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Work and Pensions

Volume 747: debated on Monday 18 March 2024

The Secretary of State was asked—

Serious Medical Conditions: Financial Support

1. What steps his Department is taking to support financially people unable to work due to serious medical conditions. (902018)

My Department does a great deal to support the long-term sick and disabled, including through universal credit and its health element, and through the personal independence payment, which is a contribution to the additional costs of sickness and disability.

My constituent Jenifer Picton is currently undergoing extensive treatment for cancer and is consequently unable to work. I wish Ms Picton all the very best with her treatment. She has come to my office, which has helped with universal credit, PIP and the new-style employment and support allowance. She has now managed to get PIP, but given that she is seriously ill, why should she have to come to my office for help? Why do we make it so arduous and difficult for people who need treatment to get help?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and the typical assiduity with which he takes up his constituency case. May I send my best wishes, and I am sure those of the whole House, to Ms Picton? I am happy to meet him to discuss in more detail the circumstances that he has described.

Data in responses to my written questions on PIP appeals shows that more than 50,000 ill or disabled people had their appeals upheld at tribunal without the need for new evidence. Given that the UK Government will be examined today by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities following its 2016 special inquiry that found that the threshold had been met for grave and systematic violations, is it not time to replace the flawed and outdated PIP system with a framework that is fit for purpose?

Of course, we always keep all benefits under review at the Department, including PIP and the assessment processes. As the hon. Lady points out, there is rightly an appeals process for those who are not happy with the conclusions of those assessments. We keep those under review, and I can reassure her that they represent a relatively small proportion of the total number of applications.

Regional Variations: Unemployment and Inactivity

2. What recent assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of regional variations in levels of employment and inactivity. (902019)

The regional employment gap is significantly lower than in 2010. Jobcentres take a place-based approach to deliver targeted support that reflects local need and the local economy.

Health Equity North research shows high levels of economic inactivity in the north-east due to disability or ill health—40% above the national average. I visited the jobcentre in Newcastle and was very impressed by the dedication and hard work of the staff, but I know from the Public and Commercial Services union that one in four universal credit managers took time off in 2023 for mental illness, which is three times the figure before 2019. We are the only country in the G7 not to have the same level of employment as before the pandemic. Are those high rates not because of record NHS waiting lists, low staff morale and general Government incompetence?

As the hon. Lady found, within our jobcentres we have highly skilled people helping people to find work. We have a higher number of people with disabilities in work than in 2010—more than 2 million—and we intend to ensure that work coaches can work carefully and sensitively and attend to people’s needs.

In recent months, the Welsh Affairs Committee has heard from young adults about their experiences with the benefits system. We have been struck by how this group of young people want to work and feel that they can work, but they have been written off as long-term sick and passed to the long-term sickness benefit roll by jobcentres. They feel incredibly let down. Does the Minister agree that we cannot afford to be signing off so many of our young people on long-term sickness?

That is why we have WorkWell, the back to work plan, and the occupational health group, led by Dame Carol Black, looking into fit note reform. It is also why we have youth employment coaches and the youth hubs. We are working to ensure that there is the right attenuated support, including kickstart, the sector-based work academy programme and boot camps. Only last week, I met Steph, who is 27, 10 years out of work and grateful for the help that she has had.

Helping People into Work

Jobcentre Plus provides a variety of different support to encourage and support people into work, including training and one-to-one, face-to-face counselling by work coaches.

In February, there were 615 claimants aged 18 to 24 out of work in Sittingbourne and Sheppey. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that schools and businesses work together to ensure that young people have the qualifications and skills they need to progress into work once they finish full-time education?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is exactly why we have youth hubs providing advice and support on not just getting into work but other important matters to young people, such as housing, their health and debt management.

I was talking to the Royal National Institute of Blind People, which represents the blind and partially sighted. It told me of an employee who said,

“I am newly employed and I am unable to fulfil my role. It has been extremely stressful and frustrating”,

and this is because of Access to Work. Does the Minister agree that without having Access to Work in place within the first four weeks of someone entering work, it is incredibly difficult for them to maintain that position?

I am pleased that the hon. Lady raises Access to Work, because it is extremely effective. The grant can be there year in, year out and be up to a maximum of £66,000. Along with other approaches, it has very much led to our meeting our employment goal for disabled people in half the time that we set in 2017—over a million more disabled people were in work by 2022.

What are the Government doing to use apprenticeships to help young people engage with the labour market, to tackle levels of economic inactivity and to give them the opportunities they need to get the careers that they want?

My right hon. Friend raises economic inactivity, which is lower in our country than in the United States, France and Italy. It is below the average of the OECD, the G7 and the European Union. Apprenticeships play a very important part in producing those good figures, though there is of course always more to be done, not least through our approach of engaging extremely closely with employers, both at the national level and through our jobcentres.

As somebody who has fought really hard over the last four years to overcome the difficulties presented by long covid, I am sure that the Secretary of State will appreciate that a significant number of the people not in work because of health conditions will have some form of post-viral fatigue linked to long covid. What assessment has he made of the effect of long covid on the workforce, and what is he doing to help people who have it get back to work?

