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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 737: debated on Monday 4 September 2023

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Regional Inequalities in Employment

1. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of its policies on reducing regional inequalities in employment. (906143)

2. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of its policies on reducing regional inequalities in employment. (906144)

7. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of its policies on reducing regional inequalities in employment. (906149)

It is good to be back, Mr Speaker. I trust that you had at least some rest during the recess. Let me also extend my welcome to the new Members who have just taken their seats.

The regional employment rate gap is 7.7 percentage points, which is 1.2 percentage points less than the gap in 2010 and a low figure by historical standards.

As the Marmot review shows, there is a strong correlation between indices of deprivation and addiction. This issue affects all regions, but especially the poorer regions. What policies are in place across the regions to address the issue of addiction and to help more people remain in and enter employment, particularly in the north-west?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of universal support and the WorkWell pilots. In exactly the areas to which he has referred, they are bringing together healthcare and help with seeking work, which my party believes to be one of the best ways to remedy the issues he has mentioned, including mental health issues.

It is 87 years since the Jarrow march against unemployment, and my constituents are still being let down. We have a higher percentage of people claiming unemployment benefits than the national average, and the reality is shown to be worse when hidden unemployment is factored in. According to the Centre for Cities, nine in 10 of the places with the highest hidden unemployment rates are in the north. Instead of continuing their false rhetoric on levelling up, when will the Government stop neglecting and start investing in our northern communities?

I have no problem at all with defending the Government’s record on employment. There are now nearly 4 million more people in employment than there were in 2010, including about 2 million more women, and unemployment across the country, including in the north, is at a near-historic low.

In his blog today on ConservativeHome, Lord Ashcroft says:

“On the cost of living, two thirds of voters...thought the Government could do more to help but was choosing not to.”

Given the regional disparity in earnings, does the Secretary of State accept that the roll-out of fair pay agreements providing sectoral minimum terms, as outlined in Labour’s “A New Deal for Working People”, would not only boost the economy but address the blight of in-work poverty and insecure work that is having an impact on so many households in my constituency and throughout the country?

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of support during the cost of living squeeze that we are experiencing. My Department has been responsible for distributing millions of payments to the most vulnerable people, including £900 in total to 8 million low-income households, £150 to 6 million disabled people and the £300 payment to pensioners. On the question of work, we put up the national living wage by over 9% to £10.42 this April.

In parts of my constituency, the healthy life expectancy is now just 53 to 54—a true regional inequality if ever there was one. That means that people—even those in the Minister’s age group—are dropping out of work far too early, which is not good for them or the economy. What steps is the Department taking as a consequence of the health and disability White Paper to address this serious inequality?

I have already mentioned the measures that we brought forward at the last Budget, including universal support and WorkWell. The Government are of course constantly looking at how we can go further in that respect. On the over-50s specifically, the midlife MOT that we are running, the returnerships and the changes to the pension tax arrangements are all helping to bear down on economic inactivity in that group.

The good news from Kettering is that, at 3.6%, the overall unemployment rate is below the national average of 3.7%. The bad news from Kettering is that there are 420 18 to 24-year-olds without work and the youth unemployment rate is 6.2%, versus the national average of 4.7%. What is the Secretary of State doing to address youth unemployment?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that since 2010, youth unemployment has fallen by over 40%, which is the mirror image of what happened under the last Labour Government when it rose by over 40%. On his specific question, I point him towards the youth offer, which we have recently announced we will be expanding to even more young people.

I thought the Secretary of State understood that, while unemployment is at a historic low, economic activity is the big challenge before us, particularly when it comes to regional economic inactivity and the huge, near 10-point gap across the regions. The east midlands, London, the north-east, the north-west and the west midlands all have higher inactivity rates than the south-east. The Tories have had 13 years to close that gap, so can I ask the Secretary of State: is his plan really to make levelling up a reality by leaving it to Labour?

Given that there has never been a Labour Government who have left office with unemployment anything other than higher than they found it in the first place, I do not think I would leave employment to Labour. On the hon. Lady’s point, economic inactivity is important and it is a major focus for my Department. It has of course reduced substantially since its peak during the pandemic, having fallen by around 350,000.

Cost of Living: Means-tested Benefit Claimants

3. What steps his Department is taking to help claimants in receipt of means-tested benefits with increases in the cost of living. (906145)

The Government recognise the pressures people are facing and we have acted. We are providing cost of living support worth over £94 billion between 2022 and 2024 to help households and individuals with those rising costs. That includes cost of living payments totalling up to £900 in 2023-24 for over 8 million households on eligible means-tested benefits. We successfully delivered the first payment of £301 to 8.3 million households earlier this year, and the second payment of £300 will be paid in the autumn.

The Government are indeed giving generous cost of living support to households on certain means-tested benefits this winter, but if someone is on one of those means-tested benefits and they earn £1 more, they have the potential to lose the full payment. I wonder if the Minister has noticed any change in people’s behaviour as a result of that disincentive to take on extra work.

