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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 740: debated on Monday 13 November 2023

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Menopause: Workplace Support

1. What steps his Department is taking to help improve workplace support for women experiencing the menopause. (900000)

We take the challenges of the menopause very seriously, which is why the Government appointed Helen Tomlinson as the menopause employment champion for England. In terms of progress, I point my hon. Friend to the report, “No Time to Step Back”.

I welcome the work by campaigners and Devon’s NHS to improve access to menopause services in Devon. Almost 80% of menopausal women are in work, yet all too often support can be lacking. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to raise menopause awareness among employers?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his extensive work as my constituency neighbour, pushing for proper support in all GP practices across the county. We lead by example: 64% of the Department’s staff are female and we have a menopause and workplace policy, which sees 350 menopause ambassadors across our DWP network.

Almost 900,000 women in the UK have quit their jobs due to the menopause. The right to flexible work is a key part of tackling economic inactivity, and it would particularly benefit people managing menopause symptoms. What conversations have taken place between Cabinet colleagues on removing the onus on employees to request flexible working and instead ensuring that that is provided as a day one right, by default?

The hon. Lady’s question is best directed to the Department for Business and Trade rather than DWP, as it relates to employment legislation and regulation. However, I am pleased to tell her that we have our 50PLUS champions, work coaches in our jobcentres, the Midlife MOT and many other measures that are there to help exactly the people she describes.

Welfare System: Impact of AI

We have a number of projects that use artificial intelligence within the Department to drive performance, efficiency and the service we provide to our customers. One important point to bear in mind is that we never replace a human when it comes to judgments relating to a claim or an appeal.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what assessment he has made of the potential merits of the use of AI in fraud protection? How will his Department ensure that appropriate safety measures are in place?

Let me take the second of my hon. Friend’s points first. As I have outlined, there is always human intervention when it is appropriate. None the less, he is quite right to raise the issue of fraud and error. We have seen a reduction in the Department over the past year of some 10% across the benefit system, and much of that has been driven by machine learning and data analytics.

Destitution: Children

3. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the number of children experiencing destitution. (900003)

4. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the number of children experiencing destitution. (900004)

8. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the number of children experiencing destitution. (900009)

Child poverty and its reduction is absolutely core to the mission of my Department, which is why we have focused on cost of living payments, why we have put up benefits across the board by 10.1% and why the Chancellor announced £3.5 billion in the spring statement to support our back to work programmes to raise people out of poverty.

One of the crowning achievements of the previous Labour Government was to lift 1 million children out of poverty. How does the Secretary of State think that that compares with the Conservatives’ record given that new figures show that children are experiencing destitution, and that that has actually tripled since 2017?

I think that our record is extremely clear. Since 2010, we have 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty, 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty, and 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty. Under Labour’s watch, we had 1 million people parked on long-term sickness benefits for more than 10 years.

There has been a shameful increase in the level of destitution in the UK, with 1 million children not having their basic needs met. In my constituency of Blaydon, nine children in every classroom are living in poverty. Across the north-east, there has been a 12% increase in emergency food bank parcels in the past year. Does the Minister agree that his Government have completely failed the most vulnerable children in the UK?

No, I am afraid that I cannot agree with that at all. I have just gone through the various figures pointing to the decline in the level of absolute poverty, including 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty since the hon. Lady’s party was last in Government. The cost of living payments, the increase in the level of benefits, and the £3.5 billion that the Chancellor has made available to help people back into work are helping to drive poverty figures in the right direction.

The Minister’s responses are disappointing. If the Government do not recognise the problem of child poverty in this country, how will they fix it? One million children experienced destitution in the UK last year. Organisations such as Chantelle’s Community Kitchen, Little Village and Wandsworth Foodbank in my constituency work tirelessly to fill in the gaps, but they say that there is increasing hardship and they are worried about the winter ahead. What impact does the Minister think that crashing the economy and unleashing a cost of living crisis have had on child poverty?

The common theme in all the questions that we have had on this substantive question is a lack of memory as to what happened under the previous Labour Government. Under that Government, we had 1 million more workless households and 680,000 more children in those workless households.

In the past six months, the Trussell Trust has issued 769 emergency food parcels for children in my constituency. In some schools that I visit, teachers bring food from their homes to feed hungry kids. Will the Minister step up and take responsibility for this, or, instead, move out of the way for a Labour Government committed to making child poverty a thing of the past?

