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Labour Market Activity

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2023

I beg to move,

That this House is concerned that the number of people out of work and economically inactive is higher than before the pandemic, that thousands of older people have left the labour market and that there have been significant increases in the number of people out of work due to ill health or mental ill health; notes that recent employment support schemes have underperformed and underspent; condemns the Government for its failure to get more people into work; regrets that this failure is contributing to low economic growth and falling living standards; and therefore calls on the Government to get Britain back to work by reforming disability benefit assessments, devolving employment support to local areas and providing specialist and targeted help for those with long-term ill health or aged over 50 to grow the economy and boost both public finances and household incomes.

I ask the House to endorse this motion for one simple reason: it is time to get Britain back to work, and to extend opportunity to everybody who wants to find a decent, fulfilling job. It has always been the Labour party’s view that unemployment is never a price worth paying.

Let me say at the outset that this debate is not about the technical definition of unemployment. I anticipate that the Secretary of State will refer to the employment figures, and no doubt there will be interventions from Conservative Members telling us that our constituents have never had it so good. I accept that unemployment is at 3.7% of the working-age population, but the cause of low unemployment is not a booming jobs market.

In the last year or so, we have registered some of the lowest growth rates in the G7. The reality is that we are one of the few major economies not to have returned to pre-pandemic employment because of a rising tide of economic inactivity, despite there being around 1 million vacancies in the economy. Across other major economies, labour market participation rates rebounded as restrictions lifted, yet here employment is lower than before the pandemic. Our labour force growth effectively ground to a halt, and we suffered the biggest employment rate fall in the G7—a labour market loss of almost 4%, which is equivalent to 1 million people. Economic inactivity has risen by around 600,000.

Some of that is early retirement among the over-50s, but an increasingly common reason for leaving the labour market is sickness. When we consider both the number who are unemployed and the number who are inactive but who say they want help to work, there are around 3 million workless people in this country who could be in jobs. Indeed, some think-tanks suggest the figure could be as high as 4.7 million. Even though we have a UK unemployment rate of 3.7%, we in fact have a hidden unemployment rate of around 12.1% when we add the people who are inactive and want to work.

This means that 13.4% of the working-age population of Barnsley are involuntarily inactive, according to the Centre for Cities. These are men and women who, with the right help, want to work. It means that 12.9% of the working-age population of Middlesbrough, 12.4% of the working-age population of Doncaster and 12.7% of the working-age population of Mansfield are inactive.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, since the Government came in and cut English for speakers of other languages courses, women from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in inner-city areas, in particular, have not been able to get into employment? We see that in the figures.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I also see that phenomenon every day in my Leicester constituency. There are people who want to work, and who could work if given the right help and support with the English language—particularly women from Bangladeshi and Pakistani-heritage communities—but, because of the cuts that have made ESOL more difficult to access, they are not being given that support and help.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the study by the Office for National Statistics showing that there could be a significant increase in the overall levels of employment and productivity if there were greater encouragement to work from home, particularly for women who are having to choose between caring and working? They face a cliff edge, but they want to do both. Why are the Government not doing something about that?

My hon. Friend, typically, anticipates a point I will be making later, but it is clear that certain members of the population could be encouraged to return to work if the correct flexible option was in place, along with appropriate help with childcare or indeed social care. Many people are caring for loved ones—parents and so on.

The Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that six out of 10 people who are economically inactive because of illness are economically inactive because of mental health problems. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that changing the conditions of work, for example, with good childcare, with proper jobs, with proper wages and so on, is the way to deal with this problem?

The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely reasonable point. We are seeing more and more people being forced out of the labour market, or not able even to enter it in the first place, because of depression, stress or anxiety. If we reform the way in which we deliver employment support, we can get many of these people back to work, because being in work will be good for them in terms of managing their mental health. Obviously, that is not necessarily the case for everybody, but it will be for a significant proportion. The problem is that there are many who want to work, yet under the Government’s approach, which focuses just on the unemployed via the jobcentres, only one in 10 out-of-work older people or disabled people are getting any support. We reject that approach.

My right hon. Friend is making a good speech. For someone with a disability or a long-term condition, simple adjustments in the workplace, such as having a sit-stand desk, so that an office worker does not have to sit down all day, a vertical mouse, to help somebody who has problems with their wrists, or an ergonomic chair, to help somebody with a bad back, can make all the difference in how they are able to manage their health and how happy they can feel in the workplace. Lots of people do not know that they are entitled to ask for reasonable adjustments and that very often these items are available through the Access to Work programme. Does he agree that the Government need to do far more to publicise the support that is out there, so that not only can people get into work, but those in work can maintain their health and stay in work longer?

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. It is not just that lots of people are not aware of the Access to Work scheme, but some people who apply for Access to Work are then faced with the most ridiculous waiting lists. A constituent of mine accepted a job and was told that there was a 26-week waiting list for an assessment. I raised that case with the Department in my capacity as a local constituency MP and I am pleased that the Department has looked at it again, but lots of people will not go to their local MP asking them to intervene, and we want to get people into work. It is no wonder that the disability employment gap is widening.

As a country, we should be aiming for the highest level of employment in the G7. That would mean living standards raised for every household. The reason we want to extend the opportunity of decent work to all is even more fundamental: when one in five people who have left the labour market in the past two years say that they would like to work, we have a responsibility to help them. Behind every statistic is a story of opportunities missed, talents wasted and extraordinary potential left untapped, none more so than for the now 1 million young people not in education or employment. Increasing numbers of young people are out of work for reasons of mental health. We know the long-term scarring effects of worklessness at a young age; it risks a life on the margins. To do nothing for this group of young people, as is, in effect, the case now, means writing them off. Its means tolerating a situation where only about 4% of people in the employment and support allowance support group return to work each year—to me, that is fundamentally unacceptable. It is a massive social cost and it has a massive economic cost as well, as we will see, because the Office for Budget Responsibility is predicting that the health-related benefit bill will increase, costing us £8 billion extra.

Most Conservative Members would agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, so will he offer a bit of guidance as to how the Government should go about contacting people in these positions who might want to get into work? What kind of offer does he think would be best to make so that we can engage with them?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. I will outline a very detailed plan in my remarks. I hope it finds favour with him, because we want to grow our economy, as he does, and getting people back to work is good for them as individuals, it will make our economy more productive, it will sustainably raise living standards—not by going for growth through inflation—and getting people back to work is surely a good thing. I hope he stays in the Chamber, as I am sure he will, to listen to my speech.

The Government say that they gave us kickstart, but it failed to deliver the 250,000 jobs for young people promised. They say that they gave us restart, but it is expected to help less than half the number of people that Ministers said it would, and it is underspent by around £900 million. However, my argument is not simply that the Minister is doing nothing. It is also that what the Government do do, they do not do very well.

The Local Government Association estimated that the Government—I think that this is last year’s figure—spent £20 billion to deliver 49 different employment and skills-related schemes administered by nine different Government Departments and agencies and, yet, despite all that money, these organisational geniuses have still given us a situation where we have 1 million vacancies, 3 million workless, and the worst employment recovery in the G7. That is surely not good enough for £20 billion-worth of expenditure.

What has been the Government’s answer? It is more of the same. They brief newspapers there will be more daily interviews for the three-month unemployed in the intensive work search group, even though the failure-to-attend rate for weekly appointments is already high. It will no doubt mean more CV writing classes, more applying for jobs online that turn out to be duplications and, of course, more sanctions. Of course there should be conditions applied to unemployment—[Interruption.] We have always been in favour of conditions for unemployment benefit—as many of these hon. Members will find out when they go to the jobcentre after the next general election—but what we need for this country is a plan that widens access to employment support for all who want to work, that brings together health and employment support, that addresses the cost and disincentives of moving into work for parents with childcare needs, for example, and that takes account of the different economic needs of the country.

My constituency of Cynon Valley has some of the highest levels of economic inactivity in Wales and, indeed, the UK. I welcome Labour’s proposals to fix this broken employment support model. Indeed, I am pleased that, in Cynon Valley, we are piloting some innovative economic models under the community wealth building approach. However, turning to the UK Government, is my right hon. Friend at all concerned about the pilot announced in a written statement yesterday, requiring claimants to attend face-to-face interviews daily for a fortnight, with a threat of sanctions for non-attendance? Is that not a model to discourage claims? Is he also concerned that, following the closure of many jobcentres, jobcentre workers, who are themselves accessing food banks, are now being forced to require claimants to undertake these interviews and to make life-impacting decisions based on economic benefit?

The problem is that the Government are one-trick ponies. They think that that is the answer to getting people back to work, but what we need is a plan to deal with the economically inactive, not just to apply conditions for those receiving unemployment-related benefit on universal credit.

Different parts of the country face different economic needs. In broad-brush terms, in coastal and some former industrial areas, we tend to see lower labour market participation rates and relatively fewer vacancies. In many parts of London and the south-east, we tend to see higher labour market participation, but also relatively fewer vacancies. In major cities such as Birmingham, Leicester, Coventry and Liverpool, we tend to see lower labour market participation, but often higher vacancies. The point is that different economies have different economic needs. Different labour markets have different economic needs. Instead of nationally contracting to deliver one-size-fits-all employment schemes designed from behind a desk in Caxton House, and instead of forcing Mayors—in the words of Andy Street—to go with a “begging bowl” to Whitehall, we should shift power and resources to local communities because, as the leader of Nottingham County Council, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), said in a very good Red Box article a few weeks ago:

“Local leaders are too often hampered by the Whitehall knows best approach…Employment support programmes are commissioned based on national guidelines, not local needs…Fixing economic inactivity needs a radical pro-devolution mindset.”

