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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 705: debated on Monday 13 December 2021

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Poverty

As the economy recovers, and with record job vacancies, our focus is on supporting parents to secure a role and to progress in work. This is based on clear evidence around the importance of parental employment, particularly where it is full time, in substantially reducing the risk of child poverty. Our multi-million pound plan for jobs, which has been expanded by £500 million, will help people to boost their wages and their prospects.

Every time I walk down the high street in Stockton, I see the signs of poverty, with 51% of working-age families with children receiving universal credit, the majority of whom are in work. They are heading towards Christmas wondering how to put food on the table, never mind buy presents for their children. Will the Government accept responsibility for child poverty, recognise that the £20 uplift to universal credit could have made all the difference this Christmas, and tell me what parents should say to their children on Christmas morning, when there will be very little to celebrate?

The hon. Member talks about in-work poverty. Important steps were put forward in the Budget to improve the taper rate and the work allowance, which will really help many of his constituents—in fact, the vast majority of them, about 3,966.

I very much welcome the change to the taper rate for universal credit. This will be of enormous help in reducing child poverty for parents who are in work. As we run into the new year, could my hon. Friend now persuade the Chancellor to look carefully at further helping out by putting more money into the work allowances for many of those who are trapped and unable to get into work?

Having served as my right hon. Friend’s Parliamentary Private Secretary in the past, I know his passion for these issues. In the Budget, we set out that the work allowances were going to increase by £500, and that has made a big contribution. For those who are vulnerable, we have provided an extra £500 million of support, which will be a real help over the winter.

Despite the recommendations made by the Work and Pensions Committee, the British Government have no intention of developing a strategy to reduce child poverty. This stands in stark contrast to the SNP Scottish Government, who have declared tackling child poverty a national mission and are doubling their game-changing Scottish child payment to £20 a week, in contrast to this Government’s decision to cut universal credit by £20 a week. Why are the UK Government refusing to introduce proper proposals to tackle child poverty as we have done in Scotland?

We do have proper plans in place, and we are working hard to help parents to get into work. As the hon. Gentleman will know, 580,000 fewer children are in workless households than in 2010, so we are taking the action that is required. I know, having recently come to this post, how hard the Secretary of State is working across Government to tackle this vital issue.

The best route out of poverty is work, so does the Minister agree that it is important to get more people into work through our ambitious plan for jobs and through investment in Teesside such as our freeport programme, which will produce 18,000 jobs over the next five years?

Absolutely. It is pivotal that we get the plan for jobs working, along with local councils, local enterprise partnerships, hard-working Mayors and businesses. That is what we are seeing in Teesside, which is setting a great example for the rest of the country.

End of Universal Credit Uplift

2. Whether she has made an assessment of the effect of ending the £20 universal credit uplift on trends in the level of homelessness. (904700)

8. What assessment she has made of the impact of removing the £20 uplift to the standard allowance of universal credit on household budgets. (904707)

14. What assessment she has made of the impact of removing the £20 uplift to the standard allowance of universal credit on household budgets. (904713)

21. What assessment she has made of the impact of removing the £20 uplift to the standard allowance of universal credit on household budgets. (904720)

Charities warned that the cut to universal credit would risk 100,000 people falling into homelessness, yet the Government ploughed on with it. Added to that is the freeze to housing benefits, with the result that more families cannot afford their rent and risk losing the roof over their head, and the fact that the Government have yet to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, meaning that the very same people who are being made homeless could then become criminalised. Can the Secretary of State tell us how many people she expects to fall into homelessness, and what the Government are going to do about it?

We have provided £140 million of discretionary housing payments to councils, specifically to target that element. We boosted the local housing allowance in the covid Budget of 2020, and we have kept it at that rate. As the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), has just said, there has been a significant investment of about £2.5 billion in both increasing the work allowance and reducing the taper rate. My work coaches across the country are helping people to get into work day in, day out.

Many of my constituents have caring responsibilities and can only work part time, often at low wages. Does the Secretary of State recognise that families in this situation will generally lose more from the £20 a week cut to the standard allowance than they could ever hope to gain from the reduced taper? What does she have to say to those families?

I respect that people undertake care, and I am conscious that they often choose to do it in partnership with their local authority. We want to make sure that people take advantage of the increase in the national minimum wage, which will be coming in from April 2022, and of the changes that make it worthwhile for people to work extra hours and progress in work, which will be a big focus of what we do in 2022 and beyond.

Although the recent changes to the taper rate and the work allowance are welcome, they simply do not go far enough. The Resolution Foundation’s analysis found that huge increases in the cost of living will wipe out any gains. Even with these changes, three quarters of families on UC will still be worse off than if they had kept the £20 uplift to the standard allowance. Does the Secretary of State now see that the countless organisations, and even former Tory Work and Pensions Ministers, who argued for the uplift to be made permanent were actually right?

