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Topical Questions

Volume 688: debated on Monday 25 January 2021

Our kickstart scheme is putting the future of young people front and centre of our plan for jobs. I have already shared with the House that over 120,000 kickstart roles have now been approved, and we want to turn those into job starts. In addition to making it simpler for employers by removing the 30-vacancy threshold for direct applications, as was set out earlier, employers who cannot currently access kickstart at all—for example, sole traders with no pay-as-you-earn systems—can now join up through the gateway-plus model that is currently provided by the Federation of Small Businesses and Adecco joint venture. It is an exciting phase as we move up a gear.[Official Report, 4 February 2021, Vol. 688, c. 8MC.]

This weekend, Newcastle United fans food bank launched a virtual bucket so that fans can donate small sums online on matchdays to help to meet the massive increase in demand from hungry families. Will the Secretary of State congratulate the food bank organisers on their hard work and ingenuity, and explain to them why she will not cancel the cut to universal credit that will force many of the 16,000 claimants in Newcastle further into destitution, increasing debt, food poverty and demand for the food bank?

Of course I congratulate the organisation through the football club to which the hon. Lady refers: it is of great worthiness to undertake that. She will be aware of the support that has been ongoing and also the additional £170 million winter grant from which Newcastle City Council will be benefiting in order to help to make sure that no child goes hungry and every child stays warm this winter.

The impact of the pandemic has been particularly acute in certain sectors, forcing many people with years of experience to rethink their careers. How does the Government’s plan for jobs help people who are now looking for new jobs that are going to require new skills? (911320)

We have provided an unprecedented economic support package to protect and create jobs through the pandemic. For people who need to change careers, our sector-based work academy programmes—SWAPs—offer training, work experience and a guaranteed job interview to get those people ready to start a job, allowing them to learn the skills that employers in that particular industry look for. Alongside that, our flexible support fund has been boosted by an extra £150 million so that work coaches can help to support individuals facing redundancy through retraining and overcoming barriers to work.

As we have heard, last week this House voted that the Government should not proceed with the £1,000 cut to universal credit set to take place in April. That position is now supported by 280 MPs, more than 60 charities and campaign groups, and the majority of the British public. I have listened to the Government today, as ever, but, as it stands, that cut is formally written into official Treasury documents, and the Prime Minister has indicated that he thinks the cut should happen, but last week the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), said that it was too early to make the decision. Will the Secretary of State clarify what is Government policy on reducing universal credit in April, what criteria will affect the decision, and who in Government will ultimately make that decision?

As has been explained several times to the House today, and previously by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the Government introduced a raft of temporary measures to support those most impacted by the covid pandemic. The hon. Member is aware of the statement I made to the House, where I said that the situation would be reviewed in the new year, and that is exactly what I am doing. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor as we consider the options on how best to support people through the pandemic.

I put it to the Secretary of State that she must give clarity to the millions of families this cut will affect. If she wished, she could give that reassurance now. I also ask for clarity on reports that the Chancellor is planning on giving a one-off payment to universal credit claimants, ignoring those on other benefits, and leaving the hundreds of thousands of likely new claimants expected this year with lower levels of support. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be not only unfair, but a very poor use of public money to pay a lump sum to people on universal credit now, while cutting unemployment support to its lowest level for 20 years, just as unemployment is set to peak?

I can only more or less repeat what I said before. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I are actively working on proposals on how we can continue to make sure that we support people most badly affected by the pandemic. This is part of the discussions that are still ongoing, and I can assure the House that we are actively considering it and hope to make an announcement when we can, in order to give that certainty, as the hon. Member points out, to a number of people.

I have often talked about my ambition for High Peak to be the capital for tackling climate change. I welcome the Government’s commitment to protecting our environment, including the big increase in funding for the restoration of High Peak’s moorlands. We all have a part to play in tackling climate change, and with trillions in assets available to them, can I ask the Secretary of State what steps the Government are taking to ensure that pension funds make more environmentally sustainable investments in future? (911334)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the key role that pension scheme assets can play in tackling climate change. The UK is already leading the way on this issue, thanks to actions taken by the Government, but particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), the excellent Minister for Pensions. In 2018, we introduced key environmental, social and corporate governance legislation for occupational pension scheme investments, and we have gone further with the pension scheme legislation that is currently awaiting Royal Assent. It makes the UK the first major economy to put assessing climate risk and disclosure into statute for pension schemes, a point that we will continue to reinforce as we run up to hosting COP26, and we encourage other countries to do likewise.