Heaven forbid that we do have another Labour Government, Mr Speaker, because I have just set out the case against the last one and their appalling record on poverty. When it comes to cost of living payments, those went to 8 million low-income households and to 6 million people with disabilities. There will be further payments of £300 for pensioners alongside the winter fuel payment in the coming months.

I wish to draw your attention, Mr Speaker, to a very distressing case in my Slough constituency. A single mother, a victim of domestic violence, is struggling to pay her rent and meet basic needs due to cuts in her universal credit after being compelled to find part-time work. Her living conditions, including mould in her home, are very badly affecting the health of her children. Will the Secretary of State explain how current policies are helping to support such vulnerable families, and what immediate measures will he put in place to ensure that we do not have such dire situations of destitution?

I cannot comment on the specific case that the hon. Gentleman has put forward, other than to say that what he has described is of concern to me and I will want us to look into that extremely carefully. I will be happy to make sure that he has the appropriate time with the appropriate Minister—I think the Minister for Employment—to look into those matters.

In “A Christmas Carol”, published 180 years ago, Charles Dickens wrote of a world where children lacked shelter, clothing, heating and food. They were represented by a boy called Ignorance and a girl called Want. Dickens died in 1870 and we live in the sixth-largest economy in the world, so why, in 2022, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, did 1 million children experience the type of destitution he chronicled long ago? We have heard the Minister quote figures and programmes, and launch attacks on previous Governments, but simply, as a human, would he not agree that just one child living in destitution is one child too many?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that one child in destitution is one too many. One person in poverty is one too many. One person who is unemployed and badly wants a job to support their family is one too many. The question we have to ask is how best to go about improving those situations. I say it is through encouraging people into work and through those cost of living transfer payments for those targeted through universal credit, which his party originally opposed, so that we can help those who are most vulnerable and most in need.

The cost of living crisis is plunging many families into destitution. We know from the JRF that 1.8 million households and 1 million children were plunged into destitution last year. Will Secretary of State use the upcoming autumn statement to bring forward the mortgage interest tax relief and action to tackle soaring food prices, and to reintroduce that £400 energy bill rebate? Otherwise, more and more children will fall into destitution. He has the power—will he respond at the autumn statement?

The hon. Gentleman raises mortgage payments in particular; we have extended the scope of the support for mortgage interest arrangements, particularly for those who have not long been on universal credit. I cannot comment on what may or may not be in the autumn statement, but I can assure him that the kind of issues he has raised are always at the centre of our thinking.

Personal Independence Payment: People with Multiple Sclerosis

5. If he will undertake a review of the Personal Independence Payment assessment process for people with multiple sclerosis. (900005)

The Department closely monitors all aspects of the assessment process, including how we assess fluctuating health conditions such as multiple sclerosis. Following the publication of the recent White Paper, we are looking at ways to further enhance the delivery of personal independence payments to all disabled people.

Orkney has the highest prevalence of multiple sclerosis anywhere in the world, so we have seen the problems caused by PIP assessments that do not cope properly with fluctuating conditions. We now have the adult disability payment in Scotland, but that still uses some of the same eligibility criteria. As the Minister carries out the review, will he speak to Scottish Ministers to make sure that we have a system that works for every MS sufferer, wherever they are in the United Kingdom?

It is fair to say that I have a collaborative and strong working relationship with Ministers in the Scottish Government, and I would definitely be keen to talk them about the tests and trials that we are introducing, which I hope will help to better capture fluctuating conditions and help people to provide all of the right evidence as early as possible in the claim journey, so that we get people’s awards rights and make the right decisions. We should certainly look to work UK-wide where we can.

Learning the lessons of our changes to special rules for the terminally ill and the principles of the severe conditions criteria should allow us to look at those who sadly have degenerative conditions such as MS and motor neurone disease. Will the Minister confirm that, as part of the testing and piloting, the Department is looking at the potential for automatic entitlement for those with degenerative conditions, which would lift around a quarter of a million people a year out of unnecessary assessments?

My hon. Friend has been a strong advocate for the severe disability group work that we have been taking forward. I am pleased to be able to say that Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the British Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine have agreed to work in partnership with the DWP to test the SDG. Reducing the assessment burden where it is inappropriate, and ensuring that people get the right support and help, is the right thing to do.

Hospitality Sector-based Work Academy Programme

6. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the hospitality sector-based work academy programme in Cities of London and Westminster constituency. (900006)

We are working with UK Hospitality and local providers up and down the country—from Liverpool to Manchester to Coventry; in London, of course; and also, to come, in Wales—to ensure that we have a hospitality work programme that provides employment training, work experience and a guaranteed job interview. It is free for all DWP jobseekers. It is early days, but the signs are promising.

