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Topical Questions

Volume 731: debated on Monday 24 April 2023

Normally, the Secretary of State would make a statement at this stage, but, on behalf of the whole ministerial team, I will say just two things. First, overall, measures from the Department for Work and Pensions in the Budget represent an investment of £3.5 billion over five years to boost workforce participation. That includes: £2 billion of investment in support for disabled people and people with long-term health conditions on top of the Health and Disability White Paper; £900 million investment in support for parents; £70 million investment in support for the over-50s; and £485 million investment in support for unemployed people and people on universal credit and working fewer than full-time hours.

Secondly, DWP Ministers had the great honour of working with the amazing Len Goodman, who sadly passed away over the weekend. The pension credit video that he filmed with me last summer for the annual Pension Credit Awareness Day in June was the most successful piece of communications that we have ever done on this issue and massively boosted pension credit applications. I can tell the House that, throughout the day’s filming, he was kind, immensely professional, totally polite and a delight to work with, and he still had all the dance moves even at his age. He will be sadly missed by this House and by his many fans around the country. Our thoughts, prayers and condolences go out to his family.

I am sure the whole House will join the Minister and others in remembering with fondness Len Goodman and in sending our good wishes to his family and friends.

I thank the Minister for his answer. On Thursday, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) visited One Parent Families Scotland. The young single parents we met were outraged and upset about the young parent penalty, as they are receiving less universal credit than older parents. Does the Minister care to explain why he feels that younger parents are worth less than those who are over 25?

We do not feel that in any way whatsoever. I will write to the hon. Lady setting out the legal and statutory basis behind the policy.

T2.   A key area that we need to consider is people who have a diagnosis and then try to return to work. One way that we can solve this is potentially having DWP or jobcentre workers in primary care to help support people from diagnosis to desk. Is that something that Ministers will consider in the White Paper? (904591)

My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate of the join-up between health and work, and work as a determinant of better health outcomes for people. It is important to note that a number of jobcentres and Health Model Offices have work coaches working with GP surgeries to provide employment support to customers with health conditions. That is a valuable approach, and we are determined that the Work Well partnerships programme that was announced in the Budget will build on this to design an integrated approach to work and health with that proper join-up on the ground reflective and responsive to local needs. I shall take on board his observation as we look to shape that.

We on the Labour Benches join you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the Minister in the tribute to Len Goodman, and we think of all his loved ones today. He was not just a national treasure, but someone who helped to put money in pensioners’ pockets, which is where it belongs.

The local elections are next week, so people will be thinking of the fortunes of their towns or cities. In many places, unemployment is not low, as the Minister has said, but high. In Blackpool, for example, one constituency has unemployment at an excruciating 8%. What about that chronic poor performance should be rewarded at the ballot box next week?

We all know that unemployment is always higher when the Labour party leaves office. The hon. Lady might care to listen to a few key points: vacancies have fallen for nine successive quarters; employment is up; payroll employment is at a record high; claimant count is down; economic inactivity has fallen; disability employment is up by 1.3 million over the past five years; and, as for Blackpool, massive work is being done there. She will be aware of the intervention by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which has been working very hard across Government to transform the fortunes of Blackpool, with record investment—something that definitely did not happen when Labour was in Government.

T3.   A few weeks ago, I visited Tools with a Mission, a 40-year-old charity in Ipswich with 70 or 80 local volunteers. It takes old, disused and discarded tools, the volunteers work incredibly hard to make them as good as new and those tools are sent to developing countries, where they make a tremendous difference—Zambia and Uganda are two examples. But the impact does not stop there; there is a local impact also. Many of the volunteers are of pensionable age or have recently retired; their involvement in the charity gives them a great sense of purpose and community, and the charity’s work with many individuals with educational needs has helped them to go on with the skills they have learned at the charity to get full-time jobs elsewhere. Will the Minister join me in applauding that work, and work with me to find funding to enhance what the charity is doing? (904592)

Local charities play an important role in providing support in our communities. I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency later this month to see what Combat2Coffee can do to support veterans and their families, and I hope to take a keen interest in Tools with a Mission too, if possible.

When he appeared before the Select Committee in November, the Secretary of State said that,

“the more transparency there is, the better. It informs public debate and allows a feedback loop for the Department. It is all part of holding us to account and that is extremely important”.

In light of that and in the spirit of the Department’s new approach to transparency, can the Minister provide me with figures on how many DWP staff are themselves reliant on universal credit?

I know the hon. Gentleman takes a particular interest in transparency. I work strongly on the Department’s behalf, with the Minister in the Lords, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman with a response.

T4. I welcome the measures in the Budget to encourage over-50s back into work, harnessing their experience and skills. I also notice that the Department has signed the Age-friendly Employer pledge—I have signed my office up too. What is being done to promote the scheme more widely among employers to encourage them to do the same? (904593)

We are doing huge amounts of work to encourage over-50s employment. My hon. Friend refers to the pledge, and we encourage all employers up and down the country to sign up, to participate in the mid-life MOT, to embrace older workers’ fairs and generally to accept that older workers have a great deal to offer.

Some 5,260 women in Liverpool, West Derby have been affected by the changes made to the women’s state pension age, and many have contacted me about the devastating impact it has had on their lives. What consideration has the Minister given to early-day motion 1040 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth), which calls for an alternative dispute resolution process, including representatives of the 3.8 million women affected, to address the injustices they have been through?

