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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
07 October 2019
Volume 664

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Terminally Ill People

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1. What progress her Department has made on its review of how the benefits system supports terminally ill people. [912558]

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I understand how important it is to support those nearing the end of their life, and I am taking the evaluation forward as a priority. We have made progress on all areas of the work announced by the previous Secretary of State on 11 July. As a next step, we will be holding a workshop event on 29 October to gather key stakeholder views.

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The Scottish Government have already done this work. They have talked to the medical profession, the third sector and patients. My Bill to implement a system in England and Wales is ready to go. Why are we not pushing ahead? Is this not just delaying the terminally ill from being able to access terminal illness benefits?

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I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who has been a tireless campaigner in this area, building on her personal and professional experience. I have met with her on several occasions, including as part of this work. We want to get things right. We understand the importance of the issue, and we are doing internal research with clinicians and external research with claimants and stakeholders. We are also looking at international research, which will include what the Scottish Government are doing, and we will be concentrating on the process to ensure that it is improved. This is an important area.

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Given that the hon. Gentleman chairs the all-party parliamentary group for terminal illness, I call Drew Hendry.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

This Government are stringing terminally ill people and their families along. They already have the evidence from stakeholders and from what is happening in Scotland. When will they do what they should for these people and their families and scrap the six-month rule, get implicit consent in place, and make the situation one of fairness and dignity for people who are dying?

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I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work as chairman of the APPG. We do take things seriously, which is why we are doing this thorough evaluation. We are already working with organisations such as Marie Curie, the MND Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association, Hospice UK, the Association for Palliative Medicine, Macmillan, the Queen’s Nursing Institute and Sue Ryder. We must get the balance right so that those who should be getting fast-track access to support are always prioritised, and we will be doing a thorough evaluation to ensure that we get that right.

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17. Is the Minister aware that there can be severe financial stress for the carer when a terminally ill person dies? One of my constituents was forced into serious debt as a result of missing payments after trying to migrate from the carer’s allowance and premium to universal credit. Where is the promised ministerial guidance on this sensitive subject? [912576]

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Part of the evaluation is about looking at the whole process, including not only the six-month rule but the process before and after. I believe that there has been a case in the right hon. Gentleman’ constituency, so it would be helpful to have further information on that as part of the evaluation.

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I call the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris); I am very grateful to him for proffering me a very effective throat remedy on Thursday.

Contracted-out Health Assessments

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2. What recent assessment her Department has made of the (a) accuracy and (b) efficiency of contracted-out health assessments for (i) employment and support allowance and (ii) personal independence payments. [912559]

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We are committed to ensuring that individuals receive high-quality assessments as part of the suite of evidence that decision makers can use to decide entitlement. Providers are closely monitored against a range of measures, including through independent audit, to improve the accuracy of the advice they provide to decision makers. We continually look to improve the efficiency of the assessment process by working closely with providers.

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I listened intently to the Minister’s response, but my constituent has a series of complex and debilitating medical conditions and had been in receipt of disability benefit since 1994. At 60, when she had expected to retire, the Department for Work and Pensions declared her fit for work. Given that 74% of fit-for-work decisions were overturned on appeal in 2018-19, what confidence can the Minister give my constituent that there is equality and consistency of decisions on work capability assessments and, indeed, that the decision-making process is correct?

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We strive to get the right decision first time, but we have to do much more to speed up the appeal process in the minority of cases where that does not happen. That is why we launched a series of pilots in the spring of mandatory reconsideration centres for both personal independent payment and work capability assessment, to ensure that we proactively gather the additional written and oral evidence that is often presented at the end of the independent appeal process, speeding up the process of ensuring that people get the right decision quickly.

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I know the Minister is determined to see improvements in how decisions are made. Will he kindly update the House on the progress on introducing a single assessment service, which will greatly help the situation?

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. She works tirelessly in this area and is held in great respect by all Members on both sides of the House.

The integrated assessment is looking at how, with the claimant’s permission, we can share the evidence they have already gathered. We know that the majority of successful appeals contain additional written and oral evidence, often because the claimant had previously struggled to get that evidence. If the evidence is already in the system, we should be making it as easy as possible for the claimant to use it a second time.

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Might I meet the Minister immediately after questions to give him a file of photographs of constituents who have failed to get any mobility component, even when they have foot bones coming through their flesh like in the photo I have here, so that we can have an urgent meeting to discuss how the procedure that we all wish to see is not currently operating?

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I would be very happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman, who has a huge amount of expertise in this area. Of those who have transferred from disability living allowance to PIP, there are 144,000 claimants who were not on enhanced mobility under DLA but who now are under PIP.

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If a 16-year-old’s DLA stops before PIP starts, should not the contractor be made liable for the maintenance of that child until the PIP settlement is determined?

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The two benefits link through together. It is set at 16 to allow time for adaptation, and we continue to work with stakeholders to make sure the process is as straightforward as possible.

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Figures recently published by the Department reveal that disabled people are being forced to wait up to 69 days for their mandatory reconsideration for PIP. This process is a barrier to accessing vital social security and, for many, is a deliberate delay to the appeal process. As 85% of MR decisions are upheld, almost three quarters of PIP assessments are overturned on appeal. Will the Minister lay out his plans to improve this failing process, or will he follow Labour’s lead and scrap this unfit-for-purpose assessment?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the need to improve mandatory reconsiderations, which is why we brought forward the pilots in the spring. The pilots are proactively gathering the additional written and oral evidence that was often presented at the end of the independent appeal process, which would sometimes take a year or even longer—that was not acceptable. We have been doing this over the summer, and we are now doing it for all PIP and work capability assessments. I attended a PIP mandatory reconsideration in Cardiff over the summer, and we are seeing some fantastic results because, rightly, we are speaking directly to claimants to ask them why they are challenging a decision. That will make a big difference, and stakeholders warmly welcome it.

