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Topical Questions

Volume 711: debated on Monday 21 March 2022

Our Homes for Ukraine scheme was formally opened for applications on Friday, with more than 150,000 Britons registering their interest. Ukrainian evacuees coming to this country are able to access DWP benefits, support and services from day one, and jobcentres will be helping people to find and move into employment, with assistance from an assigned work coach. Extra support will be available through our flexible support fund. We are also ensuring that the household benefit entitlements of those who have stepped up to sponsor a Ukrainian individual or family will not be affected as a result. As the public open their hearts and homes, we are ensuring that the right support is available to provide security, stability and safety in their hour of need.

The excellent team at my local Jobcentre Plus have briefed my office that they have placed 163 young people in Harrogate in work through the Government’s kickstart programme. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the new Way to Work scheme builds on that, especially in sectors where we are seeing workforce shortages, such as social care?

My hon. Friend is right to praise the young people in his constituency who have started their careers thanks to kickstart. Way to Work will build on our success in bringing employers and claimants together in jobcentres so that we can try to fill local vacancies, and will ensure that when candidates do not succeed in getting job interviews, they receive the feedback much more quickly. We will continue to try to directly address the barriers to entering roles in social care through job fairs and informed campaigns.

Families and retirees are facing rising energy bills so unaffordable, tax rises so punishing, real-terms cuts in the basic state pension so deep, and cuts in universal credit and disability benefits so severe that money-saving expert Martin Lewis has said that people will either starve or freeze. Secretary of State, Mr Lewis is correct, is he not?

We still have the household support fund, which is available for people to apply to, to get extra support from their local council. I encourage people who are struggling right now to make that approach to their council as quickly as possible.

People are struggling right now, and the Secretary of State is about to cut benefits to the tune of £500 for 9 million households. That is a choice that she has made. She has also made a choice by breaking her promise on the triple lock and cutting the basic state pension in real terms by £388 this year, according to The Daily Telegraph. Her justification for that was that the increase in earnings was at 8%. The Bank of England estimates that inflation will hit 8%. Can she rule out breaking the triple lock again this year?

As was explained at the time of the emergency legislation, the increase in earnings was a statistical anomaly due to the impacts of covid. That is why the Opposition supported the Bill right through this House on its very first day—

I said the Opposition; the SNP might be the second Opposition party. The Labour Opposition did support the Bill until it came back from the Lords. There was a lot of support at the time, recognising the statistical anomaly.

T4. The jobs of the future, especially in the green industries, require technical skills, and investing in people to improve their technical skills is vital to the Government’s levelling-up agenda, which is particularly important in beautiful Hastings and Rye. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to increase the technical skills levels of people who are already in work? (906162)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, which I think will interest the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) as well. From April this year, our new DWP in-work progression offer will support working universal credit claimants to progress and increase their earnings. It will include better support to upskill and retrain, and low-paid workers are eligible for training funded by the Department for Education via skills boot camps in digital engineering and the green sectors.

T5. It is welcome that the Government have proposed reforms to the Child Maintenance Service following the recent National Audit Office report highlighting the failures in that organisation. Will the reforms address the issues with self-employed fee-paying parents hiding their income, as well as the concerns around previously unco-operative parents being moved off collect and pay after minimal evidence of compliance? (906163)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. All parents automatically go into the direct payment process. I am working with my noble Friend Baroness Stedman-Scott, the Minister who has direct responsibility for this portfolio, to see what more we can do to accelerate reform if people are clearly not being compliant and not paying. Meanwhile, our financial investigations unit will investigate where people are hiding money and, if necessary, take them to court to ensure that the money gets paid.

T6. I would like to thank our local DWP officials and work coaches for their efforts to help more people in Delyn into work in the past few months. Some parts of my constituency remain among the most deprived in Wales. Does the Minister agree that improved transport infrastructure is key to ensuring that people can get to jobs? I appreciate that she is not a Minister in the Department for Transport, but will she in principle support my campaign to have a train station reinstated to serve Holywell and Greenfield, to help people to access more jobs and level up their communities? (906164)

I think the Minister might struggle to answer that question, but if she wants to try, please do so.

I am going to try, Mr Speaker.

That may be a devolved issue, but I would point out that many employers in Wales have been putting on transportation to bring workers in. That has been happening particularly in Ynys Môn—in Anglesey—to support production there. Working with the jobcentre to put on suitable transport makes a difference in getting people into work too.

T7. Pensions and benefits have been uprated by 3.1%, whereas inflation is set to be 6.2%, or 8% if The Daily Telegraph has got it right. That means that pensioners and benefits recipients will not be able to pay for the most basic essentials. How can the Minister look people in the eye when the Government have inflicted yet another real-terms cut? (906165)

The factual matter is that the state pension has increased by in excess of 5% over the past two years. There is also £5 billion-worth of pension credit—I encourage the hon. Gentleman to get his vulnerable constituents to apply for that—and the Chancellor’s £9.1 billion package for energy bills. I also encourage the hon. Gentleman to get his constituents to apply to the local authority fund.