I absolutely agree with him.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words and for giving way. I should mention that I co-wrote that article with Adam Hawksbee of Onward.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He mentioned Mansfield’s statistics and the high levels of economic inactivity. These schemes are best built with local employers and training providers so that they can be bespoke for those needs, with the flexibility that was mentioned earlier; I am sure he would agree with that. Will he join me in calling on Ministers to pilot that in the east midlands when we get our combined authority next year?

Absolutely. Of course, a Labour Government will definitely deliver more resources. I hope that we can pilot that in the east midlands combined authority, as well as in the Leicester area—the hon. Gentleman will know what that is a reference to.

My right hon. Friend is making an eloquent point about the devolution of this policy area. I draw his attention to the work that Cheshire West and Chester Council has done with work zones across our borough and in my constituency. That work has been really effective not just in getting people into work, but in enabling those in low-paid work to get up the skills escalator. The sort of short-term rigid national contracting that we are seeing from the Government is actively working against the devolution and skills that local employers and local people need. I would be very pleased if he agreed.

I agree. May I welcome my hon. Friend to her place? This is the first opportunity that I have had to do so. She brings to this House great experience in local government. She knows that local authority leaders, working in partnership with the business community, with those who provide skills, and with civic societies, trade unions and so on, can do a much better job of getting people back to work, which is why we should be shifting resources, be it to the east midlands combined authority, the Cheshire region or elsewhere.

Where that has happened in pockets—such as in Andy Burnham’s Greater Manchester, through the working well initiative—there have been great successes, so we need to shift resources. That is the key to providing a form of universal support, which my friends at the Centre for Social Justice have rightly called for, to help people with complex barriers to return to work. We endorse that approach.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way—he is being very generous. We have a Labour Government in Wales. Would he support the devolution of the administration of social security to that Labour Government?

The hon. Gentleman is tempting me into very choppy waters by offering to disrupt the way in which we provide social security across the country, but I will resist the temptation to go off course.

At a time when local areas should be given more resources to deliver employment support, the Government are cutting resources. Not only did they announce out of the blue in December that they were cutting a scheme that helped those with health conditions to move into work in the west midlands and South Yorkshire—they then U-turned on that a couple of weeks ago—but, as I heard from the Salvation Army when I went to visit an employment project in East Ham this morning, they are also leaving the voluntary sector with no answers about its future because of decisions about the shared prosperity fund.

The shared prosperity fund, which is the successor to the European social fund, helps to fund schemes that support people with complex barriers into work. The European social fund money ends at the end of this year, and there is then a nine-month funding gap until the people and skills element of the new shared prosperity fund kicks in. How does the Secretary of State expect to get more of the economically inactive into work when that funding gap means that voluntary organisations in all our constituencies have no idea how they will fund their work for the best part of a year? That is not the way to go about it, and when the Department leaves those voluntary organisations with no funding, it does not suggest that the Government are serious about getting people back to work.

My right hon. Friend is making an important point about the shared prosperity fund and the funding gap that so many providers in our constituencies face. I have seen in my constituency the fantastic work they do. The people working in those charities and organisations have huge expertise. Does he share my concern that, if their jobs do not continue, we will lose a wealth of knowledge that is tailored to our local communities, which would be devastating for so many people looking for work?

It is a crazy situation. In fairness to the Secretary of State—I do always wish to be fair to him—decisions on the shared prosperity fund are made by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but for a Government who say that focusing on inactivity will be a feature of their Budget, the fact that one Department does not seem to know what another is doing does not exactly fill one with confidence.

Shifting resources out of Whitehall would provide greater opportunities to better join up and co-locate employment advisers in health services, mental health services, addiction services and primary care. We know that increasing numbers of people are out of work, not just for depression and anxiety but for traditional musculoskeletal conditions, and if we are to get people back into work, they need to be supported into work. They need to be given the support to thrive once they are in work. This is urgent, because we do not want the increasing numbers who are leaving work as the short-term sick turning into the long-term sick. We know that, once someone is out of work beyond three months, they risk being out of work for a considerable time.

Obviously, some of this is to do with access to the NHS, given that there are 7 million on the waiting list. It is about access to primary care, to help people manage their health conditions, but there is also a role for employment advisers. Indeed, the new frontier of social security reform, in my view, is bringing together health and welfare in a way we have not before. That also means giving people proper occupational health support. In fairness to the Government, a few years ago they endorsed Dame Carol Black’s report on occupational health, and they piloted a Fit for Work occupational health scheme, but they pulled the plug on it before it had time to properly bed in and develop. That was possibly an incredibly short-sighted decision, given the numbers out of work today for reasons of sickness.

We need to reform sick pay, as Labour has consistently called for. We need to ensure that fit notes are about not just signing people off but sign-posting people to help. We need to give people flexible work options, so that they can stay in work. We also need to support women to stay in work with the menopause, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) has outlined today. My hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) have been elegant and brilliant champions for this.

They have been articulate and fantastic champions. I always praise my fellow MPs from Leicester. The Government need to take this agenda seriously, because we know that increasing numbers of women in their 50s are being forced out of the labour market but would stay in work if given the right flexible options.

We also need to tackle the barriers in the social security system that prevent people from moving into work. People should not be trapped on welfare, abandoned to going nowhere. That brings me to childcare. We know that childcare can make the difference between a parent rejoining the workforce and staying at home to look after their children. For some parents, childcare may not be available where they live, but for many parents—particularly those on the lowest incomes—childcare costs can be an insurmountable barrier to work. That should not be the case.

A lack of childcare, or a lack of support paying for it, should not stand in the way of a parent returning to work, yet low-income families often have that choice taken away from them. The design of the universal credit system means that childcare costs are based on payment in arrears, but as childcare usually needs to be paid up front, in advance, parents often have to choose between taking on debt or turning down work. It is pushing more families into debt. The Government’s answer is that people can go to their work coach and ask for a flexible support fund grant, but it should not be the case that a poorly understood and difficult handout scheme administered by the DWP is there to address the failings in the DWP’s own policy. We need to fix this.

I will take hon. Friend. There is another problem, which is that lone parents face the choice of working reduced hours, because if they increase their hours they will lose out on state support.

Absolutely. It beggars belief that people are being trapped out of work because of the current system. It needs fundamental reform.

Part of the problem is the way in which the amount of childcare that can be reimbursed has been capped. A family in 2009 who received working tax credit and needed full-time childcare of 50 hours a week would have been reimbursed for 38 of those hours. Today, the same family on universal credit would be reimbursed for only 27 of those hours—at a time when we want to support more parents into work. Fixing childcare not only is the right thing to do, but will help the economy. The Centre for Progressive Policy has said that if women had access to adequate childcare services, they would generate up to £28 billion for the economy. Why are Ministers not fixing it?

Finally, the social security system should support, not hinder, people’s journey into work, but too often the system disincentivises work and makes even trying it too much of a risk. The work capability assessment acts as a barrier for people and the assessments can be arduous, lengthy and stressful. Many people with ill health simply do not want to risk going through that process again if they move into work and something goes wrong. Instead, we should guarantee that people in that position, who move into employment with the help of employment support, can return to the benefits that they were on without the need for another lengthy assessment process.

This is a plan to get people back to work, but where is the Government’s plan? They spin that they are working on something, but they cannot even tell us whether their existing policies are making a difference. I have been asking them about those policies and this is what they have told me. When I asked how much funding was allocated to each jobcentre, I was told:

“The information requested is not available.”

When I asked if they could tell us how many people had secured a job at the end of taking part in sector-based work academy programmes, I was told:

“This information is not available.”

When I asked how many people got jobs after taking part in the DWP’s mentoring circles, I was told that the information “is not collated”.

When I asked how many times people on universal credit have been asked to meet a work coach, I was told:

“No such specific assessment has been made.”

When I asked how many universal credit claimants were undertaking training or education that counted towards their work-related requirements, I was told:

“The requested information is not held.”

When I asked how many universal credit claimants were employed as carers, I was told:

“The requested information is not held.”

When I asked what the average amount of time is between receiving jobseeker’s allowance and receiving a job offer, I was told:

“The information requested is not…available.”

When I asked how many people stopped receiving employment and support allowance as a result of gaining employment, I was told:

“The information requested is not…available.”

When I asked how much money from the flexible support fund has been used to assist jobseekers with the cost of childcare, I was told

“The information is not available”.

When I asked how many individuals were awarded payments for childcare from the flexible support fund, I was told that the information requested is not available.

This lot are supposed to be getting people back to work, but a plan for jobs is not available. That is probably why the Secretary of State—the shadow shadow Secretary of State—now copies our welfare reform plans. We propose welfare reforms to benefits, and two days’ later we read in The Times that he is adopting them. We call for deeper links between health and employment services, and a week or so later he copies us. We put forward reforms to get the over-50s back into work, and a few weeks’ later he nicks them. I even went to the shop where I get my suits from—this is absolutely true—and the people said that he had recently been in there.

People say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so why does the copycat Secretary of State not move out of the road and let us take over? Let us get Britain back to work, because Labour is winning the battle of ideas. I commend our motion to the House.

It took the right hon. Gentleman a little bit of time to get going, but he certainly got going at the end of his speech—he was both Pinky and Perky at the finish there, which was good to see. I am afraid that I cannot accept the motion as it stands, of course, but I can reassure him that it makes fair points, highlighting the challenges that exist around employment, unemployment and economic inactivity. I welcome the opportunity to have a debate about those issues this afternoon. However, where the motion falls short is that it is entirely wrong, first, to deny the very considerable progress that the Government and previous Conservative Administrations have made in these areas, and secondly, to suggest—as the right hon. Gentleman does—that the Government have somehow been sitting on their hands. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is this Government and my party that have seen 3.7 million more people in employment since 2010, with 2 million of those being women. We have seen 1.3 million more disabled people in employment since 2017—these are simple facts. We have seen long-term unemployment decline by 12% since before the pandemic, and as the right hon. Gentleman recognises, unemployment stands at 3.7%, which is a near-historic low. Under this Government we have also seen payroll employment at a record level, and of course we saw this Government in action under the then Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, at the time of the pandemic. The Government intervened in the labour market, to the extent that all those economists who said that we would be back to the unemployment levels of the 1980s, up at about 12%, were disproved by the actions of this Government.

