House of Commons
Monday 13 September 2021
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Before we come to today’s business, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in marking Emma Raducanu’s outstanding victory at the US Open. In becoming the first British woman to win a singles grand slam championship since 1977, Emma has made the whole nation proud, and I know Members will join me in sending her our congratulations and best wishes.
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Support for Vulnerable Children
Ministers are meeting this week to discuss the success of the holiday activity fund, and good progress has been made on the digitalisation of Healthy Start vouchers. We will continue the ministerial meetings on developing support for families and family hubs.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her remarkable work on universal credit during the pandemic. With the forthcoming changes to UC, will my right hon. Friend continue to target financial support on families who need it most, and will she work with the Department for Education to use existing funds from the sugar levy to expand breakfast clubs for disadvantaged children? We know that breakfast provision significantly increases educational attainment. Children with free breakfast provision achieved an additional two months’ progress in educational attainment.
I am conscious, especially with my right hon. Friend’s leadership of the Select Committee on Education, of how passionately he feels about this particular area. My Department is supporting the Department for Education’s family hubs work, which includes investing up to £24 million to continue our national school breakfast programme over the next two years, and that includes the recently announced additional £20 million investment from the Treasury’s shared outcomes fund.
Kickstart provides exciting opportunities for young people most at risk of long-term unemployment and with the greatest barriers to progress. Young people are commencing roles daily and thousands are starting each week. New Department for Work and Pensions data released to Parliament today confirms that as of 8 September, we have reached more than 69,000 starts, pleasingly, with more than 188,000 roles remaining for work coaches to refer young people to.
While kickstart has been well received by many, there have been frustrations for some. My constituent, Francesca Harding, who runs Butterwick Kennels in Sedgefield, has been particularly disappointed by the performance of Adecco as a gateway provider and the working relationship with Jobcentre Plus. The rules around advertising positions, citing potential age discrimination and all of that, have frustrated the process of getting young people in. It concerns me whether that is a local misunderstanding or whether we need to look at the rules to get even more young people engaged in these schemes.
DWP has worked closely with Adecco Working Ventures to help support young people via kickstart. As a gateway-plus, it plays an important role in allowing sole traders and other small employers to access the scheme. Employers in gateways can promote involvement, including advertising any approved roles, once they have a grant agreement in place. However, referrals of young people to kickstart jobs must be made by work coaches to ensure that candidates are eligible and suitable, but I am happy to look at the case.
My constituent Deb Barrow runs a recruitment agency, and she focuses on employing local young people. Unfortunately, the system of kickstart has let her and the local young people of Gower down. It takes, from the point that she gets the job given to her, nearly four to five months for that person to be recruited. That job has by then gone.
I am sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s challenges in Gower. We have got 69,000 young people into work, and it is not as simple as getting any young person into any job. We have to work with local people to get the right roles and the right opportunities, so that we get the right outcomes, and I am delighted that her local employer is taking part.
On Friday, in the youth hub in Darwen and Blackburn, we launched the first kickstart programme in that sort of venue. We look forward to sharing our experience with the Department, because as you know, Mr Speaker, where Lancashire leads, many others will follow.
I am delighted about that additional youth hub. We have around 150 youth hubs open. Most of them are now physical, with a few working virtually. The hub will really make the difference in that community, and I was delighted to join the opening. It will make that change locally for young people.
Universal Credit: Removal of Uplift
As was announced by the Chancellor at the March Budget, the £20 temporary uplift will come to an end within the next month.
Time and again, the Government have promised investment into areas such as east Hull, but the Minister knows full well that this savage cut to universal credit will pull £35 million from our local economy and leave families worrying about putting food on the table to feed their kids. Is it not time that the Government matched their rhetoric with actions and cancelled the cut for decent, hard-working people?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, at the time of the Budget the uplift was always advocated to be temporary, recognising that the pandemic’s lockdown elements were not over. We did extend it for a further six months, as we did other covid-related support for people. I remind him that when we had Labour’s crisis in the late noughties, that Government did not make any changes to benefits. We are proud that we did so in that temporary time.
Last month, I wrote to the Prime Minister with three local food banks, three housing providers and my local citizens advice bureau to highlight the considerable damage that the removal of the £20 uplift would cause. Those organisations and many others in Wales and across the UK are at the forefront of supporting the most vulnerable people in our communities. Does the Secretary of State agree that those organisations are best placed to know the impact of cancelling the uplift? May I ask her to remove the proposal?
The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that we have been funding Citizens Advice to assist people in making potential claims for universal credit. To that end, we estimate that about half the people still on legacy benefits would be better off with universal credit and we want to encourage people to consider carefully how they go about that. However, we believe that people progressing in work, as well as getting back into work, is the best way to tackle poverty.
The circumstances of this cut are very different from those to which the Secretary of State alluded. In Bristol South, people are not happy about the cut and businesses, which will lose £11 million from the local economy, are not happy with it, either. The Secretary of State should not be happy with the situation. There is time for her to change her mind. Will she do so?
The hon. Lady may be aware that more than £400 billion of support has been given more broadly to the UK economy and to people. We are conscious that more than £7 billion was invested in the welfare system to help people during this difficult time. However, as the economy is recovering and employment is growing, we will do more with our work coaches—we have doubled their numbers since a year ago—to ensure that people can get back into work and progress in work.
The Secretary of State and indeed the whole Government should take credit for the amount of support they have provided to people on low incomes in the past year during the pandemic. Will she take a further look at the housing element of universal credit? In my constituency, rising rental costs and high house prices have made the private rental sector difficult for people on low incomes. Will she look at how the universal credit housing element operates in areas such as mine, just outside London, which are particularly affected by property and rental prices, and whether changes are needed?
I am conscious of my right hon. Friend’s concerns. When we made the uplifts just over a year ago, we put an extra £900 million a year into support for housing costs through the changes we made to the local housing allowance rate. He will know that rental areas go beyond constituency boundaries, but the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who is responsible for welfare delivery, will be happy to discuss what is happening in regard to geographic locations.
