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Topical Questions

Volume 715: debated on Monday 6 June 2022

What a marvellous weekend the country enjoyed. I am grateful to everybody who was doing that, including my civil servants who were working over the jubilee weekend, as we are working hard to make sure that we can deliver the cost of living payments to people next month. I continue to congratulate not only them but work coaches up and down the land who are helping people to get into work. I am pleased to say that we had a record number of claimants getting into work in March, and we had more than 100,000 in April as well, so we are well on our way to achieving our ambition of half a million extra people. I referred to the cost of living payments that we intend to deploy, and in the next couple of weeks, on 15 June, we will have our pension credit day of action. I encourage all Members of Parliament to make their constituents aware of that opportunity to claim benefits.

Everyone Deserves a Christmas is a Swansea project that supports struggling families to enjoy a few treats at Christmas. It starts taking referrals in November, but this year, worried families are already requesting hampers, because they are struggling to pay their bills and feed their kids now. What hope can the Government give to struggling yet working families that they will be able to provide for their children’s needs as the cost of living crisis deepens?

The poverty statistics—admittedly, they are statistics rather than individual experiences; I accept that—show that, where both parents are working full time, fewer than 3% of people are effectively in poverty. I want to extend the help that we can give through our local jobcentres to help that particular family to perhaps extend their work or get on in work. It will be those measures, as well as the extra cost of living payments that we are making, that will help people with the challenges they face now.

T2. Parents across Sevenoaks and Swanley are facing rising childcare costs. I know that there is a huge amount of support available, so can the Secretary of State update the House on what she is doing to simplify the system so that it is clearer to people what they are entitled to and easier for people to claim? (900299)

The Department is promoting the generous universal credit childcare costs offer as part of a wider national advertising campaign, and it is also working across Government to promote the full range of childcare support through the “Childcare Choices” website and by putting new guidance in place for our work coaches.

I join the Secretary of State in congratulating all those who worked over the weekend, and in saying that it was a fabulous platinum jubilee weekend. May I congratulate her on her sung prayer that she shared on Twitter yesterday, which shows that it is not just at karaoke where her singing excels?

Work should be the best defence from the rising cost of living, yet millions in work are in poverty. The numbers in overall employment are down by 500,000 since before the pandemic, and there are 3 million people on out-of-work benefits not looking for work. Sheffield Hallam University estimates that about 800,000 of those people on out-of-work benefits, often in places such as Wakefield, could be helped back into work with the right support and a plan. The Secretary of State promised to help the economically inactive find work. Why is she failing?

Well, I do not have the voice of an angel, and nor do I claim to have the pathway to heaven in this regard, but I am very conscious of the people of Wakefield, as I am of those right across the country. On people who are economically inactive, I have been consistent in saying that my priority is those who are currently on benefits and receiving financial support. They will always be my top priority, but I am working across Government to see what we can do, particularly working with employers, to ensure that the economically inactive come back into the workplace.

The number on out-of-work benefits has increased by 1 million since the pandemic. We have the highest level of worklessness due to ill health for 20 years. Increasing numbers of over-50s are leaving the labour market who might stay in it if there was flexible work. More parents are leaving the labour market because they cannot afford childcare. And this is at a time of 1.3 million vacancies. We need to increase the supply of workers to get inflation down, so why does the Secretary of State not have a plan to deliver that?

There clearly is a plan. That is why there are actually more people on payroll than prior to the pandemic. I am very conscious of the challenges for the self-employed, and also that some people have currently chosen to leave the labour market. That is what we are working on across Government, as well as with the activity on childcare. We will continue to make sure that it is in everybody’s interests to work, because they will be better off in work than not working, unless they cannot work.

T3. I congratulate the Minister on his campaign to increase the uptake of pension credit, which is a vital way of ensuring that our most vulnerable pensioner households get everything they are entitled to. Although more than 2,000 people in my constituency are already claiming pension credit, following recent announcements on cost of living support, where does my hon. Friend suggest that people look to check whether they are getting everything they are entitled to? (900300)

Obviously, there is the Government site——and the phone number 0800 99 1234. More particularly, I today met Citizens Advice, Age UK and various other pensioner charities that would be very keen to assist on an ongoing basis. I must very strongly recommend my hon. Friend to get behind the pension credit awareness day, which takes place on Wednesday 15 June. Obviously his local authority, Essex County Council, has a role to play, as do all local authorities, because it has the data that can identify specific individuals who could apply for but do not have pension credit.