Universal Credit: Disabled Claimants

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3. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the introduction of universal credit on the financial circumstances of disabled claimants. [912560]

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18. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the introduction of universal credit on the financial circumstances of disabled claimants. [912577]

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Universal credit targets additional support at a wider group than the system it replaces, with a much higher rate for severely disabled people than the employment and support allowance equivalent. Around 1 million disabled households will gain, on average, £100 a month on universal credit compared with legacy benefits.

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It is shameful that it took the Government 15 months and a High Court ruling to sort out payments for those with severe disabilities, but it goes on. Why does a young constituent with Down’s syndrome who is making a new claim have to wait more than three months for a full payment?

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We continue to work with stakeholders and claimants to make sure the system is improved and can operate as quickly as possible. I encourage Opposition Members to support the £600 million of additional support for the severe disability premium and not pray against those regulations.

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Despite what the Minister says, the reality is that a new claimant on universal credit will be £180 a month worse off as a result of disability premiums not being available. That is in addition to the increasing number of disabled people who are dying after being found fit for work or being refused PIP. When will the Government ensure that disabled people are not discriminated against and are adequately resourced, as they would be under the Labour party’s policy?

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This Government are spending an additional £9 billion per year—a record high of £55 billion—supporting those with disabilities and long-term health conditions. The universal credit rate for the most severely disabled is more than double the equivalent employment and support allowance group rate, at £336.20, compared with a legacy payment of just £167.05.

Universal Credit: Financial Resilience

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4. What assessment she has made of the effect of transferring to universal credit on households’ levels of financial resilience. [912561]

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14. What assessment she has made of the effect of transferring to universal credit on households’ levels of financial resilience. [912573]

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Universal credit ensures that support goes to those who need it, allowing 700,000 more people to receive benefits than did previously—this is worth approximately an extra £2.4 billion. Those who move to UC from legacy benefits and whose circumstances remain the same will be eligible for protection of their entitlement at the point of transition.

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This is Challenge Poverty Week, and plenty of people are challenged by UC. They face what Citizens Advice Scotland describes as an “acute dilemma” between enforced hardship for five weeks, while there is no income whatsoever, and ongoing hardship if they choose to take out a loan and have to face reduced monthly payments while they pay back that loan for the first five weeks.

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The situation is that this is an assessment period and no one has to wait to receive a UC payment; an advance of up to 100% is available to those in need, and significant funding has gone to Citizens Advice Scotland.

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Some 700,000 households yet to move to UC have insufficient savings to cover that five-week wait, which clearly proves that UC is not working. Will the Minister consider making that advance payment to claimants a non-refundable first UC payment?

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As the hon. Gentleman is aware, there is a managed migration pilot in Harrogate, where we are learning lessons, and I take on board the points he makes. That completes at the end of 2020 and, obviously, everyone not in the pilot stays on the legacy system as it currently runs.

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One important way for people on UC to build their financial resilience is through regular saving, although that can feel incredibly difficult for those on lower incomes. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s Help to Save scheme, which is precisely for people on tax credits and UC and which provides a 50% bonus on their savings, is a really important tool?

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Just today, I met Toynbee Hall and other organisations that are championing the idea of Help to Save. It is making a massive difference, and it is linked to automatic enrolment and to various other schemes we are trying to pioneer in order to ensure that people have savings as well as UC.

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I visited my local jobcentre, and it is very positive about the effects of UC. Specifically on financial resilience, how many people have been helped into work and the security of a regular pay packet as a result of UC?

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My hon. Friend makes the good point that hundreds of thousands of people have been helped into work, but more particularly this is about the difference between the current system and the legacy system: we now have a dedicated work coach and personalised support; we have scrapped the 16-hour cliff edge; there is more help with childcare; and we have given additional support that was never there under the legacy system.

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20. A young constituent of mine could not afford to go to his UC appointment, was sanctioned and then lost his home in York’s resettlement project and ended up on the streets. We were told that the Government would fix the problems with UC as it was being rolled out. Why have the Government not stuck to that commitment? [912579]

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If the individual case is sent to the Minister with responsibility for UC, they will take that up and respond accordingly.

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If people are paid on a four-week cycle, once a year they get paid twice in the same month, which disrupts the UC payment for two months. Will the Minister meet me to see what we can do to prevent these cash flow issues?

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I take the point that my hon. Friend makes, in his usual astute way, and I know that the Minister concerned will be happy to have a meeting with him.

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21. Several of my constituents have been victims of UC fraudsters, and I have written to Ministers about this on several occasions. I have now received a response to say that only “where there is clear evidence that the claimant had no involvement in that claim”will the Department “consider re-instating legacy benefits” and consider repaying the advance that was made to them. The claimants are being asked to an interview under caution, which is incredibly intimidating, and they have no access to legal advice and support for that. What is the Department going to do to stop intimidating such victims? [912580]

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As we discussed before the start of questions, the hon. Lady knows that I will soon write to her in great detail on those particular points. The individual issue is being addressed so that there is a much gentler way forward. We are reforming the way that advances are made so that there is no fraud involved in the process.

