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Work and Pensions

Volume 685: debated on Monday 30 November 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Benefit Cap: Families with Children

The most recent statistics, released last week, show that 140,000 households with children have had their benefit capped. The proportion capped remains low by comparison with the overall universal credit case load. New and existing claimants can benefit from a nine-month grace period when their benefit will not be capped if they have a sustained work history, and exemptions of course also remain in place for vulnerable claimants. Since the introduction of the cap, 190,000 households are no longer capped under such benefits and nearly 80,000 are no longer capped under UC.

The number of households with children receiving universal credit who are subject to the benefit cap in my Bedford and Kempston constituency rose by a staggering 186% between January and May this year, so will the Minister guarantee that the £20 UC uplift will reach the families who need it?

My understanding is that 460 households with children were subject to the UC cap in the Bedford local authority area. I am conscious that that is a higher number than the hon. Gentleman may wish, but I point out to him that we can also make the effort to encourage people to go for vacancies, so that they can start to earn more money, which at some point triggers a removal of the benefit cap.

The number of households affected by the cap has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic, to 170,000. In addition, 160,000 households will come to the end of their nine-month benefit cap grace period in the coming month. So will the Secretary of State consider extending the grace period, to avoid cutting the benefits of hard-pressed families in the run-up to Christmas?

The statistics indicate that 140,000 households with children have their benefit capped; my understanding is that overall it is about 3.1% of the UC case load. I am conscious of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman wrote to me last week, in his role as Chairman of the Select Committee, with a variety of questions on the benefit cap. I will respond to him shortly, and I believe that is one of the questions he has asked me to address.

Some 85% of capped households have families with children, and the Minister revealed last week that more than 160,000 households on UC could see their benefits capped in December, when their grace period comes to an end. Does she feel no shame in plunging families and children into hardship right before Christmas? Children are paying the price for their parents losing their jobs. This is a ticking time bomb and she can stop it—it is her choice: will she scrap the cap?

The cap has been in an important part of policy in trying to stimulate entrance into work. I am conscious that there are still only about half a million vacancies, compared with a significant number of people unemployed. However, I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome, with me, some of the actions that are possible for some of the most disadvantaged families, particularly those supported by the £170 million covid winter grant, from which I understand her local council will benefit to the tune of about £823,000.

Housing Benefit: Supported Exempt Accommodation

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the more than minimal test for determining housing benefit payments for supported exempt accommodation. (909445)

Local authorities apply the minimal test for determining housing benefit for supported housing accommodation. No assessment has been made of the effectiveness of the more than minimal test for housing benefit. However, we are reviewing the guidance to help improve consistency in decision making.

The annual housing benefit bill in Birmingham for supported exempt accommodation is now a massive £200 million. Too many housing providers are exploiting the extremely weak regulations that govern the payment of enhanced housing benefit; all they have to do is show that the support they provide is more than minimal, and this is causing misery for vulnerable tenants and the communities they live in. So will the Minister meet me to discuss the situation in Birmingham, and will he bring forward urgent proposals to change the situation and get a grip of this growing national scandal?

Although we recognise there are problem areas, it is worth noting that the majority of supported housing is provided by well-run registered social landlords with a strong social mission. These are regulated by the Regulator of Social Housing, for registered charities, or by the Charity Commission. But I do recognise that there is a problem, and I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.

Kickstart Scheme: Business Participation

What steps her Department is taking to encourage businesses to participate in the kickstart scheme. (909446)

What steps her Department is taking to encourage businesses to participate in the kickstart scheme. (909453)

What steps her Department is taking to encourage businesses to participate in the kickstart scheme. (909456)

We are working with employers at a local, national and regional level, and we continue to have wide-ranging engagement to promote the scheme. Department for Work and Pensions officials are supporting applications through existing and growing partnerships. From day one, we have engaged with more than 300 stakeholders to ensure that the design of the kickstart scheme delivers for our young people and employers alike. We continue to work with those in growing sectors to boost further opportunities, so far creating more than 4,000 applications and more than 20,000 approved kickstart roles—these numbers are growing daily.

Last week, I met with Ameon, a building services company based in Fylde that is looking to grow its team due to the recent construction boom in the north-west. In construction, qualifications are vital to building a career. Will my hon. Friend outline how the kickstart scheme interacts with sixth-form and further education colleges to help enrolees to get valuable experience of work and certified lifetime skills?

Businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency are coming forward daily, and DWP employer advisers are running daily sessions to get young people ready to be matched with placements. In addition, we have created new youth hubs and are working with local partners to assist young people in removing any barriers. Alongside that, we have allocated every kickstarter an additional £1,500 of employability support to ensure that they are ready to take up future work opportunities.