I am conscious of what the hon. Lady says, and I am sure she welcomes the £25 million of the £0.5 billion spent on the household support fund over this winter. I am also conscious that we want to make sure people will be better off working than not—that was the big change and the big announcement in the Budget. I am conscious that, right now, right across the country there are more people seeking work than ever before. More people are on payrolls than ever before and companies across the country are looking for workers, so we will be doing our best to help people who have not been working to get into work. We will also be responding to in-work progression early in the new year.

A survey by Christians Against Poverty found that 67% of its service users will struggle to pay for essentials in the coming months, with 35% already falling behind with bills and 27% now further into debt. What message does the Secretary of State have for these hard-pressed people in the season of good will?

I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the £1.6 million that has been given to her local council specifically for targeted support through the household support fund. I am sure she will be as keen as I am to ensure that people seeking work in her constituency get the benefit of the extra work coach support. We have invested in that right across the country and we will continue to do so.

Help for Jobseekers: Local Employers and Skills Providers

3. What plans she has to work with employers and skills providers at a local level to help more jobseekers into work. (904701)

5. What plans she has to work with employers and skills providers at a local level to help more jobseekers into work. (904703)

15. What plans she has to work with employers and skills providers at a local level to help more jobseekers into work. (904714)

Through our place-based approach, the DWP is working closely with employers, skills providers and other Departments to support people into work. Our jobcentres connect directly with local employers to discuss their recruitment needs and to offer tailored advice and support to help fill vacancies. This includes offering work experience opportunities and increasing the number of sector-based work academy programme places available.

I am delighted that more than 100 young people in the Scottish Borders have already started work through the kickstart scheme. What can the Government do to encourage employers to keep people on after the scheme ends?

I am delighted, too. I am pleased to announce that more than 112,000 kickstart jobs have been started by young people across the UK. Many young people have found permanent jobs through kickstart, and we continue to work closely with employers to help young people find those long-term employment opportunities. We have helped employers to move kickstart participants into apprenticeships more easily by working with colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure employers receive the incentive payments for doing so.

How has the Department worked with DFE to ensure that people on universal credit who are accessing new training and qualifications through the various Government schemes do not lose their universal credit entitlement as a result?

I assure my hon. Friend that we work closely with the Department for Education. With the existing flexibilities in the benefits system for people taking up that training, DWP Train and Progress allows universal credit claimants to participate in full-time work-related training for up to 12 weeks and to attend DFE skills boot camps for up to 16 weeks, including the recently announced HGV boot camps, which have more than 10,000 places available.

In North West Leicestershire, we are fortunate enough to have 1.1 jobs for every individual. However, a large amount of our unemployment is down to gaps in skills and training, so what will the Department do to solve that problem?

Through my hon. Friend’s Jobcentre Plus support and the flexibilities I described in DWP TAP, his constituents can now access level 3 courses for free, skills boot camps and other training opportunities that my Department has ensured all UC claimants can access by extending the length of time they can participate in full-time work-related training. In addition, we are investing £10 million annually over the next three years in the sector-based work academy programmes, delivering those life-changing opportunities in those key sectors.

The Minister talks the talk, but does she walk the walk? In places such as Huddersfield, we are creating a new syllabus for people who are 16, 18 and 21 to get into green jobs and green enterprise, but there is a lack of leadership from the Government and things are fragmented at the local level. Get your act together and do it properly. There is a whole green economy here, where we can save this fragile planet, but we need action now.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking me about walking the walk. I assure him that through our national employer and partnership team, NEPT, and the work we do across government and through the green jobs taskforce, we are absolutely tackling that. We have a direct strand of work, which I was engaged with just at the end of last week, that is making sure that those skills, abilities and opportunities in his constituency, and everyone else’s, are there for those who want to go into that bit of the economy.

The first Ways to Work centre opened in St Helens in June, with one to follow in Earlestown in the new year. It is locally designed and has been recently supported by Labour-led St Helens Council and the Liverpool city region respectively. It brings education, employment and training for local people together under one roof. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the project on making 1,300 unique interventions in just six months? Does she agree that this type of local model works? If so, will she help me to ensure it gets the funding it needs to be sustainable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for everything he has mentioned, because we are doing that across the UK in 150 brand-new youth hubs. If he will listen to my answer, I hope he will understand that we are linked locally to the economy; we are keen for those job outcomes to come to his constituents and more widely, and this is being done through local interventions and local engagement.

The Tory trope is that UC helps people into work, but it has been a few years since the National Audit Office said that there is no way of measuring the outcomes and success of UC. So will the Minister tell me what measures are now in place to measure the outcomes of UC in getting people into work, particularly at the local level?

