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Topical Questions

Volume 690: debated on Monday 8 March 2021

The Minister for Pensions updated the House last week through a written ministerial statement on category pensions and the comprehensive correction exercise that we are undertaking. I am concerned by some of the ongoing accusations and assertions being made about how we are addressing the issue. I am very grateful to Sir Steven Webb for bringing his concerns to our attention last year, but it will not be lost on the House that he was Minister for Pensions from 2010 to 2015—indeed, he was a shadow Minister beforehand—when the issue was neither noticed nor tackled, including when the comprehensive reform of the pension system was under way.

I recognise that Ministers should expect the administration of pensions, however complex, to be undertaken accurately. I commend the Minister for Pensions, who is putting his shoulder to the wheel to put right this historical error. The House should be conscious that, when we became aware of the problem, we undertook a comprehensive investigation into its extent, which showed that the issue dated back many years and at a larger scale. We are now undertaking detailed, thorough processes for individual assessments that will take some time, but we will contact people whose payments should have been updated and they will receive any arrears.

As covid-19 restrictions are hopefully relaxed over the coming months, will my right hon. Friend support the establishment of a bricks-and-mortar youth hub in Bury, to offer invaluable support to all young people in my local area and build on the current virtual provision?

Indeed, I will. I commend my hon. Friend for his advocacy for young people and making sure that they get into a growth sector.

The economic forecasts that accompanied last week’s Budget painted a challenging picture for the Department for Work and Pensions over the next few years. Forecasts are not always correct but, if those are, we face a period of low growth and high unemployment. Based on what the Chancellor said about unemployment peaking at 6.5%, what would be the shortfall between the total number of young people out of work for more than six months and the maximum number of places available on the kickstart scheme?

I do not have that assessment to hand. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Office for Budget Responsibility significantly reduced its forecast in respect of the impact on unemployment, in recognition of the excellent provisions already made by the Government in the past few months and the ongoing measures set out in the Budget. We made a commitment to aim for a quarter of a million kickstart jobs to be in place by the end of this calendar year; we are well on track to doing that. We should recognise that kickstart is designed for those people who are furthest from the labour market. We will continue to use our excellent jobs army of work coaches, of whom we will have nearly 13,500 extra by the end this month, to help young people to get into work.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her reply. I appreciate that that might not be information that she has to hand. Perhaps she could write to me with the specific figure because matching the scale of the challenge is surely what we all want to see.

In the Budget, the Government also chose to align the end of furlough, the end of the self-employment support scheme and the end of the universal credit uplift, so they all now come to an end on 1 October. She knows that we believe that the uplift should stay in place until we can replace universal credit with a better, fairer system, which, by the way, would be one where people are not worse off if they move on to it from the legacy system. Given that we all expect the end of furlough to at least have some impact on unemployment, would it not have made sense even to this Government to keep the uplift in place to at least help absorb the end of the furlough scheme? As it stands, just when people will again really need it, out-of-work support will be reduced to the lowest level in 30 years.

The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question about why these have all been taken in parallel. I think that it is to give certainty and direction to the country and to employers, particularly when it comes to the operation of the furlough scheme. As I have said before, this is really the time for those employers to get their workers ready again to go back into work, ideally sooner than before the end of September. Thinking about the temporary £20 uplift that was applied to universal credit, I think it is also fair to say that that is not the only way that we have supported people on benefits in the last year. There are also things such as the increase in the local housing allowance rate, which is on a permanent setting in cash terms. Those are the sort of other measures that we have taken, including to help some people on low incomes with the cost of living.

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps she is taking to improve the Child Maintenance Service and, in particular, to ensure that children of separated parents get all the money to which they are entitled? (913046)

My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the Child Maintenance Service in what we are trying to do to make sure that children have income coming ideally from both parents during their upbringing and to give them support. My noble Friend Baroness Stedman-Scot is actively working on ways to potentially improve aspects of the running of the Child Maintenance Service, which I am sure is something that the whole House will want her to continue to do.