Small and medium-sized enterprises in my Havant constituency are major local employers and already support apprenticeships in large numbers. What steps is my hon. Friend’s Department taking to help kickstart gateway providers, particularly local authorities, to help SMEs to benefit from the scheme?

We are determined that SMEs can take part in kickstart. We are actively working with a range of gateway organisations, including chambers of commerce, local authorities and charities, so that they can support smaller employers to offer kickstart roles. Guidance is regularly updated through the kickstart portal on to clarify the process and highlight changes, and SMEs can access local employer contracts through those pages.

More than a dozen local businesses and charities have put forward applications, working with myself and the South Cheshire chamber of commerce. They are keen to get going and want to give young people opportunities. When might they be able to start deploying the roles?

We are encouraging employers to create a range of opportunities through the kickstart scheme for all young people aged 16 to 24 who are at risk of long-term unemployment, including those who have disabilities. Our work coaches will help to identify those young people in need of any extra support available through the kickstart scheme and any other suitable provision to support them. Meanwhile, my hon. Friend will be interested to know that the wide-ranging opportunities in his constituency go to the approval board this week for consideration.

The kickstart scheme is proving to be a great success in my North Kensington jobcentre, with many placements already made and a number—for instance, in gyms—awaiting the end of lockdown. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is critical that we get young people into work, especially in London, where the cost of living is so high?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: it is vital that we support young people into employment. As we know, they are often the most affected in these times of economic uncertainty. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that in addition to kickstart, the DWP Kensington youth team is actively working with local partners, such as the Rugby Portobello Trust, to help young people in her constituency back into work.

Young people are particularly at risk of being left behind as a result of this pandemic. Will my hon. Friend assure me that as we get our economy moving again, she will ensure that younger people have the chance to develop the skills that they need for future employment?

The Secretary of State and I are determined that the kickstart scheme will provide for young people a vital springboard to gain vital skills and experience in fully subsidised six-month roles, which will help to build their networks and their future opportunities before they move into long-term employment, apprenticeships, traineeships or further training. I was delighted to be in Derbyshire earlier this year to see exactly how the scheme will work on the ground.

In the previous Parliament, Members will recall that the apprenticeship levy scheme was a bit of a flop. It let down businesses, young people, local authorities and colleges. With my local area seeing a 182% increase in unemployment, youngsters are having their lives blighted by joblessness now. What urgent action is being taken to work with local authorities, with employers and, of course, with colleges to promote apprenticeships as a viable future option?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. It is very important that kickstart works with all the opportunities that are available for young people, and my Department is working across Government to achieve that. The Haringey youth team is made up of 10 work coaches focused on 18 to 24-year-olds and, absolutely, they are already working directly on this in her Wood Green jobcentre, and I encourage her to go to see it if she has not already done so.

Partnership will be crucial to drive down youth unemployment. I know that areas such as Greater Manchester are keen to understand how kickstart performs locally to assist in making the initiative a success. Can the Minister give clarity as to whether all the information relating to kickstart participation, which now comes in terms of gateway organisations, number of job placements applied for, sector information and so on, will be shared with mayoral combined authorities such as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority so that they are able to identify gaps that may then require more local partnership intervention?

I am meeting with the M9 Group of Mayors once again and they have been absolutely crucial in terms of local design, local mayors, local enterprise partnerships, and our local chambers of commerce. The scheme has been designed with local authorities and local labour markets in mind. The hon. Member will be pleased to know that we are working closely with Stockport local authority, particularly with its job match service around kickstart.

I am sure that, like me, the Minister wants to ensure that kickstart works for disabled people. I would like to know whether the Government have carried out an equality impact assessment of this scheme, and whether they will publish it. Will they also commit to the following: support from Access to Work from day one of employment; access to kickstart for recipients of employment and support allowance; and disability awareness training for all employment advisers? These small changes could help to ensure that every young person is able to benefit from kickstart.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I know that she is focused on young people, as am I. She may have heard from the Secretary of State that we are absolutely determined about this and that that work is already embedded; it is part of kickstart. This placement is treated like regular work, so all existing schemes such as Access to Work can be used, and our young people in jobcentres will be able to discuss all the options via the work coach.

Vulnerable Families: Winter Support

What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help vulnerable families with the cost of food and bills in winter 2020-21. (909447)

What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help vulnerable families with the cost of food and bills in winter 2020-21. (909452)

Earlier this month, I announced the £170 million covid winter grant scheme to help disadvantaged people, particularly children, through the challenging winter months ahead, with food and essential utility bills over Christmas through to the end of March. The first half of funding for the scheme will reach local authorities in England this week. I am delighted to say that Nottinghamshire has been allocated £2.3 million and South Gloucestershire £569,000.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is hugely important for the most vulnerable children—those whose welfare we know is a source of worry for their teachers when they do not see them for weeks—that we can offer the best possible help in the holidays, with proper structured and face-to-face support for those children and their families such as that offered through our holiday activity clubs?

