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Work and Pensions

Volume 703: debated on Monday 8 November 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Household Support Fund

1. What steps she is taking to ensure that the household support fund helps the most vulnerable during winter 2021-22. (904052)

We have made £500 million available across the UK to support vulnerable households this winter. It really is for local authorities, which are closer to their communities, to use the funding to support those with needs for food, utilities and wider essentials. They are best placed to design schemes that support those most in need locally.

The £500 million household support fund is extremely welcome and my local council is busy ensuring that support reaches those who need it through their excellent Helping Hand scheme. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Buckinghamshire Council on ensuring that a comprehensive package is available for those who are sadly unable to put food on the table or heat their homes, and will she set out what more can be done to ensure that those in such distressing circumstances know that local authorities have the resources and should be the first port of call?

My hon. Friend is right to praise Buckinghamshire Council, which was allocated £2.4 million from the fund. It is fair to say that local authorities delivering the household support fund have access to elements relating to health visitors, social workers and housing departments, and access to the benefits system through the Searchlight portal, to identify people who may need help at this time and are most in need. Of course, people should turn to their councils for that support, and they should be warmly welcomed.

According to the Resolution Foundation, the combined effect of the removal of the £20 universal credit uplift and the Budget measures means that 3.6 million households on universal credit—three quarters of the total—will still be worse off this winter. These measures take £3 billion out of support for the poorest, so how far does the Secretary of State estimate that the £500 million household support fund, which is equivalent to just one sixth of the amount that has been removed, will reduce the level of hardship for people this winter?

The hon. Lady will recognise that some of the announcements made in the Budget recently will, I expect, provide some direct support for people working or, indeed, encourage people into work. However, the £500 million, being a targeted fund, will be a great support, with people identified by local councils that know who to target in this regard. It is also fair to say, as has been said many times, that the uplift was temporary, recognising the situation that we are in, and candidly, it was far more generous than ever happened—or rather, never happened—when we had the 2009-10 financial crisis.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), I pay tribute to Buckinghamshire Council for all that it has done with the Helping Hand scheme. Does the Secretary of State agree that in a place such as High Wycombe, where riches and poverty are often found so close together, it is imperative that we equip councils to provide local people with the local help that they need?

I strongly agree. That is why we are working through local authorities, which understand their communities well, without there being blanket schemes. It is important that that is reflected around the country, including in places such as High Wycombe.

State Pension: Payment Delays

I am advised that all delayed claims have been processed, except for those that require further customer information. Some 70% to 80% of claims are now made digitally by Get your State Pension, with over 50% being cleared the same day. We are, however, introducing a new tele-claims service that will supplement the paper applications, which we accept have been lengthy and have incurred delays.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Two of my constituents should have started receiving their state pensions at the start of August and were on the verge of destitution when I was contacted in October by the welfare rights officer at Glasgow West housing association. Following the intervention from my office, both have now received what they were due from the Department for Work and Pensions, but they are by no means the only people to be hit by this latest DWP shambles. I am really concerned for people who do not have anybody like a housing association or an MP to advocate for them, so will the Minister tell me how many people he estimates have been affected by this altogether? What more can he do to put it right and make sure that those who do not have somebody advocating for them do not get left behind?

We accept that there have been delays, and we have taken significant action in the form of the redeployment of 700 staff to address those. I am pleased that the cases of the two constituents that the hon. Member outlined have now been addressed. The particular problem has been in respect of the receipt of further information from particular applicants, and those matters are being addressed on an ongoing basis.

People work hard all their lives and pay in to save for their retirement; they deserve to be paid their state pension on time. Colleagues across the House, as we have heard, are reporting more and more cases of delays in payment, some of which are as long as three months. This is a basic service provided by the Government, which we all rely on. How on earth did these delays come about? When will the Government take this seriously, and when will pensions finally be paid on time?

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman did not listen to my earlier answer. This matter was addressed by the end of October. The reality of the situation is that the pandemic has caused delays to state pensions, with issues relating to illness, self-isolation, caring, training, location, staffing, equipment, recruiting. I could go on, but these matters are being addressed.

There are not just delays to the state pension, but underpayments. The British Government are also set to hammer pensioners’ incomes, with a cut of £2,600 on average over the next five years as a result of their plan to break the pensions triple lock, which the House of Lords rejected last week with a majority of 102—led, indeed, by a Conservative. Will the Minister do the right thing and U-turn on his plans to scrap the triple lock on pensions? If not, is it not the case that the British Government just cannot be trusted with pensions, and that the only way to ensure dignity and fairness in retirement for Scots is with independence?

I have heard it all. How on earth the Scottish Government, were they in any event to get independence, would be able to pay ongoing state pensions is a mystery that no Scottish politician has ever been able to answer. The factual reality is that the state pension, by reason of the triple lock, is up £2,000 per person, something that would never happen under an independent Scotland—that is for sure.

Universal Credit Standard Allowance: End of Uplift

3. What steps she is taking to support families affected by the end of the uplift to the standard allowance of universal credit. (904054)

The Government have always been clear that the £20 uplift was a temporary measure. Universal credit recipients in work will soon benefit from the reduction in the taper rate from 63% to 55%, with work allowances increasing by £500 a year, meaning that nearly 2 million working households will keep about an extra £1,000 a year on average.