As much as politicians on both sides of this place obsess about the headline rate of universal credit, will the Secretary of State also look at whether universal credit is going as far as it can in meeting rising pressures on the cost of living? In particular, there is the interaction between the energy cap for those with general electricity bills and that for those on prepayment meters, for whom the cap works in a different fashion, which means that people who are often on the lowest incomes pay far more.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. The warm home discount is administered through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in conjunction with the energy companies, although the DWP does, in effect, facilitate the automatic claiming of that for a number of benefit claimants. I will share his concerns about the potential mismatch with prepayment customers with the relevant Minister, who I hope will respond to him directly.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that our economy is beginning to show signs of recovery, with unemployment down and record high job vacancies? In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, Steelite International, a global ceramics manufacturer, has a jobs fair for more than 100 vacancies. Does she agree that that is the way to help people on universal credit into work and get them out of poverty?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Today, the Government have announced the infrastructure programme, with a mixture of public and private sector investment of £650 billion over the next 10 years. We believe that will generate 425,000 jobs in the next four years, and these will be well-paid jobs. Between my Department and the Department for Education, we will be trying to make sure that as many people are as upskilled as possible to take advantage of the higher wages of the jobs being created.
Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicates that nearly four out of every five families with children are receiving universal credit or working tax credit, rising to 45% or more of families with children in the north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the west midlands. Can the Secretary of State share her Department’s assessment, which we heard about at the end of last week, of how these families are expected to manage the income shock of losing £1,000 a year due to the impending cut?
It may surprise the hon. Lady to know that more than half of recipients of universal credit are actually households without children. We are conscious that this support had a widespread impact when we had the impact of the pandemic. However, what the hon. Lady will know about is that in the last year, collectively across Government, we have injected several hundred million pounds specifically to help people with children with the difficulties of some of the financial challenges they have. However, now that the jobs market is well and truly open, we will be doing whatever we can to help people get into work, and get into better-paid work as well.
It is not clear from that answer whether the Secretary of State has actually undertaken any form of assessment of the income shock. However, it is not only about the impact on individuals’ and families’ incomes; it is also about the wider economic consequences. According to the Resolution Foundation, a quarter of all households in the north-east will lose £1,000 a year from the cut, which will strip millions of pounds from the economies of some of the poorest communities in the country. Has her Department carried out an assessment of what the economic impact will be of the cut coming into effect in just a few weeks’ time?
People were already struggling to get by after an eye-watering £37 billion of Tory cuts to social security between 2010 and 2019, and they now face the biggest overnight cut to the basic rate of social security since the foundation of the modern welfare state 70 years ago. Given that the Secretary of State is her Department’s voice around the Cabinet table, can she confirm with a simple yes or no whether she is and has been lobbying the Treasury to stop these cuts?
As the Chancellor set out in the Budget, when we had the discussion of what we are doing, it was about continuing to extend the support beyond the time of the lockdown that happened in step 4. I am conscious that we have increased the number of work coaches in jobcentres in Scotland to help people back into work, and into better-paid work as well.
The estimated cost for a year of the extension of universal credit is about £5 billion. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out, and we have updated the plan for jobs today, we want to invest in people to make sure that they can not only get into work, but get into better-paid work as well. That is why with a variety of levers, such as the lifetime skills guarantee, and all the work we are doing for people out of work at the moment, including the sector-based work academy programme, alongside some of our other programmes, we have a really good record of getting people into well-paid work, and that is where our focus has to be.
Single parents who are in work told the Work and Pensions Committee last week how hard they are going to find it to sustain the £87 a month fall in their income that this cut will deliver. One witness told us that he is going to have to skip meals to make sure that his children do not have to. Surely social security must be better than that.
I hope the right hon. Gentleman will direct that person to go and have a chat with the work coach. I do not know the status of that individual, exactly what paid employment they are in right now or their situation with childcare, but I remind him that 85% of the cost of childcare can be claimed by people on universal credit. One of the directions we want to encourage individuals to go in is to go and talk to their work coaches so that we can help them get on in life and be more prosperous.
Support for Older Jobseekers
The Department’s focus on 50 PLUS: Choices, alongside our plan for jobs, provides funding to ensure that more people of all ages get tailored support. That includes programmes such as the job finding support service, job entry targeted support and the restart scheme, to help them find work. That is in addition to the Department’s train and progress and sector-based work academy programmes, to help people gain confidence, skills and job-specific qualifications, and to progress into employment.
Bosworth and the east midlands have a fine tradition of automotive logistics. One of the biggest problems is that that is the area changing most rapidly in keeping up to date with skills, which puts pressures on employers to have those skills. What are the Government doing to ensure we are equipped to move into the green era and deal with the automotive nature of the logistics sector, as we go forward over the next 10 years?
A green recovery presents a significant opportunity for UK workers of all ages to benefit from increasing employment opportunities, including those clean growth sectors. The DWP is supporting people into green jobs as the sector grows, through work coach interventions that will ensure that jobseekers are able to develop skills to match the changing needs of the local labour market and their own aspirations.
I am pleased to share with my hon. Friend and the House the fact that in May, a littler earlier in the year, I launched a key partnership with Google offering free IT training for jobseekers. That opportunity gives 9,000 jobseekers the chance to obtain a Google career certificate, which is a level 3 qualification and recognised by the industry. As of 3 September, our jobcentres have referred more than 3,800 people to that life-changing employment scheme.
Disabled people face huge challenges when changing careers, partly due to the fact that they often wait for three months to be approved for access to work, even before they receive their first payment. Will the Minister meet me, the Hull-based charity Choices and Rights Disability Coalition, and Disability Rights UK to discuss how together we can look at improving access to work?
For years I have tried to point out that one reason for HGV driver shortages is that people cannot afford the cost of £3,000 to £4,000 to do the training and sit the tests. Is it time for the Government to consider some sort of grant scheme, so that people get their training paid for them, leading to a welfare saving in the long run? It is win-win, so when will the Government step up and do it?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the Department has been working on that challenge for some time. On 4 October a new sector-based work academy will commence on that in Truro, in the midlands a pilot scheme has been working directly with Eddie Stobart, and our flexible support fund helps people to go into that sector. Cross-Government work is going on, and we are key to that. We have the people who are keen to be part of this issue, and the programmes to match.
Universal Credit Uplift
Throughout the pandemic our jobcentres have remained open to support the most vulnerable claimants, as well as those who have been impacted. No assessment has been made of the temporary measure due to the pandemic. Our plan for jobs continues to ensure that people receive tailored Jobcentre Plus support to help them find the work they need and, crucially, to develop their skills.
I thank my hon. Friend for her response. I pay tribute to the local team in Barrow and South Lakes for their hard work in helping people into jobs, and giving them the skills and experiences they need to get into the job market. Indeed, I am looking forward to opening Barrow youth hub on 30 September. That said, many of my constituents are concerned about the changes to universal credit and the potential cliff edge. Will the Minister explain what mitigations are in place to protect those who have concerns about their future?