According to TUC polling, two fifths or 40% of workers say they will have to go into debt or into arrears on their bills if their income drops to £96 per week, which is the equivalent level of statutory sick pay. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that SSP is set at a level that does not require people to take on extra debts or avoid paying bills? (911321)

I thank the hon. Member for that question. As set out earlier, SSP is only part of the wide range of support that could be available, including universal credit, new-style ESA and support through local authorities. It will depend on each individual claimant’s circumstances. Wider SSP was increased as part of the annual uprating. As part of “Health is everyone’s business”, we continue to review the rates, structure and support provided through SSP.

Over a year ago, one of my constituents had her complaint accepted for investigation by the independent case examiner. Today, she is still waiting for that investigation to start. She is a single parent and is now without universal credit or tax credits for her children. This kind of hardship is often the situation for those taking their cases to the independent case examiner, and the delay is not uncommon. The average time between a complaint being accepted by the examiner and an outcome being provided is a year and a half. That is completely unacceptable, so can the Secretary of State urgently look into the operation of the case examiner and drastically reduce waiting times and ensure that complainants are properly supported throughout the complaints process? (911337)

My right hon. Friend raises an important issue. Within the last year, we have reviewed parts of the complaints process. I am also conscious that my noble Friend Baroness Stedman-Scott, who leads on this, has arranged for more resources to go into the independent case examiner. It would be helpful if my right hon. Friend could share with me or with the noble Baroness the precise details, so that we can investigate what has happened.

Most of my constituency has hardly seen temperatures above freezing since before the turn of the year. Pensioners in around 200 other parts of the United Kingdom are now getting the cold weather payments they are entitled to, but because of rules set out by the Department, thousands of pensioners in my constituency do not qualify for a single penny. Could the Secretary of State explain how that is fair? (911322)

I am not sure which specific payments the hon. Gentleman is referring to. I have highlighted, as has the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the warm home discount scheme. There are other winter grant schemes, which have specific criteria. If the hon. Gentleman would like to contact one of the Ministers in the Department directly, I am sure that we can look into that casework for him.

The Government’s emergency income support schemes have helped millions of people, but unfortunately there are gaps in support. Will the Government look again at how to help PAYE freelancers, the newly self-employed, directors of limited companies, and particularly women for whom periods of maternity leave have made it even more difficult to come within these covid emergency schemes? They need help; they are suffering real hardship. (911339)

We are providing £15 million for local authorities to make discretionary payments to people not eligible for the self-employment income support scheme. The DWP has temporarily relaxed the minimum income floor for self-employed UC claimants affected by covid-19. The self-employed have also benefited from other parts of our support package, such as increased local housing allowance. However, I urge anyone who thinks they may need further support to check the benefits calculator on

The Secretary of State should be ashamed that right across the UK, food banks, schools, charities and communities have had to mobilise to feed hungry children because of the inadequacy of the welfare state. Analysis from the House of Commons Library shows that 680,000 of these children could be lifted out of poverty if universal credit was not cut and child benefit was increased by just £5 per week. Why will she not implement those changes? (911323)

We keep all policies under review, including the uplift to universal credit, which is under active discussion between our Department and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I would gently push back on what the hon. Lady said and alert her to the fact that in 2020-21, we will spend more than £120 billion on benefits for working-age people. That is £120,000 million—around £1 in every £8 that the Government spend; three times the defence budget, and nearly as large as the NHS budget. We continue to support people throughout this country during the pandemic.

I am actually in Goole, Mr Speaker. With the upcoming health and disability Green Paper and the national strategy for disabled people, it is vital that those with real lived experiences are able to shape Government policy in this area. Can the Minister assure me that that will be the case? (911340)

I thank my hon. Friend, who is a champion of real lived experience through his casework and his speeches in Parliament. I can reassure him that both the DWP health and disability Green Paper and the national strategy for disabled people will be shaped by those with real lived experiences. I know that, as a proactive Member of Parliament, he will be happy to host his own stakeholder engagement event with his local advocacy groups.