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I hope the Minister will forgive me, but I was hoping to address my question to the new Secretary of State. I am interested to know what she has learned so far about the five-week wait and the damage it does. People have more debt when they come on to universal credit than they had on legacy benefits, and the advance payment is another debt that must be repaid from a meagre amount of benefit, frozen for three years. When is the Secretary of State going to look into getting rid of the five-week wait so that people get non-repayable money into their pockets more swiftly? They cannot wait for five weeks.

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I am sure the Secretary of State looks forward to appearing before the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, of which the hon. Lady is a member, next week.

An advance is available to people in the usual way. Supported by the Treasury Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee, we have brought in the Money and Pensions Service to provide debt advice and budgeting support for claimants. There is no doubt that the extra money for Help to Claim, which is administered by trusted providers—whether that is the citizens advice bureaux or Citizens Advice Scotland—is very much helping the process.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) said, it is Challenge Poverty Week in Scotland, and 400 events will take place to highlight the reality of living in poverty. One of the most significant push factors that take people into poverty has been the five-week waiting time between applying for universal credit and receiving it. Today, three quarters of a million households are unable to cover their outgoings during those five weeks and are trying to repay their universal credit advance. We know it, the public know it and I suspect the Department knows it; when will the Minister do something about it?

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The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is an assessment period and no one has to wait to receive a UC payment. On migration, there will be a two-week run-on for both housing benefit and employment support benefits.

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As part of Scotland’s Challenge Poverty Week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published a report that shows that the Scottish Government’s actions—such as the building of 87,000 affordable homes and the introduction of specific child poverty legislation—are making a real difference in tackling poverty. Given the fact that there is at least one Government on these islands who are determined to tackle the scourge of poverty in our society, is it not time for social security to be devolved fully to the Scottish Parliament?

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There is much that I could say about the Scottish Government and their approach to welfare, but I will pass on that. The point is surely that this Government have introduced childcare changes, more employment and support on an ongoing basis, including through lower taxes. It is obvious that there is a benefit from the changes and advances we have made.

In-work Poverty

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5. What recent assessment her Department has made of trends in the level of in-work poverty. [912562]

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Since 2010, there are over 3.7 million more people in work and 730,000 fewer children growing up in workless households. About three quarters of employment growth has been in full-time work, which has been proven to substantially reduce the risk of poverty. But it is not enough to have any job; we want people to have good jobs.

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With regard to in-work poverty, 20% of people in relative poverty in 2016-17 were single people without children and 11% were couples without children. The Government have done absolutely nothing to reverse cuts to work allowances for people without children who do not have a disability. What action is the Minister going to take to tackle in-work poverty among those people?

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I totally disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. We are committed to helping lone parents into a job that fits around their caring responsibilities. There are now more than 1.2 million lone parents in work. To support parents into work, the Government spend £6 billion on childcare each and every year.

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Has the Minister read the report from the Resolution Foundation that stated that

“Low pay is falling for the first time in four decades”

and that women were the biggest beneficiaries? It pointed out that since the national living wage was introduced in 2016 the percentage of employees on low pay has fallen from 20.7% to 17.1% last year.

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I have not seen the report, so I will go away and dig it out. We have invested £8 million to develop the evidence on what works to support people to progress in work, including enhancing our operational capability to support claimants to make good decisions on job switching.

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The thing is, it is really difficult for many families in my constituency on the minimum wage, as they may have to travel quite substantial distances to be able to work, while having to meet family responsibilities at the same time. They end up not being able to do enough hours to make the whole package add up at the end of the week. How are the Government going to make sure that such families have a chance to provide for themselves? That is all they are trying to do.

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The statistics show that full-time work reduces substantially the chances of poverty. The absolute poverty rate for children where both parents work full-time is only 4%, compared with 44% where one or more parents are in work, so we need to support more people into work, and we are doing so, for example, by offering 30 hours of free childcare to parents of three and four-year-olds. The national living wage is £8.21, increasing to £10.50 by 2024, and we have taken millions out of paying tax altogether.

Employment: Young People

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6. What recent steps the Government have taken to help young people into employment. [912563]

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15. What recent steps the Government have taken to help young people into employment. [912574]

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This Government are committed to providing targeted support for all our young people, to give them the best chance of getting into work. That includes the youth obligation support programme, Jobcentre Plus support for schools, and the recently introduced mentoring circles.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. I welcome the Government funding given to Go Train, which provides recruitment and training services to businesses at no cost to business. Will she visit Walsall North in November, when a course will be provided specific to the Birchills area of my constituency?

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I was recently nearby, at one of our universal credit service centres, with my hon. Friend It was absolutely clear that opportunities for young people in his constituency and the surrounding area are vital. The Department for Work and Pensions is working with the West Midlands Combined Authority to bring together local skills, employment support and Jobcentre Plus services. We are investing £1.2 million in the west midlands for extra resources, including helping young people to tackle the biggest hurdles to finding employment.

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Ah yes, I shall be having a cup of tea or coffee with the mum of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) this week, so doubtless we shall compare notes on his inquiry. Huw Merriman.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Speaking of young people, they will welcome the decision to grant the living wage to people aged 21 to 25 at £10.50 an hour, but are the Government satisfied that there will not be any impact on young people and their job opportunities as a result of their being paid the same rate as those who have more experience in the workplace?

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I welcome the Chancellor’s announcement to bring more people, including younger people, into the scope of the national living wage over the next five years. Employers will continue to select the best person for the job, based on multiple factors. Like me, they will take confidence from the fact that young people will have a chance to take advantage of the support offered to make sure that they are ready to meet those challenges and be the best person for the job. So local labour markets will still be strong.