We absolutely measure the outcomes of all our programmes, particularly the sector-based work academy programmes. Of course, skills are devolved in Scotland. In my recent engagement with the Welsh Government and at the Welsh Affairs Committee, I pointed out that outcomes are not measured in Wales. I think this is a thing we should be doing in all devolved areas.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. People across the country who have had a really hard time at work in the past year need DWP Ministers focused on their jobs. It will not have escaped your notice that it was reported over the weekend that the DWP has joined the last Christmas naughty list of Whitehall lock-ins during lockdown, but it is not me the Secretary of State should be apologising to—it is the more than 100,000 young people who will not be helped by the time the underperforming kickstart scheme comes to a close before Christmas. So may I ask the Minister: when kickstart comes to a halt and thousands of young people still need help, what then?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and welcome her to her post. I know that she has a strong interest in young people in every constituency doing as well as they can. Kickstart has not underperformed. Let us be honest: more than 112,000 young people have joined the programme. Of course, when we created the programme, we expected an unemployment level of perhaps 12%; it is just over 4%. Let us focus on the outcomes for those young people, which we are tracking carefully. We are linking up with the Department for Education to ensure that the traineeships and apprenticeships are there.

I know that visiting her jobcentre is on the hon. Lady’s to-do list. When she does so, I am sure she will hear amazing stories about what is happening to young people locally.

The Minister mentioned young people. The new inland border facility in Holyhead means that more than 200 jobs are coming to the island of Anglesey. How will the Minister ensure that those new jobs go to local young people?

My hon. Friend is such an assiduous Member of Parliament in standing up for Ynys Môn—I salute her for that. We have been working through the local jobcentre. In fact, she helped reopen the jobcentre and make sure it was safe, alongside the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). Working with local employers and the jobcentre, she has made sure that there are buses and that people can access the jobs that are there. We will continue to work with her and the jobcentre on that.

Increased Living Costs: Benefit Claimants

4. What steps her Department is taking to support benefit claimants in meeting increased living costs. (904702)

6. What steps her Department is taking to support benefit claimants in meeting increased living costs. (904705)

7. What steps her Department is taking to support benefit claimants in meeting increased living costs. (904706)

23. What steps her Department is taking to support benefit claimants in meeting increased living costs. (904722)

The Government are taking action to make work pay for low-income households. As was announced at the Budget, we are reducing the universal credit taper rate and increasing the work allowance so that working people can keep more of their earnings. We have introduced a £500-million household support fund so that local authorities can help those on the lowest incomes with their food and utility costs.

About 12,000 households in Luton South are claiming universal credit, and one in 10 people say that they could not afford a £5 per month increase in their cost of living. Does the Minister accept that his Government’s failure to tackle increasing rents and energy costs will impact the poorest in society more and push more of my constituents into poverty?

I think the hon. Member will welcome the fact that the vast majority of the nearly 6,000 claimants in work will gain from the reduction in the taper rate and the increase in work allowances in the Budget, which is terrific. For those who are vulnerable, £1.8 million has been made available to local authorities to help them through the household support fund.

A single father who is unable to work on health grounds told the Select Committee in September that removing the £20 a week uplift would force him to skip meals so that his children did not have to. Christians Against Poverty, which supports him, says that he now cannot afford the absolute basics: food, heating and bus fares to take his children to school. He certainly cannot afford to buy his children Christmas presents. With prices rising so fast, is not the social security safety net just too low?

As I just set out to the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), we have introduced the household support fund. In Newham, £3.3 million is available to help people exactly like the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent with the challenges they are facing this winter.

In effect, the new household support scheme, about which we have heard quite a bit today, replaces the £20 universal credit uplift with £1.60. Can the Minister tell me how that will help families through this harsh winter, especially as increasing numbers of people will have to self-isolate? It certainly will not do much for the more than 16% of families in Blackburn who live in fuel poverty—households that are now faced with even higher fuel prices in the winter cost crunch. Will he reconsider the rate of the universal credit standard allowance and ensure that it rises in line with the cost of living?

I can reassure the hon. Member that steps are in place to help people through various stages of the employment journey. For those who are in work, there is the universal credit taper and work allowance. For those who are out of work, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), has said, there is the plan for jobs, which is making a big difference in people’s lives. For those who are vulnerable and need extra help, there is the household support fund, and in Blackburn and Darwen that comes to £1.6 million over this winter.

Everyone in the food sector knows that costs are rising dramatically and that margins are being eroded. We are already seeing price rises in the shops. The Food and Drink Federation thinks that it is £3 a week for households. Out of the £5 that has already been mentioned, does the Minister understand just what pressure that puts on vulnerable households? What will the Government do to protect them when those price rises bite?

It is really important that we get more people into work, and there are 1.3 million vacancies. We need to help those who are unemployed into work, which will be the biggest, most sustainable way that we can get them on to their own two feet. As I have said, we have the household support fund, and in Cambridgeshire that comes to £3.6 million, which will help the people whom the hon. Member is talking about.

