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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 690: debated on Monday 8 March 2021

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Kickstart: Employer Accessibility

What assessment she has made of the effect of the removal of the requirement that kickstart applicants bid to deliver a minimum of 30 jobs on the accessibility of that scheme to a wider range of employers. (912984)

What assessment she has made of the effect of the removal of the requirement that kickstart applicants bid to deliver a minimum of 30 jobs on the accessibility of that scheme to a wider range of employers. (912990)

What assessment she has made of the effect of the removal of the requirement that kickstart applicants bid to deliver a minimum of 30 jobs on the accessibility of that scheme to a wider range of employers. (912997)

I am pleased to update the House that, after removing the threshold last month and allowing direct applications for any number of roles, we saw an increase of 3,000 employer applications throughout February, which is a jump of 75%. There will continue to be an important role for gateways as we progress to our ambition of 250,000 kickstart jobs, which we are well on the way to achieving, with almost 150,000 roles approved, more than 4,000 young people having started their roles and another 30,000 vacancies live right now.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. Given the large number of small and medium-sized enterprises across the county, jobcentres in Bedfordshire, including the one in Biggleswade in my constituency, are raring to go to enable small businesses to take advantage of this change in Government policy. Can she advise me what she is doing to ensure that those small businesses are aware of the scheme and its benefits?

My hon. Friend should be aware that we have account managers working in all parts of the country to take up this scheme. In particular, we continue to work with a wide range of organisations closely connected to SMEs, including chambers of commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses, to get the message out there and make it straightforward to apply. We should recognise that, due to eligibility criteria, not all direct applications may be successful, and the support of a gateway is likely to be beneficial. We are also enabling applications through the gateway plus model, which will particularly help sole traders, and we will continue to advertise that.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. I welcome the removal of the 30-person threshold, which will help even the smallest firm in my constituency. Since the launch of the kickstart scheme, our phenomenal Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has been facilitating SMEs to access it, and he has helped 350 young people sign up. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending Ben for the fantastic work he is doing to help young people in Darlington gain experience and employment?

I am very happy to agree with my hon. Friend that Ben Houchen is doing a fantastic job in his role as Mayor. In case people had not realised, as well as getting Treasury North in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Darlington—a project that I am sure my hon. Friend achieved with the Mayor—Ben Houchen is leading the way on making that difference to young people’s lives, which is really important. I have also seen it work well with Andy Street and, to be fair to other Mayors, I am confident that people like Steve Rotheram and others will continue to do so.

In Harrogate and Knaresborough, we have seen great organisations such as St Michael’s Hospice with North Yorkshire Hospice Care offer 30 roles in support services, from retail to catering, care and communications. Not everywhere is fortunate enough to have such a progressive organisation, so the policy change is welcome. I was originally going to ask my right hon. Friend about the increase that she has seen from this policy change, but she has answered that. Will she keep the House informed, so that Members of Parliament can help to promote this fantastic opportunity and see more people get the opportunities that kickstart can provide?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that removing the threshold has enabled a number of institutions to apply directly to kickstart. The example he highlights was already under way, but it just shows some of the fantastic opportunities that this scheme can offer young people. By creating so many of these roles, with the wider variety of roles that we are seeing, we are reducing the risk of long-term unemployment for hundreds of thousands of young people, and we will continue to keep the House updated on progress.

Kickstart is only for young people claiming universal credit. Many disabled young people claim employment and support allowance instead. Will the Secretary of State consider extending kickstart to include disabled young people who are not eligible for it at the moment?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that young people with disabilities can move on to universal credit, so there may be an incentive to do that, but this issue is under consideration. My hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work has discussed this with me and the Minister for Employment, and we are considering it further.

I remind Members to put their masks back on if they can. I am sure that those who have not done so have a certificate, because they would not want to put the rest of us at risk.

PIP Application Process: Disabled People

What recent assessment she has made of disabled people’s experience of the personal independence payment application process. (912985)

We have made a series of improvements to the personal independence payment claimant experience following research and two independent reviews. Building on that, the forthcoming Green Paper on health and disability support is being influenced by the views of disabled people and representatives from disability organisations.

I wrote to the Minister last week telling him about the work of the Morecambe Bay Poverty Truth Commission, which has empowered people who have experienced the social security system to speak truth to power and try to improve the system. Will he meet the PIP claimants in my constituency who want to tell him about their experiences?

I thank the hon. Member for that question, and I would be delighted to do that. I know that she has been very proactive on a number of issues in my area over the years, and I would be delighted to have a meeting with her and her organisation to listen to their experiences.

