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Work and Pensions

Volume 742: debated on Monday 18 December 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Job Vacancies: Stroud

I had the great pleasure of visiting my hon. Friend’s jobcentre in April. Since then, it has been closed temporarily, I believe, and moved to Gloucester. I am sure there is no connection. [Interruption.] I am really sure, I can reassure the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). Of course, it does a fantastic job in matching jobs through work coaches, jobs fairs, recruitment days and an extensive skills offering.

Work experience is often really hard to nail down—places go to those with friends and family in the sector, and employers are really busy. That is particularly so for small skilled manufacturing businesses in Stroud, so I am working with employability experts Finito to launch a campaign for low-fuss shadowing work experience across the board. We want to allow everybody, young and old, to find out more about weird and wonderful jobs, and to allow employers to assess candidates. Is that something my right hon. Friend is interested in, and will he meet me to discuss it?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question, and I would be delighted for either me or the relevant Minister to meet her. I know the terrific work she has done, particularly with organisations such as Finito, in getting young people ready for work. Indeed, I believe she set up the all-party parliamentary group on the future of employability. I am very happy to have a meeting.

Access to Work

Access to Work remains in high demand. We are increasing the number of staff processing Access to Work claims, and prioritising renewal applications for those with a job start within four weeks. We are improving the service through increased digitisation to improve the time from application through to decision.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Back in September, I asked the then Minister about the impact of long waiting times for Access to Work assessments on the neurodiverse, and I would like to press further on the impact of long waits for assessments in the NHS. What analysis has been done, and does the Minister appreciate the cost to the economy of not making the right adjustments to unlock such unused potential?

I thank the hon. Member for his point. I, too, pressed the previous Minister on this matter, and I shall be pressing myself going forward. In fact, we met and fed in work involving Thriiver in my constituency, and we have been working with stakeholders, partners and employer organisations to make sure this link is joined up. We are determined that Access to Work will continue to be fit for purpose, and that we will deliver a modern and efficient digital service. Our new online portal is part of that. I think it is key to hear the experiences and to link up with other Departments.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her new expanded role in the Department for Work and Pensions. The last time I raised Access to Work with her, it was about a particular blockage in my constituency, and I thank her for resolving that. She will know as well as I do that one of the biggest challenges for young disabled people is the transition into work. What reassurance can she give me that she is prioritising the applications of young people, so that when they move into their first job, that is not impeded by too slow a reaction from Access to Work?

I thank my right hon. Friend, and I hope I am the Minister for getting things done in this brief, as I have been in all my other briefs in my almost five years at the DWP. I will be leaning very much into those details. I will be very clear with the House that the focus on youth transitions is really important for the sector and for the individual people we are talking about. I agree with my right hon. Friend, and I will be looking into that in the new year.

It is a pleasure to welcome the new Minister to her post. After a week of no news, I was starting to worry that the Prime Minister was not going to appoint anyone. I think she is aware of the huge Access to Work backlog her predecessor failed to tackle. Over the last year, it has reduced by only 942, with a staggering 24,339 still waiting, so hardly a dent has been made. What will she do to speed this up and ensure that thousands of disabled people are not left waiting months to start work?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome to this post, and I hope that I have already spelled out my commitment to delivering in this brief. I think that prioritising the process of Access to Work claims, renewals and job starts within four weeks is key, as is making sure that those with mental health support needs get additional support and that those who are deaf or hard of hearing also get that focus and that reach. I assure the hon. Lady that we have increased the number of staff in this space. On my handover from the previous Minister, I would take issue with the hon. Lady about the focus he had on reforming Access to Work and making sure it was fit for purpose, but I am happy to engage with her further.

All we see from this Government are delays: delays processing Access to Work applications; delays publishing the disability action plan; and now delays in appointing the new Minister. When her new role was finally announced, it had been downgraded from Minister of State to Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. What message does she think that sends to disabled people, and will she push to be made Minister of State like her predecessor?

I thank the hon. Lady for lobbying for my elevation and rank in this House. I am delighted to respond by making it clear to the lobby and to those we are talking about and looking after that that makes no material difference to their day-to-day life. There is no difference in my convening power or in the day-to-day work. Our next cross-Government ministerial disability champions meeting is in the new year. Let me be clear: this is not about rank. We are sent to this House to serve people and to engage and listen, and I will do that whatever the title or rank.

