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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 734: debated on Monday 19 June 2023

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Employment: Adur and Worthing

1. What steps his Department is taking to help fill vacancies and increase employment in Adur and Worthing. (905446)

I commend my hon. Friend for the extensive work that he does to promote skills and employment to his constituents. In his constituency, we of course have the full offer from Jobcentre Plus, with fairs, recruitment days and an extensive skills offering, to make sure that we keep bearing down on unemployment and economic inactivity.

Mr Speaker, you may be aware that the age profile in Adur and Worthing in my constituency is slightly higher than the national demographic, so I was particularly pleased by the Secretary of State’s expansion of the mid-life MOT—although perhaps it is slightly too late for him and me, in our seventh decade. Given the higher reliability, productivity and loyalty of older workers, what more is he doing to keep older employees in work or to tempt back those who may have taken early retirement?

I have to say that I am surprised that there are so many elderly—an exemplar of the spring chicken brigade as my hon. Friend is—but he raises a very important point. There is the mid-life MOT, but we also provide returnerships—a shortened, accelerated version of apprenticeships for older workers—and of course the Chancellor announced important changes to the tax treatment of pensions to keep some older workers, particularly in the NHS and our medical services, in work.

Whatever the Secretary of State does in relation to Adur and Worthing will happen across the great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. With that in mind, let me try to make a helpful suggestion for increasing employment. Has consideration been given to enhancing steps to work placements, whereby jobseekers help out in registered community groups, with community workers, to increase their confidence? Community groups do great work, and they can be a step to further employment.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Employment recently visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to look into those matters and reported back very favourably. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point.

While my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I have represented Worthing and district, we have survived the equivalent of eight coalmines closing in the town. Flexibility matters.

Let us remember, looking back at the youth opportunities programme and the employer assistance scheme, that it is enterprise that makes the biggest difference. Will my right hon. Friend emphasise that? In tribute to Lord Young of Graffham, let us make sure that we combine individual enterprise and public enterprise with private partnerships.

My hon. Friend the Father of the House is absolutely right. It is really important that we operate with all those relationships across the private and public sectors. Jobcentres up and down the country are heavily engaged with employers at all levels, and not just the large ones but the small and medium-sized enterprises that are so important.

Local Housing Allowance

The local housing allowance policy is kept under regular review and rates are reviewed annually. LHA rates were boosted with a £1 billion funding increase in 2010, and this significant investment has been maintained since then. Discretionary housing payments, or DHPs, are available for those who face a shortfall in meeting their housing costs.

Private rental costs in Wales increased by 4.2% in the year to February 2023, the highest annual percentage since the Tories came to power. The Government have accepted the need to uplift benefits in line with inflation, but they have completely failed to accept that the same principles should apply to the local housing allowance. Given that rent is the largest outgoing for a typical family budget, can I ask the Minister why?

There is no one-size-fits-all in regard to the challenge we face. This is a multi-layered and multi-textured challenge, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will be assured that I am focused on addressing the issue of rising housing costs. To that end, I am engaging with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and have consulted with the Local Government Association and other stakeholders. The hon. Gentleman has noted the devolved point—of course, I will look at that issue as well. LHA rates are not intended to meet all rents in all areas where rents may perhaps be more expensive. Those in receipt of benefits will have to make challenging choices, as others do, but people listening today should have a look at the household support fund and the benefits calculator on and make sure that they are getting all the support that may be out there, as well as the cost of living payments.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer. Liverpool, Walton is the most deprived constituency in the whole of England, yet the annual gap between local housing allowance and the cheapest 30% of properties now stands at over £1,500. My casework contains more and more heartbreaking stories of families unable to afford the cost of their housing. People need their Government to act on rising private rents and the lack of decent homes: to raise the allowances and take control on rents in the short term, but to increase the supply of housing in the long term. What is this Government’s plan?

Mr Speaker, may I just confirm that the LHA rates were boosted by a £1 billion funding increase in 2020? I may have said 2010, so I apologise to the House, but that significant investment is maintained.

I recognise that rents are increasing, as the hon. Gentleman has said, and that it is a challenging fiscal environment and difficult decisions are having to be made. He has mentioned the most vulnerable. For those of working age or with disability benefits, those benefits have been increased in line with inflation for 2023-24. The benefit cap has also increased, but I want to reassure the House that I understand this is a real concern for many of our constituents of all sizes of house, and I am focused on addressing those challenges.