Would the Secretary of State extend his gratitude and congratulations to the frontline jobcentre staff who provided the statistics that he has just used? After thanking jobcentres such as Blackfriars Road in my constituency, can he then explain why they are being closed?

It is a fact that we are going through an estate rationalisation programme, and there are very good reasons for that. During the pandemic, we stood up a lot of additional jobcentres for which we do not now have a requirement, and it is also important that we make sure we have an estate that is fit for the 21st century, with the right technology, job opportunities and so on. However, I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating and thanking those very hard-working frontline staff—the work coaches in our jobcentres up and down the country—who do an extraordinary job. I will pay further tribute to them a little later in my remarks.

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State, who is right to point out the excellent record on employment, which is a great strength of our economy. Is he, like me, a bit worried about the fall in self-employment more recently, and will he have a word with the Chancellor? I think some of that is to do with changes in tax rules that now impede the self-employed in getting contracts from companies.

My right hon. Friend makes a really important point, and this Government are absolutely committed to encouraging self-employment. I think it is fair to point out that in the past some apparent growth in self-employment has been due to individuals incorporating themselves for tax purposes, and it may be that more recently some of that effect has started to unwind. However, I totally agree with my right hon. Friend, and I am sure the Chancellor has heard his words, because he has made the point many times before that it is really important that we support the self-employed.

I have noted down some of the things that the Secretary of State has said the Government have done. I do not see anything about what the Government are doing to tackle the shameful waiting list for Access to Work support. Will he tell us what the Government are doing right now to rectify that problem, and will he admit that the Government have let people down?

The hon. Lady points to an issue that is a focus within the Department. We have taken on more staff, and we are in the process of taking on still more staff. We are also looking at processes and, in the longer term, examining processes that will increase the rapidity of supply of that particular set of support.

I will now turn to where the motion is clearly so wrong.

A moment ago, the Secretary of State claimed that 500,000 more people are in payroll employment than before the pandemic. Am I not right in saying that the Office for National Statistics says that 400,000 fewer people are in overall employment, because the payroll does not include the massive reduction in self-employment that he has so briskly avoided noticing? Will he now set the record straight: 400,000 fewer people are now in work overall than before the pandemic?

I think it is the hon. Gentleman who has misunderstood what has been said here. There is a distinction between payroll employment, which is clearly those who are on PAYE employed by an employer, and somebody who is self-employed, which is a totally different matter. The statistic, or the fact that I presented, was simply that the level of payroll employment is currently at a record high in this country.

I want to clarify that I think there is an issue with capacity in things such as plumbing, jobbing building and that kind of thing. We are short of capacity there, and we need to look at why those trades have been afflicted by some of this decline.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why we have stood up important programmes, such as sector-based work programmes, and it is why skills and apprenticeships are so important—[Interruption] —as are skills bootcamps, as an hon. Friend reminds me.

This motion is wrong on unemployment and employment, but it is also wrong on economic inactivity, because while it is true that economic inactivity rose during the pandemic, it is also true that, with the notable exception of the United States, in most countries it has gone back down to broadly where it was before the pandemic. That has not happened in the UK. It is not true to say that working-age inactivity rates have not been on a long-term decline. They have in this country, and the trajectory has been downwards. The level of economic inactivity in the UK is lower than in the United States, France and Italy. It is below the EU average, and it is below the average of OECD countries.

While there has been some softening in recent months on the level of economic inactivity in the United Kingdom, I accept that there is a lot more work to be done, which is why the Prime Minister has asked me to work across Government to review how we approach these issues, particularly in respect of disability, the long-term sick and those who are over 50 and have retired early.

Before I come to those cohorts, let me state clearly what lies at the heart of this Government’s success on unemployment and employment: the key Conservative belief that we should make work pay. The universal credit roll-out has been a huge success, despite the fact that the Leader of the Opposition suggested as recently as 2021 that it should be scrapped. We have enhanced universal credit by improving the taper, dropping it from 63% to 55%. We have increased the work allowance by £500. In terms of making work pay, for the very lowest paid we will be increasing the national living wage by 9.7% this April. We have stood up a number of important programmes that have helped to encourage people into work, among them Restart and our youth offer.

The Secretary of State says that the route out of poverty is work and making work pay, but the example I gave to the shadow Minister is one that came up when I was on the Work and Pensions Committee, of a lone parent not taking additional hours because they would lose state support. What are the Government proposing to fix those sorts of issues?

I think the main point—I do not know the specific example to which the hon. Gentleman refers—is that under UC the whole driving principle is that work always pays. As someone gets into work, the benefit is tapered away, but none the less work always pays. That is why we are looking, in part at least, at these very low levels of unemployment and very high levels of paid employment.

The Secretary of State says that work always pays, so why is the clawback rate for universal credit so high? The effective rate of tax for every pound someone earns when on universal credit is about 73%—far beyond what any of us pay in here, and we are in the top 5% of earners in this country. Why does he think it is fair that someone on universal credit should be paying an effective rate that is so high, given the clawback?

It is true that at certain levels of income, marginal tax rates are very high. To improve that situation, we have reduced the taper from 63% to 55%. I would like us to go still further, and if we had the finances we would almost reduce it altogether, but that is not the reality of where we are. None the less, a substantive point remains that people are always better off under UC if they are in work, within the UC benefit environment.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Labour party has a shambolic record on making work pay in this country, not least because 1.4 million people spent most of the 2000s trapped in out-of-work benefits under Labour?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the 1.4 million figure is depressingly true. Under the last Labour Government, over 1 million people were parked on long-term benefits. Of course, when we talk about unemployment, we know that every Labour Government in history have left unemployment higher at the end of their term in office than it was at the beginning.

I very much appreciate the Secretary of State giving way. He was saying that he had been tasked to work across Government on tackling this issue. Adult education has a really important role to play in building people’s confidence—it can be particularly important for people who, perhaps in midlife, have had to give up work to look after a family member who was ill or whatever, and later find themselves struggling to get back into work and having really lost their confidence—yet the Government, as part of what they call their reorientating the vision for non-qualification provision in adult education, have plans that could actually remove some of the very non-vocational courses that people who may feel daunted at the prospect of having to go for a high qualification would none the less get. Could he please speak to his colleagues to ask them to look at this issue again?

If the hon. Lady would drop me a line about the point she raises, I would be very happy to raise that specifically and to consider it myself as well.

Could I turn to economic inactivity, and to disability and sickness? This Government have been acting, and we will come forward with further measures very shortly, which I am sure will be of interest to the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth). For example, our Work and Health programme has now been extended to September 2024, bringing an extra 100,000 people into support. We have rolled out health adjustment passports to facilitate more structured conversations between those seeking work, those seeking to employ them and employees in jobcentres. We have been co-locating employment advisers alongside therapists in NHS talking therapies. For those with autism, which is often a very considerable barrier to employment, we have funded no less than 28 different initiatives across local authorities.

I am very interested in what the Secretary of State says about the links between poor mental health and economic inactivity, but one thing I find particularly surprising in this context is the fact that the Government—the Home Office in particular—are specifically blocking research into new therapies and new medicines. Would he perhaps have a word with the Home Office, and get it to reschedule the drugs that we could be looking at for curing people with such conditions?

The hon. Lady is tempting me to plunge into the Department of Health. I certainly hear what she has to say, but let me make a general point about mental health. The most important thing—and, to be fair, the right hon. Member for Leicester South made this point—is that we intervene at the point in the health journey that is as close to the labour market as possible and that we do so as early as possible. What we know is that the longer we allow those conditions to develop and persist, the more difficult it becomes to bring those individuals back into the workforce. That is very much at the heart of the approach I am taking in the work I am carrying out at the moment.

We are also providing more support to those who are waiting in the work capability assessment queue, promoting Disability Confident among employers and promoting Access to Work with disability employment advisers up and down the country. All of that has led to 1 million more disabled people in work since 2017, meeting our 1 million target five years early.

Looking to the future, the White Paper probably contains lots of ideas on health and disability that the right hon. Member for Leicester South has pre-empted and pre-judged—perhaps he has come to similar conclusions to those that we have already come to but are unable to speak about at the moment—so he should be a little patient.

On those in early retirement, who have increased significantly in recent times, we have taken action: with a £20 million fund we substantially increased the number of one-on-one sessions in jobcentres; we focused on skills, rolling out 50-plus champions across jobcentres up and down the country; our midlife guarantee ensured that those in that age group are confident in seeking work, understand their potential skills gaps and, critically, have looked closely at finances so that they know whether they can survive comfortably through to the end of their lives or perhaps would benefit from taking on some work. I will have more to say about the over-50s in time.

Members of the House often hold jobs fairs, which are too often focused on the unemployed and youth sectors—I hope to mention my own jobs fair later. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is also a need to have jobs fairs to encourage the elderly—by which I mean the over-50s, so I am elderly by that definition—to get back into work where it is suitable for them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The constituency and part of the country that he represents has quite a preponderance of more elderly residents, and there is certainly scope for over-50s jobs fairs. Indeed, there have been successful examples of those up and down the country, sometimes involving support from the Department for Work and Pensions.

