end the suspension of the minimum income floor for self-employed universal credit claimants, which is due to expire on 13 November?

That policy is still under review. Clearly, this is a matter of discussion, because the regulations do come to an end. It is important to recognise that we have different measures happening around different parts of the country. We do need to try to take a national approach to the overall policy, but as ever, we trust and empower our work coaches to make the best decisions for the claimants they are helping, usually to help them get back into work.

The Select Committee’s report published today calls for new starter payments to claimants of universal credit to help tide them over the very difficult five-week wait for their first regular benefit payment, and for the £20 a week increase, which the Secretary of State has referred to, to be made permanent. How can it possibly be justified for people claiming jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance to receive £20 a week less than people in identical circumstances who happen to be claiming universal credit?

On what happened with legacy benefits and universal credit, I think the rationale was set out clearly at the time; in particular, it was also about having a rate that was quite similar to statutory sick pay. We will look carefully at the report that the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee have issued to us today, but I remind him that of course people do not need to wait five weeks for a universal credit payment; they can get a payment within a matter of days, and that payment is then spread over the entire year.

Covid-19 Temporary Measures

What recent discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on extending the temporary measures introduced by her Department in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (907679)

What recent discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on extending the temporary measures introduced by her Department in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (907695)

Earlier this year, we suspended face-to-face assessments. That suspension is still in place and is kept under review in line with the latest public health guidance.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that 1.3 million people across Scotland will lose out if the DWP does not make the £20 increase to universal credit permanent and extend it to legacy benefits. The Resolution Foundation also reports that one in three working-age families in the so-called red wall constituencies will be £1,000 a year worse off if the planned cuts to universal credit go ahead. How exactly is that levelling up?

I refer the hon. Member the answer that the Minister for Welfare Delivery has already given. The Government have introduced a package of temporary welfare measures worth £9.3 billion this year to help with the financial consequences of the pandemic.

More than ever, with millions facing unemployment and reduced hours or earnings, our social security system must be properly funded. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has rightly pointed out that cutting social security takes money out of the economy by reducing consumer spending. If the Minister is not yet convinced that cutting universal credit is grossly unjust, will he at least consider making this permanent to stimulate the economy?

As I have just set out, we as a Government, through our £9.3 billion-worth of temporary support, which we continue to keep under review, have shown throughout these unprecedented times that we will be flexible and provide the support, including our comprehensive £30 billion plan for jobs, to make sure that we are standing side by side with those who are navigating the challenges of covid.

Benefit Overpayments: Covid-19

If she will extend the suspension of benefit deductions for the recovery of universal credit and legacy benefit overpayments during the covid-19 outbreak. (907680)

There are currently no plans to extend the suspension of benefit deductions. Action to restart deductions commenced on 6 July and should be completed by mid-November. We recognise that there will be some people who may be experiencing financial difficulty, and anyone unable to afford the rate of recovery proposed is encouraged to contact the Department.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. These suspensions have provided a lifeline to many vulnerable people over the last six months. Unfortunately, there is at present no reason to believe that we will be in a better position in April 2021 than we were in April 2020, thus I urge my hon. Friend to consider extending the suspensions and working with local authorities to put in place fair local support arrangements that will operate in conjunction with the national welfare system and complement the Chancellor’s initiatives to get people back to work.

It is right that those claimants who owe the Department money are able to resume payments to reduce their debt. We continue to apply a flexible approach to recovery and endeavour to recover without causing undue financial hardship. Anyone unable to afford the rate of recovery proposed is encouraged to contact the Department so that an affordable rate of repayment can be negotiated. In May, we will be launching the breathing space scheme to help to prevent problem debt and provide support to people who fall into that problem debt.

Job Market Access

What steps her Department is taking to ensure people of all ages have access to the job market. (907682)

Our plan for jobs includes suitable interventions for people of all ages to support people back into work, including employment support delivered by our jobcentres, where we are doubling the number of work coaches across our national network. Last week, I held my latest meeting with our older workers champion, alongside employer organisations, focused on our fuller working lives agenda and opportunities for the over-50s.

In the current pandemic, people of all ages are suddenly being made redundant. I was recently contacted by a 57-year-old constituent in Gedling, who is now looking for work and retraining. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important to help this sector of the population, and what help can I offer to my constituent to ensure that her skills are utilised?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this concern in his constituency. I assure him that the Government recently announced, in the plan for jobs, new funding to ensure that more people, including our older workers, get tailored Jobcentre Plus support to help them to find work and build the skills they need to get into new work, including the sector-based work academy programme and our new online job-finding support service. On 29 September, the Prime Minister announced a major expansion of post-18 education and training to prepare all workers for a post-covid economy, including a lifetime skills guarantee to give adults the chance to take free college courses by valued local employers.