We are only on Question 2, so I am a little worried about how long it is taking. I call the shadow Minister.

The Government’s mortgage crisis is about to be the next blow to hit renters, because so many are renting from those with buy-to-let mortgages. Already, 49%—almost half—of children in privately rented homes with parents receiving universal credit are in absolute poverty, to take the Government’s preferred measure, and as we know, many of those parents work. Since then, rents across the country have risen by 9.5%, but the local housing allowance has risen by 0%. What does the Minister think is going to happen to low-income families with children in the private rented sector this year?

Those struggling with mortgage payments should engage with their mortgage lenders. We have abolished the zero earnings rule to allow claimants to continue to receive support while in work or on universal credit, and there is support for mortgage interest rates out there, so please do reach out. In fact, £25 million was paid in loans to 12,000 households in 2021-22, in order to support low-income homeowners. Over 200,000 low-income homeowners have been supported, and that has been a focus, but I understand the point that the hon. Lady makes. I assure her and the House that this is something that the Secretary of State and I are working on, as well as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—it is not solely an issue for my Department—but I take on board her points.

Menopause: Workplace Support

3. What steps his Department is taking to improve workplace support for women experiencing menopause. (905449)

I have appointed Helen Tomlinson as the first ever Department for Work and Pensions menopause employment champion, and she is driving awareness of issues around the menopause and employment and what challenges women may have. She has already met with members of the DWP’s 50Plus Choices roundtable group; with the Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee; with Dame Lesley Regan, the women’s health ambassador; and with Andy Briggs, the Government’s business champion for older workers. We are working with sectors and with large and small employers to disseminate best practice.

It is really important that we in this place do what we can to support all those going through the menopause, including the wider availability of hormone replacement therapy. Are the Government considering offering paid leave to those who may need time off work to attend clinics for medical support, noting also the variation and the consistency of those offers of support to those going through the menopause?

The Government expect employers to treat their staff well and fairly, and to accommodate all sorts of flexibility requests. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that a private Member’s Bill, the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill, is going through Parliament, and we will ensure the development of flexible working policies, which is crucial.

We know that over 700,000 women over 50 are currently economically inactive in this country. Does the Minister agree that including menopause among the assessment criteria for occupational health would help to promote retention and the return to work of countless women?

I thank the hon. Lady for her point, and I know she has already met Helen Tomlinson. I will take on board the point she makes and take that away.

Universal Credit: Food Bank Use

4. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of universal credit deductions on levels of food bank use. (905450)

13. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of universal credit deductions on levels of food bank use. (905459)

The Department for Work and Pensions has reduced the standard deduction cap from 40% to 25% of the standard allowance since 2019. Where a person feels they cannot afford benefit overpayment recoveries, they are encouraged to contact the Department.

Across the north-east, 120,000 children are impacted by universal credit deductions. Take my constituent Amanda: she has two small children, yet her entire personal allowance of £300 a month was deducted, and on top of that she was sanctioned because of tech issues with her work journal. I have worked to support her, as has Citizens Advice Newcastle, but of course she had to go to a food bank. Does the Minister think that is a working system?

In recent years, the standard cap has been reduced, as I said, from 40% to 25%. Reducing the threshold further would risk key social obligations such as child maintenance not being met. We aim to continue to strike the right balance between ensuring that protections are in place and allowing claimants to retain as much of their award as possible.

The role of accommodating food bank Britain has fallen to churches and places of worship, which have also housed playgroups, vaccination centres and warm spaces of late. Given that they are stepping up to fill gaps in state provision—state failure—would Ministers be able to exempt their often crumbling and creaking buildings, whether or not they are listed, from VAT on building repairs, as generosity and him upstairs alone will not pay the bills?


The Department is required to pay the correct amount of benefit to the customer at the correct time. We do not have a statutory duty of care or a safeguarding duty, but that does not mean that we do not care. The Department is continually looking at ways to support vulnerable customers, as we often need to consider a customer’s particular circumstances to provide the right service or ensure appropriate support.

The woeful inadequacy of the DWP’s safeguarding policy has been revealed time and again, with five prevention of future deaths notices issued by coroners to successive Secretaries of State since 2012, the section 23 notice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission because of fears of discrimination against disabled claimants, and 140 more claimant deaths investigated by this Department between July 2019 and June 2022, while the reality is that the figure is probably much higher. What does it say about this Government that successive Secretaries of State have failed to safeguard vulnerable claimants?