Long-term Unemployment

It is a pleasure to be back, Mr Speaker. We are delivering a suite of measures as part of the back to work plan, supporting customers on their journey to employment. That is focused on developing skills and building confidence through interventions such as the restart scheme. We are working across Government to support those with health conditions get back to work, with programmes such as our WorkWell service.

As a Conservative MP from a working-class background, I believe fundamentally in aspiration, hard work and fairness. Does my hon. Friend agree that the benefit system must be a safety net for those in genuine need, and that those people who can work should work?

I thank my hon. Friend because he speaks perfectly for those of us across the Conservative family. Work is positive, a force for good, and the system should be fair to the taxpayer and the claimant, with checks and balances. It is right that, on average, those in work are some £6,000 better off per year. Universal credit was introduced and further rolled out because it is a welfare system that makes work pay.

Skills are clearly key to supporting the long-term unemployed to find work. Buckinghamshire Council is launching a series of skills bootcamps, targeted at the long-term unemployed. For example, one bootcamp will provide construction skills, including a construction skills certification scheme card, plus support to reach self-employment and wraparound support on how to set up a company. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Buckinghamshire Council on that initiative, and say what more she can do to ensure that those who need to upgrade their skills base are able to do so?

I am delighted to congratulate not only Buckinghamshire Council but my hon. Friend on the fantastic work he does in his constituency. Upskilling jobseekers, particularly in areas such as construction where we need more domestic workers, is vital. The Department for Work and Pensions continues to support individuals into employment through back to work programmes such as the restart scheme, which provides tailored training programmes and sector-based work academy programmes similar to those mentioned by my hon. Friend. It offers training, work placements, and guaranteed job interviews, and I am committed to exploring what more can be done.

Earlier today I met Everyone’s Environment, and we talked about how we can ensure that people with disabilities benefit from some of the new green jobs and training that are coming on board. I know that the Minister’s predecessor as Minister for employment sat on the green jobs delivery group, so will she say what involvement she has had with that group to date?

I have already had a meeting of the inter-ministerial group on green jobs, and I have met many of those from across the disability sector. When I was a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I sat on the inter-ministerial groups for green jobs and for disability access. It is vital that we use everybody’s talents, because work is a force for good. Someone’s disability should not stop their talent shining, and I will not let it do so.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for that response. Many of the long-term unemployed have disabilities. Some of them cannot work, but some wish to work, and they need flexible hours because they do not know the times and days that they will not be able to work and will be off. What can be done to help those who have disabilities get into work, so long as their health can dictate when?

We have a whole suite in the back to work plan and the investment of £2.5 billion so that we can work with individual people to tailor plans for them. It is vital that if, for example, someone’s health condition restricts when they can travel on public transport, we work with them to ensure that they can travel after rush hour. They might need a taxi or some other tailored support. That can be done, and it will be done.

Employment Rate: OBR Forecast

4. What assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of the employment rate forecast in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s economic and fiscal outlook published in November 2023. (900700)

17. What assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of the employment rate forecast in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s economic and fiscal outlook published in November 2023. (900716)

The Government are committed to increasing employment. Payroll employment is at a near record high of 30.2 million, which is up 1.2 million on the pre-pandemic level. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that our back to work plan will see 30,000 more people in work over the forecast period.

The OBR revealed at the time of the autumn statement that after more than 13 years of this Conservative Government, 600,000 more people will be on health and disability benefits by 2028-29. Far from it being a back to work Budget, the Secretary of State knows that that is not anything like the truth and that the Tories are failing the employment market in this country.

I cannot agree with that. In fact, I point the hon. Gentleman to the figure of 371,000, which is the number of people fewer the OBR forecasts will be on those very long-term sickness and disability benefits because of the reforms that this Government are bringing in.

Last week, the Office for National Statistics published figures showing that 6.6% of people of working age in Bradford are claiming out-of-work benefits, which is the highest rate in the Leeds city region. Does the Secretary of State believe that the Government’s back to work plan is working for people in my constituency of Bradford South?

The back to work plan has billions of pounds-worth of investment behind it, including the £3.5 billion announced by the Chancellor in the spring Budget. Such things as extending restart, bringing forward mandatory placements after 18 months to ensure that people get into work and doubling universal support are important measures that will see increased numbers in work.

