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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 715: debated on Monday 6 June 2022

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pension Auto-enrolment

1. How many people have been auto-enrolled in workplace pensions in Wantage constituency since 2012. (900273)

14. How many people have been auto-enrolled in workplace pensions in Kensington constituency since 2012. (900286)

Since 2012, in the Wantage constituency, 14,000 local men and women have been automatically enrolled into a workplace pension. We thank the 2,410 local employers who are helping these employees to save from 8% of their earnings.

Auto-enrolment has been one of the most successful Government policies for the workplace in decades, but my hon. Friend will know that contributions are often not yet at the levels needed for people to have a secure retirement. What steps is he taking to encourage an increase in contribution levels?

We keep all policies under review, and auto-enrolment got to 8% only in 2019. We will proceed with the 2017 auto-enrolment review by lowering the eligibility age and making it from the first £1 earned in due course. We will also look at all matters in terms of contribution rates on a longer-term basis as time moves on.

I understand that 36,000 people in Kensington have been signed up through auto-enrolment, which is great news. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that even more people in Kensington are signed up?

Where Kensington leads, the rest of the country follows. There is no doubt that 36,000 is a phenomenal number of employees who are saving the 8% through auto-enrolment. My hon. Friend will be aware that, in her community and in this country, less than 40% of women were saving in a workplace pension prior to 2012, and it is now 86%. Less than 24% of young people were saving in a workplace pension, and it is now 84%. This is a game-changing policy developed under successive Governments but pioneered by this Conservative Government.

Pensioners: Cost of Living

The Government have provided a generous package for those most in need with a one-off cost of living payment of £650, including to those in receipt of pension credit. In addition, all pensioner households will receive an extra £300 to help cover the rising cost of energy this winter.

I welcome the measures the Government have taken to support pensioners with the rising cost of living. Many pensioners in Carshalton and Wallington who are eligible for pension credit still do not know that they are entitled to it, so they are not claiming. Will my hon. Friend set out what steps the Government are taking to increase the uptake of pension credit? Will he join me at an older persons fair in my constituency later in the year to promote it?

I will be delighted to join my hon. Friend at his older persons fair, which is one example of how we want to promote the take-up of pension credit. I was pleased today to meet a group of stakeholders, ranging from Citizens Advice to Independent Age, the BBC, ITV, local authorities and utility companies, all of which are trying to work collectively to promote pension credit take-up. As we know, pension credit is a £3,000-plus benefit to the most venerable in our society, and it is particularly important that they claim it this winter.

I call Sir Stephen Timms, Chairman of the Select Committee, whom I congratulate on his knighthood.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I welcome the efforts on pension credit take-up. The Chancellor’s additional payments are very welcome, but the need for them highlights the failings of the current pensions and benefits uprating system. The Select Committee will be looking at this, but does the Minister agree that now is the time to review how we uprate pensions and benefits each year and the level at which they are set?

You got there first, Mr Speaker, but I also congratulate the former Pensions Minister, the Chair of the Select Committee, on his knighthood, which is genuinely deserved. The whole House wishes him well when he goes to meet the Queen for his investiture.

The right hon. Gentleman is a former Pensions Minister and will recall that the present uprating policy started in April 1987 and has continued under successive Governments, including the 13 years of Labour Government. I will, of course, come to the Select Committee to listen to its suggestions, but the same process has been in place for the best part of 35 years. The level is set between September and November, and the uprating takes place thereafter.

Pension credit is important, and I have been pushing take-up in my North West Durham constituency. The Minister will understand that ensuring better pension savings is the most important thing in the long term. I backed the 2019 manifesto, and I back the Prime Minister who delivered it. Will my hon. Friend the Minister implement the auto-enrolment review, and will he back my private Member’s Bill to deliver it as soon as possible?

Answer that one! The truth is that, in respect of the 2017 auto-enrolment review and the changes that my hon. Friend sought in his outstanding ten-minute rule Bill and the private Member’s Bill we did not get to debate before the close of the last parliamentary Session, he knows he has my full support. The matter will be brought before the House as soon as possible.

The cost of living crisis is leaving families and pensioners wondering how on earth they will make ends meet. Inflation is running at 11% for everyday goods, and petrol is now nearly £2 a litre, yet the Government’s response has favoured the wealthier while failing those in greatest need. Will the Minister explain why second home owners were offered extra help while at the very same time the Government have yet to drive up the take-up of pension credit? Will he also now publish the advice he received from his own civil servants that warned of the effect of this deeply unfair policy?