With housing costs a major driver of poverty, the Government have decided yet again to freeze the local housing allowance, hitting millions of renters. As the Minister well knows, neither discretionary payments nor the winter hardship fund will do anything like meet the shortfall in that gap. Meanwhile, rents are anything but frozen and more than half of all renters have a shortfall between their rents and the help available. Will the Minister tell us when the Government decided not to link the support for housing costs to actual real world rents, and what assessment have they made of the impact of that on household incomes?

As the hon. Member will remember, we increased the local housing allowance rates to the 30th percentile of local rents in April 2020. That is a boost of £1 billion in support and an average gain of £600 for each person in private rented accommodation who needed housing support. We have also maintained that at cash levels, which will be a real help, and there are also discretionary housing payments for those who need them as well.

To help pensioners with rising household bills, will the Government do more to promote pension credit? In the Kettering constituency, almost 18,000 retired people claim the state pension, but fewer than 2,000 claim pension credit, yet this can help with council tax bills, heating costs and so on. Across the country, 1 million pensioners are not claiming the pension credit to which they are entitled, so can the Government do more to increase the uptake of that benefit?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner on these matters, but we also have a doughty Pensions Minister who is working incredibly hard to increase the take-up. I also highlight to him that, as I am sure he knows, winter fuel payments and cold weather payments are also available to help pensioners on low incomes over the winter period.

Pensioner Poverty: State Pension

10. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the state pension in tackling pensioner poverty; and if she will make a statement. (904709)

13. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the state pension in tackling pensioner poverty; and if she will make a statement. (904712)

Let me take this opportunity to welcome the newcomers to the Opposition Front Bench.

The state pension is the foundation of support for older people and, under this Government, the full yearly amount of the basic state pension will be more than £2,300 higher in April than in 2010. The latest figures show that 200,000 fewer pensioners are in absolute poverty compared with 2009-10.

Fred from east Hull was left without any income whatsoever for several months earlier this year because the Department for Work and Pensions failed to pay him his state pension, to which he was rightfully entitled. When my office intervened, he eventually got paid, but it took us several weeks to sort it out. When people such as Fred in areas like mine are already facing a cost of living crisis, fuel poverty and the effects of the pandemic, does the Minister feel that he should apologise to Fred and many others?

I cannot comment on the individual case, but I can say that the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there was a backlog over the summer period by reason of covid and many other factors, which we took great steps to address. A dedicated team of several hundred individuals ensured that we caught up with the backlog, and we are now operating business as usual.

With winter biting and energy companies going to the wall, approximately 13.2% of households in Ealing Central and Acton are in fuel poverty—that is 6,864 pensioners struggling to heat their homes. Will the Minister agree with Labour and cut VAT on household heating bills during these winter months? The Conservatives have pilfered enough of our manifesto before; they could do this and make a real difference to pensioners.

The hon. Lady will be aware that we spend £2 billion on the winter fuel payments. There is also the cold weather payments fund, the household support fund, and the pension credit energy rebate. There are a whole host of ways in which support can be found for her constituents.

I know my right hon. and hon. Friends in the ministerial team are doing their best, but is there any encouragement they can give, perhaps in conjunction with the Treasury, to the women of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign who lost out on the state pension start age?

With respect to my right hon. Friend, that matter has been decided in the courts on two occasions—in the High Court and in the Court of Appeal—and it is not proposed to change the policy.

The Government have consistently failed to stand up for the interests of pensioners on modest incomes. Food prices are up, gas prices are up and electricity prices are up. The cost of living is going up. Yet despite this, the Government are refusing to cut VAT on fuel, even though they have had higher than expected VAT receipts from across the economy, which would allow them to do exactly that and offer much-needed help to pensioners. To make matters worse, the Government are also failing to increase the take-up of pension credit. When will they finally start offering real help to our pensioners?

That is a bit rich. When the last Labour Government were in power, the state pension was under £100; it is now going up to £185 going forward. It is almost double what it was before thanks to the triple lock introduced by this Government and the coalition Government. It is also very much the case that pension credit take-up is actually going up, not down. Over the two years of the pandemic, both the basic and new state pension will have increased by more than prices thanks to the cumulative effects of the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Act 2020 and the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Act 2021.

National Disability Strategy

11. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to ensure cross-Government delivery of the national disability strategy. (904710)

The entire Government are committed to transforming the everyday lives of disabled people through the national disability strategy because we want to build back better and fairer. A number of commitments have already been delivered. I chair quarterly meetings with the ministerial disability champions to drive progress.

Increasing employment opportunities is key to supporting independent living for disabled people and people with health conditions. Will the Minister reaffirm our commitment to supporting 1 million disabled people into work by 2027?

I certainly will. The Government remain absolutely committed to that. There is more to do but progress has been made since 2017. The number of disabled people in employment has increased by 850,000, and the disability employment gap has closed by about five percentage points since 2013.

I suppose, looking at it favourably, at least the long-promised strategy is now published, but the failure to co-produce the strategy with disabled people or disabled people’s organisations is unfortunate. What does the Minister say to people with disabilities and their organisations who have been left disappointed at what they call a “tokenistic” strategy?

