Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 711: debated on Monday 21 March 2022

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pension Credit Claimants: Kettering

2. How many and what proportion of state pension claimants in Kettering constituency claim pension credit. (906169)

This Government provide more than £5 billion of pension credit. In August 2021, there were 1,864 people receiving pension credit in the Kettering constituency. That accounts for approximately 10% of those in receipt of the state pension in the Kettering constituency in broad terms.

Pension credit is largely unclaimed across the country; there could be 4,500 people in north Northamptonshire who are eligible but not claiming. Those who do claim it get extra help with council tax, heating bills, dental treatment and TV licences. Would the Minister be kind enough to join me in Kettering at an older persons fair that I am organising in the summer so that we can encourage the take-up of pension credit in the Kettering constituency?

Rumours had reached me of the Kettering older persons fair, which I believe is taking place on Friday 1 July. All roads lead to Kettering on that occasion. I would be honoured and privileged to attend to support my hon. Friend, who is a doughty champion of his constituency, and all the good charities, such as Age UK and Citizens Advice, that are working hard to get those numbers up, which is what we all want to do.

The Minister could have a busy summer ahead. Take-up of pension credit remains low: an estimated 850,000 pensioner households across the country are not receiving the help that they are entitled to. The Department could feasibly work out who those households are and simply make them an award of pension credit. Given the scale of the current cost of living crisis, will the Department commit to an ambitious target for increasing the take-up of pension credit across the country and to a much more ambitious campaign to promote it?

I hate to disagree with the Chair of the Select Committee but he is wrong. As he knows, because he did this job in 2007-08, the Department does not know the exact numbers of a means-tested benefit that was set up by Gordon Brown specifically for circumstances where there is not the capability of saying exactly who can apply. The right hon. Gentleman is also wrong, however, that the stats are going up, not down, because they are up on the main income element.

The right hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, but he is wrong: they have gone up from 70% to 73%.

Huge efforts are also being made by the Department in the form of the work with the BBC and the utility companies, the pension credit taskforce, and all the letters that were written only this morning. I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman’s local paper and to that of the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), to set out what we are doing to try to get people to take up pension credit and why we want everybody to do so.

Cost of Living: Pensioners

9. What steps her Department is taking to support pensioners to manage the increase in the cost of living. (906177)

10. What steps her Department is taking to support pensioners to manage the increase in the cost of living. (906178)

This year, we will spend more than £129 billion on the state pension and benefits for pensioners in Great Britain, including, as I said, £5 billion on pension credit for the vulnerable. Pensioners can also benefit from wider Government support with energy costs on top of the warm home discount, the winter fuel payment and cold weather support.

I thank the Secretary of State for visiting Blackpool last week and for opening our brand-new, Government-funded youth hub, which will help young people to find work. Many pensioners will be extremely concerned about the recent increases in the cost of living. Alongside the measures that the Minister mentioned, what steps is he taking to ensure that those eligible for pension credit and the expanded warm home discount are able to apply and do so?

I know that the Secretary of State loved her trip to Blackpool and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his jobs fair, which I gather was a great success. He is a great champion for Blackpool and for the elderly residents in his community, and he is a big improvement on his predecessor. I am delighted to say that I wrote to the Blackpool Gazette this morning to set out in more detail how we are trying to get more people to take up pension credit, and it is definitely the case that we are doing that.

Order. I do not think it is becoming of anybody to condemn a Member of Parliament who has not been here for a long, long time. I do not really want to get into that, so we should think about what we say in future.

The Minister will know that, in my constituency, 88% of people will see their energy bills go up next week, more than 50% of whom are over the age of 64. What more will the Department do to ensure that older people in my constituency get more support with their energy bills? Simply ignoring the issue, or giving pensioners a loan to pay back, penalises people who do not have enough money to survive—it is heating or eating under this Tory Government.

I have—I have written to all local papers in the country.

The bottom line is that there is a £200 discount on energy bills from this autumn for domestic electricity customers in Great Britain. There is also the £150 non-repayable council tax rebate and the £144 million of discretionary funding for local authorities to support households who need support but are not eligible for the council tax rebate.

We know that the Government have already abandoned their promises on keeping the pensions triple lock and free TV licences for the over-75s. Now, before the soaring inflation and the soaring energy bills have even kicked in, thanks to the Government’s policies, almost a fifth of all pensioners in the UK are living in poverty. One million households are missing out on pension credits and thousands of pensioners, including in my Slough constituency, are bothered by delays, underpayments and other issues. When will the Government finally get a grip and resolve these problems?

