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Topical Questions

Volume 682: debated on Monday 19 October 2020

The Government’s new job support scheme being launched next month to protect viable jobs and businesses that are facing lower demand is yet another part of how my Department and the Government are standing ready to try to help people stay in work and to prepare to get back into work. [Interruption.] We will continue to do whatever it takes to make sure we are reaching people of all ages. In particular, I want to make sure that people who may newly be looking for support from the welfare state use the Government-funded help to claim service, administered by Citizens Advice. [Interruption.]

Order—apologies, Minister. Let me just say to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) that there was not time to call him. There was another Member before him on the call list, so there was not a chance that I could have called him before moving on; I do apologise. If he wants to hang around, I will try to get him into topical questions if he wishes to speak.

I was pleased to see my right hon. Friend’s announcement that almost 1 million pensioners in receipt of pension credit will be receiving £140 off their energy bills through the warm home discount scheme. My constituency has a very elderly demographic, so that is a great lifeline for so many. Will she confirm that, alongside it, the Government will continue to make winter fuel payments to support our pensioners this winter?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I praise him for raising this issue on behalf of the many people he represents. This Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty, particularly among pensioners, and will continue to deliver winter fuel payments this year. I was pleased by the work done by my Department to make sure that those on pension credit, including in your constituency, Mr Speaker, received the £140 from the warm home discount scheme, without lifting a finger.

As the Government place millions of people across the country under new covid restrictions, they will be asking many people to undergo significant cuts to their income. Last week, the Prime Minister said that due to the job support scheme and universal credit

“nobody gets less than 93% of their current income.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 368.]

Unfortunately, that is just completely wrong. The reality is that a person employed by a business that the Government are ordering to close could still lose a third of their income, and for an unspecified length of time. Their rent, mortgages and food bills will not be any lower, so how does the Secretary of State expect those people to get by?

The Government have taken unprecedented action in the design of their new schemes, recognising that some businesses right around the country are still experiencing a loss in demand. As a consequence, we have developed two different schemes, one of which is “a third, a third, a third” in terms of helping people with their cost of living. Where we believe, in conjunction with local leadership, that it is the right thing for certain sectors to be closed in areas, the two-thirds support of wages is important. Of course if people do come under a certain threshold, they may well be eligible for UC, which would help top up their ongoing income during these difficult times.

Secretary of State, this is important, because it is the barrier to additional restrictions being introduced. As the Government know, people who are eligible for the job support scheme and may be losing only a third of their income are, comparatively, the lucky ones, as people in receipt of UC or jobseeker’s allowance will be left on just a fraction of their current income. With that in mind, I have a straightforward question for her: it is clear that we are not going to be out of this crisis by April next year, so will the Government do the right thing and scrap their plans to cut UC to an even lower amount next April?

What is different from the regime we had earlier in the year is that then the strong message was very much for people to stay at home and retail was closed, along with a number of different sectors. That is not the case anymore: we have now had to intervene in a much more limited number of sectors, often in conjunction with the local leadership. As a consequence, we will continue to review the best ways to support people through the welfare system, as well as through the plan for jobs and the measures that the Chancellor has introduced.

With forecasts showing that there may be as many as 1 million young people without a job, I urge the Minister to think outside the box. I have long argued that we should use graduates and gap-year students to help some of those pupils who have missed out on schooling to catch up. Can we devise, with the Department for Education, a scheme to pay them a variation of JSA to provide such a service, or at least offer greater flexibility for claimants who volunteer to help in such a way or to take the pressure off other public services? (907732)

One element of the kickstart scheme, a £2 billion investment in the future of our young people, is designed to help people to get on the first rung of the ladder with a proper job. It is a way for those people who have recently left school or university and are at risk of long-term unemployment to get experience and financing, which does not just have to be through private organisations and could be through local government or charitable or other sectors. It is a specific way to ensure that those people get not only a job but the extra training and wraparound support that they need to help them further on in their lives.

For some time, the SNP has led the campaign to end the universal credit five-week wait. We think that is best done by the introduction of grants, so we welcome today’s Work and Pensions Committee report. We also agree with the idea of renaming advances as “new claim loans” to make clearer what they actually are. Will the Secretary of State look favourably on the report’s findings and accept its recommendations?

I will look carefully at the report. Select Committee members will know that I have spoken to them on previous occasions, as have other Ministers, to explain that advances are a way to spread the payment of universal credit over a year—in fact, in future it will be over two years, if that is how long people want to spread that initial support—and it is not our intention in any way to introduce a grant at the beginning. The grant is there in the benefits—that is exactly what they are there to do—so I do not see how we will be responding positively to the Committee’s report in that regard.

Applications for the new self-isolation payment are to be launched last week, but there is a real risk that some people may not apply for the £500 because of tax concerns. Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People has written to the Chancellor calling for an income tax exemption for the payments, similar to the exemption for the test and trace support payment scheme in England. Will the Secretary of State urge the Chancellor to exempt the new self-isolation payments from tax? (907730)

I hope next month to introduce a ten-minute rule Bill on the regulation of supported housing. I am particularly motivated by concern that unscrupulous landlords are moving into the sector so that they can take advantage of higher housing benefit rates. There is obviously an overlap with universal credit, so I wondered whether the Secretary of State has had any conversations with her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about the fact that we badly need to regulate the sector because too many people are being exploited. (907731)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right—this issue is a concern for me and has been for some time. I am working closely with my counterpart at MHCLG and would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss progress.

