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Topical Questions

Volume 700: debated on Monday 13 September 2021

This summer, we launched our national disability strategy, setting out more than 100 practical actions and a long-term vision for reform that will make a real difference to disabled people’s everyday lives. Our strategy sets out the actions, ambition and accountability in helping disabled people to overcome the remaining hurdles. We will publish annual reports setting out progress and further actions, and the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work will chair cross-Government meetings to hold our ministerial disability champions to account for delivery across Departments.

Just as you praised a recent sporting achievement, Mr Speaker, I would like to pay tribute—fresh from the Paralympics GB homecoming yesterday and the celebration on the Terrace just now—to all our amazing Paralympians. I was able to cheer them on in Tokyo and talk to them about aspects of the national disability strategy and the daily barriers that they face. In addition to praising Emma’s remarkable success in winning her championship, I say well done to Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid, who won the gold medal at the Paralympics for wheelchair tennis doubles. They flew straight to the USA, and I am pleased to say that on the same night they also won the grand slam. Those are fantastic sporting achievements—well done to them.

I join the Secretary of State in those comments; it was a pleasure to bump into some of those athletes and Ms Balding this morning in Westminster Hall. It was lovely to see them here—well done.

The latest figures show that 50% of personal independence payment mandatory reconsiderations result in a change of award. This is causing huge stress and anxiety to vulnerable people in Bristol South and additional work for advice agencies. What sanctions have been applied to the private companies that are wrongly assessing the applicants?

I am conscious of what the hon. Lady has said. Over the past couple of years, we have tried to improve the decision-making stages along the way. One of those important elements involves mandatory reconsiderations, and how we take what we have learnt into the initial decision making, which is still done by DWP civil servants on the advice of assessors. We have further plans, as set out in our Green Paper, which we published before the summer recess, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will take a close interest in that progress.

T5. We will be heading into difficult times with the end of furlough, so I want to thank my right hon. Friend for all the work she has done in support of the Leigh and Bolton jobcentres to help them prepare for those difficult times. Will she continue to ensure that they have all the resources that they need in order to support my constituents? (903399)

My hon. Friend is right to praise his local jobcentres. One thing we have done as part of the plan for jobs is increase the number of work coaches, and indeed the number of jobcentres, thus demonstrating to people—particularly those who have been out of work already but are coming off furlough—that we are ready to support them so that they can get back into work as quickly as possible.

This morning, during her television appearance, the Secretary of State said that a person could make up for the Government’s £20 a week cut in universal credit by working just two extra hours a week. I am sure she is aware by now that she got that completely wrong: the taper rate would of course remove a proportion of those additional earnings, so the net earnings for those extra two hours would be far less than £20. May I therefore ask her if she now knows how many more hours a single parent working full time would have to work to make up for the money the Government is cutting?

Every single universal credit payment depends on the individual, so I cannot articulate that, but it is fair to say that a number of different levers appear when people work more hours, and that includes the lifting of the benefit cap. There are a number of ways in which people can earn more and keep more of their money when they are working more hours.

The figure is 10 extra hours a week, so the cut would force that person to work 50 hours a week in total to get what he or she is receiving now. That is why I have said that reducing the taper rate will be our absolute priority in our replacement for universal credit, but it is also why we oppose the cut. It is why six former Conservative Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions oppose the cut. It is why every Labour Mayor, and even Conservative Mayors such as Andy Street, have spoken out against it. It is why the Government’s own analysis, leaked last week, says that the cut will be “catastrophic”.

This is a Government who half the time do not know what they are doing, and the rest of the time they just do not care. Is not the truth that the only way to get the Government to see sense will be the House of Commons voting to defeat them this Wednesday?

I do not know the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s calculation and his suggestion, but what I do know is that the Labour Government did nothing to help people in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008, whereas we have injected more than an extra £7.5 billion. We recognised the need for the temporary uplift, particularly for those who were newly unemployed and coming on to benefit for the first time. That is why we made the temporary uplift similar to that of the minimum paid through statutory sick pay. We will continue to do what we have been doing: investing in our plan for jobs, helping people back into work and helping them to make progress in work.

T7. Despite the Government’s best efforts, many freelance and self-employed people in my constituency and throughout the country had a very tough time during the covid restrictions. Within the remit of her own departmental responsibilities, but also in her discussions in the Cabinet, what is my right hon. Friend doing to encourage people to take that extra risk in pursuing a future means of access to work by becoming self-employed? (903401)

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are currently working across Government to understand local labour market needs and opportunities, and to understand how best to support those who wish to enter self-employment and be self-supporting and, above all, self-starting. We have learned from the new enterprise allowance and we also understand the impacts of covid, and we are working on all that right now.