My constituent Simon Holroyd lost his mother to covid and is a single father to 10-year-old twins. He worked in the hospitality industry all his life to a senior level, but since the pandemic he has struggled to find work and is reliant on universal credit. His life before the uplift was removed was, in his words,

“a revolving mess of balancing debts”.

Now his situation is desperate. The Minister and the Secretary of State have both referred to the uplift as temporary, but for claimants such as my constituent who were not claiming universal credit before the uplift, the removal of the £20 is experienced only as a loss. Will the Minister commit to reintroducing the uplift?

With 1 million vacancies and above in the UK and with a comprehensive plan for jobs, our focus absolutely has to be on helping people into work, particularly in the hospitality sector, where there are vacancies. I hope that there might be a vacancy for the hon. Member’s constituent.

May I thank the Minister and especially the Secretary of State for really pushing for the cut to the universal credit taper rate that we saw in the Budget? It will make a real difference to families on low incomes. There are more than 1 million job vacancies right now, plus the Budget measures to strengthen work incentives—cutting the withdrawal rate, boosting the work allowance and increasing the national minimum wage. Does that not all add up to the best opportunity in more than a generation to bear down on long-term unemployment in this country?

Absolutely. I credit my right hon. Friend: I know that he has been a champion of improving the taper rate over many years, and it was a pleasure to work with him as a Parliamentary Private Secretary when he was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Now is the time for us to take forward opportunities for people, given the Budget measures that have been put in place, and help long-term unemployed people into work through the sector-based work academy programme and the restart programme, which the employment Minister—the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies)—is taking forward with her characteristic verve and enthusiasm.

Unemployment support is now at the lowest level in real terms for more than 30 years, even though the economy has grown by more than 50% in real terms over that period. As a proportion of average earnings, it is the lowest ever—lower than when Lloyd George introduced unemployment benefit 110 years ago. Why has unemployment support been set at this historically extremely low level?

It is always important to have a safety net, but it is also very important to make sure that we get people into the world of work, and that is what our focus is, as I have said repeatedly in my answers today. With 1.1 million vacancies and with a plan for jobs, that has to be our focus.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we must look at both money in and money out, and that the cost of living is causing pressures for worse-off families? Will he update the House on the work that the Department is doing in looking at the cost of living, particularly childcare and housing costs?

We have already provided a range of measures. Eighty-five per cent. of childcare costs are covered by universal credit, and extra support has been provided through the increase in the local housing allowance. So steps are being taken, but I understand my hon. Friend’s point about childcare. Clearly, we need to focus on it further, and we will.

Universal Credit Claimants: Support

Our plan for jobs provides tailored support for people of all ages, helping them to prepare for, get into and progress in work. The additional 13,500 work coaches whom we have recruited are ensuring that people receive the personalised advice that they need, and have access to the employment programmes or training that are right for them.

Research conducted by the End Child Poverty coalition shows that, in my constituency, 25% of children were living in poverty in 2019-20: that is 4,815 children. Since 2015, poverty has increased by 2.2%: that is 482 more children. I want to see the numbers going down, not up. Does the Minister agree that the best way to make that happen would be to reinstate the £20-a-week uplift in universal credit?

I think we have heard across the Chamber that the way out of poverty and the way to make progress is through a pay packet, which gives people so much more than just pay: it gives them the confidence that enables them to make progress and move forward. The hon. Lady will be interested in the report from the in-work commission, to which we will respond shortly. In Scotland, our new programme, job entry: targeted support—JETS—has moved more than 1,500 people into employment since January this year. I think that she has visited her jobcentre, so she should feel confident that there is help out there to ensure that no one is left behind.

I recently received a letter from a local bakery which is desperate for 30 people to come and work there. In fact we have hundreds of jobs, in hospitality, agriculture, social care and food processing. While it is disappointing that the Scottish Administration are not creating jobs for people in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, does the Minister agree that those people should come to places in North Yorkshire, such as Scarborough, where they will receive not only a warm welcome, but a great job and a great future?

Long-term unemployment is a devolved matter for the Scottish Government to attend to, but I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has raised this important matter. We at the DWP are organising Hospitality Rocks events to bring people into the industry. It is possible to earn significant sums in a couple of years with the necessary training and support, and people should definitely be taking those jobs in Scarborough and beyond.

The fact that universal credit is an in-work benefit is commonly overlooked. There will be a great many more claimants in west London, where Ocado Zoom is treating its workforce appallingly. It has not taken them in-house as it promised, and they now have much worse terms and conditions. I know that the Government are ruling out fire and rehire legislation generally, but will the Minister—I know she is a reasonable person, and everyone loved her the other day when she met our all-party parliamentary group on single parent families—look into this case, which the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain has been actively pursuing? The chief executive of Ocado Zoom will not even talk to me.

