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Topical Questions

Volume 718: debated on Monday 11 July 2022

At this moment, I am delighted to have a team who are making sure that the wheels of government keep turning. That is particularly true given that we are the biggest delivery Department in Whitehall, on which so many vulnerable people rely.

It is certainly my focus to deliver help for households. As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) pointed out, we will be sending out the first instalment of the £650 cost of living payments, starting from this Thursday.

We are also building on our successful Way to Work scheme, having smashed our ambition to get half a million people into a job in just five months, thanks to help from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies). Dare I say, Mr Speaker, that that is way to go for Way to Work!

We are now putting more focus on those further from the labour market who are economically inactive or most at risk of inactivity, whether through the lifetime MOT offer or the £1.3 billion-worth of employment support for disabled people. That will help to grow the economy and ensure that more people are on the path to prosperity and prospects through work.

Many of my Luton South constituents are struggling to make ends meet. In fact, across the east of England, 50% of Citizens Advice debt clients are in a negative budget, with their monthly expenditure on essentials exceeding their income; that is up 12% from the same period in 2019. Does the Secretary of State still think that it is a good idea for the Government to raise taxes this year, when the UK is the only G7 country to do so?

The hon. Lady will be aware of the £37 billion package that is going to households, £15 billion of which is being deployed this year. People will already have received some elements of that through council tax support, and I have outlined the cost of living payment support. I could add to that the lifting of the national living wage to £9.50 an hour and the reduction in the taper rate to 55% for people who are working and on universal credit. We are targeting support at the most challenged low-income households, and we will continue to do that. Meanwhile, we will continue to try to do what we can to grow the economy to help households, so that we can tackle inflation overall.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend outline how, thanks to the work incentives built into universal credit, some 11,600 Carshalton and Wallington residents—in working households, which is welcome—will receive a cost of living payment in the coming days, and will she set out what she is doing to ensure that even more people from Carshalton and Wallington can get into work? (900997)

My hon. Friend continues to be a champion for his constituents. He will be aware of aspects of the Way to Work campaign that are different from how they were in the past. Far more job fairs are happening, bringing employers into jobcentres for interviews. That enables us to make quicker decisions, find out what is going wrong in the process and support people so that they can more quickly get the pay packet that they cherish.

As we have heard, it is expected that the energy price cap will rise by £450 more than was anticipated when the Government announced their cost of living package. A typical household will face energy bills of £3,250; that is more than a third of the value of the state pension. How on earth does the Secretary of State expect pensioners and families to cope this winter?

I think the right hon. Gentleman is referring to an external analyst’s prediction of what might happen with energy prices. Nevertheless, the Government have responded. We deliberately made sure that our cost of living payment package came out when Ofgem made its announcement, and that is why we tailored the cost of living payment support to help households. We will make sure that support for household energy costs goes to every single household in the country, in addition to our comprehensive package. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy leads on fuel poverty. I am conscious that in making decisions, he will consider the vulnerable the most, as all of us in the Government do.

I appreciate that the Secretary of State may not be in her place come this October—who knows?—but she is currently in a Cabinet with a Chancellor and a Foreign Secretary, and she shares the Government Benches with a whole host of colleagues, who have made £30 billion to £40 billion-worth of unfunded tax cut commitments. Is not the truth that those tax cuts can be paid for only by further cuts to the state pension, further cuts to universal credit and further cuts to disability benefit, and that the reality is that the next Tory Prime Minister will make the cost of living crisis even worse?

Far from it; as has been shown yet again, this Conservative Government have stepped up to deal with the cost of living challenge, just as we did through covid, and we will continue to do so. That is why we will be spending £37 billion on this. As for support going forward, I am conscious that people who are running to be leader of the Conservative party and the future Prime Minister want, quite rightly, to make sure that we have an active, growing economy. I will leave them to be judged on their policies. I am the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and we are going ahead with the additional payments, starting this week. Many households will be looking forward to them, and I am pleased that we are able to deliver them.

T6. I frequently get complaints from people in the agriculture sector that they cannot get the workers they need from the UK jobs market. What more can the Department do, perhaps working with educational facilities such as Duchy College in Cornwall, to get jobseekers into these important roles? (901002)

As always, my hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for her constituents in South East Cornwall. Jobcentres work with employers in all sectors to help them to connect with jobseekers who are looking for work, and to fill their vacancies. I encourage any employer to reach out to their local jobcentre. DWP staff recently held events alongside the National Farmers Union to promote jobs in agriculture and connect people to our sector-based work academy programmes.

The UK Government recently rejected the Work and Pensions Committee report’s recommendation to

“extend Child Benefit to all British children irrespective of their parents’ immigration status.”

People with no recourse to public funds do not qualify for the additional cost of living payments. Children are literally starving and suffering malnutrition because of this cruel policy. Does the Secretary of State believe that this is acceptable in the 21st century?