Youth hubs are crucial; we have heard about one in Darwen and one in Barrow. My hon. Friend will be aware that the DWP is focused on the multibillion-pound intervention that is our plan for jobs, which, crucially, will support people of all ages, with support for new skills and help to increase their hours, understand what their barriers are, and find that crucial new work. That includes youth hubs. My goal is to have 150 open by the end of the year, and the crucial new one in his constituency is part of that.
Universal Credit: Wales
In June 2021, there were 107,000 people on universal credit in employment in Wales.
I do worry about this cut to universal credit of £20 a week. In a constituency such as mine, that is taking £6.5 million out of the local economy. That is going to make it more difficult for local businesses to afford extra staff and more difficult for people to find jobs, so it is a completely counterproductive measure, leaving aside the cruelty of making families struggle on even less money. As I understand it, the Secretary of State said this morning to people who are going to lose the £20 a week, “Well, you just either need to get a better job or work more hours.” Can the Minister explain to us, and to the 2,543 people in the Rhondda who are in employment and on universal credit, how many extra hours at the national minimum living wage they would have to work to get that £20?
That of course would depend on their individual circumstances, but to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, the Government have always been clear that the £20 increase was a temporary measure to support households affected by the economic shock of covid-19. There have been significant positive developments in the public health situation since the uplift was introduced, with the success of the vaccine roll-out, restrictions being lifted and our economy opening up, and now there are more than 1 million live vacancies in our jobs market. I will take one issue with what the hon. Gentleman said: he referred to a cut. A cut would represent savings. There are no savings. What he is proposing is an extra £6 billion to £9 billion, which would need to be raised by taxes.
Pensioners Living in Poverty
Thank you, Mr Speaker—diolch. There are now 200,000 fewer pensioners in poverty compared with 2010. Rates of material deprivation among pensioners are at a record low, falling from 10% to 6% in the last 10 years. Pension credit also provides financial support for the most vulnerable pensioners and a passport to many other benefits.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Speaker. Older women in particular find themselves in relative poverty because 30% completely rely on the state pension for their income. That makes the recent findings by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman about maladministration by the Department and its failure to inform 1950s-born women about changes to their state pension allowance particularly galling. What is the Department’s response to the findings of the ombudsman and, more importantly, what will be done to rectify the situation that WASPI women in my constituency find themselves in?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have never spent as much as we do now on pensions. The triple lock has seen a £2,050-a-year increase in cash terms. The Government decided the changes 26 years ago, and that policy was continued by successive Governments, including during the 13 years of the Labour Government. In respect of all matters on an ongoing basis, we consider the PHSO, but clearly, it is a three-stage process and we are only at stage 1.
People across this country work hard and contribute all their lives; they are right to expect the state pension to be there for them when they retire. Given that the Government have failed to pay the state pension on time and have broken three manifesto promises so far, Ministers can surely accept that pensioners and the public cannot simply take them at their word. Ahead of our consideration of the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill next Monday, will the Government publish their evidence for breaking the link with earnings in this way?
I am not sure that I am going to take any lessons from the hon. Gentleman. Before 2010, when the coalition came into power, the state pension was under £100. The new state pension is now £179. We have raised it by £2,000 in the last 10 years. We have enhanced the state pension massively through the triple lock. We did not even need to do anything last year, but we raised the state pension by 2.5%, and we will be increasing it by the double lock if the Bill passes next week.
Recruitment, retention and career progression are key to levelling up, so the successful delivery of the Government’s plan for jobs is vital. Through both the national disability strategy and the health and disability Green Paper, we also explore levelling up opportunities for disabled people specifically.
The point is that the Minister’s Department is required to address poverty and to make work pay, but the minimum wage is simply too low. Otherwise, why is it that 2.3 million working families are on universal credit? Now there is a triple whammy coming to those poorly paid people: withdrawing the furlough, raising national insurance payments and cuts to universal credit. The underlying causes of poverty are greedy bosses and rapacious landlords, but does the Minister accept that the cuts they are now imposing will drive up already shameful levels of poverty? Will he say to his colleagues that it is time to cancel the cuts?
Tackling poverty is a key priority for this Government, as seen with the £650 billion infrastructure investment that will deliver 425,000 more jobs a year. While the temporary increase to universal credit is coming to an end, the national living wage and income tax threshold increases, worth over £4,000 to people in full-time work, will continue, as will the universal credit work allowance changes worth up to £630 and the local housing allowance worth £600. Our excellent work coaches, who have doubled in number over the last 12 months, will be doing everything in their power to support people to take advantage of the record job opportunities.
Universal Credit: Removal of Uplift
It is not possible to produce a robust estimate of the impact of removing the £20 uplift on poverty. That is particularly the case at the moment, given the uncertainty around the speed of the economic recovery and how it will be distributed across the population.
Cutting universal credit will cause misery for millions of people, including my constituent in Birkenhead, Jess, who says that the extra £20 a week means she no longer has to choose between a hot meal and a hot shower. On Wednesday, Unite the Union and Community members who, like Jess, rely on the uplift to stay afloat will be visiting Parliament. Will the Secretary of State commit to meet them, so she can hear for herself why the Government must cancel the cut?
The hon. Gentleman references cancelling the cut. As I said before, there is no cut because there is no financial saving. If this measure were to continue, the Treasury would need to find an extra £6 billion to £9 billion to fund the temporary uplift. It was always a temporary uplift to universal credit. As a result, the temporary uplift will continue as planned.
Disabled People: Employment Opportunities
We are committed to seeing 1 million more disabled people in work, supporting that through initiatives including the work and health programme, access to work, disability confident and increasing the number of disability employment advisers to over 1,000. We want to help more disabled people to prepare for, start, stay and succeed in work where it is right for them.
The Minister and the Secretary of State have a proud record of putting in place programmes that increase opportunities for everyone to access high-quality employment and training. Further to his earlier answer, can the Minister confirm what specific steps he is taking to ensure that the bespoke needs of people on the autistic spectrum are no barrier to accessing employment or training opportunities? Will he join me in thanking local organisations in Bury, such as the Met theatre which runs confidence-building sessions for children on the autistic spectrum, for the role they play in developing the skills that each child needs to thrive in the job market?
My hon. Friend highlights the absolute importance of supporting people with autism into work, highlighting the supported internships, traineeships, local supported employment pilots, intensive personalised employment support and disability apprenticeships, in addition to the broader options across the work and health programme and plan for jobs. We are currently consulting through the Department for Work and Pensions Green Paper on other ways to improve disability employment opportunities. Best practice, as seen in places such as the Met theatre, is exactly the sort of thing we want to learn lessons from.
Universal Credit: Removal of Uplift
There is a well-established working relationship between my Department and the Welsh Government, ensuring we work together on devolved and reserved areas effectively. However, universal credit is a policy reserved to the UK Government.
