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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 745: debated on Monday 5 February 2024

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Saving for the Future

Automatic enrolment has succeeded in transforming pension savings, with more than 11 million employees being automatically enrolled in a workplace pension since 2012 and an additional £29 billion in real terms saved into marketplace pensions in 2022 compared with 2012.

I was very pleased when the Government brought in auto-enrolment for pensions in 2012, as making sure that everyone saves for a pension should prevent pension poverty. What is the rate of take-up of these pensions and what provisions are the Government putting in place to help those on low wages build up a pension pot to help provide a decent income in retirement?

The increase in take-up since 2012 has been extraordinary, particularly among women, for whom the rate was 40% in 2012 and is now 86% and in line with men. My hon. Friend will know about the 2017 review that we conducted on auto-enrolment. As and when we bring in those changes, that will mean 3 million more people auto-enrolled with £2 billion of additional savings each year.

I am chair of the insurance and financial services all-party parliamentary group, and financial inclusion has been one of our key areas of focus, particularly following the pandemic which showed that anybody has the potential to quickly become vulnerable. What are the Government doing to increase the financial resilience of our constituents and make them best placed to cope should such an unforeseen event happen again?

May I first recognise the fantastic work my hon. Friend does on financial resilience? The Government have, through very difficult times, come forward with £104 billion of cost of living payments between 2022 and 2025. I would point my hon. Friend to one particular scheme: the help to save scheme encourages low-income households to save and we have recently extended that by 18 months, until April 2025.

I agree with the Secretary of State about the cross-party success of auto-enrolment, which has doubled the proportion of eligible employees saving for retirement, but we know that the current regular auto-enrolment contribution of 8% of earnings is not enough to deliver the standard of living in retirement that most people hope for. Does the Secretary of State recognise that that minimum level of contribution will need to be increased?

The contribution rates of the employer and employee are a very important matter, and we keep both under review.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

When I was 16, my mother took me to Danske bank—or Northern bank as it was then—and opened an account for me. When I was 18, my mother phoned up the pension man in Ballywalter and told him I needed a pension. My mother has been a big guide in my life. What would the Secretary of State say to encourage the young people of today to take their mother’s advice on opening bank and pension accounts and planning for the future?

I think the response to that is, always take your mother’s advice. I always did—and look where it got me. At the age of 16, I would have thought the hon. Gentleman would have been saving into a piggy bank, putting his little pennies in a porcelain pig. I direct him to the website, where there is a plethora of information for young people and those of all ages about saving and what the Government are doing to assist.

One of the simplest ways to get people saving for the future is by ensuring that they are enrolled in a pension scheme, but all too many are currently excluded from auto-enrolment, particularly women, who are twice as likely to miss out. The Government have known about this problem for years. They first proposed widening the criteria in 2017. Last year, thanks to a private Member’s Bill, the Minister was given the power to do just that, but still we have seen no update on when this will be implemented. Can the Secretary of State shed light on when these vital changes will take place?

The hon. Lady draws attention to savings for women. I have already stated that 40% of women invested in workplace pensions back in 2012, and that has skyrocketed to 86% today. There are now 2.3 million employers providing pensions through the auto-enrolment route, and there is £29 billion more in workplace pensions in 2024 than was the case in 2012. The hon. Lady refers, I think, to the 2017 review, which I have already referred to. That is currently under review.

Long-term Sickness: Employment

This Government have a range of initiatives to support disabled people and people with long-term sickness to start, stay and succeed in work. At the autumn statement, we built on that by expanding universal support, launching WorkWell pilots and establishing work on the reform of the fit note.

My hon. Friend will know about the excellent work being done by people such as my Maltby constituent, Ian Birch, and all his colleagues at Reed in Partnership across the whole of Rotherham. They use DWP funding to help those with long-term issues of sickness and illness to get back into work and on their feet. What is her Department doing to make sure that those who go through these programmes stay in work permanently and contribute to the local economy?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the value of our local DWP programmes. In Rother Valley, the Reed in Partnership approach has given vital support to his constituents, helping them into work. It is vital to keep supporting them to remain there, and that is where that particular programme helps. Access to Work and our Disability Confident scheme are just some of the initiatives to support disabled people and those with health conditions while in employment.