Due to continued British Government inaction, more than 126,000 UK pensioners living in Canada have seen their state pension fall in real value year on year, with average payments as low as £46 a week. In November, the Government of Canada wrote to the British Government offering a reciprocal social security agreement. Has the UK responded to that letter and, if not, what message does the Secretary of State think it sends from global Britain of its attitude to UK pensioners who live in poverty overseas?

I have not yet responded to that letter—I understand that officials will be responding to the embassy —partly because, and some of the aspects of this have been raised, I wanted to explore some of what our policies—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is trying to intervene and I am trying to give him an answer. [Interruption.] I think I have probably said enough as he does not want to hear the answer.

It is wonderful to hear from the Secretary of State about the progress on the kickstart scheme. Does she know that one of the sole traders in West Worcestershire, who is keen to take on a kickstarter, discovered that they needed a company number to do that? Also, with farmers in my constituency saying that they are lacking labour, has she thought about setting up a seasonal agricultural work kickstart scheme? (913048)

We welcome the involvement of all employers of all sizes in all sectors in the kickstart scheme. We have made it even easier to bring in small employers and sole traders by developing an important kickstart gateway-plus model to accommodate their specific needs. They can apply through an approved gateway-plus organisation that can provide a suitable pay-as-you-earn scheme process for young people on placements with them. With regard to working on agriculture, I am engaged with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers on this and we are focused on supporting all sectors that need labour. There is a covid economy and growing jobs in some sectors and we are keen to support them.

It has been 19 months since the Department for Work and Pensions announced the review into the special rules for terminal illness and, in that time, an estimated 6,000 people have died waiting for a decision on benefits claims. Can the Minister explain why there has been such a delay, assure us that every possibility is being pursued to rectify this and reassure those who are still waiting? (913045)

I thank the hon. Member for this question. While there were delays to the review because of covid, we are committed to the three themes that have come out of the review: raising awareness, improving consistency and changing the six-month rule. I thank all the health and disability organisations and charities that have helped to support that review. I am committed to going further to explore extending the principle of the severe conditions criteria to remove unnecessary assessments as well as changing the six-month rule.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that unmarried cohabiting couples should be able to qualify for bereavement support payment if one of them dies. Currently about 200,000 families with children lose out on payments worth almost £10,000 each year. Can my hon. Friend let me know: when do the Government plan to implement their commitment to the 2018 Supreme Court ruling and ensure that grieving children and their surviving parents receive bereavement support payments no matter whether their parents are married or not? (913049)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We understand how vital this support is to families who have suffered the loss of a loved one. We intend to take forward a remedial order to remove the incompatibilities from the legislation governing widowed parents allowance and bereavement support payment by extending those benefits to unmarried cohabiting couples with children. The order will be laid before the House in due course.

The Minister for Disabled People will know that many disabled people’s organisations are extremely unhappy about the national disability strategy consultation, which closed last month. They were quoted as being “shocked and dismayed” and I know the Bristol Disability Equality Forum feels the same. What conversations has he had with the Disability Unit in the Cabinet Office to try to rectify this and ensure that disabled people do not feel insulted and excluded but are properly engaged in this process? (913047)

I thank the over 15,000 individuals and organisations who have already responded to the national strategy pre-consultation. However, this is only part of our extensive stakeholder engagement ahead of the forthcoming national strategy for disabled people. I have also written to all MPs of all parties to say that I am keen for them to host events either with me or with senior officials, depending on parliamentary business, to get more real lived experience, whether from individual disabled people, organisations or charities. I would be very happy if the hon. Member would agree to do one of those on behalf of her constituency.

I am sure the Minister will join me in paying tribute to staff at Warrington jobcentre, who are doing excellent work to help people to find a job. Does she agree that, by making it easier and cheaper to do business, a new freeport here in the north-west will generate good-quality jobs for local people? Will she work with me to ensure that anyone looking for work in Warrington South is quick to seize these opportunities? (913051)

My hon. Friend is right to praise the work coaches at his Jobcentre Plus, who are exactly the people who will help prepare people to get those opportunities as and when they arise. I was particularly pleased with the initiative of freeports, recognising not only the one that will help people in his constituency but the one—freeport east—that will benefit people in mine.