All we hear from the Secretary of State on employment is smoke and mirrors, but thankfully the OBR has published the numbers. We have just heard what he believes is happening with employment because of his policies, but when the OBR looked at his policies, did its forecast show the employment rate, compared with today, to be going up or down in 2024-25?

I have already shared the figures with the House, which are that payroll employment is at a near historic high and unemployment is at a near historic low. As the hon. Lady will know, we have never had a Labour Government leave office with unemployment lower at the end of their term than when they started. Youth unemployment went up 45% under the Labour party, whereas under this Conservative Government it has reduced by 45%.

You can always tell the Conservatives are struggling to answer the questions, Mr Speaker, because they go back to those same old things about what happened under the last Labour Government. After 13 years, they have nothing to be proud of. If what the Secretary of State said was true, we might expect that after a little time some of his policies would work, but is it not true that it is not just next year that the OBR forecasts the employment rate to be down, but the year after that, too?

We will continue to bear down on the level of unemployment. As the hon. Lady knows, economic inactivity has reduced, and we have 300,000 fewer people in economic inactivity than at the peak during the pandemic. We have a plan. Is it not the reality that the Opposition have no plan and no ideas as to how to get those numbers down? We do, and it is working.

Welfare Fraud and Error

5. What steps his Department is taking to reduce levels of fraud and error in the welfare system. (900701)

In 2022-23, fraud and error fell by 10%. We are investing £900 million in addition to that which we have already put forward to prevent £2.4 billion of fraud and error by 2024-25.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and welcome the measures the Government are taking. On the new powers to search through bank accounts to look for fraudulent transactions, can he confirm that the Government will seek to use them only where fraud is suspected and will not, as some people have suggested, search every state pensioner’s bank account to look for something that almost certainly will not be there?

I thank my hon. Friend for what is a very important question, because there has been a great deal of scaremongering about what exactly these powers are about. I can make it categorically clear from the Dispatch Box that these powers are there to make sure that, in instances where there is a clear signal of fraud or error, my Department is able to take action. In the absence of that, it will not.

The cost of living payments are a vital means of support during the cost of living crisis, but my constituent has lost out, through no fault of her own, because of the well-known issue whereby two of her work paydays fell within the assessment period used to assess eligibility. Will the Government review the eligibility process for the third cost of living payments to ensure that no one else misses out?

This is a long-standing issue that crops up every few years. It is not something on which the Government intend to take specific action. We trust people to manage their finances, such that they can cope with the occasional eventuality where there is an additional year within any one calendar year.

Insecure Employment and Poverty

This Government have made it clear that we believe that work is the best route out of poverty. It is important for different types of work to exist, as each individual worker’s circumstances are personal to them, and DWP has an in-work progression offer to support low-paid claimants to progress into better-paid and more secure employment.

Does the Minister agree that the difference between insecure or exploitative work and going plural with a portfolio of well-paid freelance or part-time roles depends on how valuable someone’s skills are? Ministers are rightly offering fresh opportunities for jobseekers to improve their skills, but in a post-pandemic world that is very different from what went before, what plans does she have to revisit and update the recommendations of the Taylor review to protect people whose skills have not yet been upgraded?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. As someone who was self-employed for not far off 15 years, I understand where he is coming from. Our work coaches at Jobcentre Plus offices engage with claimants to support access to skills provision. They get a comprehensive range of support, which includes apprenticeships, skills bootcamps, vocational and basic training skills, and careers advice, so that they can work in a way that suits them. Less than 1% of workers on zero-hours contracts want more hours—it is more about caring or other flexibilities—but I am happy to look at the points he has raised in the Chamber today.[Official Report, 19 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 10MC.]

Last week, Uber came to Parliament to brief MPs on partnerships it has set up to support its drivers, including its recognition agreement with the GMB trade union. All Uber private hire drivers are now auto-enrolled into a pension, but legal uncertainty means that that is not the case for Uber’s competitors. Is it not high time for the Government to bring forward their employment Bill, which was promised after the Taylor review, to provide a level playing field for employers and to tackle these problems of insecurity in the gig economy?

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his question. In fact, I have an Uber T-shirt from my time as employment Minister, which the company gave me when it brought in the pension. I applaud the work that Uber has done to support its workforce. The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is actually for another Department, but I will take those messages away.