I do not believe that £37 billion of support should be sneered at. The Chancellor set out £22 billion of support in the spring and a further £15 billion of support last month; that includes £650 on top of the pension credit from July, and the winter fuel payment of £300 going to 8.2 million households. I strongly believe that shows that the Government are taking serious action to support the most vulnerable.

The removal of the triple lock is costing pensioners £500 this year alone, and come October energy bills will have risen by £1,700 compared with April 2021. The £300 winter fuel payment does not come close to plugging that gap, let alone addressing the other inflationary pressures that pensioners are dealing with. Then we have the WASPI women, who have been struggling for years. Following the findings of the parliamentary and health service ombudsman, surely now—this time of crisis—is the time for the Government to agree fair and fast compensation for the WASPI women.

There was a lot in that question. In respect of the full package of support, most pensioner households will receive £850 via the additional winter fuel payment, the council tax rebate and the energy bills support scheme. Pensioners who receive means-tested benefits and are most in need of support will receive £1,500, including payments in July and September.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the matter of the WASPI women is a subject of and decision for the Court of Appeal, where the matter was decided in favour of successive Governments—this and the previous Labour Government—and that the ombudsman process is an ongoing one, on which we do not comment.

Benefits Recipients: Effect of Inflation

3. What assessment she has made of the effect of inflation on households in receipt of social security benefits. (900275)

20. What assessment she has made of the effect of inflation on households in receipt of social security benefits. (900293)

The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) will be aware that, in recognition of the cost of living challenge, we have announced a new £15 billion support package that is targeted at those who are most in need, bringing the total cost of living support to £37 billion. The extra support should cover every household, but is particularly targeted at helping more than 8 million households in receipt of means-tested benefits. The household support fund, which is delivered through councils, is another way that constituents can access help.

I must say to the Secretary of State that the £20 cut to universal credit seems even meaner now. Even the package of measures that she mentioned is not stopping what the Trussell Trust has announced: an increasing number of people turning up to get food parcels. In my own constituency, Unity in Community and St John’s church, Bransholme, are seeing soaring demand for food packages while their stocks are diminishing. I know that Ministers are occupied with party games today, but when will the Secretary of State get a grip of these benefits and set them at a level that means that people can pay for their everyday essentials?

The Government have always been clear that getting into work and getting on in work is an important way to lift people’s prosperity. That is why we lifted the national living wage from April; why last December we quickly put in place a change in the taper rate so that people keep more of what they earn, while still getting support and benefits; and why we have stepped in with a substantial package of support to help people with this particular challenge of global inflation—caused not only by supply chain challenges after covid, but by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has done a lot to damage to energy costs.

As well as being impacted by the soaring cost of living, two thirds of the near 50,000 children in the Tees valley and families on universal credit are affected by the punitive impact of deductions. That is because most of them are paying back the Department for Work and Pensions advance that is needed to survive the five-week wait for their first universal credit payment. Will the Secretary of State accept that every pound clawed back is a pound not available for families to spend on food and other essential costs? Will she change this cruel policy now, and make a real difference to children and families already living in poverty?

The hon. Gentleman forgets that the advance is there to spread the payment that people are entitled to over a year into 13 payments. We have also enabled people in effect to have that payment spread over two years, with 25 payments. It is about a phasing of how we put into families’ pockets the benefits to which they are entitled, and nothing else.

Among those worst impacted by the cost of living rising is the army of unpaid carers who do so much not only to support their friends and loved ones but to ease the pressure on the NHS. I know that my right hon. Friend understands and appreciates that. This is Carers Week; what thought has she given to increasing unpaid carers allowance to support them and reflect their hard work, sacrifice and need?

The whole House would unite with my hon. Friend in thanking carers, and I am sure we all have lived experiences as well. I think it is fair to say that carers allowance is not intended to be a replacement salary or anything like that; it is a contribution, and a modest contribution, I accept. As with all benefits, we consider the uplift annually, and I will continue to do so.

