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Topical Questions

Volume 740: debated on Monday 13 November 2023

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.