The hon. Lady should raise the issue with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, because employee rights are a matter for that Department. However, she has made an important point. We have an employees’ market, with more than 1 million job vacancies, many of them in London. I hope that her constituents will say to that employer, “We are off somewhere else”. Whether that is in hospitality or elsewhere, they will receive a warm welcome, and so they should. They should be well rewarded for the work that they do, which is why the increase in the national living wage is so important.

Universal Credit System Resilience: Covid-19

5. What assessment she has made of the resilience of the universal credit system during the covid-19 outbreak. (904056)

The universal credit system stood up to the challenge of the pandemic, which meant that people received vital financial support at their time of need. On one day alone we received just over 100,000 new claims, 10 times the average. The old system would not have coped with the unprecedented pressure that we have seen over the past 18 months, and that is yet another reason why universal credit is working.

During the pandemic, the universal credit system proved not only its resilience but its agility in providing people with the emergency support that they needed. Now that the Government are rightly focusing on getting people back into work, could my right hon. Friend set out the timetable for the very welcome changes that she has made to the universal credit taper rate and to work allowances?

I was not the only person to cheer loudly when the Chancellor announced to the House that we were increasing work allowances and reducing the taper rate to 55% no later than 1 December. I am pleased to inform my hon. Friend that the latest information I have is that we intend to try to bring that in from 24 November, which means that an extra 500,000 claimants will benefit, even more than might have been predicted just a couple of weeks ago.

The Department for Work and Pensions makes substantial efforts to assure itself that people who are on universal credit and not in work are entitled to that payment, either because of the disabilities that they have or because they have made every possible effort to find work. On that basis, why would the Government reassure themselves that it is okay to plunge those people into poverty, when they have done everything that the Government have asked them to do in terms of trying to find work? Why not just reintroduce that £20 payment?

The £20 uplift was a temporary measure reflecting the nature of what happened in the pandemic, and the greatest financial impact was on those who had gone from having earnings to having no earnings at all. We have doubled the number of work coaches and we are striving to help people to get into work, because we know that that is the best way to get on in life. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome the change that happened in the Budget, which shows, perhaps even quicker than initially predicted, that work genuinely pays.

My right hon. Friend is aware that Harrogate has been the location for the pilot work on the managed migration from legacy benefits. Is she able to update the House on how that is going? Before the pandemic, it was going very well indeed. Is she now in a position to recommence the pilot, or to move on to the next stage of the migration?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that we undertook some pilot work in Harrogate on the managed migration element of moving everybody to universal credit. I am pleased to say that there was a considerable amount of learnings from that time in Harrogate, and we have also learned a lot during the pandemic. As such, I am not envisaging a need for the pilot to be resumed in Harrogate, but it has informed our plan, which is still in preparation, on resuming the managed move to universal credit.

Disabled People: Support in Work

The Department delivers national programmes as well as initiatives in partnership with the health system to support disabled people to start, stay and succeed in employment. These include Access to Work and intensive personalised employment support, which continues to provide that support after work has begun.

It is essential to ensure, particularly as we approach the winter, that all workers have access to a liveable sick pay and do not put themselves and others at risk. However, the current earnings threshold disproportionately affects disabled people and those with long-term health conditions. What concrete actions will the UK Government take to finally fix the wholly inadequate sick pay system?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising those points, and it is a pleasure to work with her once again; I have done on various topics. The Government previously consulted on reform to statutory sick pay, as she will know, but we did not think that the pandemic was the right time to introduce changes to it, as that would have placed an immediate and direct cost on employers at a very difficult time. Instead, we prioritised changes to the wider welfare system. However, I can assure her that our work on this is ongoing and I look forward to talking to her and others further about this.

I would like to welcome the Minister to her new role. She will be aware that the disability pay and employment gap remains far too large. The figures might appear to show a narrowing in recent years, but academics believe that this has been offset by an increase in the number of people identifying as disabled. Today, on the 26th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, it is clear that urgent action is required. The Government’s strategy for disabled people offers only a consultation on mandatory reporting. Will she be bolder than her predecessor and bring in mandatory reporting now?

I look forward to working with the hon. Lady on these vital issues. She is right that our national disability strategy demonstrates our intention to consult on workforce reporting. She asked an additional question about pay gap reporting, but those are two slightly different things. Pay gaps are, of course, caused by a range of factors, and to address them we must ensure that everybody has equal access to opportunities. That will be my passion in this role. I hope she welcomed the disability employment statistics out only last week; they show that some progress is being made, but there is a heck of a lot more to do, and I will be there doing it.

I gave the Minister a straightforward policy ask with no additional financial commitment, so it is regrettable that she cannot do it straight away. However, clearly money is required to deliver a fully inclusive society. Can she confirm that the spending review contained no extra funding linked to the strategy, other than for education and employment? Does she have plans to speak to the Chancellor about further funding, and will she now push for a full debate to show disabled people that her Government are giving the strategy the attention it rightly deserves?

That strategy and its implementation will be one of my utmost priorities; I look forward to discussing it in a constructive manner with the hon. Lady and everybody else here today, but I think she may have misread the £1.1 billion in targeted support for those with disabilities that was in the Budget and the spending review last week, which covers access to work, more work coaches and the Work and Health programme.