I say to the hon. Lady, who of course raises the most serious and important of issues, that we had a good debate on this the week before last, when I was able to place on record the significant work that officials have been undertaking with Ministers to address these matters. We continue to be open to proper engagement around these processes, to ensure that they are the best they can be and are fit for purpose. What we want to do is to support claimants on the basis of an individual, tailored approach to make sure that their needs are properly met and safeguarding support is provided from a whole host of relevant agencies.

Disability Action Plan

We are planning to consult on the disability action plan this summer. The consultation will be published in accessible formats, and we will publish the final plan once we have fully considered the consultation responses.

The Conservatives have consistently failed disabled people throughout the past 13 years. They promised a national disability strategy, which was ruled unlawful, and now they have promised a disability action plan. The European Accessibility Act will improve access to digital products and services, and reduce barriers to accessing transport, education and the labour market for disabled people throughout Europe. When do the Government plan to consult and publish their action plan, and will they follow the lead of our friends in the European Union by removing those accessibility barriers?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the opportunity to set out our ongoing commitment to have this disability action plan, and I am disappointed by the tone that she takes on that. There is a real opportunity for the House and our country to come together in welcoming this, and to shape it, get it right, and ensure that it addresses many of the issues that disabled people tell us are important, with the right answers to those questions. I hope she will engage with that in such a spirit.

On a recent visit to the Waitrose Belgravia branch, the Minister and I saw how the Government’s Access to Work programme is working, with the branch employing five deaf people. Does he agree that Waitrose is showing the way, and that other retailers can embrace the Access to Work programme, not just for their businesses but for disabled people across the country?

I am hugely appreciative that my hon. Friend extended that invitation for me to come along and visit the Belgravia Waitrose branch. It was incredibly inspiring to see that dedicated team, who are part of the wider customer service family within that business, achieving so much and providing brilliant service to their customers. It demonstrates that not only is it right for businesses to engage in disability employment, but it has had a great impact on those employees and on the community as a whole. That demonstrates what can be achieved with the right Government support, working with businesses to increase those opportunities and support people.

Let us be absolutely clear: the 2019 Conservative manifesto promised a radical strategy for disabled people before the end of 2020. It finally emerged in summer 2021 but was found to be illegal. It was quietly replaced by the disability action plan in December 2022, but six months on we still have very few details. We do not know whether it will be co-produced, and ultimately it is unlikely to result in any changes before the next election. How many years does the Conservative party need to take meaningful action? I will tell the Minister who is disappointed: disabled people after 13 years of this Conservative Government.

We might need an Adjournment debate to correct the number of inaccuracies entailed within the hon. Lady’s question. This Government are committed to a disability action plan that I am confident will respond to the many issues that are raised with us by disabled people. We will have full consultation on those plans to ensure we get it right, and that will of course involve disabled people. This is an opportunity to get on and deliver in those areas over the next 12 to 18 months. I think that is a good thing that we should all be able to welcome.

Employment: Don Valley

I was delighted that my hon. Friend convened a roundtable with key local hospitality providers, including the Mount Pleasant Hotel, the Eagle and Child, and Yorkshire Wildlife Park, as we drove forward opportunities for greater employment in his Don Valley constituency. Since then we have ramped up the offer locally, matching job finders with the vacancies that we know are available, and providing key worker support, including a jobs fair coming up in the next few weeks.

I thank the Minister for his recent visit to Yorkshire Wildlife Park regarding the jobs fair that will now be taking place on 4 July. Will he also speak with the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology about the opportunity of bringing the advanced manufacturing research centre to Doncaster? That will create further jobs for our next generation, and could also see the likes of Boeing coming to Don Valley.

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for Don Valley. I am delighted to support his campaign and am happy to write to the Secretary of State. There is full support for Boeing in Doncaster.

Very little data is being published on the outcomes of the restart programme in Don Valley or anywhere. There was a one-off statistical release last December, but nothing regular at all. In the past, we have had monthly data from the Work programme, and we still have regular updates from the Work and Health programme. Does the Minister recognise the value of regular publication of outcome data for the flagship restart programme?

With great respect, I think we do publish data on all aspects of the Department for Work and Pensions’ programmes, and I addressed this matter in great detail in front of the right hon. Gentleman and the Select Committee recently.