It is vital that those on low incomes, or indeed those who are keen to work more, see the incentives. In the spring Budget, we announced an ambitious package of measures to support people to take up work and, importantly, to progress by making sure that they are always better off. We are also supporting them with a significant investment in childcare and, of course, the largest ever cash increase to the national living wage, taking it up to £10.42. I would say to those people that they should look at the benefits calculator on, because they will always be better off in work.

Rents have risen very sharply over the past couple of years, but the support for people claiming means-tested benefits to pay their rent, determined by local housing allowance, has not changed at all since 2020—it has been completely frozen. I wrote to the Secretary of State about this over the summer. Is the Minister able to give the House any assurance that the forthcoming benefit uprating statement will include a realistic increase in local housing allowance?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very interested in this subject, as am I. Again, there is help for households, with the local housing allowance rate being set at the 30th percentile in 2020. The Government are projected to spend around £31 billion, or around 1.2% of GDP, on support for renters in 2023-24. It is absolutely right that we support people to be better off. The LHA is not intended to cover all rents in all areas, but I take a close interest in this subject.


4. What assessment his Department has made of trends in the level of unemployment over the last 12 months. (906146)

10. What assessment his Department has made of trends in the level of unemployment over the last 12 months. (906152)

I welcome our three new colleagues.

The independent Office for National Statistics estimates that, notwithstanding a recent uptick, the unemployment rate is now almost half the rate we inherited in 2010 and is back to pre-pandemic levels.

Actually, according to the Government’s own figures, three and a half years after the pandemic began, employment is not back to pre-pandemic levels. Will the Minister set out what the unanticipated rise in unemployment says about the underlying health of our economy? It is not looking good, is it?

With great respect, I disagree. Employment is at record levels. Vacancies have been down for the past 10 quarters. Payroll employment is at a record high. Pay is up and inflation is down. We are doing an awful lot better than that lot would.

We have seen a summer of job cuts in my Bradford South constituency, with both Morrisons and Solenis announcing major redundancies. Does the Minister agree that this shows that the Government’s plan to grow the economy is failing?

I should make the point that payroll employment is at a record high. There are 4 million more people in work than in 2010, and the unemployment rate is down to 4.2% across the UK—that is a near record low. Our jobcentres are clearly doing a fantastic job, and I fully support all the work that is going on in Bradford to try to address these issues.

Inflation and Food Prices: Pensioners

5. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of trends in the level of (a) inflation and (b) food prices on pensioners’ incomes. (906147)

13. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of trends in the level of (a) inflation and (b) food prices on pensioners’ incomes. (906155)

We know that 770,000 pensioners are eligible for pension credit but are not receiving it. A few months ago, I joined my local citizens advice bureau to organise a pension credit action day. As a result, an additional £200,000 was drawn down to people across Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. The Government have the data and could take a much more targeted approach to get eligible people to apply, so why have they not taken that action? When will we see more action from the Government?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the work he is doing in his constituency. I assure him that that is exactly what the Government are doing. We recently launched an “invitation to claim” trial, which has been rolled out in 10 constituencies and is using housing benefit data to target those who might also be eligible for pension credit. We will report back on the results of that trial later this year.

It might be hard to imagine on a sunny day like today, but winter is just around the corner. The reality for many worried pensioners in my constituency is that this winter there will be a choice between heating and eating. We have a Government who are tiptoeing around the real issues while our constituents struggle to make ends meet. When will the Government make a real plan to tackle the cost of living crisis and implement meaningful action to help thousands of pensioners in poverty?

With respect to the hon. Lady, that is exactly what we are doing. That is why we have put the cost of living payments in place, which are worth £900 to all those on pension credit, and why a cost of living pensioner payment worth £300 is coming out in the winter. All the while the Labour Mayor of London is charging pensioners £12.50 when they want to drive to the hospital.

Clearly, there is a stigma attached to claiming pension credit, because this is on poorer pensioners who desperately need the money. What action can my hon. Friend take to remove that stigma? My constituency has recently been added to the pilot, and I am looking forward to its results, because elderly people deserve to get the money they need to fulfil their lives.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that, and I praise all the work he has done in his constituency on pension credit. We are trying to do exactly what he sets out: encourage as many people as possible to claim this important benefit, at a time when they are going to need it most. I note that across the House good work has been done in individual constituencies.

As inflation rises, being able to top up pension contributions is vital for many part-time workers, who would otherwise not be able to claim the full state pension. However, a Daily Mail investigation showed that the Government are failing to accurately record people’s top-up contributions. Pensioners are terrified that their money has simply disappeared, so when will the Government get a grip of this terrible problem? When will Ministers show that they understand the pressure on families and pensioners due to the cost of living crisis?

With the comprehensive package of support I have talked about today, we have shown that we are taking action during the cost of living crisis to help pensioners as much as we can. We know that accuracy is the most important thing when it comes to the state pension, which is why we have taken action very quickly to correct issues where they have occurred, for example, with LEAP—the legal entitlement and administrative practices exercise. We will do the same in all such cases.

