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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 726: debated on Monday 23 January 2023

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Unemployment: Mental Ill Health

1. What steps his Department is taking to help reduce the number of people who are out of work owing to mental ill health. (903182)

The Department for Work and Pensions provides specialist help for those who are suffering from mental ill health, both through the Access to Work scheme and by funding advisers in the NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapy services in England.

Since 2019, economic inactivity due to mental illness and nervous disorders has increased by 22%. People with mental ill health need support in order to get back into work, and Access to Work grants are a vital resource in helping to ensure that they have that support, but in the past year alone waiting times have doubled and the size of the backlog has trebled. People have been forced to turn down jobs that they want to do because they cannot gain access to the support and flexibility they need. What will the Government do to address those delays?

The hon. Lady is right: there is an issue with economic inactivity, which is why the Prime Minister has tasked me with reviewing this entire area, including the matters that she has rightly raised. We will, in due course, publish a White Paper to address some of those matters.

On Friday I had the great pleasure of visiting the New Skill Centre in south-east Ipswich. It is run by a community interest company that works closely with adults with a range of health and learning disabilities. I was amazed at what I saw. Much of what the centre does involves helping adults to live independently, but some of the carpentry and artwork I saw was so good that I think that many of those people may get back into work. Does the Minister agree that the moral of the story is that we should never give up on people, that we should never write them off and stop working with them to enable them to achieve their true potential, and that we should support organisations that help them to do so?

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I commend him for the huge amount of work that he does in his constituency in this regard. There is no doubt that the conditions of those who suffer from mental health issues are often dramatically improved when they can get into work, hold down a job and benefit from all that working provides.

As the Mayor of South Yorkshire, I worked alongside Mayor Andy Street in the west midlands to introduce Working Win, a pilot employment scheme designed to help people with mental and physical health challenges to get into or stay in work. In South Yorkshire the pilot has been very successful, smashing all targets and helping 2,500 people to get into work. I understand that the Department is considering whether the scheme could be rolled out nationally. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the funding will be maintained in the interim?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the subject of this pilot, which I agree is hugely important. We are looking closely at the results, including the effect not only on mental health but on productivity. As he will know, £7 million has been invested so far.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for the leadership they are showing on this issue. They are exactly right: it is the increase in the number of, in particular, younger workers dropping out of the labour market owing to mental ill health that is driving the increase in economic inactivity. As he prepares the White Paper, will my right hon. Friend keep the focus on how a close link with the employment support agency and the labour market can be maintained? Once someone leaves the labour market and is out of work for an extended period, it becomes far less likely that they will ever make it back.

My right hon. Friend has great experience in these matters, and he too is entirely right. It is essential for the Department to do whatever it can at the early stages to support those with mental health issues who are already in work, particularly those who are in danger of falling out of work, so that we do not end up seeing more and more people experiencing longer-term absence from employment.

I think the Secretary of State should be embarrassed today, what with the Prime Minister scrabbling around to reannounce tiny bits of funding to put a sticking plaster over the levels of mental ill health in our country in order to distract attention from the dreadful behaviour of his colleagues. The Secretary of State has mentioned the Access to Work scheme, and we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) just how difficult it is to gain access to that scheme at present and to secure an award. One would be forgiven for thinking that nothing works in this country, not even the schemes that are supposed to help people to obtain work. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many people are currently waiting for Access to Work to help them?

I would be very happy to write to the hon. Lady on exactly how many people are waiting for access to that scheme. We should not in any way play down the importance of the Access to Work scheme, which is highly successful and provides up to nine months of support for those who badly need it. On recent announcements being made on the hoof, as the hon. Lady seemed to suggest, we have been supporting those in such situations for many years and have made much progress over so many years to get those with mental health issues and wider disabilities into employment.

The Secretary of State says that we should not play down the importance of Access to Work, but he does not even know how many people are waiting for a decision. The charity Scope says that the number of disabled people waiting for a decision on their award in March 2022 was nearly 21,000. That is an increase of 327% on the same point the previous year. That is dreadful. Nothing works in this country. When will the Secretary of State sort it out?

I stand by, and make no apology for, our record on encouraging disabled people back into work. We were set a target for dramatically increasing the employment level for disabled people by 2027. We met that target of 1 million new disabled people in work a full five years early. I think that record speaks for itself.

Social Security Payments: Cost of Living

2. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of social security payments in the context of increases in the cost of living. (903183)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of social security payments in the context of increases in the cost of living. (903192)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of social security payments in the context of increases in the cost of living. (903193)

13. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of social security payments in the context of increases in the cost of living. (903198)

The Department has completed the statutory annual review led by the Secretary of State on the levels of state pension and benefits. The outcome of the review was confirmed in a written ministerial statement tabled on 17 November last year. Benefits and pensions will increase by 10.1% in April, subject to parliamentary approval. We understand the pressures that people are facing, which is why this Government have provided cost of living support worth more than £37 billion in 2022-23. In addition, more than £1 billion will be provided in 2023-24 through further cost of living payments.