Half the women surveyed with endometriosis had to take time off work often or very often because of their condition, and one in six women had to give up work altogether. Will the Minister meet the incredible women from Endometriosis Support Hull and East Yorkshire to discuss the work they are doing with the local trade unions to create a best practice charter for employers in Hull to support women with endometriosis in the workplace?

I was in Aberdeen on Thursday meeting women with health conditions and hearing about how we can better support women who are having debilitating impacts from the menopause. That was in the oil and gas sector, where it takes a long time to build up to a senior career. I would be interested to hear about the work that the hon. Lady’s local team are doing. Through the wider women’s health strategy, we are supporting women to have a thriving career all the way through. I am keen to hear from her and those women, and to support the women to stay in work.

Child Maintenance Service

3. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service in collecting child maintenance payments. (901323)

The Government are dedicated to ensuring that parents meet their obligations to children, and we take robust enforcement action against those who do not. Parents who paid some maintenance on the collect and pay service increased from 64% to 69% over the 12 months from September 2022.

My constituent’s daughter is a young lady who has missed out for more than a year on child maintenance payments, because her father changed jobs and the Child Maintenance Service lost track of him. My team have been involved, and despite lots of faffing, she still has not received a payment. She is one of around half of children in separated families who are not receiving the maintenance payments they deserve. Will the Minister explain what his Department is doing to ensure that the employers of these missing parents are properly chased up?

Where parents have certain categories of taxable income not being captured by the standard child maintenance calculation, they can make a request to the CMS to have the calculation varied. We have consulted on proposals to include more types of taxable income held by His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in the standard maintenance calculation.

The Department has a number of ways to try to get paying parents to cough up, and we must remember that this is cash for the children. In July 2022, the Government consulted on child maintenance and improving our enforcement powers through the commencement of curfew orders, and we still have not had a response to that consultation. I would be grateful to hear from the Government when they plan to respond, and I remind them of the other powers in place, such as depriving people of the ability to drive or of their passport. This is a simple thing, where people have the money and will not cough up the cash. I think we need to get on with curfew orders.

My right hon. Friend is quite right that the Government have consulted on the use of curfews, which are complex and interact with numerous Government services. Several enforcement initiatives aimed at improving compliance are currently in train, and we need to get those in place and assess their effects before we can best see how curfews might fit with them. I note her enthusiasm for curfews and might well put her in touch with Viscount Younger of Leckie, the Minister in the Lords, whose policy brief this is, so that he can update her on our latest thinking.

Benefit Levels

Welfare is there to help those who need assistance, including many of the most vulnerable, which is why we increased most benefits by 6.7% for 2024-25. That was on top of an increase of 10.1%, including the benefit cap, in 2023-24.

That is all very well, but the rate of inflation for low-paid families has been significantly higher than the headline rate of inflation for some time. That means that those families who were struggling badly last year are struggling even worse this year. Citizens Advice has shown that families on low incomes have less disposable income this year than they had last year. Does the Secretary of State accept that it is time to introduce an essentials guarantee so that nobody on universal credit or another income-based benefit can ever be allowed to fall below a level where they cannot afford the basic essentials of life?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we keep all benefits under review. I point him to various things that we have done to ensure that we look after those lower-income families, including increasing the national living wage by about 10% in both of the last two years; the increase in the local housing allowance to the 30th percentile announced at the last fiscal event, which will be worth about £800 a year for about 1.6 million people; and, of course, the tax cuts that the Chancellor was able to bring forward, which for an average earner are worth £450 a year.

Rather than deal with the known policy failures within the benefits system, the Government seem to be more focused on penalising people through, for example, the two-child cap. Last week, the Labour party joined the Conservatives in prioritising lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses rather than the two-child cap on working women. Does the Secretary of State take comfort in the fact that his cruel legacy will be protected by the Labour party?

I am not going to get involved in the crossfire between the Scottish National party and the Labour party, other than to say—[Interruption.]

Order. I do not need a continuing argument and disagreement. I am sure that when the questions come to an end, you can speak outside.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The two-child cap is there for good reason: so that families in those circumstances are taking the same kind of decisions that others—the taxpayers funding benefits—have to take.

Child Poverty

In the latest statistics, there were 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty after housing costs than there were in 2009-10. In this financial year, we will spend about £124 billion on welfare supporting working-age families. We are also providing £104 billion between 2022 and 2025 to help families with cost of living pressures. However, the Government’s focus is firmly on reducing the risk of child poverty by supporting parents into work in every way we can.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently found that 42% of children in Bolton live below the poverty line. After 14 years of Tory cuts and general incompetence, Britain now has the worst rise in child poverty among the major countries. What would the Minister say to a young family in Bolton who told me, “One day we eat and one day we don’t”?