Welfare Payments and Needs

What steps she is taking to ensure that the welfare payments that people receive meet the needs of the recipient. (907683)

By law, benefit levels must be reviewed annually to determine if they are at the appropriate level. The most recent review resulted in the uprating of 1.7%. On disability benefits specifically, spending this year has increased by almost 5% from £19 billion to £20 billion.

Recently, I was pleased to meet my constituent, Tony Davies, who sadly lives with motor neurone disease. On behalf of Tony and the MND Association community, will the Minister kindly announce when he is likely to publish the outcome of the review into access to benefits for the terminally ill?

We have been clear, following our comprehensive review, that there will be three themes: we will change the six-month rule, we will improve consistency and we will raise awareness of the support available. Only last week, I met the MND Association and the Minister for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care as we work at great speed to bring forward those much-needed changes.

Universal Credit: Poverty Reduction

The latest statistics from 2018-19 show that the rates and numbers of people in absolute poverty were lower than in 2010. Since those statistics were published, we have injected a further £9.3 billion into our welfare system, including an increase to universal credit of up to £1,040 for this financial year.

The reality is that that is not enough. Thanks to the efforts of the Scottish Government to mitigate the worst impacts of austerity, Scotland has the lowest child poverty rates, but the impact of UK Government policies means that 4,600 children in my constituency are estimated to be living in poverty, which is absolutely shameful. Will the Minister listen to the calls of the End Child Poverty coalition and the likes of Macmillan Cancer Support and pledge to keep the £20 a week universal credit uplift to avoid putting more families and children into poverty?

One child in poverty is one child too many. We at the Department are continuing to work with Her Majesty’s Treasury and other Government Departments to monitor the evolving economic and labour market situation and identify the most effective ways to help people to stay in or close to work, both now and in future. It is important to stress that Her Majesty’s Treasury published a distributional analysis that assessed the impact of covid-19 on incomes compared with the incomes of working households in May 2020. That analysis showed that the Government’s interventions have supported the poorest households the most.

People with Disabilities: Employment

As a Government, we are proud that 1.3 million more disabled people are in work since 2013—a record high. We continue to offer support through the Work and Health, intensive personalised employment support, Disability Confident and Access to Work programmes.

The disability employment gap in my constituency is 25.4% and there are concerns that it will widen as the economy suffers from the impact of covid-19. What reassurance can the Minister give me that disabled people will get the specific help they need to find work —for example, through tailored support or the funding of reasonable adjustments on the kickstart scheme?

It is absolutely the case that Access to Work is available and works hand in hand with schemes such as kickstart so that reasonable adjustments can be made for disabled employees. I have written to Disability Confident leaders to encourage them to sign up to kickstart.

Covid-19 Support: Eligibility

What steps she has taken to support the welfare of people ineligible for the Government’s economic support packages during the covid-19 outbreak. (907688)

During the pandemic, several economic support measures have been announced by the Chancellor, including supporting the retention of 9.6 million jobs through the furlough scheme. Additionally, 2.2 million individuals have claimed £5.6 billion under the second self-employment income support scheme grant announced by the Chancellor as part of his winter economic plan. The Department has spent £9.3 billion on additional support, including the increase of the universal credit standard allowance by £20 a week. Together, those measures provide a safety net for almost everyone who needs it, but eligibility for the different support packages is set out clearly on gov.uk.

Small businesses account for about 13 million people employed, which is about 60% of the workforce, and many of them are in trouble. When I spoke this weekend to ForgottenLtd, which represents people who are not in receipt of benefit, it told me that its latest survey showed that 70% of its members receive no benefit whatsoever. Do the Government intend to do something about that? If so, will the Minister meet me to discuss the criteria for improvement?

I know that my right hon. Friend has campaigned hard on the subject. The question may be better directed at the Chancellor of the Exchequer or Ministers from Her Majesty’s Treasury, as I know he has also done.

Universal credit is an in-work and out-of-work benefit. It is also available for those who are self-employed. As the Secretary of State set out in her letter to the Work and Pensions Committee last month, we plan to proceed with the reinstatement of the minimum income floor, and claimants will be contacted as it is reinstated for them. Notwithstanding my right hon. Friend’s point, more than £13 billion of support has already been provided for more than 2.6 million self-employed individuals through the first two stages of the self-employment income support scheme and the scheme has now been extended.