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When are we going to see a glimmer of passion from this Front Bench about young people who do not have any employment opportunities? Has the Minister looked at the report from the Children’s Commissioner that showed that 20% of kids come out of schools at this time with no qualifications? A lot of them are already on the skills journey in further education colleges, waiting to get an apprenticeship. What is she going to do about it?

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Wonderful passion—that is very much appreciated. And I make no apology for bringing passion to this new role when it comes to youth unemployment. In fact, I explicitly asked the Secretary of State that I could continue with my focus on young people in this role. Please do not forget that youth unemployment has almost halved since 2010 under this Government.

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The Minister may be aware of the talent match programme that was run in Greater Manchester in order to reach young people not in education, employment or training. We have learnt a great deal about how to ally industrial education and skills, and employment strategies, for that group as a result of that programme. Will the Minister look at devolving some of the initiatives that she has described to Greater Manchester, along with providing funding, so that we can do more to work at a sub-regional and city-regional level to support our young people effectively into employment?

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Place-based support and understanding is really important in devolving down and making changes on the ground. There is a great opportunity in the coming changes to the European social fund, in the shared prosperity fund and in the ability to work with local enterprise partnerships and local mayors, because young people may have fantastic employers around them, but never know that those opportunities exist.

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I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments about the national living wage and young people. On what evidence has she based the decision not to extend that down to 18, or is she perhaps considering providing the national living wage to those who are younger but still able to provide a great deal to employers in the workplace?

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My right hon. Friend knows that, if it were up to me, I would love to extend the national living wage down to 18, but sadly this is down to the Treasury; I will question the relevant Ministers accordingly.

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Well-paid, secure work is a good route out of poverty, yet far too many young people—11%—are not in education, employment and training under this Government; or they are in low-paid jobs and on zero-hours contracts. Will the Minister press the Chancellor to set the national living wage at the same rate for all young people in work, as Labour has committed to do—£10 an hour in 2020?

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Everybody in this Chamber speaking up for our young people do all our communities a great service. We need a mixture of chances and opportunities for young people, including through mentoring. I am particularly interested in the work that we do with schools around engagement with jobcentres. [Interruption.] It is not all about money; it is also about skills and opportunities. I hear the hon. Gentleman, as do many colleagues, and I hope the Treasury will too.

State Pension: Women

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7. What support her Department is providing to women working for longer before reaching state pension age. [912564]

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We have extended the right to request flexible working, abolished the default retirement age, and introduced and financed the returner programme. I have seen the success of the returner programme through the company Release Potential, which is based in my Hexham constituency and which I have seen help many people back into work.

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If WASPI women were successful in appealing last week’s Court ruling, would the Government abide by that judgment and compensate women accordingly?

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I spent 20 years as a lawyer, and my last client was a Mr Ed Balls, when he was Secretary of State for Education. I can assure my hon. Friend that this Government will abide by court decisions and follow the law. If there are any changes—two independent High Court judges heard the case and made the decision— clearly the Government will obey that decision.

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I have been contacted by my constituent, who said:

“I have to work as a cleaner and it is hard physical work. I am nearly 63 and getting health problems. Our retirement age has been changed and we have had little time to plan for this so have little alternative but to keep working.”

Does the Minister not get that the real injustice here is that so many women have had no time to plan their pensions, no time to plan their savings and no time to plan for their families, and were told in their late 50s that they would have to work for so much longer? The WASPI women are not going to go away, so when will the Minister give them a fair deal?

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I say with great respect and gentleness that the right hon. Lady, I believe, served in the Department for Work and Pensions as a Minister during the period when the state pension age was raised by successive Labour Governments. The Court in the judgment last Thursday—[Interruption.] She asked me a question, and she should let me finish. The Court in the judgment last Thursday indicated that the state, including the Labour Government of 13 years, acted appropriately by giving due notification in the way that it did.

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Ah yes, the good doctor—Dr Julian Lewis.

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I accept everything that the Minister just said, but does he accept that successive Governments, despite their best efforts, failed to get the message across to enough people that the retirement age for women was rising exponentially? Will the Government try to look at some of the proposals from people such as Baroness Altmann for ways in which alternative schemes could mitigate the problems that have resulted?

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With great respect to my right hon. Friend, I refer him to the judgment in last Thursday’s case, a copy of which I will place in the Library of the House of Commons—in particular, paragraph 118 and the successive paragraphs in which the High Court outlines the exact work that was done in copious detail.

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Some 3.8 million women born in the 1950s who built Britain face hardship as a consequence of pension changes by this Government. Before the Court, they were told with cavalier disregard that they had no right to be consulted on the change of retirement age. Labour has already committed to some preliminary measures—early retirement and pension credit—and we will now consult with the women concerned about how much further we can go to bring justice to them. Thus far, the Government have committed to nothing. However, the Prime Minister said during the Conservative leadership contest that he is committed to doing “everything” he can to bring justice to the 1950s women. Can the Minister update the House on progress, or will this be another cynical broken promise on the part of the Prime Minister?

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This is the matter of a court case which may be the subject of appeal. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman—who is, to his discredit, a friend of mine—the honest truth is that he should be consulting with a 1950s-born woman who was Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions: the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is also his wife and who was responsible for the continuation of the self-same policy that he now objects to. For 13 years, the Labour party did the perfectly proper thing of taking due account of equality and the rises in life expectancy, and it should stick to that, having made those decisions for 13 years.