In-work Poverty

In-work progression is the best way of improving the earnings potential of those who are in work, which is why we are bringing hundreds of thousands more people into the kind of support that will develop that.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State can support me with some casework that I am working on at the moment. My constituent is working a minimum wage job and tells me that she is frightened about what will happen. She is 68 years old, but due to errors in the state pension, she is not receiving that yet, and we are finding that there are permanent backlog pressures with the Pension Service. Can the Secretary of State help me get my 68-year-old constituent out of the in-work poverty bracket and receiving her state pension? I am happy to share the details of the case with the Secretary of State.

If the hon. Lady would like to share those details with me, I will make sure that I and the Minister for Pensions, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) will have a close look at the case she raises.

A moment ago, the Secretary of State’s colleague, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) referred to the publication of data. Can I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the GMB trade union’s research, which found a shocking 155% increase in the number of public sector workers relying on universal credit? How will the Department rectify this alarming trend and ensure that our hard-working public servants receive the fair pay they deserve, instead of being forced into reliance on inadequate in-work benefits?

I do not think we should make any apology for having a system of benefits that is there whether someone is out of work or in work, and which encourages those who are in work to work longer hours if that is appropriate and to earn more through many of the kinds of provision that we provide through our jobcentres.

Despite my question relating to in-work poverty, the Government often herald historically low unemployment rates to avoid their shame over falling living standards and endemic wage stagnation. Those on the Government Benches know they have failed British workers. Can the Secretary of State answer this, without blaming the war in Ukraine, covid or the last Labour Government? Do the Government now accept that there is an inextricable link between their failed economic policies and the fact that British workers in low and middle-income households are financially worse off since they came to power?

It is not appropriate to dismiss completely the significant downside of covid—we spent £400 billion supporting the economy during that—the significant impact through energy price spikes of the war or the deleterious impact of the last Labour Government, to whom the hon. Lady refers. The simple fact is that since 2009-10, there are 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty after housing costs, and 400,000 fewer children and 400,000 fewer pensioners in that position.

The reality is that after 13 long, cold years of Conservative rule, people have never worked harder, but never felt poorer. We know that 2.6 million people on fixed-rate mortgages are about to see their fixed rate expire, which will see their mortgage rates go up. Has the Secretary of State made any assessment as to how many staff in his Department will struggle to make ends meet when their mortgages skyrocket under this Conservative Government?

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies) has already addressed the approach that we would recommend to those struggling with mortgages and the approach that the Government are taking to that. I would point to the many in my Department, and indeed up and down the country, who may be, for example, among the 8 million low-income households who are receiving £900 cost of living support. There are also the £150 payments to those who are disabled and £300 payable to pensioners along with their winter fuel payments. Those, along with increasing the national living wage and the energy price guarantee, are real things that the Government are doing to help those who are feeling the most financial pressure.

Benefit Fraud

My hon. Friend will know that we are investing £900 million to ensure that we prevent a total of £2.4 billion of fraud and error by 2024-25. We launched our fraud plan last May, which is already delivering results.

I would like to thank publicly for all those who have congratulated me on my honour in the King’s honours list. Thank you for your kind words in appreciation, Mr Speaker.

My right hon. Friend is setting out a plan to deal with benefit fraud in its entirety. My private Member’s Bill—the Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill—had its Third Reading in the House of Lords on Friday. Of course, supported housing has unlimited housing benefit for those who claim it. Unfortunately, there are numerous rogue landlords who exploit vulnerable people and the housing benefit system. What action can he take to ensure that we rein in those rogue landlords and prevent vulnerable people from being exploited?

My hon. Friend is quite right, and I wrote to him to congratulate him on his well deserved CBE. Part of the answer to his question lies in his private Member’s Bill, which we see as an important tool to allow us to tighten up the regulations and requirements as expressed through local authorities to ensure that those who are abusing the system—it is not everyone—are dealt with appropriately.

The National Audit Office found that benefit fraud and error was unacceptably high, totalling £8.6 billion in 2021-22. What actions will the Secretary of State take to reduce fraud? Importantly, how will he ensure that the clawing back of DWP errors—those that are not the fault of the claimant—is carefully and fairly considered so that that does not put the claimant further into poverty?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The Government’s record under my stewardship at the DWP is a good one. In fact, since the fraud plan was published last May, fraud across the benefit system has reduced by some 10%, and across universal credit there has been a 13% drop. We expect to see those figures increasing through time. We are doing that through targeted case reviews—going through cases and looking for fraud and error—and I have another 1,000 people being recruited for that purpose. We are also using artificial intelligence, data analytics and machine learning to ensure that we catch up with the more sophisticated attacks on our system. There is evidence that we are making good headway.