Nobody on either side of the House wants to see families struggling. However, I repeat that children living in workless households are about five times more likely to be in absolute poverty after housing costs than those in households where all adults work. The Government are supporting the whole family through our childcare support, which we have increased by almost 50% to £951 a month for one child or £1,630 for two; the increase in the national living wage to £11.44 from April; our cost of living offers; and so on.

The recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report highlighted Scotland’s much lower child poverty rate compared with England and Wales, and said that that was partly due to the Scottish Government’s child payment. Further progress is constrained by the UK’s inadequate social security system. The Trussell Trust’s “guarantee our essentials” campaign shows that 90% of low-income households on universal credit in the UK cannot afford everyday essentials. Does the Minister accept that raising the universal credit basic rate is critical to tackling child poverty?

The welfare system is there to be a strong safety net. It is not about a singular issue, because no households are the same. It is about wraparound care and dealing with people on an individual basis. It is about making sure that where children need support—for example, with free school meals—we provide it.

Further to the Minister’s response, the Prime Minister has been asked similar questions about child poverty in recent Prime Minister’s questions. He usually responds that since 2010, the Conservatives have lifted 1.7 million people out of absolute poverty, which, as you know Mr Speaker, tracks living standards from a fixed point in time. Can the Minister tell me how many more people, on average, Labour lifted out of absolute poverty annually, compared with the 1.7 million since 2010 that the Prime Minister regularly claims?

Rather than trade numbers, I would say that this is about giving people the dignity of a job. Since 2009-10, 1.7 million fewer people are in absolute poverty after housing costs, including 400,000 fewer children and 1 million fewer working-age adults. I know the hon. Lady said that work was not the Labour party’s priority, but it is very much our priority.

If the Minister can point to an occasion when I have said that work was not the Labour party’s priority, she ought to say when that was, or she should withdraw that remark.

The answer to my question is that, on average, more than 350,000 more people left poverty in each year of the Labour Government. The Prime Minister’s claim is pathetic. Which of the following does the Minister think had the biggest impact on those poverty numbers? Was it when the Conservatives repealed the Child Poverty Act 2010, was it when they shut down the child poverty unit, was it the collapse in the value of child benefit, or was it the financial chaos caused by a Conservative Prime Minister in September 2022, which put all families’ finances at risk?

No, it is the fact that over 1 million more people are in work and youth employment is up by around 40%. Ensuring that people have the dignity of work and that, when they are not in work, there is a strong welfare system around them, is what this country needs.

Cost of Living: Food Banks

6. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential relationship between increases in the cost of living and trends in the use of food banks. (901326)

16. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential relationship between increases in the cost of living and trends in the use of food banks. (901336)

The Government take food security very seriously and are committed to understanding and addressing food poverty. The reasons that people use food banks are complex and varied. Food banks are independent charitable organisations and the Government have no role in their operation. As such, data on trends are not currently available.

The staff and volunteers at the Norwood and Brixton food bank in my constituency work tirelessly all year round to support local people who simply cannot make ends meet. They are responding to the highest level of need they have ever seen. Why does the Minister think that, despite this being one of the richest countries in the world, food bank reliance is continuing to rise so much on this Government’s watch? Can she tell the House what the Government are doing to end the need for food banks in the UK?

As I said, the reasons that people use food banks are complex and varied, as all the research indicates. We offer support through cost of living payments and the household support fund, running to hundreds of millions of pounds. The rise in the national living wage, the reduction in national insurance and the local housing allowance further help 1.6 million low-income households. We have a whole of suite of ways to help the very poorest in our society.

Food banks such as the excellent Luton Foodbank have been pushed to breaking point this winter, as more and more people need emergency food due to the Conservatives’ cost of living crisis. It is shameful that we now have more food banks than police stations. What conversations has the Minister had with colleagues in the Treasury about introducing measures in next month’s Budget to support low-income working people facing hardship and to reduce the dependence on food banks?

I point the hon. Lady to the further cost of living payments that will be going out this week to eligible households. We do not comment on future fiscal announcements.

