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Topical Questions

Volume 721: debated on Monday 31 October 2022

I am honoured to have been appointed as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I can inform the House that I have two early key missions: to focus on those who are economically inactive, as I have been suggesting already at the Dispatch Box; and to pursue with vigour the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to us being a compassionate, caring Department supporting the most vulnerable, which, at the end of the day, is a hallmark of a civilised society.

I welcome the Secretary of State, a fellow Devon MP, to his position. Will he agree to meet me and Barnardo’s to discuss the concerns of care leavers from Devon, whom I recently hosted in Westminster, who without a rent guarantor cannot afford a deposit on a rental property of their own. Will he consider a pilot to help those young people get a better start in life?

I thank my hon. Friend—I will call him an hon. Friend, certainly—and colleague from Devon for his question. I know of the excellent work he has been carrying out with Barnardo’s in that area. I would be delighted to meet him and Barnardo’s, and whoever else he feels appropriate, to discuss those issues.

T5. We heard earlier about those who are economically inactive. Figures show that in the west midlands, including in my constituency of Rugby and Bulkington, over-50s have been less likely to return to the workplace after covid than their younger counterparts. Businesses in all sectors tell me just how badly those workers are needed. What initiatives is the Department working on to get more older people back into work? Will the Minister join me in coming along to an over-50s fair we are holding in Rugby in the new year? (901940)

I would, of course, be delighted to go to Rugby and I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend is holding an over-50s fair. He will be aware that the Department is rolling out 50 PLUS: Choices and the mid-life MOT to ensure that those matters are addressed.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to his post. I also welcome the new Ministers and welcome back returning Ministers. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State saying that he wants a compassionate approach, so may I press him further on the point that numerous Members have put to him? He will know that not sticking to the triple lock for pensioners will mean a real-terms cut in their pension of hundreds of pounds. He will know that not inflation-proofing universal credit will mean an average household will lose £450 and that a household with a disabled person in it will lose over £550. Why does he no longer agree with himself when he said, on 4 October, that this is

“one of those areas where the Government is going to have to think again”?

I reassure the House that I always agree with myself. That is not the same thing as saying that I am always right, incidentally, but at least I am always consistent in that respect. We will have to wait—sorry, I should say that it is a pleasure to serve opposite the right hon. Gentleman and that I look forward to many months of constructive engagement with him.

It is very important that we do not overlook the huge amount that the Government are doing to target assistance at the most vulnerable. In the cost of living support package alone, there is £650 for 8 million of the most vulnerable households, £300 for pensioners on pension credit and £150 for those who have disabilities. That is very important.

The Prime Minister tells us that we do not need a general election because the 2019 manifesto gives him and the Conservative party a mandate. Given that that manifesto committed to the triple lock, why can he not give pensioners the reassurance that they deserve? Let me ask him about a second point: can he give a categorical assurance that, in the autumn statement, he will rule out means-testing personal independence payments, carer’s allowance, attendance allowance and disability living allowance for children?

The right hon. Gentleman is inviting me, in a whole host of areas, to break with what has been a very long-standing and quite correct convention that Ministers simply do not provide a running commentary about what may or may not be in a major fiscal event. However, he has my personal assurance that when and as it is appropriate to pass him information of that kind, he will be the first to know.

T6. Now then: last week in Parliament, I met a young lady called Florence who has Down’s syndrome. She told me that she has five paid jobs and three voluntary jobs, because she is trying to get into the workplace, and she is coming across lots of barriers. Does the Minister agree that we should do more to help people with special educational needs, like Florence, to get into the workplace? What better place to start than right here in Parliament? (901941)

I strongly agree. Programmes such as the Access to Work scheme have supported the Government in meeting five years early their commitment to see a million more disabled people in work in the decade to 2027. We want to create more of those opportunities—in which spirit, I commend Florence for her determination. As a Government, we are determined to help her to succeed.

T3. Since I came to this place in 2019, I have worked with and fought the corner of all the women in Newport West who face discrimination due to their gender and age. Those WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—have shown incredible perseverance and tenacity over the years. Will the Minister set out the steps that are being taken to address this issue? If she cannot meet the women because of the ongoing investigation, will she meet me to discuss this important issue at the earliest opportunity? (901938)

I am happy to meet the hon. Lady. I point out, however, that the state pension system corrects some of the historical inequalities of the previous system, producing considerably higher outcomes for women.