Many pensioners will be relying on pension credit to get by after the Tories’ brutal triple lock betrayal. Will the Secretary of State follow Scotland’s lead and commit herself to introducing a proper take-up strategy for reserved benefits, including pension credit, and will she consider the automation of payments to ensure that more people receive the support to which they are entitled?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that pension credit take-up has improved, not least through the actions of this Government. For example, we have seen the pension credit action day in June this year, the partnership that we have entered into with the BBC and Age UK, and the working group that we have. I continue to work with the BBC and I met the chief executive, Tim Davie, only last week.

T8. It is vital that disabled people are able to play an active role in public life, particularly those with visual impairments. Will my hon. Friend therefore update the House on what the Government are doing to support this? (903402)

We are committed to seeing more disabled people becoming elected representatives. In addition to political parties doing more, the national disability strategy sets out the Minister for the Constitution’s work to bring forward a new scheme in 2022 to support candidates and, importantly, those already elected to public office.

It was disappointing that the Government chose to sneak out their disability strategy over the summer recess, meaning that we had no opportunity to question the Minister on its failure to address barriers to employment for disabled people. Why are his Government not introducing mandatory reporting on the disability employment and pay gaps? Why does the strategy contain no proposals to work with trade unions? Most importantly, can he explain why no parliamentary time has been given over to the scrutiny of this strategy?

I am very much looking forward to going to the Work and Pensions Committee to discuss this very topic this coming Wednesday. It is disappointing that the hon. Member does not recognise that, despite the unprecedented challenges of covid, we once again saw an increase in disability employment over the past year. The figure now stands at 1.5 million since 2013, with the disability employment gap continuing to close. This Government are absolutely committed to their target of 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027.

Could the Secretary of State—or the Minister for Pensions, who is doing such great work in this area—explain what they are doing to ensure that when pensions are invested, the environmental, social and governance agenda is about incentivising high-quality sustainable products across the world, for instance in Africa, and not just becoming a box-ticking exercise here at home?

I will take my right hon. Friend’s compliment. The UK is the first country in the world to address the social elements of ESG. We have produced a call for evidence, “Consideration of social risks and opportunities by occupational pension schemes”, and I would encourage everyone to get involved with that. That will genuinely transform the supply chain, access to finance and investment in all parts of the world, but particularly in respect of Africa.

T2. When a domestic abuse survivor decides to leave an abuser, having a safe, affordable place to escape to is key. Otherwise, they face the risk of homelessness. The benefits system should be there to protect women and children who need to escape, but unfortunately it can often act as a barrier—for example, when a survivor leaves a working household that is not subject to the benefit cap and then becomes a lone parent in an out-of-work household that is subject to the cap. Will the Secretary of State commit today to exempting domestic abuse survivors from the benefit cap so that they can have the best possible chance of accessing a safe and affordable home? (903396)

I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. The benefit cap is there to provide a strong work incentive, to be fair for those people who are hard-working and tax-paying, and to encourage people to move into work where possible. I understand the point she makes regarding the impact of a partner and their work history in this situation, and I am happy to discuss that with her. I have been talking to other Members on this issue. Exemptions will of course apply to the most vulnerable claimants, and we take this area very seriously.

We have heard a lot from those on the Treasury Bench about how much money will be spent on the plan for jobs and the kickstart programme. Can the Secretary of State set out how she will measure success in this programme, and will she commit to coming to the House regularly to update us on progress?

I am absolutely delighted about the impact of the kickstart programme. I went to an event at the Emirates this week where there were 1,400 people coming to find jobs that simply were not there before the start of the pandemic. It is absolutely right that we focus on the outcomes for young people. We have more than 288,000 roles out there for young people, and there are 69,000 people in those roles. That is success. There are traineeships and apprenticeships, and work through youth hubs, and we will find a path for them.

T3. More than 7,000 people in Salford are on the housing waiting list, which is forcing many to rent privately, but the under-35 rule means that younger vulnerable constituents claiming universal credit receive only enough to cover a single room in a shared house, with people they do not know. One of my constituents fled domestic abuse and they do not meet the narrow criteria for exemption until 2023. Will the Secretary of State commit today to urgently expand exemptions from the shared accommodation rate? (903397)

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. As she knows, we have brought forward two of the exemptions to the shared accommodation rate. We have committed to the third, and if I can accelerate it, of course I will do so.