May I first thank the Minister for Employment for joining me this morning at Ben Venuti, a brilliant café and deli in Pimlico, to celebrate hospitality in Cities of London and Westminster? I am delighted that the hospitality SWAP pilot has been launched in my constituency, where we have thousands and thousands of hospitality jobs. One of the businesses involved in the pilot is the Raffles London hotel, just up the road at the Old War Office, which I visited with UK Hospitality recently. What further steps is the Department taking to ensure that the scheme benefits minorities and those struggling the most with the cost of living crisis?

It was a tough ministerial visit to an award-winning coffee shop this morning—somehow, I missed the earlier hotel visit. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are driving forward that hospitality pilot to try to tackle the recruitment issues in that vital sector, which permeate all across the United Kingdom. She will be keen to know that every person who passes gets a hospitality skills passport, which we believe can genuinely make a difference across all age groups and all sections of the community.

Work Capability Assessments: People with Neurological Conditions

7. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of work capability assessments for people with neurological conditions. [R] (900008)

May I start by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his place in this House? The work capability assessment is a functional assessment based on how a person’s condition affects them, not on the condition itself. Work capability assessors have training across a range of health conditions, including neurological conditions, and can access a range of resources that have been quality-assured by relevant external clinicians.

My entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests has not been published yet, but I am a trustee of an epilepsy charity. I thank the Minister for his welcome and for that answer, but for people with neurological conditions, particularly multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, the condition is not uniform. One week they might be affected in one way, and the next week in a different way. so the capability assessments have to match that so that they meet people’s capabilities as they are. The published consultation on reforming the assessments is still causing a lot of concern for people with those conditions, so what more can the Minister do to make it a holistic process that recognises people’s needs as they are?

I am not in a position to set out the outcome of recent work capability assessment consultation, but a key principle underpinning the test and trials that I touched on earlier is to take better account of fluctuating conditions, helping people to provide high-quality evidence as early as possible in the claim journey. We are spending a lot of time working with stakeholders to develop that work, and I would be very willing to have a conversation with the hon. Gentleman about that.

Supporting People into Employment: Essex

Employment in Essex is up 4% on 2020 figures and better than in 2010. Full credit goes to the Essex jobcentre staff, who, working across the county with local skills providers, are providing real opportunities for local men and women. They held a 50-plus event in Witham recently, for example, and my right hon. Friend will be aware that there is a jobs fair in Maldon on Wednesday, just down the road from her constituency.

My hon. Friend is well aware of the fact that Essex is a powerhouse when it comes to employment, job creation and economic growth. That said, many businesses are still frustrated because they find recruitment and training difficult. We have the autumn statement coming up, but will he touch on some of the cross-departmental discussions he has been having to look at how we can support businesses by lowering taxes, getting rid of regulation and red tape, and helping them to employ more people and grow the economy?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question, and for her robust championing of Conservative values and support for businesses and jobs in her constituency and across Essex. We at the DWP are working across Government to ensure that we consider different ways of supporting jobs, investment, childcare support, higher-paid skills and pathways into work. The views of my right hon. Friend are strongly put, and I am quite sure that Treasury Ministers and the Chancellor will have taken due notice.

Youth Unemployment

The level of youth unemployment is down by 43.8% since 2010, and this Government remain committed to delivering targeted support to young people through our expanded DWP youth offer, providing comprehensive employment support for 16 to 24-year-olds claiming universal credit. That offer includes intensive support through the youth employment programme, youth employability coaches and youth hubs across Great Britain.

I visit businesses on a weekly basis, and one thing they tell me in Ashfield is that they struggle to recruit apprentices. One of the barriers is the requirement for English and maths, because a lot of these young people would make great apprentices but they either messed about at school or have not had that support. What more can we do to get those young people into apprenticeships, and then support them with their maths and English at a later stage?

We fund apprentices to achieve English and maths qualifications by the end of their apprenticeships. We understand how important they are for people’s long-term career prospects, and we are boosting the rate for those qualifications by 54% from January. We are also piloting flexible English and maths requirements for young people with learning difficulties or disabilities, to ensure that they are not overlooked when it comes to apprenticeship opportunities.[Official Report, 16 November 2023, Vol. 740, c. 7MC.]

