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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 688: debated on Monday 25 January 2021

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Disabled People: Support for Shielding

What steps her Department has taken to provide financial support to disabled people required to shield during the covid-19 lockdown announced in January 2021. (911259)

What steps her Department has taken to provide financial support to disabled people who are required to shield during the national lockdown. (911262)

What steps her Department has taken to provide financial support to disabled people who are required to shield during the national lockdown. (911284)

People who are advised to shield and are unable to work from home may be furloughed. Those who are not furloughed may be eligible for a range of other financial support, including statutory sick pay and new-style employment and support allowance, both of which remain payable from day one of a claim. Where eligible, a claim may also be made to universal credit.

Many disabled people are on legacy benefits, which of course means they have not had the £20 a week universal credit uplift that has been made available. As the Government did not vote against our motion last week to retain that payment, I presume that they understand the value of retaining it, so will they now do the right thing and ensure that all disabled people have access to that extra cash?

We have shown as a Government the support we are providing, including over £9 billion of extra welfare support. Those on legacy benefits will have benefited from the annual uprating. Depending on individual circumstances, if a claimant would be better on universal credit, they can look to transfer over.

There are 2.2 million people who are having to shield. Many disabled people cannot work from home and do not qualify for furlough, and sick pay is only £95.85, which does not even come close to the definition of doing what it takes to look after people, which the Prime Minister tried to use on Thursday. May I push the Minister not to give the same tired answer about what he has done for other people but to answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) has just asked? When are the Government going to give support to disabled people so that they can be protected and stay at home?

The level of statutory sick pay is just part of the safety net; people may also be eligible for new-style ESA or universal credit, and for those disabled people who are looking to work from home, we have extended the support that is available through Access to Work, allowing for people to have additional support for their needs or equipment. That is something that we will keep in place beyond covid.

I thank the Minister for his response, but it was not very satisfactory, so I will give him another opportunity to give a more concrete answer. When will he end the discrimination against disabled people and offer the same uplift that universal credit claimants have been given to legacy claimants on employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance, which disproportionately support the disabled?

Further to the principle that if a claimant could be better off on UC than on legacy benefits they have the ability to apply to go on to UC, as a Government we have increased support for people with disabilities through the main disability benefits by an extra £3 billion in real terms since 2010. We are proud of our record.

But people claiming severe disability premium cannot switch to universal credit; they are not allowed to. The costs facing many in that group have increased by more than average during the pandemic. Why is that particular group denied the £20 a week increase?

The SDP gateway comes to an end in a couple of days, so those claimants will also be able to see whether they would be better off under universal credit. However, as I said, it is part of the wider support available, and those with disabilities in particular will have benefited from the annual uprating increases in disability living allowance, personal independence payment and attendance allowance. That is how we have delivered the additional £3 billion-worth of support in real terms for those with disabilities and health conditions.

May I just say how utterly disappointing it is still to have no uplift to legacy benefits 10 months into this crisis? Since the start of the pandemic, shielding people have been an afterthought. The increased costs they are facing are doing untold damage to their lives, and the Government’s solution of claiming statutory sick pay is woefully inadequate. Will the Government finally do the right thing and ensure that shielding people and people having to isolate are furloughed? Guaranteed furlough from day one would help people stay home and support businesses up and down the country.

I would hope the shadow Minister welcomes the continued and extensive support the Government have provided through schemes such as furlough, the additional £9 billion in welfare support, and, specifically for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, the second £32 million additional support provided through local authorities to help those following the shielding guidance. In these critical times, certainty is vital. Perhaps the shadow team should reflect on that with their random decision to try to cancel universal credit, which has stood up so well to support those people in the most need during these unprecedented times.

Benefit Cap

The proportion of individuals capped remains very low in relation to the overall UC case load and exemptions continue to apply. There remains a statutory duty to review the cap within this Parliament. However, we are in an unusual economic period, and any decision will need to consider potentially counter-intuitive and shifting trends.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but at a time when all of us know constituents who are struggling through the crisis which has brought them such hardship through no fault of their own, are the Government really going to impose the benefit cap on tens of thousands of families with children when the so-called “grace period” comes to an end? Is that really true? If it is, can she tell me this: how is that fair?