I agree with my hon. Friend and he looks ready and dressed to support a holiday activity fund when the opportunity comes along. Maintaining that important link over the longer holidays can be transformative for children’s health and educational prospects, which is why I was proud to announce earlier this month the £220 million expansion of the programme for the longer school holidays right throughout 2021. This will offer enriching activities such as arts and sports, which will help them to perform better in school, as well as a free nutritious meal while they are there.

I welcome the announcement of the additional winter support funding across South Gloucestershire, which will benefit lots of my constituents, but can my right hon. Friend assure me that this additional funding will be spent efficiently by the councils and go to the people who need it?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress that point. As I have already indicated, his council will receive just over half a million pounds. The grant has come with conditions to ensure that the money is targeted towards the most disadvantaged people, and councils will be expected to report on that. They have a wide range of information to help them, including access to who is on benefits and other elements, to ensure that they reach people who really are disadvantaged at this time of year.

Spending Review 2020

What assessment she has made of the implications for her Department’s policies of the spending review 2020. (909448)

What assessment she has made of the implications for her Department’s policies of the spending review 2020. (909451)

What assessment she has made of the implications for her Department’s policies of the spending review 2020. (909460)

The further funding for our plan for jobs—particularly the £2.9 billion for the restart programme that is focusing on those at risk of long-term unemployment —as well as ongoing support for our other schemes and work coaches shows our focus on helping people to get back into work. Through Barnett consequentials, £36 million of funding will be available for equivalent measures in Scotland next year. Other elements, such as the record increase in defence spending and the 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, will help to create new jobs that will positively impact Scotland and the wider UK.

That will be news to my constituents in Glasgow North, who have had to cope with the closure of their jobcentre. That decision, along with the closure of 200 other jobcentres since 2010, is starting to look a little bit short-sighted. The Chancellor says that he will do everything it takes to support the estimated 2.6 million people who will be unemployed next year, so where exactly are these job coaches going to be based, and will the Government prioritise the places that have already suffered from the closure of local jobcentres?

I think it is the situation in Glasgow that a number of jobcentres were consolidated into one area. I am a great believer that, instead of necessarily investing money in bricks and mortar, we should invest in the people who will provide that support. In Scotland more broadly, we are aiming to hire over 800 new work coaches; 400 have already been recruited to date, and I know that some of those are in Glasgow.

The Chancellor could have made the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent, but instead he has left households deeply concerned as they face the prospect of a cut to this vital lifeline in spring. We in the Scottish National party have pressed UK Ministers on this matter countless times. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether she discussed extending the universal credit uplift with the Chancellor prior to the spending review, and whether she believes that this extension should have been included?

The hon. Lady will be aware that the temporary extension of the £20 universal credit uplift was made in line with the fiscal measures made earlier this year. With regard to the benefit uprating, I put that through as that is the normal process that we go through, but, as has been indicated, we will continue to look at this matter again in the new year.

For the last eight months, around 2 million disabled people and others on legacy benefits have been discriminated against through being excluded from the £20 uplift granted to those receiving universal credit. The Chancellor’s failure to extend the £20 uplift to them is another humiliating insult to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society, and only granting them an additional 37p a week from next April is nothing short of abhorrent. Does the Secretary of State think it is acceptable that people on legacy benefits are now facing a second year without sufficient financial support from this Government?

Last year we actually increased benefits by inflation, and we have made sure that that has happened again so that there are no cuts in that regard. I am keen to continue to do what we can to encourage people to move across to universal credit. There is only one group of claimants who are effectively barred from doing that, and that will change in January next year. I genuinely want to put across how important it is; by using things such as Help to Claim and getting support directly, people can often see that they will be considerably better off under universal credit.

The Secretary of State announced that the local housing allowance would again be frozen in cash terms in 2021, having only moved out of the previous freeze in March. That means, as the Office for Budget Responsibility has pointed out, that LHA rates will fall back below the 30th percentile. The Government have cut local housing allowance consistently since 2010-11, including freezing it from 2016 to this year. Will the Secretary of State tell us what estimate the Department has made of the effect on children in poverty of pushing the LHA back below the 30th percentile?

The decision made last year was to increase to the 30th percentile in cash terms—that is around £1 billion of welfare support that has been added. On consideration, we felt it was right to continue the cash freeze as we recognise that around the country we are seeing rents potentially going down, although I recognise that in some places they may continue to rise. Overall, people have certainty in the amount of cash that they have. It is certainly not going back but about making sure that this is a permanent change and was not just a temporary one.

The fact is that the number of children in poverty in the private rented sector rose by half a million between 2010 and 2019, so whatever uplift has been put in over the past year is in that context and we will see more children plunged into poverty as a result. Will the Secretary of State tell us exactly what steps she will take to ensure that more children do not fall into poverty as a result of the re-freezing of housing allowances?