Economic inactivity due to ill health has more than doubled for 18 to 24-year-olds over the past decade. Why does the Minister think that is? Could she also please look again at the closure of the local jobcentre in Halton Lea in my constituency because of building safety issues?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question—I will happily take away his second point, have a look at it and get back to him in writing. I want to assure him and the House that having DWP youth hubs together in one location helps those young people who have been going through very difficult times because of covid. They help local youth experts and local partnerships to come together and overcome those barriers, and ensure that young people have the skills and confidence sought by local employers to take up the opportunities that are around them, just down the road. It is really important that we are there to support them through those mixed youth hubs, which are a big focus for me and for our Department.

Anglo American and its contractors have just announced 70 new job opportunities at its Woodsmith mine just outside Whitby, with workshops both in Whitby and on Teesside for those interested. Does the Minister agree that these sorts of opportunities in the mining industry are just the sorts of opportunities that young people need to grasp with both hands?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, which goes back to the point about knowing what jobs are just down the road for young people, so that the labour market comes closer to home for them. That is what our youth employability work coaches do, and we saw that with the kickstart programme: 163,000 jobs were created by employers who want young people in their businesses. Their feedback shows that they absolutely got something from having young people in their businesses, and I appeal to employers to keep doing what is happening in Whitby.

But the number of young people unemployed in Denton and Reddish is still far too high—the latest figures show a 7% youth unemployment claimant count, which is not good enough. Given that the share of young people not in full-time employment or education rose last year, what more is the Minister doing to make sure that young people in places such as Denton and Reddish get the life chances they deserve?

I absolutely agree that, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and more widely, it is absolutely right that young people get the opportunities they deserve. In fact, since September 2020 the DWP’s youth offer has seen over 600,000 starts. As I mentioned earlier, our comprehensive support for young people now encompasses those from age 16.

The Minister began answering these questions by claiming credit for having better youth unemployment figures now than in the aftermath of a global financial crisis, which seems to me to be a low ambition. As she has heard, we have problems with inactivity and we have more young people who are not doing anything. What account can she give for the fact that, even after 13 and a half long years of Conservative Government, we have worse youth unemployment than Ireland, Norway and the Czech Republic, and that here it is double what it is in Germany and treble what it is in Japan? What on earth has gone wrong?

I think that is a reminder to continually speak up for opportunities for our young people. The current youth employment rate is 53.9%, up three percentage points since 2010. It has been my absolute mission in this Parliament, over the last four and a half years, to focus on young people, with around 140 new youth hubs to support the complex needs of young people. I humbly suggest that the hon. Member goes and looks at the changes that are happening, to see the difference being made in communities up and down the land. We are not writing young people off; we are making sure that we support them. I went to see a new youth hub only last week, and the work being done on housing and with partners is innovative. It means young people with smiles on their faces and their futures in their hands.

Cost of Living: Benefit Levels

12. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of benefit levels in the context of rises in the cost of living. (900013)

The Government have never spent more on welfare and benefit support than we presently do. From April 2023, we uprated benefits by 10.1% and increased the benefit cap levels by the same amount. That is on top of the cost of living support that has been made to multiple households and individuals to address the rising cost of bills.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but he will be aware that the Trussell Trust has warned that food banks are at “breaking point”, as more and more people across the UK are unable to afford the essentials, with new figures showing that 1.5 million emergency food parcels were distributed through the charity’s network between April and September this year. Will the Minister therefore back its joint campaign with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation calling for an essentials guarantee within universal credit, to ensure that the basic rate at least covers life’s essentials and that support can never fall below that level?

The hon. Member will be aware that there has been £94 billion of cost of living support over and above the 10.1% increase in benefit rates. That support is over 2022-23 and 2023-24. For example, the winter fuel payment will be paid to the tune of £600 or £500 over the next few weeks.

Would the Minister agree that the journey we have been on with benefit rates for the last decade and a half has perhaps been a little haphazard, and it is pretty unclear to most people exactly what basket of goods and services benefits are actually meant to buy? If the Minister does not agree with the case for an essentials guarantee, will the Government commission their own study to work out if benefits are at the right level?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, which is clearly a matter for the Secretary of State and the Chancellor when they make their decisions on uprating, and I am sure they will take that on board. There are always ongoing discussions about how one assesses this process but, with respect, this is the system we have had for some considerable period of time.

Employment for Disabled People

13. What recent steps his Department has taken to help disabled people to find and remain in employment. (900014)

There are a range of initiatives for supporting disabled people to start, stay in and succeed in work. This includes disability employment advisers, the Work and Health programme, intensive personalised employment support, Access to Work, Disability Confident, the information and advice service, and support in partnership with the health system.

