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Topical Questions

Volume 698: debated on Monday 28 June 2021

Mr Speaker, I was really looking forward to answering Question 35, from the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), but that is okay.

Well, there we are. By the way, Christine, the answer is none.

On the topical statement, on the basis of a successful G7, at which the employers taskforce fed into the discussions about work, I was able to participate in the G20 last week in Italy, as well as work on the OECD in terms of some of the work we want to do to make sure that, as a world, when we build back better we share and collaborate, because we want to make sure that we build back fairer and greener. I am particularly excited about the opportunities to help people with health conditions and disability to re-enter the world of work.

Increasingly sophisticated digital skills are ever more crucial for those seeking work. With that in mind, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to help all universal credit claimants to improve and strengthen their digital skills as they seek work?

I am conscious that digital inclusion is a key part of the skills issue. We are working collaboratively with the DFE, particularly on digital boot camps, and we have even changed the rules of aspects of universal credit to make sure that people can fully participate in extended courses. We will continue to use and signpost people to whatever resources are available.

The Public and Commercial Services union has been clear that the rush back to face-to-face assessments poses a serious risk to vulnerable claimants and staff alike. Given those concerns, I was quite surprised to learn that the Secretary of State has not personally met the PCS union in her nearly two years in office. Will she do better than just commend DWP staff for their tireless work throughout the pandemic and actually meet the union that represents those staff to listen to their serious concerns about safety?

DWP staff are real staff at the very frontline. We undertake risk assessments for every single jobcentre. Dealing with trade unions is an operational matter that is ably done by senior officials in my Department. I am confident and we know that our workers are keen to get back into the office and to make sure that they encourage people there. Our mission is to try to help people to get back into work and we know that face-to-face interventions are the most successful way to make that happen.

Young jobseekers who were just starting to build their CVs when the pandemic hit will have different needs in respect of entering the world of work from those who may have years of experience to draw on. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what dedicated support is available specifically to help young people to take those first crucial steps into the working world? (901896)

Probably the most obvious element is the £2 billion of funding for the kickstart scheme. Let me give a recent example of where I have seen kickstart work well: a young man in south-west Scotland started off an apprenticeship and was very quickly set aside, and then his confidence was rebuilt by a work coach and he managed to get into a kickstart placement and is now thriving. It is important that our 27,000 work coaches in well over 700 jobcentres already are making sure that young people are at the forefront in respect of the help we are seeking to provide.

One of Britain’s best-known companies, P&O, has failed to pay £140 million that it owes to the merchant navy pension fund. This debt could cause serious problems for the fund, which has 24,000 members who work in a wide range of firms far beyond P&O. Despite P&O owing this enormous sum, the Government have awarded its parent company two lucrative freeport contracts. Will the Minister explain how on earth the Government allowed this to happen? We are getting used to sleaze and cronyism; is this an example of sleaze and cronyism, or is it sheer, unadulterated incompetence?

The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Labour party. He will recall that it was the Labour party that set up the Pensions Regulator with operational independence to deal with these matters. He may have forgotten the basis on which the Pensions Regulator was set up, but I have not. It is a matter between the Pensions Regulator and the individual company, but I am sure that he will take that up when he meets the Pensions Regulator.

This is in no way a criticism of the very hard-working DWP staff in the north of Scotland, but, prior to covid, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) has pointed out, one-time face-to-face meetings did work. However, since covid, we have had virtual meetings, often followed by another virtual meeting and yet another virtual meeting, or even a face-to face, which has led to huge delays, and, if that is followed by an appeal, this is really unacceptable. Will the Secretary of State look at two things: first, will she ensure that we go back to timely face-to-face meetings; and, secondly, if there is a geographic element to this, because I represent such a huge constituency, could that be looked into as well with a view to sorting it out? (901897)

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the rural elements. That is taken into account in the prioritisation of people we may wish to see in face-to-face interventions. We treat every claimant as an individual in trying to help them at this stage, and none more so than in his part of Scotland.

As the furlough programme comes to an end, a great many people will be concerned about their prospects. Does my hon. Friend share my appreciation of the work of the Bolton and Leigh jobcentres and all the work that they have done to make sure that they are fully prepared to support people during this difficult time? Will she also welcome the fact that many employers locally are reporting that they have jobs for people to go to? (901900)

I hugely appreciate the endeavours of all our work coaches, especially and including those in Bolton and Leigh JCPs. The Office for National Statistics says that our new monthly experimental vacancy data suggest that we are almost back to the pre-pandemic level in terms of vacancies; it was over 800,000 in May. Through our Jobcentre Plus provision, we have a wide variety of support available to help employers to fill those vacancies.

