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Topical Questions

Volume 673: debated on Monday 9 March 2020

The coronavirus is currently dominating my work at the DWP. The Department is fully prepared for all eventualities and has conducted extensive planning against reasonable worst-case scenarios. I have been in discussions with the Chancellor and will continue to work across Government to prepare. If claimants cannot attend their jobcentre appointment in person because of self-isolation, work coaches can exercise discretion, so claimants should engage with them—they will not be sanctioned as long as they let us know before the appointment.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out last week, nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing. That is why the Government safety net also extends to those who are self-employed or who work in the gig economy. They can apply for universal credit or new-style ESA, and advances are available for universal credit immediately. These are exceptional circumstances and we will support workers to do the right thing for the protection of their health and public health.

The local housing allowance is designed to cover the cheapest third of rents, but in Lewisham claimants face on average a shortfall of £40.22 per week between their rent and their benefits, and that is the case up and down the country. Has the Minister made any representations to the Chancellor ahead of the Budget to ensure that the local housing allowance once again reflects the true cost of renting?

LHAs will of course go up by 1%; I signed that off last year. The hon. Lady will also be aware of the discretionary housing payments that we have been making widely available to councils across the country. But let us face the reality: the Mayor should be building more homes in London.

T2. What steps is the Department taking to enhance the workplace savings programme for my constituents in Kensington? (901407)

As my hon. Friend will be aware, this was introduced in 2012 and has been a cross-party success story. It is fantastically good news for her constituents in Kensington, where 39,000 residents are signed up to an 8% automatic enrolment. Due thanks need to be given to the 5,300 local businesses who are supporting individual constituents, who are receiving 8% per annum workplace savings.

The Government tried to justify introducing the new bereavement support payment in April 2017 on the grounds that it modernises support, but couples who are not married or not in a civil partnership are not eligible. Last month, the High Court in England found that that is incompatible with human rights legislation and discriminates against children of unmarried parents. The Prime Minister has admitted that that is an injustice, so when will the Government put it right?

This is one of the issues on my agenda for us to take forward a consistent and coherent approach, recognising the issue of cohabitees and the impact this can have on children. We are working on particular solutions.

T3. May I take up the Secretary of State on her comment at the beginning on sanctions in the context of coronavirus? Currently, jobseeker’s allowance requires claimants to attend jobcentres in person every two weeks and prove that they have been looking for work—they must show evidence that they have been applying for jobs and going to interviews. Claimants can be sanctioned if they fail to attend the jobcentre, turn down a training course or fail to go to an interview. The Secretary of State said that the sanctions will not be applied if jobcentres are informed in advance, but the process of going through self-isolation may be shocking to the people involved; it may be disorganising what may already be disorganised lives. Can the Secretary of State tell the House that the Department will retain sufficient flexibility to ensure that people will not be punished for doing what the Government recommend? (901408)

I have tried to make clear to the House that people will not be penalised for doing the right thing. It is important that people have that conversation with their work coach. As I emphasised to the House, work coaches can exercise discretion but the important thing is a claimant’s ongoing conversation with their work coach.

T4. I am not sure that anyone will be desperately reassured by the idea of exercising discretion on something quite so fundamental. The Government need to be much more robust in their advice. When will that advice be published for jobseekers, advisers and those of us whose job it is to scrutinise what the Government do? (901409)

We are working, right across Government, on a number of different scenarios. We are preparing guidance carefully and I assure the hon. Gentleman that rapid progress is being made. The Government will always be guided by the advice of our chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, particularly on self-isolation.

T8. From initial submission to award of benefit, how long does the average personal independence payment application take? Will the Government reduce the time period? (901413)

The average time is 14 weeks. We continue to review the process. As I set out earlier, with the forthcoming Green Paper we will be looking to identify further ways to improve the claims experience and make it easier to get supportive evidence that increases the likelihood of a paper-based review without the need for a face-to-face assessment.

T5. I have a constituent who cannot walk without aid and has severe depression currently going through the appeals process. That has already taken months, during which time no payments have been awarded to them. My constituent has had to rely on handouts from friends simply to survive. What advice can the Secretary of State give my constituent, or any other person in that situation, to help resolve the situation? (901410)

I thank the hon. Member for raising this matter. If he wishes to share the details of the case with me afterwards, I will be happy to look into it. Without the details, I can only give a broad answer. We are doing additional work on the management reconsideration stage to ensure we can help all claimants gather the additional written or oral evidence that could help to change the claim, so that they are less likely to be in the long independent appeal process.

T9. Many of my constituents are taking advantage of the online application for advance payments of universal credit. I recognise that it is a useful facility, but no bank would lend to people in this manner. Will the Minister work to ensure that claimants receive proper debt advice before requesting an advance and look to significantly extend the repayment period? (901414)

Advances are an important tool to help the most vulnerable claimants receive the money they need to live on. As part of the application process, proposed repayments and advance payment are explained. All claimants are advised to request a level of advance that is manageable when considering the repayments required.

We have announced that from October 2021 the repayment period will extend to 16 months, but I am very sympathetic to extending it further and am looking at that in detail.