The exercise leading up to the publication of that strategy was one of the biggest listening exercises ever undertaken with disabled people by Government. I am proud of it and proud of the result that has been published. It is my personal priority to implement it and to continue listening to disabled people and disabled people’s organisations. Indeed, there is a commitment, and several others through the strategy, to do more of precisely that.

I commend the Minister for driving forward the national disability strategy with a real zest. My inspirational constituent Becky Maddern of the Benjamin’s Smile charity champions accessible play parks for families up and down the country, which became a key commitment in the national disability strategy. Will the Minister reconfirm that this will remain a key priority for her in her cross-Government work?

I certainly will. I pay tribute to Becky Maddern, who I too find inspirational. Indeed, I was thinking about her only at the weekend as I visited a playground with my own children and looked at the range of swings and equipment that was available. This is incredibly important because disabled children deserve to play as much as their brothers, sisters and friends. That underlines why our strategy is a very wide-ranging one that goes across the full range of public services and into culture, leisure and play as well, because it all matters greatly.

One hidden disability often is an acquired brain injury, and 10 days ago, the Government committed to creating a national strategy for acquired brain injury. Will this Department ensure that it fully co-operates with the programme board, which will be set up in the new year, so that we can radically transform the opportunities and chances in life for those who have had an acquired brain injury?

I am very grateful for that question, and I pay tribute to the history that the hon. Member has and the work that he is doing in this area. Two Ministers in this Department have some personal direct experience of these issues, so yes, the Department for Work and Pensions will be keen to make good progress with that work.

Progression out of Low-paid Jobs

As announced in the spending review, the DWP will enhance its support for universal credit claimants who are in work. From April next year, they will have access to a dedicated work coach to help individuals remove barriers, enabling them to progress in work. We will be introducing new Jobcentre Plus specialists, known as district progression leads, who will work with local employers and partners to identify progression opportunities, with support from work coaches.

Does my hon. Friend agree that with the introduction of various skills initiatives by this Government and a booming job market, people across the UK, and in particular in Don Valley, will be finding it easier than ever to get on the job ladder and progress in their chosen career?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The extensive support that the Government have offered through our plan for jobs has protected, supported and created jobs in Don Valley and beyond. In his constituency, for example, we have continued funding our successful sector-based work academy programme in new opportunities such as rail, warehousing, care, security and hospitality, where someone gets a guaranteed interview as part of the programme, which is offered to all his constituents.

The Government’s increase in the living wage does not make it the real living wage. It does not reflect the increased cost of living and it does not adequately support young people under the age of 23. Why are the UK Government refusing to increase the national living wage to the real living wage?

I understand that it is around 60% of the median wage. The reality is that through kickstart, there will be young people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency who will have got on the jobs ladder sooner and earlier than ever before in sectors that one could not have believed, from viticulture to digital marketing to working in architecture—all different areas. That is because of the Government intervening in jobs and opportunities that can lead to apprenticeships, traineeships and progressing in work.

Universal Credit Taper Rate Reduction: Household Budgets

16. What assessment she has made of the impact of the universal credit taper rate reduction on household budgets. (904715)

The reduction in the taper rate and increase in the work allowances mean that 1.9 million households will keep on average an extra £1,000 a year, representing an effective tax cut for low-income working households in receipt of universal credit that will be worth £2.2 billion a year in 2022-23. We are allowing working households to keep more of what they earn and strengthening incentives to move and progress in work.

Unlike the legacy system, which has in-built cliff edges, universal credit ensures that it always pays to take on more hours. Will my hon. Friend commit to working with employers, especially those in my constituency of Lincoln, in low-pay sectors to ensure that they can help their employees understand that?

Throughout our job network, our employer partnership teams and employment advisers are working closely with local employers to ensure that they help claimants understand how best to benefit from the recent positive changes to universal credit taper rates and work allowances. I am sure that my hon. Friend, with his fantastic shirt, will assist with his characteristic energy with this important task.

Young Jobseekers

We are investing in tailored work coach support for young people claiming universal credit and searching for work through our enhanced DWP youth offer. As of 5 December, as announced, 112,000 young people have started a kickstart job. Until March next year, young people can start that key six-month placement, which will support even more young people at risk of long-term unemployment.

Whether through the apprenticeship programme run by fantastic businesses such as Byworth Boilers in Keighley or training programmes run by Keighley College, my constituency has no shortage of people who are passionate about getting young people into the workplace. What further work is my hon. Friend’s Department doing to ensure that businesses, colleges and others can work together to create the best opportunities for our young people to get into work?

The opportunity to speak about youth hubs is too tempting. We have 150 new youth hubs across the DWP, crucially bringing together local partners from employment, training and skills to support young people. The Keighley youth hub, based in Keighley College, is a prime example, working in close collaboration with SkillsHouse, One Workforce and the community-led local development programmes. I hope that sells the youth hubs to you, Mr Speaker.