I have seen at first hand how assistive technology can change the lives of young people with disabilities at Treloar School and College in Alton in Hampshire. Can my hon. Friend update the House with any further details on the national centre for assistive and accessible technology, which could do so much to support adults with a learning disability and other disabilities to get into employment?

I am really pleased that my right hon. Friend has raised that point, and I agree on the centrality of assistive and accessible technology. That is why our national disability strategy contained a commitment to invest up to £1 million in 2021-22 to develop a new centre for assistive and accessible tech, reporting on progress by next year. I look forward to working with her to do that.

The Minister will know that many disabled people work and receive their personal independence payments, but when someone is given a telephone appointment, they are told that they can only arrange the appointment once. That is hardly fair; if it is scheduled when they are working and the assessments can take up to an hour, that is not possible. What are the Government doing to make it easier for people to be in work and have that access?

The hon. Lady raises a good point, which I will be happy to take away and look into. In general terms, I can say that we made commitments in our Green Paper published in July to improve the assessment process overall, across both the work capability assessment and the PIP assessment. She will also know that we have been using telephone methods through the pandemic and are looking to see what will continue to be the best methods. I look forward to discussing that further with her, and I will take away the point she raises and look into it further.

We can be rightly proud of delivering record disability employment, but to meet our commitment of 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027, we must expand opportunities through disability apprenticeships, a key commitment within the national disability strategy. Will the Minister confirm that she will continue to press our Department for Education colleagues to ensure we deliver that vital commitment?

I certainly will. It will be my passion to deliver all the commitments in the national disability strategy, to support more disabled people to be in work, stay in work and thrive in work. I also thank my hon. Friend for the foundational work he did on this, which I look forward to continuing.

It is good to hear some of the commitments the Government are making, but unfortunately we have heard them before. Many disabled people, particularly those who are trying to get employment and support allowance or PIP, will struggle through their assessment because their disabilities are hidden. What work is the Minister doing on that, including with providers of those assessments, to ensure that those with hidden disabilities are given a fair chance?

Again, the hon. Lady raises a common-sense point, on something that I will want to make sure is working well in our system. As I said in response to a previous point, we have indicated that we are keen to look at how the assessments in general can be improved. We have that commitment to this House in our Green Paper, published in July, which I will be looking forward to developing further. I can let the House know that we have received more than 4,500 consultation responses to that Green Paper, which gives us a very sound basis for hearing the voices of disabled people and acting on what is needed.

Young Jobseekers

A year since the first placements began, almost 100,000 young people have started a kickstart role. I am delighted that kickstart will now continue through to March next year, offering exciting opportunities and crucial experience to even more young people through this extension. We are also extending our enhanced Department for Work and Pensions youth offer, expanding eligibility to 16 and 17-year-olds, so that all under-25s claiming universal credit or searching for work can benefit from more targeted support, through our youth hubs, mentoring circles and tailored support from youth employability work coaches.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. She will know, however, that we have a persistent problem with youth unemployment in Clacton, because I have raised this issue frequently. As we level up and build back better, can she assure me that we will not overlook areas of deprivation in the coastal regions of the south, so that we level up not only up and down, but sideways?

We are absolutely determined that no region is left behind, and we have invested in and strengthened our support offer, as I have outlined. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that on 18 November we are hosting a kickstart employer day at Clacton Jobcentre Plus, matching employers directly with those young people in need to find them suitable roles.

I thank my hon. Friend for coming along to the DWP centre in Worthing and meeting a kickstarter working for the youth hub there, and for joining me in doing a shift working tables at the Fat Greek Taverna afterwards, as a result of which we were both offered jobs—the way things are going, that might come in quite handy. What more can we do to have outreach services, to make sure that young people get into those youth hubs in the first place, where they are given all the support they need on interviews and writing CVs, and that they turn up at interviews when they are given a job prospect?

I like to think it was tenacious Tim and me together working on the hospitality shift. I know my hon. Friend is passionate about youth employment, and we did enjoy that visit. He saw that youth hub just last week, which shows that vital new link in the community, bringing together local partners. That wraparound support is key for the under-25s, particularly those who are not engaged with the Government at any other level; that is where our youth employment coaches come into their own. We have to remove those barriers to work for all.

I am delighted to see a new DWP youth hub open in Eastleigh today. It will make a huge difference to my constituents. Will the Minister set out how youth hubs will help our young people boost their skills and find new opportunities as we recover from the pandemic?

My hon. Friend is right on this. We have one youth hub opening today in Eastleigh and another in nearby Romsey; crucially, they are working in partnership with councils. Along with training, skills and employment opportunities—the DWP train and progress scheme, the sector-based work academy programme and the kickstart scheme—this means that everyone in this Chamber should know that the answer and the way to progress is through work.

What message does the Minister think the UK Government send to young people with wage rates that discriminate based on their age, with a £5,000 gap between the one for an 18-year-old and the one for a 25-year-old?