T8. At Runnymede and Spelthorne citizens advice bureau, I recently met and was incredibly impressed by Becky and her superb team of staff and volunteers and the crucial support that they give to Runnymede and Weybridge residents, working alongside the Department for Work and Pensions. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking Becky and her fantastic team for the work that they do? (901943)

I echo and support what my hon. Friend says, and he is right to laud what Becky and her team are doing. He will be aware that over the past few years, Citizens Advice in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has done fantastic work and plays a hugely valuable role in rolling out the Help to Claim scheme across the United Kingdom.

T4.   I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment and welcome his team of Ministers on to the Treasury Bench. He will understand that lots of people, including many, many people in east Hull, work incredibly hard and incredibly long hours, but despite all their efforts still rely on benefits. Does he agree that it would be incredibly mean if the Chancellor of the Exchequer was now to row back on the commitment of uprating benefits in line with inflation? (901939)

The hon. Gentleman has been in the Chamber during questions for long enough to know that I cannot comment on the uprating or otherwise of benefits. However, he should take into account the numerous positive tax changes that there have been over the years for the hard-working constituents he refers to—not least the very significant increase in the personal allowance since 2010 and the change to the taper under universal credit, which makes a difference to many millions of people up and down the land.

My constituent suffered months of worry and stress because his employer failed to pay any pension contributions into his workplace scheme. Raising it with his boss made him fear for his job. The regulator gives no feedback on investigations, so will the Secretary of State consider whether the current £400 statutory penalty notice and regulatory powers are sufficient to ensure that employers fulfil their pension contributions duties?

The independent Pensions Regulator has robust powers in place to investigate compliance and issue fines; I urge my hon. Friend’s constituent to report his concerns to it in confidence. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.

Harry, my 11-year-old constituent, has cerebral palsy. He was previously awarded the higher rate mobility component of the disability living allowance, until it was downgraded. It took nearly two months for a mandatory reconsideration to uphold the decision, which his family are now appealing. There is currently no tribunal date, which means that the family face a prolonged period of uncertainty and anxiety. Will the Minister look at the detail of Harry’s case with a view to expediting a date for the tribunal?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the constructive way in which he has approached the issue. I will be very happy to contact him if he shares the details of the case with me. What I can say, which I hope will give some reassurance, is that 400 extra people are dedicated to mandatory reconsideration work and waiting times are dropping. We need to sustain that performance as well as getting things right the first time.

I have no doubt that this fine ministerial team will be pleased to know that my recent jobs fair perfectly complemented the employment and skills pathfinder programme. Will a Minister come to Willenhall jobcentre to meet its excellent policy and partnership staff and discuss what more we can do together to help people to progress in employment?

I am fantastically pleased to hear about my hon. Friend’s jobs fair. He is a doughty champion for Walsall. Either I or our much more illustrious Secretary of State would be delighted to come to Walsall and see the great work being done there.

Saturday was World Stroke Day. I simply ask if this Government will uprate benefits in line with inflation, which would particularly help the growing population who are living with a disability. I know that I will not get an answer or a commitment today, but I ask them to consider it for the autumn statement.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for making that argument. As my colleagues and I have said consistently at the Dispatch Box, we will not provide a running commentary ahead of the autumn statement on 17 November, in which the Chancellor will set out the situation in the normal way.

A few weeks ago, at Paul’s Sports and Social Club, I met my constituent Nigel Seaman, who is a veteran, to discuss his work with Combat2Coffee to get veterans who may be homeless or struggling with the transition to civilian life into work and employment. Will the Minister meet me and Nigel to discuss what more can be done to support excellent veterans’ charities such as Combat2Coffee with helping veterans into work?

I am very pleased that I am wearing my Help for Heroes band today. I am delighted to hear about the work of the charity that my hon. Friend mentions. We are working with our champions in jobcentres to get people who have been service leaders into work, and we have work coaches who are dedicated to that. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to find out more about the charity and tell him more about what we do in jobcentres.