T8. Ministers will be aware that a number of organisations, such as those in in care services, agriculture and related industries, and hospitality, are experiencing difficulties in finding enough workers. What can Ministers do to bring those who are looking for work together with those kinds of industries? (906166)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. There are currently over 1.2 million vacancies. On jobs and vacancies, Opposition Members do not appear to understand that people are better off in work than they are on benefits. Let us get to the point: there are key sectors in this country that need people. To tackle this challenge, we at the Department for Work and Pensions are stepping up, with Way to Work bringing people into our jobcentres and helping claimants to change their lives.

While the Secretary of State was enjoying our warm Lancashire hospitality in Blackpool this weekend, just a few miles up the coast in Fleetwood, my constituent Patricia was emailing me as her MP. She is a disabled pensioner and says:

“The state pension does not keep up with rises in cost of living or inflation…Fuel costs are crippling, as I don’t move and feel the cold but we have to be careful with the heating. I need carers but their costs rise faster than the annual increase.”

What does the Secretary of State have to say to my constituent?

I urge the hon. Lady’s constituent to contact her local authority to see whether there is local authority access to funds. As of April, there will be £9.1 billion of energy support from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities fund. There is also pension credit and efforts are being made on a whole host of levels. I have listed three clear examples of access to cash for individuals such as her constituent.

Following last week’s announcement of changes to the DWP estate, 55 of my constituents are directly affected by the closure of the Bishop Auckland back-office function. Joanne Illingworth, who has worked for the DWP for 36 years, has written to me because she is really concerned that moving her job would not be compatible with balancing her work life and caring responsibilities. To give Joanne and others reassurance, can the Minister confirm that individuals will be given specifically tailored support to find a new role that is suitable for them in their current circumstances, and, if not, that, as an absolute last resort, exit packages will be made available?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. I spoke to her about her constituents just before the weekend. It is absolutely right that our Department is committed to supporting customers, families, the economy, claimants and our staff. Some 65% of our buildings are of very poor quality; they are small and do not allow for opportunities for progression. Thirty-six years is a really decent innings. We will be working directly, one to one, with our staff, using hybrid working practices to retain as many people as we can and give them a better quality working experience.

For many people with disabilities, switching off essential equipment to reduce energy costs is not an option. Extra power is needed to run equipment on which they absolutely rely—to power ventilators, to charge electric wheelchairs or to run a stairlift. When I asked the Prime Minister about this recently, he said that the Government would be looking at ways to abate these costs, so what are the Government doing to support people with disabilities who now face unmanageable energy bills?

Throughout questions my hon. Friends have been setting out the different types of support available for energy bills. I am conscious of what the hon. Lady refers to, and all I can say is that we will continue to look at opportunities to help people, but I encourage her constituents to access support via the local council’s household support fund.

Last week was a nervous moment as we read the news that Stockton’s DWP offices are closing and that 380 staff would be relocated. It is now being reported that those jobs could simply be moved down the road to Middlesbrough. Will the Minister assure me that the Department is looking to keep as many of those jobs as possible in Teesside and that it is working with local leaders to see if there is any suitable usable space in the area so that Teesside does not lose any of those jobs?

That gives me a chance to provide clarification for my hon. Friend, as it is important for his constituents and others who may be affected. This move is about turning opportunities into larger hubs, with more progression, and a chance for better career opportunities. With people working about two days a week in the new vicinity, which may be around 10 miles away, they will have opportunities to stay local and spend local; it will be hybrid working and able to support people’s needs in terms of caring and other responsibilities, such as doing the school run, which they might not be able to do now. I ask his constituents to lean into the engagement and I hope that they will find that the next stage is promising for them.

A recent report by Rethink Mental Illness has highlighted that the Department for Work and Pensions is not carrying out investigations of claimants who have suffered significant or serious harm, including a mental health crisis, self-harm and even attempted suicide. We are talking about the cost of living crisis and we know what that is going to drive people to, so will the Department instigate independent reviews of people who have suffered in the claims process so that they can make it more humane and supportive?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. I am confident that my Department and officials will undertake their duties carefully and considerately. I am conscious that there will be times when things go wrong and that sometimes the Department will be brought into local investigations, usually by social services. It is important that we respond to that, as well as to the ongoing lessons that we learn from broader themes that we investigate through the Serious Case Panel.

I thank the Minister for the phone call last week about the DWP closure and the potential for more than 200 job losses in Stoke-on-Trent—she rightly understands the concern of local residents. Although it is totally irresponsible of the Public and Commercial Services Union to brief before local employees were spoken to, it is vital that we make sure we retain these types of jobs in Stoke-on-Trent, where we know that the average salary is below the weekly average of the rest of the UK and that unemployment is higher than the UK average. What can she do to keep as many of those jobs in the city and work with the local authority to find a new hub within Stoke-on-Trent?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I will address this to you equally and fully, Mr Speaker. It is vital that we ensure that our staff our consulted and listened to. We have more than 920 buildings, which can house 168,000 people—we currently have 92,000 people. Some of them are poor-quality buildings, without progression opportunities, and we have not been able to embrace hybrid working. Let me remind the House that this is about back-office function and retaining staff, giving them a better quality of workplace and embracing hybrid working, and about people staying local when they can.