T5. As the Minister will know, the Disability Confident scheme is a great way for employers to support people into work. What is the Minister doing to ensure that local councils such as Torbay Council are setting an example to other employers in their area? (904594)

I am hugely appreciative of my hon. Friend, who is a passionate advocate of Disability Confident. I would hope that local authorities would want to engage with the scheme and set the example that they would like to see businesses and other organisations in their communities follow. I know he has good conversations on this question with Councillor David Thomas, the leader of the Conservative group, who I hope may be in a position in a few weeks’ time to help set the standard in the Torbay area and blaze a trail for Disability Confident at Torbay Council.

T9. Do Ministers think it acceptable that thousands of women who have been underpaid their state pensions will be forced to wait until the end of 2024 to see that error addressed? (904598)

We have massively increased the number of people working on that at the moment. We are undertaking work against scams, we are prioritising cases in which the recipient is alive, and we will try to get that done by the end of the year. I am accelerating that as much as I can. I am very aware that it is a problem.

T7. This month has seen the uplifting of pensions and benefits by 10.1%, but what more is the Department doing to ensure that people in my constituency and around the country get the maximum that they are entitled to and, therefore, take up pension credit? (904596)

I thank my hon. Friend for all that he is doing to encourage pension credit take-up in Crawley. The Government have undertaken a sustained communications campaign to raise awareness of pension credit and promote its take-up. The latest stats release at the start of the year shows a substantial rise in the number of claims.

My constituent had a brain injury 20 years ago and was receiving personal independence payment for care and mobility support. A recent review said that there was no change to his condition, but somehow the decision has been made to stop his benefits. The Minister has already indicated that he is considering this matter, but will he meet me to discuss that particular case?

I am always very happy to meet colleagues from across the House to discuss such issues, and this circumstance is no different.

T8. We must do more to tackle delinquent parents who do not pay child maintenance. When can we expect the home curfew powers to come into effect, and how many people do we expect to be subject to them? (904597)

Enforcement action is used as a last resort when a parent is failing to pay their maintenance payments and other action has failed. Home detention is a powerful deterrent and, as such, we would expect usage to be low—perhaps less than 10 cases a year on average. I know that my hon. Friend focuses on this matter. The Child Maintenance Service continues to explore how existing powers can be used to encourage compliant behaviours and facilitate constructive relationships between parents to ensure that, importantly, financial support reaches the children for whom they are responsible.

A new Work and Pensions Committee report on the health assessments for disability benefits such as PIP and employment support allowance has found that “issues or errors” in the DWP health assessment system have, in some ways, contributed to the deaths of claimants. What assurances can the Minister give the House that those issues and errors will not continue to kill our disabled constituents?

We take those matters incredibly seriously, which is why we have internal process reviews in the Department to look at them. We have serious case panels constituted by senior leaders from within the Department, and the independent case examiner, for example. Where there are issues and learning that must be taken on board, that must always happen. This is structured through that. We will look very carefully and closely at the Select Committee report, and we will, of course, respond appropriately in the normal way. The hon. Gentleman can be absolutely assured that these processes must always be looked at carefully, and that any learning is taken on board and acted on.

T10. The apprenticeship levy can play a significant part in improving economic activity rates, but some employers—particularly small employers—find the process through which they draw down and seek support to be somewhat unwieldy. Although the policy is led by other Departments, it has direct relevance to the Department for Work and Pensions. Will the Minister agree to engage with the Department for Education and the Treasury on how the apprenticeship levy can be made more relevant to small employers? (904599)

The apprenticeship levy has been a fantastic success, but as Employment Minister, I am conscious that there is widespread concern among small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly smaller businesses, that there should be greater flexibility going forward, building on what we are already doing. I am very happy to meet my right hon. Friend and Ministers in the Departments that control the policy to discuss any improvements.

On 19 April last year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission informed the Government that it was issuing a section 23 agreement against them under the Equality Act 2006, in response to serious concerns regarding discrimination against sick and disabled people. Twelve months on, that agreement still has not been reached. When will it be reached and why has it taken so long?

I cannot give the hon. Lady a definitive conclusion date, but what I can say is that we have entered into a phase of advanced discussions with the Equality and Human Rights Commission. We will come forward with further detail as soon as we are able to do that, and the process will be concluded in the proper way.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work to his place. I look forward to working closely with him on the review into autism and employment, which we have embarked upon this very month. What further measures will the Government take to close the appalling gap in employment, such that only two in 10 adults with autism are currently in work?

It is fair to say that we have had a good debate this afternoon about the whole host of initiatives that we as a Government are determined to take forward to shift the dial and make meaningful improvements to support more disabled people and people with health conditions into work, and autism is no different. I am delighted that my right hon. and learned Friend has agreed to take on this review on behalf of the Government. I look forward to his bringing forward recommendations, suggested areas for improvement and initiatives that we might want to embark on, focusing on knowledge and responsiveness, seizing the opportunity for workplaces to unlock the talent that undoubtedly exists out there, and helping to improve people’s lives for the better.

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The use and abuse of unpaid work trials continues to grow, despite the Government’s guidance published a couple of years ago urging employers not to use them. Given that the guidance clearly is not cutting through, will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss what legislation might look like?

I am not sure I totally accept the premise of the hon. Member’s argument, but if he writes to me with the details of what he is asserting, I will certainly consider it.

That concludes questions, so we now come to the urgent question. I will pause for a moment to allow the turmoil of people leaving to settle down, but I would be grateful if Members left quickly and quietly.