Benefits System: Work Incentives

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, under universal credit, there is always the incentive to work. That operates through the taper, which we reduced in recent times from 63% to 55%, and we increased the work allowance by £500 in November 2021.

At this time of rising prices, I feel certain that many of my constituents are worried about the high cost of childcare. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the changes to universal credit announced in the Budget will help people into work by giving them better up-front support with the cost of childcare?

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. Some of the most significant measures in the Budget, particularly on helping people get into work, were the childcare measures that the Chancellor announced. Within UC, that means that the up-front payment difficulty has been removed. Of course, there has been a 47% increase in the maximum amounts available to those seeking to pay for childcare through UC.

The benefit system is an important part of helping and incentivising people to get back into work, but an increasing problem is the amount of time people are on hospital waiting lists, preventing them from getting themselves fit to get back into work. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Health Secretary about helping people get back into work and dealing with very long waiting times?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. There is no doubt that mental health and musculoskeletal issues in particular underpin part of the recent growth in economic inactivity. My Department is very engaged with the Department of Health and Social Care on those matters, not least in the piloting of Work Well, which brings together health-based solutions with employment support and universal support, which we will roll out to tens of thousands of people in the years ahead.

Pension Credit

Last week was pension credit awareness week, which follows our big push ahead of the cost of living payments. As a result of that and the national advertising campaign, I am pleased to say that pension credit applications up to May were 75% higher than the year before.

I am grateful for that excellent news. As part of that awareness week, I wrote to older people in Carshalton and Wallington to inform them of the credit, as thousands of people living in my constituency who are eligible for it sadly do not claim it. I sincerely hope we see some good numbers from that. Does my hon. Friend agree that public awareness must happen at both local and national level? I extend an invitation to her to come down to Carshalton and Wallington and see some of the amazing work being done, including at the older persons fair later this year.

What an invitation—I would be delighted to attend. I commend my hon. Friend on all his work in his constituency. Older persons fairs are important and effective. I held a pension credit one on Friday in Swanley, and I recommend them to Members.

Sadly, the figures also show that hundreds of thousands of pensioners are still missing out on pension credit. To make matters worse, this large group of pensioners is also missing out on the Government’s £900 cost of living payment, because receiving pension credit acts as a gateway to other help. Could the Minister explain why the Government designed their cost of living payments in that way? Could she explain what she will do to fix the problem, which the Government themselves created?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the figures that I just announced on the uptake of pension credit. We will not have the eligibility figures for a while—hopefully, they will be out later this year. I hope we will see a rise, but in the meantime we are doing all we can—as I know is true across the House—to get as many people as possible to apply for pension credit so that they qualify for those important cost of living payments.

Defined-benefit Pension Schemes

15. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of funding for defined-benefit pension schemes. (905461)

The Pension Protection Fund publishes data on the funding of defined-benefit pension schemes. Average funding of the schemes was 113.1% in 2022 versus 104.3% in 2010—a significant improvement.

Does the Minister accept that we have spent 20 years—probably quite rightly—working out how we get more money into pension schemes to pay for the promise, and that now we need to work out what we do with the money in there that is in excess of what we need? Does she accept that in those 20 years we have seen pension funding increase probably at the expense of current workers, who get a much lower pension? Is there anything we can do to use the surplus to support the pension incomes in retirement of those current workers who will get a far less generous pension?

As I would expect from a member of the Work and Pensions Committee and the head of the all-party parliamentary group on pensions, my hon. Friend makes an interesting point. In my time as pensions Minister I have tried to reduce the gap between DB and defined contribution pensions. I would be interested to talk to him about any further suggestions.

Clear, accessible pension schemes information was a priority for former Chancellor George Osborne in 2016, but the pensions dashboard programme has consistently missed its deadlines to go live. This month the Minister announced a further delay, with a new connection deadline of October 2026. Could she please explain this consistent failure to meet delivery dates?

We are absolutely committed to the pensions dashboard programme. October 2026 is the final deadline for connection, not the point that it is necessarily available to the public. The dashboard availability point could come earlier than that, and I hope that it will.

Economic Inactivity

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics indicates that some 21% of the working-age population are economically inactive.