The benefit cap provides fairness for hard-working tax-paying households as a clear incentive to move into a job where possible. Universal credit households are exempt from the cap if the household earnings are at least £604 a month. I reiterate to the House that the amount of individuals capped remains very low in comparison to the UC case load, at around 3%.

Covid-19: Child Poverty

What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on trends in the level of child poverty. (911261)

What assessment she had made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on trends in the level of child poverty. (911274)

Her Majesty’s Treasury’s analysis has shown that the Government’s comprehensive £280 billion response to the pandemic, including a temporary and emergency £6 billion increase to welfare support specifically designed to help low-income families, has supported the poorest working households the most, with the poorest 10% of working households seeing no income reduction.

It has been clear from what Department for Work and Pensions Ministers have said to the House and in the media that they understand the real difference the £20 a week universal credit uplift has made to some of the poorest families. Given that we know withdrawing that uplift will plunge huge numbers of people into poverty, including 300,000 children, why are Ministers having such a difficult time persuading the Chancellor to do the right thing by the poorest families and tackling child poverty?

We are in active discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury regarding the £20 universal credit uplift. No one in this House wants to see anyone in poverty. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s ask and it comes from the right place, but I would just push back a little and say that, over and above the £100 billion we spend annually on benefits for working-age people to support those facing the most financial disruption throughout this pandemic, we have invested several billion pounds more. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has an unenviable task, but I point out to the House that my right hon. Friend has a proven track record of stepping up and supporting the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. I have no doubt he will continue to do so.

I understand, without a shadow of a doubt, that the Minister cares deeply about this issue, but I listened to the Secretary of State this morning on broadcast media saying that she was not able to set a particular date because of the active conversations in the Treasury. The Minister just gave the same answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). Why is the Chancellor not listening? Is he tin-eared on this issue? We are talking about 600,000 extra children in poverty since this Government came into office in 2010. The £20 uplift provides certainty and these people need that security desperately. We cannot be a nation where there are more and more children living in absolute poverty, and more and more families living without savings. That simply is not good enough. I ask the Minister to challenge the Chancellor and ensure we stop more children going into poverty.

As I have said, the universal credit uplift is still in place for the remainder of this tax year. Discussions remain ongoing with Her Majesty’s Treasury, and a decision on the future of the universal credit and working tax credit uplift will be taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in due course.

But the number of children in poverty has increased by 600,000 after housing costs since 2010, and that has been in substantial part due to the £9 billion that the Government have withdrawn from social security since 2015 alone. The universal credit uplift and other measures taken since the beginning of the pandemic will have reduced the number of children living in poverty to 300,000, but can the Minister confirm that if the Government proceed with ending the £20 UC uplift, together with rising unemployment, that will mean, by the end of this Parliament, that they will have seen 700,000 more children cast into poverty than at the beginning?

We take the issue of poverty, and tackling poverty, incredibly seriously, and as I made clear, active discussions are ongoing with Her Majesty’s Treasury. But I have to say that I fundamentally disagree with the approach of Labour party: simply throwing money at our benefits system—an approach that, under the last Labour Government, left a generation trapped on benefits, trapped in poverty and incentivised not to work by punitive cliff edges in the legacy benefit system. We will not be going back to those dark old days. We know that work is the best route out of poverty and, under universal credit—our modern, dynamic, agile system—work always pays.

Poverty Levels

Tackling poverty and levelling up opportunity will always be a priority for this Government, while using universal credit, which works for the labour market, to encourage people to move into and progress in work. There are several measures of poverty in the annual publication “Households below average income”—which is based on the annual family resources survey—of which absolute poverty before housing costs is the measure on which the Government most focus. Since 2010, 400,000 people have been lifted out of absolute poverty, including 100,000 children, and additionally, the rates of combined material deprivation and low income for children were at their joint lowest, at 11%, in 2018-19.