I think I have already answered the hon. Lady. We have not reduced the LHA back to pre-covid arrangements; we decided to make that change a permanent fixture but to freeze it at cash levels, recognising that, as I said, nearly £1 billion had been injected into welfare support. We will continue to work on this issue throughout the country and I am keen to see what we can do on aspects of housing, which is why I am in regular conversation with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about how we do things such as bring empty homes back into use as accommodation. I want to make sure that people have as much affordable housing as possible, and the increase to LHA of nearly £1 billion is one way to achieve that.

Shortly, Nicola Sturgeon will outline in her conference speech plans to pay families who receive free school meals a £100 grant to help them through winter till the new, game-changing Scottish child payment starts in the new year. The Secretary of State’s Government could have matched the Scottish Government’s anti-poverty ambition at the spending review, but they failed even to make the UC uplift permanent or extend it to legacy benefits. Can she point to anything in the spending review that is there to address poverty?

The best way to get out of poverty is to get into work. I am very conscious that there are real challenges right now, as we see an increasing number of unemployed people. There are vacancies, but part of the Government’s job is to stimulate interest, which we are doing with a multibillion-pound investment in a variety of schemes, not only to create jobs, with kickstart, but to make sure that people are ready to get back into work. The idea is that we need to try to create confidence within business, and that will be a key part of that. I am sure the hon. Gentleman welcomed the money that came through the Barnett consequentials that will support initiatives that the Scottish Government might wish to undertake.

The Secretary of State talks about jobs, yet just as employment is expected to reach 2.6 million, she plans, shamefully, to cut universal credit. Ahead of the spending review, a petition organised by the Disability Benefits Consortium and signed by 119,000 people was handed in to the Government, calling for the UC uplift to be extended to legacy benefits. Given that living costs have increased dramatically for disabled people during the pandemic, why have the Government not acted? Does that not just summarise perfectly the tale of two Governments: a Scottish Government extending support to those who need it while the UK Government increases disability benefits by a derisory 37p?

Last week I published the benefit uprating statement, which indicated the inflation rise for benefits, as well as the 2.5% for state pensions. I am conscious that a number of different things are going on with benefit spending—my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work just reminded me that benefit spending on people with disabilities is up 5%. I think there is a lack of understanding of what the spending review is: it is not about budgetary measures, which tend to come with major fiscal events. As has been indicated before, the decision to consider the temporary uplift to universal credit will be made in the new year.

Statutory Sick Pay: Covid-19

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of statutory sick pay during the covid-19 outbreak. (909449)

Statutory sick pay provides a minimum level of income for employees who are unable to work. We have made temporary changes to support people to follow public health advice on coronavirus.

At £95.85 a week, the level of statutory sick pay is just too low, and it excludes 2 million of those on the lowest pay. To qualify for the Government’s test and trace support payment, people need to be receiving social security payments like universal credit; according to the Resolution Foundation, seven out of eight workers will not qualify for it. What assessment have the Government made of the number of people who are ineligible for either statutory sick pay or the test and trace support payment? Will they commit to increasing the level of statutory sick pay and extend it to everyone, including the low-paid and the self-employed?

Those required to stay at home by NHS Test and Trace could be eligible for the additional £500 of financial support if they are on UC, working tax credits, employment and support allowance, jobseeker’s allowance, income support, housing benefit or pension credit, and that is just part of our wider targeted welfare safety net.

For testing and tracing to work effectively, people need the reassurance that they will be able to feed their families. Statutory sick pay is not adequate to support people who need to self-isolate, so will the Minister give us hope that the Government will provide the necessary support to allow people not to have to choose between their health and their livelihoods?

The hon. Member is right to highlight the importance of this matter, and that is why statutory sick pay is part of the wider targeted financial support that we offer. Depending on eligibility for individual households, they could also get support through universal credit, new-style ESA or the self-employed income support scheme.

I have been inundated with constituents contacting me about low statutory sick pay and problems claiming the isolation benefit. One said:

“I work as an agency nurse. If I don’t work I don’t get paid. My husband tested positive who works and so I had to self-isolate. I fulfilled 3 of the 4 isolation criteria so I didn’t get a penny. As a result I have lost 2 weeks wages. I am NOT happy. I can very easily see why people don’t bother to get tested and go into work even if they have symptoms or have been in contact. Simply lack of income.”

What will the Minister do to stop people on low incomes being financially punished when they are trying to do the right thing?

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy rightly have been introducing stronger and clearer guidance for employers. Employees who are not able to get reasonable adjustments put in place should either speak to their union representatives or can go through ACAS to seek resolution. Nobody should be going into work when they are meant to be self-isolating or are sick through covid.