My daughter started her first job today, on £9.50 an hour. She is delighted and she is doing that alongside her studies. I understand the challenge on different wage rates, but the national minimum wage rise really helps people, alongside the taper rate and the skills and opportunities provided through youth hubs and more widely. So I do not think that young people should feel anything other than that there are great opportunities out there, with more than 1 million vacancies and seasonal work, which can be the first step on to the employment ladder and the next stage in their career.

I recently visited Selly Oak jobcentre and have to say that I was quite impressed by what I saw and what I heard about the kickstart scheme, but one thing that surprised me was the number of students who are taking places on the scheme. Does the Minister share my concern that there might be a slight displacement effect, with the students understandably seeking work experience but thereby taking places on a programme that was conceived for young people with fewer qualifications and less access to the job market? If that is the case, what might she do about it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for visiting that fantastic jobcentre. We have jobcentres doing that work up and down the country, and it is crucial that 100,000 young people are getting that first step on the employment ladder. He is right to point out that there should be no cherry-picking of the easiest people to move into employment. Kickstart is about getting young people on to the first rung on the employment ladder, which is why we have kickstart quick start and direct meetings with employers, so that nobody is left behind. The flexible support fund will address any barriers and we will make sure that everybody is job ready and nobody is left behind.

In May this year, the then Minister for Disabled People, Work and Health, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), told the Work and Pensions Committee that the Department did not routinely collect information on disabilities from young people who enter the kickstart scheme and that it had no immediate plans to do so. That means it is impossible to monitor how accessible or inaccessible the kickstart scheme is for young people who have disabilities. Will the Minister confirm whether that is still the case? If it is, when is she going to sort it?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that will be picked up in the evaluation. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) mentioned the fact that we should not be cherry-picking; the kickstart scheme is about people with the biggest barriers and the highest likelihood of long-term unemployment, and nearly 100,000 young people have got on to the employment ladder because of it. We will look at the issue the hon. Gentleman raised, but the reality is that with the Access to Work programme and all the other interventions that come alongside a kickstart role, if someone has disabilities, that should not prevent them from being on the programme.

End of Universal Credit Uplift: Household Budgets

8. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of ending the universal credit uplift on household budgets. (904059)

The Government have always been clear that the £20 uplift was a temporary measure to support households affected by the economic shock of covid-19. Now that the economy has reopened, the Government are giving nearly 2 million working households an increase, on average, of £1,000 per year, thanks to the reduction in the universal credit taper rate from 63% to 55% and a £500 increase in the work allowance.

More than 9,000 Sheffield households, including 4,500 children, have together lost around £10 million as a result of the Government’s decision, and the taper adjustment compensates for just a third of that lost income. There are also deep problems caused by a backlog of work capability assessments. For some claimants, the new-style employment and support allowance is expiring as it has taken more than a year to secure an assessment. Others on universal credit face long delays in getting their correct entitlement. What is being done to clear the backlog and ensure that people with disabilities get the benefits they deserve?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working flat out to ensure that people get their entitlement as speedily as possible, which is certainly the case for the vast majority of people. We saw during the pandemic that universal credit was particularly agile in responding to a huge number of people—hundreds of thousands—who needed support.

We have a record 1.1 million vacancies, and we are cutting the taper rate and raising the income threshold; how many families in North West Durham and throughout the country will benefit?

More than hundreds—millions of people are going to benefit, because not only will they see the financial benefit but, as they start to get involved with their work coaches and understand what is available to them through the plan for jobs and in-work progression, they will see massive improvements in their financial situation and gain confidence in the workplace.

End of Universal Credit Uplift: Risk of Poverty

9. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of ending the universal credit uplift on the risk of poverty among benefit claimants. (904060)

The Government have always been clear that the £20 uplift was a temporary measure to support households affected by the economic shock of covid-19. We believe that work is the best route out of poverty, which is why our comprehensive plan for jobs is supporting people to prepare for, get into and progress in work.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation finds that the Government’s universal credit cut will affect 21% of working-age families in my constituency and nearly half of those with children. To make matters worse, the Bank of England says that, after tax, which the Tories continue to raise, and inflation, salaries are now forecast to fall by 1.25% this year. What plans does the Minister have to support my constituents immediately, as they will be feeling that the pound in their pocket is worth less this winter?

The hon. Gentleman’s constituents will have the opportunity to fill the vacancies that are no doubt in his patch as well as across the country. I can also assure him that we do understand that there will be vulnerable families who need extra support this winter, which is why £1.8 million has been allocated to families in Portsmouth through the local authorities there.

State Pension and Pension Credit: Kettering

10. How many people (a) receive the state pension and (b) claim pension credit in Kettering constituency. (904061)

The most recent statistics show that 17,942 people receive the state pension and 1,888 receive pension credit in the Kettering constituency.

Pension credit is a tax-free, means-tested benefit aimed at retired people on low incomes. It can be worth up to £3,000 a year and trigger extra help with heating bills, council tax, free dental care and free TV licences for the over-75s, yet, at a time when many pensioners are struggling with household bills, up to 1 million pensioners are not claiming £1.8 billion in pension credit. What can the Minister do to encourage take-up in Kettering and across the country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. We continue to make the case with the BBC, which I have met on two occasions, with the pension credit taskforce, which we specifically set up to address this matter, and with the Local Government Association and energy companies. We have put great efforts into increasing the stats. The stats on valuation and take-up are going up, but clearly more needs to be done, and I welcome his efforts in Kettering and beyond.