In Newport West, these cruel cuts to universal credit will hit about 9,000 families, including almost 6,000 children. That is unforgiveable and I will keep fighting these Tory cuts to universal credit. In a written parliamentary question to the Secretary of State, I asked whether she would meet me to address the impact of the cuts on the people of Newport West. The Minister replied to me but ignored my request to meet, so let us try again. Will the Minister please meet me to discuss the impact the cuts will have on the people of Newport West?
We have always been clear: the uplift for universal credit was a temporary measure responding to the extraordinary circumstances. Our focus now is rightly on our plan for jobs, with tailored programmes to build skills, move towards employment, increase hours, get back into work or climb the career ladder, because we know that work is the best route to a brighter future.
Removal of Universal Credit Uplift: Food Bank Usage
Food banks are independent charitable organisations and the Department for Work and Pensions does not have any role in their operation. There is no consistent and accurate measure of food bank usage at a constituency or, indeed, national level.
Since 2010, there has been an explosion in the number of people unable to put food on the table. Conservatives such as the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson) admit that taking £20 a week off universal credit current payments, to use the Minister’s vernacular, will result in another dramatic rise in food bank demand. The Trussell Trust predicts that 900,000 more people will need support. Will the Minister or the Secretary of State meet the all-party group on ending the need for food banks and organisations working on this issue to ensure that there is capacity to meet Government-driven demand?
Of course, I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, as I have always sought to do. I remind the House that there have been significant improvements in the public health situation, the vaccine roll-out is a huge success, our economy is opening up, restrictions are lifted, and we have a record number of vacancies in our labour market. Universal credit provides a safety net but it is not designed to trap people on welfare. Work is the best route out of poverty and to prosperity, but I am very happy to meet him to discuss this further.
Universal Credit: Adequacy
The Secretary of State is legally required to conduct an annual review of benefits and pension rates to determine whether they have retained their value in relation to the general level of prices and earnings. The uprating process for working-age benefits has traditionally relied on the September consumer prices index figure and, in April 2021, universal credit was increased by CPI of 0.5%.
If the UK Government plough ahead with their planned cut to universal credit, it will result in one in three families with children in Scotland losing over £1,000 overnight and plunge 20,000 children into poverty. Does the Minister understand why so many people in Scotland think that it is the uplift that should stay and the Government snatching away that financial lifeline that should go instead?
There is no objective way of deciding what an adequate level of benefit should be, as everyone has different requirements. Income-related benefit rates are not made up of separate amounts of specific items of expenditure, such as food or fuel charges. The Government have always been clear that this uplift was a temporary measure, and I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that we spend over £110 billion on benefits for working-age people.
I wonder whether the Ministers can tell us whether any of them actually listened to the evidence of the Work and Pensions Committee last week about hard-pressed families and the effect that universal credit was having on them. If they did, what would they say to their faces about taking £1,040 away from them?
What I would say is that I am proud that this Government stepped forward at the beginning of the pandemic to put in place the largest cash increase in our welfare safety net to support people through an unprecedented period of economic shock and financial disruption, but as our economy opens up, we have record numbers of vacancies in our labour market—we know that work is the best route out of poverty—and it is absolutely right that we tack our approach to support and empower people into work and to progress in work.
Children in Relative Poverty
National statistics on the number and percentage of children in low-income households are published annually in the “Households below average income” publication. In 2019-20, 19% of children living in households where at least one adult is in employment were in relative poverty before housing costs.
The Government are very keen to say that work is the route to escape from poverty. However, over 27% of children in my Blaydon constituency live in poverty and many of those are in families where at least one parent or more is in work. The £20 universal credit uplift removal will push working families deeper into poverty, so what will the Government do to tackle the crisis of in-work poverty?
We know—all evidence suggests—that full work dramatically reduces the risk of poverty. As our economy improves, we will increasingly focus on progression to improve opportunities for those in low-paid work and support them towards financial independence. But the hon. Lady is right, and I recognise that moving into work is not always enough to lift people out of poverty; that is why we have the independent in-work progression commission, which published its report over the summer on the barriers to progression for those on persistent low pay. It makes a number of recommendations for the Government that we will consider very carefully and respond to later in the year.
Support for Young Jobseekers
Through the enhanced Department for Work and Pensions youth offer, we are providing targeted interventions to help young people to gain new skills, build confidence and move into work. Our work coaches are working in partnership to deliver through our new youth hubs, helping young people to access opportunities, including kickstart roles, sector-based work academy programmes, traineeships and apprenticeships.
Jobcentre staff across the country are doing a fantastic job, not least in the Rochdale youth hub, which serves my Heywood and Middleton constituency, but as my hon. Friend will know, getting young people into work is a cross-Government effort. What steps are being taken to work with the Department for Education to ensure that young people have the skills necessary to take on these high-quality jobs?
We are absolutely working across Government; we also have our enhanced DWP youth offer, which is a programme of 13 weeks of intensive support to address key barriers and drive positive outcomes, including kickstart. I know that, as we speak, job offers are being made in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in his jobcentre. Crucially, we have also recruited 150 youth employability coaches who specialise in supporting young people with significant complex needs, to help them into work.
Pension Auto-enrolment: Crawley
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for Crawley. It is fantastic news that 35,000 people have been automatically enrolled into a workplace pension in the Crawley constituency as a whole. That is also thanks to the 1,600 employers who have supported them in their auto-enrolment duties.
Those are very impressive statistics that prove that this Government’s policy of auto-enrolment has been a great success. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to auto-enrolment pension providers such as B&CE—The People’s Pension—which is based in my Crawley constituency?
I was delighted to meet The People’s Pension with my hon. Friend a couple of years ago and see the fantastic work that it does. It has more than 5 million members and is one of the largest providers in this important market. I am sure that we will continue to work with it as we expand automatic enrolment, take it to the first £1 earned and lower the entitlement age as we bring forward the 2017 automatic enrolment changes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
HGV Driver Shortages
I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the actions that my Department and others have been taking to address the shortage in HGV drivers. This is, of course, a global issue, with our supply chains adjusting to the impact of the pandemic and working incredibly hard to make sure that consumers get whatever they need. We have been working with the industry for many months, unlocking testing capacity so that UK workers can join the driving sector.
My Department has already increased the number of vocational driving tests from 2,000 a week pre-pandemic to 3,000 a week—that is a 50% increase—and last Friday I announced to Parliament additional measures that will significantly increase the number of HGV driving tests, by up to 50,000 per year. First, we will eliminate the need for some car drivers who want to tow a trailer to take an additional test. Some 16 million drivers who took their test before 1997 already have that right, and we are going to allow everybody to enjoy the same privilege of the licence, allowing around 30,000 more HGV tests every single year.