People across the UK are dying younger as a result of UK Government austerity. A new Glasgow University and Glasgow Centre for Population Health report has found:

“Austerity is highly likely to be the most substantial causal contributor to the stalled mortality trends seen in Scotland and across the UK”.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the tragic human cost of the cruel Westminster austerity agenda and urge the UK Government to change course?

I am afraid I just do not recognise the situation that the hon. Member mentions, and I do not know the basis of the academic report. What I do know is that we are getting more people into work. I do not know the status of health in Glasgow specifically, but I do know that it is part of the levelling-up mission of this Government to ensure that we reduce health inequality. In particular, I encourage her to continue to work with her public health authority to ensure that people are well prepared to go into work, but can also stay in work through occupational health services.

T4. Many of my poorest households in East Surrey will be anxious about their energy bills and about what our cost of living package will mean for them. Now that we have had the Ofgem forecast, will the Minister confirm that the expected average increase in energy bills this year will be about £1,200 and that our package of support for anyone on means-tested benefits will mean that they receive £1,200? (900302)

It was vital that the Chancellor, the Cabinet and the Government looked at all the cost pressures arising in the economy. Once we knew what was happening with the energy price cap, it was possible for the Chancellor to start looking at what the options might be. We also needed to look at what payment mechanisms could be used to get the funding out to people. It is therefore entirely right that this package was put together and that it should have the impact that my hon. Friend has so clearly set out.

T5.   My constituent is a paramedic and was on the frontline throughout the pandemic. He told me how much he was struggling with the cost of living crisis and how he feels cheated out of the household dream that if people worked hard, they could enjoy a good quality of life. He speaks for millions of NHS staff and many others. Does the Minister still think it was a good idea to raise taxes for working people this year? (900303)

As the hon. Lady knows, the levy that was introduced is there to support the NHS, particularly in tackling backlogs, but also to support adult social care, and I am sure her constituent could benefit from the outcomes of both. The hon. Lady should also be aware that next month the threshold for national insurance will rise, which will mean that 70% of working households will see a cut in the amount they pay in tax and national insurance.

T8. This year Government receipts are at a record high, and billions of pounds have rightly been announced in cost of living support. However, for those most in need—people on means-tested benefits—the support is somewhere between £1,000 and £1,200, which is roughly what they lost when the £20 universal credit uplift was withdrawn. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that withdrawing the uplift would put half a million people into poverty. Citizens Advice has estimated that it has caused 2.3 million people to fall into debt. Times were tough during the covid crisis, but they are going to get tougher this year, so will the Minister look at the £20 that has been taken from universal credit, with a view to returning it by the time of the financial statement in the autumn? (900306)

I understand my right hon. Friend’s point, but it is important to highlight that the £20 uplift to universal credit was only ever a temporary measure to deal with the immediate impact of coronavirus. Since then we have been monitoring the situation and providing the support that is required at particular times, and that has led to the latest package, which totals £37 billion. As I said in other responses, it is vital to highlight that, at a time of record vacancies, there is a responsibility and requirement to help people to tackle poverty by being able to get into the workplace and to progress in employment as well.

T6. Almost a fifth of pensioners are living in poverty under this Government. With the abandonment of the triple lock, a real-terms cut to their state pension—already one of the lowest in Europe, at around £500—bills rising by £1,000 and food costs spiralling, will the Minister acknowledge that the measures announced by the Chancellor will not stop many pensioners in West Derby being plunged into poverty over the coming months? (900304)

The reality is that the Chancellor has announced two packages, worth £37 billion. Those will see a £650 uplift in pension credit from July this year, as well as a £300 increase in the winter fuel payment, which goes to 8.2 million households. There are also the council tax rebate, the energy bill support scheme and the disability cost of living payment, on top of other matters that have been set out.