The hon. Gentleman specifically raises long covid, which is one of many health pressures in our society and post covid in many other countries that were also affected by the virus. We have a number of approaches, including universal support, which places people in employment and gives them critical support for up to 12 months. We also have WorkWell, and we are looking at occupational health and what tax incentives we might put in place to encourage employers to do more on that front. We are doing a great deal.

Arguably, the biggest barrier to growth in the UK and to turning around the Prime Minister’s recession is the supply of labour. Following the Chancellor’s “Back to work Budget” in the autumn and all the measures unveiled since then, some of which the Secretary of State has just reeled off, did the Office for Budget Responsibility upgrade or downgrade its forecast on employment growth in the Budget 12 days ago?

One of the most important figures in the spring Budget economic and fiscal outlook was a recognition by the OBR that there will be a net 200,000 more people in employment as a consequence of that fiscal event and the one that preceded it in the autumn. What the hon. Lady cannot get away from is that economic inactivity in our country is at a lower level than in every year under the last Labour Government.

What the Secretary of State cannot get away from is the fact that, as has already been said, our employment rate has not returned to the post-pandemic level. He cannot answer the question because the truth is that the OBR downgraded its forecast: the unemployment forecast is worse. The reason for that is a truth that the British people have known for a long time now: these Ministers sitting on the Treasury Bench have no idea, no plan for jobs, no plan for growth. They are done; it is time for a general election.

I have already referred to the 200,000 additional jobs that the OBR suggests in its forecast, but the hon. Lady cannot get away from the fact that we have record levels of payroll employment in our country, and near record low unemployment. Let us contrast that with Labour’s record: it always leaves unemployment higher than when it comes into office. Economic inactivity was higher than it is now in each year of the previous Labour Government, and we had more people in absolute poverty after housing costs under Labour as a direct consequence.

Welfare Reforms

We are bringing forward a number of important reforms to our welfare system at pace. Phase 1 of our universal support has already been activated, and phase 2 will be later this year. Next month we will announce 15 WorkWell areas—about a third of England—that have been successfully selected, and will be rolled out live this autumn.

I thank the Secretary of State for listing all those reforms. The data is clear that after 13 weeks out of work, the chances of someone finding work starts to fall off rapidly. Therefore, there is a need for more intensive and tailored support. Could he update the House on the additional jobcentre support roll-out, and when my constituents might get access to those benefits?

We are keen to do that. AJS, to which my hon. Friend refers, has been rolled out in parts of the country at six weeks, but shortly will be extended and strengthened for two weeks at the 13-week stage of the unemployment journey. That is part of the more intensive conditions that we apply to ensure that we help—and in many circumstances, require—people to go back into work.

Some of the poorest people I know in my constituency work for themselves. Hill farmers have seen a 41% drop in their income over the last four years. The welfare system does not work for them, because they are paid less than the minimum wage. Access to universal credit is less for them, because of the minimum income floor. Will the Secretary of State urgently look at that, so that small business owners—especially hill farmers in my constituency —are not made even poorer because of the Government’s rules?

The hon. Gentleman is right inasmuch as universal credit for the self-employed has to recognise the fact that sometimes there are inconsistent levels of income month to month. That is why we have a minimum income floor and the arrangements around that. I know he has a rural, agricultural constituency; I recognise some of those issues, and I am looking closely at them.

Social Security Benefits: Vulnerable People

5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department's support for vulnerable people who claim social security benefits. (902022)

[In British Sign Language: Happy Sign Language Week everybody.] It is a key priority for the Department for Work and Pensions to provide effective support for our vulnerable customers. We provide training on how to support customers’ mental health, and we have a six-point plan for supporting claimants who may be at risk of suicide or self-harm. The DWP regularly reviews processes to make improvements through colleague and customer feedback, and through the work of the serious case panel.

The Government estimated that 3% of households on legacy benefits would fail to move to universal credit under managed migration. However, by last December, 21% had not managed to do so and, as a result, had their benefits stopped. This is a matter of real concern. The DWP will now ask more vulnerable people who are wholly reliant on benefits to transfer. What will the Government do to ensure that those vulnerable people do not fall out of the social security system?

I thank the hon. Lady for her point about vulnerable customers who have come into our curtilage and purview. The Minister for Employment has reminded me that we will take this very slowly, and will engage with and support customers. Customers can speak to help to claim advisers at Citizens Advice, and we will ensure that we listen to them.

In addition to the financial support provided to personal independence payment claimants, what progress is being made to refer claimants proactively to the widest support available in their community?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting this point. There is the household support fund, help to claim, and opportunities to pop into the local library to get additional support, for example. There is also an extra £500 million out there on top of the £1 billion through to the end of this month. I would say to anybody: “The benefits calculator is out there, and do talk to the CAB and your local council”—perhaps in Swindon.