Universal Credit: Wages

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8. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that universal credit claimants who receive two regular wage payments in the same review period are not penalised. [912565]

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Universal credit takes earnings into account in a way that is fair and transparent. The amount of universal credit paid reflects as closely as possible the actual circumstances of a household during each monthly assessment period, including any earnings reported by the employer during the assessment period, regardless of when they were paid.

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Does my hon. Friend have any plans to introduce a mechanism to universal credit that allows claimants to move their review date?

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As I said, monthly assessment periods align to the way that the majority of employees are paid and allow universal credit to be adjusted each month, which means that, if a claimant’s income falls, they will not have to wait several months for a rise in their UC. We have produced guidance to help to ensure that claimants, staff and representatives are aware of the importance of reporting accurate dates and the impact on payment cycles. I am conscious that my hon. Friend has written to me. I would be happy to meet him and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who also raised that issue.

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I have been contacted by a number of constituents who have received unexpected pay—for example, holiday pay—during the assessment period. Because that pay is unexpected, it impacts on the amount of universal credit that they are awarded. What work is the Minister doing to ensure that unexpected pay, like holiday pay, will not severely impact their award?

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As I have said, the amount of UC paid to claimants reflects as closely as possible the actual circumstances of a household during each monthly assessment period, and those periods align to the way that the majority of employees are paid. I recognise the issue. I have said that I am happy to meet two other colleagues, and I would be happy to also meet the hon. Lady.

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I raised this issue with the Secretary of State’s predecessor in the run-up to Christmas last year because many enlightened employers will pay their staff early in December so they can afford Christmas. She told me it was fixed. However, I was phoned last week on my 24-hour helpline by a constituent who, because her partner was paid on the 28th of the month the previous month and on the 27th of the month subsequently, it appeared—to the computer at least—that they had had a 100% pay rise, and her benefit was cut to £11. Can we fix this, particularly before Christmas this year?

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The simple answer to my right hon. Friend is yes, I am looking at ways in which we can do this. It is important to put this in context: UC replaces the outdated and complex benefits system, which too often stifled people’s potential, creating cliff edges at 16, 24 and 30 hours and punitive effective tax rates, of over 90% for some, punishing people for doing the right thing. UC seeks to take earnings into account in a way that is fair and transparent, and we want to preserve this simplicity as far as is possible.

Universal Credit: First Payments

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9. What steps she is taking to reduce the time taken for universal credit claimants to receive their first payment. [912566]

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23. What progress her Department is making on improving the timeliness of initial payments of universal credit. [912582]

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Universal credit payment timeliness continues to improve and is near a record high, with the most recent data showing we paid 83% of new claims in full and on time.

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Can I thank the Secretary of State for saving herself to answer my question? I welcome that. She will know that the five-week delay is still causing huge harm, so could I ask her what effort the DWP is making to ensure that UC recipients are not penalised by other organisations for the five-week gap in their incomes, and what extra support can the Government give to organisations that support universal credit recipients with financial management during this very difficult period?

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It is important to recognise the help to claim—I think it is £39 million of support—that has been given through the citizens advice bureaux to try to help people who may not always be there with the paperwork that is required, so we are making best efforts so that people can make the right claims so they can be paid on time. As regards other elements, of course the advance is available, which can then be repaid over a 12-month period.

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With former Thomas Cook employees being offered food bank vouchers by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Trussell Trust in Peterborough reporting a 50% increase in the number of food parcels given to my constituents in the last year alone, can the Secretary of State tell us what impact she thinks the collapse of Thomas Cook will have on these figures?

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The hon. Lady was at our first taskforce, and I am sure she will be impressed with the work that we have already been doing together, including the jobs fair that happened last Thursday. It is important, and we have seen this with Thomas Cook ex-employees, that they make a universal credit claim—some of them have —quickly so they can get the support that they need. I welcome, actually, the support that is given through the Trussell Trust in order to help people in this difficult time, but the sooner people come into Jobcentre Plus and start claiming universal credit, the sooner we can help.

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Without giving this House a debate or a vote, as they had promised, the Government have pushed through regulations for the pilot of universal credit managed migration and payments to severely disabled people who lost out in being forced to transfer to universal credit. Will the Government explain why those payments still do not fully reflect the financial loss those disabled people have suffered?

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There is an extra £600 million of support going to the most vulnerable. I really do want to encourage the Opposition to withdraw their early-day motion, because if they succeed in praying against this, they are hitting the most vulnerable people, and I am sure that is not something that they wish to be remembered for.

Spending Round 2019

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10. What assessment she has made of the implications for her Department’s policies of the spending round 2019. [912567]

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12. What assessment she has made of the implications for her Department’s policies of the spending round 2019. [912571]

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The Department’s resource budget will increase by 1.9% ahead of inflation for the first time since 2011, enabling us to provide excellent customer service, help people move into and progress in work, and provide financial security through timely benefit payments. As part of this, the DWP has been allocated £106 million to support vulnerable people and help to tackle private rented sector housing affordability through additional funding for discretionary housing payments.

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The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has highlighted that, with more social housing and lower housing costs, Scotland’s poverty figures are lower than the rest of the UK. The reality is that the biggest poverty factor is still Tory austerity. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that recent announcements will only mitigate a quarter of the cuts implemented since 2010. It is clear from the Secretary of State’s answer that a 1.9% increase is not enough. If austerity is really ending, when will the other three quarters of the cuts that have been implemented be reversed?