The hon. Lady refers to the fact that people without recourse to public funds are not eligible for benefits. When people arrive, I accept that they are not going to be eligible for child benefit. Any family in a state of difficulty can apply to the Home Office for a review of that status; it is for them to do so. At the same time, as I think we confirmed to the Select Committee when we discussed the matter at the hearing last week, it is for local councils to design the way they do the household support fund. It may be possible for people without recourse to public funds to apply to their local authority.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that support for the welfare state depends on a kind of social contract where people realise that those who are pensioners or out of work should be helped because they have paid their taxes? How is support for the welfare state improved when 60,000 people a year are pouring across the channel, paying illegal smugglers—these are not the poorest of the poor—and being kept on social security, maybe for 10 years, without ever being deported? By the way, what does it cost?

I am conscious that through the help—the visa schemes—being put forward for Ukrainian citizens and for Afghan resettlement, there is access to public funds. My right hon. Friend will be aware that people who arrive in the country illegally are given a payment via the Home Office, I think, of a very small amount of money to pay for the day-to-day, but they are not eligible directly for benefits.

T4. One in five pensioners in the UK is living in poverty, 1.3 million retirees are undernourished and 25,000 people die each year because of cold weather. The situation is dire and is getting worse and worse by the day. What discussions will the Secretary of State have with her new colleague the Chancellor to reverse the cruel Government cuts to the state pension and provide the 5,360 women in Liverpool, West Derby who are affected by the changes to the women’s state pension age with the full restitution that they fully deserve? (901000)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the state pension has almost doubled under the coalition and this Conservative Government. He will be aware that pensioner poverty is going down. He will be aware that the state pension is up on last year and the year before. He will also be aware that we are paying £1,500-worth of support. He should very much be aware of pension credit and should be making the case for it to all his constituents who can access the £3,300, on average, plus the household support fund. I am sure he is making the case to each and every one of his constituents.

T8. Four in 10 of those who are refused a disability benefit do not appeal. Of those who do, two in three win their appeal, but it is months and months before they come before a tribunal. Are the Secretary of State and her team not ashamed of that? This is about poverty among tens of thousands of people. (901004)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that we take very seriously in the Department. We want to get the correct support to people as early as possible and in a way that engenders trust and the proper levels of support from our Department. He will, I am sure, be an avid reader in due course of the health and disability assessments White Paper, which will go into some of these points in greater detail, following on from the Green Paper, to which we had 4,500 consultation responses. However, I can assure him, and all other right hon. and hon. Members, that we want to be able to ensure that the right decisions are made in the first place, and considerable resources are being put into the Department for that purpose.

Last year there were 337,000 overpayments as a result of errors by the DWP, with the debt waived in only 10 cases. Claimants spend these funds in good faith, but are then required to make repayments that they simply cannot afford. Will the Minister agree to bring universal credit in line with legacy benefits by making no-fault debts non-repayable?

It is obviously important to ensure that we get our payments right, and we are working hard to do that, but it is also important to balance the needs of the taxpayer with those of benefit recipients. We do need to get that balance right.

The Department’s annual report, released last week, has revealed that the estimate of the number of women who have been short-changed over their retirement pensions has risen by a further 103,000. That is not quite the rosy impression that the Select Committee was given when the Secretary of State and the permanent secretary appeared before it recently. Just how long will these women have to wait before they receive their legal entitlement, and can the Minister confirm that there will not have to be a further upward revision of these estimates?

It is unquestionably the case that this Government are trying to resolve matters that date back some 20 years. I might have wished that some of my predecessors who occupied the illustrious position of Pensions Minister, some of whom now sit on the Opposition Benches, had made a better job of monitoring these matters. We are fixing the problem. We have—definitely—more than 500 people working on it now, and, as I explained to the Select Committee, we will have upwards of 1,000, rising to 1,300, working on it on an ongoing basis; so it will be fixed in the very near future.

I know what the Government have said they are doing to increase the uptake of pension credit, and that is good; I do not want to hear it again, though. I also know that people can backdate their claims for pension credit, so anyone who makes a successful application by 24 August this year will receive the £650. However, I have been campaigning for the deadline to be extended to the end of the fiscal year, because I think that as we go into the winter, that is what will concentrate people’s minds when they have to make the very real choice between heating and eating. I am not asking the Minister to commit himself to doing this today, but will he commit himself to at least considering extending the deadline to 31 March next year?

The uptake of pension credit is clearly to be applauded, and I sincerely hope that the hon. Lady was behind the pension credit day of action and is behind the messages that we are all trying to put out. That is not all, however. On Thursday we will make the £326 cost of living payment, which will drop £1 million in payments every single working day, and there will be a further £324 payment in the autumn. We are also providing the energy support grant of £400, which will go to every individual in the country, as well as the £300 winter fuel payment, the council tax rebate, and various other household support grants. All those are available to individuals up and down the country, and will also support pensioners.[Official Report, 14 July 2022, Vol. 718, c. 6MC.]

Order. If there are no further questions, I will suspend the sitting for two minutes.

Sitting suspended.