Employment: Essex

I know that my right hon. Friend is a champion for job creation in Essex, where our jobcentres are working with a range of employers and partners to address recruitment on an ongoing basis. For example, last Wednesday, Essex jobcentres hosted a recruitment event at Stansted airport to match constituents of hers, and of my right hon. Friends the Members for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch) and for Braintree (James Cleverly), and of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), to dozens of catering, hospitality and logistics-based jobs.

Essex is a powerhouse on jobs and employment, but there is always more to do and businesses are saying that they are finding barriers to creating more jobs. Will the Minister give an update on how he is working across government to create a labour market strategy to help enable businesses to recruit, to lower taxes and burdens for businesses, and, in particular, to make it easier for small businesses in counties such as Essex to start employing more people and to recruit?

I endorse pretty much everything that my right hon. Friend says. Clearly, we are working with other Departments to ensure that we are doing everything possible to address recruitment. For example, on a recent visit I saw the T-levels being pioneered at South Essex College; I have seen the apprenticeships that are being driven forward locally; and, recently, in Witham, the “midlife MOT” took place in the middle of last month to address older workers. However, there is more to do and we are certainly trying to do it across Departments.

In Essex, as in many other parts of the UK, the number of people off work because of chronic illness is significantly higher now than it was before the pandemic. Forcing sick people into work is not an appropriate way of dealing with that, so will the Minister confirm that work capability assessments will be reasonable and will consider all aspects of the individual’s life in assessing whether they really are fit for work?

The hon. Lady’s constituency is a long way from Essex, Mr Speaker! She will, however, be aware that over 1 million more disabled people are in work and that the WCA will continue on an ongoing basis until there is reform.

Pension Credit

8. What steps his Department is taking to increase the number of eligible people claiming pension credit. (906150)

The DWP has conducted an extensive campaign across TV, radio and social media, and with partner organisations, to boost pension credit take-up, with a number of pushes being made before cost of living payment deadlines. I am pleased to tell the House that that is working; applications were up by 75% in the year to May.

One of my Chelmsford constituents sent me a message that has been circulating recently. It suggests that asylum seekers are entitled to receive more in benefits than pensioners; I believe that is not accurate. For the record, will the Minister confirm what support is available for pensioners, compared with that for asylum seekers?

Let me reassure my right hon. Friend and her constituents that asylum seekers are given no recourse to public funds. They are given payment for their food and shelter, but they are unable to claim benefits. Pensioners in her constituency will receive a state pension, if they qualify, which for the first time is worth on average more than £200 per week or over £10,000 a year. Pensioners who have not built up sufficient contributions may be eligible for pension credits, worth on average £3,500 per year, to top up their income. They are also eligible to receive the cost of living payment, if they ever receive pension credit, and the pensioner cost of living payment.

Over the summer, I held events in villages across Wyre in my constituency. I was approached by many pensioners who are suffering because of the cost of living crisis; pension credit is just not plugging the gap. At my “Chat with Cat” event in Pilling, a constituent asked me why 400,000 more pensioners are living in poverty than when Labour left office. Will the Minister answer that question?

Personal Independence Payment Assessments

9. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the assessment process for personal independence payments. (906151)

Assessments play an important part in ensuring people get the right entitlement. It is the claimant’s chance to give all the information needed to help make the right decision. The assessment, which measures the impact of a health condition on a person’s ability to live independently, is kept under review; I am sure the hon. Lady is familiar with the tests and trials set out in the White Paper.

The Minister will know that one challenge with PIP is how to accurately assess fluctuating conditions. More than half a million people in the UK are living with Crohn’s disease or colitis, but fewer than 3% are in receipt of PIP. Past applicants have said that while fatigue is the most disabling symptom, they feel that that is the least represented symptom in their assessments. [Interruption.] Would the Minister consider introducing a fatigue rating scale to PIP assessments to more effectively capture what is, for many, the most debilitating component of their condition?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her interest in this issue. Through the White Paper reforms, we have advocated for a number of tests and trials, including one that focuses specifically on better capturing fluctuating conditions. I would be keen to have conversations with her about that. The Government are committed to working with charities and those that are interested, including disabled people, to ensure we get those reforms right.

I agree with the importance of having a timely assessment. Last week, a constituent raised her case with me: she filled in her renewal form nine months ago, but has been given less than two weeks’ notice for an assessment next week. Surely we need to have assessments when the form is fresh and accurate, not nine months later?

The waiting time for PIP decisions has come down considerably in recent times, but I am not complacent about that, as we want to go further in seeing those waits reduced. For example, being able to apply online is an important part of that journey, as well as improving interfaces and making sure people provide all the right information up front. If we can provide better support for that, it will help us make decisions sooner, which can only be welcome.

I urge the Minister to look specifically at how PIP is assessed for those with brain injuries. It is well known that the effect of a brain injury may vary over time—people go up and down, and many who have had a brain injury want to give a very positive impression of how they are, which gives a false impression when it comes to assessing whether they need PIP.