The kickstart scheme has been enthusiastically taken up by employers in West Berkshire, but of course it is time limited and comes with no guarantees. What steps is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State taking to ensure that kickstarter placements lead to permanent employment, either with the placement employer or in the same sector? (907737)

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the kickstart placements are six-month-long jobs, but the skills that people will learn and the experience they will gain will put them in good stead to secure future employment. We are investing in our young people in recognition of this difficult time, but of course if they do not secure a permanent job at the end of that time—although the placements may be a gateway to apprenticeships and similar—we will continue to support them until they find a job.

The Knaresborough Connectors community group and Knaresborough chamber of trade are working together to build a scheme to enable participation in the kickstart scheme for smaller businesses in the area. It is good work and I am keen to help it. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State be encouraging the Department to work with local community organisations to ensure that all areas, urban and rural, and all businesses, small and large, can access the benefits of kickstart? (907738)

My hon. Friend is always a champion of his local organisations and constituents. Yes, absolutely; many local authorities, charities and organisations, such as North Yorkshire County Council, have agreed to act as gateways or have submitted bids for funding.

Many disabled people have lost carers and are struggling to employ replacements during the covid crisis. This can mean that they have lost vital support in applying for benefits. I spoke to a constituent today who flagged up that there is nowhere on the system for people to indicate that they have a high support need, so that extra care is taken in dealing with their application. She has missed the benefit deadline because of that. Will Ministers look into this matter and ensure that we help disabled people when they apply for benefits? (907735)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Our forthcoming Green Paper will look specifically at the importance of advocacy in the system, and at increasing it. That need should have been identified at the initial application. If he sends through the details, I will be happy to ensure that the claimant is not lost from the system.

A number of my constituents are receiving letters out of the blue saying that the Child Maintenance Service is writing off unpaid payments as part of a review of historical debt. Will my right hon. Friend tell me the basis for the review, what the criteria are for the cases, how many are involved, and by what means personal advance notice of the changes is being given to the people concerned? (907739)

My understanding is that the policy relates to people who have had child maintenance arrangements for a very long time. There comes a point when there is an element of understanding the different debts. My hon. Friend will be aware that, in a way, this is a very odd arrangement, with the state effectively becoming the arbiter between two parents. The only people who lose are the children. That is why I encourage everybody who has a responsibility towards their children—currently 111,000 children are owed £187 million by parents who refuse to pay up—to get on and do the right thing by them. We should not end up having to rely on the state to arbitrate between two parents.[Official Report, 16 November 2020, Vol. 684, c. 2MC.]

Like many schools across the country, a school in my constituency has had to close with less than 24 hours’ notice, leaving working parents having to care for their children at home. What discussions have Ministers had with their colleagues in Health and Education to see whether the £500 self-isolation payment can be extended to those working parents? (907741)

The £500 self-isolation payment administered by local councils was devised to achieve compliance with public health guidance. That is why the Department of Health and Social Care is leading on the matter. I am conscious that there may be local arrangements that need to be addressed. Often, the best way to tackle those is through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which has local funds that have been topped up by this Government to help with local welfare issues.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the exceptional team at Jobcentre Plus in Barnstaple for their work to support the vastly increased number of people in North Devon looking for work at this time? I extend an invitation to her to come to my constituency to thank them at first hand. (907740)

My hon. Friend is right to praise hard-working DWP staff at her local Jobcentre Plus and across the network. The team in Barnstaple have worked with the National Careers Service to help with interview technique and build transferable skills among people who become unemployed, and great work is already under way at the North Devon youth support hub in Bideford and Barnstaple. I look forward to visiting the south-west. As she knows, the DWP jobcentre is a covid-secure environment and I look forward to joining her there in due course.

I, too, am greatly concerned about the ability of the Child Maintenance Service to deliver results. I wonder whether the Minister would be kind enough to meet me to discuss a constituent who has been unable to collect an unbelievable amount of arrears over the past decade, estimated at £30,000. (907744)

My noble Friend Baroness Stedman-Scott is the Minister responsible for the Child Maintenance Service. She is more than happy to meet colleagues who are having particular difficulties with paying parents who are refusing to cough up.

My constituent Joseph made a claim for industrial injuries disablement benefit in January. His assessment, along with all the other new assessments, was postponed because of covid, so he is living with the extra costs that come with having an industrial disease, but he does not have the extra benefits he needs. Can the Secretary of State please urgently resume IIDB assessments? (907746)

I am very much aware of this. As the hon. Gentleman will understand, we suspended face-to-face assessments across all disability benefits following the public health guidance. We are working as quickly as we can to roll out telephone assessments for IIDB where possible, and as soon as it is safe to do so, we will return to face-to-face assessments.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business, and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.