Carer’s Allowance

7. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the carer’s allowance for people who care for more than one person. (901327)

This is a particular area of interest for me as a former carer and as part of a caring family. It is important that we get the right balance. The flat weekly rate for the carer’s allowance has never been linked to the number of people being cared for. The weekly rate will increase to £81.90 from April, which is almost an extra £1,500 a year since 2010.

The hundreds of thousands of carers up and down the country are the unsung heroes of our society, who do a fantastic job. Whether it is caring for elderly parents with dementia or sacrificing full-time work to care for a disabled child, carers play a critical role, easing the burden on health services. For most carers, care is a 24/7 job, and they cannot take full-time work because of it. When will the Government realise that £76, and now even £81.90, is measly and does not scratch the surface of what carers have to put up with and pay for, particularly when many carers are caring for more than one person?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point, which I appreciate as I have been in that situation of caring for two people. The primary purpose of the carer’s allowance is to provide a measure of financial support and recognition for people unable to work full time because of their caring responsibilities. I know there are very strong views on this. I am looking forward to meeting with Carers UK just after recess—I am afraid I cannot do so before, due to a funeral—and hearing the varying views and how we can continue to support our carers, who in every constituency and community do an amazing job.

PIP Mandatory Reconsideration Decisions

8. Whether his Department is taking steps to reduce the time taken for personal independence payment mandatory reconsideration decisions to be made. (901328)

We have reduced clearance times from the peak of 79 days in 2021 to 36 days in October 2023 by improving processes and increasing decision-making capacity. We will continue to improve efficiency while ensuring effective decision making for all reconsiderations.

In July last year, a constituent was not able to correctly fill out their PIP review form, which led to their payments being stopped. It took until last Thursday—six months from the mandatory reconsideration going in—for the payments to finally be restored. Because of the delay, my constituent fell into debt and became suicidal. Why are the Government not eliminating the delays that are letting down the most vulnerable constituents?

I am very sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s constituent. Our aim is always to make the right decision as early as possible in the claim journey, and I would be keen to see the full details of that particular situation. On decisions, it is important to consider the context: 2.9 million initial decisions following an assessment have been made between June 2018 and July 2023; 5% have resulted in a completed tribunal hearing, with 3% overturned. I would be very keen to see what has happened in the case that the hon. Lady mentions.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has just highlighted, the Department is in chaos and that is having a huge impact on claimants’ lives. As of October, there were 294,000 new personal independence payment claims waiting to be processed, with a further 445,000 claimants awaiting an award review. As of November, 24,339 people were awaiting Access to Work decisions. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of disabled people left in financial limbo, with tens of thousands waiting to start work. What message does the Minister think these huge backlogs send to disabled people, and how does she finally plan to get a grip of them?

I thank the hon. Lady for making the important point about the numbers. I agree that behind each of those is somebody we should be concerned about, and I am absolutely looking at this point. We are continuing to learn from decisions overturned by appeal, and we will continue to make improvements to our decision-making processes to help people to get the correct decision earlier in their claim journey, and to be able to work and have the support where it is needed. Not everybody on PIP is out of work, so we need to be listening to the needs of the people in those queues. I am conscious that every one of them is not a statistic but a person who needs our support.

Ill Health: Economic Inactivity

9. What estimate his Department has made of the cost to the public purse of economic inactivity due to ill health. (901329)

There are, of course, significant costs related to an increase in long-term sickness and illness rates in work. That is why we have our £2.5 billion back to work plan, to help 600,000 disabled people and people with health conditions start and stay in work. That approach, along with others, has seen economic inactivity reduce by 330,000 since its peak during the pandemic.

NHS waiting lists are currently at 7.8 million, with more than 177,000 people on waiting lists in my own NHS trust area. When it is this difficult to access medical treatment, it is no surprise that we have a record 2.8 million people out of work due to ill health. Does the Minister accept that this Government’s failure on the NHS is stymying economic growth, denying people the dignity of work and costing taxpayers billions of pounds?

On NHS waiting lists, there has been progress, in that the two-year waiting lists have almost been entirely dispensed with and those of 18 months have been very substantially reduced. Our Department recognises that work is part of the solution to improving people’s health, which is why we are putting forward the WorkWell service, bringing together medical input and work coach input; fit note reform to help at an earlier stage of the journey; and the reforms to the work coach assessment. All those things are moving towards getting more people into work, which is good for their health.