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have lifted 400,000 people out of absolute poverty since 2010 and that income inequality has fallen. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to go back to the Scottish Government and see what more they are doing to increase the number of higher paid jobs, because we all know that the best way out of poverty is to work.

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On this subject yet again, the spending round did nothing to address the cuts to the local housing allowance and the pressures on private renters, who are £38.49 a week worse off due to the UK Government’s benefits freeze. To ensure affordability and prevent evictions and hardship, will the Secretary of State immediately increase the LHA to the pre-2010 level, and uprate it in line with inflation and rent increases?

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I have just laid out that we increased the amount of money for discretionary housing payments. I have spoken to Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Scottish Minister, and it is my intention to see her soon, but the hon. Lady knows there are things the Scottish Government can do with the funding they have.

Disabled People

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11. What steps the Government are taking to increase support for disabled people. [912569]

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We have made significant progress to improve support and have seen the number of working age disabled people in employment increased by over 1 million in the last six years. However, we continue to focus on improving our services for those who use them. This includes the current consultation on measures aimed at reducing ill health-related job losses.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. What specific help is available to young people with disabilities to support them into work?

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My hon. Friend is right to highlight this very important area and I am very proud that I helped to champion disability apprenticeships. Through the Access to Work scheme, which is now seeing record numbers benefiting, we saw a 34% increase in 16 to 24-year-olds using it, opening up more opportunities for employment.

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The catalogue of the Department for Work and Pensions’ own failings has created a hostile environment for disabled people. Figures released this year show that almost 6,000 people died within six months of being found fit for work. The announcement of the new independent serious case panel lacks any meaningful detail, terms of reference or purpose. Will the Minister confirm whether the new panel will review previous social security benefit deaths, and will he set out what the statement of purpose is for the new independent panel?

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We work all year round with claimants, stakeholders and charities—organisations with real-life experience—to help to improve not only the training but the understanding of all areas of disability and health conditions. We back that with genuine financial support. The Government now spend £55 billion a year, 2.5% of all Government spending and 6% of GDP—a record high, at £9 billion in real terms, to support people with disabilities.

Universal Credit: Identity Verification

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13. How her Department verifies the identity of universal credit claimants who do not have an (a) home, (b) bank account, (c) driving licence and (d) passport. [912572]

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It is a priority for this Government to provide swift access to support those who need it, while protecting those same people from potentially fraudulent behaviour. If a claimant does not have the documentary evidence we need, we can verify by using: biographical tests and checks, and information held on the Department’s systems; confirmation of third-party organisations; and two members of jobcentre staff knowing and recognising the claimant as part of their work.

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This is not what is happening in practice. Constituents are coming to me who have had their claims denied or who have just been turned away and told, “Go and find the documentation.” Newcastle citizens advice bureau also reflects that. Will the Minister guarantee that no vulnerable claimant will be turned away because of not having the right documentation? Will she write to me with the number of those who have had their claims denied because of a lack of documentation, so we can see the size of the problem?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I know she is passionate about her constituency. It is absolutely right that there is a balance, but to get a universal credit claim right we need to ensure we verify the identities of all vulnerable people. We heard earlier about the challenge if a claim is made fraudulently. We must be able to understand when there is a particular need to intervene. As we heard earlier, home visits are possible in relation to Help to Claim. If she would like to give me the details, I am very happy to look into this matter further.

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The hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) can legitimately shoehorn his Question 19 into this exchange.

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19. The Secretary of State has referred to the valuable role of citizens advice bureaux, and the Rugby CAB does fantastic work. It has told me about the challenges that clients face when they transition from employment and support allowance to universal credit. Will the Minister assure me that that transition is being sensitively and effectively managed? [912578]

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The Department is absolutely committed to making sure that we have the most compassionate and approachable opportunities for people to claim in every single constituency. I have met work coaches—from Scotland to Crawley to Walsall—who are dealing with this day to day, and the Help to Claim scheme backs that up.

Child Poverty

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16. What recent assessment her Department has made of trends in the level of child poverty. [912575]

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This Government take child poverty extremely seriously. The evidence shows that work is the best route out of poverty and that there are 730,000 fewer children in workless households compared with 2010, but there is more to do—one child in poverty is one too many—and this is a key priority for me and the Secretary of State. I will continue to work with colleagues from across the House, other Government Departments and stakeholders to identify and tackle the root causes of poverty.

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Children are not getting the nutrition that they need on the 170 days a year when they are not at school. Local authorities and devolved Governments are tackling this issue head on; why are not this Government?

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This is probably a question for the Department for Education, but we are supporting more than 1 million children with free school meals, investing up to £26 million in school breakfast clubs and providing approximately 2.3 million four to six-year-olds with a portion of fresh fruit or vegetables each day at school. Through the Healthy Start programme, hundreds of thousands of low-income families benefit from vouchers that can be redeemed against fruit, vegetables, milk and infant formula.

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Child poverty is being driven up by the five-week delay during which people have to wait before they receive universal credit. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that what Ministers refer to as an advance is in fact a loan that has to be repaid by claimants, and will he commit to scrapping the five-week delay?

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I think that this one has been answered several times already, but advance payments of up to 100% are available from day one of a universal credit claim and budgeting support is available for anyone who needs extra help. The repayment time for the advances has been extended to 12 months and will be further extended to 16 months from October 2021.

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There was a discernible world-weariness in the Minister’s reference to this question having been answered several times already. I simply remind those observing our proceedings that repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons. It never has been, and I doubt that things are going to change very much.

