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Topical Questions

Volume 685: debated on Monday 30 November 2020

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.