Benefit Fraud Investigations

The Department does not take benefit fraud lightly, and we are committed to using the full range of powers and penalties at our disposal. As part of our response to covid-19, we have established our integrated risk and intelligence service to prevent high-risk claims from going into payment. Our investigations have successfully led us to correct and suspend serious and organised claims fraud in large numbers, and we continue to review our processes and to anticipate new attacks, which will make it even harder for people to defraud the taxpayer in the future.

A constituent of mine, a mother of three children, recently had her universal credit and housing benefit stopped for over two months because of a fraudulent claim made in her name. She was completely innocent, but she and her young family suffered significant financial hardship. We know that benefit fraud, in universal credit in particular, is increasing, and I know of several other MPs who have had similar cases. What will the Government do to stop innocent families suffering for months just because this Government are failing to detect and investigate fraud?

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady to receive more details about that individual case, but first let me apologise, because that should not have happened. In effect, Ministers had to make decisions about the redeployment of staff in order to process the unprecedented number of claims, which went up from 2.2 million to 5.7 million claims. That meant deploying staff away from counter-fraud and into the processing of claims, but I am pleased to say that that has now changed and more staff are going back into fraud. We have to take fraud incredibly seriously, because it is individuals such as the hon. Lady’s constituent who are often the target of serious organised crime.

Employment Trends

The latest official statistics show the level of employment at 32.6 million. We recognise that there are difficult times ahead, but our ambitious £30 billion plan for jobs will support people during this next phase of our recovery as we push to build back better and greener. We are working with other Government Departments, external organisations and our local partners to support people into work, to react to changes in local labour markets and to work with our local Jobcentre Plus provision to help communities to thrive.

When one of my constituents, who was working as a cleaner, was recently furloughed, she was recommended to move to universal credit and away from working tax credit. I wrote to the Department on 7 July and again on 7 August. I have just had a reply, on 12 October, telling me that because my constituent earned £666.21 in a month, she was entitled to nothing whatsoever from universal credit. Not only that, but she had to repay the advance loan that she had had at the beginning. This system is failing her, and she is in a desperate situation. When will the Government look at allowing people to return to working tax credit and move away from this unfair system of universal credit?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising what sounds like a concerning situation for that family. We recognise that we are currently in an unusual and challenging economic period, and I am sure that the Minister for welfare delivery, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), will have taken note of that particular case. I am sure we will be able to look at that once again, and I thank the hon. Lady for raising the matter.

Child Maintenance Service: Effectiveness

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service in collecting child maintenance. (907694)

This Government have made clear their commitment to supporting both paying and receiving parents, especially during this difficult period. Around three quarters of paying parents are paying towards their liability. The Child Maintenance Service will continue to pursue all cases where appropriate, and I stress that anyone found to be abusing the system risks being subject to the full extent of our enforcement powers.

I am sorry to say that the Minister’s words do not sit with the experience of some of my constituents, who feel that the Child Maintenance Service has failed them in pursuing outstanding claims. I shall give the House one example. In an appeal against a CMS decision to the tribunal in February, it was discovered that a private pension had not been disclosed. The CMS should therefore have recouped the shortfall, but there was no contact until May. When the CMS was asked how much it would recoup for my constituent, she again heard nothing until she got a letter saying that the CMS was writing off historic debt and would not pursue it. That is letting that person down, not supporting them.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, and I stress that those found abusing the system are subject to the full extent of our enforcement powers. The CMS will pursue these people, where appropriate. Our key partners are in communication with us to make sure that we secure the appropriate court dates for cases impacted by the covid-19 pandemic and that we are establishing our full and normal range of enforcement services. Where payments have been missed we are taking action to re-establish compliance, and I am happy to look at the issue for him.

Topical Questions

The Government’s new job support scheme being launched next month to protect viable jobs and businesses that are facing lower demand is yet another part of how my Department and the Government are standing ready to try to help people stay in work and to prepare to get back into work. [Interruption.] We will continue to do whatever it takes to make sure we are reaching people of all ages. In particular, I want to make sure that people who may newly be looking for support from the welfare state use the Government-funded help to claim service, administered by Citizens Advice. [Interruption.]

Order—apologies, Minister. Let me just say to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) that there was not time to call him. There was another Member before him on the call list, so there was not a chance that I could have called him before moving on; I do apologise. If he wants to hang around, I will try to get him into topical questions if he wishes to speak.