Low-income Households: Cost of Living

5. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the delivery of support to low-income households with the cost of living. (900277)

6. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of benefits rates in the context of the rise in the level of inflation. (900278)

9. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of universal credit payment levels in the context of the rise in the cost of living. (900281)

We have announced £15 billion in further cost of living support, bringing our total package to £37 billion this year. Through the Government’s recent interventions, we are targeting those most in need. Our package equates to at least £1,200 for almost 8 million of the most vulnerable households, at a challenging time for many people.

Earlier today, Carers Trust Tyne and Wear, which is based in my Blaydon constituency, launched its report on the experiences of unpaid carers during the pandemic and made the point that they are the unsung heroes of the pandemic. As we have heard, carers allowance is the lowest benefit of its kind, yet those who receive it will get no cost of living support. Does the Minister really believe that carers allowance is adequate in the face of the current cost of living crisis?

I echo what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said. I also highlight the fact that households that pay energy bills will receive the £400 cash grant to support them, and that if somebody with a disability lives in a household, there will be further funding with the £150 disability cost of living payment.

My constituent, who is severely sight impaired and has learning difficulties, lives with his mother, who is basically supplementing his day-to-day living from her own pensioner poverty pot, because of the relentless increase of inflation. What action will the Minister take urgently to address this terrible injustice, with one person who is already in poverty having to try to help her severely disabled son? Will he step in to assist in this terrible cost of living crisis?

I do not know the exact details of that case, but there may be opportunities in that household to explore pension credits. Of course, the Chancellor, with support from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, recently announced that the household support fund has also been increased by a further £500 million, until April next year.

The Scottish Government have doubled their game-changing Scottish child payment to £20 per child per week and will increase that to £25 by the end of the year, thereby supporting more than 100,000 children. Why will the UK Government not commit to increasing universal credit by an equivalent amount over the same timescale, and match that for and extend it to those on legacy benefits as well?

As we have highlighted, we have just set out a really significant increase in benefits payments as part of the package that is now worth £37 billion. As a result of the work we are doing not just to provide support but to enable people to get into work, there are now 200,000 fewer children in the UK who are in absolute poverty before housing costs.

The Government have been scrabbling to catch up with the escalating cost of living crisis. Any and all help for lower-income families is very welcome, but the fact is that the protection of those on universal credit and other benefits from the worst impacts of inflation depends on their having adequate and predictable levels of income. How is it acceptable, then, that 42% of universal credit claimants face deductions of, on average, £61 a month? What is the Minister going to do about that?

We have already set out our cost of living payments, which will benefit 8 million households in the UK. They are significant and much needed as we face these current cost of living challenges. It is also important to highlight that, over the past couple of years, we have seen the maximum amount that can be taken in deductions from benefits fall from 40% to 30% and now down to 25%.

Unemployment: Rother Valley

Is that me? I am sorry, Mr Speaker, it has been a long weekend. [Interruption.] The jubilee, Mr Speaker, that is exactly why.

The Government want everyone—whoever they are and wherever they live—to be able to find a job, progress in work and thrive in the labour market. Through Restart and the Way to Work scheme, we are working closely with employers to help claimants into jobs. I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend recently worked in partnership with our Jobcentre Plus and local employers to bring two job fairs to his constituents of the Rother Valley.

I congratulate the Minister and the whole Government on the success of the Way to Work campaign, which is getting people into jobs up and down our country. The surest way out of this cost of living crisis is getting people into jobs. As my hon. Friend mentioned, I have held several job fairs in my constituency to help people get back into work. As the Way to Work campaign enters its final weeks, will she say what is available for those people who are not yet in work in Rother Valley?

Through the Way to Work campaign, we will continue to bring employers and claimants together in our jobcentres, and we know that that is what changes lives and fills vacancies faster. In the local jobcentre in Rother Valley, we are offering sector-based work academy programme swaps in those priority vacancy sectors, such as health and social care, warehousing, construction and security to support people to get quickly into the labour market.

Kickstart Scheme Closure

8. What steps she plans to take to support young people into work following the closure of the Kickstart scheme. (900280)

19. What steps she plans to take to support young people into work following the closure of the Kickstart scheme. (900292)

21. What steps she plans to take to support young people into work following the closure of the Kickstart scheme. (900294)

Following the success of Kickstart, which has seen over 162,600 young people start their new roles, the DWP youth offer will continue to support our young people. I have observed at first hand how our new youth hubs and our extended Jobcentre Plus network have helped to move young people into those local opportunities more quickly. That includes recent visits to Eastbourne’s Hospitality Rocks and the Wolverhampton College’s electric vehicle and green technologies centre.