With respect, there are 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty, both before and after housing costs, than in 2009-10. [Interruption.] With respect, the statistics are correct. The hon. Gentleman will recall, as a Labour Member of Parliament, that when the Government changed in 2010, the state pension was barely £100; the new state pension will be over £185 this coming year. It has risen by £2,300 in cash terms over the last eight years.

Claiming pension credit is a passport to a variety of other benefits for elderly residents in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, so could my hon. Friend advise local people what support becomes available to them if they submit a valid claim for pension credit?

I have. Literally hundreds of pounds a month can become available in the form of support for housing, council tax, the TV licence for the over-75s, NHS dental, warm home discounts and many other things—as I am setting out in my hon. Friend’s local paper. I am delighted to say that in so many different ways we are making the case that pension credit and the support is out there for our local residents.

What success has my hon. Friend had in ensuring there is greater take-up of pension credit in the Crawley constituency, and will he consider joining me at the older persons fair that I am planning to hold later this year?

Again, all roads lead to Crawley, and quite right too. I would be delighted to attend my hon. Friend’s older persons fair in the summer or the autumn. It is definitely the case that there is a larger take-up of pension credits on an ongoing basis, and that is something we want to see going forward.

Pensioners who have worked hard and paid in all their lives face an absolutely enormous increase in the cost of living. Food prices are up, the cost of heating is going up and the cost of living as a whole is going up. This huge increase in inflation was clear before the invasion of Ukraine and it is crystal clear now, yet so far the Government have only come up with a buy-now-pay-later scheme for heating bills, so I would like to ask the Minister: just when will the Government start listening to pensioners and when exactly will they show even a shred of understanding of the dreadful situation facing our pensioners at this time?

The hon. Member will be aware that we raised state pension by 2.5% this year, when we did not need to do so, and it is going up by 3.1% in April, on top of which there is the support from the Chancellor with the £9 billion scheme set out only a few weeks ago. He will also be aware that huge efforts are being made to ensure there is take-up of the support benefits, which definitely assist. There is over £5 billion of them, but we want much more to be taken up.

Despite what the Minister says, the Government’s last-published figures show that there are 200,000 more pensioners in poverty compared with 2018-19, and it is going to get worse. Next month, pensioners will face an increase in their heating bills of over £800 a year compared with this time last year, and at the same time, due to breaking their triple lock promise, the Government will have taken £500 a year out of the pockets of pensioners. It is shameful. Does he agree that Wednesday represents the one opportunity the Chancellor has to reverse the breaking of the triple lock and to do something to help pensioners?

I wish the hon. Gentleman a swift recovery from the trip or fall that caused his injury.

It is definitely the case that pensioner poverty is declining. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman’s statistic is manifestly wrong on that: pensioner poverty is down in relation to 2009-10. Of course, there are conversations with the Chancellor, but it is absolutely the case that state pension has increased year on year on year, and we have never paid a higher state pension than we presently do.

Upskilling and Changing Career Paths

We have introduced Department for Work and Pensions Train and Progress to address our claimants’ skills needs. Working across Government, we have been able to extend the length of time during which universal credit claimants can undertake full-time training, including skills boot camps in England, to up to 16 weeks. I am also pleased about the role that kickstart has played in helping more than 152,000 young people to gain vital new skills and work experience to help them in their future careers.

Ensuring that people have relevant skills is essential to helping them stay in work throughout their working lives. What opportunities are available to my constituents through jobcentres to access training to ensure they can apply for a wider range of opportunities in south Essex?

I thank my hon. Friend for the chance to highlight our jobcentre teams in Basildon and east Thurrock, who are working closely with partners to provide a wide range of support for local jobseekers, including with South Essex College, which has delivered a sector-based work academy programme—SWAP—for candidates to help them prepare to go into new roles in healthcare, logistics and administrative jobs with Essex Police.

I welcome the work being done by the Government in this important area, which is appreciated in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the SWAP and how it is helping people upskill and change careers?

This is a very successful programme, helping jobseekers, including in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, get an opportunity to develop the key new skills that employers are looking for, including through training and work experience, and a guaranteed job interview in that new sector. I am delighted to be able to say that we have surpassed our delivery goal, with over 146,000 SWAPs having been started since April 2020.