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An article in The BMJ shows that researchers have highlighted a possible link between an increase in the number of babies who die before their first birthday and child poverty. They estimate that there were an additional 570 excess deaths between 2014 and 2017, with 172 attributable to an increase in child poverty, so will the Minister scrap the two-child limit and the benefit cap, which are driving up child poverty?

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I humbly suggest that few Members in the Chamber have raised child and infant mortality more than I have. I take the issue incredibly seriously and I have read that report. No one in government wants to see poverty rising. Wages have outpaced inflation for 18 months, and there are more people in work than ever before. We know that children in households in which no one works are about five times more likely to be in poverty than those in households in which all adults work. Our welfare reforms are incentivising work and supporting working families.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [912583]

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It is a pleasure to be in the Chamber as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, leading a fantastic Department that serves people from the Shetlands to the Scilly Isles, with more than 20 million customers across the country. In my short time in this role, I have already witnessed at first hand the inspiring and incredible work of civil servants throughout the country, and they are benefiting as well in seeing our employment rate continuing at a joint record high and an unemployment rate at its lowest since the ’70s. There is more to do, however, and I will keep focusing on improving the payment of universal credit and ensuring that we support everyone in society.

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I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s sunny disposition in outlining her priorities, but the retirement plans of millions of women born in the 1950s are in ruins because of a decision by the previous Conservative-Lib Dem coalition Government to accelerate the increases in the state pension age. Last week, a decision in the High Court made it clear that only a political decision could deliver a just solution for these women, so will the Government now give the WASPI women dignity in retirement? Some 197 MPs have signed early-day motion 63 calling for justice for the WASPI women and for this historic injustice to be put right.

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The High Court set out quite clearly that successive Governments had taken a measured approach in recognising the inequality in the state pension age and the need to increase the state pension age. Indeed, it was the Pensions Act 2007 that started the trigger going beyond 65. It is important to recognise that and the efforts made to communicate it, but can I assure the House that, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there are record numbers of women in employment. We will continue to support them in fulfilling their careers.

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T7. I am privileged to have the universal credit processing centre for the south-west in my constituency. The staff there do an incredible job making sure the roll-out of universal credit is successful. They have done so well they have been asked to take on processing for several London boroughs, but they are currently experiencing very high case loads because of the transfer of employment and support allowance to universal credit. Will the Secretary of State make sure they get all the resources they need so that we can support these incredibly hard-working frontline staff? [912589]

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My hon. Friend is right to praise the people who work for the DWP in his constituency. We have more than 4,000 civil servants in service centres nationally and we constantly monitor the volume of work as universal credit grows, but I assure him that sufficient resources will be in place to support those workers in his constituency.

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T2. Last month, I met my constituent Dr Karen Gilmore, a specialist in pain management, and several of her colleagues and members of the independent assessment service. We discussed how the personal independence payment assessments in particular do not meet the needs of people living with chronic and severe pain. Will the Minister meet Dr Gilmore and me to discuss how we can improve these assessments? [912584]

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I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and her colleague. We are determined to continue to improve PIP—31% of claimants now access the highest rate of support, compared to just 15% under the legacy benefits—but I would welcome any additional information.

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As we have heard, many 1950s-born women have now reached the age at which they expected to receive a pension but are not, and many are struggling. Given that the judicial review is now out of the way, will the new Secretary of State agree to meet me and my co-chair of the all-party group on state pension inequality for women, the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), to discuss the proposals in the transitional arrangement document we produced? Can she also give us an estimate of how many women are affected in this way and whether they are in work?

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That was about four questions in one. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) in due course.

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T3. The benefits freeze has driven increased food bank usage in my constituency, as family incomes have fallen far below rising costs. The freeze is supposed to end in April. What work is the Secretary of State doing now to assess the real minimum income levels necessary to avoid destitution? [912585]

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Such decisions need to be made fairly soon, and I am conscious of the analysis presented to me and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), as we make decisions on that matter.

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On Friday, I visited the new Barnstaple Work Club, a fantastic initiative giving support to those seeking employment, particularly those with disabilities. Will the Minister join me in welcoming this new initiative and in thanking the volunteers as well as Barnstaple library for hosting it?

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It would be a pleasure to thank those volunteers doing so much to create new opportunities for disabled people, which is something I know my hon. Friend, as their MP, regularly champions, as I have seen at first hand on some very good visits there.

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T4. This morning, at the start of Challenge Poverty week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report entitled “Poverty in Scotland 2019”, which looks into some of the reasons why poverty levels in Scotland are not quite as bad as those in the rest of the United Kingdom. One of the major factors that it identifies is the much greater availability of affordable housing, and, in particular, the impact of nearly 20 years of council house building, and the fact that the Scottish Government have built 87,000 affordable houses since 2007. Does the Minister agree that, while he may claim that work is the best way out of poverty, unaffordable housing is a sure-fire way into poverty? Will the UK Government learn the lessons of what is happening in Scotland, and make social and council housing something to be celebrated instead of something to be demonised? [912586]

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I do agree with the hon. Gentleman that secure and stable accommodation is one route out of poverty. It will come as no surprise to him that I raise this issue regularly with my counterpart at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. I have been pushing the Ministry to consider providing more affordable homes, and homes for social rent, as one of its policy initiatives.

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As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for youth employment, I warmly welcome the Minister’s announcement about additional support for our young people. Can he confirm that mentoring will be an important part of that, given that it has been proved that it will help, in particular, those furthest from the labour market and the most vulnerable into work?