In Sevenoaks and Swanley, the Kickstart scheme was welcomed with open arms. It is used by many brilliant local employees, including Go-Coach and the Mount Vineyard in Shoreham. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the Way to Work scheme focuses particularly on helping younger people in this way, and on helping specific sectors that are struggling to recruit, such as social care?

My hon. Friend is right. The scheme has transformed how we recruit everybody, including our young people. Our DWP employment advisers are working closely with employers to meet that local demand, including for HGV drivers and care workers. Way to Work has offered a unique opportunity to ramp up that activity, expand the approach, and maximise quicker employment into new sectors, with Kickstart leading the way.

Last month, I had the great pleasure of hosting an apprenticeship showcase on behalf of the aerospace and defence industry in Parliament. I met a constituent, Tianna, who is currently an apprentice at Collins Aerospace in my constituency. Tianna got the opportunity to showcase her enthusiasm and her skills to Collins through the Kickstart scheme. Can the Minister reassure me that other young people in Wolverhampton will have equal opportunity to showcase their own talents and ambitions in the future?

I can reassure my hon. Friend on that. In Wolverhampton, our jobcentres host an employers’ zone, which allows local businesses with vacancies and key training providers to meet claimants and enable those swaps and job-matching sessions. In the new Wolverhampton youth hub located in The Way, the youth zone directly supports young people furthest away from the labour market to find training and employment and, currently, exciting opportunities in the summer’s Commonwealth games, too.

I thank my hon. Friend for her visit to Eastbourne and the great energy and commitment she has shown to raising local aspiration. The kickstart scheme has been a huge success locally. Now hundreds of young people are in employment and building their careers—notably in Sussex NHS, where there are hundreds of new entrants. We are still working hard in hospitality and care, other sectors where there are opportunities as yet unfilled. What work is there coming down the line to connect young people with some of those opportunities, including in the digital and creative sector, where it is also important for us to build?

My hon. Friend rightly highlights the success of the kickstart scheme. I know she has had personal involvement in supporting young people in her constituency. Building on that success is an important question. The Way to Work initiative is building on those key links with local employers, such as the Sussex NHS, that offer good-quality opportunities for young people. Meanwhile, our work coaches continue to support jobseekers of all ages in accessing those vacancies and opportunities that she mentions in all those in-demand sectors.

The kickstart scheme was supposed to generate 600,000 placements. In reality, it generated around 235,000, and of those 80,000 were unfilled at the time that it closed. Does the Minister really think we should describe that as a success? Would not most people be asking what went wrong?

I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with the correct numbers on this. Some 162,600 lives have been transformed at the most challenging time, with well over 200,000 vacancies created by employers who would never have looked at this way of recruiting and bringing young people into the labour market before. It is clear that many employers thought they were doing a favour by getting a young person in for six months. The scheme has transformed recruitment, young lives and opportunities, and employers have found that they are the ones who have had that favour done for them.

Benefits Rates: People with Disabilities

We will spend more than £64 billion this year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. Claimants will also get one-off support worth up to £1,200 this year, including the new £650 cost of living payment for people on means-tested benefits and £150 for people on disability benefits, to help with additional costs.

The cost of living crisis is disproportionately affecting disabled people. More than half of those living in poverty in this country are either disabled themselves, or in a household where there is a disabled person. My constituents in that situation regularly come to me and say that the help they are receiving from the Government is not enough, even with that welcome increase. Will the Government consider specifically targeted further help to help alleviate the pressures they face?

I share the hon. Lady’s passion for this issue and her concern on behalf of her constituents. That is exactly why the Government have already acted: we have provided generous support in seeking to level up opportunity and improve the everyday experience for people with disabilities. What we have just been discussing comes on top of the package already announced, worth more than £22 billion, from the spring statement. We are clear that delivering this important additional support is an absolute priority; the DWP disability cost of living payments will accordingly be made by September, and other payments sooner than that, because we recognise the need here. However, I would take a step back and look at the overall approach, noting for example the agreement from the Resolution Foundation that this approach is the right one.