I am aware of time, Madam Deputy Speaker, and of finishing by about twenty to six, so let me turn and say something about work coaches. These are truly brilliant people. They are people who know that work is not just a job; they understand that work is about improved health outcomes and self-esteem, and a greater sense of pride. They know it is about not just individual growth, but growing the economy, which in turn allows us to provide more tax revenues to fund those public services that we all know are the hallmark of a civilised society. Our work coaches are right at the centre of all that, and I want them to do even more to support people. I want to reward them for the work they do, where they are particularly successful.

I have laid before the House a written ministerial statement setting out how greater support will be provided to claimants, with two weeks of additional intensive support at the 13-week and 26-week stage of the universal credit journey. That will include more one-to-one support, as well as support in groups. I also want to reward job centres and those individuals who exceed the aspirational targets that we have rightly been setting. I have been carrying out that work through a series of pilots. We started with four, and yesterday I announced that that is expanding to 60. I am confident that the innovation, approach, support and confidence that we are giving our work coaches in those pilots will lead to even better outcomes and an enhancement of even more lives.

Far from being complacent, this is a Government of powerful interventions around covid, and more recently the cost of living crisis, to support people up and down the country. It is a Government of large-scale ambitious programmes to get people into work, and allow them to progress within work. It is a Government who are about creative thinking and innovation, piloting new approaches so that we can ensure we are even more successful in the future. As we met the challenges of the past, so we will continue to meet those challenges in the future.

Order. Before I call the SNP spokesperson, colleagues will see we have a limited amount of time. I intend to start with a five-minute time limit. I hope if we keep to five minutes everybody will be able to get in. If I need to take it down further I will, but I hope I will not need to.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will try to be concise in my remarks to allow as many Members in as possible. The SNP will be supporting the motion.

We heard from the Secretary of State some of the old buzz phrases—I had my bingo card ready—such as “work is the best route out of poverty” and so on. I, too, am waiting for him to answer the questions from the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth). We will see if the Minister’s response gives me those. I want to make a number of points, some of which were touched on by the Secretary of State.

I and a number of hon. Members have a real concerns about the ways the Government are trying to force people into work and to force them to increase their hours. There are also concerns about the current sanctions regime. We have had Westminster Hall debates fairly recently, to which the Minister responded. The number of sanctions being issued is spiralling. My understanding is that the only time there is a reduction in the number of sanctions is when DWP staff are taking industrial action. Those who face being sanctioned should not have to wait for industrial action in order not to be scared of getting a sanction.

I agree with the Secretary of State about the great role that DWP staff are undertaking. I hope he will consider that and offer them a decent pay rise. Even in his own Department there are an alarming number of staff who, in a survey with their trade union, indicate that they have to use food banks. That is a ridiculous situation. It is also ridiculous that DWP staff themselves are saying they cannot take on additional hours because they would then lose the benefits they are being paid by the state. I hope Ministers will listen on that point. During the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into childcare costs—I was a member of the Committee until fairly recently—there were examples of lone parents who had to stick to the number of hours they worked. They were unable to increase their hours because that would have meant they lost universal credit payments and other benefits. That should not be happening.

On the very real concerns about the sanctions regime, it is deeply concerning that people not only get sanctioned but lose their associated cost of living payments. That only puts people into more poverty and should not happen. There is very clear evidence that sanctions do not work. The Institute for Fiscal Studies—not necessarily a friend of the SNP; it is often quoted by Conservative Members—said in a recent report that the sanctions policy currently produces

“fiscal savings indistinguishable from zero”,

yet we are still subjecting people to untold anxiety and harm.

The Secretary of State touched on the pilot. There are a number of questions that I hope Ministers can answer regarding the concerns about the pilot. The DWP—I nearly said the DUP; I’ve made that mistake before—is now starting a pilot that forces thousands of UC claimants into compulsory attendance at jobcentres 10 times over a two-week period. If someone has been a claimant for 13 weeks and fails to attend, they could be sanctioned and risk losing their benefits. That would plunge often very vulnerable people deeper into poverty. I understand that the jobcentre innovation pilot is to be introduced in 60 jobcentres, with the potential to impact thousands of claimants.

The Department has been clear that there are no extra staff to deliver the additional work, which means that yet more pressure will be heaped on the overworked, underpaid and highly stressed civil servants working in the jobcentres. The Public and Commercial Services Union believes that that will increase the risk of poverty and make claiming benefits more difficult. Martin Cavanagh, the PCS DWP group president, said:

“Our members will see through this pilot for what it is – a government hellbent on making it more difficult for people to claim benefits and which will increase the risk of poverty for those customers who fall foul of this pilot. Asking more customers to travel more often into jobcentres does nothing to help our staff or their workloads and does nothing to help the customers find the work that they need.”

It is important that Ministers respond to those concerns from the Public and Commercial Services Union.

Disability employment increased during the pandemic, but it now seems to be reducing. I think that one of the reasons is that during the pandemic people were able to utilise technology to work from home. As we have eased out of the pandemic, we have seen a massive move to force people back into offices, factories and all those places. When the Government look at disability employment, I would like them to incentivise employers to help workers work from home, because that would certainly help and be of benefit to those with disabilities. That comes up time and again when the Work and Pensions Committee looks at those issues, and I hope that Ministers will look seriously at it.

Rising insecure work and in-work poverty need to be tackled. I am concerned when I hear Ministers justifying sanctions in cases where people refuse zero-hours contracts. Zero-hours contracts do not suit everyone. I hope that the Department will look at that again. If someone refuses a zero-hours contract job, it is because it does not suit them; it does not suit everyone to be in that position. We have waited over six years for the Government to introduce an Employment Bill to address the issues around insecure work, such as people in insecure contracts being texted by their employer and being told that the first one who arrives at work gets the shift. That is the sort of practice that I hope Government Ministers will condemn, and I hope that they are working with colleagues to eliminate such practices, because they are wrong and are increasing insecure work and in-work poverty.

I hope that Ministers will liaise on some of those important issues. We need to look at how to be a fair work nation with fair work policies, so that people will be attracted back into the workplace. I hope that Ministers will look at and respond to my points. I will leave it there to allow other Members to speak.

Order. Due to the fact that there has been a withdrawal from the debate, the good news is that we will start with a six-minute limit on speeches.

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, not only because it highlights the Government’s proud record of increasing labour market activity, but because it raises the fundamental problem with Labour’s political philosophy: its historical and financial handcuffing to the union movement.

Unions are undoubtedly a good thing. In the early 19th century, if they had not been formed, they should have been. At a time of social immobility, they dealt with a huge and important social injustice: the dislocation between the bargaining power of the master and that of the servant—we just have to use the language of the time to make the case that there was a huge imbalance in bargaining position and therefore a need for unions. Times have changed, however. Nowadays, information on pay and opportunities is universal: I could go online today and look at employment opportunities in Bogotá as well as those in Bridgend. At a time of full functional employment, which is what we benefit from at the moment, other options for staff are available as well as combined bargaining.

The role of unions has moved away from the proud position in which they began. They are now more focused on the rights and privileges of members. In some cases, although not all, they are focused on things like the defence of anti-competitive Spanish practices or the prevention of increases in productivity and of modern work practices unless they are linked to increases in pay. All those things harm the economy.

It is perfectly rational, of course. If I were a London tube driver, would I join the union? Of course I would! Through union control, its members have got salaries of between £55,000 and £60,000 a year and 43 days of holiday. But does that help the economy? Is it good for society as a whole? No.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but—with as much respect as I can muster—I say to him that it is not a bad thing that trade union-organised workplaces have higher pay than non-unionised workplaces. Surely the fact that people have more money means that they can spend money in the economy and help the private sector.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The question is: at what cost does this come and who pays the price? It is the young, the unemployed and the old who are outside the club of unionisation. They are the ones who pay the price, and the evidence is in the data.

It is an extraordinary fact that every Labour Government in history have ended up destroying employment, leaving more people out of work than when they came into power. The figures hide the real cost of Labour being in hock to the unions. I mean “in hock” literally: since 2010, it has received £142 million. That is excluding individual contributions to Opposition right hon. and hon. Members, and not even mentioning the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), so actually the number is a lot higher.

Raising employment barriers skews what would otherwise be a much more sensible employment policy for the Opposition. The costs are paid by those outside the club. Look at youth employment. In 2010, Labour left office with youth unemployment at about 20%. Right now, even after a global pandemic, youth unemployment is at 11.3%—almost half. Look at the long-term unemployed. In the 2000s, as we have already heard, Labour left about 1.4 million people unemployed for longer than 12 months. Today, the figure is 270,000, roughly a quarter of the number under the terrible record of Labour. Look at the people who are harder to employ—those, perhaps, with disabilities. Under this Government, there are 1.3 million more people with disabilities in employment than before 2016. That is the proud record of this Government. This Government do not pontificate about pay and employment; they get on with creating a dynamic labour market, supporting those most in need, not the union paymasters.

We have created a labour market not just by removing barriers to employment, but by having a benefits system that always makes work pay: the universal credit system, the destruction of which the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) made the key plank of his 2019 election manifesto. Labour Members all fought the last election on the basis that they wanted to get rid of universal credit, and the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) continued that policy. In October 2020, when he was already leader of the Labour party, he said that “in the long term” universal credit needed to be replaced

“because… it traps people in poverty.”

However, given what we have heard from the hon. Member opposite, that now appears to be Labour policy.

Right hon. Member: he is quite correct. It seems that we agree on the concept behind universal credit. When did he experience that damascene conversion?

The Government are providing extra help, not for the unions but for the young, the disabled and those who are termed “the old”—meaning those over the age of 50, which, in my view, is hardly old. For the young, we have halved youth unemployment. We have the kickstart scheme, which the right hon. Gentleman criticised earlier, saying that it did not help 250,000 people into employment. However, it did help 160,000 into employment, including many of my constituents. As for the disabled, 1.3 million more have been employed since 2017. For the old, we have the age-friendly employer pledge and the 50PLUS champions. This is a work in progress, but it shows the direction of travel of this dynamic Government.