Child Poverty

In 2023-24 we are spending around £124 billion through the welfare system on people of working age and children. Evidence shows the importance of work in reducing the risk of child poverty. With over 900,000 vacancies across the UK, our focus is on supporting parents into, and to progress within, work. Our recent autumn statement announcements, which included the back to work plan, increasing benefits and increasing the national living wage, are all part of our clear approach to ensuring that everybody gets the right support to progress and thrive.

I hear what the Minister says, but a recent report from UNICEF showed that of 39 OECD and EU countries, the UK came last in terms of improvements in child poverty between 2012 and 2021. As a result, one in five children in my constituency of Stretford and Urmston are growing up in poverty. What more can the Minister do to address this truly appalling situation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that report. I have looked at it, and it is important that we react to it. I point to our record of action. When it comes to further support for households with low incomes, we have heard in the Chamber—indeed, the Secretary of State mentioned this—about raising local housing allowance back to the 30th percentile, which will benefit 1.6 million low-income households by, on average, £800 a year in 2024-25. When that is added to the national living wage, the uprating of benefits and the availability of work, we are determined that those families will progress.

According to End Child Poverty, 30% of children in Lewisham East were in poverty in 2021-22, while Lewisham food banks have seen a 42% increase compared to 2022. That comes after 13 years of this Conservative Government. To make matters worse, the reported cut to the national household support fund means that more than £13 million for households across Lewisham have been taken away. Is the Minister really serious about showing the leadership needed to stop families in my constituency from falling into destitution?

I am really serious about supporting our young people. In fact, in Lewisham the household support fund, which is my domain, has allocated an additional £13.3 million to support the hon. Lady’s constituents. There are local hubs for debt management and engagement with the local authority, and warm welcome hubs. I say to anybody struggling in her constituency to look at the benefits calculators, and indeed help for households, on gov.uk.

Figures from the Trussell Trust show that in the six months between April and September, food banks in the north-east provided a record 26,000 emergency food parcels for children, with the need having doubled over the past five years. The majority of families who turn to food banks do so because their income, whether from social security or from wages, is too low to afford the basic essentials. Will the Minister explain why the current design of universal credit is failing these families?

As we have heard from the Secretary of State, 400,000 fewer children are in absolute poverty, and we thank our food banks for the work they do in supporting our communities. We do take this seriously. We have added food security questions to the family resources survey, and we will absolutely look at that. I would point to the hon. Member’s constituency having been allocated an additional £8 million in the last household support fund for exactly those families.

On Friday, pupils at Shaftesbury Junior School in my constituency gave me the lovely Christmas earrings that I am wearing, which they made themselves using computer-aided design. I am so proud of all their achievements, especially when more than a third of Leicester’s children are growing up in poverty, with all the challenges that brings. As my hon. Friends have said, figures from UNICEF show that under this Government the UK has had the biggest increase in child poverty out of the world’s 40 wealthiest countries. My question is simple: what is the Minister going to do about it?

The hon. Lady will have heard about our work on the LHA. I am extremely proud of the difference that it will make to families in her constituency and mine. With almost 1 million job vacancies across the UK, our firm believe is that supporting all families to progress and do well is the right thing to do. That comes with the full uprating that we have done this year on working-age benefits and supporting the LHA. The hon. Lady made the point that it has been a difficult time, and the household support fund and the cost of living payments, which start again on 6 February, will assist.

The Minister is completely out of touch with the reality facing families in Britain today: 3.8 million people face severe hardship this year, including 1 million children. Quite frankly, that is a shameful figure that has almost trebled since this Government abolished Labour’s Child Poverty Act 2010. Millions of parents are now worried about how they will feed, clothe or keep their children warm this Christmas, let along how they will buy them presents. When will the Minister change course, follow Labour’s lead and deliver a cross-Government child poverty strategy that gives every child the start in life that they deserve?

We will absolutely not follow Labour’s lead—let us look at their record. People might be worried ahead of Christmas. Cost of living payments, the household support fund, the benefits calculator and help for households are all out there. I want the people watching now to know that support is there. Progression will vary depending on circumstances; we have a tailored approach. We have 37 district progression leads to help exactly those families that the hon. Lady talks about.

The actions that we take to lift children out of poverty say an awful lot about our values. In Scotland, we have lifted 90,000 children out of poverty, with measures such as the game-changing Scottish child payment. Here in London, we have a Westminster Government, supported by the Labour party, wedded to a two-child policy that pushes 250,000 children into poverty. What does the Minister think it says about Westminster’s values on child poverty that they are wedded to a two-child policy with a rape clause?