Universal Credit Claimants: Covid-19 Support

What steps her Department is taking to support universal credit claimants as a result of restrictions on face-to face appointments during the covid-19 outbreak. (909450)

Throughout the pandemic, our covid-secure jobcentres have remained open to the most vulnerable in society who require face-to-face support. We have also introduced new processes to cut telephony waiting times and enhanced our digital platforms. That empowers our work coaches to engage with customers through appropriate channels, based on their knowledge of the customer and the local situation.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but in some parts of our country, including parts of Harrogate and Knaresborough, access to broadband or even a mobile phone signal can be quite limited. How is he helping the excellent team at Harrogate jobcentre help those who cannot have a face-to-face appointment, yet struggle to gain access to the internet?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he is a huge advocate and supporter of his local jobcentre. We have made all our jobcentres covid-secure, including Harrogate, by introducing a range of safety measures, including screened desks, social distancing signage, mandatory face covering for claimants, the provision of hand sanitiser and regular touch-point cleaning, but for those who are unable to attend a jobcentre, and depending on their individual circumstances, alternative arrangements can of course be put in place.

Work Coaches: Recruitment

My hon. Friend will be aware that we have committed to recruit an additional 13,500 work coaches by March 2021, and we are on track to meet that. Since July, 5,468 have been recruited, and I had the pleasure of meeting some of our new London recruits at the Department for Work and Pensions’ Caxton House. I was delighted by the additional positivity, diversity of skills and fresh knowledge they bring to the DWP family.

It is great to hear that progress is being made on that, and I am sure the Minister would agree that its success depends not just on quantity, but quality. Can she confirm what measures are being taken to ensure that these coaches have the right experience and training to ensure that they provide real value? In recognising that people will have vastly different needs, what will be done to ensure that they are connected with the right coach, rather than just a coach?

All our new work coaches receive six weeks’ up-front training. That includes a week’s induction, followed by an initial 25 days’ intensive training, 20 days’ facilitated learning and five days’ consolidation. Their ongoing learning continues with access to action learning sets, bite-sized products and a learning hub to help build their confidence and skills as they continue to grow in their role. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that a second round of recruitment will kick off in his region in the run-up to Christmas, looking for almost 200 more work coaches.

Employment: Young People

The new enhanced DWP youth offer commenced in September. That is in addition to kickstart. We are increasing the support offered via a 13-week youth employment programme to help young people gain the skills and experience that employers are looking for. We are also working with our network of external partners to deliver 100 new youth hubs, co-located and co-delivered locally, alongside expanding the number of our youth employability work coaches.

I am encouraged to hear about the progress being made on the kickstart scheme. Does my hon. Friend agree that schemes that provide young people with not only a job placement and coaching but wider personal skills training and even opportunities for social action are more likely to be successful in equipping young people for their careers and incentivising employers to keep them on?

I absolutely agree, and I thank my hon. Friend for his work and interest in supporting young people and focusing on their progression. I remind all Members that, outside the 25 hours that a kickstart work placement provides, jobseekers are encouraged by their work coaches to undertake other activities to help them progress towards long-term employment.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and appreciate the work that the Department is doing in this important area. Youth unemployment remains a challenge in Workington. Can she outline the steps that her Department is taking to assist my young constituents at a local level?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that his excellent Workington jobcentre has developed five mentoring circles for young people, covering topics such as first impressions, transferable skills, interview skills and CVs. There has been much interest by local employers in Workington to become part of kickstart, with new job opportunities available across many sectors, including roles in adult social care and additional placements working with businesses such as Tesco.

Self-Employed Universal Credit Claimants: Covid-19

What steps her Department is taking to support self-employed universal credit claimants during the covid-19 outbreak. (909458)

The minimum income floor —the MIF—was first suspended in March this year, and we have now extended the suspension until the end of April 2021. This provides vital support for self-employed claimants by ensuring that they receive a full UC award during these uncertain times.

There is no doubt that the universal credit system has stood up well to the unprecedented increase in demand placed on it this year, including by being flexible and responsive in the way that the Minister described. Will she join me in thanking the staff at the UC service centre in St Austell, which I believe is the busiest and best performing service centre in the country, for their excellent hard work and dedication this year? Does she share my concern that all we hear from the Opposition is dragging down the system, which is working so much better than the legacy system we inherited, and while they call for it to be scrapped, they never say what they would replace it with?

I would be delighted to extend my thanks to the dedicated and hard-working team at the St Austell service centre and their colleagues across the rest of the DWP, who have played their part in processing a 90% national increase in UC claims since March. I agree with my hon. Friend’s point about the Opposition. Without the agile, digital universal credit system, we simply would not have been able to quickly and safely process millions of additional claims and get money and support to the people who needed it most in this health emergency.

Access to Work Scheme

We are committed to ensuring that people with disabilities and long-term health conditions get the vital support that Access to Work provides. That includes working with more than 19,000 Disability Confident employers to enable them to promote access to work through their networks.