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the staff at Basildon Jobcentre Plus are doing incredible work to help people back into work. That has led to a local inactivity rate that is 12.6% below the UK average. Events such as its large employer-unemployed connection event, bringing together organisations with hundreds of jobseekers, are leading to really meaningful job opportunities. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what else the Government are doing to get people off out-of-work benefits?

May I first commend my hon. Friend for all the good work he is doing locally? The 12.6% figure for economic inactivity is extremely low and is a great tribute to the work he has just referred to. Other things we are doing include: the provision of job interventions for over-50s who have retired early; the childcare provision I referred to for parents with childcare duties; and a great deal of work on how we better facilitate getting the long-term sick and disabled back into the labour market.

In Westmorland and the south lakes our challenge is somewhat different. With an unemployment rate of only 1.4% and an average age of population 10 years above the national average, our issues are 20 million visitors every year, a hospitality and tourism industry without the staff it needs, and a care sector likely to be without the staff it needs. That needs direct intervention: more affordable housing for local people, T-levels for local young people and visa rules that work for us. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and local business leaders in the south lakes, so that we can come up with a bespoke solution to solve our workforce crisis?

The hon. Gentleman refers to a smorgasbord of different policy areas across several Departments, including housing, skills and matters in the purview of the Department for Education, as well as my Department. However, I have heard what he says, and I will take it away and consider.

The Bank of England sets interest rates independently, but economic inactivity and the wider state of the labour market is a feature of our economy that will influence whether the Prime Minister is able to meet his promise to halve inflation. Can the Secretary of State tell us exactly what targets have been agreed by his Department with the Treasury on the role of the labour market in reducing inflation?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that economic inactivity lies right at the centre of those elements that will determine our economic success in the years ahead—the others being the levels of inflation and interest rates, and other matters. On what has actually happened, we reached a record low level of economic inactivity just prior to the pandemic. It then spiked up. We have now reduced that spiked-up figure by about 300,000, with a reduction of 140,000 in the last quarter alone.

Claimant Inquiry Waiting Times

19. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of waiting times on (a) personal independence payment and (b) employment support allowance claimant inquiry lines. (905465)

The Department recognises that wait times for the PIP and ESA inquiry line have been too long. To reduce waiting times, we are recruiting more staff and, in the short term, are diverting staff to support better performance. PIP recruitment is expected to reduce waits by the end of summer, while ESA waiting times have improved significantly in recent weeks.

I am glad to hear that action is being taken, although it sounds like it will be quite a long time before it starts to have an effect. I have a constituent, Shani, who has been trying to get a copy of her PIP award letter so she can reapply for a disabled person’s bus pass. She says she has tried to call the PIP hotline on many occasions, but that, “The phone just continually rings out. I’ve tried for hours and it doesn’t matter what time of day I call, it just rings.” I know other MPs’ offices are experiencing the same. May I urge the Minister to act sooner and try to bring recruitment forward so constituents such as mine do not have to wait?

I would be very grateful if the hon. Lady could share the details of that specific case with me, so I can take them away to look at. What I can say, hopefully to reassure the House, is that we are seeing 600 additional agents recruited for PIP from April and for ESA 160 additional agents will be put on telephony through both recruitment and redeployment.

Social Mobility: Young People

The DWP celebrated National Social Mobility Awareness Day last Thursday, when we focused on the daily work done by our work coaches and youth clubs to help young people to overcome barriers, build up their confidence, move into work and, ultimately, achieve their aims.

Rother Valley is blessed with unemployment that is significantly lower than the national average, but its youth unemployment is slightly higher than the national average. It is still harder for young people to get into work. What are the Government doing to ensure that they have the jobs they need so much?

I am determined to ensure that, regardless of their background or postcode, young people can succeed in Rother Valley and beyond, and that is why the DWP has introduced the youth offer. It includes youth employability coaches and youth hubs such as the one at the local football club, Rotherham United, which helps to build confidence and provides a range of mental health support as well as supporting neurodiverse local customers.

Employment: Keighley and Ilkley

21. What steps his Department is taking to help fill vacancies and increase employment in Keighley and Ilkley. (905467)

The jobcentre team in Keighley work with local employers and partners to arrange sector-based work academies to support hospitality businesses along the Airedale corridor. They also run an excellent initiative with Bradford Care Association and Keighley College to fill vacancies in the care sector.