Always a pleasure, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister exempt the £500 Scottish Government covid-19 payment to health and social care employees resident in Scotland from the Department’s calculation for the payment of universal credit? (901899)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I believe that I have written to him—if I have not written to him, I know that I have written to a number of his colleagues on this matter. We do owe a huge debt of gratitude to health and social care workers for the work that they have done over the course of the pandemic. This is not as simple as he suggests. We follow exactly the same treatment of moneys coming into universal credit as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs does and, as a result, that is very difficult to do, which is why we will not be doing it.

The impact of poverty is individual, but just by way of statistics, 40,000 families in the Rochdale borough are dependent on universal credit or legacy benefit; 30% of our children are growing up in poverty; yet the Government’s response is to take out, through universal credit, planned cuts of £23 million every year from the borough. The Secretary of State talked about building back fairer. Let me ask her: is that fair? (901901)

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his knighthood; it is well-deserved given his political and public service.

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have made on this matter. As the House will well know, we are absolutely committed not only to making sure that this is a temporary measure, but to helping people get back into work. We believe that that continues to be the best way, especially as there are vacancies across the country, and we will strain every sinew to help make that happen.

Last week was Armed Forces Week. One of the great things about a career in the armed forces is the skills and qualifications that our men and women receive. What work is the Department doing with the Ministry of Defence to support our personnel as they transition back into civilian life to make sure that those skills and qualifications are fully utilised? (901905)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The vast majority of veterans make a successful transition to life outside the armed forces, with around 85% securing employment easily. The DWP provides support to veterans in a number of different ways, including through our voluntary entry to the work and health programme and through our network of hard-working armed forces champions up and down the country. That work complements the resettlement support provided by the Ministry of Defence, sponsored by Career Transition Partnership.

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting the Little Village baby bank in Roehampton in my constituency, whose staff do fantastic work helping struggling families. I asked them what would make the most difference for those families, and they said that the two-child benefit cap causes the most damage. Is it not time that the Minister looked again at that benefit cap and scrapped it? (901902)

I am afraid I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Lady. I appreciate the question, but the two-child limit is a question of fairness and of putting those who are in receipt of benefits in the same position—facing the same life choices—as those who are not in receipt of benefits.

Three quarters of children living in poverty have at least one adult working in their household. What is the Minister doing to make work pay, so that children can have a decent standard of living? (901903)

I think I have covered this one. As our economy improves, we will increasingly focus our support and work on in-work progression to improve the opportunities for those who are in low-paid work and to support them towards financial independence. The in-work progression commission will report shortly on the barriers to progression for those in persistent low pay. Our plan for jobs—those extra 13,500 work coaches, kickstart, restart, job entry targeted support and the sector-based work academy programme—will make a difference, and of course we have the strategy coming out of the in-work progression commission.

Some 2.1 million pensioners now live in poverty. Figures from Independent Age show that ensuring the uptake of pension credit could help to address that. My older constituents are losing out on up to £3.5 million in pension credit that is going unclaimed. Will the Secretary of State now produce a dedicated action plan to increase the uptake of pension credit? (901910)

As the hon. Lady should be aware, on 16 June we had a pension credit awareness day, working with Age UK, Independent Age, various other charitable organisations and the BBC to get greater uptake of pension credit, and I am pleased to say that pension credit numbers are improving. There is more to do, but we are working with stakeholders to ensure that that does happen.

On Friday, I was pleased to meet Carole Dawe, who is the manager of the Maesteg JCP office in my constituency. What came across was that this deeply dedicated team of people have been working right through the pandemic as one of the few front-of-house services that is still open, no matter what is put in front of them. Among the real concerns that were put to me was that they are doing an awful lot of bereavement support and that clients are arriving with significant mental health problems. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give me that, as we begin to open up, more support, training and, where needed, staff will be provided to ensure that our constituents get the very best support from what is becoming a lot more than just a simple jobcentre? (901911)

The hon. Gentleman is right to praise the staff at Maesteg jobcentre, and I join him in that. This is where the “Plus” is part of Jobcentre Plus. We are conscious that people may need to have many skills, and we continue to try to upskill our work coaches right across the country to make sure they do. It is fair to say that we need to make sure that our work coaches are trained to signpost people to the right services in their area. Many go above and beyond what would normally be expected, and I commend them for doing so.

I thank the Department and particularly the Harlow jobcentre for the work they have done in supporting vulnerable families during the pandemic. I welcome the kickstart scheme, which will provide a real incentive for employers to employ young people, but will my right hon. Friend work with the Treasury to reform the apprenticeship levy so that big companies can use more of the levy if they employ disadvantaged young apprentices?

My right hon. Friend is right to praise the staff at Harlow jobcentre, and I agree that they do an excellent job. In terms of what could be done with reform of the apprenticeship levy, that is one of the factors we should be considering in ensuring that some of the most disadvantaged young people get that extra foot on the ladder. We are trying to do that in certain ways through kickstart and then to provide elements of a pathway for those young people to make sure they have a longer lasting job, whether they go into an apprenticeship or directly into permanent employment.

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

Sitting suspended.