While the Scottish Government are using their devolved powers to support families through anti-poverty measures such as the Scottish child payment, the Tory Government’s changes to the universal credit administrative earnings threshold will mean that 600,000 more people will risk having their vital payments sanctioned. Instead of preventing vulnerable families from receiving the vital social security to which they are entitled when they need it most, will the UK Government follow Scotland’s lead and match the child payment UK-wide?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the Scottish child payment. The DWP is actively working with the Scottish Government to support its delivery, including by providing data through the Scotland Act 2016. I know that the hon. Gentleman has been holding cost of living events in his constituency. To his credit, he has been working with local jobcentres and the DWP to help people at this difficult time, which I applaud. The anecdotal evidence that I have of the AET changes, from visiting jobcentres, has been incredibly positive. People understand that they can earn more, take on more hours and fill vacancies, and that work is the best route out of poverty.

We on the SNP Benches have long called out this Government’s many poverty-inducing policies, such as the benefit cap, the five-week wait and the brutal sanctions regime, which contribute further to debt when people are barely surviving the cost of living crisis. Now, the Conservative think-tank Bright Blue—backed by some on the Government Benches—has said that the welfare system is not providing people with enough support and has called for the introduction of a minimum income. If the Minister will not listen to us, will she at least listen to her friends at Bright Blue?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I will be very interested in the outcome of the work that the Scottish Government have been doing on the Scottish child payment system, taking the powers that have been devolved to the Scottish Government to support and link into their communities—that is absolutely what devolution is, and I will be following the outcome. But I reiterate that the work that goes on in his constituency and in the jobcentres that serve his community is also about people progressing through work, and that benefits are not the route out of poverty.

Food prices rose by 16.8% in the year to December, according to the Office for National Statistics, and that disproportionately affects households with children, particularly women-led, single-parent households. Given that the Government spent most of last week saying that they wanted to protect the rights of women and children, can the Minister explain how they are protecting the rights of the women and children in the 787,000 households affected by their two-child policy and the associated rape clause?

Personally, I find the term “rape clause” obnoxious and completely inappropriate. I absolutely do not mind standing up for women, either at this Dispatch Box or outside the Chamber. On supporting families, we are acting, with Barnett consequentials, to support families to progress, whether through interventions such as the national living wage or on the cost of living. I am proud to be the Minister bringing forward the next stage of household support funds and the cost of living Bill. We are not leaving families behind. We are determined to help make work pay and ensure that we fill these sectors’ vacancies and opportunities in the whole of the United Kingdom.

Many of my Edinburgh South West constituents were already suffering from policies such as the two-child limit and the failure to reverse the cut in universal credit before the cost of living crisis hit home. In its recent submission to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Human Rights Watch gave a damning review of the United Kingdom Government’s restrictive social security policies, saying that they have a negative impact on the right to an adequate standard of living, to food and to housing for families with children. So, given the times that we are in and given that we are in the full thrust of our cost of living crisis at present, should not the Government be scrapping these policies?

Over 8 million households on eligible means -tested benefits will receive additional cost of living payments up to a total of £900 in the year 2023-24, with more to come. The Government are committed to reducing poverty and supporting low-income families, and we will spend £111 billion on welfare support for working-age people between 2022 and 2023. But let us balance this up, because progression is not only about benefits. I say this as a former Employment Minister, and with the current Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), sitting near me. With 1.16 million vacancies across the UK, our focus is firmly on supporting families, both in and out of work, to progress in work.

While understanding the concerns of Opposition Members, can I ask the Minister, when making changes to the benefits system, always to be mindful of ensuring that work pays, given the need to get more people back into the workforce?

My right hon. Friend is right. Whether it is cutting the taper rate, managing the AET, looking at in-work progression or focusing on people dropping out of the labour market at 50-plus, and whether it involves single parents such as myself or other people who need help to progress in work, we are focused on work paying. That should always the balance.

A crucial way to help people in the benefits system is to get inflation down, so can I urge the Government to ensure that they deliver the reduction in inflation that we desperately need?

My right hon. Friend is exactly right. We have heard about the cost of living challenge, but this is a global challenge; it is not only for us. We absolutely need to work together so that every family is doing better.

The best solution for low-income families is not increases in universal credit but access to better-paid employment, so will the Minister join me in encouraging the 1,130 universal credit claimants in Broadland to come to my jobs fair on 10 March at Taverham High School?

I love a jobs fair; I have another one coming up in March in my own constituency of Mid Sussex. Opening up opportunities for people just down the road can often make the difference, and I applaud my hon. Friend for doing this. Every Member should be having their own jobs fair.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating and thanking the volunteers at citizens advice bureaux, especially the one in Kettering, for the work they do to help people access cost of living payment support? What more can the Government do to signpost people to the unprecedented level of support that is available?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the wonderful work of Citizens Advice, which does so much in Kettering and across the country, and indeed delivers our Help to Claim service. The benefits calculator on and Help for Households can also support people; many do not know those resources are there. We are absolutely here for people and there is more out there. I will ensure that the household support fund is clearly branded and reaches people who may be just managing.