Today the Government are in Geneva defending their policies to the UN committee that is investigating the UK for breaches of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, including article 28 on the right of disabled people to social protection. Given that drastically cutting disabled people’s social security support between 2012 and 2019 and austerity were found to be responsible for 148,000 avoidable deaths, how will the new wave of austerity announced in the Budget affect the health and wellbeing of disabled people?

I am pleased to have this opportunity to make it clear to the House that the Government are committed to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities and we look forward to outlining the UK’s progress on advancing the rights of disabled people across this country. Our national disability strategy and the disability action plan are delivering tangible progress. This includes ensuring that disabled customers can use the services they are entitled to, as we have spelled out today. Disabled people’s needs are better reflected in planning for emergencies as well. We are making sure that this country is the most accessible and, importantly, equal place to live in the world.

I truly welcome and am personally grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for my campaign for parity between mental and physical health in the workplace, and for the recent publication of the national suicide prevention strategy, which referenced two of the points I have been campaigning on. I understand acutely that the Health and Safety Executive has worked hard on updating first aid guidance, and I would be grateful if the Minister could please update the House on this.

The DWP is also proudly committed to becoming a more trauma-informed organisation, and we will be world-leading on that. I was pleased to see that in Hastings. The HSE continues to work with us, as does the Department of Health and Social Care, to support the suicide prevention strategy for England. I can confirm that the first phase of mental health guidance on the HSE website has been revised to include text that emphasises the importance of, and the need to consider, parity of risks to either mental or physical health.

Job Vacancies: Banff and Buchan

The jobcentre team are providing a broad range of support, including partnering with Morrisons and the Co-op to fill local vacancies in my hon. Friend’s constituency and delivering targeted outreach at Banff library with local providers.

My hon. Friend is aware of the very low unemployment in Banff and Buchan and the difficulty in filling vacancies with local people, particularly in the food and drink sector. The seafood sector in particular is still in a transition away from dependency on overseas workers, which could take some years. What data can the DWP provide on the measures that local businesses have taken to maximise the employment of local people, and what other support can the Department offer to attract workers to areas of low unemployment such as Banff and Buchan?

There are the wages paid through the rise in the national living wage, my hon. Friend’s local jobcentre and the range of access to support. I am sure we will be discussing all these issues tomorrow at the roundtable with seafood processors that I will be attending along with the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove).

A large number of people in Banff and Buchan are economically inactive. They are not claiming benefits so they are not eligible for employment support from jobcentres, but the Select Committee recommended last summer that such people should be eligible. Would that not be in their interests and in the interests of employers struggling to fill vacant posts at the moment, and therefore supportive of much-needed economic growth?

Cost of Living: Food Bank Use

7. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of changes in the cost of living on levels of food bank use. (902024)

14. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of changes in the cost of living on levels of food bank use. (902031)

Food banks are independent organisations, with DWP having no direct role in their operation. We do, however, monitor the use of food banks through the family resources survey, and the next instalment of that will be later this month.

Nearly 50,000 people needed help from Ealing Foodbank last year. Some 38% of them were children under 16. It is amazing that the food bank and its volunteers are there to help, but it is a national shame that it is needed. What are the Government’s plans to reduce dependence on food banks?

This is the Government who have overseen a 400,000 reduction in the number of children in absolute poverty since 2010. Despite the chuntering from the Opposition Front Bench, unfortunately the figures were far worse under the last Labour Government than they may be at the moment. The hon. Gentleman asks directly what we are doing. We are again putting up the national living wage by substantially more than inflation this April. The Chancellor has already brought in national insurance cuts that will be worth £900 to the average earner. Benefits themselves are going up by 6.7% next month. We have also changed the arrangements for local housing allowance, which means that 1.6 million people, many of whom are on very low incomes, will be better off by an average of £800 a year.

While on the campaign trail, I met the Daylight Centre and SERVE Rushden. Both have seen their service users increase in number, even with the extension of the household support fund, which they both welcome. What can the Secretary of State do to expand the eligibility of the fund, improve uptake and increase the value of the healthy start payment?

May I welcome the hon. Lady to her place? In answer to her question, I will simply point out that there was much speculation before the spring Budget about whether the housing support fund was going to be extended. In my opinion, the Chancellor took exactly the right approach, and the fund has now been extended for a further six months.

Research from the Trussell Trust reveals the devastating truth: more than half of people receiving universal credit ran out of food in January and could not afford more, and 2.4 million universal credit claimants have fallen into debt because they could not keep up with essential bills. Will the Secretary of State back the Trussell Trust’s joint campaign with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and commit to legislate for an essentials guarantee in universal credit to reduce food bank use and ensure that everyone has a protected minimum amount of support in order to afford life’s essentials—yes or no?

The most important thing is that this Government recognise that the best way out of poverty, and the best way to address the circumstances that the hon. Lady describes, is through work. That is why the Chancellor reduced taxation, making work pay ever more, and why the national living wage is to be increased by close to 10% this April, following a similar increase around this time last year. Benefits are going up by 6.7% and increased by 10.1% this time last year. I have already mentioned local housing allowance, and of course we have now had eight consecutive months of real wage growth as inflation has fallen.