Universal Credit: Predecessor Schemes

11. What assessment she has made of the (a) utility and (b) value of universal credit compared to predecessor schemes. (904062)

Universal credit is a modern, tailored, resilient benefit responding effectively to economic conditions. It replaces six outdated and complex benefits with one, helping to simplify the benefits system and providing a safety net in times of need and, of course, making work pay.

When the Centre for Social Justice originally designed the universal credit system, it was with a 55p taper, so this reform is long overdue and very welcome. The fact remains, though, that there are still record numbers of people on universal credit, 60% of whom are not working at all, yet we have record job vacancies and a labour shortage. Will the Minister tell me what more can we do? How can we get more people back into work?

The thing that has impressed me the most since taking on this ministerial responsibility is the sheer enthusiasm of our work coaches. I definitely recommend that my right hon. Friend’s constituents speak to the work coaches to find out what opportunities are available to them, particularly through skills and through restart, to get involved in new sectors through the sector-based work academy programme. Huge opportunities are available for people, and they need to be explored.

Pensioners: Poverty Levels

15. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the state pension in tackling levels of poverty among pensioners; and if she will make a statement. (904066)

Since 2010, the full yearly amount of the basic state pension has risen by more than £2,050. Latest figures show that 200,000 fewer pensioners are in absolute poverty after housing costs compared with 2009-10.

With women born in the 1950s having their pension age increased with little or no notice, with state pension payments delayed, causing real financial distress, with more than 2 million older people living in poverty, and with the triple lock abandoned with many pensioners set to be £520 worse off next year, to what extent is the Minister proud of this Government’s record of standing up for pensioners?

The hon. Lady will be aware that the triple lock has raised the state pension and that this year’s decision is a temporary one, for one year only. In respect of her campaign for 1950s-born women, that matter was decided in both the High Court and the Court of Appeal. If Scotland wishes to take action on this, there are various sections of the Scotland 2016 that she could address herself to.

Figures show that one in five pensioners in the UK are living in poverty; 1.3 million retirees are under-nourished; and 25,000 die each year due to the cold weather. With bills rising and in the teeth of a pandemic, the Government want to break a manifesto promise and scrap the triple lock on what is already one of the least supportive state pensions by international comparison. What impact assessment has the Department for Work and Pensions made of scrapping the triple lock, and how many more pensioners in Liverpool, West Derby will be living in poverty and unable to afford food as a result?

As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, the reality of the situation is that we have taken the state pension—which was languishing under the previous Labour Government and had not been increased in any real way whatever—and massively increased it to £105 billion, with £24 billion on top of that. It has never been higher—never, ever. There has been a £2,000 increase compared with 2010 thanks to the triple lock and the actions of this Conservative Government.

Benefit Claimants: Cost of Living Increases

14. What steps her Department is taking to help support benefit claimants with increased costs of living. (904065)

From next April, the national living wage will rise by 6.6% to £9.50 an hour. This real-terms pay increase will leave more money in the pockets of hard-working people. The Government are taking action to make work pay for low-income households on universal credit by reducing the universal credit taper rate and increasing the work allowance.

On Friday, I visited the Fallowfield and Withington food bank. It is as busy as ever and expecting a surge in demand as a result of the recent changes to benefits. If Government support for people on benefits is adequate, why does the Minister think that so many of my constituents are having to rely on food banks?

We recognise that there are people who will require support over the winter period, which is why we have introduced the £421 million household support fund in England. I am sure that the hon. Member will welcome the £6.4 million that has been allocated to Manchester.

Topical Questions

Since the last Work and Pensions oral questions, I am pleased to welcome the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) to join our ministerial team. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) on moving to his new role, looking after childcare. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) for the great work that he did during his time in the Department; he should be proud of his achievements, including the changes to accessibility of benefits for those with terminal illness, and the national disability strategy.

Last week I was in Glasgow for COP26. I know you were also there at the weekend, Mr Speaker, to have discussions at that important climate conference. I was meeting my international counterparts and leading industry figures to discuss how to unlock the global superpower of pension funds to help us to achieve net zero. The UK is already leading the way. We need to mobilise climate finance, but together—with the resolve and readiness of countries and companies to act—the commitment that we secured in Glasgow will deliver prosperity and protection for people and the planet.

My constituent contacted the Department for Work and Pensions several times after her universal credit stopped at the end of July because she had reached state pension age, but she received no response. Three months later, I wrote to the DWP on the matter and received a letter on the same day, admitting the error, immediately depositing the outstanding amount and beginning the pension payments that my constituent was due. I listened to the excuses of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), on this earlier, but I still cannot understand how it could have happened. Will the Secretary of State apologise to my constituent for the very great anxiety that she has suffered because of the DWP’s blunders?

