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Topical Questions

Volume 729: debated on Monday 6 March 2023

The Department’s major focus is looking after the vulnerable and those most in need. I am therefore delighted that next month, the basic state pension will increase by 10.1%, as will most benefits. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), will be taking legislation through the House this afternoon to ensure that we continue substantial cost of living payments for the year ahead.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcements. The extra £842 million for the household support fund, of which Harrow will receive £3 million, is extremely welcome. Could he update the House on what monitoring is taking place so that best practice is followed across the country and that the money that the Government are allocating reaches the most vulnerable?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. He is right that almost £3 million from the household support fund will go to his constituency, on top of the £7.4 million that his local authority will receive in total. We monitor very closely how the money is administered to ensure that it has the maximum effect, by liaising closely with the local authorities concerned.

Does the Secretary of State understand and agree that expediting the rise in the state pension age is less about life expectancy, which, according to the Office for National Statistics is very much arrested, and more about a cost-cutting measure for the Treasury? Can he tell the House what representations he has made to the Chancellor about that in advance of next week’s Budget? Or is it just the UK Government’s policy that people should work until they drop?

The hon. Gentleman is prejudging an awful lot of potential outcomes. He should wait until the Chancellor and I have taken those particular decisions. I am focused on a variety of metrics. Life expectancy is one of them, as is regional impact. The fiscal impact certainly cannot be ignored, and I would be surprised if he suggested otherwise. Fairness between generations and the period of life in which one is expected to be healthy in later years are also important considerations.

T2. I warmly welcome the Government’s decision to increase the state pension by more than 10% in April, but does my right hon. Friend agreed that we should encourage private provision alongside state provision? Will he say what conversations his Department has had with the Treasury about extending the lifetime allowance or annual allowance for pensions, and anything more on auto-enrolment? (903894)

I am delighted that the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) passed Second Reading on Friday, and I look forward to its Committee next week. This excellent piece of legislation will bring 18 to 22-year-olds into automatic enrolment in full for the first time, and will ensure that people are saving from the first pound earned—two vital steps to ensure that people get the retirement that they want.

T4. A constituent recently contacted me about the lack of reasonable adjustments in place at the local jobcentre for those with mental health or cognitive difficulties. How do Ministers plan to improve staff awareness and the reasonable adjustments offering? (903896)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this issue in such constructive terms. I expect teams to be responsive to needs for reasonable adjustments. Perhaps she could share the details of the specific experience so that I can look into it. It is fair to say that staff go through ongoing learning, and we refresh the guidance at regular intervals.

T3. Can my hon. Friend provide an assessment of how personal independence payment appointments are being administered? Many constituents have kindly contacted me to say that they are still having claims processed over the phone rather than at an in-person appointment. I am sure he agrees that in-person appointments are vital to ensuring that our constituents get the right level of support. (903895)

Regardless of the form that PIP assessments take, the structure is the same. Evidence suggests that both forms are equally effective, but I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend by saying that if individuals want to have a face-to-face assessment, they absolutely can.

T7. In Bath and North East Somerset, the gap between local housing allowance and rent for the cheapest three-bedroom property is nearly £4,000. My inbox is full of emails from desperate families on low incomes who are being squeezed out of living in Bath. Will the Secretary of State unfreeze the local housing allowance so that benefits are better aligned with rent in the local area? (903899)

The Government are projected to spend £30 billion—about 1.3% of GDP—on support for renters. Approximately £100 million has been allocated for the discretionary housing payment in 2023-24 to help local authorities, if necessary, which can top up from their own funding to help the hon. Lady’s constituents.

T5. A constituent of mine who has been in full-time work since he was 16 is now in his mid-40s and is unable to work as he awaits major surgery. For people like him, navigating a complex welfare system for the first time is difficult and worrying. Does my hon. Friend agree on the importance of people such as my constituent being able to access clear advice about the welfare benefits system to remove added financial worries? Will he outline the support available for people in such circumstances to access high-quality occupational health support to help them get back to work? (903897)

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend and send my best wishes to his constituent for their surgery. The Department offers support through disability employment advisers who work alongside all work coaches, specialising in finding the right support to help customers who have a disability or health condition into work. I know that the dedicated team in Nottinghamshire would certainly be delighted to engage with my hon. Friend or his constituent and try to help with this issue.