More widely, we are boosting support for 600,000 people on universal credit by securing greater access to job coaches. It is this Government who have doubled the number of job coaches, increasing it by 13,500 to give more help to unemployed people wishing to get back into work. I have seen this lately in my constituency. The Jobcentre Plus in Fakenham does amazing work, and the staff say the job coaches are wonderful and do a fantastic job.

There is a great deal to do. There is, for instance, post-covid recovery. We are experiencing a reduction in economic activity, and that position needs to be improved, but I trust that this Government—

More and more people are being pushed out of work owing to ill health: 2.5 million working-age people are now economically inactive owing to long-term sickness. Given the current stalling living standards and the cost of living crisis, it is unsurprising that many of those people want a job, but the current system is preventing them from re-entering the labour market by not providing the right support, and that is happening on multiple fronts.

The aim of the Restart scheme was to help people who were long-term unemployed as a result of the covid pandemic to get back into work, but a recent evaluation by the National Audit Office found that the programme would support fewer than half the anticipated number of people but would cost 35% more per person. Meanwhile, the work capability assessment regime has disincentivised some people with disabilities from trying to get back into employment because of the risk of losing their benefits when a reassessment of personal independence payment is triggered. I understand that there has been a revision of operational instructions to mitigate that, but the problem has not been eliminated for many people in receipt of the benefit.

As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), there are also problems with the functionality of the work capability assessment process. Not only are many cases overturned on appeal, but the process itself can be drawn out and difficult. One of my constituents has been waiting for her assessment since April last year, which means that she has been receiving a lower rate of universal credit until it is completed. She has had her appointments cancelled three times, apparently because of lost paperwork. That is unacceptable.

Another constituent told me about her experience of being assessed through the work capability assessment regime for her universal credit. She is a registered nurse, who is currently unable to work owing to health problems. She told me this about one call that took place as part of that assessment process:

“I came off the call in tears and my daughter was very concerned about my state of mind after this call. I was made to feel that I was not worthy of these benefits and made to feel I was claiming something that I shouldn’t be getting. The way I was treated makes me very concerned for other people not strong enough mentally to deal with this abuse of power.”

A third constituent recently told me:

“I feel like I am being made to beg for help.”

It is critical that people are not penalised for trying to obtain paid work. Someone claiming personal independence payments who get a job that does not work out within a year should be guaranteed the ability to return to the exact benefits they were on before, with no fresh benefit assessments required, and, crucially, there must be improved targeted support for people with long-term mental and physical health problems. The current system is trapping people out of the workplace when hundreds of thousands of people are in need of a stable income, so I hope the Secretary of State will agree to reform the disability benefit assessment, as Labour is proposing to do. If not, can he explain how he can listen to the experience of my constituents and defend the current system?

Unpaid carers are another group who have become locked out of the labour market. Although the majority of carers are of working age, many carers have had to reduce their hours at work or quit their jobs entirely because of their caring responsibilities. Carers UK has estimated that nearly 2 million people in paid employment become unpaid carers every year, but a survey by Carers UK found that two thirds of unpaid carers had to give up opportunities at work because of their caring. Women were much more likely to be affected, as were people giving more hours of unpaid care. In the same survey, a quarter of unpaid carers said that they needed better support to return to, or maintain, paid work.

I know the work that the hon. Lady has done in relation to unpaid carers and the support she has given to my private Member’s Bill on carers’ leave. Does she agree that one of the ways of encouraging people back into work is changing the carer’s allowance? It creates a cliff edge that disincentivises unpaid carers from entering employment. Does she agree that it needs to be changed?

That is something that Carers UK has campaigned on repeatedly. It certainly does need looking at.

The Government have failed time and again to provide the necessary support for carers. I think I am right in saying that the Secretary of State, when he was talking about his review, did not mention carers. Again, that is disappointing. The carers action plan for 2018 to 2020 was shamefully void of funding provision and ambition for support for carers, and it pales in comparison to the national strategy for carers that Labour published in 2008. The last Labour Government pledged £255 million for new commitments to support carers. That included £150 million to increase significantly the amount of money provided by central Government for breaks from caring. Such breaks can be a lifeline for carers and allow them to continue in employment. That funding for breaks appears to have disappeared.

Labour also committed funding to enable carers to combine paid employment with their caring role and to re-enter the labour market after their caring role had finished, through flexible working opportunities and increased training provision. There was a commitment to working with Jobcentre Plus to deliver improved information and establish a training programme for carers. In contrast, the Government’s carers action plan merely promised to consider dedicated employment rights for carers, and said that the Government would work to increase opportunities for carers returning to the private sector. Those measures are woefully inadequate and demonstrate a failure to support this country’s 10 million carers.

Unpaid carers are repeatedly forgotten by this Government, despite the enormous social and economic contributions they make, so will the Minister—and indeed the Secretary of State, when he is back at his place—work with colleagues across Government to ensure that the benefit system works for, rather than against, people making claims? Will he commit to improving the current regime, which sees too many unpaid carers and too many people in receipt of disability benefits being locked out of employment?

This Government rightly recognise that increasing workforce activity is an essential part of growth, as we work hard to halve inflation this year. The labour market has been recovering since the pandemic and we have seen the employment rate rising across the UK. The employment rate in December was 0.2 percentage points higher than in the previous three-month period, and the number of payrolled employees increased by 102,000 in January this year, to 30 million. However, in recent years, we have seen a rise in economic inactivity, including in my Guildford constituency. I am pleased to see that this is now falling as our economic recovery continues. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the economic inactivity rate across the UK decreased by 0.3 percentage points to 21.4% in October to December 2022.

This Government have been reviewing labour market participation across our economy and are looking for ways to support, encourage and incentivise those who are currently economically inactive to re-join the labour market. It is right that we provide the necessary support to encourage those who may have long-term sickness or caring responsibilities, or are over the age of 50 to return to the workplace when they can. We have seen a rise in people aged 50 to 64 leaving the workforce, accounting for the largest increase among all age groups since the start of the pandemic. I welcome the dedicated 50PLUS champions put in place by this Government, backed by £22 million of funding, to improve bespoke support for those in that age group.

The pandemic also had a significant impact on the mental health of people across our country, and mental health represents an important factor for many economically inactive people. I welcome the measures that the Government are taking to provide support where it is needed in this area. First, they are rolling out an NHS England mental health support service nationally, backed with £120 million, providing mental health support together with employment advice. It will help those already in work to stay in work and help those temporarily out of work to return to the workplace. Alongside that, a £6.4 million investment in a new online service to help employers to support employees experiencing difficulties with their mental health is welcome.

This Government are taking the right steps to reduce economic inactivity. I look forward to seeing the positive outcomes of those measures.

The argument I want to make today is that having a properly functioning social care system, and far more flexibility at work for families who look after elderly or disabled relatives, is essential for ensuring people in their 50s and 60s can work, and that that is especially true for women.

The latest census data, out in the last month, shows there are now at least 5 million unpaid family carers in England and Wales. The highest proportion of unpaid carers in any age group are women aged 50 to 59. One in five of all women in their 50s are now caring for an older, sick or disabled relative—a quite staggering figure. Not far behind are women aged 60 to 64: 18.7% now have caring responsibilities.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure you will agree that women in their 50s and 60s are in the prime of their life. We have huge experience at work and in bringing up our families. But too many women in this age group struggle to hold down paid work with their caring responsibilities. In total, 2.6 million unpaid carers have to give up work or reduce hours because they cannot get the help they need to look after their loved ones. They lose their income, businesses lose their talents and the economy loses their contribution. Where on earth is the sense in that?

Since the covid-19 pandemic, as hon. Members have mentioned, some 350,000 more people aged over 50 are economically inactive, with research by the Health Foundation and others showing that ill health is the single largest reason. However, the second largest reason is looking after family and the home. If we want our economy firing on all cylinders, if we want growth at the top of the G7 league table, instead of languishing at the bottom, as we have seen after 13 years of this Government, we must use the talents of everyone in our country. For people in their 50s and 60s, that means dealing with the issue of care and the crisis in our care system.

Labour’s plan for tackling the issue has two main strands. First, we will bring forward a new deal for care workers to ensure that frontline staff get the pay, training, terms and conditions they deserve, so we tackle the terrible recruitment and retention problems that have led to a staggering 165,000 shortages in social care—even more than in the NHS. That would make the single biggest difference to the care system, which in turn would make the single biggest difference to people in their 50s and 60s, who cannot hold down jobs because they also need to care for an elderly or disabled loved one.

Secondly, Labour will help unpaid family carers better balance work and family life, by bringing in the right to flexible working from day one, and by having a proper system of care leave, just as we have parental leave for new families. Just as importantly, we will work with businesses and trade unions to ensure that family-friendly working for those caring for older and disabled relatives moves to the top of the agenda because, as many good businesses already know, it helps to improve recruitment and retention. It increases productivity, too.

When the welfare state was created, average life expectancy was 63. It is now 80, and one in four babies born today is set to live to 100. Back then, women stayed at home to look after their families. Now we care for our loved ones and we go out to work. We live in the century of ageing and, as we all live for longer, we will need to work and care for longer. We need to modernise our welfare state to put social care on an equal footing with the NHS, and we need to ensure that care as a whole—childcare as well as social care—is as much a part of our economic infrastructure as the roads and railways. That is what families want, it is what businesses and our economy demand, and it is essential for women’s equality. That is what a future Labour Government will deliver.

Women make up nearly half of the UK workforce, and keeping them in the workforce is vital for productivity, for the economy and for women’s self-belief and financial stability, but there are huge barriers for many women to overcome. There are an estimated 13 million perimenopausal and menopausal women across the UK, of whom only 14% are receiving treatment. Far too many women are suffering symptoms without the right support, and that is having a huge impact across society—nowhere more so than in the workplace, with research last year showing that one in 10 women are leaving their job and one in four are reducing their hours. These are loyal and experienced employees, and the impact on business and society is enormous.