The hon. Member just shows her effectiveness as a Member of Parliament in responding to her constituent and taking the issue up with us. If there are specific details that she would like to go into, I think the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), will be more than happy to respond. It is right to say that universal credit is not paid to people who are of pension age, but I flag to her some of the issues addressed by my hon. Friend earlier when considering the backlog in paying out pensions.

May I add my welcome to the new Ministers on the Front Bench today?

In the year before the pandemic, 380,000 sanctions were handed out by the DWP to the British people. Of course, there must be rules in any system, but since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, there has been a heavy focus on punitive sanctions, often for minor infractions, yet when the Home Secretary breaks the ministerial code by bullying, she gets off scot-free; when the Electoral Commission tries to investigate the Prime Minister’s flat refurbishment, it gets its wings clipped; and last week, when Mr Owen Paterson broke the rules on paid advocacy, this Government tried to do away with the rules all together. These are not one-offs. This is a pattern of behaviour. Does the Secretary of State appreciate that many people are comparing how the DWP operates with how the Conservative party behaves, and are asking, “Why is there one rule for the Government and another for everybody else?”?

Well, what can I say? The interests of the British public are best served when the Conservative party is in power and in government. We are seeing a rise in employment. We are seeing a universal credit benefit system that is more generous than the legacy system that was there. We are finally removing a lot of the thresholds that actually prevented people from working more than 16 hours per week. I am proud of not only our policies but our civil servants in delivering an excellent record in trying to make sure that money gets to the people who deserve it the most.

People simply want to know that everyone in this country is playing by the same rules, and I think that is reasonable.

Let me turn to another crisis of the Government’s own making—the problems in the labour market we have seen over the past few months that left the pumps dry and the shelves sparse. As we left the single market it was obvious which sectors would be most disrupted: transport, logistics, and social care and the NHS. Regardless of how people voted, we have to make this work, which it clearly does not at the moment because of Government incompetence. This Government often claim they have a plan for jobs, but surely any credible plan would have tackled these shortages head on and got unemployed people the skills the economy needs to keep Britain moving. So, very simply, why was there no plan in place to prevent these problems?

Very evidently, the plan for jobs is working. We are seeing more people on the payrolls than was happening pre-pandemic. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about some of the skills that may be required. I am conscious that many people who campaigned vigorously to stay in the European Union are still trying to use the excuse of leaving the European Union for why certain sectors are still under-supplied. The reality is that nearly 6 million people registered for the EU settlement scheme and they have an entitlement to live in this country if they so wish. I think there are some aspects of covid that are perhaps hindering people in coming back into the UK who are considering a return to their native countries. Let me say very clearly that we are working on this right across Government. We have the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee. We are encouraging people to consider swapping sectors, as is happening with aspects such as SWAPs—sector-based work academy programmes—for people who are unemployed. There are also the bootcamps for skills and the incentives to take on apprentices that have given been to employers right across the country. I can honestly assure the hon. Gentleman that the plan for jobs is certainly working.

T4. North Devon still sees twice the number of jobseekers as pre-pandemic, yet employers across my constituency are desperate for staff of all skill levels. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to match jobseekers with vacancies? (904080)

Jobcentres work directly with local employers using programmes such as SWAPs to fill those vacancies and gaps. We are providing training and work experience, and a guaranteed interview. The Chancellor has announced £1.3 million investment in new technology to better match claimants and vacancies with a new job-matching tool. I can confirm that that is out to tender and we will update the House shortly.

T2. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. DWP staff report that Serco telephony services are causing excessive call times because the private sector staff are poorly trained. How much is this outsourcing obsession costing the taxpayer, and is it fair on claimants who face hours hanging on the phone only to receive often questionable advice? (904078)

If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me I will try to get a more detailed answer, but the bottom line is this: he will be aware that there is a regular review of all contracts put out by the DWP, and in respect of Serco the latest data was published on 24 September 2021 and is available on the website.

T5. Will the Minister update me on the In-Work Progression Commission’s report and explain how this will help my constituents to earn more and progress in their careers? (904081)

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the Government will publish the response to that report by the end of the year. It will help his constituents and all those facing barriers to progressing in work. Almost £100 million was announced by the Chancellor to support a new in-work progression programme.

The British Government’s statutory minimum wage is not a real living wage; in fact, it is a sham. It does not meet the minimum income needed for an acceptable living standard, and the differing rates for young people, including in the Secretary of State’s constituency, are wholly unjust and discriminatory. What action will she take to ensure that all workers, regardless of age, get a real living wage, as set by the Living Wage Foundation in April, that actually reflects the rising cost of living, and not the sham supported by this British Government that Scotland did not vote for?

We have a separate body that already makes recommendations. It is called the Low Pay Commission, and the differential in wages is out there. The hon. Member can cite whatever campaigning body he likes; we have seen a huge increase in the national living wage, and that is to be welcomed right across the country as we head towards the national living wage being 66% of median earnings.