Following the coroner’s damning prevention of future deaths report in the case of Philippa Day, who took an overdose and, sadly, passed away because of DWP and Capita failings, have the Government implemented the recommendations, and if not, when will they? As well as responding to the coroner, will the Minister keep this House updated, and do the Government not accept that, when so many people have to go through an inhumane assessment process, the system is flawed and it is time for a radical change?

While I cannot comment on individual cases, when we tackle any of these serious issues, we put a great amount of thought and care into doing so. That is why the Department set up the serious case panel, personally led by the Secretary of State, to look at the themes and to make sure, if there are any lessons that need to be learned, they are shared with the key decision makers quickly, and that we improve our support and our services for some of the most vulnerable people in society. It is a real priority for our Department.

Jobcentre Estate

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the jobcentre estate is adequately equipped to support an increased number of jobseekers. (912986)

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the jobcentre estate is adequately equipped to support an increased number of jobseekers. [R] (912991)

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the jobcentre estate is adequately equipped to support an increased number of jobseekers. (913000)

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the jobcentre estate is adequately equipped to support an increased number of jobseekers. (913003)

What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the jobcentre estate is adequately equipped to support an increased number of jobseekers. (913004)

As part of our estates expansion and renewal programme, the DWP by summer will have rapidly increased the number of Jobcentre Plus sites, placing them in new locations where they are needed. This will ensure that we bolster our face-to-face support in a covid-safe environment for both our claimants and our additional 13,500 new work coaches. As Members will appreciate, negotiations on some sites are ongoing, and I will update the House further when appropriate to do so. Meanwhile, MPs with a new site opening in their constituency are being notified.

Sadly, the pandemic has meant that many people in my constituency of Aylesbury have lost their job and, for the first time in decades, find themselves looking for work. How can my hon. Friend ensure that the Jobcentre Plus estate and its staff are equipped to help jobseekers who are in their 50s and 60s, who have paid their taxes and their national insurance for their whole working lives and now need bespoke personal assistance to find a new job and continue to contribute to the economy?

We are supporting people of all ages back into work in Aylesbury and beyond. The DWP has a network of 50-plus champions throughout our JCPs. These champions work with work coaches and stakeholders to focus help and support for the over-50s, highlighting the benefits of employing them and sharing best practice. Our plan for jobs provides new funding to ensure that everyone, including those 50 and over, get tailored support to build on their skills and move into work.

Many businesses in remote rural communities, as in North Devon, are a long way from a Jobcentre Plus, and therefore would not usually use the jobcentre to advertise vacancies, particularly given poor public transport. What assurances can my hon. Friend give that rural businesses will be actively engaged by Jobcentre Plus, as it is especially important that young people looking for work in such rural communities are able to access local jobs through the kickstart scheme?

Our JCPs are engaged with local recovery plans, including in rural areas. They are essential to help people of all ages into work and help all communities to thrive. In North Devon, the DWP is funding the youth flow partnership with local businesses and the chambers of commerce to help young people engage with opportunities such as kickstart. I was delighted to join my hon. Friend at her recent event with local businesses in her community to discuss kickstart and how we can tailor those opportunities for every area.

In January, the DWP confirmed the lease had been signed on a new Jobcentre Plus in Stockton South. Can the Minister confirm how many work coaches are due to work at the new site and how they will be helping my constituents in Stockton South?

My hon. Friend will now be aware that we have signed a lease on a new jobcentre in Stockton’s Dunedin House. I am pleased to report that work is now under way on opening to support claimants, which is due by the end of this month. A total of 49 new work coaches have been recruited in my hon. Friend’s constituency to help local jobseekers, and 20 will be based in the new site, along with some of our more experienced work coaches and leadership, to ensure the sharing of best practice and helping people in Stockton to progress.

May I pay tribute to Worthing jobcentre, which has been very proactive in dealing with new benefit claimants and will have a lot of extra work, alas, with people who find themselves out of a job because of the pandemic.

Work coaches offer important support to a diverse range of claimants, but self-employed claimants can really benefit from the wisdom of someone who has direct experience of setting up their own business, so what specialist support will be available to UC claimants looking to boost their incomes through self-employment in the future?

DWP work coaches can refer claimants interested in moving into self-employment to our new enterprise allowance programme, and to other sources of local business advice and support as appropriate. The new enterprise allowance offers participants the important opportunity to develop that business, as my hon. Friend points out, to make that business plan and receive more than a year’s support from a business mentor to make a success of it, in Worthing and beyond.

May I start by thanking all the staff at Burnley jobcentre, who are doing an amazing job in supporting people day and night?

As a result of the pandemic, unemployment is increasing in Burnley, impacting on those who find themselves out of work for the first time as well as young people looking to enter the world of work. What steps is the Department taking to support people in Burnley who find themselves in that situation?