T9.   At the end of last year, the National Audit Office found that levels of benefit fraud and error were “unacceptably high”, totalling £8.6 billion for the year. How exactly will the Secretary of State reduce benefit fraud and error and claw back this appalling waste of taxpayers’ money? (903901)

I would argue that the Public Accounts Committee report does not reflect the steps that we took and that we set out in the plan that was published last May. As I set out to the House earlier, we are taking a tough approach to the issue, and rightly so—this is taxpayers’ money. For example, the work of the 2,000 extra officials on targeted case reviews, 2 million of which are in universal credit, is a really important part of getting that money back.

T6. I know from speaking to staff at Longton jobcentre that additional support has been put in place to help the over-50s back into work. Will the Minister update the House on what more is being done to upskill adults and help more of them to get back into work, especially in Stoke-on-Trent? (903898)

My hon. Friend will be aware of the 50-plus champions, the midlife MOT, the sector-based work academies and the skills bootcamps specifically for over-50s. The mighty Port Vale football club held a fantastic recent jobs fair attended by 1,400 customers, including many over-50s; 600 job offers resulted and there were 100 employers present. That is the sort of thing that the Department is doing.

As the recent Britishvolt investment shows, the north-east has real strengths in growing sectors such as battery technology, green energy and life sciences. Does the Minister agree that it is not possible for nationally controlled training programmes to really support people into employment in these emerging sectors? Will he therefore devolve responsibility to those in local areas who know local skills and local opportunities?

Local DWP jobcentres work hand in glove with local employers. It is very different in Banff and in Brixton—it is very different up and down the country. That is what we do with sector-based work academies, skills bootcamps and innovation pilots on a local basis in each individual jobcentre.

T8. I co-chair the all-party parliamentary engineering group. One of our objectives is to get young people to consider taking up employment in engineering. A number of companies in my area, for example, are short of young people. What more can the Government do to make young people aware of the excellent opportunities that exist in engineering? (903900)

We are focused, across Government, on helping young people to become involved in science, technology, engineering and maths projects and careers. A new science and technology framework was announced today, and will be vital for long-term economic success. DWP Train and Progress helps claimants take advantage of the bootcamps run by the Department for Education, and our partnership with Google is helping to boost digital skills. These activities are flexible in that people of any age and at any stage in their careers can engage in them.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I have a constituent who is facing the consequences of an overpayment in employment and support allowance. She has been able to show that she gave the Department the correct information time and again, but according to the Department, that is not relevant to whether she should pay the full sum. If the Department is not subject to any comeback after making mistakes, how will it ever improve?

It is important to note that official error loss fell from 1.3% in 2019-20 to 0.9% in 2020-21 and to 0.7% in 2021-22. It is of course right for us to work constructively with individuals to identify appropriate repayment plans, ensuring that we live up to our legal obligations to get the money back into the Department, but I expect officials to work constructively with people, taking account of their specific financial circumstances. I should be delighted if the hon. Gentleman shared the details of this case with me so that I can look into it.

I know that my hon. Friend takes great interest in supporting women in work, and working with employers is crucial to ensuring that they can both retain and recruit women and that there is no stigma in the workplace for those experiencing the impact of the menopause. I am delighted to announce the appointment of Helen Tomlinson as the DWP menopause employment champion. She will have a key role in driving awareness and promoting the benefits of a fully inclusive workplace to both business and the economy, and I will be sharing further details of her appointment later today.

Research conducted by the Bevan Foundation has established that local housing allowance is not a solution to the cost of living and housing crises for families on low incomes and for the most vulnerable because it is too low, and has been frozen since 2020 while private rental costs have soared. Will the UK Government help those in need and uprate the allowance?

We recognise that rents are increasing, and that a challenging fiscal environment means we need to support people effectively. We have therefore announced a support package for the most vulnerable households, which includes help through the household support fund. Those who are entitled to housing benefit or the housing element of universal credit and who have a shortfall can reach out for discretionary housing payments from local authorities.