Research by the charity Versus Arthritis has found that one in five people described as economically inactive have a musculoskeletal—MSK—condition. Arthritis and MSK conditions were the cause of over 23 million working days lost in 2021 alone. Will the Minister ask the Chancellor for additional support in the autumn statement, to help people with arthritis and MSK to find and remain in work, and will he meet me and Versus Arthritis to discuss this serious issue further?

I am always happy to meet colleagues to discuss such issues. It is fair to say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has put a real emphasis on this policy area in his previous spending announcements; no doubt he will have heard the hon. Lady’s comments in advance of the upcoming autumn statement. When we consider initiatives such as Work Well—our work in respect of occupational health and the consultations on that—we see that a lot of effort and energy have gone into recognising that retention is just as important as job starts.

In his conference speech, the Secretary of State said there would be a revolution in employment support for people with health conditions and disabilities. Does this revolution include a backlog of 22,432 people waiting for an Access to Work decision, with an average delay of 48 days? Ministers need to get a grip of support for disabled people, rather than vilifying them. The Government’s lack of real action often prevents disabled people from working. Labour has a plan for delivery, so instead of endless reshuffles, why does the Minister not ask his boss to call a general election now?

I think I will pass up on the invitation at the end of the hon. Lady’s question. The fact is that this Government are concentrating on working hard to support more disabled people into work. We are unlocking that potential with all the help and support around it. The hon. Lady specifically mentioned Access to Work; we now have more than 500 full-time staff members working on that, compared with 375 in March. We are focused on prioritising job starts and streamlining things to make it easier for claims to be processed and for people to get support quicker, as well as that staffing increase. We have a comprehensive plan; the hon. Lady’s plan is hidden somewhere—I am sure we would all love to hear it.

Pensioners: Cost of Living

14. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of Government support for pensioners in the context of rises in the cost of living. (900015)

The Pensions Minister is unavoidably detained in No. 10, so they have wheeled out the old Pensions Minister to attempt to address the hon. Gentleman’s question. The reality of the situation is that April saw the biggest ever rise in the state pension, by 10.1%, thanks to the triple lock. Every pensioner is entitled to a winter fuel payment and will receive a cost of living payment this winter. The poorest pensioners will receive a £900 further cost of living payment.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but many older people in my Falkirk constituency are living below or on the poverty line. Furthermore, 2 million older people in the UK live below the poverty line, with many more hovering precariously above it. Research by Independent Age has shown that older people are significantly struggling and urgently need additional cost of living support to help them through the coming winter. By expanding the eligibility criteria for the existing cost of living payments to people on housing benefits and those who receive a council tax reduction, we could help to support this group of older people who desperately need it. Will the Minister commit to that?

With no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman, we have committed to that, which is why there is the £900 further cost of living payment, a doubling of the winter fuel payment and the highest state pension we have ever had. This Government are passionately supporting our pensioners and our most vulnerable on an ongoing basis.

New figures on pension credit update have shed light on the catastrophic failure to get money to the people who desperately need it. Up to 880,000 pensioners are now missing out. Thousands of households would be so much better off and able to keep the heating on and food on the table this winter. Underpinning the figures is a huge drop in uptake among the under-75s, with a fall of up to 20%. With so many new pensioners seemingly unaware of their entitlement to pension credit, will the Government stop burying their head in the sand and get a grip now?

It is good to welcome the hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box; I have not previously had the chance to answer her questions. We have undertaken TV campaigns, internet campaigns and campaigns on the radio, in print and on social media—the great Len Goodman assisted us in that regard before his passing—so there is fantastic support across all aspects. The hon. Lady should be aware that pension credit applications were up 75% in the year to May, and we have never had so many people as we are now seeking to encourage to apply. Absolutely, the Government are fully behind the pension credit campaign.

Work Capability Assessments: People with Parkinson’s Disease

15. Whether he has made an assessment of the potential impact of proposed reforms to work capability assessments on the (a) financial and (b) mental wellbeing of people with Parkinson’s disease. (900016)

The Department has developed estimates of the number of claimants impacted by options considered in the work capability assessment consultation. Estimates are not based on specific conditions, because the work capability assessment is based on how a person’s condition affects them, not the condition itself.

The proposed changes to the work capability assessment could actually see half a million people forced to look for work they are not cut out for and then at risk of sanctions. The proposed changes on continence, mobility and social engagement are putting thousands of Parkinson’s sufferers at risk of being denied the benefits they need, causing needless stress and financial pressures. Will the Secretary of State meet me and Parkinson’s UK to discuss the impacts on those suffering from Parkinson’s? Hopefully the Government will then change their mind on these cruel proposals.

