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Topical Questions

Volume 742: debated on Monday 18 December 2023

May I begin by welcoming my new team to the Front Bench? Joining the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), and Lord Younger in the other place are the new Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I know that they will make a great contribution to the Department. Let me also thank those who have departed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) and my hon. Friends the Members for Corby (Tom Pursglove) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who have important other duties in Government.

This has been a year of considerable achievement for my Department. We have already heard about the cost of living payments, the support for the most vulnerable, the 6.7% increase in working-age benefits, the 8.5% increase in respect of the triple lock for pensioners, welfare reform, near-record levels of payroll employment and almost historically low levels of unemployment, and rising real wages.

I welcome the Government’s decision to boost childcare payments for parents on universal credit by almost 50%, which the Work and Pensions Committee pushed for. I have asked the Department to review childcare rules for parents in training and education, but can my right hon. Friend outline the other ways in which the Government are supporting low-income families in Stroud?

My hon. Friend is being too modest in laying all the progress at the door of the Select Committee, because it was she in particular who pushed for those reforms to childcare within universal credit, and I believe that she was quite rightly name-checked by the Chancellor in his Budget statement. We of course have the back to work plan, the extension of restart, the doubling of universal support, the greatest-ever increase in the national living wage and the reductions in employee national insurance, all of which are there to drive further employment.

During the recent covid inquiry, the former Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), said that statutory sick pay was “far too low” and that if he had a magic wand, he would fix it. Given that the Secretary of State has the magic wand, as the Minister responsible for this, when is he going to fix it?

I am certainly not going to start making policy up on the hoof at the Dispatch Box this afternoon or promising more money for statutory sickness pay. That would require discussions across Government, but I note the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

T2. I welcome this Government’s back to work plan and the emphasis on work being the most effective way out of poverty. What support can be made available for people in high unemployment areas to travel or relocate to areas of low unemployment such as Banff and Buchan, which have high numbers of vacancies, particularly in the seafood processing sector? (900723)

I thank my hon. Friend and note his relentless support for the seafood industry more broadly and the processing industry in particular. I understand that the former Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), visited Scotland earlier this year to look at that industry. Work coaches offer tailored employment support to all jobseekers and the flexible support fund is available at the discretion of jobcentres to purchase goods and services, including travel, to support claimants to move from one area to another in order to take up job opportunities. I know that my hon. Friend is working hard in his local area to find solutions, and I am always happy to discuss ideas with him.

T4. Many people took the decision to pay for pension top-ups in 2020 and 2021, but in numerous instances this has not led to any increase in their state pension; nor have they received any explanation or a refund. Has the Department made an assessment of the average delay in people receiving their pension top-ups? (900725)

The advice to anyone seeking to top up their pension or buy extra national insurance credits would be to ring the Future Pension Centre in advance of making any payments, to determine whether they would actually enhance their pension by making them. It is always best for people to check before they make those payments, to make sure that they will improve their pension.

T5. Ministers are rightly putting a great deal of money and focus behind back to work programmes across the country. What progress have they made towards transparently publishing the outcomes so that we can see which programmes perform better or worse in different parts of the country and why? (900726)

The DWP regularly publishes statistics on its employment programmes, and the latest statistical release of the restart programme was published on 7 December. The back to work plan announced further measures to tackle long-term unemployment, such as mandatory placements for those who complete restart without securing a job. The policy detail, including the reporting, is yet to be worked through.

T6. It is vital that local authorities such as Gateshead and voluntary community organisations know as soon as possible whether the household support fund will be extended beyond March. Can the Secretary of State confirm when they will finally get a definitive answer on this? (900727)

As the hon. Lady will know, these are matters for the Treasury, and specifically for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He and I have conversations on these matters and others. Announcements will be made in due course, but of course the household support fund will be in place until the end of March.

T7. At this time of year, the Department gives benefit recipients a generous Christmas gift of £10, which has not been increased for, I think, 51 years. Will the Secretary of State look to make it at least £20 next year, to help people a bit more with the extra costs at Christmas? (900728)

As pensions Minister, my main focus is on making sure that we have a high-quality, sustainable pension system that, year on year, keeps the value of the overall state pension as high as possible and that meets our manifesto commitment to the triple lock. That is the best way of focusing on the value of the state pension.

Twenty months ago, the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued a section 23 agreement request to the Department, following concerns regarding breaches and potential discrimination against disabled people. Why has the Department still not reached an agreement?

As the hon. Lady will know, there are ongoing discussions on these matters. By virtue of the legislation that underpins those interactions, the discussions are necessarily held in private. I am informed that they have resulted in positive engagement, and that the Department and the EHRC will come forward with a response as soon as possible.

T8. The world’s biggest Lidl warehouse, in Houghton Regis, is not only half a kilometre long and can deliver 9,400 pallets a day; it is also creating 1,500 jobs. What specific help can Jobcentre Plus give to employers such as Lidl, which has a huge number of vacancies to fill in my constituency? (900730)

It is fantastic to hear of the job opportunities created by Lidl in South West Bedfordshire. I know my hon. Friend will be working hard with Lidl and his local jobcentre to make sure the vacancies are filled with local talent. Jobcentres can work closely with large employers, as I have recently seen at Morrisons, which has a specific neurodiversity pilot to bring people into the job market. The barriers that restrict neurodiverse people are often challenges around confidence and so on. Jobcentres are a brilliant force for good, and I recommend that everybody engages with them on bespoke schemes for neurodiversity or any other focus on tackling long-term unemployment.

