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Topical Questions

Volume 708: debated on Monday 7 February 2022

I am pleased that we have launched Way to Work to help job-ready people get into jobs as quickly as possible. The new approach is focused in particular on bringing many more employers directly into the jobcentre so that we can accelerate the process from application to interview and job offer. In essence, given the number of vacancies right now—particularly in economically important sectors—it is important that we take the ABC approach: any job leads to a better job, which leads to a career.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made about how the two-child benefit cap negatively affects faith communities, where larger families are more prevalent?

The hon. Member and I are both practising Catholics, and I am conscious of the point he is making. However, I am also conscious that the benefit cap takes into account the amount of benefits available to a family compared with median income. It is important that we keep that approach, recognising in particular that the cap can be lifted when people earn, I think, about £605 a month.

T3. Will my hon. Friend ensure that veterans who leave the services with skills in strategic sectors such as heavy goods vehicles are given support through the Way to Work scheme? (905473)

DWP already has a range of provisions in place to upskill jobseekers to take on key roles such as HGV drivers, including through the sector-based work academy programme, which give claimants the skills and qualifications that they need directly to take up local driver roles.

Mr Speaker, may I associate myself with your remarks and thanks directed at Her Majesty the Queen?

I read in the newspapers at the weekend that the Secretary of State is considering resigning over the Prime Minister’s rule breaking and partying. Before she heads for the exit door, given that 550,000 children are destitute, half a million children do not have a suitable bed to sleep in and she has cut universal credit by £1,000, why is she pushing through real-terms cuts to support that mean 10 million households will lose £290? How many more children will be in poverty as a result?

Mr Speaker, I want to assure you, the right hon. Gentleman and the House that I am fully behind our Prime Minister as he gets on with the job. Not only has he got Brexit done, but we are getting more people on to the payroll and achieving all the other things voted for by the British public in 2019. What I will say to the right hon. Gentleman is that I do not recognise some of the numbers he used. However, I am conscious of what we will be voting on later. I am also conscious that elements were based on the fact that it was a temporary uplift to universal credit, recognising the impact of what was happening early on, as people new to the benefit system were able to get a similar amount as people on statutory—[Interruption.]

Order. Can I just remind Members that topicals are meant to be short and punchy? We cannot have long statements, because there is a whole list of Members I still have to get in. That is why I am trying to cough: to speed you up a little—nothing else, nothing personal.

Cutting to the chase, by getting more people into work, people will be better off not only financially but in other aspects of their future prospects.

The shadow whipping operation will be pleased that the karaoke queen is standing by the party and the Prime Minister. The right hon. Lady talks about getting people into work. Earlier today, the pensions Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) said that pensioner poverty has gone down. However, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report shows that pensioner poverty is increasing. Why is she today pushing through real-terms cuts to the pension credit and the basic state pension, which will result in more pensioners in poverty?

As we will discuss later, the one-year approach we take every year is the basis on which almost all benefits are uplifted. We will continue to have that consistent approach.

T5. Last Friday, I paid another visit to Consett jobcentre in my constituency to see the great work it is doing. This Friday, I am hosting an apprenticeships fair in my patch. Auto-enrolment in pensions has transformed the lives of millions of people in constituencies across the country, including in mine. Those aged 18 to 22, who will be attending my apprenticeships fair and going into work, will not benefit yet from auto-enrolment. Will the Minister confirm that he will look at that and do what he can to ensure that everybody in work benefits from auto-enrolment in Britain? (905475)

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is also my constituency neighbour and a massive improvement on his predecessor. Auto-enrolment is a massive success as you know, Mr Speaker. I promise my hon. Friend that we will build on that work with the automatic enrolment review. I look forward to reading his Bill in great detail.

We know the benefits regime is counterproductive and punitive. In 2016, the National Audit Office told the Department for Work and Pensions to carry out its own research into benefit sanctions. The Department is now refusing to release that research, despite promises to Committees of both Houses, because it was

“unable to assess the deterrent effect”.

Why is the Secretary of State ruthlessly pushing ahead with the renewed sanctions regime if almost six years later it still cannot find any evidence that they work?

The sanction regime has not changed. In fact, sanctions have been at a record low over the past year. We are applying a sensible approach, recognising the number of vacancies, so that we can help people to get back into work as quickly as possible.[Official Report, 28 February 2022, Vol. 709, c. 5MC.]

T8. When the lovely Karen came in to celebrate her new job, I saw at first-hand the impact of work coaches like Victor and Harlon at Eastbourne’s Jobcentre Plus. The untold story is perhaps how brilliantly the same Jobcentre Plus can support employers. What work is the Minister and the Department doing to promote that aspect of their work, so we can double down on local unfilled vacancies? (905478)

We have seen 130,000 people going into work through kickstart, working with employers. Way to Work is exactly the same, so we can showcase that local talent to local employers at JCPs.

T2. Kevin Dooley, the father of a constituent of mine, Leanne Dooley, took his own life after the DWP decided to stop his benefits. Leanne was one of five bereaved families who wrote to the Secretary of State calling for an urgent public inquiry into deaths related to the benefit system and asking for a meeting. Six months’ on, the Secretary of State has not replied. Will she agree today to meet that group of bereaved families, including my constituent, Leanne? (905472)

I am very sorry for the family of the individual to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. It is the role of the coroners to undertake appropriate investigations. I am surprised, and am sorry to hear, that the letter has not gone back. It is not my intention to meet them, recognising the ongoing work that we continue to do to try and provide service to such people.

Afghan refugees in north Hampshire have been supported through the hard work of many organisations, including our local jobcentre. Many of those refugees now want to get back into employment. What specific support is my hon. Friend giving to that group?

There is incredible work going on across DWP, including the launch of Jobs First. We are in every bridging hotel, our work coaches are at the forefront of helping people into work, and we have great news and great stories every day.