Women who have worked all their lives are suddenly overwhelmed by the symptoms and are forced to walk away from their career. Not only will they potentially claim benefits for the first time, in their 40s and 50s, but they are storing up problems for further down the line. Depending on how many years they have worked, their national insurance contributions may well not be sufficient to claim a full state pension, so many will need to rely on pension credit when they reach pensionable age. Although these benefits should absolutely be available to those who need them, better awareness among employers to support women early on and to help them to remain in the workplace would, without question, reduce the number of women leaving their job.

That is why I am delighted that, today, the Labour party made a commitment to enhance menopause awareness in the workplace when we are in government. This announcement shows that, on this side of the House, we truly understand that keeping women in work, especially through the menopausal and perimenopausal years, not only helps women and employers but helps the economy. It is essential that we do more.

A pilot starts today that will force thousands of universal credit claimants to attend a jobcentre 10 times in two weeks. To put that in context, a claimant living in Shotts will have to get on a bus to Motherwell, costing £3.50 a day, to attend these meetings. They run the risk of being sanctioned if they do not do it, and that is as we are seeing the highest cost of living increases in 40 years. I find it hard to see the sense in this. People who are sanctioned will fall further back, as they will be able to claim less and less from the UK benefits system. It does not make sense. Many times in this Chamber I have heard Ministers and Government Back Benchers say that the only way out of poverty is work, but it is not when someone is on a zero-hours contract, earning the minimum wage and that does not cover their costs.

It also does not work when someone is further sanctioned for not getting on a bus that costs £3.50 a day, which comes out of money they do not really have, to attend the local jobcentre, where there are no additional staff to help them into work because the Government are not going to put more workers behind this. All this comes at a time when the Public and Commercial Services Union is already out on strike because of the workload that its members face in trying to get people into work. None of this makes sense in the world in which my constituents live and in respect of the benefits that they claim. In my opinion, and that of many of the folk in my party, it is criminal that this Government refuse to give young people the same benefits as other workers. If we want to get people into work and keep them in work, they need to be well paid for it and they need to be fit to work.

That leads me to some of the ridiculous things that happen to folk who are disabled, where one of the worst problems we have is on statutory sick pay. Many disabled people, having fought through the Access to Work legislation and trying to get things made easier for them to attend work, find that sometimes they cannot work because they have become unwell because of their disability. Instead of being able to keep in work, they find that statutory sick pay, at £96-something a week, going up to a whole £109 a week, for only 28 weeks, is ridiculous. The waiting time that these people are forced to keep to in order to get SSP makes things even more difficult, so what do they do? They leave work because they can see no way forward. This has to be urgently addressed.

The Government could naturally make things easier by applying a fair work policy, as they do in Scotland, and attaching it to Government contracts to ensure that anyone who is given a job that is funded by Government is paid a reasonable wage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said, if people are paid more, they spend more and the economy benefits. This is not rocket science, but pure common sense.

At this point, I want to examine what this Government have done. They have never brought forward the stuff that they said they would do on workers’ rights. They have never brought forward what they said they would do in an employment Bill. They have never done what they promised for quite a long time. They have had consultations, which they are very good at, but they do not carry through. In terms of one such consultation, I am really looking forward to the health and disability White Paper and the overhaul of the work capability assessment. Disabled people must be treated with dignity, fairness and respect, as we do in Scotland under the new Social Security Scotland work.

A constituent of mine was diagnosed as terminally ill four years ago, and was hauled in for a work assessment and practically asked why she was still here and whether she thought that she would die soon; this was in order for her to keep going on her personal independence payment assessment. I know that does not relate exactly to what is on the Order Paper, but I have questioned Ministers on it. This Government need to get their act together and treat people who want to work with dignity, fairness and respect, as we do in Scotland, and make it easier for them to work.

When we look at the financial reality for millions of people up and down the country, it is clear to see why we are struggling to maintain a workforce in Britain today. The system for working people is broken and urgently needs to be fixed. We can take the cost and availability of childcare as just one example.

The Women’s Budget Group has highlighted that 1.7 million women are prevented from taking up hours of paid work, which they would like to do, due to childcare issues. That is almost £30 billion lost to our economy every year. We know that this does not show the full picture: many grandparents are helping out, cutting down their working hours, or leaving work entirely to support their children and grandchildren. This is not just about childcare, but about other caring responsibilities, which we know fall disproportionately on women. With a broken childcare and social care system, is it any wonder that in the north-east there has been a 15% rise in women between the ages of 50 to 64 falling out of the workforce since 2020? That is not to mention the increase in new mums dropping out of the workforce, with 29% of those nationally dropping out of work due to family commitments.

I am pleased that Labour’s shadow Education Secretary has spoken so passionately about the need to transform our childcare into a modern system that supports families and allows parents more flexibility to re-enter the workforce. This system needs to be fixed. We also know that women are struggling at work due to perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms, and that they do not get the help or support they need. Last year, Research Without Barriers warned that up to 1 million women in the UK could be forced out of their jobs because their employers are failing to support them as they go through the menopause. As my brilliant hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) said, that is bad news for women, bad news for businesses, and bad news for the economy. So I, too, welcome the proposals set out by the Labour party today for greater support for women experiencing menopause.

Sadly, our amazing but overwhelmed NHS has been left unable to do its part to help people get back into work. Last year, the Bank of England’s chief economist warned that lengthening NHS waiting lists were a factor in fewer people being in work. The over-50s lifestyle study by the Office for National Statistics found that 18% of adults aged 50 to 65 who have left work since the start of 2020 did so due to waiting for medical treatment. That is nearly one in five, with this figure rising to 35% of people who said that they left their previous job for a health-related condition. That is not to mention that these people are often waiting in pain, unable to live their lives to the full. This is damaging the economy too. It is shocking and it needs to be resolved. That is why expanding the NHS workforce is so crucial. The inability of the Government to get a handle on these waiting lists and delays is not only bad for health, but impacting our economy, and we need those workers back in the workforce.

We are seeing this workforce crisis not just in the NHS, but in social care and across many businesses, and especially in hospitality in my area. Newcastle’s famous Geordie night-time economy is well known, but the sector is struggling with the recruitment and retention of staff. The NewcastleGateshead Initiative found that, in 2022, there were 26,000 unique job postings listed in hospitality, 30% of which were in Newcastle. In its most recent tourism and hospitality business survey, staffing was raised as the biggest challenge by 67% of respondents. On top of covid recovery, soaring energy bills and rising food cost pressures, these labour force issues are holding businesses, our cities and our regions back.

Even those who are in work are falling into dire straits due to the crippling cost of living. A constituent contacted me this week. She said that both parents are in work. They have four children and their mortgage has gone up by £300 a month, on top of the increase in their energy bills. Sadly, they are far from alone, with potentially thousands of people in my constituency being penalised by the mortgage premium that we have seen since the disastrous mini-Budget. Add to that food inflation, which this morning reached 17.1%, adding a further £811 hit to family finances. My constituent described how, due to the Government’s economic failure,

“good, hard-working people are being crippled.”

Those are her words, not mine, and the Government need to listen.

For too long we have been held back by successive Conservative Governments’ mishandling of the economy, mismanagement of public services and failure to invest in our people and communities. What kind of business thinks that it can fail to invest in its people and its infrastructure but still turn a profit after 13 years? None. We have immense potential as a country, but too many people are left crumbling under the current strain. Whether in childcare, social care or NHS waiting times, that all has a knock-on impact on our economy.

The Centre for Cities warns that it is even worse than the figures show: 185,000 people across the north-east are part of a hidden unemployment figure—they are not included in the numbers—because they are not actively looking for work. For too long people have lived under low pay, low productivity and a lack of investment. It is time to put an end to people struggling to get by.

Yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor set out details of what would be Labour’s first mission in government. The goals of that mission are clear and unashamedly ambitious: to secure the highest sustained growth in the G7, with good jobs and productivity growth in every part of our country.

We know that continuing on the path on which this Government have set our economy will cost people dear. If we continue on that path, we will be poorer than Poland by 2030 and poorer than Romania by 2040. We are being left behind, and people are feeling the impact as they find themselves worse off in their daily lives because of low economic growth under the Conservatives. That is why our mission to achieve the highest sustained economic growth in the G7 is so important: to ensure that everyone in our country is better off.

In setting out the details of our plan, we have made it clear that economic credibility and stability are the bedrock of our approach. Under our plan, we would seize new opportunities for Britain, including catalytic public investment through our green prosperity plan. Under our plan, we would fix the problems that hold back economic growth across the UK by supporting people of all ages and in all places in the country to develop the skills that they need to fulfil their potential and contribute to a growing economy. It is crucial that everyone in the UK can play their part in growing our economy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) set out in her excellent speech. That is why this debate is such an important part of our approach to the economic future of our country.

When it comes to ensuring that everyone can play their part, it is clear that something is not right when we have near-record vacancies while hundreds of thousands of people who want to work are not being given the support they need to do so. It cannot be right that more than 1 million people are out of work, even though they want jobs, while employers are struggling to fill more than 1 million vacancies. We know that is the result of rising economic inactivity and the Government’s failure to respond to it.

The situation has become more acute in recent years. There are now half a million more economically inactive people of working age than there were before the pandemic. Across London, which includes my Ealing North constituency, 22,400 more people aged 50 to 64 became economically inactive between the start of the pandemic and last September. As greater numbers of older people have been leaving the labour market, we also know that many people are becoming economically inactive as a result of ill health or mental ill health. Long-term sickness has risen fastest in younger age groups, with the biggest increase being for mental health. We all know that the longer a young person is left without work because of ill health, the greater the risk to their life prospects. That is why we need a Government who will help those who want to work but do not have the support that they need.