The Minister seemed to be appalled by the reference of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) to the rape clause, so let us use its Sunday name: the non-consensual sex exemption, as the Government like to call it. Is she genuinely comfortable with a Government who ask survivors of rape to prove that their child has been born as a result of sexual assault? The reality is that, with the limited devolution powers we have for social security, we have the game-changing Scottish child payment, while this Government ask women to prove that their children have been born as a result of rape just to get state support. Given that the Labour party has departed from many of its policies and is a pale imitation of the Tories, is it not the case that the only way to ensure that we have a decent social security system is with independence?

We should be very careful with our language in this regard. It is absolutely right that people in every single circumstance can come forward positively, but labelling the provision in that way in the Chamber is not helpful—[Interruption.] It is not about whether it is our policy; that terminology is unhelpful. Universal credit is always tailored to individual circumstances. If anybody would like to come forward with anything that has happened to them, jobcentres are a safe place in which to declare domestic abuse or ask for support. I say to those people: please do step forward, as we have the J9 initiative and other ways to support people.

Incentivising Return to the Labour Market

As the House will be aware, I am currently reviewing economic inactivity—it is not satisfactory that we currently have almost 9 million people who are economically inactive—and I will be come back to the House in due course with various measures.

I welcome that work and wish my right hon. Friend well in concluding his review. Many disabled people and people with long-term health conditions want to work and we should help them to do so. Does he agree that the current health and disability benefits can pose a financial disincentive against trying work, and that it is right for us to look again at providing better support?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. May I just say how helpful it is that, having left the Department, she continues to show such a positive and constructive interest in the matter? She is entirely right that we need to focus on what people can do when they are disabled, rather than on what they cannot do. That will be very much at the heart of the White Paper.

The Secretary of State has just said that we should be focusing on what people can do. One key to getting older people back into work is for employers—public and private—to value experience as much as paper qualifications, and in particular not to insist on degrees and A-levels unless they are strictly relevant. He could even take up my private Member’s Bill, the Employment (Application Requirements) Bill, to bring that about.

I would, of course, be happy to look at the right hon. Gentleman’s private Member’s Bill. He makes an important point, which is that we have to ensure that employers see disabled people with eyes wide open—their abilities and the contribution they can make. That is why we promote Disability Confident, and why we have so many work coaches up and down the country focusing on just that.

Pension Credit

5. What steps his Department is taking to encourage eligible pensioners to apply for pension credit. (903186)

I hope hon. Members know that pension credit take-up is a priority for me and for the Government. Our £1.2 million communications campaign has been ongoing since April. We had a huge push before Christmas, ahead of the cost of living payments, and I am grateful to the many hon. Members who came to the drop-in session. In addition, I know that my hon. Friend does a huge amount of work in his constituency to boost take-up.

I was pleased to support my hon. Friend’s campaign to increase the uptake of pension credit in the run-up to Christmas. Will she update the House as to whether or not that has been a success and whether we have seen an increase in uptake?

I am delighted to tell the House that we saw 7,200 claims in the week commencing 12 December, which is a 177% increase on the previous year. I thank all hon. Members who have worked hard in their constituencies to make this happen.

According to research from the Law Centres Network’s recent pension credit report, nearly 60% of respondents said that they waited between three and six months for claims to be processed. A constituent of mine has been waiting six months and losing out during that time. Will the Minister address the Pension Service’s processing failure and take steps to bring the average time it takes to deal with claims for pension credit down to the target time of six weeks?

I am concerned to hear of that individual case and if the hon. Lady would like to write to me, I will look into it. More broadly, we know that there have been delays; that is partly because the number of claims doubled in 2022. I am pleased to say that in February we expect claim waiting times to get back to normal, but I will, of course, report back to the House on how we are doing on that.

Nearly 1 million pensioners are not receiving pension credit to which they are entitled. To make matters worse, each of those 1 million pensioners is also missing out on a £900 payment from the Government to help them with heating, as the payment is available only to those on pension credit. Why have the Government been so ineffective at raising the take-up of pension credit? Will she also explain why on earth they linked help with heating to pension credit when they knew that 1 million pensioners would miss out as a result?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s interest in pension credit. I hope he will have heard my previous answer about all we are doing to boost take-up and indeed the success that we had before Christmas. I have spoken to him previously about the work we are doing to automate it and make greater use of data; this is an absolute priority for me and for this Government.

Support for Care Leavers: Housing

This Department is rightly prioritising the needs of care leavers, by simplifying their interaction with the benefit system and helping them into work, so they can progress and thrive in employment. The DWP does not provide direct support to prospective house buyers; households can access Government-backed schemes, such as Help to Buy and the right to buy.