According to recent research, 42% of employers feel discouraged from hiring people with a disability because they are not confident about how to support their needs through the pandemic. Will the Government consider fast-tracking Access to Work applications for disabled people through the kickstart scheme, as recommended by the charity Leonard Cheshire?

I thank the hon. Member for that question. I know I am meeting the hon. Member on 14 December to discuss this in more detail. I am also meeting the new chief executive of Leonard Cheshire, so I will discuss that report in detail. I am very proud, as a Government, that we have delivered record disability employment, and last year 43,000 people benefited from Access to Work—up 20%. Through schemes such as Access to Work and Disability Confident, and our highly trained and skilful work coaches, we will continue to engage with employers of all sizes to give them the confidence to take advantage of the huge wealth of talent that is available with a diverse workforce.

Plan for Jobs 2020

Our plan for jobs includes a range of targeted measures to help claimants of all ages. Our job entry targeted support scheme—JETS—will help over 250,000 people of all ages who are unemployed for three months to re-engage with the labour market. Young people at Bury jobcentre are currently receiving support from a specialist work coach, offering tailored support, and linking with local authorities to establish a virtual youth hub, Bury works.

Mr Speaker, I hope you were able to enjoy a happy Lancashire Day, although in a covid-secure manner.

Can I thank my right hon. Friend for the work she is doing on getting young people back into work with programmes such as kickstart, and can I ask my right hon. Friend to advise what work is being done to help get those over 50 back into work also?

There is a wide range of programmes where people can consider potential changes of career. That could be through SWAPs—sector-based work academy programmes, JETS, which is specifically targeted at older people, or kickstart, which tends to be focused on younger people. It is important to recognise that there is a wide range of opportunities with which our work coaches will be trying to help people at this difficult time in their lives, but there are wider schemes that people can consider. I am particularly excited by the Department for Education proposals on things such as Teach Last, because I think there is a lot of talent that could be used to help the next generation too.

Unemployment: Covid-19

The latest Office for National Statistics labour market figures show a level of unemployment of 1.6 million. This has increased by around 260,000 since the start of the pandemic. As part of our plan for jobs package, the DWP has launched new programmes, including kickstart, JETS and the job finding support service to help people who have been impacted by the pandemic to find new employment.

My hon. Friend will be aware that since March, because of covid, youth unemployment in my constituency of Harlow has, sadly, risen by 134%. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the extraordinary work of the Harlow jobcentre, and to the education, skills and training provided by Harlow further education college, which will be at the forefront of creating jobs? Can she set out how Harlow businesses can access the kickstart scheme and the apprentice funding announced by the Chancellor?

I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to the hard work and commitment of the Harlow jobcentre staff throughout these difficult times. We are in active discussions on a new DWP youth hub in Harlow. Those at Harlow jobcentre, alongside our 600-plus other jobcentres, do an immense job daily, encouraging and helping our most vulnerable claimants and supporting all individuals based on their circumstances, and that is where kickstart and other programmes will come in. Jobcentres do work locally with external partners—with charities, local employers and key organisations across Harlow and elsewhere—on local recovery plans and local needs.

Unemployment Trends

The latest ONS labour market unemployment level in the east of England is 137,000, and the national rate now stands at 4.8%. In addition to other measures, the DWP has established “job help” and “employer help” websites to provide jobseekers locally and employers the opportunity to get guidance and tools to help people find new roles.

Nearly 15,000 people are relying on the inadequate support provided by universal credit. So, to get a grip of the jobs crisis, what discussions is the Minister having with the Chancellor regarding reasons for using the furlough scheme to keep people in work and to incentivise employers to use it as flexibly as possible—for example, to allow workers at risk of redundancy a trial period in a new role, rather than proceeding to make them redundant?

That is absolutely the reason we have the job help website and at DWP our rapid response service. That is why we have our £30 billion plan for jobs, which includes the JETS—job entry targeted support—scheme, the “find a job” support service and the new employer help and job help websites.

Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit Reductions

Whether she has made an assessment of the potential effect on (a) working age and (b) child poverty of reducing (i) universal credit and (ii) working tax credit by £20 a week in April 2021. (909472)

Analysis from Her Majesty’s Treasury shows that the Government’s interventions have supported the poorest working households the most, with those in the bottom 10% of the income distribution seeing no reduction in income. As the Government have done throughout this crisis, they will continue to assess how best to support low-income families, which is why we will look at the economic and health context in the new year.

In 2018-19, 34.8% of children in my constituency were living in poverty when housing costs were taken into account, and from January to August this year there was a 68% increase in the number of families claiming universal credit. Last week the Chancellor told us that the

“economic emergency has only just begun”—[Official Report, 25 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 827.]

and that unemployment is set to rise for months to come. When the Minister knows that more and more families in Nottingham are going to face wage cuts and job losses, how can he argue that universal credit should be cut in just a few months’ time?