Adults in workless households are seven times more likely to be in poverty than those in working households. That is why our focus is on work. The Scotland Act 2016 gave the Scottish Parliament the powers that have been invoked, including on the child payment, and that is very pleasing for us. The Act transferred those powers for carers and disability benefits, worth £3.3 billion. The hon. Gentleman and his Government can make the decisions that suit their communities. That is the right approach.

Cost of Living: Pensioners

More than 8 million pensioner households will receive a £300 payment this winter to top up their winter fuel allowance payment. The 1.4 million pensioners currently in receipt of pension credit may also receive cost of living payments totalling up to £900 in 2023-24.

In Southport we have a significant number of pensioners who, having lost their partners, now face the added challenge of managing increased living costs alone. Can the Minister kindly elaborate on what specific initiatives or support mechanisms are in place to assist people in those financially difficult circumstances, to ensure that they get the support they deserve?

Anyone who suffers a bereavement at any time will potentially be in severe financial difficulties. I direct my hon. Friend to the funeral expenses payment, which is part of the social fund. I would also point to the wider measures that we have taken, such as applying the triple lock—there will be an 8.5% increase in the state pension next year. We will also include cost of living payments in the winter fuel payment, of £500 or £600, depending on the age of the recipient.

Despite the welcome fall in inflation, my constituent Deborah Garrard speaks for herself and many pensioners who are concerned about a second winter of high fuel prices. Will my hon. Friend outline what further measures the Department is considering to help reduce pensioners’ financial burden?

I know that Mrs Garrard will not be the only older resident in the country concerned about energy prices this winter. I just mentioned the increased cost of living payment that we are adding to the winter fuel payment. In addition, we have increased the warm home discount to up to £150, and there is a whole suite of cold weather payments that can be made in the event of seven days of sustained cold weather. We have a wide range of measures to help support people when faced with cold weather and high energy costs.

Work Incentives

Universal credit is specifically designed to make work pay, with strong financial incentives such as the 55% earnings taper and work allowances. Working families can also get support with up to 85% of their childcare costs. The maximum amounts have been increased by 47%, up to £950 for one child and £1,630 for two or more children. Additionally, the rise in the national living wage from April means that some 2.7 million workers will be £1,800 better off, on average, as well as benefiting from national insurance cuts.

I thank the Minister for her answer and welcome her back to the Front Bench. Basildon jobcentre recently hosted two health and social care recruitment events, which resulted in the filling of 20 vacancies, helping to reduce local unemployment. Does the Minister agree that work is the best route out of poverty and that it is this Government who are helping more people into work and aligning vacancies with employees?

First, I would just like to take a minute to thank Basildon jobcentre, and indeed all jobcentres, for the work they do, from Chorley to the west country and back to the east. Targeted recruitment fairs are a great way to work with specific sectors that have shortages, including health and social care, construction, manufacturing, and hospitality. My hon. Friend is right that getting more people into work is a top priority for the Department and across Government. We know that it is good for wellbeing, both personally and financially, and those in work are on average £6,000 better off a year.

UNICEF Report on Child Poverty

12. Whether he has made an assessment of the potential implications for his policies of UNICEF’s report entitled “Child Poverty in the Midst of Wealth”. (900709)

The overall number of children in absolute poverty after housing costs remained stable between 2020-21 and 2021-22. The latest statistics show that in 2021-22 there were 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty, after housing costs, than in 2009-10. The Government continue to provide comprehensive support to help people find, progress in and thrive in work, recognising that that has to be sustainable in tackling poverty.

A couple of weeks ago, when I asked the Prime Minister why 34% of children in Stockton North live in poverty, he claimed that child poverty was down. But even if we rely on his and his Government’s unique measuring tool, child poverty is still up, considerably, across every part of the north-east under his watch. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1 million British children have suffered destitution in the past year. When will the Prime Minister and his Ministers stop pretending that they care and make way for a Labour Government who will sort out the mess that shames the Tories?

The Government are determined to ensure that all children, wherever they come from, have the best start in life. We are committed to supporting families and helping them into work. The full uprating, this year and last, is the signal.