Thousands of disabled people are due to lose £150 because the Government are removing their eligibility for the warm home discount. The Chancellor has announced that they will receive an additional £150 in his cost of living emergency package, but robbing Peter to pay Paul merely puts disabled people back where they started. How does the Minister think this does anything to address their cost of living crisis?

The shadow Minister needs to look at this in the round, because we have a set of cost of living payments designed to support the households with the lowest incomes. That is the right approach, as I have cited from the Resolution Foundation, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation also says that this is a very welcome way of doing it because it targets support to where it is most needed. In addition, we are recognising how disabled people do have further costs, and that is why we are also putting in place the £150 that is targeted on those with the means-tested lowest incomes.

I am really not sure that the Minister heard my question; maybe she has been rather distracted. Some disabled people will not be better off. The Government’s disability strategy was declared unlawful by the High Court, and NatCen Social Research’s report on health and disability benefits clearly showed the poverty that many disabled people are living in. Does the Minister not think it is time to finally start listening to disabled people and addressing their cost of living crisis?

We are. It is unfortunate that the hon. Lady cannot engage with the wider point that I am making around the nature of means-tested benefits—for example, the many on unemployment and support allowance or universal credit who are also disabled and who will benefit from the approach we are taking.

In-work Poverty: Cost of Living

12. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps to tackle in-work poverty in the context of the rise in the cost of living. (900284)

15. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps to tackle in-work poverty in the context of the rise in the cost of living. (900287)

This Government have taken decisive action to make work pay, giving 1.7 million families an extra £1,000 per year, on average, through changes to the universal credit taper, work allowances, and increasing the national living wage to £9.50 an hour. Some extra support is coming in through the packages we have already mentioned today. It is also important to make the House aware that we extend help to people already on universal credit who are working to see what we can do to help them to progress in work and to take up other opportunities, such as making sure that they know about things like childcare support.

So grants rather than loans are the solution after all. Evidence from Feeding Britain and Good Food Scotland shows, for example, that people who work in a supermarket cannot afford to shop there, with fridges being switched off and lightbulbs being removed at home, and more pawning, borrowing and reliance on credit. Now that the principle is that grants are preferable to loans, will the Secretary of State apply the same principle to universal credit advance payments, as argued for by the Work and Pensions Committee?

This is the second time I have discussed this particular topic today. People can choose to get an extra payment of universal credit earlier, and then we spread that over the entire year, so, in effect, they get 13 payments instead of 12. That is what the advance is about. A number of people who move across from legacy benefits get some run-ons of different benefits to try to help with the cash transition when they are used to getting cash on that more regular basis. We will continue to make sure, though, that our top priority is to help people to get into work and to progress in work.

Having a child is one of the tipping points that can plunge families into poverty. Each year, thousands of claimants are excluded from statutory maternity pay by arbitrary rules that disadvantage people in low-paid and insecure employment. These claimants are forced to rely on maternity allowance, which is offset against any universal credit they receive, leaving them thousands of pounds worse off than those on statutory maternity pay. When will the UK Government tackle this manifest injustice rooted in their policies?

The two benefits are completely different, recognising the situations that people find themselves in, so they will be treated differently. The hon. Lady should of course be aware that this was challenged in court and the court did not go with the person who challenged it, recognising that they are completely different benefits.

Disabled People in Work

13. What progress the Government have made on increasing the number of disabled people in work by 1 million between 2017 and 2027. (900285)

The latest figures released on 17 May show that between the first quarter of 2017 and the second quarter of this year, the number of disabled people in employment increased by 1.3 million, meaning that that goal—that manifesto commitment from the Conservative party—has been exceeded after five years.

The Government can be rightly proud of unlocking the potential of 1.3 million more disabled people, but the majority of people with disabilities or long-term health conditions will develop those while of working age. What more can the Government do to support employers with their changing workforce?

My hon. Friend has a great deal of experience and wisdom here, and he is absolutely right. It is why we are committed to supporting disabled people to remain in work through, in particular, our Access to Work and Disability Confident schemes. Access to Work in particular is a really important grant that supports the recruitment and retention of disabled people by contributing to the extra costs they can face in the workplace. I would also like the message to go out loud and clear from here that Disability Confident is critical and can help employers and employees and have disabled people’s talents included in economic growth.