In 2010 there were 117,000 16 to 24-year-olds on long-term sickness and health benefits. That figure now stands at a massive 235,000. Why is that, and what are the Government doing about those appalling figures?

The hon. Gentleman is right. There has been a marked increase in the prevalence of mental health conditions, particularly among those aged 16 to 24, which is why we are bringing in measures such as universal support and talking therapies within the national health service, for which 400,000 additional places were announced by the Chancellor at the autumn statement. We have introduced measures such as WorkWell, and others, to address exactly these issues.

I have patiently sat through questions, and I have not heard Disability Confident mentioned once. Disability Confident was, and I hope still is, a very successful scheme that I launched when I was a Minister—I went around the country with Simon Weston. Can I have confidence that the scheme is still in place?

My right hon. Friend will be delighted to know it is at the heart of the work that the Employment Minister spoke about today. It is at the heart of our disability action plan, which Members will hear more about in the new year. I advise all employers to focus on being disability confident and employing with confidence, rather than just writing about it on a website.

After the UK Government appallingly downgraded the dedicated role of disabilities Minister, Scope’s executive director, James Taylor, wrote to the Prime Minister saying that

“the UK’s 16 million disabled people deserve so much better than this treatment.”

It is a clear message that the UK Government do not view disabled people as a priority. Will this Government urgently reverse their decision and reinstate the role?

That is a complete misunderstanding; the hon. Lady refers to reinstating the role, but all the responsibilities of the previous disability Minister have been taken over by the current one, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), who happens to be the most experienced Minister in my Department. She is extraordinarily capable; she absolutely understands the issues and will do a fantastic job.

I warmly welcome the new disabilities Minister, as I know she shares my passion for closing the autism employment gap. Will she work with me, as we reach the closing stages of my independent review of autism and employment, to make sure that the publication of the report will be the beginning of a process whereby we can dramatically tackle the scandal of having fewer than three in 10 autistic adults in employment?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the opportunity to build on that incredible work, which will be life-changing for many of our constituents. The people we are talking about today are not statistics; they are humans, and they need to have a real difference in their lives. For Opposition Members, and everyone else listening today, let me say that I am determined to make sure that those people have a voice across Government and that I use my experience to deliver.

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), a recent report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggested that destitution in Northern Ireland is set to rise to 67%. That is a truly horrific and worrying figure. What discussions has the Minister had with partners back home in Northern Ireland on this matter?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this point. Our focus is on tackling poverty and making sure that work supports everyone across the UK. I am delighted to be coming to Northern Ireland fairly soon, when I will pick up those discussions further.

The great working city of Gloucester has a high employment rate, but we still have some people who could help to fill vacancies in both city and county. So the Gloucester opportunities fair on 23 February provides a great opportunity not just for all my constituents, including to get free advice on debt, volunteering and benefits, but perhaps for the new Employment Minister, whom I welcome to her place, to come to join us in celebrating the availability in Gloucester and the support for those working there.

My constituents Susan and David Cfas have made representations to me about the situation facing them and many other pensioners who are having to access benefits and other Government support because they are stuck in an annuity trap, whereby at retirement they posted an annuity, which has remained fixed. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the plight of pensioners in that situation to see whether more can be done to encourage them to access different approaches to increase their income?

That is certainly one reason why we are trying to get people to engage in a more considered way with what they do at the point of the decumulation of their pension funds, but I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his specific concerns about annuities in due course.

The Trussell Trust has recently reported that in the past year there has been an 80% increase in the number of children in Stretford and Urmston being supported with food parcels. Can the Minister tell me why it believes that is the case?

The record speaks for itself: this Government have been behind £104 billion-worth of support for the most vulnerable over the period 2022 to 2025; poverty in absolute terms, after housing, has fallen by 1.7 million since 2009-10, when the hon. Gentleman’s party was last in office; we have 400,000 fewer children and 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolutely poverty—under the last Labour Government, we had the fourth highest level of pensioner poverty in Europe; and we have put the national living wage up by 9.8% and cut taxes as well.

May I add my warm welcome to my near neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex, as the new disabilities Minister? Does she acknowledge that one feature of covid has been a big increase in the incidence of mental health issues, particularly among younger people? What is her Department doing to tailor its programmes to get those non-working parts of the population who have not been working since covid and are suffering from mental health challenges back into the workforce?

I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me to this brief. I will still be very much focused on young people and those key transitions in their lives. We have our reform relating to universal support, our fit note reform and our WorkWell partnerships, which launched on 16 November and will support 60,000 long-term sick and disabled people to start, stay and succeed in work. The youth hubs we have at the Department for Work and Pensions, which are focused on the under-25s, zero in on this issue in particular.