In Barrow and Furness, an estimated 4,000 people who could be contributing to the labour market are not doing so. I am incredibly grateful to my right hon. Friend and his team, in the Barrow jobcentre and centrally, who, alongside Team Barrow, have worked with local employers and skills providers to help get those people back into our incredibly tight labour market. Will he pass my thanks on to those teams? May I also encourage him to visit to see their good work?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting all the good work that has gone on in his constituency. I believe he opened a jobcentre only as recently as 30 January in his constituency. He is a doughty campaigner for and supporter of employment in his patch. He asks whether I will visit his constituency. I would certainly like to consider that, but my hon. Friend the Employment Minister might also visit, because she just said she was particularly keen to do so.

Burnley and Padiham has so much going for it—with the rest of Lancashire, our area is the manufacturing powerhouse of the United Kingdom—but still has stubborn levels of economic inactivity among people who could be contributing to economic growth and having financial security, which we all want them to have. What more can we do to help those people? In particular, can my right hon. Friend do more to join up with other Departments so that areas such as Burnley, which might have structural problems, get more intensive support?

My hon. Friend asks what approach we can take to resolve the issues that he has raised. We have announced a doubling of universal support, a scheme with which he will be familiar; WorkWell, to which I just referred, bringing together medical support and work coaches; and reform of the fit note system so that we get involved earlier in the journey that many people experience when they fall out of the workforce into longer-term sickness and disability benefits. Overall, the evidence is clear: economic inactivity is down by 268,000 on the year, and by more than a third of a million since its peak during the pandemic—a 52% reduction.

Jobs: Witham

12. What estimate he has made of the number of jobs provided by businesses in Witham constituency. (901332)

As it is Apprenticeship Week, will the Secretary of State join me in thanking businesses in Witham for everything that they are doing to employ youngsters and put them on that apprenticeship pathway? Those businesses, however, are crying out for a labour market strategy that will help them to harness the skills and the upskilling that they need in certain sectors. Would the Secretary of State be prepared to advance that, and push it, across other Departments?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the extraordinary work that she does locally to promote apprenticeships. I believe she was involved in a jobs fair on 24 January, hosted by Reed, which was highly successful. The employment rate in her constituency is 81%, well above the national average, which I put down almost entirely to the work that she is doing. She asked how we would proceed. We already have swaps, bootcamps and returnerships, but I am indeed looking at specific areas of the labour market, particularly in the context of migration changes, where we may be able to do more on a strategic basis.

State Pension: UK Citizens Living Overseas

14. What recent assessment he has made of the potential cost of restoring parity in the level of state pension received by UK citizens living overseas. (901334)

According to the latest estimate, based on data from March 2022, uprating the state pension where we do not currently do so would cost about £0.9 billion a year if all UK state pensions in payment were increased to current UK levels.

Following our withdrawal from the EU, we are rightly able to move closer to our partners in the Commonwealth. One way in which we could do that would be to confirm that all British citizens who live in the Commonwealth should be entitled to the appropriate uprating of their state pensions as if they were still in the UK. That would seem to be a matter of simple fairness. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the practicalities of making it happen, and restoring some much-needed common sense to a needlessly complicated situation?

The UK Government continue to uprate state pensions when there is a legal requirement for that to be done, and have no plans to change their long-standing policy or enter into new reciprocal social security agreements.

Benefit Claims Process: Cancer Patients

Understandably, such a health diagnosis can be a shock for individuals, their families and, indeed, their finances—and I am conscious of saying this just after World Cancer Day. It is important to ensure that people have the right support as soon as possible, and as part of our reforms we will simplify the system to reduce the assessment burden and improve people’s experiences of assessments.

I thank the Minister for her response, but those changes cannot come too soon for my constituent Emily, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in November, is too ill to work, and is finding the benefits system impossible to navigate. DWP officials have pushed her from pillar to post, unable to decide whether she is eligible for employment and support allowance and universal credit. She has been forced to fill in countless forms, and was even required to attend a jobcentre appointment over Christmas, despite being seriously unwell. Does the Minister agree this is simply not good enough, and that we need to put those changes in place so that people like Emily do not have to go through this?

I am sorry to hear about Emily’s situation. I would remind others in her situation that there is a help to claim service available through Citizens Advice and also a benefits calculator on, but I would also be extremely keen to see the details of what has happened. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady or to look at the details, whatever she would prefer.