T4. The Minister will be very much aware that Dupuytren’s contracture is a prescribed industrial disease, but the prescription for that disease is causing so much confusion and concern. Will the Minister be kind enough to agree to a meeting with me and others to discuss those outstanding issues? (905474)

I recognise the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, and I think he will be pleased to see some updates coming out very shortly on this matter.

T6. Constituents in Batley and Spen who contact me regarding issues they are having with PIP, universal credit and other benefits mention the complexity of both the application and appeals processes and the length of time they take. Bearing in mind that many of these people are facing huge physical and mental stress and, given the current cost of living crisis, are really struggling financially, what steps are being taken to simplify and speed up those processes? (905476)

A number of steps are being taken to ensure, as I said earlier, that we get the right benefits to people at the right time, in order that they have the support that we recognise they need. In addition to that general point, we have tried to improve processes in a number of ways during the pandemic. I would be happy to write to the hon. Lady with a little more detail so that she can understand the situation.

We have heard on several occasions about visits to jobcentres, and I have had the opportunity to visit Rugby on several occasions to see the excellent work of the work coaches there. Will the Minister thank them for their work, together with the 13,500 extra work coaches that we have provided to deliver the Way to Work plan?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the daily work that is going on in our jobcentres through Plan for Jobs, Way to Work, and our new additional jobcentres—150 more have opened, and 160 youth hubs. They are absolutely changing people’s lives, and we are committed to helping people to progress.

T7. Recent Citizens Advice research shows that an astonishing 80% of people with no recourse to public funds are behind with one or more essential bills, and 60% are behind on rent. When will the Secretary of State and the Home Secretary get together to stop forcing people into poverty through these abysmal no recourse to public funds rules? (905477)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, it is for the Home Office to make that decision, and of course, people who are in that situation can apply to the Home Office for it to be changed. It is a fundamental principle that if people are coming into the country, we want people to be able to support themselves, rather than rely on extra support to which they knew they would not be entitled.

Jobcentre staff across the country are doing excellent work getting people back into jobs, but a team in the east midlands led by my constituent Nicola Brindley are also doing fantastic work on top of their day jobs to spot jobcentre users who are victims of domestic abuse, and connect them to the help they need. The scheme is called J9; it is named after a lady called Janine Mundy, who was murdered by her former husband. Will the Minister join me in thanking Nicola Brindley and her amazing team of volunteers, and will she come to Nottingham to meet with the J9 team and learn more about the incredible work they do?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that brilliant work. It is efforts such as those—the flexible support fund, the trust and empowerment that we have in our jobcentres, and working with the employer covenant on domestic abuse and getting people into work and back on their feet—that are changing lives every day, in Rugby and other local areas. I am delighted by DWP staff across the land, and proud of them.

T10. A constituent sent me the following message: “I am concerned for April 1st this year. My fire will be turned off and I will start to feel the cold. At seventy eight years, I did not expect to face, like many others, a six hundred pound rise in my gas bill which I cannot afford. How come this government is not bothered about the people?”That plea comes on top of the news that, for millions of people, the Government’s new energy bill rebate will be wiped out by a real-terms cut to their pension. What will the Secretary of State say to my constituent and to all the pensioners whose hardship will be compounded by the Government’s flawed energy rebate plan? (905480)

What I will say is that we continue to try to support pensioners through aspects of pension credit, but it was inaccurate to say that what was proposed was a statistical anomaly. That is why we took the steps we took, and that is why we will continue the debate later today.

I recently hosted the first ever jobs fair in Blyth Valley. It was an amazing success, with more than 50 local businesses taking part. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the Port of Blyth, the DWP and all the local firms that made it possible?

My hon. Friend, again, raises the work of local DWP teams and jobs fairs, which we have seen in Way to Work. Up to 409,000 more people are on payrolls as a result of the DWP’s hard work in my hon. Friend’s community and more widely.

My disabled constituent Ann’s monthly fuel bills of £95 have now risen to £140 and will rise to £200 in April; she also faces inflation-busting care costs. In her budgeting, she has to choose between heating and eating—exactly the problems that were highlighted in the NatCen report. Who benefited most from suppressing that report: my constituent Ann or the Government?

I am rather more interested in the hon. Gentleman’s constituent Ann than in party political game playing. I sincerely hope that his constituent Ann will be able to benefit from the £9 billion package that the Government have laid out, which comes on top of £12 billion and is targeted at the most vulnerable. Meanwhile, we are spending record amounts on health and disability benefits: £59 billion this year.

I recently visited Basildon jobcentre and heard how it is bringing employers in to engage with work coaches and jobseekers. Does my hon. Friend welcome that new initiative, which helps to break the stereotypical view of those who use jobcentres to find work?

As a result of the pandemic, many people who never expected to need help have worked with the DWP, as we have heard. Many Conservative Members have seen just what a change that has meant for people. Again, I invite Opposition Front Benchers to actually go down and see what is happening in local communities.

In July 2020, I met my constituent Stacey Conlin—not at a constituency surgery, but in the physically disabled rehabilitation unit at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. We recovered from our strokes alongside each other, and I got to hear her story.

Too many people like Stacey have survived catastrophic life events only to be let down by this Government’s woeful welfare system—unable to work and unable to pay for basic necessities that many of us take for granted. Will the Secretary of State commit to revisiting the current levels of universal credit so that stroke survivors such as Stacey can fully live their lives instead of barely getting by?

I am very conscious of the important work that the hon. Lady has delivered, including the status that was addressed for her, and I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and I have also undertaken such elements in the national scheme. I am more than happy to find out about the specific example that the hon. Lady refers to, but I know that generally we are trying to make sure that this is the right approach and that people have that access to work.