As a result of my Food Insecurity Bill, the family resources survey now reports on food insecurity. The survey found that one of the key reasons, even pre-pandemic, that people could not afford to eat was that benefits were grossly inadequate. Does the Secretary of State think that the pitiful 3.1% increase in benefits, when inflation will peak at 8%, is going to make people more or less able to afford to eat?

The uprating was in line with inflation in the way that it has been calculated since 1987, but additional support is available, through the three-part plan that the Chancellor set out to tackle energy costs and through the household support fund.

Blackpool South has one of the highest unemployment rates in the entire nation, but there are more than 1,000 job vacancies in the local area. Despite that, many local businesses tell me that they struggle to recruit, as often they have few applicants for local roles and some of those who attend job interviews often do everything they can not to get the job. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that those who are able to work do not continue to refuse reasonable offers of employment?

I was in my hon. Friend’s constituency on Thursday night and Friday morning, and was at the jobs fair held at the Pleasure Beach, which was a great success, as has already been referred to. It is important that we continue to have that relationship with claimants through the intensive work search regime. They are expected to look for work and take work that is available that they are capable of doing. We will continue not only to enforce that regime but to bring employers and claimants together to try to make sure that those interviews are successful and we get people into work, because that will always be the best way of getting out of poverty.

The Minister referred earlier to the modest reported percentage increase in take-up of pension credit. Does he recognise that that increase is a consequence of the removal of mixed-age pensioner couples from eligibility for pension credit, rather than of any actual increase in take-up? Is it not high time that the Department set an ambitious take-up target and published an action plan to deliver it?

With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, with whom I have repeatedly debated this matter, we already have an action plan. We are already engaging with all the key organisations, whether that is the energy companies, television companies or media in the normal way. I respectfully say to him that pension credit take-up is increasing. It is up by 3%, which is definitely not for the reason he asserts, and we continue to make the case for pension credit to the wider population. We want not just individuals to claim; we want carers or people on behalf of their mum or dad to put in a claim.

Almost £4 million of pension credit remains unclaimed in Darlington. What advice can Ministers give to my constituents and others to encourage them to take it up?

I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend’s local paper contains a letter from me this week explaining exactly why upwards of £3,000 is available to vulnerable pensioners—serious money that is as yet unclaimed. We are keen that my hon. Friend’s constituents and others claim pension credit, because it is an important source of money for the most vulnerable. We already spend £5 billion on it, and we want to spend more, but people must claim.

Countless pensioners across my constituency have been forced to make the heartbreaking choice between heating and eating. They were told all their lives that if they worked hard enough then, when their time came to retire, we would take care of them. However, it is evident from those contacting me that that is no longer the case.

As the Secretary of State and the Pensions Minister have already outlined, the Government provide a range of benefits to older people in a whole host of areas, including housing, NHS dental treatment and transport costs. Those things can go a long way to helping with the cost of living crisis, but many such benefits go unclaimed each year. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that older people are aware of and able to access the benefits for which they are eligible?

My hon. Friend the Pensions Minister has already set out the huge number of ways that we are trying to increase awareness. I think it is accurate to say, from internal management information, that we have seen a 30% increase in people applying, so we are encouraging take-up. The lowest proportion of pensioners taking up such things are those with an income above the basic state pension who are still entitled to savings credit, and we need to work harder on that. Just getting a few pennies from the state can unlock hundreds of pounds for their costs.

With the DWP urging benefits claimants to apply for various top-up funds to help with the mounting cost of living crisis, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to increase awareness of the warm home discount scheme and to maximise take-up in my constituency?

Mr Speaker, having got through all the questions in record time today, you are keeping us beyond 3.30 pm, which is very generous of you—[Laughter.] Perhaps we are being rewarded for our efficacy.

The hon. Lady has been working with my hon. Friend the Pensions Minister on a Bill that will hopefully succeed in the upper House, and she will know that we are working through several avenues to try to increase take-up. The warm home discount will be going up later this year, and we estimate that the number of people who will qualify for the increase in the discount will go up by a third.

I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. Although the Secretary of State might be used to dishing out sanctions to people in our constituencies, I gently suggest that it is inappropriate for her to try to do that to you in the Chair.

No one is sanctioning anybody here today. I was just pointing out how efficient this ministerial team is, which reflects the effective work that we do on the behalf of claimants across the country. I do like the hon. Gentleman’s shoes, and I am sure others would claim that title as well.

Before we come to the urgent question, I remind Members that they should be careful not to identify the child at the centre of this case. That includes being cautious about mentioning information that might help others to establish their identity. I call Bell Ribeiro-Addy.