As the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), set out, we have a plan to reform the way in which people receive help to get back into work. We would reform employment support and the work capability assessments regime, and fix the Access to Work scheme. We would ensure that there is help for the over-50s, so that those who have recently left the labour market have support and guidance to help them back into work. We would ensure that there is specialist help for those with long-term ill health by building on targeted programmes, including those that join up with the NHS.

Crucially, we would focus on locally delivered services by giving local partnerships the freedom to decide how best to design services, with a focus on tailored support that meets the needs of the local area. Under our plans, combined authorities and local areas would take control of employment support budgets. We would move away from rigid national contracting and ensure that the resources needed to help people find work are closer to the communities that we serve.

Those are our clear principles for reform. It is clear that reform is urgently needed, as the Government already spend billions on employment support programmes that are failing. Making these reforms happen and supporting people of all ages and in all places to contribute to a growing economy is a crucial part of our mission. As the Learning and Work Institute has estimated, increasing employment to the highest in the G7 over the next decade should boost our economy by £23 billion, improve the public finances by £8 billion and raise household finances by an average of £830 a year. That is why today’s debate is so important. By following our plans, the Government could get Britain back to work, help to grow the economy after more than a decade of stagnation and make sure people in every part of our country are better off.

It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (James Murray). It is a shame that so few Government Back Benchers seem to be interested in labour market activity, especially given that so many of them will be in need of these services in the not-too-distant future. I take issue with what the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), who is not in his place, said about trade unions being the problem in the economy. It is not trade unions that are the problem in the economy but an intransigent and uncaring Government who will not sit down and negotiate and who will not deal with the underlying causes of industrial unrest.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. What is reckless for the economy is a disastrous mini-Budget which has left millions of householders with mortgage rates higher than they would otherwise have been that are locked in for the future, as well as higher inflation and spiralling energy costs as a consequence. That is the real impact of this Conservative Government on the economy.

In the north-west today, there are 57,000 more people who are economically inactive between the ages of 50 and 64 than there were in 2020. We hear a lot from this Government about growing the economy, but there seems to be no appreciation of the fact that, unless we get people back to work, the economy will remain stagnant. I represent brilliant, talented and hard-working people who are effectively being shut out of accessing the labour market because of long-term sickness or because the support just is not there to get them through the door.

Denton and Reddish straddles two local authorities, Tameside and Stockport, so I see two of everything. Sadly, that means I have seen two almost identical rises in the economic inactivity of my constituents since 2019. In Stockport, we have seen a 2.1% rise, and in Tameside, that figure sits at 1.7%. Across both local authorities, there are over 12,500 people currently claiming universal credit because they cannot access a job that pays sufficiently. Let us be clear: these are not people who have decided that work is not for them and have dropped off the grid—these are people who want to contribute but are finding that the door is locked.

Let us take long covid as an example. I speak with personal experience on this subject, because I suffered from, and indeed still have some of the symptoms of, long covid after my first bout of covid in 2020, and it is of great interest to me in my other role as shadow public health Minister. We know that there are around 2 million people living with this condition in the United Kingdom—that is 3% of the population—but there has been no meaningful effort from central Government to ensure that reasonable adjustments are being made in the workplace, and it can be done. Mr Speaker and those in the Speaker’s Office accommodated me. I found that bobbing up and down was exhausting and basically wiped me out, and a simple, reasonable adjustment was for me to hold up the Order Paper so that I could be called to speak. For everybody else, however, it is business as usual, with long covid sufferers being forced to navigate a system that has not adapted to their needs.

The Government have failed to provide specialist help for those with long-term ill health, to invest in upskilling or to target employment support at hard-to-reach groups. Instead, they have outsourced large sums of money to deliver schemes such as kickstart and restart, which are massively under-delivering. They are obsessed with slogans, but not bothered about whether they deliver on their promises. In the last 13 years, regional inequalities have widened, health inequalities have soared and our economy has flatlined. Despite that, Government Ministers still parrot the phrase “levelling up” without an ounce of shame or self-awareness. We can do much better.

Labour’s plan will devolve employment support, overhaul work capability assessments and provide targeted help for the over-50s and those with long-term ill health, which would be truly transformative for the people I represent. My constituents are tired of warm words with little substance. It is time for the Government to move out of the way and let Labour get on with the job of breaking down the barriers to opportunity and getting our economy firing on all cylinders again.

I will start by putting my remarks in the context of our economic situation. We are predicted to have the worst growth of any G20 nation bar Russia, which is, of course, heavily sanctioned. We have flatlining productivity, which is not down to the unions, as was perhaps being suggested by the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew)—far from it. If we compare the UK with France, for example, France has much stricter employment legislation but 20% higher productivity. We need to look more closely at the sort of legislation that we have.

Before the pandemic, millions of people were missing from the labour market, particularly the over-50s. Some 8.9 million are now economically inactive, which is more than half a million more than pre-pandemic levels. Of those, 3.5 million are 50 to 64-year-olds, which is more than 300,000 more than before the pandemic. It is a real shame that we have that huge untapped potential, as many of those people—1.7 million economically inactive people—want a job.

We have heard from many Opposition Members about the challenges that, sadly, women in particular face as a result of not having childcare. My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), the shadow Secretary of State for Education, has outlined what we would do in power to introduce a much more modern approach to childcare. Without that system, we will not be able to bring more women into the workplace. We need parental leave; we need to introduce support from early years to the end of primary school; and we need to see the introduction of breakfast clubs. Many of the wider carer responsibilities of family members also, all too often, fall to women. They need to be brought back into the workplace.

On health, we have heard about the stress, anxiety and depression that many people face. They also need to be helped back into work. We also have issues with the disincentives for people who have left the labour market to get back into work. Medical professionals, teachers and many others across society felt devalued and disincentivised to work, so they left their workplace and took early retirement. We need to bring those people back into the workplace.

One reason for those issues is the Government’s dismal record on education, retraining and lifelong learning. We had the Second Reading of the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill yesterday, which will finally seek to implement lifelong learning, but that should be seen in the context of a decade of failure in that area.

We have lost so much of adult learning since 2010. Only one in three adults report any participation in learning, which is the lowest level in 22 years. Indeed, Government spending on adult education—retraining and so on—has fallen by 47% over the past 10 years, and the IFS reports that apprenticeships will be 25% lower in 2024-25 than in the corresponding period in 2020-11.

Many people feel locked out of the system, which has an impact on not just individual families, but society. Such inactivity is costing our wider economy so dearly. The Learning and Work Institute says that increasing employment to the highest level in the G7 would boost the economy by £23 billion, improve the public finances by £8 billion, and raise household finances by an average of £830 per year. That is why, as part of Labour’s mission to secure the highest sustained growth in the G7, we are intent on getting Britain back to work. We have plans to fix the Access to Work scheme through improved targets for assessment waiting times and providing more indicative awards for those looking for work.

I will briefly illustrate my speech with an example of one individual who has to apply for Access to Work funding every year. If you met him, Madam Deputy Speaker, you would realise that that is quite ridiculous. The people of Warwick and Leamington have the potential, and many have the skills. They are people who want to work, but they need a Labour Government, and they want a general election now.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, of which I am a member, took evidence on supporting people into work only last week. A few issues stand out, which I want to raise. We need to address people’s opportunity to work, their ability to work, and their prospects for work. For all the hand-wringing about the challenges of getting over-50s into employment, the barriers are widely known. Caring responsibilities dominate the lives of many people who simply do not have the option to take up a full-time job or longer hours. Indeed, many people in their 50s are caregivers in both directions: to their children or grandchildren, and to older relatives.

Only the Government can address this issue by finally tackling the two areas they have so long claimed to have answers for: childcare and social care. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have forcefully made the case for tackling those areas today, but the Government have not yet acted, despite 13 years in office. With one in four adults experiencing mental illness, long-term mental health conditions and chronic pain conditions keep far too many people from reaching their potential. They are burnt out and, in many cases, unable to contribute.

There is so much more we can do to support people and give them the tools to overcome their health challenges, such as the exciting international research into the potential benefits that psilocybin can bring to people suffering mental ill health, including treatment-resistant depression. We are stuck behind the curve, and I call once again for the Government and the Minister to make representations to the Home Office to that effect—to reschedule psilocybin, so that our universities and scientists can bring the UK to the forefront of this research that can offer hope of ending people’s enduring misery. Similarly, much chronic physical pain may be addressed through cannabinoids, and it is in the power of Ministers to make those more available in order to improve the conditions of people’s lives and enable them back into work.

But what jobs are available for people to begin, move into, or return to work in? One in six new jobs are in the hospitality sector, which offers flexible opportunities and is welcoming for marginalised groups, including former prisoners and people with learning disabilities. However, that sector has struggled to return to pre-pandemic levels, and soaring energy bills remain a terrifying prospect, not least for our pubs. Without a sector deal for hospitality to maintain those businesses and the millions of jobs within them—without people having the ability to take those jobs up—all these debates about increasing the workforce will be hollow. I call on the Government to address those three challenges, and to look at what they can do to restore the union learning grant, so that we can actually have lifelong learning in this country again.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, but particularly my friend the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and my hon. Friends the Members for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), for Ealing North (James Murray), for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols). I thought they all made comprehensive and excellent cases in support of a Labour Government.

I do apologise. I had written down the hon. Member for Glasgow South West. He can, I am sure, opine on his opinions about the possibility of a Labour Government at a later date, but I had included him in my list of friends.