Child poverty is a disgrace in the UK and it is strongly linked to welfare payments. Quite clearly, more people are going to be pushed into poverty if the Tory Government continue with their planned cut to the £20 uplift in universal credit and the working tax credit. Ministers have ducked this all day, but given that the Government did not vote against the motion last week, they have a duty to honour that motion, so will the Secretary of State confirm what discussions she has had with the Chancellor about retaining the vital £20 uplift?

I updated the House in November and did say that we would be reviewing this in the new year. That is exactly what we are doing, and I am actively considering with the Chancellor the best way to continue to try to support people who are impacted on strongly by the economic impacts of this pandemic.

Between November 2019 and November 2020, the number of universal credit claimants in Aberdeen South had risen by 188.7%, and any move to cut the £20 universal credit uplift would have a catastrophic impact that would ultimately exacerbate poverty levels. So let us try again: can the Secretary of State confirm that she has made personal representations to the Chancellor on maintaining the full £20 uplift, and if so, and he chooses to ignore her, will she resign?

As often happens, as the hon. Gentleman will know from the Scottish Government Administration, Government Ministers tend to have discussions about policy while they are considering it. It is important, recognising the scale of the support that the Government have given to families, businesses and so on, that we continue to make these important decisions based on evidence in a competent, considered and compassionate way. That is exactly what the Chancellor and I will be doing in our recommendations for the Prime Minister.

Unless the universal credit and working tax credit uplift is made permanent, a further 60,000 people in Scotland, including 20,000 children, will be pushed into poverty. If this support is not extended beyond March, and if tackling poverty is a priority for the Secretary of State’s Government, as she says, will she set out what alternative and additional measures her Government intend to bring forward to tackle child poverty, which shamefully still affects 30% of children across the UK?

I have already set out the approach and discussions that the hon. Lady can be assured I am continuing to have with other Ministers, including the Chancellor. It is fair to say that we are very conscious that one of the ways to try and help people get out of poverty is through the plan for jobs. While I am conscious that there are not lots of jobs at the moment—although we estimate that there are over half a million vacancies—we want to try and make sure that people are ready to take advantage of the opportunities, particularly when we have seen the number of workless households sadly increase.

The Secretary of State suggested that her approach to universal credit is evidence-based, yet the Government dismissed the Select Committee on Work and Pensions report on this issue. Then she described anti-poverty measures as a priority, yet removing the universal credit uplift would plunge 200,000 children across the UK into poverty. If the UK Government make the smaller one-off payment that has been suggested, it will provide no security and do nothing to help those who first claim UC after the payment has been made. Alongside the discussions on universal credit, has the Secretary of State suggested to the Chancellor any action to end the discrimination against those on legacy benefits who have seen their support rise by just 1.7% during the pandemic?

People on legacy benefits can transfer to universal credit, and the final barrier to that is being lifted this Wednesday. I encourage people to consider that move, because we are confident as a Department that the majority of people would be better off. I remind the House that Parliament voted to end both legacy benefits and tax credits and to move to universal credit because it is a welfare system that is agile and incentivises people to work when they can.

So no action on legacy benefits, which means that the active discrimination from the UK Government against sick and disabled people, who disproportionately claim them, will continue. Robert Burns said:

“Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion of goodness; but whatever injures society at large or any individual in it, then this is my measure of iniquity.”

If the uplift to universal credit is not made permanent, the Secretary of State will be presiding over a system that not only discriminates against disabled people but in which out-of-work support falls to its lowest ever level relative to wages, confirming Burns’s definition of iniquity. In that scenario, how in all conscience could she remain in post?

Tonight, many people right across the United Kingdom will be celebrating Burns night, recognising the strength of the poet and the prose he delivers. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s comments fail to hit with me right now. The reality is that we have supported the welfare system with an extra £7 billion in the past year. We continue to spend more on benefits and we continue to spend more to try to help people back into work. This is a Government who are on the side of people, recognising the difficult situation that we face. As I have said before, as long as the Opposition keep trashing universal credit it will be no wonder that people do not realise that many of them would be better off moving tomorrow. I would encourage people to look into that.