T6. Evidence from Macmillan Cancer Support shows the availability of home visits for people suffering from cancer and claiming universal credit varies considerably across the country, with some waiting up to a year. Even before the advent of coronavirus, people with cancer should not really have attended a jobcentre if they were undergoing chemotherapy and were at risk of infection. What advice will the Minister give on that? Will he publish the figures on the availability of home visits for universal credit across the country? (901411)

I thank the hon. Member for raising this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who is the Minister with responsibility for welfare delivery, and I regularly meet and work with Macmillan, which is a brilliant organisation. I am disappointed to hear that it feels it is proving too difficult for some claimants to access a home visit. We will take up that matter and look into it.

I recently met jobcentre and citizens advice bureau employees who expressed their grave concern about personal independence payment assessors. Can the Minister give me an assurance that the scheme’s assessors are of the highest calibre and able to judge each case on a proper basis?

We strive for 100% accuracy with high quality, objective, fair and accurate assessments. All our assessors are health professionals and experts in understanding the effects of a health condition on an individual’s daily life. They are occupational therapists, level one nurses, physiotherapists, paramedics or doctors with at least two years’ experience. We continue to monitor performance, share best practice, and work with claimants, stakeholders and charities to improve training and guidance.

T10. The Health Secretary has said that changes will be made to provide financial support to workers currently ineligible for statutory sick pay. Will the Minister confirm that those changes will include emergency legislation to remove the £118-a-week threshold that currently excludes 1.8 million low-paid workers from receiving sick pay—a measure supported by both the TUC and the Confederation of British Industry? (901415)

The hon. Lady will be aware that the £118 a week is an average over eight weeks, and it will swing about whether people are eligible or not. I have tried to make it clear to the House, reinforcing the comments of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Health Secretary, that people who are working will not be penalised because they cannot work in this regard. We continue to work across Government to bring forward the necessary legislation or other changes required.

It was encouraging to hear about the work coaches programme in prison. Do Ministers agree about the importance of independent civil society organisations, as well as DWP staff, in supporting prisoners who are preparing for release? Will they work with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that more prisons can give access to local community groups?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. When it comes to jobs, community progression and our jobcentres, working through outreach with civil society and local charities is absolutely vital. My hon. Friend in the other place, the good Baroness Stedman-Scott, is very keen to continue doing this, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) is very keyed up on it. We will not waste time and we will get on with it as soon as possible.

The gap between local housing allowance rates and average rents for a two-bed property in Southwark is now over £1,000 a month, and raising the local housing allowance in line with the consumer prices index will do almost nothing to close the gap. By continuing to ignore the issue, the Secretary of State is continuing to contribute to entirely unnecessary homelessness. If the Government are serious about ending homelessness, will the Secretary of State urge her right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to use this week’s Budget to re-link the LHA to the bottom third of rents?

As the Secretary of State said a moment ago, local housing allowance rates are not intended to meet all rents in all areas. The LHA is designed to ensure a fair balance between supporting vulnerable people to meet their housing costs and public spending. From April 2020, LHA rates will be increased by inflation, but I join the Secretary of State in urging the Mayor of London to do far more in terms of supply.

In 2015, our election manifesto rightly committed us to halving the disability employment gap. By 2019, unfortunately, we had watered that down merely to reducing it. 2015 was also the last year that we published Fulfilling Potential indicators, allowing us to monitor the gap. As the Minister pulls together his new national disability strategy, I urge him to reinvent the wheel and provide robust statistical indicators to allow us to monitor the narrowing of the gap.

In the last six years alone, there have been 1.4 million more disabled people in work; in the last two years alone, there have been 404,000 more disabled people in work, bringing the figure to 54.1%—a 9.9 percentage point increase in the last six years alone. The disability employment gap has fallen by 5.6 percentage points in the last six years. We are making progress and we continue to be ambitious about unlocking everybody’s potential.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that during the coronavirus epidemic, any social security claimant who fails to attend a work capability or work-related activity assessment will also not have their social security support stopped?

I have tried to make it clear to the House, and will again, that—as has been said quite often—people who do the right thing, whether they are required to self-isolate or are actively ill, will not be penalised for doing so.

My constituent, Jennifer Bell, was made redundant following the collapse of Thomas Cook, but secured a job with Jet2 late last year, which fell through given the DWP’s refusal to pay for a training course. She has now landed a job with Virgin Atlantic, which involves five and a half weeks’ training in Crawley. However, her application to the flexible support fund at Renfrew jobcentre for accommodation costs has been denied, despite other former colleagues having secured funding at other jobcentres. Will the Minister please look into this discrepancy for Jennifer?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, which came through to us in jobcentres after the collapse of Thomas Cook. I am happy to take it away as a learning point. We are doing all we can on the Flybe issue, and I urge anybody affected to go to their local jobcentre and ask for support and benefits.

Four out of 10 older people say that the TV is their main source of company, yet as a result of Government decisions, millions of older pensioners are about to lose their free TV licences. The Budget is the last opportunity for the Chancellor to step in and overturn this unfair policy. Will the Secretary of State urge him to do so?

As the right hon. Lady knows only too well, this is a BBC decision. The Government remain very disappointed at its decision and urge it to think again.