I am very sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s point—he has been a passionate and tireless campaigner on the issue of brain injury for a long time. These are exactly the sorts of issues that we want to look at as we take this reform forward. I mentioned our changes around fluctuating conditions, but we also want to look at issues such as expert assessors and having specialists working with individuals to carry out the assessment to ensure a proper understanding and, hopefully, build confidence around decision making.

Our excellent, proactive Minister is no doubt testing out concepts ahead of the forthcoming White Paper. Does that include extending the severe conditions criteria so that people with conditions such as motor neurone disease can automatically access support without the need of an assessment?

I am fortunate that my hon. Friend was one of my predecessors as Minister for Disabled People, as he is a tireless campaigner on these issues and has done much to take the agenda forward. On the severe disability group, we remain committed to this work. We have worked with an expert group of specialist health professionals to draw up a set of draft criteria. We have started initial testing at small scale, and we are looking to scale that up as we move forward, because we want to get this right and we think that this is a significant change.

Access to Work

11. What steps his Department is taking to help reduce waiting times for Access to Work assessments. (906153)

16. Whether his Department plans to take steps to reduce the time taken by the decision-making process for applications to the Access to Work scheme. (906158)

Access to Work has received a significant increase in applications over the past year and has recruited new staff to meet the increased demand and reduce the time it takes to make decisions. We are also transforming the Access to Work service through increased digitalisation that will make the service more efficient and the application process easier, and improve the time taken from application through to decision.

I think the Minister knows that the waiting times are too long for all applicants, but may I draw his attention to an event in Cambridge that I hosted earlier this year with the local jobcentre where we highlighted job opportunities for the neurodivergent community? Will he tell us what impact these long waits have on people who are neurodivergent?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, last week, 88% of claims were paid within 10 days and that we are taking steps to drive further improvement. The online application capacity that came on stream in June is a significant part of that, but we are also putting additional staff on to processing claims. We are streamlining various processes to ensure that people get access to that support sooner. Anecdotally, officials are saying that that is beginning to bear fruit. What we are not doing is speeding up that process at the cost of getting the right decision and the right outcome. We will continue to move this forward, and we are already making progress.

A decade ago, the Government’s Sayce review recommended supporting 100,000 disabled people through specialist employment programmes, but, last year, Access to Work helped just 38,000, and Versus Arthritis and other organisations that support people navigate this difficult system saw a tripling in the delays. When will the Department meet the 100,000 target and end the delays hitting disabled people, employers and the UK economy?

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am passionate about the positive difference that Access to Work makes in terms of opening up employment opportunities for people. He will be aware of the passports that we have introduced to help better understand people’s needs and passporting that between jobs and between, for example, education and employment. I refer him back to the steps that we have taken to see improvement in the journey times, but we will continue to work tirelessly to make sure that people get the Access to Work help as quickly as possible.

In January, it was found that the Access to Work backlog had trebled since February 2020, rising to more than 25,000. In June, the Minister claimed additional resource was being put into Access to Work. Will he inform the House exactly how many additional staff are working to clear the backlog and when he expects it to return to pre-pandemic levels? His Government say that they want to get more people into work, yet disabled people are missing out on jobs because of unacceptable delays at the DWP.

For the House’s benefit, let me provide the full-time equivalent staffing levels in the Access to Work team a full six months ago and once the staff at Bradford have moved to Access to Work. The figure stood at 375.22 full-time equivalents in March 2023, and at 462.84 on 4 September 2023. That figure is expected to stand at 530.41 full-time equivalents by the end of October 2023 with the additional staff moving to the Access to Work team in Bradford. I direct the hon. Lady’s attention again to the figure from last week that 88% of claims were paid within 10 days. This is a priority for me as the Minister for Disabled People and for the Department as a whole.

Two-child Limit: Child Poverty

12. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of the two-child limit on trends in the level of child poverty. (906154)

21. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of the two-child limit on trends in the level of child poverty. (906163)

The Government’s firm belief is that the best route out of poverty is through work. In the most recent statistics—in 2021-22—there were 400,000 fewer children living in absolute poverty after housing costs than in 2009-10.

A recent study by the University of York found that the two-child limit and the benefit cap had contributed to rising child poverty, which, allied to wider benefit cuts, had impacted larger families disproportionately. Given the growing weight of evidence that families are being pushed further into hardship, will the Government finally acknowledge the real harm that their cruel and callous welfare policies are causing, and reverse them?

Families on benefits should face the same financial choices when deciding to grow their family as those supporting themselves solely through work. A benefit structure adjusting automatically to family size is unsustainable.

A report by the Child Poverty Action Group showed that the two-child limit affects one in 10 children across the UK. It found that abolishing the policy would be the most cost-effective action that the Government could take to reduce child poverty. Why will the Minister not take that action? Is child poverty so low on his priority list that he has not considered it, or did he consider it and then decide that vulnerable children just are not worth it?

The Government are committed to a sustainable long-term approach to tackling poverty and supporting people on low incomes. We will spend around £276 billion through the welfare system in 2023-24, including around £124 billion on people of working age and children.