Secondly, tests will be made more efficient by the removal of the reversing exercise element and, for vehicles with trailers, the uncoupling and recoupling exercise. That test will be carried out separately by a third party, so it will still be done.
Thirdly, we are making it quicker to get a licence to drive an articulated vehicle without first having to get a licence for a smaller vehicle. That will make around 20,000 more HGV tests available every year and mean that drivers can gain their licence and enter the industry more quickly, without the removal of any testing. I have instructed the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to prioritise the processing of licence applications, and we are supporting the industry to get UK workers into training.
This is not the only action that we have taken. Over recent months, we have made apprenticeships in the sector much more generous; offered incentive payments to employers to take on apprenticeships in the sector; worked with Jobcentre Plus with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to direct more people towards this brilliant career; and provided funding of £1 million for the Roads to Logistics scheme, encouraging ex-military leavers, ex-offenders and the long-term unemployed to move into jobs in this sector. This is not just a transport problem or effort, but ultimately many of the solutions will come from standing challenges, which the industry itself will want to take on.
This Government welcome the prospect of better remunerated drivers, with better conditions and a more diverse HGV workforce.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
We have heard the words, but they offer far too little far too late. We have all seen constant examples of businesses impacted by supply change disruption from McDonald’s to Nando’s and Wetherspoons. We have all seen supermarket shelves empty, and now the delivery of vital medical supplies is being affected. We have already seen the number of people wanting to do their HGV driving test literally fall off a cliff, with only 9,000 being completed in 2019. That was before Brexit and it was well before covid. Industry has been warning of this crisis for years, but the Secretary of State has been asleep at the wheel. Just months ago, one of his own Ministers accused the road haulage industry of crying wolf over shortages despite the evidence that the crisis was getting bigger and bigger and that it was grinding our economy to a halt.
Last week, I challenged the Transport Secretary to lay out his plan. Not only did it fall short, but it contained some worrying news. One of the measures would see the reversing element of the assessment removed completely, despite the Health and Safety Executive reporting that 25% of all deaths involving a vehicle are the result of a reversing strike. Was he aware of that? If he was, what assessment has been made of the increased risk made by lowering standards even further?
We urgently need to see Ministers bring forward a road freight recovery plan, bringing together all interested parties, with training providers, examiners, businesses, industry bodies and trade unions all working behind a single plan. Will the Secretary of State do so and finally get a grip before it is too late?
Once again, I must stress to the hon. Gentleman that this is a global problem. The chief executive of eastern Europe’s largest hauliers, Waberer’s, said:
“It is a global driver shortage across Europe, not an isolated problem of one country”.
He points out that the shortages are in Romania, Poland, Germany and many other countries. It is not just a European problem, but a global one. In the words not of a UK haulier, but of the chief executive of US Xpress, telling of the problems in the American trucking market:
“The driver situation is about as bad as I’ve seen in my career.”
This is a global problem that we will try to resolve.
The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood one of the three key measures that we introduced on Friday, so I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to set it out. The reversing manoeuvre that he refers to is not being removed from testing; it is the testing that is being handed to the training organisation rather than having the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency carry it out. That was widely supported. In the 9,000 consultation responses, it was one of the most strongly supported moves and measures, and it makes a lot of sense.
I have not heard the hon. Gentleman tell us what he thinks the solution is. All I hear from him is that we need to undercut British workers by expanding visa system and letting more people in. He may be right that we have to look at all different options, but I have to say to him, given that he is chair of the Labour and Co-operative parliamentary party, that it is a shame that his solution seems to be to undercut British workers by keeping their wages low.
The Secretary of State is right to say that this is a problem across Europe. Germany is estimated to be short of 45,000 to 60,000 HGV drivers and France 45,000. Back in 2016, when I was a member of the Select Committee, our Chairman, Dame Louise Ellman, said:
“This is not a new challenge. The road haulage sector has been short of skilled drivers for the last ten years. The familiar profile of the professional driver – over 45, white and male – will need to adapt.”
She also called for pay to go up. Does the Secretary of State agree that the way for the industry to deal with this is to increase pay, and not to suppress wages and to look for labour from abroad, which, clearly, will not work?
We will carry on looking at all the different measures. I hear what Members across the House have said today and previously about this matter. An increase in salaries, better remuneration and better conditions seem like very sensible ways to deal with the issue. We are in support of people who are working hard being paid a decent day’s salary; I support that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: 99% of HGV drivers are white, middle-aged and male. They are increasingly well paid. Their average age is 55. Mr Speaker, I could almost qualify myself if this job doesn’t work out.
God help us all, Mr Speaker, if that comes to pass.
Ministers are said to be worried about Christmas, and they should be, but the crisis is upon us now, not in three months’ time. I wrote to the Secretary of State in spring urging action, but there has been nothing until now. The impact of Brexit on daily life is becoming clear, so does he regret the number of times that Members of his party said that the prospect of bare supermarket shelves post Brexit was some baseless “Project Fear”?
The loosening of regulation must not be allowed to put safety at risk. I have been contacted by training providers in my constituency that are facing overnight financial ruin. They were given no notice, no consultation and no explanation of what the Secretary of State and his Department are proposing on trailers and on B+E tests. My constituent has seen his full list of bookings until the end of the year cancelled. How will training firms going out of business or staff being made redundant due to a lack of work help when the longer-term problems of driver recruitment, retention and drivers’ facilities still have not been addressed?
Finally, the Government must listen to the Road Haulage Association, the Food and Drink Federation and pretty much everyone else outside the Department for Transport, and grant temporary visas for HGV drivers. Is the Secretary of State lobbying the Home Office for that—yes or no?
Let me first stress that we have been working on the issue for a very long time. In fact, I think it was in my first meeting when I became Secretary of State—certainly my first meeting with the Road Haulage Association—when I granted the RHA £1 million for the Road to Logistics fund to bring in ex-forces and those who have been unemployed for a long time. That was the very first thing I did, more than two years ago. It is important to recognise that we had been taking action on this for a long time, and, indeed, before many others started to look at the situation. This is a long-term shortage in the marketplace.