I thank the Minister for that answer. It is a privilege to be working with Barnardo’s and care leavers in Plymouth in making the case that every young person leaving local authority care should have a home of their own, ideally one to be rented straightaway so that they do not fall back into emergency care. Many of these young people have been through awful experiences. Will the Minister set out what additional steps by her Department could help set up a guarantor scheme and provide help with the first rental deposit so that these young people do not miss out on a home when they leave local authority care?

I visited Plymouth to see the exemplary youth hub and partnership work—which includes some great tourism tips—in June 2022. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work alongside Barnardo’s; the Secretary of State and I look forward to meeting and discussing more next week. I believe that some local authorities, such as Kent County Council, have a successful rent guarantor scheme and I encourage others in doing this. I will look at this matter carefully.

I very much agree with the points that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) is making. In my constituency, the problem is that the house prices are incredibly high and that that is coupled with a squeeze on the private rented sector, thanks to recent tax changes on private landlords. This means that care leavers in a place such as Wiltshire have little chance of staying where they come from and were born. What more can the Government do to find ways of encouraging these people to stay in their home area and helping them with it?

I thank my hon. Friend for raises these issues, which we have around the country. Let me assure the House that the Department for Education is looking at how it can encourage more local authorities to develop similar offers to care leavers, which was part of an independent review of children’s social care. That is part of the work that I, and the housing taskforce, are doing on housing, and I am keen to look at it.

Cost of Living: Impact on People with Parkinson’s Disease

7. What steps he is taking to help tackle the disproportionate impact of the cost of living crisis on people with Parkinson’s disease. (903190)

Six million people receiving an eligible disability benefit received a £150 disability cost of living payment last year, and will receive a further £150 cost of living payment later this year. This is in addition to other Government support, such as up to £900 for those on a qualifying means-tested benefit.

I thank the Minister for his answer. According to a Parkinson’s UK survey, people with Parkinson’s disease will pay an extra £1,196 in heating costs to manage symptoms. Those receiving the £150 disability cost of living payment are already £1,000 a year out of pocket, so will the Minister meet me and representatives of Parkinson’s UK to discuss this very important issue?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have worked together constructively on issues in the past, and I would certainly be delighted to meet him on this occasion to discuss this important issue. Of course, one point that I would make is that many people who are receiving the disability cost of living payment will also be receiving other elements of the Government’s cost of living package, but I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about his views on this particular issue.

We all know, including the Minister, how disabling and terrible Parkinson’s disease is—members of my own family have suffered from it. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to keep in mind the extra costs of heating that the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) has referred to, which these people need to keep their mobility. We should do anything that can be done to help them overcome and live with this awful affliction.

I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. Those additional costs that people with conditions such as Parkinson’s often experience are something that I am incredibly mindful of. The Government are committed to having a look at the issue of social tariffs, and I will be meeting with the Energy Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), to talk about that issue. I will also take this opportunity to signpost the household support fund, which is a discretionary fund that is there to help, through local authorities and on a discretionary basis, where needs are not necessarily being met through the wider package.

State Pension Age: Women

8. Whether his Department plans to take steps to compensate women affected by changes in the state pension age. (903191)

State pension age equalisation has been the policy of successive Governments, and as the hon. Lady knows, the phasing in of state pension age increases was agreed to by her party in 2011 and 2014.

One of the very first issues raised with me by constituents when I was elected in 2017 was the inequality faced by women born in the 1950s, yet in the almost six years since then, this Government have done nothing to fix that. Given that the ombudsman has concluded that the Department for Work and Pensions was at fault in its administration, will the Government commit to fulfilling the ombudsman’s recommendations? In the meantime, will the Minister encourage the Scottish Government to use the powers they have to alleviate the suffering of such women?

As the hon. Lady knows, the ombudsman’s investigation is ongoing, so unfortunately I cannot comment further—other than what is in the public domain—at this stage.

Of course, the other side of the coin, whether for females or males, is to not leave the workplace too soon. Will my hon. Friend therefore support my initiative to work with our excellent Gloucester Jobcentre Plus in holding an event specifically for the over-50s, both females and males, to see what opportunities our local employers can come forward with? Would one of the Ministers perhaps join me there to support that initiative?

My hon. Friend does sterling work in his constituency. [Interruption.] The Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has just indicated that he would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in Gloucester.

Universal Credit Recipients

11. What steps he is taking to support people in receipt of universal credit with increasing (a) their level of pay and (b) access to one-on-one appointments with a work coach. (903195)

We want people to work more, and ideally come off benefits—as we all know, UC progression means that work always pays more. To enable that, we have created in-work progression support that provides over 1.6 million more claimants with access to work support.

In Chelmsford and across Essex, job coaches have been running a new initiative to support working people on universal credit to gain more income, which is proving highly successful. Many people have been supported to increase their skills and therefore their hourly pay rate; other people who were working part time have increased their hours. May I urge the Government to first, provide more out-of-hours training for those in work; secondly, offer more discretionary spending to enable those in work to attend those training courses; and thirdly, help to roll out the lessons learned from Essex across the country?