I was pleased to see my right hon. Friend’s announcement that almost 1 million pensioners in receipt of pension credit will be receiving £140 off their energy bills through the warm home discount scheme. My constituency has a very elderly demographic, so that is a great lifeline for so many. Will she confirm that, alongside it, the Government will continue to make winter fuel payments to support our pensioners this winter?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I praise him for raising this issue on behalf of the many people he represents. This Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty, particularly among pensioners, and will continue to deliver winter fuel payments this year. I was pleased by the work done by my Department to make sure that those on pension credit, including in your constituency, Mr Speaker, received the £140 from the warm home discount scheme, without lifting a finger.

As the Government place millions of people across the country under new covid restrictions, they will be asking many people to undergo significant cuts to their income. Last week, the Prime Minister said that due to the job support scheme and universal credit

“nobody gets less than 93% of their current income.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 368.]

Unfortunately, that is just completely wrong. The reality is that a person employed by a business that the Government are ordering to close could still lose a third of their income, and for an unspecified length of time. Their rent, mortgages and food bills will not be any lower, so how does the Secretary of State expect those people to get by?

The Government have taken unprecedented action in the design of their new schemes, recognising that some businesses right around the country are still experiencing a loss in demand. As a consequence, we have developed two different schemes, one of which is “a third, a third, a third” in terms of helping people with their cost of living. Where we believe, in conjunction with local leadership, that it is the right thing for certain sectors to be closed in areas, the two-thirds support of wages is important. Of course if people do come under a certain threshold, they may well be eligible for UC, which would help top up their ongoing income during these difficult times.

Secretary of State, this is important, because it is the barrier to additional restrictions being introduced. As the Government know, people who are eligible for the job support scheme and may be losing only a third of their income are, comparatively, the lucky ones, as people in receipt of UC or jobseeker’s allowance will be left on just a fraction of their current income. With that in mind, I have a straightforward question for her: it is clear that we are not going to be out of this crisis by April next year, so will the Government do the right thing and scrap their plans to cut UC to an even lower amount next April?

What is different from the regime we had earlier in the year is that then the strong message was very much for people to stay at home and retail was closed, along with a number of different sectors. That is not the case anymore: we have now had to intervene in a much more limited number of sectors, often in conjunction with the local leadership. As a consequence, we will continue to review the best ways to support people through the welfare system, as well as through the plan for jobs and the measures that the Chancellor has introduced.

With forecasts showing that there may be as many as 1 million young people without a job, I urge the Minister to think outside the box. I have long argued that we should use graduates and gap-year students to help some of those pupils who have missed out on schooling to catch up. Can we devise, with the Department for Education, a scheme to pay them a variation of JSA to provide such a service, or at least offer greater flexibility for claimants who volunteer to help in such a way or to take the pressure off other public services? (907732)

One element of the kickstart scheme, a £2 billion investment in the future of our young people, is designed to help people to get on the first rung of the ladder with a proper job. It is a way for those people who have recently left school or university and are at risk of long-term unemployment to get experience and financing, which does not just have to be through private organisations and could be through local government or charitable or other sectors. It is a specific way to ensure that those people get not only a job but the extra training and wraparound support that they need to help them further on in their lives.

For some time, the SNP has led the campaign to end the universal credit five-week wait. We think that is best done by the introduction of grants, so we welcome today’s Work and Pensions Committee report. We also agree with the idea of renaming advances as “new claim loans” to make clearer what they actually are. Will the Secretary of State look favourably on the report’s findings and accept its recommendations?

I will look carefully at the report. Select Committee members will know that I have spoken to them on previous occasions, as have other Ministers, to explain that advances are a way to spread the payment of universal credit over a year—in fact, in future it will be over two years, if that is how long people want to spread that initial support—and it is not our intention in any way to introduce a grant at the beginning. The grant is there in the benefits—that is exactly what they are there to do—so I do not see how we will be responding positively to the Committee’s report in that regard.

Applications for the new self-isolation payment are to be launched last week, but there is a real risk that some people may not apply for the £500 because of tax concerns. Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People has written to the Chancellor calling for an income tax exemption for the payments, similar to the exemption for the test and trace support payment scheme in England. Will the Secretary of State urge the Chancellor to exempt the new self-isolation payments from tax? (907730)

I hope next month to introduce a ten-minute rule Bill on the regulation of supported housing. I am particularly motivated by concern that unscrupulous landlords are moving into the sector so that they can take advantage of higher housing benefit rates. There is obviously an overlap with universal credit, so I wondered whether the Secretary of State has had any conversations with her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about the fact that we badly need to regulate the sector because too many people are being exploited. (907731)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right—this issue is a concern for me and has been for some time. I am working closely with my counterpart at MHCLG and would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss progress.