What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that no decisions have been made. It is right and proper that the consultation responses are properly considered in the normal way. I would be happy to meet with Parkinson’s UK again; I met it previously, and it is an important stakeholder for the Department. We do think it is right that we look at the work capability assessment and review it periodically, not least because of the changes we have seen in homeworking and flexible working in recent years.

Supporting Parents into Work

There have been transformational changes in childcare, skills, training and support for future employers, as announced at the spring Budget. It is absolutely the case that from April 2024, eligible working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare per week from the term after the second birthday, plus there will be the delivery of more support for working parents of children over the age of nine months with 30 free hours of childcare. There is nowhere in the world that compares with our childcare offer on an ongoing basis. We have virtually Scandinavian levels.[Official Report, 16 November 2023, Vol. 740, c. 8MC.]

I am a huge supporter of the bold action that the Government are taking to tackle the costs of childcare and get more parents into work. However, some settings in my constituency report that the rate the Government pay does not cover the full costs of providing that place, putting them in an untenable position. Can my hon. Friend work with me, alongside the Department for Education, to ensure that the scheme is fully working and that the childcare places are actually there to be able to take up this generous Government support?

I am happy to convene a summit with the Department for Education, my hon. Friend and his unitary authority to discuss the ways in which we are ensuring that. We are already working in partnership with the DFE to deliver this campaign, and clearly the Government are committed to ensuring that the implementation of the expansion to 30 hours is dealt with in an appropriate and seamless way.


I am on a one-man mission to support my hon. Friend, who is a doughty champion for Don Valley and getting more people into jobs in his Yorkshire constituency. It was a pleasure to visit his constituency recently and meet the jobcentre leads in his patch, to understand what we can do to drive forward greater employment. He will be aware of the £3.5 billion package of support across the country, some of which is being spent in Yorkshire.

I thank members of Doncaster and Thorne jobcentres for the job fairs they have done, subsequent to my meeting with the Minister at Yorkshire Wildlife Park. Job fairs do a fantastic job. Does the Minister agree that many people in their 50s are busying themselves at home, when they could be having a wonderful second career like me? If he does agree with me, what can he do to help them jumpstart into a new career?

My hon. Friend will be aware of the 50-plus champions that we have up and down the country. The midlife MOT is being rolled out across the private sector and across jobcentres up and down the country. Older Workers Week is coming up, and there is no doubt that there are successes up and down the country of workers beyond retirement age who are doing amazing work, whether that is the 96-year-old shop owner I met in Macclesfield, or many of the others I have met in the past few months. These are great people whom we want to support into work on an ongoing basis.

Last week, I received a letter from the Minister for social mobility, youth and progression, the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), saying that she intends to close down the Jobcentre Plus on Renfield Street, which was opened on a temporary basis in 2021. I know from having met the staff there that they have done a huge amount of work to get people in through the door—and in particular to work with employers—and into employment, including a programme for Ukrainians. Why does the Department want to throw that all away and close it down?

I think the clue is in the name: it was a temporary jobcentre during covid. I am happy that the specific Minister will write and further explain the situation.

Topical Questions

Given that remembrance is still fresh in all our minds, I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the armed forces champions who work across our jobcentre network looking after armed forces personnel and their families. They do a fantastic job, and we should be very proud of them.

These are financially challenging times, but the DWP is up to that challenge, hence all the cost of living payments that we have been hearing about during questions. Inflation is coming down and real wages are beginning to move up. We continue to take a balanced and fair approach to encouraging employment, which has resulted in economic inactivity falling by about 300,000 since its peak, and almost three quarters of a million since 2010.

The Trussell Trust has reported a 68% increase in the number of emergency food parcels provided to Portsmouth people in just one year. Does the Secretary of State agree that more and more people being pushed into poverty is not a lifestyle choice and that urgent Government action is required to tackle the cost of living crisis ahead of another difficult winter for constituents in my patch?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that poverty is not a lifestyle choice. We have gone through various statistics during questions, with 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty since 2010, 200,000 fewer pensioners in poverty since 2010 and 400,000 fewer children in poverty since 2010. We have also gone through the cost of living payments, the increases to the national living wage and all the other support that the Government are providing.

T3. The good people of Kettering would like to know what proportion of working-age adults are neither employed nor actively seeking employment and what the Department is doing to reduce that. (900027)

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for Kettering. He will be aware that 20.9% of working-age people are inactive, down 0.7 percentage points from last year and down 2.7 percentage points from 2010, showing that our drive to get more people into jobs is paying off. The UK now has a lower inactivity rate than the US, France and Italy. We are doing more every single day, but we are also aware that there is more to do.

