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Out-of-work Benefits

Volume 824: debated on Monday 17 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are planning to take to reduce the number of people in receipt of out-of-work benefits.

My Lords, building on all the work that we have done to date, we will continue to support people to move into and progress in work. Unemployment is at a near low of 3.5%, so our efforts have to date been working. Our comprehensive labour market offer gives claimants the best possible chance to be financially independent. We are investing £900 million in each year of the spending review into our work coaches, who are fundamental to help move people from welfare to work. As noble Lords all know, we are raising the administrative earnings threshold, strengthening the support we give to claimants, and setting very clear work expectations of claimants and a very clear outline of what we will do to help them.

That is helpful, but there is a severe labour shortage in this country. I hope that my noble friend will be able to tell me the exact number of people who are on out-of-work benefits within the working age population. Estimates vary but in some areas it is one in five people; in some cases one in four people is on out-of-work benefits. Of course, many people are disabled and need support, but the coalition Government of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats got a lot of people back into work with support. At the moment, the number of people on out-of-work benefits is rising at a time of labour shortage. What more can the Government do?

My noble friend makes many important and accurate points. As of February 2022, 5.18 million working-age adults, or 12.7% of the GB working-age population, were receiving out-of-work benefits, the largest category being UC out-of-work or no work-related requirements. We are trying to reduce the flow into unemployment and inactivity by supporting disabled people and people with long-term health conditions; prevention and retention work, including launching a national information and advice service to help employers, because it is only employers who create jobs so they are the ones we need to work with to move people into work; and our interventions that I have already described, including large-scale trials of additional work coach support for the 2.8 million customers with health conditions.

My Lords, as the noble Lord acknowledged, many of those in receipt of out-of-work benefits are not in a position to take paid work because of, for instance, caring responsibilities or long-term incapacity. Given the evidence of the dreadful hardship they are already experiencing, will the DWP do all it can to ensure these benefits are uprated in line with inflation next year and are not subject to further cuts, as has been rumoured?

Please believe me when I say that we all understand the desire for benefits to be uprated in line with inflation. I have to wait until the Secretary of State carries out her review, which will be announced to the House on 25 November. We will work with people with really bad conditions and real difficulties to see whether they can move into work, but they will be dealt with compassionately and carefully.

In the Restart programme, what does “strengthening support” mean and what proportion of those on the programme gain a position and are still in it six months later?

That was the exam question. As my noble friend knows, the Restart scheme gives jobseekers out of work for nine months more intensive support to find a job. It has achieved more than 226,000 starts. The issue my noble friend raised concerning whether they are still in work six months later is really important. I do not have those statistics but I will go back to the department, find out whether we have them and, whether we have them or not, I will write to her and put a copy of the letter in the Library.

Does the Minister believe the Government are doing enough to remove the barriers that prevent people working? For example, carers are finding it more and more difficult to get any support, and when they do, they are faced with huge bureaucracy. Childcare is unaffordable even when it is available, which is not much of the time. Transport can be very expensive and inaccessible to certain groups of the population. Does the Minister agree that getting people back to work is much more about removing barriers, rather than imposing more punitive conditions on the already poor and vulnerable?

Let me start by saying that the intention behind our efforts is not to issue punitive measures. Let us clear this up right now: as I have always said, sanctions are imposed only if there is no good reason for people not to take up an opportunity offered to them and they can do it. Some 98.9% of sanctions are down to the fact that people fail to turn up for interview, and the minute that they ring up to book the next appointment, the sanction is reviewed. At the DWP we do not go to work in the morning saying, “How many people can I sanction today?” That is just not the line. The noble Baroness raised a point about childcare, and it is number one on my list. I have just come back from the G7 where I spoke to my colleagues in Australia and Canada who have made enormous strides in improving childcare. The noble Baroness can take it from me that I am on the case.

My Lords, the number of people available for work is reducing primarily because of the increase in ill health in this country, as the Minister conceded. What discussions is her department is having with the Prime Minister, the Treasury and the Department of Health about how we start taking measures that will improve health in this country and move us away from being one of the unhealthiest countries in Europe?

I am not aware of any discussions with the Prime Minister, who probably has enough on her plate at the moment. We are well aware that the longer people have health problems—the longer they exist—the more difficult it is. We are working hand in glove with the Department of Health and with psychologists and psychotherapists to help people who have depression and anxiety. I have found that the best way to stop people losing their job because of mental health issues is to make sure that we work with the doctors so that when they give them their antidepressant prescription, they send them to us quickly and we can get them back to work sooner rather than later.

My Lords, the high level of youth unemployment is due to the fact many 18 year-olds leave school without any technical or data skills. The Minister’s department announced last week that there are 1.4 million job vacancies in this country. We lack skilled workers, and we will not get more skilled workers until the Government accept that there must be high-quality technical education in all of our schools alongside academic subjects—and that they have not changed.

I completely agree with my noble friend, and we need to take this up with the Department for Education, which has responsibility for this. My noble friend has been a long-time champion of technical and higher education. I will speak to my colleague in the Department for Education, write to my noble friend and place a copy in the Library.

My Lords, in response to an earlier question the Minister rightly said that many people are sanctioned and deprived of their benefits because they fail to turn up for an interview. I happen to know that a good proportion of those people—parents with sick children, for example—are denied benefits because of a failure of somebody in the department. The child wakes up sick in the morning, the parent phones in and says, “I’m sorry, I can’t make the interview; please hand on this information”, it is not handed on and they are sanctioned. This happens time and again. Will the Minister accept that this is the case and look into it?

I am very happy to look into it. Before I do so, maybe I can speak with the noble Baroness to get some more information to share with my colleagues in the department.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned people with ill health. The group falling out of the labour market fastest are the over-50s, and the ONS has found that more than half of over-50s who have left the labour market since the pandemic have done so because of physical or mental ill-health. What is the Minister’s department doing to target over-50s who have left the labour market, who are much needed out there and who want to get back into work? Some of them are not technically unemployed; some are not even getting benefits. What are jobcentres doing about those people?

We have our programme for over-50s and our over-50s champions. If somebody over 50 is on a benefit, they will be engaged with a work coach, who will have to identify the barriers and put interventions in place to overcome them. People not involved in benefits will get a mid-life MOT and direction to Jobcentre Plus.