It is true that Essex is a pioneer of our in-work progression offer; I spoke to one of the job coaches doing that in Essex only this morning. We are recruiting senior district progression leads who will work with local skills providers to ensure that there is appropriate training for in-work claimants. Bluntly, the Essex profile, along with the other volunteer organisations, will be going out to the entire country by the end of March 2023.

With the DWP struggling to recruit in under-resourced areas such as personal independence payments and child maintenance, and huge take-up of voluntary redundancy in regional offices, how will Ministers ensure the Department’s ability to support the public is not endangered further?

It is our intention to have jobs fairs, sector-based work academies and local recruitment on an ongoing basis. I am happy to discuss with the hon. Lady, whom I have worked with many times in the past, how we can do things in her patch.

Job Vacancies: Watford

14. What progress his Department has made on filling vacancies in the job market in Watford constituency. (903200)

The Department for Work and Pensions is assisting businesses across the country, particularly in Watford, to ensure we fill the vacancies by supporting people back into work. In Watford, the jobcentre is doing sterling work, helping local and national employers to deliver recruitment days, job fairs, sector-based work academies and work trials to help to fill those vacancies.

I once again co-hosted the Watford jobs fair late last year, working with the excellent jobcentre team. We had more than 30 employers in attendance, from KFC to His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, Smyths Toys to Warner Bros. and Hilton Hotels & Resorts to West Herts College. However, a common theme raised with me was the lack of interview attendance by applicants. Will my hon. Friend assure me that activities are under way to ensure that interviews are attended so that we can get people back to work? May I also invite him to visit Watford to see the great work in practice?

What an offer—I would be delighted to visit Watford and to thank the excellent team who work at the Watford jobcentre. In answer to my hon. Friend’s question, yes, claimants are expected to take reasonable steps to move into and progress in work, including attending jobs fairs and interviews with employers.

Supporting People into Work: Childcare Costs

Parents claiming UC who move into work can get support with paying up-front childcare costs through the DWP flexible support fund. Once in work, eligible parents can claim back up to 85% of their childcare costs each month through their universal credit. That is worth up to £650 for one child and around £1,100 for two or more children, regardless of the number of hours that parents work. There is vital support for working parents and I encourage all hon. Members to visit their jobcentres to help them to understand that and the other crucial support available to their constituents.

Soaring childcare costs are compounding the cost of living crisis and in some cases pricing them out of work. According to the Coram childcare survey, parents in the north-west are paying on average £1,150 a month for a nursery place for a two-year-old. What plans does the Minister have to support parents who are out of work, looking to increase their hours or on a low wage and struggling with overbearing costs?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this matter, because it is important for employers to step up as well. Where they have vacancies, they should think about job design and being more welcoming to people wanting to take on more hours and to progress. That is some of the work we are doing through our changes to progression, working with our jobcentres. Of course, payments can also be made directly to the childcare provider, but I am very keen that this works for all parents and it is a matter I am looking at.

The DWP Committee has conducted an investigation into the childcare element of universal credit and, as we have heard, the offer is a good one, at 85% of costs paid. However, the system is not working and only 13% of eligible parents are taking it up. Parent after parent told us that they want to go out to work and that this is an issue. Will my hon. Friend confirm whether there have been discussions with the Treasury ahead of the spring Budget to think about funding our key asks of removing the up-front payment requirement and uprating the care?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State takes a great interest in this matter, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we are all keen to see more parents in work. In fact, the current rate for lone parent employment is 64.6%. She knows this subject very well and advocates for change, so she fully understands the challenges. We will respond in due course to the Committee’s report, which was published at the end of last year. I reiterate my absolute passion for making this work for all parents.

Soaring childcare costs are indeed a major barrier to parents seeking to return to the workplace. Parents seeking to take a job may find that they have to have at least £1,000 in the bank in advance to pay for the first month’s childcare. Can the Minister explain how a parent on universal credit who wants to move back into work is supposed to fund those up-front childcare costs and then wait a month for them to be reimbursed?

I thank the hon. Lady for that point, and take the opportunity to remind the House and all employers to think about job design, flexibility and inclusive recruitment, because that will make a difference. With regard to eligible claimants moving back into work, they can receive support for up-front childcare costs through the Department’s flexible support fund. Claimants can also receive support for up-front costs if they increase their hours and take on an additional job. Payments can be made direct to the childcare provider, and we are working on further guidance on that.

Cost of Living: Impact on People with a Disability

16. What steps he is taking to help tackle the disproportionate impact of the cost of living crisis on people with a disability. (903202)

As I said earlier, six million people receiving an eligible disability benefit received a £150 disability cost of living payment last year and will receive a further £150 cost of living payment later this year. This is in addition to other Government support, such as up to £900 for those on a qualifying means-tested benefit.

The £150 disability cost of living payment is indeed welcome, but those living with a disability spend more on heating costs, as they are invariably less mobile and spend longer, if not the whole day, in their home. As the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) have mentioned, Parkinson’s UK estimates that additional cost at £1,200. Will my hon. Friend set out what the Government are doing to provide advice and help those with a disability to bridge that funding gap?