T9. As colleagues on both sides of the House will know from personal experience or from their constituents, it is often smaller things, rather than big Government schemes, that help those with a disability to get by. I will soon be presenting my disability charter to Harlow Council to ensure that Harlow is a disabled-friendly town. That includes measures such as enforcing parking restrictions for disabled bays, using CCTV cameras to prevent people from taking up disabled parking spaces, and making sure that clean and accessible toilets are available. What is the Minister doing to ensure that appropriate fines or penalty measures are actioned when people who do not have a disability are found to be breaking the rules and parking in disabled spaces in public or private areas? (900307)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his campaigning zeal and vigour on this issue, which is well placed. I look forward to seeing his charter just as much as I hope that Harlow Council will. He will know that local councils have the enforcement responsibility so it is for them to best address his question, but I confirm that parking in a disabled space without a valid disabled person’s badge is defined as a higher-level parking contravention in the relevant regulations. I hope that helps him and me to work together to get the best for disabled people in Harlow in the future.

T7. I welcome the DWP’s campaign to encourage the take-up of pension credit with its awareness day on 15 June, but given that more than three quarters of a million pensioner households—including the most vulnerable in Bedford and Kempston—are missing out on that crucial help, what plans does the Minister have to improve benefit take-up in the longer term? (900305)

We met a whole host of organisations, from Citizens Advice to Age UK, BBC and ITV as well as utilities, banks and local authorities, all of whom will try to assist with the process over and above what the Government are already doing. But, much as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), there is a role for Bedfordshire county council to play, which I believe is the hon. Member’s local authority—[Interruption.]. Well, his local authority can play a role in identifying and supporting people from the local area and getting them to claim.

Fruit is going unpicked, there are long delays at airports because there are not enough baggage-handlers, flights are being cancelled because there are not enough people to work in the airline industry and lots of bars and restaurants cannot open at all because they simply have not got enough staff. Where will we find the additional workers to ensure that the economy grows?

We are working with a number of employers in a number of ways to try to help them fill their vacancies. We learnt a lot from the kickstart scheme, such as bringing employers into jobcentres to undertake interviews. We are also working with employers on the descriptions they put into job requirements and what is really needed to fill a job. I am conscious that there are lots of vacancies—it is a fortunate position in which the UK finds itself—and we are working hard to ensure that people get and stay in those jobs.

In Scotland, in the last year alone some 15,000 people were sanctioned by the Secretary of State. Given that she is such a stickler for rules, surely she will show the same resolve this evening and place a sanction on her party leader.

Mr Speaker, I was going to say that when we share taxpayers’ money with people looking for work, it is important that they honour their side of the bargain. When they do not, there often have to be consequences. That is not something that we seek to do—we try to work with people—but it is really important that people do their bit of the bargain when they look for work.

I am troubled by the number of constituents who have recently come to me because either they have been overpaid in error by the DWP or they are struggling to receive their first payment because of administrative difficulties, when they are already really struggling. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that errors and disputes can be resolved satisfactorily and in a timely way so that those repayments will not push them over the edge and into poverty?

If the hon. Lady writes to the Department, whether to me or to the Secretary of State direct, we will look into those specific examples, ensure that they are addressed and get a decent answer to her on the specific problems. However, I cannot give a generic answer today.

According to the Child Poverty Action Group, each month some 4,300 households in my constituency are receiving an average of £57 less than they are entitled to because of automatic deductions from their universal credit, and that affects about 3,700 children. What action is the Department taking to reform the deduction system so that innocent children are not disadvantaged?

As I said earlier, we put forward policies that have reduced deductions from 40% to 30% and now to 25%. Those policies and the support available for families are designed to help tackle child poverty, along with enabling people to get into work and to progress in employment.

The household support fund now accounts for billions in public spending. What information is the Department collecting about how that fund is being used, who is benefiting from it, what their circumstances are and how much support they receive? What plans does the Department have to publish that information?

We issue funding based on grant conditions. We undertake a very light-touch approach with councils to make sure that they satisfy those conditions. We do not collect extensive information, but it is important that we allow councils to get on. They are close to the community, so they are well placed to make sure that that discretionary funding can go to the right people.