Helping People into Employment: Cumbria, Cheadle and Darlington

18. What steps his Department is taking to expand the support available through jobcentres in Cheadle constituency. (901339)

Across the country our fantastic work coaches are supporting people to secure and progress in work. In Kendal, Cheadle and Darlington, jobcentres are working with local and national employers to match jobseekers with vacancies through job fairs, sector-based work academy programmes and apprenticeships. As it is National Apprenticeship Week, this is a great time for employers to promote the opportunities available, and I urge all colleagues who have not yet done so to visit their jobcentre if it has an apprenticeship fair on. The hon. Gentleman’s was last week, wasn’t it?

I do indeed celebrate the work of the Kendal jobcentre. It does a fantastic job but one problem is that it has too small a workforce. This week we mourn the loss of yet another Lake District business, this time a bistro in Coniston, due in part to the loss of affordable homes and to restrictive visa rules, both of which are shrinking our local workforce. Will the Minister meet me and local Cumbrian business leaders to develop a plan to tackle Cumbria’s workforce crisis?

I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, but I also gently say that this is about other Government Departments as well. I will certainly work with him as far as employers go, under my remit.

Speaking to Stockport jobcentre last week, I heard about the success of the movement to work scheme, which places young people with employers, including in the civil service. However, the lengthy civil service application process is delaying placements. Will my hon. Friend look into how the process could be streamlined and accelerated, and join me on a visit to Stockport jobcentre?

I know that senior civil servants are engaged in piloting an initiative that will help to speed this up, because we need to place those candidates more quickly and ensure that we get them into work swiftly. I would love to visit Stockport and add its jobcentre to the growing list that I have visited.

I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for his work to establish the Jobcentre Plus Facebook pages, of which Darlington’s was the first. Will my hon. Friend the Minister outline how successful that page has been and what further plans she has to develop accessible social media job advertising?

We know that social media helps, and that 40 to 50-year-olds in particular enjoy engaging with a digital platform when they are looking for work. We have had instances in the past of people thanking us when they have been given interviews online. It is important that posts are accessible and we are working to ensure that this is the case. I would point customers of any age to the JobHelp website, which has a host of useful information. I am keen to see if we can roll out such progress further.

I do find that a strange grouping, but not to worry, Minister. Well dealt with! How you got from Cumbria across the country like that is amazing.

Autism: Workplace Accessibility

Autistic people have a huge amount to offer in the workforce, which is why we set up the Buckland review in April 2023, led by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), to look at the barriers to autistic people gaining employment and to ensure that we have a more inclusive workforce for them.

May I push the Minister on what progress has been made by the Buckland review? Will he also remind jobcentres up and down the country that people on the autism spectrum have great talents and often need only slight workplace modifications of simple things such as lighting or noise levels? This could open up a source of real talent for our country.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Small changes can often make a big difference, not just for autistic people but for the businesses they go on to serve and work in. He will have to be a little more patient about the Buckland review report coming out, but it will not be long. I also point him to the Access to Work and Disability Confident approaches, which both do exactly what he suggests.

Statutory Sick Pay Eligibility: Stoke-on-Trent North

22. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of the number of people who are not eligible for statutory sick pay because they are paid less than the lower earnings limit on levels of inequality in Stoke-on-Trent North constituency. (901343)

The Department has not made a specific assessment for the Stoke-on-Trent North constituency, but I refer my hon. Friend to the evidence I presented to the Work and Pensions Committee last week. I look forward to meeting him this week to discuss this in more detail.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her answer. I am proud to have joined a campaign, together with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), to reform statutory sick pay. That campaign, led by the Centre for Progressive Change, was referenced in today’s Times Health Commission report. Ahead of the spring Budget, will the Department join us in lobbying the Treasury to make these important changes, so that we have a healthier workforce that contributes more to our economy and, more importantly, so that we make sure that work pays fairly?

I refer my hon. Friend to the answers I gave to the Work and Pensions Committee. Statutory sick pay is considerably more complex than he makes out, but it is nice to see all this cross-party collaboration.

Topical Questions

The Department has been busy supporting the most vulnerable, with the third instalment of the £900 cost of living payments starting to reach the bank accounts of 8 million low-income households tomorrow. We are also on the verge of publishing our disability action plan. We have seen economic inactivity decrease by 330,000 since its peak during the pandemic.