Kickstart Scheme

What steps she plans to take to increase the participation of young people in the kickstart scheme as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (911264)

Kickstart has got off to a flying start and I am delighted to inform the House that to date 120,000 kickstart jobs have been approved and 2,000 young people have already started. Around 10,000 jobs are available to young people now and I am expecting a further 33,000 or so to be placed fairly soon while we work with employers to finalise the detail of the job offer. We recognise that young people have been greatly impacted by the pandemic, which is why kickstart is such a pivotal part of our plan for jobs to help them secure a stable footing on the career ladder.[Official Report, 4 February 2021, Vol. 688, c. 7MC.]

Kickstart is a fantastic programme that has created 120,000 opportunities that will benefit young people in Heywood and Middleton and around the country, but of course the core jobcentre offering will be incredibly important as we move to recovery. What measures are being taken to ensure that that is available to people of all ages around the country?

My hon. Friend is right. While kickstart is the flagship of our plan for jobs, we are well on track to recruit the extra 13,500 work coaches. Throughout the pandemic and across the country, work coaches have continued to provide support directly and digitally. Helping people to get ready to get back into work is a top priority and that is why other parts of the plan for jobs, including stepping up the number of places on sector-based work academy programmes, boosting job entry targeted support and launching job funding support nationally this month, are how we are helping everybody to try to get back into work.

Today, the DWP announced that more than 120,000 kickstart jobs had been created, but the Secretary of State has said that 10,000 placements are available now, and the Financial Times has reported that it is because of the Secretary of State’s delays that the other 33,000 have not yet come on stream. How on earth can it be that fewer than 2,000 young people have started placements to date? This scheme was announced six months ago and over half a million young people are out of work. Is it not the Secretary of State who needs to move up a gear so that we can secure our economy and get our young people into the jobs that they need?

The hon. Lady is right to ask why only 2,000 people have started. We have had a record number of applications and we have actually created more job placements than the future jobs fund ever achieved. We are trying to turn that into job starts. There are certain things going on where we are trying to roll out those jobs around the country, but I can assure her that this pipeline of jobs, which will take us right through to the end of the year as we are taking on more, is there to try to ensure that we find people the right sort of kickstarter role. We are also making sure that, as well as having covid-secure arrangements, the training wraparound support is high-quality.

Covid-19: Welfare Support

What steps her Department is taking to help ensure that people with disabilities and health conditions can safely access welfare support during the covid-19 outbreak. (911265)

Work coaches are empowered to support claimants through the best and most appropriate channels, whether online, by phone or in person, with jobcentres remaining open to those who need extra support and are unable to interact with us on the phone or digitally.

A number of my constituents in Southend West who suffer from mental or physical disabilities do not have access to computers or the internet. Many of them rely on in-person support in normal times, through places such as the citizens advice bureau or the wonderful Kings Money Advice Centre. With many in these vulnerable groups unfortunately now shielding, what assurances can my hon. Friend give me that support is being made accessible to those without online access?

My hon. Friend is a strong advocate for supporting his most vulnerable claimants and his local advocacy groups. As I have set out, we will look at the most appropriate way to communicate with claimants, including by phone or through advocates, where they do not have access to the internet.

Kickstart Scheme

What steps her Department is taking to enable more small business to participate in the kickstart scheme. (911266)

We continue to engage with employers of all sizes to create high-quality placements for our young people to get their start on the employment ladder, and to make it even simpler, from 3 February we will remove the 30-job minimum for job applications, giving new applicants the choice to apply directly or via one of over 600 excellent approved kickstart gateways.

As you well know, Mr Speaker, South Ribble has many brilliant small businesses that are keen to provide a kickstart opportunity for a young person. For example, Mark Wright Landscapes got in touch saying that it was worried that it was too small to participate. In that instance, I was able to direct them to the great North and Western Lancashire chamber of commerce, which acts as a gateway. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking that small business and encouraging others in Lancashire and beyond to create a job and give an opportunity through kickstart to as many young people as possible?