Inactivity is down by 300,000 since the covid peak, and UK inactivity is lower than the OECD and European Union averages. Does the Minister agree that the recent labour market statistics provide very encouraging news about the positive work the Government are doing to reduce economic inactivity across the country, notably in areas such as my constituency?

My hon. Friend is right. Economic inactivity is down, employment is up and vacancies are down, thanks in part to the efforts of my hon. Friend and Keighley Jobcentre Plus, whose next jobs fair is on Wednesday week and will be attended by 17 employers across all sectors. I urge everyone in Keighley to attend as well.

Topical Questions

When I was appointed to this job, I came to the House and said that one of our key focuses would be economic inactivity, which, as we have just heard, has fallen: it is down by 45% since its peak, and was down by 140,000 in the last quarter alone. Another key focus is bearing down on fraud, and fraud levels have fallen by some 10% across our benefits system since we published our fraud plan in May last year.

Some on the political left have made much noise about the third-party universal basic income pilots that have been launched in recent days. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the concept of a universal basic income was roundly rejected even during the pandemic, and that this kind of uneven, untargeted and dependency-creating communism is doomed to failure?

I agree with my hon. Friend that a universal basic income is not the way to proceed, and it is certainly not something that the Government are considering. Our approach is to ensure that work always pays, and to incentivise work. A universal basic income would create perverse incentives, would come at huge cost, and would not be targeted at those who need the help the most.

Order. May I remind the Secretary of State that these are topical questions? Questions and answers are meant to be short and punchy. We are getting carried away. Let us see how it works now: I call the shadow Secretary of State.

I listened to the “Chopper’s Politics” podcast recently. The Secretary of State was the guest, and revealed that he was saying to his friends in their 50s who were not working:

“Why don’t you just go and serve in the local restaurant or do something in the pub?”

Well, a very prominent 59-year-old has just taken early retirement. Will the Secretary of State be voting to sanction him, or is he advising him to just go away and work in the pub?

I am happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman in any pub that he cares to name, and I am sure we will have a very convivial evening. I did also mention people with accountancy qualifications, among others, so it is not all about the pub, alas.

The House will have noted that the Secretary of State did not tell us whether he would be sanctioning that particular 59-year-old in the House later today. As for the issue of economic inactivity, he will know that we need to do more to get the long-term sick and the disabled back to work. The working-age disability benefit bill is going to rise to £25 billion—it was £19 billion before the pandemic—but in the last 12 months the DWP has cut the number of disability employment advisers by 10%. Why is that?

When it comes to the long-term sick and disabled, the right hon. Gentleman is right that that is the one cohort where inactivity is increasing—in others it is reducing. He will be aware of our White Paper and the forthcoming legislation we have planned to make sure that we focus on what those who are long-term sick can do in work, rather than what they cannot. He will be aware of universal support and the working well pilot, all of which, together, will help to bring those numbers down.

T7. Having helped Ukrainian guests to get childcare support and then get into work, I was delighted when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State changed the rules so that childcare support was available up front. He will be aware that most nurseries require a term’s fees in advance, so what more can be done to ensure that sometimes unstable and infrequent work is not further hampered by uncertainty about whether childcare will be available? (905479)

This Government are focused on making sure that work pays for all parents in every situation. My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I will take up the specific concern about nursery charging models and ensure that the matter is raised with the Department for Education.

Last week, I was in Aberdeen to attend the annual conference of the Scottish Pensioners’ Forum and outline why we think an independent Scotland would be the best place to grow old. In contrast, at the weekend, the former Tory leader William Hague wrote in the papers that his party should abandon the triple lock. Is that why pensioners are now supporting independence more than ever?

With interest rates looking to hit around 6%, are the Government considering making the support for the mortgage interest scheme a little more generous, perhaps by raising the cap or the interest rate, so that it provides the safety net that people expect?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Treasury has made it clear that there will not be a significant fiscal intervention around mortgages. Unfortunately, that would serve only to complicate the effectiveness of the measure and the monetary policy effects that the Government and the Bank of England are looking to achieve to halve inflation by the end of this year.

T2.   The charity Scope reports that a disabled household is £900 a month poorer than a non-disabled household, because of essentials such as specialist medical equipment, aids, adaptations, diet and heating. Does that not make the one-off £150 payment look pretty miserly? (905473)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the challenges that disabled people face with the cost of living, but it is important to recognise that many disabled people receive various aspects of the wider package of support. That is materially relevant in answering this question. We have had some good debates on this issue in recent weeks, and I refer him to those.