Destitution

14. What steps his Department is taking to help reduce the number of people experiencing destitution. (900712)

The Government are, of course, fully committed to protecting the most vulnerable, which is why we rolled out £104 billion in cost of living payments across the period from 2022 to 2025. It is why, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), has repeatedly stressed, we increased the rates for the LHA housing support, and why benefits increased by the full 6.7%.

It is absolutely heartbreaking that in the world’s sixth-richest country we now have 4 million people living in destitution. We know that disabled people are more likely to live in poverty, yet this winter disabled people will not be getting any additional help with the cost of living after the separate disability cost of living payment was quietly dropped. The cost of living for disabled people is still going up, so will the Secretary of State commit to reinstating the payment, and at a level that meets the extra living costs faced by disabled people?

I am not sure precisely which disability payment the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but certainly the cost of living disability payment has been paid this year, in addition to the increase in the national living wage, tax cuts and national insurance tax cuts, all of which help people, particularly those on low pay. That is why, under this Government, the level of absolutely poverty has fallen by 1.7 million since 2010, with 400,000 fewer children in poverty.

Flexible Working

15. Whether he has made an assessment of the role of flexible working arrangements in supporting people to take up employment. (900714)

Flexible working can play an important role in supporting people to start, stay in and succeed in work, and for businesses to grow. I have already seen at first hand examples of good employers offering tailored roles or changed hours to support workers, particularly parents, who have caring responsibilities. Flexibility has made a difference and drives success for all.

As the Minister mentioned, the hospital industry—especially in coastal constituencies such as mine—is suffering disproportionately from high vacancy levels exacerbated by covid and the shift in working patterns. What more can the Government do to encourage smarter working and job sharing? For example, students and younger people could work some of the later and weekend hours—the less social hours—sharing with parents with family responsibilities, who could work more regular hours during the daytime.

The UK hospitality industry does a fantastic job, particularly at this time of the year when it is helping us to enjoy the festive season. I am providing help and collaboration by delivering pilot schemes across the industry. In particular, we are developing a more standardised approach to training, which includes a proposal to award a hospitality skills passport. We need to do all we can with workers to build confidence and the right skills. I am interested by my hon. Friend’s idea of helping employers to refocus where the needs are, and I shall be happy to work with him, because hospitality offers a great career and transferable skills.

Defined-benefit Pension Schemes

16. Whether he has had recent discussions with the Pensions Regulator on the adequacy of the administration of defined-benefit pension schemes. (900715)

I am fortunate in having already been able to meet representatives of the Pensions Regulator twice since my appointment to discuss the full gamut of their responsibilities.

Members of the BP pension scheme, a defined-benefit scheme, have seen the value of their pensions fall by 11% in real terms as a consequence of their senior management’s refusal to upgrade them in line with the cost of living, although the pension fund itself has a £5 billion surplus. Does the Minister agree that if the rules allow companies such as BP to deal from the bottom of the deck when it comes to their own pensioners, these are rules that need to be changed?

That is certainly something I need to look into. When people raise the issue of specific pension schemes, I am always conscious of just how many thousands of scheme members are potentially watching, so I do not wish to speak off the cuff and raise hopes that I may not be able to fulfil. However, I shall be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss the circumstances in greater detail and see what can be done.

Long-term Sickness and Disability

21. What steps his Department is taking to encourage people who are economically inactive owing to long-term sickness and disability to return to work. (900721)

The Government have a range of initiatives to help disabled people and people with health conditions to start, stay in and succeed in work. We built on that in the autumn statement by expanding universal support, launching WorkWell pilots, reforming the fit note and establishing an expert group on occupational health.

Does the Minister agree that the Disability Confident jobs fair that I am hosting in Holyhead with my brilliant Anglesey DWP team is an opportunity for excellent local businesses such as Hafan y Môr and Llechwedd Meats, and organisations such as Môn Communities Forward and the Menter Môn enterprise hub, to help people with disabilities back into work, and will she lobby the Secretary of State to visit Ynys Môn in February to open the disability jobs fair?

I do not want to commit the Secretary of State, but I have a feeling that he will be in Ynys Môn in February. I thank my hon. Friend for the huge amount of work that she does in respect of local jobcentres, and for her work with those employers. I met her just last week to discuss her focus on young people. Her Local Jobs for Local People campaign is a great example of her tireless work for the future of the community in Ynys Môn—so, iechyd da!

Topical Questions

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.