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. In the middle of last year, there were 63 new mentoring circles in operation. The circles originally focused on the race disparity audit, but they are now being rolled out across the country, as was agreed last January. I recently met the members of one circle in Basingstoke, where they were having a real effect on local young people who know what is around them. Mentors, businesses and employers can do a great deal to change young people’s lives locally.

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T5. Childcare in York can cost more than £1,000 a month, and those on universal credit are being asked to pay that amount upfront. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that providers have the resources that they need and claimants are not having to pay? [912587]

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Childcare provision is far more generous under universal credit than it was under the legacy benefits system. Another recent change is that the flexible support fund can now be used to pay deposits or first month’s payments.

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I call Toby Perkins. [Interruption.] I did not call a Conservative Member because I know that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) is normally paying the closest possible attention, and none of the hon. Members sitting on the Government Benches wished to contribute to the proceedings. I therefore alighted on the oratorical opportunities offered by the hon. Gentleman.

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T6. There is literally nothing else to say about Conservative welfare policy. The truth is that anyone who has met people who work in a food bank, or people who work with the homeless, will recognise that there is a direct link between welfare policy, the sanctions regime, and the increase in homelessness and poverty. What serious work will the Government do to address that link—or will they at least have the decency and honesty to admit that that increase in homelessness and poverty is an absolutely accepted part of Government policy? [912588]

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That is simply not the case. The first time that I became involved with a food bank was in 2006, when people were falling between the gaps. One of the things that make me proudest of the Conservative Government and the coalition is that people are better off in work than out of it unless they cannot work, and we have championed the vulnerable. Universal credit is ensuring that people can have more and more income, and I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.

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T8. What training is in place to make jobcentre and other DWP staff properly aware of the needs of claimants with learning difficulties? A claimant in my constituency has been left with just £40 a month to support his family because of the lack of support that he received in a jobcentre. [912590]

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I thank the hon. Lady for raising that important issue. We have doubled the number of disability employment specialist advisers, and we are ensuring that we do everything in our power to identify claimants who need additional support. That is a real priority for us.

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T9. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on DWP budgets of the failure to promise to uprate pensions for UK citizens in the EU for more than three years, and also to guarantee their healthcare for more than six months, in a no-deal scenario? [912591]

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The right hon. Gentleman will know that we are still in the middle of a negotiation for how we leave the European Union at the end of the month. It is important to stress that we have decided on a three-year rise unilaterally. We encourage other European Union countries to do exactly the same and we will continue to support those who have relied on UK pensions.

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People with a terminal illness want the choice of whether to work or not, and they should expect help and support from their employer. Does the Minister support the TUC’s Dying to Work campaign, which asks businesses to sign up and promise not to sack employees who have a terminal illness, and will she encourage more businesses to sign it?

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The TUC has done really good work here. We are working with employers to highlight the importance of making those sorts of changes, and this is an area where I am sure there would be cross-party support.

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There are over 5,700 WASPI women in Inverclyde. Many have worked their entire adult lives. They have paid their dues and they were expecting a pension, not a benefit. If we mucked around with MPs’ pensions in the same fashion, many Government Members would be standing and asking questions. Will the Secretary of State commit to undertaking an impact assessment for all women affected by changes in the state pension age and, once completed, offer a payment acknowledging any disadvantages caused?

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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be speaking to his own Government, who have the power under sections 24, 26 and 28 of the Scotland Act 2016 to take interventions and address the problem that he has raised.

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Why are the Government not tracking young people when they leave the youth obligation? As such, how do they know whether the scheme works? [Interruption.]

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Order. This is very unseemly. The hon. Lady was asking her question and there is a lot of very noisy chuntering taking place between the SNP Benches and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who luxuriates in the lather of the Treasury Bench. It is very unfair on the hon. Lady, very unseemly and very uncharacteristic of the hon. Gentleman, who is normally a most emollient fellow.

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The youth obligation programme is now being fully rolled out and looks at 18 to 24-year-olds making a new claim on universal credit. We had an internal evaluation report in April 2018 that identified a need for what the hon. Lady raises. We believe it is too soon to be looking at this, but I know that she and I share a great interest in how we can support our young people, and I am happy to speak to her further about this.

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One way that the Government could start to put right the injustices done to the women born in the early ’50s who were denied their pensions is to have a discussion with their colleagues in the Department for Transport and local authorities and provide free bus passes. That would help them a lot.

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I refer the hon. Gentleman to the judgment given by the High Court on Thursday and, obviously, any individual local authorities that wish to address that point in a particular way.

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The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) is being addressed by her leader, which is a very solemn matter. Nevertheless, I intrude, in the hope that she still wishes to ask a question.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

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Or perhaps not by her leader but by any leader.

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Further to the points already raised by other hon. Members, there are 6,500 women in Edinburgh West who were born in the 1950s and who have been affected by last week’s Court judgment. Can the Secretary of State assure me that, in the meeting that she has agreed to with the chairs of the APPG, there will be a meaningful attempt to address the poverty that these women face and not just sweep it under the carpet like an inconvenient problem?

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I refer the hon. Lady to the judgment that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has already raised. She might also wish to speak to her party leader, because she joined me in the Division Lobby when we made the changes that we did in the Pensions Act 2011. [Interruption.] Or rather, at least that the coalition Government did. I wish to make sure that we have a sensible conversation going forward, but the judgment stands. It is open for the ladies to appeal, but I can assure the House that we have made every effort, as did the Labour Government before us, to ensure that people knew about these changes.