We know we are at record levels of in-work poverty, with more than 8 million people in that category, so why are three out of four people who were in low-paid work in 2010 still in low-paid work now?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about progressing; there is a focus on that at DWP and I hope the Select Committee she serves on will have a look at it, because we have just mentioned two areas where this is working for people and filling vacancies that need to be filled. We will be filling half a million new jobs by the summer through our Way to Work campaign; that will help people progress, and I hope the hon. Lady will welcome it.

The Minister has just accepted the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) that far too many people in this country are stuck in low-paid work. Last month the Secretary of State told me that she was the block to the Government’s response to the report on in-work progression, and last week the Minister told me it would be coming soon. It looks like nothing is happening, so may I give the Minister one last chance: when will the Government respond to the report they commissioned last year on in-work progression?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me one last chance at the Dispatch Box—that sounded rather ominous. In-work progression is absolutely vital; from April we will, as was just mentioned, have more work coaches supporting people who have got stuck, as some people have—there might be things going on in their lives which mean they need more skills or confidence. The Secretary of State and I are working on this response and will be bringing it forward very shortly.

Cost of Living

6. Whether she has had discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer ahead of the spring statement on tackling the rise in the cost of living. (906174)

I thank the Secretary of State for that illuminating answer. Jack Monroe was right that this cost of living crisis could be fatal for some, and that is not a term to be used lightly. Has the Secretary of State urged the Chancellor to reverse the £20 universal credit cut and rule it out to legacy claimants, or has she asked to replicate the Scottish Government’s £20 per week child payment? Where is her comprehensive plan to stop our constituents suffering—and by “plan” I do not mean more loans?

There is a cross-Government effort to tackle the cost of living; that has been ongoing for some time, and was most recently revealed by the Chancellor’s announcement on council tax rebates, but also—[Interruption.] Council tax rebate is not a loan; the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) is misinformed. There is also a phasing of energy bills. [Interruption.] I am afraid the hon. Lady is yet again wrong in her assertion about the council tax rebate. However, moving on, the Chancellor really listened when he moved to make sure that the taper rate was reduced to 55% in the autumn Budget; that is ongoing, and it recognises the principle of universal credit that people will be better off working than not working. It is already delivering that, and I welcome the fact that the Chancellor did that.

One thing that would help single-parent families with the cost of living is receiving child maintenance. In fact, research by York University has found that securing child maintenance payments would lift 60% of children living in single-parent households that currently are not receiving them out of poverty. We have made good progress, but I think we can do more, for example by using home curfew to penalise non-payers. What plans does the Department have to move forward with home curfew?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should be doing and want to do more on child maintenance. There are a number of reasons why sometimes parents are not so keen on that process. However, that specific power was created in primary legislation, and it is my intention later this year to bring the curfew order into effect. I will be working carefully across Government to make sure that we get the appropriate consultation and clearance for regulations.

The Government speak about their plan for jobs. I think many of us were quite shocked that a plan for jobs meant butchering back-office jobs in the Secretary of State’s own Department; I suspect that she might want to reflect on that. Given that her right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a multimillionaire who has no idea what it is like to get by on poverty, as many of my constituents and those on these Opposition Benches do, has she suggested that he should follow the Scottish Government’s approach of uprating benefits by 6% with a fixed budget? Is that something she is planning to ask him to do on Wednesday, or is it going to be more of the same from her Department—no action?

The House has just recently voted through the uprating order, recognising the traditional way in which the inflation index is used. We will continue to strive to get more people working than ever before. We have seen that certainly on payrolls. I am conscious that the surveys on self-employment may differ in that regard. That is why we will keep working in different ways to try to make sure that we try to lift as many people out of poverty as we can, and we will do that the best way we know: through our work coaches.

Deprivation: Benefits Policy

We know that moving into work—particularly full-time work—is the best way to tackle poverty. We are taking decisive action to make work pay, giving nearly 2 million families an extra £1,000 a year through our changes to the universal credit taper rate and work allowances.

I represent Gainsborough South West ward, the 24th most deprived in the country. I wonder whether the Minister would like to come to Gainsborough and discuss with me how we can have pilot schemes, perhaps in the 100 most deprived wards in the country, to really tackle the problem of deprivation with a cross-Government approach that would improve universal credit and tax credits to get people into work and keep them in work, help businesses create jobs in those wards and, above all, help with housing. Is that not a good idea?

It is always a good idea to meet my right hon. Friend, and I will look forward to that. He is absolutely right: the best way to assist people is to help them gain the skills they need to move into work and to progress in work. In Gainsborough, the local jobcentre has worked in partnership with the local council, training providers and the owners of a local business park to recruit staff for a new hospitality venue called the Caldero Lounge through a sector-based work academy programme to help get unemployed people back into work, and there is another SWAP already in train in his constituency. I look forward to meeting him.