T3. Pensioner poverty is on the rise, with an additional 200,000 people of pension age being pushed into poverty last year. What hope can the Minister give pensioners in Portsmouth that they will not have to choose between heating their home and eating this winter? (905474)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will note that pensioner poverty has gone down by 200,000 in absolute terms since 2010. I point him to the record state pension increase, the record rise in pension credit and the pensioner cost of living payments, as well as to the fact that Labour’s record on this issue was a decimation of private pensions and a 75p rise.

T4.   In February this year, I took care leavers from Plymouth to see the Secretary of State about introducing a deposit guarantor scheme, so that young people leaving care can afford to get their first rental property. Will the Secretary of State give an update on how the DWP is progressing with that proposal put forward by me and Barnardo’s? (905475)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I opened my door to him as soon as he requested and had him and his colleagues in for a discussion. We continue to consider those matters as part of the general policy going forward, and I will keep him informed of news as it may or may not occur.

The plan is in addition to the national disability strategy. We as a Government disagree with the position that the Court has taken regarding consultation. We have been given permission to appeal, and we are appealing. The disability action plan is about short-term measures that we can get on and deliver.

T5. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Baby Brida is an absolute bundle of joy. She is the new branch of our family tree.Policies cooked up by Tories in Whitehall are having a devastating impact on the people of County Durham. The number of people fed by food banks, using food vouchers, has increased by over 60% in a year, so can the Secretary of State honestly say he is doing a good job of tackling food poverty in County Durham? (905476)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on the new addition.

New statistics on food bank usage will help the Government to understand the characteristics of the people most in need, and we will continue to work across Government to support the most vulnerable. I was very interested to read the recent “Child of the North” report, which we are taking very seriously.

T6. The cost of the most common family foods has risen by nearly 30% in the past year alone, according to new research by consumer group Which? The Governments of Ireland and France have worked with retailers to reduce costs for families, while the UK Government have sat on their hands. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Cabinet colleagues about how to learn from our European neighbours and reduce the crisis in people’s homes now? (905477)

What we are learning from our European neighbours is that this is a common problem. In fact, food price inflation in Germany, Portugal and other countries is higher than it is here. Rather than intervening in markets, as some are spuriously suggesting, and taking us back to the prices and incomes policies of the 1970s, we have entered discussions with the supermarkets, some of which have recently suggested that they will be able to lower prices, or lower the rate of increase in some prices, on the more essential items.

T8. Food inflation is rising by double the rate of inflation, and the rate for basic foodstuffs—bread, pasta, milk—is even higher, often going up by 40% or more. In my constituency, 38% of people have skipped meals. Will the Secretary of State investigate the role of sanctions and benefit inadequacy in a system in which people cannot feed themselves? (905480)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I have fond memories of serving with her on the Treasury Committee.

We always keep sanctions under review, but I am currently satisfied that they are broadly operating in an effective and proportionate manner. The hon. Lady mentions inflation on essential foods, and I point her to the cost of living payments, which are very significant, equivalent to £3,000 per family over the two-year period in which they will apply. The energy price guarantee has been extended until June, and there is a rise in the national living wage.

What steps are the Government taking to improve the sensitivity of language on the DWP website? I recently became aware of a case in which a person trying to update their universal credit claim following the death of their wife generated a page stating, “You stopped caring for”—then the name of the wife—“from the date on which she died. This was due to the person dying. Are these details correct?” That is pretty disheartening, to say the least. Will the Minister look at this specific case, and at the issue more generally, if I send him more information?

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman on the importance of sensitive language, particularly for the most vulnerable and particularly in the circumstances he describes of someone who is recently bereaved. I will most definitely take away the specific issue he raises and look at it extremely carefully.

The Child Maintenance Service recently wrote to my constituent Deborah to confirm that the father of her children is in arrears by £47,000. Deborah recently heard that the bailiff is potentially unable to collect the debt and, if so, the money she is owed will be written off by the CMS. Can the Secretary of State explain why parents can be left with so little by the CMS when it gives up on collecting debts for parents who work so hard?

The Government are supporting the private Member’s Bill that aims to streamline CMS enforcement processes. The CMS will not hesitate to use robust enforcement measures where someone is consistently refusing to meet their obligation towards their children. I am happy to look at that case and ask my colleague in the Lords to look at it.

I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the issue of statutory sick pay, and, of course, we always keep these matters under review.