On the subject of a Labour Government, I have served in opposition for 12 years and nine months—just three months shy of the age of the last Labour Government —and I am not proud of having been in opposition for that long, because it has been painful to watch events in our country and know that too often voting in this House on behalf of my constituents can do little in reality to help them.

I have learned a few things, having been here for 12 years and taking part in many debates on our country’s economy. I have learned that whenever the Tories are criticised on their economic record, they rely again and again not on their own record, but on a cheat sheet handed out to them by the Whips. On employment, there is one thing in particular that they always come out with: according to them, every Labour Government have left office with unemployment higher than when they started—so they tell us, as if the food banks do not matter and as if child poverty does not matter.

Were this a unique failing of Labour Governments, it might be a serious charge, but the problem for those on the Government Benches and the thing they never tell us is that it is not; the very same accusation is also true of Tory Governments, and we have had a lot more Tory Governments about which that is true. The record of the Conservative party on unemployment is far worse than that of the Labour party. This ridiculous accusation about Labour Governments that I have heard again and again over 12 years in trying to defend the indefensible reveals a political truth about work: Governments who are not able to respond to events and who are not seen to help people do better at work do not last long.

I bet I know what it says next on the Whips handout, and we have heard it again today. It will say, “Unemployment is at a record low of 1.2 million people, or 3.7%.” Historically speaking, and taken technically, the International Labour Organisation measure of unemployment looks low, but that figure hides a multitude of sins in our economy—1.7 million of them, to be precise. That is the number who, despite our so-called low unemployment, want a job, do not have a job, but are not actively looking right now. It is classified as inactivity, but I say that if it looks like people are being given up on, it does not matter what kind of unemployment it is; it is still throwing people on the scrapheap, at the very time our country needs them most.

Those 1.7 million people include parents who cannot get childcare, women over 50, more than 50,000 of whom are looking after a loved one, and far too many people who are ill and on waiting lists and their carers, knackered out by not being able to get the support they need. I thought we heard compellingly from my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish about the impact of long covid and the Government’s failings. We also heard with absolute clarity from the hon. Member for Leicester West about how this issue is not just damaging our economy, but is a feminist case for change.

We have altogether nearly 3 million people out of work, and all those people will be right to wonder if the Tories, as usual, have given up on them, because the theme of Conservative Governments over the past 12 years since 2010 is of slowly giving up—giving up on building the living standards they promised and building opportunities across the whole country; giving up on increasing productivity as they promised; giving up on older people, ill people and disabled people; and, giving up on building back better and levelling up. All their empty words never had substance. More importantly, they never had belief in the British people, while demanding that the British people believed in them.

In 2015, the Conservative manifesto promised to deliver the highest employment rate in the G7, but mysteriously that commitment disappeared from future manifestos. In 2017, the Conservative manifesto pledged to get 1 million more people with disabilities into employment over the next 10 years. The 2019 manifesto removed that target and replaced it with something vague, and something vague is all that people with disabilities have had. There are three-word slogans all the time, yet all we get is very little help.

The truth is that, whatever recent changes to our economy have been caused by the pandemic, we have deep flaws in this country that have been created by previous generations of Tories and made worse by the current crop. On skills, because of long-standing low ambition, we have 5 million people lacking basic skills, but now, to make matters worse, nearly one in five people are working below their skill level, including 27% of people in London. In our nation’s capital—our so-called success story—27% of people are working below their skill level. What a waste of time, what a waste of talent, and what a waste of our country’s potential.

On care, childcare is unaffordable and unavailable, and social care is in chaos, leading to the dreadful situation—as I have said, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West made this case—of women’s economic progress going backwards.

On disabilities, never mind creating the inclusive workplace that we need, the Government cannot even get the basics right. Crucially, everyone can see that some places in our country are still suffering from dreadful unemployment—actual ILO statistical unemployment —despite the UK picture. From Blackpool to Peterborough, the Tories are ignoring the very places they claimed they would level up.

But who cares if some places fall further behind and who cares if people are too sick to work, as long as the headline numbers look okay, eh? Money has been thrown at kickstart and restart, but we have seen no real progress and no real learning—just a waste of time, money and effort. Does anyone believe that if there was real commitment from the Government there would now be the ability to deliver after 12 years of failure? I do not even think there is such commitment any more; nor even the pretence of it. We have wasted time and talent, and broken communities everywhere, because the Tories have given up now. They have given up on people, as we have seen from their failed schemes. They have given up on places, as we have seen from the towns and cities that have fallen further behind. They have given up on skills and growth, and given up on government. It is a triumph of not caring.

I tell you one thing, Madam Deputy Speaker, if 12 years in opposition has taught me anything, it has taught me never to give up, and that is why we will not. We will not give up on our towns and cities. We will not give up on the fact that our country needs proper care, childcare and social care, and we will not give up on disabled people. Harold Wilson said that unemployment above all else made him political. Anyone who grew up in Merseyside before the advent of the last Labour Government knows exactly what he meant, and this is personal to me. We will not stand by any longer and see low ambition and the tick-box culture of the Tory DWP run people down. We are bigger and better than that as a nation. If the Government think that a few attack lines from the Tory Whips Office will keep them going until the general election, I say, “Bring it on!”

Can I start by adding my tribute to Betty Boothroyd, who was a role model to so many in this House? As a former chair of Women2Win, I can certainly say that she made a massive difference to so many candidates. Can I also urge colleagues to get behind World Book Day this Thursday?

Unlike the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), I would like to thank all colleagues who have contributed to this debate. I am certain that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens)—I know he will be in trouble because I have called him an hon. Friend—is most definitely not a Labour party member, is definitely not a Labour MP and is strongly advocating the SNP cause.

The UK labour market remains in a strong position, with payroll employment at a record high. There were 30 million people on company payrolls in January 2023. There are also 2 million more women in work than in 2010. Unemployment remains at a very low level, with long-term unemployment 12% lower than it was pre-pandemic, and unemployment below the pre-pandemic level of 4%.

However, on inactivity, we know that levels of vacancies remain high, and increasing the labour supply is a key priority of this Government. The Prime Minister has tasked the Secretary of State to look in detail at the workforce participation programme, including how to address economically inactive cohorts. We need to reduce the number of people leaving employment into inactivity, and encourage those who are economically inactive and can work back into the labour market. Many today have made pitches to the Chancellor, who will be reporting back on these matters in 15 days’ time. I am sure he has taken due note of that. The point on historic levels of economic inactivity was made at great length by Labour Members. I entirely accept that the current rate is approximately 21.4%, but it is fair to note that in 2010 it stood at 23.3% under the previous Labour Government.

The hon. Member for Glasgow South West and the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) raised issues about the innovation pilot that we are carrying out, which has just begun. I urge them to read the written ministerial statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which gives details of who is excluded from that particular pilot. It particularly deals with the fact that anyone with exclusions—basically, only claimants who are work-ready will be dealt with under that pilot. I have already met some of the job coaches and managers who are driving the pilot forward at Crawley, where I was yesterday. This is fundamentally about one thing: providing more support. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw raised concerns about travel. That is what the flexible support fund is for: it covers any travel costs in those circumstances, and there are no questions whatsoever but that that can be addressed in those particular ways.

Many points were made by those on the Labour Front Bench, most of which were dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is interesting that the shadow Secretary of State is now committed to conditions and sanctions—a genuinely amazing flip-flop given his position barely three weeks ago in the debate on uprating. He is resembling more and more a kangaroo in how he turns around and flops away to his next policy.

On flexible work options, as hon. Members know, the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade (Kevin Hollinrake) is introducing flexible working legislation. In 2010 there was no paid-for childcare for the 15 or 30 hours; there was no 85% universal credit childcare worth £1,108 per month for two or more children, with support provided by the flexible support fund on an ongoing basis.

On the disabled, I totally rebut the arguments made by the shadow Minister. The Government are committed to improving the lives of disabled people and those with a health condition, and we will deliver the most ambitious disability reform agenda in a generation. We set a goal to see 1 million more disabled people in employment between 2017 and 2027. The most recent data show that between the first quarter of 2017 and 2022, the number of disabled people in employment increased by 1.3 million, meaning that that goal was met after only five years. I urge employers up and down the country to get behind the Disability Confident campaign.

On the 50PLUS campaign, the Government are already providing more than £20 million of funding for an enhanced offer for people aged 50-plus, and there is an opportunity for multiple older worker fairs, which are happening every single week up and down the country. I have met the 50PLUS champions in Bolton, Hackney and various other places. They are doing a fantastic job to roll out and explain the situation. We are doing so much to try to bring more people back into the workplace. In addition, the Midlife MOT looks at wealth, work and wellbeing. It has already been rolled out to jobcentres, and been introduced on a private sector basis and online.

We are committed to helping people to progress while in work, and we are therefore extending the jobcentre support provided to people in work and on low incomes, to help them increase their earnings and move into better-paid quality jobs. That in-work progression offer is being expanded on an ongoing basis. The youth offer sees youth hubs, and so much support from youth employment and employability coaches who provide flexible support to young people with significant complex needs and barriers, to help them move into employment. The jobcentre offer provides localised support up and down the country to nearly 800 jobcentres. It is different for each individual jobcentre, and from Banff to Brixton to Basildon, there is a different approach on an ongoing basis.

claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main question accordingly put.

Question accordingly agreed to.


That this House is concerned that the number of people out of work and economically inactive is higher than before the pandemic, that thousands of older people have left the labour market and that there have been significant increases in the number of people out of work due to ill health or mental ill health; notes that recent employment support schemes have underperformed and underspent; condemns the Government for its failure to get more people into work; regrets that this failure is contributing to low economic growth and falling living standards; and therefore calls on the Government to get Britain back to work by reforming disability benefit assessments, devolving employment support to local areas and providing specialist and targeted help for those with long-term ill health or aged over 50 to grow the economy and boost both public finances and household incomes.