It appears that the Government’s plan to clear up the economic disaster that they created is to implement austerity 2.0. Nearly 1.5 million people, including many of my constituents, have now been pushed into poverty as a result of their policies: the cuts to the social security net, the benefit cap and the cuts to support for disabled people, as well as the cruel and inhumane conditionality and sanctions regime. What discussions is the new Secretary of State having with the Chancellor to ensure that those in low-income households will not have to face any further cuts to social security to help to clear up this mess created by his Government?

The benefit cap is important because it restores fairness to the balance between those on working-age benefits and taxpayers in employment. Along with changes in the taper rate, this means that moving people into work wherever possible is the best way out of poverty.

Last year an estimated 1 million people of working age were receiving carer’s allowance. A constituent of mine, after three and a half years of caring for his father full time—his father passed away recently—is now unable to access jobseeker’s allowance because he is not considered to have been employed. What is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State doing to rectify the position?

If my hon. Friend writes to me giving the specific details, I will ensure that the ministerial team and the civil servants involved look into it as a matter of urgency.

Does the new Secretary of State—whom I welcome to his place—still agree with his statement that cutting maternity rights will be good for business?

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker—sorry, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.] I will not be called next time, will I?

The Government have done a great deal to help people with their cost of living challenges, but elderly residents in my constituency are troubled by reports in the newspapers suggesting that we may not meet our manifesto commitment to retain the pensions triple lock. Pensioners face a triple whammy of dwindling savings value due to low interest rates, rising costs due to inflation and, owing to their age, an inability to go out and earn any more. Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that we will increase pensions in line with inflation?

I admire my hon. Friend’s persistence on this matter, but I am afraid I must give her the same response that I have given on numerous occasions this afternoon, namely, that we will have to wait until at least 17 November for an answer. I understand the particular pressure that pensioners are under because they are often unable to change their economic circumstances, as others within the labour force can; but we will have to wait.

A number of my constituents who work for the DWP have told me that they are not being given the enhanced holiday pay that they were promised in return for working overtime consistently. In response to my inquiry, the DWP has told me that current legislation provides no definition of regularity. Will the Minister please address this issue?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter; I shall be happy to look into it if he writes to me with the details.

I have written to the DWP twice about the relocation of back-office staff from Crossgate House in Doncaster city centre to Sheffield, but have received only negative replies. This is not what the staff want and, with many council offices empty owing to the new model of hybrid working, Doncaster is losing much-needed footfall. Will the Minister meet me so that we can establish whether the decision can be reversed?

This is an issue that I was already looking into. I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concern, and I shall be happy to meet him and be given an update on the situation.

Along with many other Members who are present today, I have received a number of emails from concerned pensioners, including one who wrote that if the triple lock is not maintained:

“myself and many others will have to pare our spending even more. Occasional meet-ups with friends will be the next to go and then more and more people will become isolated and depressed.”

Does the Secretary of State agree that maintaining the triple lock will improve the health and wellbeing of our pensioners as we go into the winter?

I completely understand those concerns, but that is why we have provided a package of support—now—which is worth more than £850 for everyone receiving a state pension and £1,500 for those receiving pension credit.

Last week we celebrated the 10th anniversary of automatic pension enrolment. This is, genuinely, an amazing cross-party policy achievement which has transformed the saving culture across our country. As we look back on that success, will the Ministers consider expanding the system to 18-to-22-year-olds?

In my former life I was very much looking at that specific policy and I am quite sure that the Government will address it shortly.

This morning I attended the York cost of living summit and heard about the impact that food poverty, heating poverty and housing poverty are having on my constituents. One issue is the rate at which the benefits cap is set. By 2027, it will not have been reviewed for 11 years, so will the Secretary of State make representations to the Chancellor to ensure that it is reviewed before 17 November?

I am in the process of reviewing just that matter and many of the others that we have discussed, so we will have to wait, but it is one of the matters that is under review.

We look forward to the Secretary of State appearing before the Work and Pensions Committee. Can he give us an assurance before he does so that the Department will publish the systematic evidence-based review of food bank use that it promised to publish and place in the Commons Library two years ago, so that we can debate the policy issues required to eliminate hunger across these islands?

I look forward to appearing before the hon. Gentleman and his fellow members of the Committee. He raises a specific point, and I will look into it and come back to him.