Legacy Benefits: People with Severe Disabilities

18. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of legacy benefits for people with severe disabilities. (904717)

People on legacy benefits with severe disabilities are most likely to get employment and support allowance. Income-related ESA claimants may be entitled to the enhanced disability premium or the severe disability premium. Claimants may also be eligible for personal independence payments to help with the extra costs of living faced by disabled people.

I am sure the whole House agrees that a good society is one that helps those in great need. I have a constituent in great need. She was in receipt of income support and the severe disability premium, but her child is now aged five so she has been told to claim universal credit, which will cause her severe disability payment to end. What assurances can the Minister give my constituent that we are still in a good society and that, by being forced into this change in her benefits, she will be no worse off?

It would be difficult for me to comment on the hon. Member’s constituent’s precise circumstances, although I am happy to look at the case if she wants to write to me with details. As a general point, to support claimants previously entitled to the severe disability premium who moved to universal credit after a change of circumstances, there are transitional payments protections in place.

The DWP commissioned NatCen to undertake research on the uses of health and disability benefits. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) eloquently outlined, that research, which assesses the adequacy of benefits for disabled people, is vital. Several requests have been made for the report to be made public, including by the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, but they have all been refused. Will the Minister release the report? If not, can she explain what the Government are hiding?

The short answer is no. The longer answer was given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the Work and Pensions Committee only last week.

Universal Credit Transition: Severe Disability Premium

19. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that new universal credit recipients, who were previously entitled to severe disability premium, do not experience a reduction in benefit payments when they transition to universal credit. (904718)

There is a little repetition with the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins). To support claimants previously entitled to the severe disability premium who moved to universal credit following a change of circumstances, we have introduced severe disability premium-related transitional payments. Those eligible, depending on their specific circumstances, will receive a transitional element of up to £405 a month.

I thank the Minister for that answer. One of my constituents was previously in receipt of employment support allowance and housing benefit with a severe disability premium. Earlier this year, she relocated to my constituency to be closer to her daughter for support. That triggered a transition to universal credit and, even with transitional protection payments, she is more than £70 a month worse off, which, in the face of the current cost of living squeeze, is having a significant impact. Will the Minister meet me about this case? What additional steps will the Government take to support people such as my constituent who are being unfairly financially penalised by the move to universal credit?

I am happy to meet the hon. Lady, who, as a relatively new member of the House, I can see is getting stuck into casework. I welcome her hard work in doing so. The design of universal credit has concentrated support on the most severely disabled. That can be taken in alignment with other points that I have made, including on the support available through the national disability strategy and the ideas put forward in our health and disability Green Paper, as well as the many other things that the Department is doing. I hope that they may be of some support and help to her constituent.

Labour Market Shortages: Employment Schemes

20. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of her Department’s employment schemes on labour market shortages. (904719)

Our plan for jobs is working. Since April 2020, over 1.9 million people have moved into work from the universal credit intensive work search group. We have done that by supporting thousands of people through programmes such as kickstart, restart and sector-based work academy programmes—SWAPs—to get back into work, with over 110,000 young people being supported through kickstart alone. There are over 200,000 kickstart jobs still waiting to be filled in the final months of the programme.

Earlier, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), referred to the shortage of HGV drivers, and retailers report fivefold delays in the delivery of products, including wine and spirits, so I am wondering whether the Secretary of State’s scheme is helping to address the shortage of drivers in the run-up to Christmas. How many lorry drivers have started work as a result of her Department’s employment schemes?

I think it is worth explaining to the hon. Gentleman that a couple of different schemes are ongoing. Our principal role is to help people who are not working to get into jobs. We partner with people such as the Mayor of West Midlands, but also with specific programmes in the east midlands. More significant work is being done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, where we have bootcamps working and people are actually getting into jobs. A really important part of what we can do through SWAPs is getting people into new careers that they had never thought about.

Topical Questions

Thanks to our taper rate cut and the increased work allowances announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, almost 2 million households will now benefit from a cash boost worth £1,000 a year on average. Thanks to diligent work by my officials, we have brought this change in a week earlier than planned, so that up to 500,000 more working people can get that extra boost before Christmas. We are also delivering today a less welcome early Christmas present to criminals who target our benefits system and steal from taxpayers, with a £500 million cash injection to root out fraudulent benefit claims and stop scammers. Finally and importantly, very much at the top of my mind today is the booster programme and the acceleration scheme. I am very pleased that our jobs army is going to become part of the jabs army, as DWP civil servants right across the country join the Government’s effort to get as many people boosted as possible.

My right hon. Friend has already touched on the impact that the recent changes in the taper rate and work allowances will have on claimants’ net income, but will she expand on this? Also, will she consider a major advertising campaign to highlight that now is an excellent time to be in work?