I would very much like to thank my hon. Friend for raising the opportunities for smaller businesses, and the great team at the North and Western Lancashire chamber of commerce for their hard work and the services they provide as a gateway organisation. This is helping many sole traders and employers in her constituency to support our young people to take up these kickstart roles, ensuring that young people have that vital wraparound support, getting them on to the career ladder and, above all, grasping future work opportunities.

With youth unemployment set to reach 1 million and 600,000 already unemployed, can the Minister provide some updates on how her Department will meet the 250,000 kickstart programme target that it stated it would meet? The numbers that the Secretary of State has set out today are worryingly low. Will she also consider removing the six-month requirement, where a young person has to be unemployed for six months before they qualify for the kickstart programme?

The young person needs to be on universal credit and working with our excellent work coaches. In respect of Hoxton and Poplar, which cover the hon. Lady’s constituency, we are recruiting 27 new work coaches in Hoxton and 67 in Poplar. Since the end of September, we have been working with the new Tower Hamlets youth hub, with local employers and gateways bringing opportunities. I encourage the hon. Lady to visit her local jobcentre to see what has happened there in the past year, because I do not believe she has visited and think that would put her mind at rest.

Covid-19: Youth Employment

What steps her Department is taking to help increase levels of employment among young people (a) during and (b) after the covid-19 outbreak. (911267)

This Conservative Government and I, as the employment Minister, are committed to providing support to help our young people to move into work and avoid the long-term scarring effects of unemployment, both during the pandemic and as we recover from its impact. Our plan for jobs includes an expanded DWP youth offer, kickstart and more than 100 new youth hubs to assist young people to move into meaningful, sustained employment.

Small and medium-sized enterprises in my constituency have raised concerns about the time it takes to apply for the kickstart scheme. What action is the Department taking to ensure that applications are processed as quickly as possible?

The Department worked at pace to launch the kickstart scheme in September, with the first applications open in November. Our aim is to take forward applications within one month, but it can take longer if we require additional information. We expect the situation to improve as we adopt processes and embed learnings from the thousands of employers and hundreds of gateways that have joined the scheme early on. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the application from Fotofabric Ltd in his constituency has now been approved.

Covid-19: Careers Advice

What steps her Department is taking to help people whose sectors have been particularly affected by the covid-19 outbreak to switch careers. (911280)

Our plan for jobs is providing a range of vital, tailored employment support for all jobseekers who are looking to move sector; targeting support for those impacted by the pandemic; and linking into local recovery plans. The plan includes DWP’s job finding support, or JFS; sector-based work academy programmes, or SWAPs; job entry targeted support, or JETS; and our new restart programme. It will also utilise the forthcoming UK shared prosperity fund.

Back in 2013, my constituency of Delyn had an unemployment rate of 5.2%; thanks to successful aspirational Conservative policies, this was down to just 3% before the pandemic took hold, but now sits at around 6%. With some sectors—particularly tourism and hospitality—more severely impacted than others, will my hon. Friend confirm that, despite many things being in the hands of a Welsh Government who, I hope, are in their final months in power, the UK Government will continue to provide support and generate opportunities for my constituents to get back into work as soon as possible?

I am happy to confirm that DWP will continue to work hard to support people like my hon. Friend’s constituents. I know that the staff in his three local jobcentres are already delivering training, mentoring circles and kickstart prep courses with partners such as Google, Amazon and the Prince’s Trust, as well as working to develop new resources to help to support local jobseekers.

Benefits Recipients: Supported and Exempted Housing

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s definition of care, support and supervision for benefits recipients in (a) supported and (b) exempted housing. (911270)

Local authorities apply the “more than minimal” test as part of the process for determining housing benefit for supported accommodation. No assessment has been made of the effectiveness of the “more than minimal” test for care, support and supervision in housing benefit; however, we are reviewing the guidance for local authorities to help improve consistency in decision making.

The Minister and I have talked about this, so he will know that I have real concerns about the exploitation of vulnerable people in the supported housing sector by landlords who know that they can charge much higher rents by providing only “more than minimal” support. Will the Minister look at the regulations to see whether they can be tightened up? I know that pilots are going on and consideration is being given to whether we can regulate supported housing, and that might be one way to do it.