The hon. Gentleman expresses legitimate concerns about the role now for those carrying out driver training. We are working to introduce an industry-led accreditation scheme, which could help the 16 million drivers who do not currently require trailer training to have some form of accreditation—perhaps leading to lower insurance and the rest of it—before trailing trailers. We very much hope to help, including firms in his constituency, by expanding the skills base for people driving in all its forms.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Apologies; I meant to say Mr Speaker.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for setting out the range of measures that he is taking to address the problem of HGV driver shortages. He is right to emphasise that this problem predates covid and Brexit, and has been growing for a considerable length of time. He mentioned the role of veterans leaving our armed forces and has talked about the long-term unemployed. Does he recognise that there is potential, through working with the Prison Service, for ex-offenders to be helped and supported into a rewarding career path on leaving prison? Is he having discussions with the Ministry of Justice to see whether a good nationwide scheme can be put in place?
We have indeed had exactly those conversations. The Road to Logistics scheme that I mentioned actually takes into account ex-offenders as well. I am speaking to my colleagues across Whitehall—not just at the Ministry of Justice, but also at the Department for Work and Pensions—all of whom have been keen and proactive in bringing people from other careers and no career into this marketplace.
Thank you, Mr Deputy—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] I mean thank you, Mr Speaker.
As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), the Chair of the Select Committee, so ably said, this problem has long been predicted. However, the current and short-term solutions that the Secretary of State is introducing include extending driver hours, loosening the rules on pulling trailers and having a fast track into HGV driving. Will the Secretary of State release the impact assessments on the safety implications of those and the other changes, which raise extreme concerns for road users?
We are always, front and centre, most concerned about road safety; the hon. Lady is absolutely right to point that out. Fortunately we have a very large cohort of drivers who can already pull longer trailers— 16 million of them, in fact—so we are able to study the safety data, and have done so. On some of the other changes that she, and the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), referred to, testing is not being removed, as has been advertised; the test is being moved to a different point with the training organisations, which are very good and responsible organisations. Of course we will monitor this very carefully. Drivers’ hours are more flexible but they are still very restricted under the relaxations that we have provided, and they have to be notified as well. So yes, we keep a very close eye on these things.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for setting out the measures that he is already taking to tackle this really important issue. Will he also consider other issues that are preventing people from going into the industry and deterring people from staying in it? One of those is safe and quality facilities when they need to stop, because these rest stops are really important. To get people to go into the industry, they need to have the security and the safety for themselves and for their load in having the right places to stop.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. I think the whole House will recognise that the quality of stop facilities has not been anywhere near where it needs to be. That is one of the reasons the industry has struggled systemically for so long with the lack of drivers. We have already mentioned the statistics, and it is not a surprise that we do not get more women and more people from different backgrounds into the sector. We must sort that out. Again, I am grateful to colleagues across Government, including in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, in terms of planning, for their help and assistance. We are going to have a better-paid, better-quality job where people come into this with the right skills and for the long term.
On Saturday, I met people from East of Scotland Growers—a farmer-owned co-operative based in North East Fife. Their processing season started three weeks ago and they usually get nine lorries a day; they are currently getting five. Their freezers and cold stores are full of highly perishable items right now. The steps that the Secretary of State has outlined are welcome but are not going to help to salvage a system that finishes in six weeks. What other things should the Government be doing?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s welcome of the measures. She is absolutely right to point out that these problems go well beyond a simple shortage of drivers, which, as I have commented on several times, is pan-European—in fact, global—and stretches to problems of supply through the entire supply chain. For example, this morning I met representatives of the maritime industry at the start of London International Shipping Week. They have had to go through enormous problems with factories closing, the problems at Suez and much else in order to keep shipping going. That is all part of the much wider supply chain. I extended the offer of meeting Ministers to explore the opportunities, and I would be happy to hear about and learn from firms in her constituency.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for a big expansion of testing capacity and the idea that we can train more drivers at home. Given the need for much better facilities, will he work with local government and his own Department to identify public sector land at lorry parks or adjacent to the highway that could be used, along with private sector investment, to provide those better facilities?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress, again, the need to have those facilities improved. The answer to his question is yes, I will certainly do that. In fact, I am already doing it. It is very important that there are decent facilities for people to stop at. We have an opportunity to do that now, and I am looking forward to working with him and Members across the House to identify such sites.
May I beg the Secretary of State to think of the health and welfare of the drivers? Recent Loughborough University research commissioned by the NHS finds that the average life expectancy of drivers is 14 years shorter than the general population. Why is that? It is because these drivers drive on the filthy, polluted roads in our country. Not only that, the research shows that that filthy, polluted air gets into the cabs. This is a major health problem. Even at £50,000 and £60,000 a year, men and women are reluctant to enter the profession. Let us get our priorities right—keep these men and women who drive for us safe, and do something about the filthy pollution on the roads in our country.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want to drive up the standards, but he somewhat misrepresents the picture of improving quality of not only our roads, thanks to our enormous £27 billion investment in our roads, but of air quality as the standard of trucks gets better and better. He may have missed it, but I recently introduced a consultation on the ending of the sale of diesel trucks in this country. We will be one of the first countries, if not the first country in the world that manufactures to do so. I will welcome his response to that consultation, which will help clean the air up for everybody on our roads.
I am grateful that the Department is getting after these issues so urgently. During the summer, I met A.E. Gough and Sons, which has been trucking from Llandrindod Wells in my constituency since 1926. It is a family-run business. It is very proud of its industry, and sees a bright future for it, but it has concerns about the conditions that its drivers experience, such as poor rest facilities. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss its concerns and ensure that we keep this historic business going?
I thank my hon. Friend for that great question. Similar to the point made earlier, we want to see truck stops improve. We want to see the overnight facilities improved. We want to attract people into this industry. We are starting to see that movement, not only because there has been a welcome increase in salaries and wages, but because of campaigns, including by The Sun newspaper, to “Keep on trucking”, which is encouraging more people into this industry. I or my roads Minister would be happy to meet my hon. Friend.
Food products missing from supermarket shelves are commonplace, but my constituents are worried not only about the food shortages, but the shortages in vital medical equipment. We cannot resolve the supply chain problems if the Government will not face up to the cause. Will the Secretary of State admit that his Government’s trade and co-operation agreement with the EU is at the heart of the chronic shortages?
I cannot stand at this Dispatch Box and admit something that is patently untrue. It is not just me saying that; it is the labour unions and the international haulage associations, all of whom are saying that the pandemic is of course the root cause. I will not stand here and deny that there have been big changes to how our industry is operating, but no one can realistically deny that those problems have been coming along for a very long time. If there is a No. 1 cause, it clearly is the pandemic.
Last time I checked, Germany, which requires 45,000 drivers, and Poland which requires 123,000 drivers, were still within the European Union. Despite the Scottish National party and the Labour party trying to paint this as a Brexit issue, will my right hon. Friend please reconfirm to the House that this is a global issue? While they try to undermine British workers, he is focused on finding a solution for this industry.