The health of our nation is critical to the health of our economy, but after 13 years of this Government, both are in a dire state. The Secretary of State should know that the number of young people out of work due to long-term sickness has doubled on the Government’s watch, predominantly driven by poor mental health. Labour’s plan will recruit 8,500 more mental health staff, with support in every school and hubs in every community to tackle these problems early on. Because I am feeling generous today, Mr Speaker—

I would like to make the Secretary of State an offer. If he is serious about getting Britain working, why does he not swallow his pride, do the right thing and adopt Labour’s back to work plan?

The reason for that—I am feeling rather less generous—is that we have seen Labour’s plans in the past, and no Labour Government have ever left office with unemployment anything other than higher than when they came to office. Under the last Labour Government, we saw 1.4 million people parked on long-term benefits for over a decade, with many of them exactly as the hon. Lady described: long-term sick and disabled. Under this Government, we have near-record low unemployment, and we have 4 million more people on payroll employment than we had in 2010.

I am afraid that the Secretary of State is living in cloud cuckoo land. Record numbers of people are out of work due to long-term sickness. We are the only country in the G7 whose employment rate has not gone back to pre-pandemic levels. It is not just young people but the over-50s. The Office for Budget Responsibility said that the rise poses a serious risk to our prospects for growth and the stability of the public finances. Where on earth is the Secretary of State’s plan to sort it out? Perhaps I am being a bit unfair, because it turns out that the Government can get the over-50s back to work, but only if they are former Prime Ministers.

Order. I have been through this time and again. When Front Benchers want to have an argument, they need to come in earlier please, and not soak up the time of Back Benchers, whom I now need to get to urgently.

Will the Secretary of State have a word with the current occupant of No. 10, and ask him to put as much effort into saving other people’s jobs and livelihoods as he does attempting to save his own neck?

Very briefly, I have set out our employment record, which we are proud of. In his last Budget, the Chancellor set aside £2 billion to fund measures to tackle long-term sickness and disability. That includes a consultation on occupational health, the roll-out of universal support and Work Well, about which the hon. Lady will hear more presently.

T6.   The proportion of new claimants for incapacity benefits who receive the highest amount with no work requirements has gone from 21% 10 years ago to 65% now—an astonishing increase. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that following the proposed reforms to the work capability assessment, it will work as intended, and that those who want to work, and seek work, are able to get the help they need to do so? (900031)

I thank my hon. Friend for his typically astute question and for his advice in this area over a number of months. We have gone out to consultation on the work capability assessment. We have not come to our conclusions on how to move forward, but right at the centre of that will be a strong belief that if people can work, with our support and encouragement, that is the best of all outcomes.

The freeze on local housing allowance is having a devastating impact on housing providers. Scotland’s Housing Minister wrote to the Secretary of State on 25 May to make that point and to make the case for restoring it to the 30th percentile. Why has he not replied? Will the Government use the autumn statement to raise it back to the 30th percentile?

I will certainly look into the letter to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I assure him that LHA and other housing matters are under constant review, and form part of the discussions that my Department has with the Treasury from time to time.

T7. What steps is the Minister taking to help ensure that parents pay child maintenance and that the system is fair, particularly if there has been a difficult divorce or separation? (900032)

The Government are committed to ensuring that parents meet their obligations to their children and that the CMS has robust enforcement powers where parents refuse to pay child maintenance that they owe. The Child Support (Enforcement) Act 2023 received Royal Assent in July, and will substantially and rightly speed up that process.

T4. Due to a series of errors made by the CMS, a constituent of mine has failed to receive child maintenance payments and is now on the brink of homelessness. I have been in contact with the DWP, but this case needs to be expedited. Will the Minister assure me that my constituent will receive their payment and will not be made homeless? Will she meet me to discuss this extremely important case? (900029)

The hon. Lady is right; every child maintenance arrangement plays a vital role in ensuring that both parents play their part to support their children, whether they live with them or not. I am happy to take up that case urgently, on behalf of our noble Friend in the other place.

T9. Pension auto-enrolment has been a great success, but it has led to millions of people getting a new pension pot every time they change jobs. Millions of people now have multiple pension pots that they struggle to keep on top of, causing confusion and increasing costs. Does my hon. Friend agree that employees should have the option to save into a workplace scheme of their choice, enabling them to build up a pot for life—a pot to save in, not a pot to smoke? (900034)

Automatic enrolment has transformed savings across the country. I welcome my hon. Friend’s strong support and his passion in this area. The pot for life model offers attraction, with the potential to help engaged individuals with their pension savings if it maintains the gains achieved under automatic enrolment. I am sure he will discuss that with the future pensions Minister.