Back in the real world, we have seen food bank use rocket over the last 12 years—the Trussell Trust alone distributed 2.5 million emergency food parcels in 2020-21, compared with 40,000 in 2010—and it is set to balloon further as the cost of living soars. That is not tackling poverty through the benefits policy. What does the Minister think went wrong with the welfare state under the Conservatives?

With a record 1.3 million vacancies in the UK, our top priority needs to be to get people into work. We have the household support fund to help people who have vulnerabilities in their lives. That has played a very important role, with £500 million.

The new report from the centre-right Centre for Social Justice is about the latest scourge to hit the desperate and the destitute: illegal money lending. Over a million people have been driven into the arms of illegal money lenders. The report—by the Centre for Social Justice, not the Labour party—states:

“We can expect this to get worse. The emergent cost-of-living crisis casts a looming shadow of financial anxiety.”

It adds that

“pressures on household budgets, low financial resilience and increasingly limited credit options”

are creating “a perfect storm”, driving people “towards exploitation”. Given soaring inflation and falling real living standards, does the Minister expect that there will be more or fewer people in destitution this year?

We work hard to ensure that people receive the money they need and we also work hard to ensure people get into work. As far as people needing debt management advice, we can do that through our jobcentres. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), also does a huge amount of work in this area to provide the right sort of advice on money and pensions.

My hon. Friend will know that in February, 9,846 people were claiming universal credit in Darlington. Does he agree that the decision to increase the living wage, extend the work allowance and reduce the taper rate will massively improve the income of people on universal credit?

Absolutely. We want to make sure that work pays, and my hon. Friend has highlighted that fantastically.

Supporting Disabled People into Work

We are committed to seeing 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027. A wide range of initiatives are available to support disabled people to stay in work or move into work, including contracted employment support, Access to Work, Disability Confident, and initiatives in partnership with the health system.

I am sure the Minister would agree that an important part of preventing the disability employment gap from widening further is the provision of assistive technology for disabled claimants who are applying for jobs. Can the Minister advise the House on whether every jobcentre is equipped with assistive technology for disabled claimants and whether that is supported by appropriate staff training—and if not, why not?

We have 900 disability employment advisers who individually work with claimants to help them to progress. One of the most positive outcomes of the kickstart scheme has been the number of people with neurodiversity or disabilities getting a first start into work because they worked directly with their work coaches to understand what support they needed to get into work. There is also, of course, the Access to Work programme.

This Thursday, the all-party parliamentary group for multiple sclerosis is launching a report on the support that people with MS receive to get into and remain in employment, and to leave employment. According to the report, people with MS are not receiving enough support from their employers to remain in work. On average, 80% of people with a diagnosis have to retire within 15 years of receiving that bad news. Will the Department commit to improving Access to Work by reducing waiting times, ending the payment cap altogether, and helping employees to better support their disabled employees to thrive and remain in work?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising a really important point about employers being able to understand and work with their employees as their health needs change. Employers stepping forward to do more to retain quality staff is absolutely right. She will be pleased to know that we are adapting Access to Work to support hybrid working. We have introduced a new flexible offer, and we are also piloting an adjustment passport to help to smooth transitions into employment. Perhaps we need to look at that in terms of those leaving or having to change their employment. I am sure the Minister for disabled people, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who is unwell today, will be keen to hear from the hon. Lady.

Many people who live with disabilities struggle to enter the workplace as they often lack the soft skills and the confidence needed. In my constituency of Southend West, we have a wonderful charity called the Phabulous Café, which provides a training centre for young people with disabilities, learning difficulties and mental health issues to help them gain those essential soft skills. What support do the Government give such charities to help people with disabilities live their lives to the full?

The Phabulous Café is exactly what its name says. I welcome my hon. Friend to her place, as this is my first time responding to her. Support for small charities exists in the form of the work with the Regional Stakeholder Network, which provides charities with a platform to influence policies that directly impact the lives of disabled people. Through the RSN, support is provided for small charities by helping them to navigate the often difficult process of accessing public sector grants and contracts. I am keen to see the Phabulous Café in action soon.

Moving into Work: Childcare Costs

11. What steps she is taking to help people with childcare costs to move from universal credit into work. (906179)

To support people to become financially resilient by moving into work and progressing in employment, eligible UC claimants can claim back up to 85% of their registered childcare costs each month regardless of the number of hours they work, compared with 70% in tax credits.