The kickstart scheme has been enthusiastically taken up by employers in West Berkshire, but of course it is time limited and comes with no guarantees. What steps is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State taking to ensure that kickstarter placements lead to permanent employment, either with the placement employer or in the same sector? (907737)

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the kickstart placements are six-month-long jobs, but the skills that people will learn and the experience they will gain will put them in good stead to secure future employment. We are investing in our young people in recognition of this difficult time, but of course if they do not secure a permanent job at the end of that time—although the placements may be a gateway to apprenticeships and similar—we will continue to support them until they find a job.

The Knaresborough Connectors community group and Knaresborough chamber of trade are working together to build a scheme to enable participation in the kickstart scheme for smaller businesses in the area. It is good work and I am keen to help it. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State be encouraging the Department to work with local community organisations to ensure that all areas, urban and rural, and all businesses, small and large, can access the benefits of kickstart? (907738)

My hon. Friend is always a champion of his local organisations and constituents. Yes, absolutely; many local authorities, charities and organisations, such as North Yorkshire County Council, have agreed to act as gateways or have submitted bids for funding.

Many disabled people have lost carers and are struggling to employ replacements during the covid crisis. This can mean that they have lost vital support in applying for benefits. I spoke to a constituent today who flagged up that there is nowhere on the system for people to indicate that they have a high support need, so that extra care is taken in dealing with their application. She has missed the benefit deadline because of that. Will Ministers look into this matter and ensure that we help disabled people when they apply for benefits? (907735)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Our forthcoming Green Paper will look specifically at the importance of advocacy in the system, and at increasing it. That need should have been identified at the initial application. If he sends through the details, I will be happy to ensure that the claimant is not lost from the system.

A number of my constituents are receiving letters out of the blue saying that the Child Maintenance Service is writing off unpaid payments as part of a review of historical debt. Will my right hon. Friend tell me the basis for the review, what the criteria are for the cases, how many are involved, and by what means personal advance notice of the changes is being given to the people concerned? (907739)

My understanding is that the policy relates to people who have had child maintenance arrangements for a very long time. There comes a point when there is an element of understanding the different debts. My hon. Friend will be aware that, in a way, this is a very odd arrangement, with the state effectively becoming the arbiter between two parents. The only people who lose are the children. That is why I encourage everybody who has a responsibility towards their children—currently 111,000 children are owed £187 million by parents who refuse to pay up—to get on and do the right thing by them. We should not end up having to rely on the state to arbitrate between two parents.[Official Report, 16 November 2020, Vol. 684, c. 2MC.]

Like many schools across the country, a school in my constituency has had to close with less than 24 hours’ notice, leaving working parents having to care for their children at home. What discussions have Ministers had with their colleagues in Health and Education to see whether the £500 self-isolation payment can be extended to those working parents? (907741)

The £500 self-isolation payment administered by local councils was devised to achieve compliance with public health guidance. That is why the Department of Health and Social Care is leading on the matter. I am conscious that there may be local arrangements that need to be addressed. Often, the best way to tackle those is through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which has local funds that have been topped up by this Government to help with local welfare issues.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the exceptional team at Jobcentre Plus in Barnstaple for their work to support the vastly increased number of people in North Devon looking for work at this time? I extend an invitation to her to come to my constituency to thank them at first hand. (907740)

My hon. Friend is right to praise hard-working DWP staff at her local Jobcentre Plus and across the network. The team in Barnstaple have worked with the National Careers Service to help with interview technique and build transferable skills among people who become unemployed, and great work is already under way at the North Devon youth support hub in Bideford and Barnstaple. I look forward to visiting the south-west. As she knows, the DWP jobcentre is a covid-secure environment and I look forward to joining her there in due course.

I, too, am greatly concerned about the ability of the Child Maintenance Service to deliver results. I wonder whether the Minister would be kind enough to meet me to discuss a constituent who has been unable to collect an unbelievable amount of arrears over the past decade, estimated at £30,000. (907744)

My noble Friend Baroness Stedman-Scott is the Minister responsible for the Child Maintenance Service. She is more than happy to meet colleagues who are having particular difficulties with paying parents who are refusing to cough up.

My constituent Joseph made a claim for industrial injuries disablement benefit in January. His assessment, along with all the other new assessments, was postponed because of covid, so he is living with the extra costs that come with having an industrial disease, but he does not have the extra benefits he needs. Can the Secretary of State please urgently resume IIDB assessments? (907746)

I am very much aware of this. As the hon. Gentleman will understand, we suspended face-to-face assessments across all disability benefits following the public health guidance. We are working as quickly as we can to roll out telephone assessments for IIDB where possible, and as soon as it is safe to do so, we will return to face-to-face assessments.

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 am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.