First, I do not recognise those figures and certainly nobody is making that case. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has confirmed the universal credit uplift until March 2021, and it is right that we wait for more clarity on the national economic and social picture before assessing the best way to support low-income families moving forward. I would just gently say to the hon. Lady that the uplift is just one part of a comprehensive package that we have put in place to support people through this most difficult of periods.

Topical Questions

Last week I announced the outcome of my annual uprating review. It delivers on our manifesto commitment for the pensions triple lock, thus providing financial peace of mind for pensioners across the UK. The basic and new state pension will be increased by 2.5% as that is the highest of the increases—inflation, earnings or 2.5%—and it means that from April 2021 the yearly basic state pension will be worth around £2,050 more in cash terms than in 2010.

With Birmingham set for an extended period in tier 3, does the Secretary of State have any plans to revisit the plight of pregnant mothers who are eligible for universal credit but ineligible for statutory maternity pay and therefore at a considerable financial disadvantage?

Of course, being in tier 3 has been put forward by the Government, and I am very conscious of the efforts that were being made right across Birmingham and other areas of the west midlands to get out of that tier. As regards matters such as statutory maternity pay, a lot of these things continue to be under consideration, but I will consider the points the hon. Gentleman has made.

Last week many of my Southport constituents warmly welcomed the creation of 250,000 green-collar jobs, but may I ask my right hon. Friend to outline what more her Department is doing to encourage environmentally sustainable investments by pension funds? (909506)

My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to this important point. As a result of actions by this Government the UK is the first major economy to put climate risk and disclosure into statute for pension schemes, leading the way on this issue, having already legislated for net zero by 2050 and introduced ESG—environment, social and governance—legislation through 2018 amendments to the occupational pension schemes investment regulations. I genuinely look forward to when we manage to complete the Pension Schemes Bill to bring all that into effect.

Last week the Chancellor described the scale of the unemployment crisis in the UK when he said that we could be facing 2.6 million people out of work next year. The Government’s major announcement to tackle that was the restart programme, but analysis of the spending review document shows that restart will not get up to scale until 2022, a full year after unemployment has peaked, so what will the Government be doing next year, as unemployment peaks, to help people get through the crisis?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to our plan for jobs. He will be aware that there are a number of schemes already under way, including kickstart, JETS and the sector-based work academy programme. It will take a little time to contract for the long-term unemployment programme, but I assure him that, compared with the last financial crisis just over a decade ago under the Labour Government, we have acted far more quickly in getting these employment contracts in place, because we need to make sure that people do what they can to try to remain connected to the labour market.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but last week the Chancellor said that this is the biggest economic crisis for 300 years, and he is right, so I cannot understand how those same spending review documents show the Government cutting universal credit next April—a £1,000-a-year cut, taken from 6 million families just when they need it most. No Government since the great depression have cut unemployment benefits during a crisis, so how can the biggest economic crisis for 300 years be the time to do so?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government introduced a raft of temporary measures to support those hardest hit, including the furlough scheme, the self-employment income support scheme and the £20 UC uplift. The Chancellor has confirmed the UC uplift until March ’21, and it is right that we wait for more clarity on the national economic and social picture before assessing the best way to support low-income families moving forward. That is exactly what I put in the written ministerial statement last week.

The Government’s investment in work coaches is hugely welcome. I have seen for myself what an important role they play in helping people into new roles and careers in Workington. Will the Minister join me in encouraging people across the country to consider joining the DWP as a work coach? (909508)

Work coaches are vital in delivering our £30 billion plan for jobs. They have done an amazing job already this year, with an additional almost 5,000 work coaches already recruited, another 1,700 agreed starts in the pipeline and recruitment open again. We will be advertising for 3,000 more posts between now and the end of January, in addition to the posts currently advertised. Search “work coach” on to apply.

Fixing the low uptake of pension credit could lift 450,000 pensioners out of poverty and save taxpayers £4 billion of NHS and social care costs. Unlike the Scottish Government, the UK Government have no legal obligation to produce a take-up plan, but they have a moral obligation to act, so can we see a proper, published and ambitious take-up plan and targets, please? (909505)

We want to make sure that all eligible pensioners claim the pension credit to which they are rightly entitled, and we want to encourage people to either call the free claim line—0800 999 1234—or go online to We did a considerable amount of advertising earlier in the year to encourage that, and of course the BBC has, in effect, done some free advertising, recognising that those people who have pension credit will also get a free TV licence.