Today is national Single Parents’ Day, a day on which I remember my late mum and everything she did to raise me and my sisters. Many single parents in Vauxhall struggling on universal credit find it impossible to pay up front for childcare, because universal credit pays them in arrears. How can the Minister justify forcing universal credit claimants to pay money that they simply do not have for childcare while parents receiving tax-free childcare receive that funding immediately?

The hon. Member makes an important point, and I also pay respect to her mum and to single parents across the UK on today of all days. I thoroughly recommend that her constituents go to the jobcentre and see the work coaches, because a flexible support fund is available that can help to take care of up-front payments for childcare. I would gladly talk to her about that afterwards if she needs further direction.

Taylor Review

14. If she will take steps with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to implement the recommendations of the Taylor review of modern working practices, published in July 2017. (906182)

The Government have made significant progress in implementing those recommendations, improving the working conditions for agency workers and more harshly penalising employers who treat their workers badly. I will continue to work with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make sure that we fulfil our commitment to ensuring that everyone, no matter what their background, has the opportunity to start, stay and progress in work.

Ministers from both Departments originally promised to implement the full set of the Taylor review recommendations back in 2018, but four years later, we still have gaps and missing dates for legislation. The conditions faced by many lower-skilled and insecure workers create huge barriers to opportunity, career progression and social mobility. Is it not past time for us to smash these glass ceilings as a key part of levelling up?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter, and I am sure that BEIS Ministers will have heard him loudly as well. It is absolutely right that we have boosted the secondary legislation, which boosts the rights of workers by quadrupling the available aggravated breach penalty used in employment tribunals, but it is right too that he and I work with my colleagues to make sure that employers—and the experience at work—are better, because they need to be.

Benefits System: Identify Fraud and Abuse

We take all fraud very seriously and have a wide range of measures in place, supported by £613 million of additional funding. Our integrated risk and intelligence service co-ordinates the detection of, and response to, fraud risks from identity fraud, including threats from organised criminals. We will continue to do all that we can to track down fraudsters.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer. I was contacted by my constituent, Dr Ralph Mitchell, after he was contacted by a debt collection agency on behalf of the DWP for a £1,500 outstanding debt. He has never taken UC or made any form of claim before. He rang the Department and, after many phone calls, was unable to have the debt removed. He was told that he was a victim of identity theft. It took the involvement of my office and myself to get that resolved. What are we doing to prevent identity theft, and what is the Department doing to make sure that the communications with those who fall victim to it are sorted out as swiftly as possible?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for his constituent. Verification of identity remains a critical requirement for all DWP benefits, and we are recruiting an additional 2,000 trained specialists to identify and stop scammers. We work hard to make sure that victims of identity fraud are not penalised and that universal credit benefits staff have access to information and intelligence from other sources prior to the payment, which allows them to make a real-time risk assessment on a case. Anyone who contacts us about a notification regarding a debt for a claim that they believe they never made will have their case referred to our stolen ID team, and we will endeavour to contact them within 48 hours.

Disabled People: Benefit Rates

The Secretary of State is legally required to conduct an annual review of benefit rates to determine whether they have retained their value in relation to the general level of prices. We have used the same approach since April 1987 of uprating benefits based on the increase in the relevant inflation index, the consumer prices index, in the 12 months to the previous September. We will spend over £59 billion this year, 2021-22, on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions.

One of my Bath constituents, who is disabled, has been told by his energy supplier that his bill will go up by £130 in April. He is on legacy benefits; he is not eligible for a top-up. He does not know how to cope. According to the charity Scope, he is not alone: disabled people are more than twice as likely to have a cold house and more than three times as likely not to be able to afford food. Thousands of disabled people are losing trust in the system. To improve trust and transparency in the DWP, will the Minister commit to automatically providing audio recordings of assessments, unless a claimant opts out, and to providing all claimants with a copy of the assessor’s report by default?

We take seriously the points that the hon. Member makes. Each interaction is key. We want to make sure that people get the support that they need, and we can achieve that through vehicles such as the household support fund, but I will take away her specific point and write back to her with a full response.