Jobcentres: Darlington

8. What steps his Department is taking to increase the support offered by Jobcentres in Darlington. (902025)

The team are working tirelessly with Darlington Borough Council, Tees Valley Combined Authority and other partners to deliver through job fairs, SWAPs and skills bootcamps.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer, and may I be the first in the Chamber to wish her a very happy birthday? In addition to the issues that she has highlighted, may I highlight the wonderful work that Darlington jobcentre has done in setting up its Facebook page? Does she agree that it is a template for others to follow, and will she come to Darlington and meet my fantastic work coaches?

I thank my hon. Friend—it is seemingly quite a large number on my birthday cards today.

My hon. Friend has been a fantastic champion of his local jobcentre, and has campaigned vigorously to ensure that Darlington is at the forefront of innovation. I will be meeting his team in April. I have been to seven jobcentres since the last DWP questions, and I will make sure that his work coaches are at the top of my list.

The Minister, in her response to the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), has emphasised what she will do for his local jobcentre. Whatever she will do for Darlington, she will also do for the rest of the United Kingdom, including my constituency of Strangford. Across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, how can we work better with further education colleges to get our young people ready for the jobs that become available?

I talk regularly to colleagues in the Department for Education, ensuring that those skilled boot camp SWAPs make people job-ready, because they have not only the experience but a guaranteed interview. That is the way we are driving those numbers up.

Support for Pensioners

In 2023-24 we will spend over £152 billion on benefits for pensioners in Great Britain—5.9% of GDP—including a forecast £125.4 billion on the state pension.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. South Derbyshire pensioners have been in touch with me following the Budget, emailing to say that it seemed to offer them nothing. Would he be kind enough to set out today the help that the Government have given and are giving to pensioners, to help them realise that “nothing” is far from the reality of what a Conservative Government are giving them?

I am grateful for that question. The answer could not be further from nothing. This is a Government with a proven track record of supporting pensioners, including our commitment to the triple lock. In April we will see the state pension raised by 8.5% this year, after an increase of 10.1% last year, meaning that it will be a full £3,200 higher in cash terms than it was in 2010.

I very much welcome the record on supporting pensioners that my hon. Friend has just outlined. A number of pensioners in my constituency have contacted me about the effects of fiscal drag—they may have a very modest private pension that is now being dragged into tax when they never expected it to be. What steps is my hon. Friend taking in conjunction with the Treasury to ensure that we can get pensioners on modest private pensions out of tax?

This is the Government who have nearly doubled the personal allowance since 2010, ensuring that most of the lowest earners do not pay income tax. Indeed, thanks to the personal allowance, around 30% of individuals do not pay tax, and of course any pensioner solely reliant on the state pension does not pay income tax.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that while the Conservatives proudly continue to support pensioners in their hard-earned retirement with the triple lock and other cost of living support measures, it is disgraceful that the Labour Mayor of London has hammered pensioners and working people in Bexley by increasing council tax by approximately £200 per year, and ultra low emission zone charges to £12.50 per day?

I am sure my hon. Friend agrees with me that the Mayor of London seems to spend more time paying extremely expensive salaries to some of his key employees around Greater London. Of course ULEZ has an effect on pensioners: whether they are going to the shops, visiting their family or attending hospital appointments, they will be the ones to pay the price for the Mayor’s overweening ambition.

In early December, my constituent was informed by the DWP that they must renew their personal independence payment entitlement. They were told that if the necessary forms were not returned by 13 January, their PIP could be stopped. On Christmas day, the DWP informed my constituent that, as the forms had not been returned, their PIP entitlement had been stopped and they owed some money. My constituent returned the forms in early January, long before the deadline, but they have had no response since then, and nor have they received their benefits. Could I implore the Minister to intervene in this astounding case and work out exactly how this error could have occurred?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. If she writes to me with further details, I will ensure that the relevant Minister is able to look into the case.

With more than 9 million pensioners now paying income tax —many, as we have just heard, as a result of frozen allowances—and almost 1 million not receiving pension credit to which they are rightly entitled, does the Minister think it might be time to improve the uptake of pension credit?

I am pleased to be able to say that applications to receive pension credit are currently increasing, quarter on quarter.

If the hon. Gentleman will wait and listen to the answer, I will explain what we are doing to increase uptake of pension credit. Not only do we have major nationwide campaigns, our latest one featuring Harry Redknapp; we are also carrying out experimental campaigns, such as writing to all those pensioners who are in receipt of housing benefit, to make sure that those most likely to be eligible for pension credit are being targeted to take it up.

It is all very well people applying for pension credit, but The Well advice centre in my constituency has identified massive delays in people getting the pension credit for which they are eligible. One constituent got in touch with me in February, having applied for pension credit in August 2023, and they were still waiting for the application to be resolved, resulting in a backdating of more than £8,000. Would that money not have been much better in the pocket of a pensioner who needed it right then, rather than waiting indefinitely for the DWP to get back to them?