The Minister seems to forget that the two-child limit impacts people who are on in-work benefits. The only exemption to the two-child limit is if a woman can prove that her third or a subsequent child has been born as a result of rape. How many people has the Minister’s Department asked to prove that they have been raped in order to get an exemption to the two-child limit?

I am disappointed that the Minister does not know, because his Department has made 2,590 women prove and relive the ordeal of being raped, simply to get that state support, but given that the Labour party and the Conservatives support the two-child policy and rape clause, does it give him comfort to know that when the “Ghost of George Osborne Future” comes into office, his legacy in promoting astronomical child poverty rates will be safe in the hands of the Blairites on the Labour Benches?

I can only repeat that, compared with 2009-10, there are 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty after housing costs.

Benefit Fraud

We continue to bear down on fraud and error. It decreased by 10% in 2022-23. There is of course still more to be done, which is why we are investing £900 million to reduce that figure still further by £2.4 billion by 2024-25.

During the pandemic, the Government rightly got support out to people as quickly as possible, but that inevitably meant that errors were made and some people took advantage of the situation. What is being done to clamp down on fraud and errors in universal credit?

A huge amount, including the targeted case review, which over the next five years will review hundreds of thousands of universal credit claims to look for fraud and error. Of course, we use emerging new technologies for that purpose as well.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I absolutely support the principle that those who carry out benefit fraud must be made accountable, but what I find in my office—I think that others in the Chamber will probably find this as well—is that many people have filled in an application form, document or review and inadvertently ticked the wrong box. By doing so, they have left themselves in a very difficult position where they find that they have to make a repayment. Sometimes people need help at the initial stages to ensure that they get it right. What can be done to help those people so that they do not get into debt that they did not expect to be in?

There is help within jobcentres. There is also Citizens Advice, and a help to claim process available there. When people make genuine errors and when they have been overpaid for various reasons, we are of course sympathetic, to ensure that we do not put them in a position where it is incredibly difficult for them to repay those amounts.

Labour Market Inactivity

15. What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of its policies on reducing the level of inactivity in the labour market. (906157)

We are doing a great deal to bear down on economic inactivity. As of August this year, the figures show that over half the increase in economic activity that occurred during the pandemic has since unwound. That is more than 300,000 people into work.

The Secretary of State’s comments suggesting that unemployed over-50s should consider becoming delivery riders clearly show that the Government are failing to help older workers into stable employment. Rather than glorifying precarious work in the gig economy, will he commit to rolling out a plan that gives older workers the dignity, respect and support they deserve to rejoin the workforce?

I think it is very unfortunate when any Member of this House looks down on a certain category of job that is employing hundreds of thousands of people perfectly satisfactorily. In fact, in that interview I said:

“I think as a department we shouldn’t be prescriptive,”—

referring to the over-50s—

“so we’re not here to start pontificating about whether people should or should not go back into work”.

Hopefully that has put the record straight. We are doing a huge amount to support those over 50 who have retired prematurely, including the midlife MOT, returnerships and the tax changes we have made around pensions, and we will continue to support people. That is why we are seeing those inactivity rates above 50 declining quite strongly.

Sickness and sick pay are an anchor when it comes to getting people back into work, as well as helping to grow the economy. That is why the Centre for Progressive Change produced an excellent report that has support from Members across this House. Will my right hon. Friend therefore meet me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who has also supported it, to look at the proposals made, so that we can really help to improve sick pay—something that has the backing of 75% of British businesses?

I would be very happy for either myself or the relevant Minister to meet my hon. Friend or my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel).

We all want to see both unemployment and economic inactivity as low as possible, but the Office for National Statistics, quoted approvingly by the Minister a few minutes ago, reports that this spring’s quarter showed a large fall in the number of people moving from economic inactivity into employment, and that the net movement from employment to economic inactivity was the largest since the covid autumn of 2020. Given that this is the Department’s priority, what assessment has he made of why this is going wrong?

My assessment of economic inactivity is that it is falling; it has fallen by around 350,000 or more since its peak during the pandemic. That leaves us below the average rate of economic inactivity across the G7, the European Union and the OECD. We are making real progress and will continue to do so.

Unsuccessful Benefit Decisions Overturned on Appeal

17. What estimate his Department has made of the number and proportion of unsuccessful benefit decisions that were overturned on appeal in the last 12 months. (906159)

Our aim is to make the right decision as early as possible in a claim. In 2022-23, there were 80,000 social security and child support appeal tribunal hearings, with 50,000 overturned. We recognise that the overturn rate at appeal is high. However, the numbers must be seen in the context of overall decisions. The majority of appeal tribunal hearings relate to PIP. Since PIP was introduced, 8% of initial decisions have been appealed and 4% overturned at a hearing.

The Minister is being very selective in his use of statistics. The most recent tribunal stats show that an increasing number of cases, the vast majority, are being overturned—something that is certainly borne out by my constituents contacting me. Why are we not getting it right first time? Surely it is a huge waste of resources to be taking so many cases to tribunal?