I have made it a priority for my Department to engage across Parliament. As Secretary of State, I appeared before the Work and Pensions Committee in December. The pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), appeared before the Committee on 10 January; the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), appeared before the Committee on 31 January; and I believe the Minister for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), and Viscount Younger, our Lords Minister, will appear before it next month. There will be a statement on the disability action plan this afternoon.

Lambeth Council and Southwark Council have worked hard over the past few years to deliver targeted cost of living support through the household support fund. Many local people continue to face serious hardship as a consequence of this Government’s political decisions, but local authorities do not know what, if any, funding they will receive after 31 March. When does the Secretary of State expect to confirm the future of the household support fund, so that local authorities can plan ahead?

I am pleased that the hon. Lady recognises the importance and value of our various interventions. Ten million payments have been made through the HSF since its inception, and £1 billion has been put into the fund in the last year. She will know that her question is a matter for the Chancellor, and the matter will quite possibly—I really do not know—be dealt with at a future fiscal event. There is no news on that at this stage.

T3. Anglesey has an active autism parents’ group, and brilliant coaches like Ryan Gibbs—he runs a “fighting for Autism” class—who work hard to support autistic children and each other. For parents such as Shelly Rankin Jones and young autistic people such as Becca Pierce, can the Minister update the House on the Buckland review of autism employment? (901348)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question, because autism is an issue of great importance to the House and to her personally. I know about the work that she is doing with Ryan Gibbs, Becca Pierce and Shelly Rankin Jones. She will know that the Buckland review was instigated in April 2023 and will conclude relatively shortly, with a report being published online. I look forward to visiting her disability jobs fair in Holyhead at the end of this week.

This morning the Office for National Statistics published the long-awaited updated figures from the labour market survey. Can the Secretary of State now confirm that our employment rate is even lower than previously thought, and that there are at least 200,000 more people out of work due to long-term sickness? We thought that the cost of health-related inactivity was an additional £15 billion a year since the pandemic, but given these new figures, can he tell the House how much more his Government’s failure is costing taxpayers every single year?

Order. I remind Front Benchers that this is topical questions, which are meant to be short and punchy, and they should stick to the rules. Do we understand each other?

The hon. Lady refers to the latest weighted numbers just released by the Office for National Statistics, which show that unemployment as a percentage is lower than originally forecast. She cannot get away from the fact that there are 330,000 fewer people in economic inactivity since the peak. As a result of our work capability assessment reforms, the Office for Budget Responsibility has scored us as having 371,000 fewer people on long-term sickness benefits than would otherwise have been the case.

The former health Minister Lord Bethell says that he is “gobsmacked” by the figures, and that

“the economic hit will be hard”.

The Minister would do well to listen to his words. Yesterday, the Education Secretary said that the Government cannot guarantee that their promises will be met on childcare, which parents need in order to work. Today, their Prime Minister admitted that he has failed on NHS waiting lists, which the long-term sick need dealt with if they are to get back to work. Why does the Secretary of State not do the decent thing and admit that he has failed too, and adopt Labour’s plan to cut waits, roll out breakfast clubs, overhaul jobcentres and get Britain working again?

We are getting Britain working, unlike the Opposition, under whose last Administration unemployment increased, youth unemployment went up by 40%, some 25% more women were unemployed and 1 million people or thereabouts were stuck on long-term benefits for almost a decade. That was a disgrace.

T4. Sizewell C will provide an enormous number of job opportunities in Suffolk. Will my right hon. Friend outline the work that the Department for Work and Pensions is doing to ensure that local people have every opportunity to work on the project and acquire the necessary skills? (901349)

Like my hon. Friend, I am excited about the jobs and opportunities at Sizewell. Local jobcentres have been engaged with Sizewell C, and I understand that a local partnership manager will be designated to promote opportunities, and to find people for 1,500 apprenticeships and thousands of jobs. We will invest in local skills through sector-based work programmes and the like.

Last month, a report by the pension provider Royal London showed that women lose, on average, £92,000 as a result of juggling part-time work and childcare. What are the Government going to do about that?

T7. People with disabilities often take on voluntary roles, as there can be societal barriers to gaining employment. My constituent Philippa has a son with Down’s syndrome who volunteers, providing much-valued music workshops for local children. How can the Minister ensure that the work of people with disabilities is properly recognised in the workplace? (901352)

I congratulate Philippa’s son on the very good work that he does. We have disability employment advisers in our jobcentres. I am visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency later this week; I know that he has been involved in the Denbighshire project, including the We Mind the Gap programme for young people, and I will be interested to discuss that and other matters.