Alongside our plan for jobs, Burnley JCP recently held a virtual careers event for jobseekers, which I know my hon. Friend was brilliantly a part of. In Cumbria and Lancashire we have recruited almost 400 extra work coaches to assist customers, with a further 90 due to join in the next three months. We have also set up a DWP youth hub in partnership with Burnley Borough Council and Calico, and we are working with local employers to provide local kickstart placements such as with the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust and Stanley Black and Decker.

Benefit Claimants: Repeat Assessments

What steps she is taking to reduce the number of repeat assessments that benefit claimants with severe conditions are required to undergo. (912988)

We stopped regular assessments for people with severe conditions for work capability assessment and personal independence payment claimants with the highest level of needs which will not improve. We are continuing to remove pensioners on PIP on to ongoing awards at their award review, and the upcoming health and disability Green Paper will consult on further improvements to the assessment process.

As we move towards the end of this difficult period, what lessons can be taken forward regarding the simplification of the benefit process for those in my constituency and across the nation with confirmed severe conditions?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. One lesson we can take from these unprecedented times is to look to extend the principle of the severe conditions criteria and, where possible, use clear evidence to remove unnecessary assessments. We will explore that further, working with disabled people and health and disability charities, in the upcoming health and disability Green Paper.

Review of Special Rules for Terminal Illness

The Department is committed to delivering an improved benefit system for claimants nearing the end of their lives, and we are working across government to bring forward changes.

Will the Minister urgently correct the anomaly whereby someone with a severe condition eligible for an ongoing award under the normal rules has a light-touch review after 10 years, but someone with a terminal illness such as motor neurone disease has to reapply after three years under the special rules or risk having their benefits stopped?

I thank the hon. Member for raising that important point, referring to someone who qualifies under special rules for terminal illness normally having an award for three years. The point was raised during the review of changing the rules around special rules; we are considering it and I welcome its having been raised.

Budget 2021: Departmental Policies

What assessment she has made of the implications for her Department’s policies of Budget 2021. (913001)

Since the start of the pandemic, our priority as a Government has been to protect lives and people’s livelihoods. That is why we are continuing to give our support, extending the temporary £20 a week increase in universal credit for a further six months, taking it well beyond the end of this national lockdown. I should point out to the House that total welfare spending in Great Britain for 2020-21 now stands at an estimated £238 billion, 11.4% of GDP. Alongside that, the Budget confirmed the ongoing measures that we will be taking as part of our plan for jobs, including the expected starting of the restart programme, particularly focused on long-term unemployed, before the summer recess.

The Budget was a kick in the teeth for people claiming legacy benefits, who have been unjustly denied the extra £20 per week in support since last March. The SNP has pressed UK Ministers on this countless times. Will the Secretary of State now answer a simple yes or no question? Yes or no—did she ask the Chancellor to extend the £20 uplift to legacy benefits in the Budget?

Discussions between Ministers are normally confidential, but the answer is no, the reason being that we have a process that was put in place as a temporary measure relating to covid. The rationale for that was set out last year. I encourage the hon. Lady to genuinely consider encouraging people who are still on legacy benefits to go to independent benefits calculators to see whether they would automatically be better off under universal credit. Universal credit has been a huge success during the last 12 months—if not the years before that, but it has particularly shown its worth—and I genuinely encourage people to really consider whether they would be financially better off moving benefits now rather than waiting, potentially, to be managed-migrated in the next few years.

I think the Minister has possibly given the game away there by linking an explanation of her refusal to ask for an uplift to legacy benefits to an attempt to pressurise my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) into pushing her constituents to move from a useless system of legacy benefits to an equally useless system of universal credit.

Does the Secretary of State not accept that the fact that universal credit had to be increased by £20 a week as soon as lockdown was imposed is a clear indication that the underlying rate of payment of universal credit is not adequate for people to live on? I defy anyone on the Conservative Benches to live on universal credit for more than a few weeks, never mind two to three years. Will the Secretary of State now accept that the underlying rate of universal credit is utterly inadequate and that the £20 uplift, as a minimum, should be made permanent with immediate effect?

No, I do not accept that, and I want to be clear. It has been explained to the House in multiple ways over the past year why that decision, which the Chancellor announced last year, was taken at the time. Let us be straight about this: universal credit is working and will continue to work. It worries me how many Members of Parliament criticise universal credit when it is clearly working. It has done what it was designed to do. For those people who have had their hours reduced, universal credit has kicked in and the payments have gone up. Frankly, unlike in the last recession, in 2008, when the Labour party did nothing to help with some of the financial instability that people were going through, I am very proud of what we have undertaken by investing over £7 billion extra in the welfare system in this last year.