I am obviously disappointed to hear of that constituent’s experience, but it is not something I hear very often about pension credit. We have an excellent delivery record and an extremely low level of complaints.

Southend’s indomitable pensioners and WASPI women Frances Neil and Deborah Dalton came to see me on Friday on behalf of the 10,000 WASPI women across Southend. With the ombudsman’s final report due within weeks, will the Secretary of State please commit to coming to the House to make a statement so that these issues can be fully aired?

As I am sure my hon. Friend is all too aware, I am not able to comment until the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s report is published.

When will this miserable Government wake up to the fact that there is a shortage of skilled labour in this country, and at the same time that we have an army of pensioners who could be retained in the workforce if they were given the right incentives to carry on working? There is a good relationship between work and staying healthy, so will the Minister act?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is volunteering himself for a post-Commons career, but there are many job opportunities for pensioners across the country. Indeed, many people working on attendance allowance in my part of Blackpool are in their 70s and 80s, and they are doing a fantastic job. We put an awful lot of effort, not just through the mid-life MOT but through the older worker support in our jobcentres, to make sure that we match jobseekers to the right job for them.

Time and again, pensioners have been let down by this Government. They suspended the triple lock, breaking a key manifesto promise; their disastrous mini-Budget knocked hundreds of billions of pounds from pension pots; and their failure to get a grip on the cost of living means that pensioners are mainly living in cold homes over the winter and have a choice between heating or eating. Against this backdrop, is the Minister at all surprised that almost one in five pensioners are now living in poverty?

It is as if the shadow Minister has not noticed the almost £900 of cost of living payments made to pension credit recipients across the country over the last year. I know the Opposition have relied on last week’s Resolution Foundation report to criticise what we are doing, but this is what the report actually says:

“‘Pensioners used to be by far the most likely to be in poverty…now they are the least likely.’ This change in the relationship between old age and low income is one of the most profound social and economic changes this country has seen”.

We achieved that under this Government, not under our failed Labour predecessors.

Rural Poverty: Benefits System

We are bearing down on poverty, not least by incentivising work within the benefit system. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have reduced the universal credit taper, for example, which has led to a record level of payroll employment and near record low unemployment.

I commissioned a poverty report for the Arfon constituency from the highly respected Bevan Foundation—copies are available online in Welsh and English. One finding is that, of the people receiving both universal credit and housing benefit in Arfon, 35% are paying the bedroom tax, compared with 21% across Wales. This is cushioned to some extent by the Gwynedd local authority’s discretionary help, but will the Minister review the differential negative effects of the bedroom tax between communities, particularly those with a diminished housing stock because of, for example, high levels of holiday homes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for referring to that report, which I will look at with interest. Of course, there is no such thing as a bedroom tax, as it is not a tax at all; it is a spare room subsidy. It is there for very good reason: to free up additional space for those who need it. On the housing front, as I said earlier, local housing allowance has been improved such that 1.6 million people on low incomes in the private rented sector will be, on average, £800 a year better off come April.

One of the best ways to tackle poverty in rural areas such as Ynys Môn is through jobs fairs. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking Alwen Gardiner and my brilliant Ynys Môn DWP team for organising an excellent tourism and hospitality jobs fair, which was attended by over 150 jobseekers in Llangefni and companies such as Tredici Butchers & Deli in Beaumaris, and the Breeze Hill in Benllech? Diolch yn fawr.

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to her jobs fair. She is a local dynamo in standing up for her constituents. When I arrived there recently thinking I was very special to support yet another jobs fair—a disability jobs fair—I was quickly reminded of the fact that I was the 32nd Minister to have been to her constituency in, I think, the past 12 months.

Housing Benefit: Landlords

12. What steps he is taking to tackle non-payment of housing benefit to district councils when the beneficiary is not a registered social landlord. (902029)

The Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Act 2023 brings reforms to the supported housing sector to improve quality and value for money. Any changes to funding models would need to be considered in the context of those broader reforms, but we keep the subsidy policy under review.

Charnwood Borough Council currently contributes £1.5 million a year to subsidise the supported housing benefit payment to local charities, which are unable to become registered social landlords. The charities provide excellent support and accommodation to those suffering from addiction, or ex-offenders undergoing rehabilitation. However, the cost to the council is unsustainable. Please will my hon. Friend look at funding those services, as the Department for Work and Pensions currently does for similar organisations that are registered social landlords?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The challenging fiscal environment means that we need to prioritise resources and ensure that support is targeted effectively to maximise impact for citizens. I chair a cross-Government group with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on quality issues and other matters, such as subsidy loss, which she raises. We will continue to review and monitor the concerns that she and other local authorities have raised. However, I point to the local housing allowance uplift, which is a central focus for me.