The hon. Lady is right to point out that work is under way in this policy area. The DWP Minister in the Lords remains responsible for the policy; she is offering to all MPs and peers a session on 24 February at which they can raise any areas of concern, so I will make sure the Lady is invited to that. We recognise that there are problem areas and I share a number of the hon. Lady’s concerns, but it is important to stress that the majority of supported housing is provided by well-run, registered social landlords with a strong social mission.

Vulnerable People: Essential Costs

What support her Department is providing to vulnerable people to help meet essential costs in winter 2020-21. (911271)

The £170 million covid winter grant scheme is supporting disadvantaged people through the challenging winter months to the end of March with food and utilities. The first wave of funding was given to councils in November. The next tranche of payments is due next month and support for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales is already included in the pre-agreed Barnett funding. I have been pleased to see councils go beyond just issuing food vouchers. For example, in Telford and the Wrekin, where a large number of pupils had reportedly been going to school without a warm coat, some of the funding will help ensure that these disadvantaged children are warmly dressed for the cold winter months.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that statement. As well as providing those on low incomes with food boxes, the charity SOFEA in my constituency works with utility companies to try to drive down the costs of people’s bills, recognising that food is not their only challenge. I am hugely supportive of the covid winter fund, but does my right hon. Friend agree that what happens to those on low incomes is not just about what the Government do, and that we need all businesses to look at what more they can do to help drive down the cost of living?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that all businesses can play a part. I praise those mobile phone and internet companies that have offered low-cost packages to people while they are on benefits. In particular there is the warm home discount scheme where my Department works closely with utility companies on data matching. Nearly 1 million eligible claimants received the £140 discount automatically and did not need to apply.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, by providing funding to support families with children of all ages, including pre-school children, the covid winter grant scheme will give local authorities the flexibility they need to ensure that no child goes hungry this winter?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The terms of the condition of the grants to councils were clear that they needed to reach out to support children of all ages who are disadvantaged. Councils have the ties and the knowledge that make them well placed to identify that. I commend Shropshire County Council, which has received £850,000 over the scheme, for drawing on this information to target its support to help children of all ages, including pre-schoolers and care leavers who are exactly the groups that I hoped would also benefit from the support.

Too many pensioners face a harsh and challenging winter. Deep concerns about the high rates of coronavirus have been made worse by the effects of the severe weather and isolation from the usual networks of support. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that the Government will take urgent action both to raise take-up of pension credit for those most in need and to take other steps to protect pensioners? The Government have dithered for too long, and they need to set out a comprehensive package of support for our vulnerable pensioners.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place and congratulate him on his new role. On supporting pensioners, I genuinely believe that the Government have gone a very long way with the triple lock. We continue to see that boost with the basic state pension. He may not be aware of the extensive advertising in GP surgeries, post offices and similar that took place in 2020 to encourage people to take up the pension credit. We will continue to consider how that can be improved.

Covid-19: Universal Credit Roll-out

What progress her Department is making on the roll-out of universal credit to eligible (a) claimants and (b) people on legacy benefits during the covid-19 outbreak. (911275)

Since the start of the pandemic, the welfare safety net has been there to support nearly 6 million claimants. Parliament has voted for universal credit and to end legacy benefits. The nationwide roll-out of universal credit was successfully completed in December 2018, and we are committed to ensuring that those on legacy benefits move across in a safe and secure way.

I thank the Minister for his answer. It is quite clear that, during the coronavirus pandemic, alongside our massive vaccine programme and world-leading support of £4,000 a head—£280 billion in total—universal credit has been a real success. I praise the officials in Crook and Consett in my constituency for the work that they have done. Does the Minister agree that the last thing we should be doing is moving to scrap universal credit, which is a system that is really helping thousands of my constituents? Does this not show how out of touch the Opposition are, when this system is benefiting millions of people across the country at this incredibly difficult time?

I completely agree; universal credit is a modern, dynamic, agile and fairer welfare safety net, which, in the face of unprecedented demand, ensured that millions of people were paid in full and on time. This is a system that, by any measure, has passed the most challenging of tests, supporting nearly 6 million vulnerable people through this pandemic. There is little doubt that, had we relied on the legacy benefits system, we would have seen queues down the streets outside jobcentres, and long delays leaving families facing financial disruption without support.