There is no advantage to anybody in the right outcome not being achieved at the very earliest point. The hon. Lady asks why we often see tribunals reach different decisions. There are a number of reasons, for example, drawing different conclusions on the same evidence, cogent evidence being presented orally within those tribunals, or even perhaps written evidence being provided at the hearing that has not previously been shared. We are taking steps, including having presenting officers feed back to the Department, to ensure that more decisions are got right at the first opportunity.

Social Mobility: Young People

Every day, our work coaches help people of all ages and all backgrounds to overcome barriers, build their confidence and move into and progress in work. For young people, we have specialised support via the DWP youth offer. We have extended our Jobcentre support for people in work and on low incomes, helping them to increase their earnings, to move into better-paid, quality jobs and to improve their prospects through in-work progression. We are also providing additional work coach time and boosting the skills support, meaning that we are truly opening up opportunities for all.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s strong commitment to social mobility, and I share her approach. However, what are the Government doing to ensure that young people in my constituency of Bexleyheath and Crayford have the jobs that they need and greater opportunities to succeed?

I agree and am determined to ensure that everyone, regardless of their background or postcode, can succeed in Bexleyheath and Crayford and beyond. As part of the DWP youth offer, we have a youth hub serving my right hon. Friend’s constituency, working in partnership with YouthBuild Ventures, to help young people to build their confidence with tailored wraparound support and to move into local jobs.

Degree apprenticeships are a great way for those who are socially less well off to get into employment and avoid the costs associated with getting a degree through other routes, so what steps is the Minister taking to help more people achieve that ambition?

I agree that it is key that young people get the right opportunities to progress, thrive and move into long-term sustainable work. Apprenticeships are crucial in driving growth and social mobility. They boost business skills and improve people’s earnings and progression opportunities. My hon. Friend will be pleased to see a new youth hub open in Walsall shortly, and that our work coach has been working with Walsall College on place-based tailored employability support for his area.

The biggest bar to young people finding employment in the lakes and the dales is the fact that there is nowhere affordable for them to live—average house prices are 12 times average incomes, and the long-term rented sector has collapsed into the Airbnb sector. Will the Minister make the Lake district and the Yorkshire dales special pilot areas to ensure that the only homes we build there are affordable ones for people who will make their lives there, work and contribute to our economy, so that we do not run out of workforce?

I think we can agree on one thing: the hon. Gentleman’s area is a very special one. In the meantime, we have recruited at the DWP 37 progression leads who will work locally with employers and jobcentres to sort that progression and retention challenge, but I think some of his questions are for a different Department.

Employment: North Devon

The Jobcentre teams in North Devon are working day and night to fill the vacancies in my hon. Friend’s constituency. That includes inviting employers into the Jobcentre Plus each week, and having upcoming events on sector-based work academy programmes, including one that is about to happen with the NHS trust in Barnstaple.

Unemployment in North Devon is well below the national average due to the high proportion of retired people and a lack of homes those working can afford. Businesses and the public sector alike are reporting high vacancy levels. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that we do not see further business closures because of a lack of homes that workers can afford?

I visited North Devon in April to meet my hon. Friend and discuss those issues. She has my full support and that of the Department in her work to ensure that we address those problems. Clearly, those matters are being addressed on an ongoing basis by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but I can assure her that she has my full support.

Workplace Sickness Absence

22. What steps his Department is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help reduce sickness absences in the workplace. (906164)

Sickness, and supporting those who are sick in the workplace, is an important focus for the Department, which is why we are consulting on occupational health and ensuring that more businesses take it up as something to offer their employees.

Seventeen million working days are lost every year because of negative workplace cultures and staff wellbeing. That is partly down to bullying, which is prevalent across many workplaces. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to consider workplace cultures, particularly bullying at work, and will he meet me to discuss my bullying and respect at work Bill, which would put a recourse into law?

Like the hon. Lady, I and my ministerial colleagues take bullying in the workplace extremely seriously. There is no place for that in our country. I would be very happy for her to have a meeting with the relevant DWP Minister.

High Income Child Benefit Charge: Gender Pension Gap

25. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the high income child benefit charge on the gender pension gap. (906167)

In April, we announced plans to address this issue by introducing a retrospective national insurance credit, which will ensure that more people—especially women—have the opportunity to obtain a full state pension.

The high income child benefit charge is potentially a scandal waiting to happen. Currently, families have to apply for a benefit they know they are not entitled to so that the stay-at-home parent—usually the mother—gets the national insurance credits that they need for her state pension. It is good to hear that the Government are doing something, but they need to reform the process further. Will they agree to at least put some comms in? I certainly had not heard of the changes in April.

I am glad that the hon. Lady agrees with those changes. I assure her that we will be bringing them forward as soon as we can.

Topical Questions

May I begin by welcoming my new opposite number, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), to her post? I know she will agree that it is an honour and a privilege to be associated with this Department, whether on the Opposition Benches or the Government Benches, and the very important mission of looking after the most vulnerable, which I know we both share. I look forward to a constructive engagement with her in the weeks and months to come.