Personal Independence Payment Claims

13. What recent estimate he has made of the average time it takes for claimants to complete medical assessments for personal independence payment claims. (902030)

We treat all claimants individually, recognising the differing needs of health conditions and disabilities, and the impact on claimants’ daily lives. The length of time for an assessment is not included in the contract between the DWP and providers, but I can confirm that the average time for 2023 was 63 minutes.

I was heartbroken to hear the experience of a constituent who had to go through an enhanced medical assessment for PIP. A bowel cancer survivor with severe arthritis, she was made to stay on a phone call for over three hours to be assessed. That meant that, due to her needs, she had to suffer the indignity of soiling herself just to complete the assessment. How on earth can that be okay? I would like to understand what steps are being taken to reduce the times of these assessments and to hear what can be done to ensure they are finally undertaken with basic human compassion.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising a distressing case. The DWP is committed to assessing people as quickly as possible. I am happy to look into that particular situation to see why, in this case, the support the claimant was entitled to did not come promptly. Prioritising the reduction of processing times to maximise the number of assessments completed without affecting quality is key, but I am very happy to take that case away.

The Department for Work and Pensions has a staggering 288,000 outstanding PIP claims. The average clearance time is currently 15 weeks. People are waiting almost four months for a decision, which can have a significant impact on physical and mental health. What is the Minister doing to improve clearance times, so that people are not left in limbo, worrying about whether they can afford the extra costs associated with their disability or long-term health condition? The Government urgently need to get a grip.

Claimants’ satisfaction has remained above the service level of 90% or higher as of the three-month average that began in September 2016. The end- to-end clearance time from registration to a decision being made is currently 15 weeks, which has been reduced from 26 weeks in August 2021. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady asked very gently what we are doing. We have multi-channel assessments and I am engaging regularly with my officials twice a month to ensure that we are assessing the queues and the delays and, as I said at the start of this question, that we are treating everybody individually and in a tailored and suitable way.

Child Poverty

We are reducing child poverty through the use of a large number of measures, not least ensuring that work pays, hence our increase in the national living wage in April and the reduction in the national insurance tax that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced recently.

A total of 100,000 children will be kept clear of poverty this year thanks to the Scottish Government’s policies—primarily the Scottish child payment. Surely the Secretary of State must now look to rolling out some of our policies in other parts of the UK and, at the very least, ditch the two-child limit, which deliberately forces children into poverty.

The limit to which the hon. Gentleman refers is there for a very good reason, which is that people in those circumstances should face the same basic decisions as those not on benefits. That is an important matter of fairness across those who receive benefits as well as the many who are paying tax. As for the number of children in poverty, that has fallen by 400,000 since 2010.

Many of those people are in work, Secretary of State. Some £14 million has been paid to more than 10,000 children’s families in Renfrewshire thanks to the widely praised Scottish child payment. Praise has come from the Institute for Public Policy Research Scotland, which says that the Scottish Government are making employment for parents central to their child poverty strategy, but it says that devolved employment support programmes are

“held back by responsibility being split across governments and a reserved Jobcentre system which is more often focused on compliance than helping people reach their full potential.”

It recommends the full devolution of employment support to tackle child poverty. Will the Secretary of State listen to the experts?

I am always very interested in listening to the hon. Gentleman and any ideas that he has about how we should improve our welfare system, but I point to the fact that this country has seen a considerable drop in absolute child poverty, after housing costs, of 400,000 since 2010.

What correlation does the Secretary of State see between children in poverty and workless families? Given that there is no age restriction on most apprenticeships, and today’s announcement that there will be 20,000 more apprenticeships and that the apprenticeship levy can be spent on greater numbers of contractors and sub-contractors, what opportunities does he see for his Department to highlight those opportunities for people who are of working age and who may have children in poverty?

My hon. Friend refers to workless households. He is absolutely right about the correlation: a child is five time more likely to be in poverty if they are growing up in a workless household. He was right to draw attention to the announcement that has been made today about even greater investment in apprenticeships, and also the change in the way that the apprenticeship levy works so that supply chains can benefit to a greater degree.

Topical Questions

May I join the House in saying happy birthday to the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill)? It should be a national holiday as far as I am concerned—perhaps that is an idea for a private Member’s Bill, or something similar.

I am pleased that, since the last questions, we have published our review into autism employment, and I place on record my thanks to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) who did such excellent work in bringing that useful report forward.

Looking forward from April, we will see benefits generally rising by 6.7%, the state pension by 8.5%, the national living wage by around 10%, and the next tranche of the household support fund being brought forward. As I have already set out, our plan is working. It means more employment, historically low unemployment and an economic inactivity rate below countries such as the United States, France and Italy.

The economic inactivity rate is now very high, with 2.8 million people citing long-term sickness as a reason. Some 17 million days of work are lost, at a cost of £13 billion to the economy. Has the Secretary of State seen the Policy Exchange report published today, with policy proposals backed by two of his predecessors, David Blunkett and my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith)? What steps are the Government taking to improve the provision of workplace health services through occupational health pathways and vocational rehabilitation, and will he consider the 15 proposals in the Policy Exchange report?