There are some notable and fantastic businesses in my constituency, including Argus Fire and Pegasus, which do a brilliant job in recruiting young adults and providing career opportunities. What more can the Department do to bridge the gap between employers and young adults and create that one-stop opportunity for 16-year-olds to find employment?

As you know, Mr Speaker, I am very supportive of getting young people into work. The Dudley youth hub is a classic example of the Department’s working in partnership locally, providing a single location for employers to engage with the under-25s from Stourbridge and the wider area. Claimants can attend recruitment events and take advantage of a range of on-site services, and I know that they greatly welcome the opportunity to work with Argus Fire and Pegasus.

Public and Commercial Services Union members in Scotland get a raw deal from this Government on pay, with many civil servants themselves using food banks. When will the Government give them a proper pay rise?

As the hon. Lady will know and as I explained earlier, we are engaged in positive discussions with the PCS. It has been pointed out that many people working in the DWP are on the national living wage, and that will increase by 9.7% in April.

Working with Disability Action Yorkshire in my constituency, I have observed the important and growing role in the jobs market played by people with disabilities. I have spoken before about the Access to Work programme. Will the Minister update the House on what is being done to promote that excellent scheme among employers?

My hon. Friend is a brilliant advocate for Harrogate generally, but on this issue he is a passionate advocate for Access to Work and Disability Confident. We work to promote those schemes through our social media, through working with stakeholders, through working with local employer partnership teams and employer associations and through the Disability Confident scheme generally. I would certainly welcome the opportunity to look at ways in which we can spread the word further, including on a localised basis. I am about to do that as a constituency MP in Corby, and perhaps my hon. Friend could do the same in Harrogate.

On Friday night I was given the terrible news that a popular business in my constituency, Mortons Rolls, had ceased trading, putting at risk 250 jobs. Will the Secretary of State take the time to meet me to discuss what can be done to support that business and the 250 staff who are now threatened with redundancy?

The hon. Lady raises an important matter, and she is right to raise it on the Floor of the House. We have a number of measures that we would typically stand up in the circumstances that she describes, including a surge of local support to get jobs going and vacancies matched up with those who are sadly going to lose their jobs. I will certainly ask the Employment Minister to meet her to discuss this as a matter of urgency.

I echo the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) about Access to Work. Can I ask what progress is being made on the disability action plan and how the Minister will ensure effective work across Government?

The disability action plan is a really valuable opportunity to drive forward meaningful progress in a number of areas to help to improve the lives of disabled people. We are in the process of assembling the ministerial disability champions, and I want to see ideas from across Government brought together. We will then hear from disabled people, get out there and consult on the plan, then make sure that we deliver it over the next 18 months to two years. This is about quick wins and getting those off the stocks and delivering for disabled people.

I want to place on record my thanks to the Pensions Minister for her incredible hard work on automatic pension enrolment to get the age and the earnings lowered. Does she agree that it is a major concern for the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke that 25% of people leave work without a workplace pension in place? That is why the Pensions (Extension of Automatic Enrolment) Bill is so important and I am grateful to have had support for it from colleagues across the House.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I congratulate him on his brilliant Bill, which will help women, the lowest paid and part-time workers in Stoke-on- Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, and beyond.

Before proceedings on the urgent question begin, I want to make it clear that the question is about the proposed appointment of the second permanent secretary to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities as chief of staff to the Leader of the Opposition. It is not about the Committee of Privileges inquiry; let me stress that now. The House has charged the Committee with undertaking that inquiry and it must be allowed to complete it without interference. The Committee has been clear that the report issued on Friday does not contain its final conclusions, and that its work continues. It is for the Committee to decide how to weigh up the evidence before it, and any attempt to use this urgent question to prejudice proceedings will be out of order and will not be tolerated. Can I also say that although I was not surprised by the number of requests for this urgent question, I was surprised that they nearly all had the same wording and length of sentences? Whichever side of the House it comes from, I will not be moved by mass lobbying. I was more impressed by the individual ones that took the time to express why this was important than by those that were just a one-line sentence and signed by numerous Members of the House, so please do not try mass lobbying again.