T5. If life is so peachy for pensioners and if the Minister really is as passionate as he says he is about supporting pensioners, why does Independent Age say that, despite the long list he has given, the uptake in pension credit is not reaching the people who need it the most? Why, in my constituency of Glasgow North East, are pensioners, who I am passionate about supporting, still missing out on several million every year? Will he use that passion to follow the Scottish Government and have a proper targeted benefit uptake strategy? (900030)

The hon. Lady will be aware that pension credit applications are up 75%. Clearly, we are trying to get that even higher. There is a nationwide campaign, which includes Scotland.

According to the latest figures, there are 1,825 households receiving pension credit in Banff and Buchan, but what more can we do as Members of Parliament to encourage more pensioners to apply?

My hon. Friend’s campaign in his constituency has been a massive success and I thank him for that. It builds on our nationwide campaign to support pension credit. There is much we can do to promote it locally, which I know my hon. Friend is doing, through our local councils, Citizens Advice and voluntary organisations.

T8. Does the Minister share my horror at rising homelessness among refugees who have been granted asylum because the timescale from decision to their being transitioned to mainstream benefits is a mere 28 days? Will she meet me so that we can work together to stop those who have been granted the right to a new life here being forced to begin that new life in destitution on the streets this winter? (900033)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. Other ID forms are there to help claim sooner. Those granted refugee status have recourse to public funds and are able to apply for universal credit as soon as they can. DWP staff are instructed to consider all available evidence and work with the Home Office directly to confirm status where unsure. We are reviewing our public guidance to ensure that all those getting that status claim support as soon as possible.

The cost of living payments from the Government are undoubtedly bringing real benefits to my constituents, but what support is available for those who are not eligible for that specific support?

I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to mention the household support fund, providing local authorities with further funding which is discretionary for those most in need, particularly those ineligible for cost of living payments. The latest year-long extension in England runs to March next year. Buckinghamshire Council received nearly £4.8 million in its latest extension.

The proposals in the work capability assessment activities and descriptors consultation will mean some claimants will lose £390 a month if they are reassessed, pushing them even further into poverty. Will the Minister or the Secretary of State please explain this huge financial impact on low-income people with disabilities or a serious health condition?

May we have specific detail on the help that jobcentres are giving to armed forces veterans, who must live with the consequences of decisions made by Governments?

A very pertinent point after the weekend when we paid tribute in our local communities and after what we saw on the Elizabeth Tower. The DWP continues to work to identify universal credit claimants who are members of the armed forces community, with 11 dedicated forces champion leads and over 50 armed forces champions across our jobcentre network working with spouses and partners, too.

Those Trussell Trust figures published last week made grim reading. Does the Secretary of State recognise that if working-age benefits are uprated by less than September’s rate of inflation in April next year, there will inevitably be another big surge in food bank demand and destitution?

The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. I take the uprating process extremely seriously, and, as he will know, I look at a number of factors, including the effects on poverty. However, as he will also understand, I am not able to comment on a parliamentary process that has not yet been concluded.

May I ask a question about auto-enrolment and pensions? What can the Secretary of State do to build on our good record by extending and increasing the total amount that young people—I see that there are schoolchildren in the Public Gallery—who retire on defined-contribution pensions are likely to be able to save in their retirement?

There are two key points here. Consolidation will make a massive difference, but more important is the transformation of workplace savings through auto-enrolment for young people. The figure has risen from below 40% to well over 80%, and it will get bigger as time moves on.

For those who suffer from endometriosis, Crohn’s disease and colitis, incontinence is a daily challenge. For the purpose of the Government’s proposed changes in the incontinence descriptor, what capability assessment has been done, and was there any consultation with those sufferers?

I hear the point that the hon. Lady has raised. We have, of course, had the consultation, and many views were expressed. We will now consider those views very carefully, and come forward as appropriate in the normal way.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I take advantage of a rather quiet news day to ask if there is any way in which I can place on record the appreciation of right hon. and hon. Members for the wise advice, quiet efficiency and unfailing courtesy of Mr Peter Barratt, who recently left the service of this House after more than 30 years?

I made a statement last week to thank Mr Barratt for all his service, so it has not gone unnoticed and has certainly not been forgotten.