I can certainly extend the offer to my hon. Friend to join the meeting that I agreed to in an earlier exchange. I am keen to have his insight and input on this issue. It is important to set that £150 payment in the context of a wider package of support that has been provided: the £900 cost of living payment; the £300 pensioner payment; and the support that has been provided through the energy price guarantee, as well as discretionary support. It is right, particularly with reform in the offing from April 2024 around energy support, that we look at this issue in the round.

Universal Credit: Vaccine Damage Payment Awards

17. If he will review whether vaccine damage payment awards should be disregarded for the purposes of universal credit. (903203)

My hon. Friend is a great champion for his constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme. It was a pleasure to meet him recently and discuss his particular constituent’s case. I can assure him that I will review the issue.

I thank the Minister for meeting me to discuss the case of Mrs Ward. As we all know in the House, the vaccines are incredibly important and largely effective in stopping covid, but there have been a few cases in which there are side effects, and we should acknowledge that. We have a vaccine damage payment scheme for such cases, but universal credit does not disregard payments made under that scheme, although it does for some other payment systems. That means that Mrs Ward, who has been bereaved, has the additional indignity of having her payment means-tested, whereas someone who was not on universal credit would receive the payment in full. I thank the Minister for the review, and may I ask for a timeframe for when people such as Mrs Ward can have answers about this?

My sympathies go out to Mrs Ward and her family in the circumstances that my hon. Friend has outlined to me, both in private and in public today. I can assure him that this matter will be reviewed. It is clearly a cross-Government matter, but it will be resolved by the summer at the latest.

Cost of Living: Pensioners

18. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of Government support for pensioners in the context of increases in the cost of living. (903204)

The Government have provided a record amount of support for pensioners this winter. More than 8 million households have received a £300 cost of living payment in addition to other support. Both the state pension and pension credit will be uprated from April by 10.1% in line with inflation. That means that for the first time the full amount of the new state pension will be more than £10,000 per year.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but the Government are again showing their disregard for the vulnerable of our society by failing to increase state benefits adequately for those who need them most. All the while, the Government disproportionately reward the most affluent areas of this country with their so-called levelling-up grants. Their disregard for the common people, and pensioners in particular, is plain to see. Can the Minister confirm whether there are any plans to reduce the levels of poverty suffered by people that has been caused by her Government and her Department failing to support them adequately?

May I remind the hon. Gentleman that under the Conservatives, absolute pensioner poverty has gone down and the state pension has gone up. This Government do deliver and will continue to deliver for pensioners across the United Kingdom.

Around 1,800 pensioner households in Lancaster and Fleetwood are eligible for but do not claim pension credit. With the rising cost of living, many more pensioners are struggling, so will the Minister lend her support to my campaign to encourage my constituents to check on older friends and relatives to see whether they are eligible for pension credit, and to support them to apply if they are eligible?

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Lady is doing in her constituency to boost take-up of pension credit. I would love to work with her and all across the House on this important topic that we are all focused on.

The Minister will know that a lot of private pension schemes increase by inflation each year, but with inflation capped at 5%. Will she encourage the trustees of those schemes, where they have a healthy balance sheet, to increase their pensions by the full 10% this year to help out those pensioners who are struggling?

My hon. Friend does a lot of important work in this area. What he says is sensible, and all pension funds need to be looking at what more they can do to support pensioners.

Local Housing Allowance

19. What assessment he has made of the impact of real-terms reductions in local housing allowance rates on families. (903205)

In 2020, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Government boosted the local housing allowance by almost £1 billion, taking it to the 30th percentile of rents. For those where there is a shortfall, the discretionary housing payments arrangements are available. We should all be mindful of the expense of the support for housing, which is running at £30 billion a year, and is projected to rise to £50 billion in 2050.

Rightmove reported last autumn that rents in London had increased by more than 16% in a year, yet, as the Secretary of State has said, housing support through local housing allowance has been frozen since 2020. Will Ministers look again in the Budget at the level of local housing allowance for the coming financial year?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point, but he needs to see this issue in the round. My fellow Ministers have outlined at some length the cost of living support payments that were made available last year and that were announced in the autumn statement and will be available from April onwards. I have already mentioned discretionary housing payments, with £1.6 billion of support since 2011. There is also the household support fund, which gained an extra £1 billion for 2023-24. I look forward to appearing before his Committee at the end of March, where no doubt we can discuss these matters in greater detail.

Topical Questions

As the House knows, the Prime Minister has asked me to review economic inactivity. We have 9 million people who are economically inactive at the moment, and I will be looking closely at all those in that review, not least the long-term sick and disabled, those with caring responsibilities and those over the age of 50 who have retired early.

Following on from the question from the Select Committee Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), many of my constituents are required to seek a housing solution in the private rented sector, but cannot afford it due to the freezing of local housing allowance and the increase in rents. Can the Minister have a conversation with his colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to see whether they can do more to enable councils to widen their lists for the housing register to ensure that people can access housing they can afford?