T2.     Fife Gingerbread, based in my constituency, contacted me to point out that most of the provisions in the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act 2023, which was unanimously agreed by the House and received Royal Assent at the end of June last year, have still not been brought into force. That means that far too many vulnerable people who want to make a claim through the Child Maintenance Service find that abusive ex-partners use it to control their behaviour. Why is it taking so long to put in place the measures in the Act? (901347)

I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the Child Maintenance Service has a domestic abuse plan to ensure that parents are not placed in danger as a consequence of any suggestion of domestic violence; for example, it has a centralised sort code to limit the risk of parental involvement.

I wish to place on record my thanks to the Secretary of State for helping to guide my private Member’s Bill through Parliament. It lowers the pension auto-enrolment age from 22 to 18, and abolishes the lower earnings threshold. Briefly, has the Secretary of State received reassurances from the Chancellor that the necessary forms will be implemented in the spring Budget?

T6. Given that the Secretary of State has just said that the continuation of the household support fund after the end of March is up to the Chancellor, and given that, last week, we had the support of all parties in Westminster Hall for the continuation of this vital fund, will he assure the House that the subject is a top priority in his negotiations with the Chancellor? (901351)

The specifics of my negotiations with the Treasury remain between me and the Treasury. As I have said, the any of those decisions on the HSF are matters for the Treasury.

T9. In 2005, the DWP failed to make a reasonable decision about targeting information at the women affected by state pension age changes. The ombudsman ruled that there was maladministration. These women, in Dudley and around the country, deserve more than just an apology. Does the Minister accept these findings, and if not, will he explain why not? (901354)

The Department is co-operating with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman investigation, which is ongoing, and it would not be appropriate to comment on it or the outcome.

T8. My constituent’s universal credit payments have been stopped over Christmas for two years running, because her employer pays her salary early in December. Why will Ministers not do more to ensure that caseworkers know that they can use the discretion that they have, so that my constituents and others like her have financial certainty at what is a very difficult time of year? (901353)

The way that universal credit works means that work coaches can use their flexibility, but if a payment is short one month, the appropriate thing to do is to sort it the next.

T10. In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State mentioned the assessment period for cost of living payments, but people on four-weekly pay schedules miss out on support because they fall foul of the assessment period rules for universal credit. What assessment have the Government made of the number of people missing out, and what remedy do they have? (901355)

Cost of living payments can be affected by when people are paid, and therefore by whether they are on universal credit and qualify at precisely that point. I do not have the figure to hand that the hon. Lady requests, but I will of course get back to her with it.

This morning’s report by the Academy of Medical Sciences revealed that our appalling child health and infant mortality rates are worse than those of 60% of similar countries and is the key driver of child poverty. What assessment has the Secretary of State undertaken to make on the impact that stopping the household support fund in April will have on relative child poverty and, subsequently, infant mortality?

As the hon. Lady will know, the number of those in child poverty has decreased by 400,000 since 2010. We do not yet have a decision on the household support fund, to which she refers, but I point her to the very significant uplift in the local housing allowance, which will give 1.6 million people £800 a year more on average, thereby taking many of them out of poverty.

From unanswered emails to unreturned calls, it has been heartbreaking to hear from so many vulnerable constituents who are in a state of limbo and distress, and trying to chase up personal independence payments. When will Ministers ensure that people can get the support that they need in a timely and straightforward manner?

Will the Secretary of State point out to the Chancellor that many councils have used the household support fund to pay £3 per day per child during the school holidays to families entitled to free school meals, and that if the fund closes at the end of March, those families will be straight into hardship in the Easter school holidays?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his representation, and indeed would be grateful for any others that he is minded to make to me as we conduct our ongoing review on where we go with the household support fund.

When will the Minister wake up to the fact that working as an apprentice in engineering is a fabulous career choice, and well paid? Will she come up to Huddersfield to look at Cummins, whose apprentice system is first rate?

I would be delighted to do so on my tour of England. I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. My father is an engineer. It is a fantastic profession, and the more we can encourage apprenticeships right across the board, the better. Nearly 6 million people have now taken them up. I would be delighted to come.