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Topical Questions

Volume 747: debated on Monday 18 March 2024

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.