I will of course look closely at the report that my right hon. Friend refers to; indeed, I reached out to him recently to invite him to the Department to discuss that and other matters. With regard to long-term sickness and disability, we are working on an array of interventions, including occupational health support within businesses; WorkWell, bringing together medical interventions with work coaches; universal support to help people into work, and to stay in work with that support; and fundamental reform of the work capability assessment, such that the OBR says that 371,000 fewer people will go on to those benefits going forward.

In the Budget, the Chancellor said that he wants to end national insurance contributions because the

“double taxation of work is unfair.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2024; Vol. 746, c. 851.]

People’s NICs records help to determine their entitlement to the state pension, so if national insurance is scrapped how will they know what pension they will get?

I am not surprised that the hon. Lady brings that up, because I am well aware of the position that her party has taken on the announcements that we have made. She will be clear in her own mind that the Chancellor has not guaranteed that we will reduce at one stroke national insurance contributions; it is an aspiration that has been spoken about as occurring over a number of years, if not Parliaments, so the problems that she is conjuring up to frighten pensioners are nothing short of political scaremongering.

The Secretary of State can bluster and deny all he likes, but the Prime Minister told The Sunday Times:

“We want to end this double taxation on work”.

It is there in black and white, so let me try again. How will people’s pension entitlement be determined if NICs are scrapped, and if the Government are going to merge NICs with income tax what will that mean for pensioners’ tax bills? Is the truth not that their unfunded £46 billion plan to scrap NICs is yet more chaos from the Conservatives, and Britain’s pensioners deserve so much better?

The hon. Lady quoted from The Sunday Times, and I scribbled it down:

“We want to end this double taxation”.

Of course we do, but that is not the same as a near-term pledge; it is a longer-term aspiration—[Interruption.] We have been quite upfront, quite unlike—[Interruption.] If she would care to hear me out, it is quite unlike the £28 billion firm commitment that her party made, and subsequently U-turned on, which was nothing short of fiscally reckless, and would have led to increases in interest rates, inflation, unemployment, and so on.

T2. I extend my gratitude to the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work for recently holding a menopause roundtable that was particularly focused on employment in tourism and hospitality, and to Gatwick airport for hosting it. What steps will the menopause employment champion take next? (902044)

I am delighted about the regional roundtables, including in the leisure and hospitality sector, oil and gas, and education, among others. They are informing the sector work of the menopause employment champion, and her one-year report is now available, showcasing a variety of stakeholders’ perspectives, and outcomes for women who need support.

The Resolution Foundation highlights that scrapping the two-child limit would be one of the most efficient ways to drive down child poverty rates, and would lift 490,000 children out of poverty overnight. Surely one child growing up in poverty is one child too many. The Secretary of State should reverse course on this, and the Labour party should also commit to scrapping the two-child limit. Does the Secretary of State agree that no child should grow up in poverty, and will he take action to ensure that that stops now?

The hon. Lady raises the same point as her colleague, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), about the two-child limit. I will not detain the House by repeating exactly the same answer, other than to agree passionately with her that one child in poverty is one too many, and to say that, although we have further to go, it is important to recognise that we have reduced the number of children in absolute poverty, after housing costs, by 400,000 since 2010.

T3. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I thank the Minister for recognising Sign Language Week in the Chamber. It is so important for disability inclusion in the workplace. Will she recommend that hon. Members from across the House meet representatives of the British Deaf Association, who are now welcoming people in Dining Room A at an event I am co-sponsoring? (902045)

I am delighted to welcome Sign Language Week, which is marking its 21st anniversary of recognising British Sign Language as a language in its own right. I encourage Members to join the British Deaf Association reception after these questions have ended.

T8. The Government will move thousands of my constituents across to universal credit over the next year. They will be forced to wait five weeks for their first payment or up to nine weeks if they receive child or working tax credits. According to DWP data, 60% of the people across Merseyside who are in that situation will take out an advance loan. Does the Minister think it right that my constituents, who are among the most deprived in the country, should be pushed into debt or face weeks without the bare minimum that they need to afford the essentials? (902051)

The plan is to roll out those migration notices by 31 March. We intend to publish data for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. We are committed to ensuring that the transition works as smoothly as possible for everyone.

T4. Has the Minister made any recent assessment of what trades or occupations are short of workers at the moment, and what steps are being taken to persuade people—perhaps more experienced people—back into the workforce to fill those vacancies? (902046)

We are working with other Departments, employers and stakeholders to isolate where those vacancies are, and on sector-based work academy programmes. We have put over 266,000 people through construction, care, tourism, hospitality—all those gaps that we need to fill.

Of people currently claiming tax credits, 20% are not moving over to universal credit in the migration. The Department tells us that those who are not claiming would have got a median amount of £3,200 a year. Will the Minister assure me and the House that she is doing everything she can to ensure that people are getting the money that they are owed?