My Department continues to focus on supporting the most vulnerable through cost of living payments, pension credit and the benefits system more generally; bearing down on fraud and error; and promoting work and, in particular—as we have been discussing—reducing economic inactivity.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the recent decision on the national disability strategy, which allows us to get on and improve the lives of so many disabled people?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I very much welcome the Court of Appeal’s decision in July, meaning that the national disability strategy is lawful. The Government are now able to continue with the important work of implementing that long-term strategy, and I can confirm that my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People will shortly come forward with further details of some of the individual commitments we will be making around that strategy.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words. However, whatever he says about economic inactivity, it remains a serious problem in this country, with the UK lagging behind all other G7 countries in terms of workforce participation since the pandemic. Indeed, last month, the number of people off work due to long-term sickness hit an all-time high. What is this Government’s response? The Chancellor tells the over-50s to get off the golf course, and the DWP Secretary tells them to literally get on their bike. Is not the truth that this Government’s failure to cut waiting lists, sort social care and have a proper plan for reforming our jobcentres is harming individuals and our economy as a whole?

To the extent that the hon. Lady was suggesting that economic inactivity was worse in our country than in all other economies, or all similar economies—I think that is what she said—that simply is not the case. It is true that economic inactivity spiked during the pandemic; none the less, as I said earlier, the average rate is lower than the average across the OECD, the EU and the G7.

The hon. Lady mentioned those who are long-term sick and disabled. That is why we are bringing forward pilots such as WorkWell and rolling out universal support, to make sure we bring the world of work together with the world of health, to the betterment of those who we look after.

This is not just about the over-50s. Is the Secretary of State aware that the biggest relative jump in economic inactivity due to sickness is among young people, with mental health being the biggest concern? Labour has a plan to transform mental health in this country, paid for by closing private equity loopholes. When will this Government act and put a proper plan in place?

There is a proper plan in place. I invite the hon. Lady to spend some time looking more closely at the announcements that have been made, particularly at the time of the last fiscal statement, and especially those about WorkWell, universal support, and the work we are doing with the national health service and other agencies to make sure—as I say—that we bring together the world of work and the world of health and provide support, particularly for those with mental health conditions.

T3.   The Health and Safety Executive website currently makes no mention of the aerated concrete issue that we all heard about at the end of last week. Can we be assured that the Executive has the resource and motivation to get that guidance out there, so that employers and other building owners know what they should be doing in this situation? (906170)

The HSE’s focus has been on raising awareness of RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—through its engagement and stakeholder groups via the public sector, and this was actually raised in a bulletin back in April 2021. I will look into the point my hon. Friend has made, but I am certain there has been clear guidance to those who need it.

T2. Thousands of women who have been underpaid their state pensions due to departmental mistakes will be forced to wait until the end of 2024 to see this error addressed. Does the Minister really think this is acceptable? (906169)

The hon. Lady asked about this last time, and I believe I informed her previously that all alive people will be receiving the benefits they are entitled to by the end of this year.

T5. What action are the Government taking to deal with the difficulties that many disabled people face with accessing the support they need? In particular, has there been a move back to making face-to-face contacts part of the assessments and decisions in the benefit system? (906172)

We have made available a diversity of assessment channels to people, but the key point is that anybody who wants to have a face-to-face appointment is able to have one. They can request one and that will be facilitated, and I think that is important. Jobcentres will be at the leading edge of delivering on our new supported employment programme—universal support—and we have WorkWell coming on stream as well. We do not want to write anybody off. Where people want to work or to try to work, we should be supporting that wherever we can, and that is precisely what we are all about.

T6. A constituent of mine has cerebral palsy, a lifelong condition for which there is no prospect of improvement and which affects her mobility and balance. Despite this, she has faced repeated unnecessary and inaccurate reassessments for the personal independence payment, and she lost her PIP mobility after the most recent assessment. The DWP justifies its decision by saying that it was advised that her last fall was over three months prior to the consultation. What kind of system demands that people with lifelong conditions regularly have to hurt themselves to receive the support they are entitled to? (906173)

I would obviously want to see the details of the case in question before commenting on it, so perhaps the hon. Member could kindly share those details with me. One of the things we are focused on is getting to a place where people with conditions or disabilities that are unlikely to improve or are only likely to deteriorate are not having to go through repeat assessments. That is the objective we are working towards through the White Paper reforms. [Interruption.] I hear a lot of chuntering from the Opposition. I would be absolutely delighted if they would get on and support our reforms so we can make those improvements.

T8. Universal credit has been hugely effective in making sure it always pays to work, but for jobseekers with no savings who used to be paid daily or weekly the five-week wait for their first payment can plunge them into debt, whether it is a DWP advance or other loans. Will Ministers consider the proposals in “Poverty Trapped” for initial payments to be made at the same daily or weekly frequency as a jobseeker was previously paid, so they can focus on finding a job rather than juggling their debts? (906175)

I can tell my hon. Friend that there are no plans to change the assessment period and payment structure of universal credit, but I am very happy for him to sit down with officials and discuss his paper.