I can provide the hon. Gentleman with that reassurance. There are discussions ongoing between officials in my Department and in DLUHC, and we will continue those through time. We are aware of the issue. I have raised the inordinate expense of these measures, but none the less it is important that we look at them closely.

T2. We have some fantastic engineering companies in Stoke-on-Trent, including Don-Bur, IAE and Rayne Precision Engineering. However, they are struggling to fill what amount collectively to hundreds of vacancies. Will my hon. Friend look at what more we can do to help those companies recruit people and get them back into work? (903208)

My hon. Friend is right that there are great things happening in Stoke. We are working with the North Staffordshire Engineering Group to develop a sector-based work academy to fill those specialist engineering roles. A jobs fair is planned at Port Vale football club—[Interruption] —which is some people’s favourite football club, on 16 February, and Don-Bur, IAE and Rayne are all invited to attend. On 15 March, the DWP is also hosting a jobs fair at IAE’s new exhibition centre.

According to my friends at the Centre for Social Justice, around 700,000 people with no work requirement could go to work if given the right support. The Labour party put forward proposals. The Secretary of State’s spin doctors said they were cynical. Then, two days later, he briefed that he was going to copy them. So when will he introduce reforms to the work capability assessment and Access to Work to get more people back into the workplace?

The right hon. Gentleman knows the answer to his own question, which is that we are looking at precisely those matters as part of our review of economic inactivity. He is well aware of the extensive consultation that surrounded the White Paper, which we will come forward with in due course. All the questions he poses will be answered in greater detail then.

Economic inactivity has been rising for three years, and the Labour party wants to get Britain back to work, but all the Secretary of State can say is that he will bring forward a White Paper in due course.

Let me ask about the long-term sick. The Secretary of State will know that a third of the inactive across South Yorkshire are long-term sick and that a quarter of the inactive across the west midlands are long-term sick. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), he said he was looking carefully at the long-term sick programmes across South Yorkshire and the west midlands. However, in December, his Department withdrew the funding. Why is he cutting the funding for Andy Street’s West Midlands and across South Yorkshire when we need to get the long-term sick back to work?

As I have said, we have invested £7 million in the west midlands engine pilot, and we are looking closely at that pilot. The right hon. Gentleman criticises us on the employment front, but it is Labour that saw the number of workless households almost double on its watch, Labour that always has unemployment higher at the end of its term of office than when it went in, Labour that parked millions of people on benefits with little incentive to leave them, and Labour that left us with 2.5 million unemployed in 2010.

T6. I have visited local businesses in the Colne and Holme valleys and in Lindley, so it is great to hear that so many are expanding, have vacancies and are looking to hire local people. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State please join me in commending the excellent work of Huddersfield jobcentre staff, who are busy preparing for a jobs fair on 2 February, as they seek to improve people’s lives by helping them into work? (903212)

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the Huddersfield jobcentre and the extraordinary work of the staff there. They organise several job fairs every month, and I commend my hon. Friend for the support he provides to them in that endeavour.

Today, we have probably had an insight into one of the battlelines for the next general election. It was on the front page of the Daily Mail—not something I would normally read—which talks about a “something for nothing” Britain. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to distance himself from that ridiculous remark? I suggest it would be a brave move by the Conservative party to tell pensioners that their state pension is something for nothing.

I have a clear view on all these matters, which is that a hallmark of a civilised society is that it looks after the most vulnerable; the Government have a proud record in that respect. I could go through chapter and verse on the various measures, not least the cost of living support for 8 million low-income households up and down the country. If people—fraudsters and others—are prepared to abuse the system that is there to support the most vulnerable, we should not hesitate to come down hard on them and they should face the full force of the law.

T9. Will the Minister for Social Mobility, Youth and Progression join me in commending the Longbridge and Kings Norton jobcentres, and the Factory youth hub in Longbridge, for their work to ensure that young people are equipped with the skills they need to get back into work and that they have the dignity of work, and to reduce youth unemployment in my constituency? (903216)

I wholeheartedly agree that, as we have heard, work is more than just a pay packet. I am delighted about the impact of more than 150 youth hubs, such as the Factory—I visited the one at the central library, but I did not get to that one—that are working with flagship employers and small employers. I am keen to see how that youth hub changes lives and opens up progression for young people who would like to learn from my hon. Friend’s local DWP team’s success.

T4. I have been contacted by two separate disabled constituents who were previously eligible for the warm home discount. This year of all years, however, they have been told that they are no longer eligible, because of the way that the various support schemes interact. Will the Minister meet me to look into those two individual cases, and the wider issue, to ensure that the most vulnerable people are not missing out on the support that they need? (903210)

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. It is important to point out that the reform to the warm home discount, which expands the support available, means that 160,000 more households where a person is disabled or has a long-term illness will receive a rebate. If she provides me with the details of the cases in question, I will be happy to look at them.

I know that the Minister for Disabled People shares my enthusiasm for the Disability Confident campaign and ensuring that more employers sign up to it. What discussions is he having with the Migration Advisory Committee to ensure that, when considering representations from sectors about, for example, the shortage occupation list, being a Disability Confident employer is part of what is considered?