My hon. Friend, who is of course on the Select Committee, is very wise in her suggestions. That is exactly the sort of communications that we will be doing in the coming months. This is particularly of interest for people on working tax credits, where we know that the cliff edges, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) mentioned, can be a real barrier to people working extra hours. Those sorts of communications programmes will be released as we continue to try to help more people into work and to progress in work as well.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. May I ask the Secretary of State about Christmas? My question is not what her latest recommendation is should I find myself under the mistletoe, or indeed whether she hosted karaoke Christmas parties in lockdown in her office, but a very simple one: how many children will go hungry this Christmas?

I want to put on the record that no karaoke parties were hosted by me during lockdown; the last time I did karaoke with the right hon. Gentleman was a couple of years ago. I am conscious that he has raised a very serious point about children this Christmas, and that is why we have been working relentlessly on making sure that people can get into work and progress in work, but have also set aside half a billion pounds for the household support fund, half of which is entirely ringfenced for families with children.

I fear the Secretary of State’s answer betrays poverty of ambition. The last Labour Government lifted 1 million children out of poverty, and we did not need footballers to run campaigns on child hunger. With universal credit still being cut for many families, prices going up in the shops, heating bills going up and taxes going up because this lot voted for them, can she guarantee that in 2022 child poverty and the shame of destitution will not also be going up?

I forgot to welcome the former shadow Secretary of State for Health to his new position. The right hon. Gentleman should reflect on the fact that his party opposed extra funding for the NHS through the health and social care levy, which we voted for. The different elements of trying to get people into work are key to lifting many more children out of child poverty. We should also flag up the £1 billion of child maintenance we have collected in the last year; we will keep doubling down on that to ensure deadbeat dads pay for their kids and help to lift their children out of poverty.

T2. I was surprised to learn that child benefit ceases at the age of 16 for somebody starting an apprenticeship. That is clearly a disincentive for some parents to recommend that their children follow that route. Will my right hon. Friend look at this policy and consider making changes? (904725)

I believe it may be more appropriate for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Education to respond to this question, but I will happily flag up to the DfE anything that deters young people from entering apprenticeships and the labour market, and being able to move into long-term work.

We do not talk often enough in society about old-age poverty. Besides the inadequate state pension and the latest triple-lock betrayal, another factor is the low uptake of pension credit: about 1 million pensioners in the UK miss out on £1,600 a year on average, with single women being most affected. We have heard the Pensions Minister say countless times that the Government want to increase the take-up of pension credit, so why is the Department refusing to introduce a proper take-up strategy for pension credits and other benefits, as we have done in Scotland?

We are doing a huge amount to increase the take-up of pension credit. I have met repeatedly with the BBC, and we have set up a pension credit taskforce which involves energy companies, the Local Government Association, various banks, BT and others. The reality is that pension credit take-up is increasing. It is also the case that we have never spent as much money on pensioners as we do now—up to £129 billion, of which the state pension is £105 billion—and pension credit is the highest it has ever been.

T3. With the omicron variant spreading rapidly it is more important than ever that we do whatever it takes to minimise transmission but, at £96 a week, our statutory sick pay is among the lowest in Europe and the TUC found last week that 647,000 workers in hospitality, retail, arts and entertainment do not even qualify. The result is either destitution or desperate workers taking risks. Will the Secretary of State commit to extending statutory sick pay to all workers and increasing it to the real living wage? (904726)

Statutory sick pay is just one part of our welfare safety net and the wider Government support offered to people in times of need. We have been able to look closely at statutory sick pay during the pandemic, but more consideration is needed and it certainly should not be looked at in isolation.

T5. I have a constituent on the legacy benefit system for whom it might be beneficial to move to universal credit. What help and advice is there in making that switch, and what further considerations should he take into account going forward? (904728)

My hon. Friend is right to point out the opportunities for people on legacy benefits. They may be better off on UC, but if not, they should wait for the managed migration programme, where they will have transitional protection. It is also important to note that benefits calculators are readily available online, and the Department funds Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland for the help to claim programme. I am sure such organisations can give individual support. We will be resuming our plan to move to UC in 2022.

T7. I am sad to say that I agree with my hon. Friends that the most vulnerable in our society are being forced to make unthinkable choices. Dozens of my constituents have written to me recently, concerned about the impact this winter will have on elderly residents who face not only loneliness and isolation, but a heartbreaking choice between heating and eating, while disabled people struggle with cuts to their support and those on low incomes face a £20 per week cut to their universal credit. Is it not true that under this Government the most vulnerable in our society are being left without the dignity they deserve and the basic means to get by? (904730)

Far from it. I recognise the hon. Lady is trying to stand up for her constituents, but she should also recognise the significant increases in benefits that have been provided, whether that is for people of pensionable age—about £129 billion—or the increase in financial support to people with disabilities. She should recognise that we will continue to strive at local level through our jobcentres and Jobcentre Plus, and through our automation of things such as the warm home discount, so that people do not even have to go looking for that sort of energy support, and the household support fund, from which many of her constituents will benefit.