T7. A constituent battling multiple sclerosis recently came to one of my surgeries after his PIP application was refused without ever receiving a face-to-face assessment—and he did request one. The automated letter dismissing his appeal used incredibly insulting and derogatory language. Without ever meeting him, the Minister’s Department declared my constituent fit and able despite this clearly not being the case. I am doing whatever I can to support my constituent, but surely the Minister will agree that PIP applicants deserve face-to-face assessments rather than this dismissive, humiliating letter language. (906174)

If people wish to have a face-to-face assessment, they ought to be able to have one—that is the position. There are claimants for whom a different form of assessment—a telephone assessment or a virtual assessment—is more appropriate and is perhaps what they want, but that choice should be available to people, and providers should be facilitating that. Again, if the hon. Member would kindly share the details of that case with me, I will look at it as a matter of urgency.

I warmly welcome the considerable progress this Conservative Government have made in supporting pensioners. The triple lock and targeted support with the cost of living are welcome in my part of Devon. Will my hon. Friend outline how this Conservative Government will ensure that this great progress continues?

The triple lock was a Conservative invention. It was a pledge in our manifesto and the Secretary of State will be looking at it again this year when he makes his decision on benefits.

T9.   In 2016 the United Nations committee responsible for monitoring the UN convention on the rights of disabled people published a damning report that found that the Government had systematically discriminated against disabled people, in breach of their rights. Last week the UN committee reviewed evidence describing the further deterioration of disabled people’s circumstances and rights since 2016, but the Government refused to attend. Isn’t this just another kick in the face for disabled people? (906176)

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the situation. We have followed all of the committee’s procedures; we are engaging with this process in good faith and will present our progress at the session in March 2024. [Interruption.] It is rather frustrating that the hon. Lady often gives the impression that this country is not a world leader on disability issues. The Equality Act 2010, for example, is the cornerstone of ensuring equalities legislation, and we also have the British Sign Language Act 2022 and the Down Syndrome Act 2022. We have also taken other steps forward, and we should be supporting that.

I am fortunate to represent a part of the country that is blessed with near-full employment. However, businesses in Bracknell and beyond struggle to recruit enough staff. Can the Secretary of State reassure me that his Department will leave no stone unturned in getting as many people as possible back into the workplace?

I welcome the good news but also accept the challenge. I have visited Bracknell to meet my hon. Friend and am happy to sit down with him and the local jobcentres to ensure we are addressing his constituency’s vacancy issues.

Last week I met the citizens advice bureau in Cheshire west and Chester, which informed me that 75% of those who appeal their PIP assessments win. Why does the Minister not get it right in the first place, and what is he doing, at pace, to address that?

I am very appreciative of citizens advice bureaux around the country for all the work they do in supporting constituents in each of our constituencies. In the interests of time, I will just refer the hon. Gentleman back to the points I made earlier about the steps we are taking.

The recent changes to access to means-tested benefits for those in receipt of vaccine damage payments are very welcome, and I thank the Minister for his engagement. Will he join me in paying tribute to those who campaigned for that change in the law, including my constituent Sheila Ward?

I pay full credit to Mrs Ward and also to my hon. Friend. I read with interest the Stoke Sentinel report on this particular issue. There is a genuine change to be made, there has been a long-standing campaign, and all parties should be pleased with the outcome reached.

In all honesty, I probably ought to declare an interest, but pensioners living in Edinburgh and Glasgow do not face the same sorts of increases as pensioners living in a remote and faraway constituency such as mine when it comes to living costs such as running a car, buying groceries and heating the house. Will the Government look at ways of targeting these particularly hard-hit people?

We of course look at particularly targeting harder-hit pensioners through pension credit, and the Pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), has done a huge amount to promote that. But we are always open to receiving further ideas and having discussions, and if the hon. Gentleman would like to come forward with further ideas, we will certainly look at them.

I have been contacted many times each month by parents left seriously out of pocket by their ex-spouses’ failure to pay child maintenance owed. What steps are the Government taking to ensure parents are able to receive their child maintenance on time so that many families are not left subjected to coercive control by their ex-spouses or left out of pocket?

I thank the hon. Lady for making those points. Child maintenance payments keep about 160,000 children out of poverty each year and are absolutely vital. They play a key role in ensuring both parents play their part in supporting their children whether or not they live with them. If the hon. Lady has particular cases or interests, I am happy to meet her.

A constituent of mine has a small work pension, rendering her ineligible for pension credit yet still struggling to get by. Another constituent who is 80 and misses out on pension credit by just £10 has contacted me several times angry and hurt that he now has to pay for his TV licence. Will Ministers review the rules on pension credit, because ineligibility for so many of the passported benefits leaves many of my constituents out of pocket? They want to be eligible for it but are not.

Obviously this is without looking at the individual case, but it is important to note that the threshold has gone up significantly, so it is worth questioning whether the hon. Lady’s constituents are now eligible. If not, applications to the household support fund can be helpful, and local councils may be able to offer housing benefit support. If there is an individual case that she would like to write to me about, I am happy to respond.