I just cannot put it better than my hon. Friend. Those countries are in the EU, as are France, Spain and Italy in addition. All have enormous shortages of drivers. There is, of course, a change in our economy; there is a change to the global economy brought about by coronavirus. Without allowing the terms and conditions to improve in the HGV world, we will never attract the right number of drivers. That is something that, thankfully, is starting to happen.
Today, the First Minister of Scotland, in her capacity as leader of the Scottish National party, said this of Brexit:
“The impact on daily life is becoming clear. There are already shortages of some foods—yes, really, food shortages in one of the richest countries of the world.”
Does the Minister regret the number of times representatives of his party, including Ministers, claimed that the prospect of empty shelves as a result of Brexit was some baseless fear project?
If the hon. Gentleman had his way, he would be importing drivers from England to settle the shortage. It just makes no sense. We have gone round in circles on this. The reality is that we are working very hard to fix a global problem through enabling more testing and encouraging more people into the market. I would welcome him encouraging people to join this market, too.
Anyone who has engaged with the haulage industry over many years, as I have, knows that this issue is nothing to do with Brexit and much to do with a long-running image of an industry that has found it difficult to attract people. I welcome the measures announced by my right hon. Friend, which many hauliers in my constituency would say are overdue. Does he recognise that there is still a concern about the short term and that many of the measures will take some time to work through? What does he envisage happening in the short term to allay fears in my constituency and elsewhere about people getting the goods they want for Christmas, for example?
First, it is important to say that many of the solutions rest with the sector. It is not simply the Government who need to resolve the supply shortages; as I said earlier, it goes much wider to the maritime industry and others as well. None the less, we have taken early and consistent action that has already increased the number of tests available by 50%; and, as I described, my first meeting in this job was about enabling more people to come into the sector. The measures that I announced to the House through Friday’s written statement and, in particular, the number of testing slots that will become available straightaway as a result, take that faster and will have an impact this side of Christmas.
We have heard from the Secretary of State that this phenomenon has absolutely nothing to do with him, but the reality is that last year’s immigration Bill was not accompanied by any alternative domestic skills plan whatsoever, and that has quickly caught up with the Government, who rejected all of Labour’s calls for impact assessments that would have identified critical skills gaps. One of my local businesses told me that its sector is at crisis point and that the HGV driver shortage is making supply-chain issues impossible. What can my local business do to recruit and retain HGV drivers to alleviate these crippling problems right now?
I am a little confused by the question because I have never said, “This is nothing to do with me.” In fact, I consider it the Department for Transport’s responsibility to propose measures to alleviate the problem, as I have already explained twice. I did that from my very first meeting in this job and I have continued to do it through measures such as the road to logistics programme and adjusting drivers’ hours as well as those I announced to the House the other day. It is the case, however, that 6 million Europeans—many of whom will be drivers—still have pre-settled status, and many will be attracted back by the price mechanism with it being worthwhile to come and drive in this country. I hope the hon. Member joins me in welcoming what I think will help the businesses in her constituency: better pay and conditions for the people who carry out this hard work.
Opposition Members seem to be trying to paint this as a picture of Brexit and UK immigration policy, but does the Secretary of State agree that that does not explain the shortages seen in Poland, Germany, the United States and France and that if we do not accurately diagnose the problem as one of wages and conditions, we will not be able to solve it? Furthermore, does he agree that it is quite astonishing that the SNP and Labour seem to be against improving workers’ conditions?
My hon. Friend is, of course, spot on. It is extraordinary to hear the Opposition’s absolute obsession with Brexit. Government Members have all moved on, have we not? They want to go on and on about Brexit and, when we are trying to solve the problems, they want to take us backwards again. The reality is that their only solution is to import and undercut British workers. We want to train those workers, pay them more and improve facilities.
I have been contacted by a number of drivers in Ceredigion who believe that a long-term solution to the crisis must include improving delivery times at distribution centres. Many drivers have told me of having to wait for hours while their loads are tipped at the centres and that preventing such long stays would go a long way to enhancing driver welfare and driver retention in the industry. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss that further?
The hon. Gentleman makes the good point that we have a just-in-time delivery system in this country, and we must maintain it. The resilience of many of the supply chains, including on the short straits between Calais and Dover, is critical. We saw the problems created at Christmas when the French closed the border over coronavirus—note that it was not over Brexit—so it is important that we put all the necessary measures in place to ensure that our system runs as smoothly as possible across the distribution network. I would be happy either to meet him or for him to meet the roads Minister on the subject.
The Prime Minister has often declared his love of buses in this place, so does the Secretary of State recognise that there are recruitment issues not just in the HGV sector, but in the bus sector? In rural and isolated constituencies such as mine of North Norfolk, that has real problems. Would the Secretary of State reassure me that he will put as much energy as he can into recruiting people into the HGV sector as into the bus sector?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need for vocational training and testing in all sectors. One of the good things about these measures is that the expanded number of tests that will be available will be useful for vocational drivers in all sectors, including the coach sector and the much loved Bus Back Better sector as well.
It has been highly amusing seeing the Secretary of State paint himself somehow as Comrade Shapps, a champion of the workers who is enhancing terms and conditions while at the same time increasing workers’ hours. Actually, this measure has a really detrimental effect on health and safety. I have written to the Secretary of State about a number of constituents who could not get their tests to become HGV drivers. Is it not about time that the Secretary of State sat down with the new general secretary of Unite, if he is so interested in terms and conditions and in improving wages? He should sit down, collectively bargain and enhance terms and conditions for British workers.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding here, because what we have done does not increase workers’ hours. It provides flexibility without changing the hours. If the hon. Member is accusing me of being in favour of the worker and on the side of people earning more money for a decent day’s work when they deliver the goods to our shops, guilty as charged. I hope he will join me on the frontline.
The British Army is one of the biggest employers of HGV drivers; it has about 2,000. What discussion has the Secretary of State had with our right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary about the use of some of those drivers to preserve critical supply chains were that to be necessary, and also about the impact of this crisis on retention? At the moment, supermarket chains are paying upwards of £60,000 to drivers, which is a very powerful inducement for people to leave the Army.
It is of course absolutely true that, with salaries increasing, more people are being encouraged to come into the sector. That means that there may be an impact overall where people are paid more in different professions. We have seen an increase in the number of drivers coming in—I know this from the DVSA booking figures—which shows that there is a solution on the horizon. My hon. Friend is also right to question whether the Army could deliver some of the goods and services. At the moment, that is not being considered. Of course, the Government as a whole keep a very close eye on this issue and have contingency plans in place, but it is absolutely not something that at the moment the Government are looking at.
