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Topical Questions

Volume 703: debated on Monday 8 November 2021

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.