T6. Almost exactly a year ago, I had the privilege of serving on the Bill Committee for the Pension Schemes Act 2021, which was widely appreciated by the industry as being an outstanding piece of legislation. One of the best parts of that Bill was pensions dashboards, which enable people to better understand and impact on their pension savings. Can my hon. Friend in a short time give an update on the implementation of pensions dashboards and undertake to write to members of the Committee with a more detailed response? (904082)

I can do that. It is a herculean IT project with 43,000 pension providers, 22 million private pensions and state pensions all coming to your mobile phone, your laptop or your device at home. It will be groundbreaking and will be ready in 2023.

T3. In breaking the pensioners’ promise by unlocking the triple lock, many pensioners in my constituency, where there is an extremely high cost of living, will struggle this winter with heating and food. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that they receive the money they rightly deserve and that he promised the electorate to get through this winter? (904079)

The hon. Member will be aware that the pension has gone up by more than £2,000 in cash terms since 2010. There will be a double lock this coming year, subject to the will of Parliament, and there is also the enhanced take-up of pension credit, which I urge her to ensure her constituents apply for.

T7. Many sectors, as we have heard, are struggling to get the staff they need, such as social care, hospitality, janitorial services, haulage and logistics. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what further steps she is taking to enable jobseekers to find jobs, and businesses to find the staff they depend on to remain prosperous in my constituency? (904083)

The DWP helps fill vacancies directly with work coach support through our plan for jobs programmes, including via the sector-based work academy programmes, and kickstart. We have doubled the number of our work coaches, particularly to support sectors with shortages, and we have a virtual job help platform with job search advice, a showcase of sectors and signposts directly to those vacancies, including in HGVs and logistics.

T8. The new Help to Claim contract tender only specifies digital and telephone channels, yet a large number of claimants who need this service find those channels impossible to use and need face-to-face advice. Can the Minister confirm that there will be no removal of funds from face-to-face services and that potential claimants will still be able to access help via face-to-face advice? (904084)

We are committed to making sure that the best advice is available to people. We have clearly moved on from the depth of the pandemic, and we are looking at how best we respond. I will come back to the hon. Lady with more detail on how we propose to move things forward.

T9. Since leaving the EU, it is right that all those in the UK who are entitled to benefits receive them, so what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that our post-Brexit benefit rules are applied fairly and consistently for UK and EU citizens alike? (904085)

We have been working consistently to try to ensure that for people who receive benefits, for which immigration status is required, we exhaust all avenues to encourage them to apply to the EU settlement scheme to maintain that benefit entitlement. I am pleased to say that the vast majority of people have done so, and we will keep working to try to ensure that, whether people have received letters, UC journal messages, invitations to come to face-to-face appointments, or supportive officers have been sent round to help them with the process, we are taking every action possible to try to ensure they do so. I encourage hon. Members to ensure that people know they must apply for EUSS status so that they continue to be eligible for the benefits.

Like other Members, I welcome the modest reduction in the universal credit taper rate, but it does not come close to compensating for the effect of the £20 a week cut to universal credit, to say nothing of the national insurance hike, rising inflation and soaring energy prices. In a written answer to me in September, the Minister for welfare delivery, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) confirmed that prior to cutting universal credit, the Department had not assessed the effect of the cut or the increase in energy costs on child poverty. Will the Secretary of State act now to correct that omission and conduct and publish an up-to-date assessment of how the cut to universal credit and the rising cost of living will impact on child poverty?

Given that it was a temporary uplift, recognising the effect of aspects of the pandemic on people new to benefits, no impact assessment was undertaken. With the removal of the temporary uplift, therefore, no impact assessment has been undertaken either.

The cut to the taper rate from 63% to 55% was clearly a vital measure to support people on low incomes. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to lowering the taper rate further so that we can ensure that people who go to work continue to work and benefit as a result?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on championing the announcement of the reduction of the taper rate from 63% to 55%. He may be aware that that was the original design of the universal credit system. The Chancellor agreed with me and the Prime Minister that, in trying to ensure that work pays, it was the right moment to do it. It recognises the labour market opportunities and makes sure that people are better off working. With my right hon. Friend the Chancellor having already provided for costs of about £2.5 billion annually, I am not convinced that we will seek to change the taper rate further; instead, we will be seeking to ensure that all the current job vacancies are taken up so that work really does pay.

In answering an earlier question about 1950s women, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), referred to the High Court but not the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s report. Given that the report explicitly urged the Government not to drag their feet and to proactively co-operate with the next stages of the investigation, will he assure me that he will break the habit of a lifetime and do just that?

The hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten that the PHSO was set up under a Labour Government. It has a three-stage process. We are observing the process that his Blair-Brown Government, which he obviously now disowns, set up and insisted that we take.

Motor neurone disease is a cruel and relentless condition. Too many people with MND and other terminal illnesses are struggling to access the benefits that they need. The Northern Ireland Executive have committed to introducing legislation this month to reform the unfair six-month rule. Will the Government follow their lead?

I share my hon. Friend’s desire to see those changes made as quickly as possible, which is why we are taking a two-stage approach. That will allow us to introduce changes to universal credit and employment and support allowance via secondary legislation in April. Parliament will need to pass primary legislation to amend the special rules in other benefits, which we will introduce as soon as the parliamentary timetable allows.