I assure the hon. Lady that we are keeping a close eye on the issue, but ultimately it is the customer’s responsibility to claim. I gently point out that we have been rolling out the migration in her constituency since May ’23, with not one complaint. There is plenty of help available to those people as they transition.

T5. As my right hon. Friend will know, fast diagnosis and treatment are key to getting people back into work. What representations has he made to his departmental and Cabinet colleagues to ensure that that is the case? (902048)

I thank my hon. Friend and near neighbour for her question—I know that she cares deeply about the issue that she has raised. We work closely with other Departments. For example, we work with the Department of Health and Social Care on NHS talking therapies, of which we have announced 400,000 more over the next five years, as well as on WorkWell, which I have mentioned, and on fit note reform. With the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, we are working closely on housing—I have spoken about the local housing allowance changes coming through—and with the Department for Education we are working on SWAPs, and on training and apprenticeships.

Schools, general practitioners, social services, charities and housing associations can all refer their clients to a food bank in an emergency, yet this Government, who are responsible for benefit sanctions, have ordered DWP staff to stop referring claimants to food banks. How can Ministers justify this decision to the families of the 4,027 children living in poverty in my east Durham constituency?

May I make it clear that that was just scaremongering? The DWP has not changed its policy. There are merely improvements being made to the signposting slip, so that we comply with our obligations under the GDPR. We continue to provide guidance to customers, signposting them to emergency support, as is right.

T6. A couple in my constituency recently received an apologetic letter from the Department for Work and Pensions that set out a catalogue of mistakes that it had made. Those mistakes almost led to their losing their home, which caused them enormous stress. My constituents are now waiting for a decision on the compensation that they may receive. Will my right hon. Friend look into the case, and ensure that a decision is taken as quickly as possible, to save my constituents any further stress? (902049)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter. I obviously cannot comment on an individual case. However, I am very happy to look closely into the matter he has raised, and either I or a relevant Minister will be happy to meet him.

The number of the long-term sick has risen from 2.1 million pre-pandemic to 2.8 million today. This huge increase started in spring 2021, at the same time as the roll-out of the experimental, emergency-use vaccines—or does the Secretary of State have an alternative explanation for the unprecedented rise in long-term sickness in the UK since spring 2021?

Among the major drivers of the increase to which the hon. Gentleman refers are mental health issues and musculoskeletal issues. I am not entirely sure that he is accurate when he says that the upward trajectory in the number occurred just as vaccination occurred—I think it predated that moment—and I certainly do not subscribe to the view that vaccination is in any way unsafe.

T7. For many years, the Department published statistics giving a breakdown of welfare claims by nationality. Although the Department still has the data, it no longer publishes the statistics. Will the Minister look again at that, and start publishing those important statistics once again? (902050)

I thank my hon. Friend, but I would like to inform him that at the moment there are no plans to recommence the publication of those statistics.

The last Labour Government lifted 1 million children out of poverty. After 14 years of Tory Government, we have 1 million children in destitution. What has gone wrong?

I have to take issue with the hon. Gentleman. He needs to look more closely at his party’s record in government. Fact No. 1 is that the Labour party always leaves office with higher unemployment. Fact No. 2 is that economic inactivity in our country is lower than in any year in his party’s time in office. Fact No. 3 is that absolute poverty has declined in our country since his party was in office. Fact No. 4 is that there were more children in workless households on his watch than there are on ours. Perhaps most tellingly of all, during his party’s time in office, over 1 million people languished on long-term benefits for almost a decade. That is a disgraceful record.

T9. One of the most challenging groups of people to get back into the workforce is those in their 50s and 60s whose jobs disappeared during covid. They have possibly fallen back on their personal pensions, although with inflation, that money is being eaten away. What actions is my hon. Friend taking to get those people back into work, and to encourage them into jobs that are valuable and improve our productivity? (902052)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I would ask people to go to their jobcentre, which can help them build their CV and their confidence. We have 50PLUS champions across all districts, and midlife MOTs. I for one think that working in my 50s—and now my 60s—is a very good idea indeed.

The two wellbeing hubs in my constituency, in Brora and Dunbeath, are crucial to the wellbeing of pensioners. They signpost the best mix of benefits and are a last safety net, but their future is uncertain because of the vagaries of NHS Scotland finance. Will a Minister meet me to discuss how we can safeguard the future of these two centres?

I am always happy to have a debate with the hon. Gentleman. We sit next to each other almost every morning in Portcullis House, and I am sure that we can have a conversation.

Aylesbury is a wonderful place to live, work, visit and invest in, but sadly we have some areas of economic deprivation. Opportunity Bucks, run by Buckinghamshire Council, has identified Aylesbury north and Aylesbury north-west as areas for extra attention, where we could improve education, training and skills. How can my hon. Friend’s Department assist such initiatives in getting more Aylesbury residents into work?

We are working with employers and jobcentres on the sector-based work academies programme and boot camps, but I am more than happy to visit my hon. Friend in Aylesbury, and to talk to his jobcentres and employers, to see how we can provide more encouragement.