As in the constituencies of many Members of the House, there are constituents in Glasgow South West who are potential victims of furlough fraud. There are obviously people who will now have to claim universal credit in order to get money, so can Ministers assure the House that the cases of those who are caught up in this predicament will be dealt with sympathetically? (913050)

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Peter Duffy, a British 94-year-old who has lived in Canada since 1980 and who also served this country as a world war two pilot. Peter’s British pals who live just 500 metres away over the border in the US get the full state pension, but Peter only gets £46.90 a week living in Canada. Can my right hon. Friend, on this day, Commonwealth Day, tell Peter— and me, because I want to hear the answer —when Her Majesty’s Government intend to respond to the Canadian Government’s request for a reciprocal social security agreement? (913052)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. If the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) had not tried to intervene on me, perhaps I could have given the fuller answer that I intend to give now.

It is my intention that the Department will respond to the Canadian embassy on this matter. My hon. Friend will know that UK state pensions are payable worldwide and there is often a reciprocal arrangement in place where that is a legal requirement. For the last 70 years, it has not been the policy to initiate new agreements. However, I understand the points that he and other Members have made in their representations and we will continue to consider the matter carefully.

There is real and understandable anxiety from individuals in our former mining communities about a range of DWP issues including Dupuytren’s contracture, pneumoconiosis, mesothelioma and other prescribed diseases. Will the Minister meet me, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health, and others so that we can attempt to resolve those continuing, avoidable outstanding problems? (913055)

Yes, I would be happy to host such a meeting. I know that the hon. Member has a long-standing track record of raising very important issues in this area.

As unemploy-ment has been going up in recent months and is set to increase further, will my hon. Friend join me in commending the efforts of jobcentres around the country for all their work, especially the jobcentres in Leigh and Bolton that serve my constituents so well? (913053)

I echo my hon. Friend’s words and those of other Members who have praised the very hard work of all our DWP staff, especially of course in Bolton and Leigh. They include an additional new 41 work coaches recruited for jobcentres that serve my hon. Friend’s constituency. Thanks to their efforts, the kickstart scheme has so far seen the development of more than 300 roles across more than 50 employers in the Bolton and Prestwich area.

A number of constituents have contacted me regarding issues with the Child Maintenance Service, which we have raised with the appropriate officials, but there are long delays, which cause much distress to families in Stockton South. Will my right hon. Friend please address this with officials in her Department so that we can get much-needed answers and solutions? (913054)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issues that constituents face. I encourage him to engage directly with my noble Friend Baroness Stedman-Scott, who runs surgeries for MPs. As I said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), I encourage my hon. Friend to recognise that we are looking into this issue and that we will continue to try to make progress to ensure that children get the money to which they are entitled.

I support the Government’s policy of levelling up, but I think it is important that when the Government allocate money, it goes to those communities that have the highest level of unemployment and the highest level of children living in poverty or in need of free school meals. It is an age-old policy, namely: from each according to her ability, to each according to her need. Would not anything else be utterly corrupt? (913062)

The hon. Gentleman used the word “her”. I do not know if he is trying to suggest that I am corrupt in any way. That is not something that I would normally associate with him. However, just to be clear, I am very pleased to be working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on what we are doing about the initial element of the community fund, following into the UK shared prosperity fund. In that, the DWP will be particularly involved in making assessments for programmes that are targeted at helping those who are furthest from the labour market and not necessarily on benefits today. We want to try to ensure that as many people as possible get the opportunity to work and to take that follow-up to help UK plc’s productivity.

I just want to reassure the Secretary of State that that was never the intention of the question.

Too many of my constituents on assessed benefits —ESA and personal independence payment—find that the reports from their assessments bear no relation to what was discussed in the interview. What measures will Ministers put in place to ensure that accuracy and honesty are carried through in those assessments so that we do not see huge numbers of those decisions overturned on appeal, which is happening at the moment? (913063)

Although the vast majority of people who access their benefits get the outcome they were hoping for, we recognise the need for continuous improvements, which we make working hand in hand with health and disability charities, organisation users and frontline staff. In the forthcoming health and disability Green Paper, we will look at the specific themes of evidence, advocacy, assessment and the appeals system to ensure we continue to deliver those improvements.

I am suspending the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.