Research from the TUC shows that statutory sick pay currently covers less than a fifth of annual earnings. Does the Secretary of State agree with the head of the Government’s test and trace programme, Dido Harding, that low levels of statutory sick pay are acting as a financial barrier to people being able to self-isolate, creating additional public health risks? What steps is she taking to ensure that statutory sick pay provides sufficient support to enable everyone to self-isolate when necessary? (911324)

As already set out, this is part of the menu of support that people could benefit from, including universal credit, new style ESA and support provided through local authorities or, if they qualify, £500 through the test and trace scheme. But on the wider point, through “Health is everyone’s business”, we have covered a range of measures to look at reforming SSP. We will publish those findings shortly, but they will look at things such as the rate, the structure and the lower earnings threshold, as well as actually dealing with the issue that people are either 100% fit or 100% sick without any phased return to work, which is something we are determined to change.

The covid-19 pandemic has presented some stark economic challenges for Crawley affecting people of all ages. What support has the Department for Work and Pensions put in place to help workers get back into work across my constituency? (911341)

In addition to the excellent work already being done at the Crawley youth hub in the town hall and the existing Jobcentre Plus, I am pleased that, as part of the DWP estates expansion and renewal programme, we will shortly open a new jobcentre at Forest Gate and a DWP response hub at Gatwick airport. As well as generating valuable employment opportunities, this will ensure that we can provide the support that individuals of all ages need in and around Crawley.

I have a constituent who, over the space of the two and a half preceding years, was sanctioned for a total of 1,100 days. Does there not come a point at which it is clear that the sanction regime does not work for some individuals, ceases to be a proportionate response, and becomes cruel and unusual? Will Ministers look at ways of making sure that those individuals who are suffering in this way get treated with a lot more respect and dignity? (911325)

Sanctions are only ever used when someone fails to comply with reasonable and appropriate commitments without a good reason. Following the gradual reintroduction of conditionality in the claimant commitment, the UC sanction rate remains very low, at a record low level. I am happy, if the hon. Gentleman wants to raise this particular issue with me, to have a look at it, but, as I say, the sanction rate has very much been on a downward trend.

The kickstart scheme has been a fantastic initiative in helping to secure valuable work placements for more of our young people in Blyth Valley, but it is currently only available to businesses with more than 30 employees. What assessment does my hon. Friend make of lowering this threshold to allow for smaller businesses to be given the same opportunity? (911345)

Mr Speaker, would you like to be a 3D animator, a disabled riding school assistant, a camera operator or maybe a trainee fencing coach? These are all kickstart roles that are available. We have made it simpler for employers to get involved with kickstart, cutting the 30 posts minimum threshold so those applying for any number of roles can now apply direct to the DWP. We have also made it easier for sole traders to sign up. We have had a great response, with over 6,500 employers stepping up to offer placements in different fields and sectors, as we have heard, and also to be crucial gateways.

People who receive legacy benefits were excluded from the uplift to universal credit, but the Government have now announced plans for an uplift this April of 0.5%. If people are claiming ESA in the work-related activity group, that equates to 37p a week, which is derisory. We need to ensure that people on legacy benefits receive a proper degree of support, so as part of the Secretary of State’s review of the UC uplift that she mentioned earlier, will she commit to providing a similar uplift to legacy benefits? (911332)

First, let me say that I appreciate that many people are facing financial disruption due to the pandemic, and the Government have put unprecedented levels of support in place. As the hon. Lady rightly points out, legacy benefits are being increased by 0.5% this year, on top of the 1.7% last year. Legacy benefit claimants can make an application for universal credit, but what I would say is that I encourage them to check on one of the benefit calculators on Once they make an application to universal credit, their entitlement to legacy benefits will cease, so it is very important that they do check first.

Ministers have shown from the Dispatch Box this afternoon how effective the benefits system has been in providing support throughout the pandemic. However, my constituent who is only able to work on an intermittent basis tells me that she is not eligible for support for mortgage interest, and that she would have been better off had she not worked at all. What assessment have Ministers made of the support level for homeowners? (911346)

The qualifying period for support for mortgage interest is in place because it is reasonable for homeowners to make arrangements with their lenders, to manage any loss of income for a short period, without the state needing to intervene. Homeowners struggling with mortgage repayments because of covid-19 should contact their lender as soon as possible to discuss what support may be available. At present, the Department has no plans to amend the qualifying period for support for mortgage interest, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter at length.

I will now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.