T6. I welcome the efforts being made by the ministerial team to get people into work, but will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State advise me of the steps she is taking to ensure that jobseekers can take advantage of the many opportunities in sectors with growing demand for workers? (904729)

The DWP and the Department for Education are working with other Government Departments on priority sector action plans in construction, digital, manufacturing, care and logistics. One example is the DWP national employer and partnership team, NEPT, which also has a dedicated green team rightly focusing on filling vacancies in green jobs here and now.

T8. May I take the Minister of State back to the answer she gave my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on statutory sick pay? People in Hull North face a very tough winter. Even with the new circumstances that have been announced for work, many of them will have to go to work because they work in factories or in manufacturing. Is it not now time that the Government take some action on statutory sick pay and reversing the £20 cut to universal credit? (904731)

The right hon. Lady is right to consider the vulnerable people in her constituency. We looked at some of the policy choices we were making, published in our response to “Health is Everyone’s Business”, in which aspects of sick pay were considered, but there was a change in ministerial appointments near that time. We continue our discussions, and I am confident that we will continue to try to make progress on this element, but it is important to say that those who are required by law to stay at home are still eligible for a Test and Trace payment, administered through the Department of Health and Social Care.

The announcement made last week by my right hon. Friend regarding historical institutional abuse will have been greeted very warmly by those people who were abused in Northern Ireland but now live in Great Britain. On behalf of the Select Committee, which did a lot of work in this area, may I thank her for listening to our representations, making this important policy change and ensuring that there is equity and fairness in this important area of financial support and redress?

I thank my hon. Friend. He will be aware that in the original primary legislation, which allowed for disregard, only Northern Ireland specifically was considered, so I am very pleased to have brought that disregard forward. At the same time, we wanted to take a consistent approach, so I am pleased that we will be applying the same disregards to the forthcoming payments being made by the Scottish Government and through, I think, Islington and Lambeth Councils. I commend him and his Committee Members for their pursuit of the matter.

A free university-level education is a monumental benefit of living in Scotland. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with her colleagues in the Department for Education about the benefits of making higher levels of education accessible and the impact that would have on the employability of young people?

I am conscious that the hon. Lady thinks that just because there is a free course, those people who are most disadvantaged in her country will take advantage of it. In fact, that has not been the case; we see far more people in England from less privileged backgrounds getting into university and benefiting from that. It is important that we have a balanced approach, recognising the importance of level 3, 4 and 5 apprenticeships in particular and the fact that, once they have graduated, those people will be better off financially, except compared with those in Russell Group universities, within 10 years.[Official Report, 5 January 2022, Vol. 706, c. 2MC.]

This time last year, the Canadian Government asked the UK Government to enter into talks to bring about pension parity for pensioners like Royal Navy veteran Alan Wren, who was forced to work until he was 78 years of age because his pension had been frozen in Canada. The Government refused to enter into those discussions. What does the Secretary of State say to veterans such as Alan and the 492,000 other pensioners who are trapped on meagre state pensions, all because they live in the wrong country? In Alan’s case, the country is a commonwealth and NATO partner and ally.

As the hon. Gentleman and I have met and spoken about this matter in the past, he will be aware that the UK state pension is payable worldwide and that all veterans are treated the same as non-veterans when it comes to the payment of the UK state pension overseas.

In an earlier answer, the Secretary of State mentioned that she has not sung karaoke for a number of years, but I seem to recall she was singing, “I’m having the time of my life” just a few months ago, the night before the universal credit uplift was removed. On that point, I recently visited a Trussell Trust foodbank in my constituency, where staff and volunteers raised serious concerns that the reduction in universal credit will push more and more families into poverty. Will the Department concede that the cut to the uplift will mean that more households will become reliant on foodbanks?

The hon. Lady should be aware that there was a temporary uplift, reflecting what was happening with the covid pandemic, which was extended. I am sure she will appreciate the change in the taper rate and the work allowance. Jobcentres will be helping her constituents to get into work. If I may, I will just put on record my thanks to people involved in a variety of ways, whether in foodbanks, food recycling or similar, because it is important that we all continue to work in our local communities to support our constituents.

Mr Speaker, is it in order for me to mention the B word in this Chamber? If it is okay, I want to say Blair—Tony Blair. Has the Secretary of State seen his remark that if we want to give real skills to people, it is FE colleges that are the key to skills? Tony Blair’s idea is that we upgrade the profile of all FE colleges to polytechnics and that we put the resources in to accompany that? What does she think of Blair’s ideas?

What I noticed was that when the hon. Gentleman referred to Tony Blair there was silence on the Labour Benches. What I will say is that we are absolutely committed to the lifetime skills guarantee. We are levelling up across the country and making sure that relevant courses get people into work. I am really pleased that we are united in recognising that that is the most important thing our Department can achieve.