Closure of Seaham DWP Office

17. If she will publish the individual site assessment on the closure of her Department's office in Seaham. (900290)

An overarching equality assessment has been completed, which considers the impact on all DWP colleagues. This has been made available for the House in the Library, and I am also arranging for the site-specific equality assessment for Seaham to be shared with the hon. Member.

I thank the Minister for that response, but previously when I have raised the issue of the Seaham site, I have been assured or reassured that DWP employees at that office would be relocated to other offices within the region. Is she aware that the private bus operator Go North East is proposing cuts and changes to 80 regional bus services, many affecting my area? Does that not show that the DWP planning assumptions are rather precarious? Many of the DWP closures, including the one in Seaham, are in areas of economic deprivation that can ill afford to lose good-quality public sector jobs.

This network design change is to reshape how the Department works, resulting in a smaller, greener and better-quality estate for our colleagues. Many of these buildings across the land offer back-of-house functions, and they are just not good-quality buildings for our colleagues. I absolutely understand the point. Where colleagues are being offered new opportunities to go to the Wear View House site in Sunderland, which is approximately 7.5 miles away, there will be individual one-to-one conversations with them about what is right for them and how they can stay with DWP and continue in a role that works for them.

Child Poverty: Future Trends

The latest official statistics show that 200,000 fewer children were on absolute low income before housing costs in 2020-21, compared with 2019-20. This Government take the cost of living very seriously, and that is why we have announced a new £15 billion support package targeted at those most in need, bringing the total cost of living support to £37 billion this year.

The Department’s own data makes it clear that rates of absolute child poverty after housing costs in families with three or more children rose by 300,000 between 2016-17 and 2019-20. With the situation for children in these families having worsened significantly, and with inflation biting, will the Government now finally reconsider their pernicious two-child policy?

The two-child policy plays an important role in balancing fairness between those receiving benefits and those who are not. However, as we have already said through much of the questioning today, we have put a huge package on the table, which will benefit families of all sizes. With a vibrant employment market, there are big opportunities for people not just to get into work, but to progress in work as well.

Household Support Fund Allocation

22. What recent progress her Department has made on allocating the household support fund to local authorities. (900295)

Local authorities in England have already received their allocations for the household support fund for April to September, and those have been published online. The Government recently announced a further £421 million increase for the household support fund, extending it from October to March 2023. Devolved Administrations will also receive a further £79 million to help households with the cost of essentials, bringing the total funding for this support to £1.5 billion across the United Kingdom.

Devon has been allocated a further £5 million to help households in the county with the cost of living crisis. What has the Secretary of State done to ensure that that money is directed at the right places in Devon to make sure that the support really helps?

Local authorities, with their local ties and knowledge, are best placed to identify those most in need. To assist local authorities with identifying those who may be in need of additional discretionary support, the DWP has introduced data shares with local authorities, which enables them to proactively identify individuals in need, as well as the supporting guidance for the scheme.

The Government were able to switch on, and then switch off, the £20 universal credit uplift quite easily and efficiently. What conversations did the Minister have with Treasury colleagues about doing the same again for those on universal credit in the latest package of measures, rather than imposing another bureaucratic headache on already overstretched councils?

We have important guidance in place to support local authorities, but they are best placed to provide support for people in their individual localities. That is why the household support fund has been designed with that in mind.

State Pension: Deferring Entitlement

24. What (a) information and (b) financial advice her Department provides to people approaching state pension age on deferring their entitlement to the state pension. (900297)

Information regarding deferral is published on and provided in the state pension claim invitation letter and through the “Check your State Pension” forecast service, or someone can speak to the Pension Service direct. Deferring a state pension is a personal choice, and whether deferring a claim to the new state pension is the right decision will depend on a range of factors that are relevant to the personal circumstances of the individual, but no specific financial advice is given.

The DWP wrote to my constituent encouraging him to defer his pension. Unfortunately, he passed away last year, but the DWP told his wife Caroline that she was entitled to a £30,000 lump sum and £100 a week. After weeks of being passed from pillar to post, the DWP is now saying that Caroline is entitled to nothing, but it will give her £50 for the emotional distress and incorrect information. All the correspondence that she has from the DWP contains conflicting information and no warning of the risks of deferring a pension. Will the Minister meet me to rectify the situation and ensure that it does not happen to anyone else?

If the hon. Lady sends me the correspondence, I will make sure that it is looked into within a matter of days.

Topical Questions

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.