Disability benefits are being cut in real terms. Charities such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Scope, Leonard Cheshire and the MS Society have been pressing the Government to do more to ensure that disabled people are not pressured into using food banks, not washing their clothes or leaving the heating off in order to prioritise keeping life-saving medical equipment running. Let me just repeat that, Mr Speaker: in order to prioritise keeping life-saving medical equipment running. What extra support are Ministers pushing the Chancellor to deliver in Wednesday’s spring statement to help disabled people to survive this cost of living crisis?

As the hon. Member heard over the weekend, the Chancellor said that where he can, he will support and provide assistance to people. There is a track record of that through the pandemic and in response to rising energy prices, with his three-part plan.

People in Work: Rother Valley

I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to talk about our really positive Way to Work campaign bringing jobseekers and employers together in our jobcentres and filling vacancies much more quickly. In South Yorkshire, employers in the jobcentre are interviewing candidates, who are often being offered new roles the very same day. I know that my hon. Friend had a very successful jobs fair on Friday.

The most recent claimant count in Rother Valley shows that about 2,000 people are looking for work. That is why, as the Minister says, I hosted the first ever Rother Valley jobs fair, which was attended by hundreds of jobseekers and by 30 organisations advertising several thousand good jobs—and they were very local jobs. Will my hon. Friend tell me how her Way to Work campaign will help my constituents to find jobs? Will she talk about the tools she is using to ensure that people are ready to work and can start jobs as quickly as possible?

Across Rotherham, our jobcentre teams are really helping to employ people and get those vacancies filled. I have been in jobcentres where people have quite often been unemployed for a very long time; the experience of being offered a job, there and then, changes their lives. We are working locally and nationally with employers on local recruitment days, jobs fairs and sector-based work academies, all as part of the commitment to get half a million claimants into work by the end of June.

Cost of Living

18. What steps her Department is taking to support people with the increase in the cost of living. (906186)

The Government are providing support worth over £21 billion across this financial year and the next to help families with the cost of living. Through the Department for Work and Pensions, that includes cutting the universal credit taper rate and increasing work allowances.

Most benefits and the state pension will rise by just 3% in April, but inflation could be over 8%, so that is a real-terms cut of 5% for people who are already having to choose between eating and heating. Given that, how on earth does the Secretary of State think it acceptable to target the incomes of the poorest in our society like this? Will she commit today to action so that nobody’s benefits are cut during the deepest cost of living crisis in decades?

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), has set out the inflation index that has been used consistently since 1987 in consideration of the inflation rate. I am very conscious that the House voted for the uprating order recently—apart from the hon. Gentleman, along with a handful of others. If his vote had been successful, benefits would not have risen at all.

Pensioner Poverty

The Government are wholly committed to alleviating levels of pensioner poverty. State pensions are at record levels, pension credit take-up is increasing, and we are taking a number of other steps to provide assistance. On the day of the launch of the spring booster, I should also stress the need for all pensioners, residents of care homes, and those like me and, I think, you, Mr Speaker, who are immunocompromised to get that booster jab. It is vital for everyone’s welfare.

According to a recent report from Independent Age, 40% of pensioners will spend one year in poverty during any nine-year period, and with the situation set to be exacerbated by spiralling inflation and the Government’s removal of the triple lock, pensioners will now be £270 worse off every year. Does the Secretary of State agree with my party that we should double, and extend eligibility for, the winter fuel allowance?

The hon. Lady will be aware that the state pension rose by 2.5% last year, in circumstances in which prices were not so rising, and that it will rise by 3.1% this April. Money is also being provided in the form of the cold weather payment, the winter fuel allowance and many other kinds of support, including the £9 billion package announced by the Chancellor and administered by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Barriers to Work: Supported Housing and Exempt Accommodation

24. What assessment she has made of the barriers to work for tenants who are in (a) supported housing and (b) receipt of housing benefit at exempt accommodation rates. (906192)

We are committed to tackling barriers to work for everybody, especially those in supported housing. Through our Plan for Jobs, we are targeting tailored support at people of all ages to help them to prepare for, get into and progress in work.

I welcomed the announcement made by the Minister for Housing, the right hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), towards the end of last week about regulation of supported housing—that is a very good move—but at present there are people in supported housing where there is an exemption from the housing benefit limit, so they could be paying hundreds of pounds a week in rent. My local DWP branch tells me that that is a real deterrent for them to come off housing benefit or universal credit and get into work. What is the Minister doing to address the problem?

The income taper in housing benefit ensures that claimants will always be financially better off working than not being in work. We believe that maintaining housing benefit in these cases has allowed claimants to continue to receive more tailored financial support for their housing costs than would currently be available through universal credit.

Topical Questions

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.