What steps will my hon. Friend take to ensure that the Department works with job coaches and jobcentres to help people find new employment over the coming months? (909511)

As part of our plan for jobs, the new job-finding support and JETS services will, crucially, help jobseekers move back into employment as quickly as possible, helping them to identify sectors that could be growing or new to them. I met our JETS providers just last week to hear some of their early success stories from across England and Wales. JETS rolls out in Scotland in early January.

Is there any evidence that the financial effects of coronavirus have been less severe on the recipients of legacy benefits than those on universal credit? (909512)

First, let me say that I appreciate that many people are facing financial disruption due to the pandemic, and the Government have put an unprecedented package of support in place. The universal credit uplift was designed to be targeted at those facing the most financial disruption, but most working-age legacy benefits will be increased in April next year in line with inflation, and legacy benefits recipients could benefit from the local housing allowance or, indeed, the local welfare assistance schemes. I remind the House that claimants on legacy benefits can make a claim to universal credit if they believe they would be better off, but I would encourage them to check their eligibility as their legacy benefit entitlement will cease on application.

Eighty-two-year-old Monica Philip emigrated to the UK as part of the Windrush generation and worked for 37 years as a civil servant. She now lives on a UK state pension of just £74.11p a week because she returned to Antigua to care for her ailing mother. Pensioners such as Monica came to the UK at the invitation of the British Government, but they are now being penalised for returning to their country of birth, sometimes not through their own choice. Will the Secretary of State review the unfair policy that sees half a million UK state pensioners denied annual increases to their UK state pension? (909513)

The situation that happens with aspects of pensions is quite complicated and often these are reciprocal arrangements, so that is where such things as aggregation may well happen, but that does rely on those agreements being in place. That has been the policy on pensions for longer than any of us in this House have been alive, I expect, and it continues to be honoured. I am conscious of what the hon. Member says, but there may well be other elements of support that the constituent to whom she refers may be entitled.

Some sources predict that 2.6 million people could be unemployed by next year. Five years on from universal credit being piloted in my constituency of Hartlepool, it still has teething problems. Can the Minister assure the House that the system will cope, should claimant numbers rise significantly? (909516)

The universal credit system has risen to the challenge, going up from 2.2 million to 5.8 million claimants. That is why we have this modern, agile, dynamic system. It has performed incredibly well and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so.

T15. Further to the Secretary of State’s previous answer, take-up of pension credit remains low, which is a particular challenge in my Delyn constituency, which has a much higher proportion of over-65s than average. Will she commit to meeting me to discuss how we can use places such as the BBC and other Government agencies to enhance the take-up of this important benefit? (909515)

I know that the Pensions Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and to look at this matter. We take this absolutely seriously, in terms of wanting people to get the benefits to which they are entitled, and I am sure that he, as a very diligent local MP, will be able to use every lever that he has to improve the prospects of his constituents.

The £170 million winter support package recently announced by my right hon. Friend will be a lifeline for families hardest hit by covid-19 in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, so will she ensure that community groups like the pop-up pantry in Chell and the Salvation Armies in Smallthorne, Kidsgrove and Tunstall get the support they need in order to support the most vulnerable in my community? (909520)

Our £170 million covid winter grant scheme will enable local authorities to support vulnerable households this winter with food and key utilities. As the Secretary of State has made clear, there are conditions, but I would certainly encourage local authorities to work with partners on the ground, making sure that this support reaches people across our communities.

The Minister will be aware that, according to the Office for National Statistics, the national average increase in unemployment is 24%, but for over-50s, it has risen by a third. Yet vacancies have fallen by 278,000 since the pre-pandemic period. Does the Minister agree that there are approximately a quarter of a million people over 50 who will never find work again?

The latest ONS labour market data puts the unemployment level in the west midlands region at 145,000. Due to the pandemic, this rate has risen nationally. DWP is working across Government and looking very closely at these figures, using, for example, on older workers, our “Fuller Working Lives” plan. We are working with external organisations and partners to ensure a local and tailored response for all communities so that people are not left behind. As the hon. Member will have heard, we are recruiting additional work coaches as well to make sure that new and existing claimants get the opportunity to return to fulfilling work.

The decision to deny disabled people on legacy benefits the crucial £20 uplift has been a bitter blow to those who already face years of navigating barriers in the welfare system. Will the Department commit to using the welfare Green Paper and the national disability strategy to ensure that disabled people have access to a welfare system that provides financial security without cruel sanctions?

The Department for Work and Pensions will work with disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and disability stakeholder groups on the Green Paper to shape the way we provide financial support and general support across our services. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that this year, there has been a 5% increase—up to £20 billion—in supporting people with disabilities through benefits, and that the legacy benefit increases also impacted on the changes in the local housing allowance. There has also been the increase in discretionary housing support, the various employment support schemes and additional support from local authorities, from which many disabled people will have benefited.

I say thank you to Secretary of State Coffey and her team—we have cleared everyone on the list. Thank you, everybody—we have all worked well together.

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.