It is fair to say that my hon. Friend and I have experience of such matters from previous roles. I know that there is no bigger advocate of Disability Confident in Torbay than him. Of course, we want to continue to build on the brilliant work that has happened through that scheme and its success in getting disabled people into work, which I think should be an overarching mission for the whole of Government.

T5.   I welcome the Secretary of State’s earlier remarks about looking to address the causes of economic inactivity in the over-50s. The people and skills element of the UK shared prosperity fund could be well placed to fund the kind of support that that age group needs to get back into the workforce, but that funding will not be available until 2024-25, which is much too late to address the current crisis. Will the Department work with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to bring the funding forward to 2023-24? (903211)

The hon. Lady raises an interesting and important point. We are certainly in discussions with DLUHC about those kinds of matters—perhaps I will leave it at that.

The number of people claiming unemployment benefit has fallen in my constituency over the last year, but does the Minister agree that more needs to be done? Will he therefore support the jobs fair that I am holding on 3 February in partnership with the DWP, Halesowen business improvement district, Halesowen College and the Cornbow shopping centre in Halesowen so that we can get more people back into work?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s work in Halesowen. He is right that jobs fairs, not just by the DWP but by individual Members of Parliament, are a vital way to drive greater employment. He is also right to say that the in-work progression offer that we are developing will truly make a difference to those already in work.

T7. It is clear that nationally led employment support simply is not working. Why are the Government not matching the Opposition’s commitment to let local communities take charge of that crucial work so that local support matches local labour market need? (903213)

I will stand up for our jobcentres, which are providing fantastic employment to people up and down the country. On top of that, we are doing the in-work progression offer, about which the Labour party, as usual, has absolutely nothing to say.

The Rumbles café in Sutton-in-Ashfield does marvellous work with people with Down’s syndrome, helping to train them and get them back into the workplace. People with Down’s syndrome are living longer and more independently, but they are struggling to get into the workplace, so what more can the Government do to help people with Down’s get into the workplace?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Perhaps we could organise a visit so that I can see this organisation for myself. I had a really rewarding visit to Bristol just before Christmas, where I saw the huge difference made by work experience opportunities organised and facilitated by charitable organisations. I would be delighted to visit.

T8. Last week, the Prime Minister became the second holder of his office to have been found to have broken the law while serving in No. 10. He has now been issued with a fixed penalty notice, his second in 12 months. But unlike many of my constituents who have been hit with punitive benefits sanctions, the Prime Minister is unlikely to be forced to resort to payday loans and food banks in order to get by. Will the Secretary of State concede that the Government policy of sanctioning claimants for even the most minor and accidental breaches of the rules is simply too severe? (903214)

Sanctions quite rightly play a role in the work of work coaches and jobcentres, because the provision of benefits involves a contract between the jobcentre and those receiving those benefits, who in many cases have an obligation to seek work. Where that contract is broken by the individual who is meant to be seeking work, it is only right that a sanction should be available. But it has to be applied with due care—and, indeed, that is the case.

Unemployment is falling in Grimsby, but it still stands at 5.1% compared with the UK national rate of 3.7%. What is the Department doing to make sure that we can get more people into work when we have the vacancies?

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for Grimsby and will be pleased to know that an adult social care jobs fair, with 10 employers in attendance, will take place on Wednesday, and a whole host of events will take place every single day during apprenticeship week in two weeks’ time. We are also rolling out the in-work progression offer to Grimsby, starting in March, which genuinely will make a difference and promote greater employment.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism are severely underdiagnosed in women and girls, and are often misdiagnosed as mood disorders. What discussions have Ministers had with the Health and Social Care Secretary about the impact this is having on women’s ability to access and maintain employment, and what steps will be taken to support them?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this issue. It is fair to say that Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions meet Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care and across Government. We are in the process of appointing the new ministerial disability champions to take a lead on taking deep dives into particular issues. I am really happy to take that one away to raise with DHSC colleagues.

The people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke would like to ask when the Minister for Pensions is going to act on the recommendations of the 2017 automatic enrolment review to lower the age threshold for automatic enrolment from 22 to 18, and to remove the lower limit of the qualifying earnings band, so that contributions are paid from the first pound earned.

Automatic enrolment has been a huge success. I know that my hon. Friend does a huge amount of campaigning on this, and we remain committed to implementing the 2017 reforms in the mid-2020s.

During the lockdowns, conditionality was, understandably, relaxed, but I fear that it has not returned to its pre-covid levels. Can the Secretary of State assure me that those pre-covid levels of conditionality, which are so vital to getting people back into work, will return as a matter of urgency?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Conditionality plays a central role in the way in which the benefits system works and our drive to get people back into work. She is right that it was relaxed during the covid crisis, and I think it is right that it was, including in relation to people coming in for face-to-face appointments. That has now been reinstated and I will be looking at conditionality as part of my review of economic inactivity.