Empty supermarket shelves, increasing prices of building materials and shortages of blood tests and flu jabs are an indication of a very serious set of crises. We are 90,000 short of drivers in this country, which is more than twice the figure in the other countries that the Secretary of State mentioned. According to a constituent of mine, only eight tests were available at the Switch Island testing centre in my constituency last week. Taking short cuts that undermine safety cannot possibly be the answer to this crisis. There is a problem right now. Lorry drivers need it sorting out, consumers need it sorting out and businesses need it sorting out, as does the country. What is the answer—here, now, today—to this shortage?
Again, there seems to be some misunderstanding. First, the tests are still required for HGV drivers. We are not compromising safety; the tests are just taking place in a different place. For example, there is the C+E test, which is for articulated plus rigid. These used to have to be done separately, and we are just combining the tests so that people do not first have to have done the C test before they do the E test. It does not reduce safety at all, and it is widely welcomed by the sector. Similarly, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), who is leaving the Chamber, said that we are increasing drivers’ hours. We are not increasing drivers’ hours. There is a lot of misunderstanding. The measures we are putting in place now will provide immediate additional capacity. They already have—we already have 50% more tests available—and they will bring up another 50,000 per annum. We are doing this today.
I am pleased that Stroud’s haulage drivers are receiving more recognition for how integral they are to the smooth running of our lives and businesses, and I hope that will help with recruitment. As my right hon. Friend works hard to consider a range of options and solutions to combat the global driver shortage, has he considered making changes—temporary or otherwise—to certificate of professional competence training requirements, so that we can bring back experienced retired drivers more quickly?
My hon. Friend raises an excellent point that has not come up in the debate so far. We considered CPC requirements during the transition period and we made some changes, and we will always keep a close eye on whether such changes are required. We will keep the issue under constant review, and I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s thoughts on the matter.
In a Transport Committee meeting on 17 July 2019, I informed the then Secretary of State for Transport that post-Brexit we would be short of 50,000 HGV drivers. It would appear I was optimistic. If the Government have been working on this matter for a long time, as the Secretary of State just said, why are we facing this crisis?
My right hon. Friend’s statement shows that the Conservative party is the true workers’ party. A Harlow HGV driver said to me that the big issue is conditions, as has been pointed out. Is not the answer to this issue—indeed, this is the answer for so many problems to do with skills—to rocket-boost HGV apprenticeships? What is my right hon. Friend doing to work with the Department for Education and the Institute for Apprenticeships to rocket-boost those vital apprenticeships for HGV drivers?
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As I mentioned in passing—I will provide a little more detail—we have raised the funding band from £6,000 to £7,000 to allow large goods vehicle apprentices to come into the market, which is helping to attract more people. We have also included an incentive payment to employers of £3,000, made available for every apprentice they hire as a new employee. I hope both those measures are having a real impact.
The Secretary of State might be concerned that this problem is now affecting medical supplies. What specific short-term steps will he take to safeguard medical supplies, while we wait to see the impact of the other measures he announced?
Although that goes somewhat outside my remit, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Department of Health and Social Care has robust programmes in place, not least through its work prior to Brexit, to ensure a supply of medical provisions. That includes things like already having them in stock, and many other measures that do not require the traditional route. It is worth knowing that despite the crisis—which, as I say, is global—we have not had to use any of the approaches that were talked about prior to Brexit. Those include buying additional Government purchase capacity for freight in order to shift medicines or other supplies around. Indeed, we purchased such capacity as a standby, but we did not have to use much of it at all. As I say, however, the issue is not directly in my remit.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the excellent removal of the need for young people, who have been hit so hard by the pandemic, to spend their money on a trailer test. That is really welcome in rural communities, and with that extra freedom comes extra responsibility. When can those young people expect that policy to be implemented—is it today?
I am pleased to tell the House that the statutory instrument is going down, which means that the change will be made very soon indeed. I will write to Members to provide further detail on that. My hon. Friend is right to point out that extra responsibility comes with some of the freedoms, and the industry-led accreditation scheme, which we have already started to discuss with the industry, insurers and those who hire out trailers, is important. We can also improve the quality of driving among the 16 million people who already have permission to drive those trailers without any tests.
It is safe to say that a big problem facing the HGV industry when it comes to recruitment is a lack of diversity. What steps will the Secretary of State’s Department take to make these jobs more attractive to women and black, Asian and minority ethnic drivers?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. First, we need to make sure that the job is properly remunerated. Secondly, the terms and conditions—the quality of stops—must be commensurate with the job that people are doing, and I have talked about how I am working with colleagues across Government on that front. Thirdly, I am working with my right hon. Friend the welfare Secretary on how, with a variety of different programmes, we attract people from more diverse backgrounds so that the sector is not 99% white, male and middle-aged. I am working with my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary on how we can expand programmes in that direction too.
The Secretary of State has just acknowledged the need for a broader mix of people in the sector—particularly women, who make up only 1% of workers. He has also spoken about how improved facilities will help ease that. Does he agree that there is a great example at the UK’s newest motorway services, operated by Moto at junction 1 of the M6, which were opened during the summer by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean)?
I have worked closely with the Government for four years, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on trailer and towing safety, to secure an amendment to legislation following the tragic death of a toddler in my constituency. The Government’s proposed change 3, which would allow car drivers not to take the additional test, is a bitter blow to the work that we have done over four years, and I have not been told, and do not understand, what the changes mean for trailer safety. I would very much welcome a briefing on these proposals from officials for me and the all-party group—proposals in which my constituents whose son died, who have lent their support to Government campaigns, are very disappointed.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of road safety. In this country, we have ended up with 1,700 deaths per year—the number has come down—making ours some of the safest roads in the world, but the number of remaining deaths and serious injuries has been very stubborn. I am happy to arrange for a meeting with the hon. Lady and the APPG. I have mentioned that there could be a significant upside to these changes. I hired a trailer just before the summer, on a pre-’97 licence, and I was not asked for any form of accreditation at all. In our future system, we hope and expect that the industry-led accreditation scheme will ensure that people are hiring with better skills in place. I think that we can use that to improve the skills of the 16 million drivers who do not require any particular test in order to hire a trailer. I think there is a very happy situation here where we can improve safety overall.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the way he is working with the sector to come forward with practical solutions, but delays at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency are delaying some people in getting their HGV licence and, indeed, other work. What steps is he taking to get the DVLA staff back to work and fully functioning to deal with the backlog and the delays, so that my constituents and people around the country can get their driving licences quickly and take up the jobs that are available?