I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her Department for their success in doubling the number of work coaches to 27,000 in just a few short months. Does she agree that thanks to that boost more jobseekers will get the personalised support they need?

My hon. Friend is so right; it has been a successful recruitment programme. We wanted to reintroduce the face-to-face interventions because we know that that direct intervention through our work coaches is the best way to help people identify roles that they are suitable for and consider the skills involved—they might want to change career. That is how we can guide them on our various jobs programmes and make sure they can start earning again.

T6. Some 11,000 people in my constituency are on UC, and it may come as news to Ministers but nearly 4,000 of those people are in work. More than 2,000 good jobs in Luton North are in aviation and they are under threat as furlough ends. When we look at this job cuts double whammy, it is hard not to conclude that the Conservatives are leaving Luton to fight this crisis on our own. Will the Minister tell the Chancellor to extend the furlough for aviation and to reverse this cut in UC? (903400)

The hon. Lady is wrong to suggest that our Government have not supported the people of Luton throughout this difficult time. The furlough scheme was unique; it was not introduced when many hundreds of thousands of people were made redundant after Labour’s financial crisis. We stepped in, putting more than £400 billion into Government spending overall to support the country during this time. I am conscious of that fact that some people will be concerned about the impact on aviation travel, which is why we have invested in various job schemes, including encouraging people to switch sectors, recognising that the skills they have are transferable.

Will the Secretary of State tell us what work is being undertaken to prevent future maladministration in the communication of major policy changes? I am thinking about not only 1950s-born women, but, as we heard at the Select Committee last week, the many claimants who are still to be told of the imminent cut to UC. Is the ombudsman going to be kept very busy because of the structural failings of this Department?

Communications have already been issued to every UC claimant, through the journal messages, and further communications are continuing to go out.

In my constituency, some 5,000 families with children—possibly more than 10,000 children—are dependent on UC. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that when the benefit is reduced by that £20 a week not one of those children will suffer as a result? Can she look me in the eye and promise that that is the case?

Every family has a different situation and I encourage any of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who are concerned to approach their jobcentre. We are very conscious that where both parents are actively working, rather than one parent being economically inactive, that will bring more revenue into the household budget. That is one thing we need to do to try to make sure that as many people are economically active as possible, for not only their own prosperity, but the prosperity of the nation.

Many constituents have emailed me to outline their concern that the planned removal of the £20 uplift will have a significant impact on their family and children. How does the Department expect families to survive Tory cuts to UC coupled with a national insurance hike?

The national insurance levy increase is there to tackle a long-standing issue and will be spread between businesses and employees. In fact, the top 15% of earners will pay roughly half the future levy revenues. We are conscious that the universal credit uplift was temporary and we will be doing what we can to help more people not only to get back into work but to progress in work.

My local economy is already struggling, with £12.6 million to be taken out by the universal credit cut. The Secretary of State said that no economic impact assessment had been carried out so far, but will she look again and consider doing one? The cuts are going to affect the most disadvantaged parts of our country, and that does not fit with the Government’s so-called levelling-up agenda.

Just today, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have announced £650 billion of investment in infrastructure over the next decade. The right hon. Lady will be aware of the industries in her constituency, where there has been huge support from the Government to bring green jobs to her part of the world, and I am conscious of the other benefits that she and colleagues may see in respect of freeports. All that is putting into effect our aim: we want to help people not only to get back into work but to progress in work, with higher-skilled jobs that bring higher pay.

This morning, the Secretary of State claimed to know exactly how many extra hours a universal credit claimant would have to work to make up the £20 by which the benefit is to be cut; this afternoon, she admitted to the House that she had no idea of the answer to that self-same question. That must mean that her comment to the BBC this morning was at best wildly misleading and recklessly irresponsible. Will she apologise for that inadvertent but serious error?

I was not misleading the House in any way in any of my statements made so far, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw.

Why are lifetime individual savings accounts counted as capital in the calculation of universal credit entitlement? They are designed not to be touched until the saver reaches 60 or is buying a house, so why are people like my constituent being hit by penalty charges because the DWP is forcing them to withdraw from a lifetime ISA early?

Since universal credit was introduced, there has always been a capital recognition, recognising when people have resources that they can draw on to support themselves rather than drawing on the resources of other taxpayers. That is the principle of why capital is included when people want support for their other living expenses.