Covid-19: Universal Credit

What assessment her Department has made of the effectiveness of universal credit in supporting people during the covid-19 outbreak. (911276)

Thanks to universal credit’s modern, dynamic and agile system, it has effectively supported nearly 6 million people, with over 90% of new claimants receiving their first payment in full and on time. This is in stark contrast to the paper-based legacy system, which would have seen queues outside our jobcentres and would have buckled under the pressure.

I have seen for myself on visits to the fantastic jobcentres in Guisborough and Loftus how the teams there really value universal credit, and how it has helped to support people over the last turbulent year. Will my hon. Friend reassure my constituents that there is no question of universal credit going anywhere, and does he agree that the Leader of the Opposition calling for it to be scrapped is simply the height of opportunism and irresponsibility?

The universal credit system and tens of thousands of dedicated, incredible DWP staff have processed an unprecedented number of claims—over 3 million since mid-March. It is not just my hon. Friend who is saying this; the IFS slammed Labour’s pledge to scrap UC as uncosted, as well as,

“unwise…expensive, disruptive and unnecessary.”

The Government believe that work should always pay and we need a welfare system that helps people into work, supports those who need it and is fair to those who pay for it. Remember: no Labour Government have ever left office with unemployment lower than when they started.

Work Capability Assessment Referrals

What recent estimate she has made of the average time her Department takes to process a work capability assessment referral. (911279)

Although face-to-face work capability assessments remain temporarily suspended, we are conducting paper-based assessments where possible. We have also introduced telephone assessments and are trialling video assessments. We closely monitor processing times, and are prioritising new claims and changes of circumstances.

In its latest briefing, the Child Poverty Action Group has highlighted the plight of universal credit claimants whose work capability assessments have been delayed indefinitely because they require a face-to-face assessment. These claimants have gone months without hundreds of pounds of extra support, which they need. What assurances can the Minister provide these claimants about when they will be able to access this element of universal credit?

We are doing absolutely everything we can to ensure that claimants are accessing the support as quickly as possible, which is why we introduced at pace telephone assessments and now video assessments. Wherever possible, we are also conducting paper-based assessments. We continue to do all we can, and we will return to include face-to-face assessments as soon as it is safe to do so.

Benefit Recipients: Heating Costs

Winter fuel payments of between £100 and £300 are provided to all those of state pension age. In addition, certain benefit recipients can also receive payments from the warm home discount scheme and the cold weather payment scheme. As mentioned by the Secretary of State earlier, we have introduced a covid winter grant scheme, which has made £170 million available to English local authorities.

Obviously the weather has been very cold and families are spending much more time at home, so I welcome all that additional support to help with heating. Will the Minister clarify whether the money is paid automatically or families must actively apply for it?

Worcestershire received £1.6 million to provide support to vulnerable households and families. This can be used to support the costs of heating, utility bills and various other items, and is available at the local authority’s discretion. Clearly, my hon. Friend should contact her local councillors and the leader of the local authority for further details.

Pension Credit Uptake

What steps she is taking to increase pension credit uptake using new awareness raising campaigns. (911283)

In February last year, we launched a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of pension credit and have continued to make that case throughout the past year, notwithstanding the difficulties of the pandemic. The Department for Work and Pensions is currently considering an internal review of communication products to identify further improvements in our messaging, with many more aspects to be pursued this year.

The Minister will know that uptake of pension credit has remained below 65% since 2010. Although, as he said, there was an awareness campaign in 2020, with good intentions, it was only 12 weeks long and partly occurred during the pandemic. Does he agree with me, and others, including the charity Independent Age, that rather than being one-off events, such awareness campaigns should be part of a wider long-term strategy and take advantage of new innovations and channels?

We plan to use existing Government letters on the attendance allowance and state pension, and other letters that the Government send out, to help to promote pension credit. We are also discussing a joint working arrangement with the BBC. We continue to make all efforts to try to promote pension credit.

Topical Questions

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.