Pensioners who have worked hard their whole lives have seen their life savings disappear after becoming the victims of some truly dreadful scams, which have happened both online and on the telephone. The Government say they want to protect the interests of savers. However, there is mounting evidence that they are failing to act sufficiently to curb some appalling abuses, and this was not mentioned in the Budget. Will the Secretary of State explain to the House just how these dreadful scams have happened, and will she commit to taking further action? She is taking action against scams on the phone; will she now also commit to taking action against scams online?

We have just passed the Pension Schemes Act 2021, and aspects of scams were considered in that legislative process, so the suggestion that somehow we are not doing things to tackle scams is far from the case. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman will be aware from the Budget of the ongoing support that we continue for pensioners in honouring our triple lock.

In extending the £20 uplift of universal credit, albeit for only six months, the British Government are clearly conceding that without the £20 uplift, universal credit is insufficient to meet people’s needs. I want to take the Secretary of State back to a point she made to my hon. Friends the Members for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). She said that claimants should move from the legacy system to universal credit. Will she stand up at the Dispatch Box and make it crystal clear that for some people that will mean being worse off, particularly when the £20 universal credit uplift is taken away? Can she clarify why she thinks that disabled people, for example, have lower bills as a result of the pandemic and why they were not worthy of the £20 uplift?

The hon. Member should be clear about what I did say. I encouraged people who were on legacy benefits to get an independent assessment, which is available through a number of organisations and online calculators, rather than wait to be managed across to universal credit. It is really important that MPs encourage their constituents to consider the ways they could be financially better off, rather than waiting for the Government to go through quite an arduous process during the next few years.

Benefit Claimants: Rent Arrears

We do not collect information about individuals’ rent accounts. For universal credit claimants with rent arrears, alternative payment arrangements and support with budgeting are available. In 2020-21, we are projected to spend almost £30 billion on housing benefit and the housing element of universal credit to support people with their housing costs.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The evidence produced by the National Residential Landlords Association and a lot of housing charities demonstrates that rent arrears are growing and growing very fast such that they will probably never be repaid. What action will my hon. Friend take to ensure that rent arrears are eliminated and further assistance is provided to people who genuinely cannot afford to pay their rent?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a strong advocate on these issues. As I say, managed payment to a landlord is available where universal credit claimants are unable to manage monthly payments and are at risk of financial harm. That can be requested by the tenant, landlord or work coach. Our relatively new online tool makes it easier for landlords to request a managed payment to landlords. UC also enables a landlord to request recovery of rent when a UC claimant is in arrears or once a tenancy reaches two months’ rent arrears. I agree to some extent with my hon. Friend. Rent arrears concern me too and we continue to monitor the situation very closely.

Of the 1.3 million universal credit households who are claiming housing support for their properties in the private rented sector—that is, the people who are most at risk of homelessness as a consequence of rent arrears—in more than 700,000 cases, so more than half, there is a shortfall between the rent being charged and the help available. That number has grown by a quarter of a million since the start of the pandemic. With housing support being cut again in the Budget, will the Minister answer this one question? Will that number have gone up or fallen during the remainder of 2021?

We increased the local housing allowance rates in April 2020. We invested nearly £1 billion in LHA, lifting rates to the 30th percentile, giving an average increase of £600 more housing support per year than would otherwise have been received. For 2021-22, all LHA rates will be maintained at the increased level, ensuring that claimants continue to benefit from the increase. For those who require additional support, £140 million of discretionary housing payments are available next year.

Employment Rates

The latest official statistics from the Office for National Statistics show the UK employment rate is at 75%. The package of support put in place by this Government, including the furlough scheme, has protected many jobs during the pandemic, but there have been difficult times for many. Meanwhile, in the Budget we announced that the furlough scheme has been extended to the end of September.

Unemployment has not really been a major issue in Cambridgeshire for some years, but with over 8,000 people furloughed in the city of Cambridge and 300 jobs in Chatteris lost recently, there is now real fear. Cambridge City Council is appointing an economic recovery officer, but overall where is the plan for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough? Where is the strategy to secure quality jobs in future?

I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that we work with the local recovery plans and that we have a plan for jobs in Cambridge and beyond, so there is positive news in his constituency. We are doing our sector-based work academy programmes in construction, warehousing and care. We are working with our new job finding support service with the Papworth Trust. We are engaging with local companies on kickstart—indeed, we are working with Addenbrooke’s and a bunch of other local companies—and we have recruited 50 new work coaches for the Cambridge jobcentre since March, with 18 more to come, making an extra 68 to help in his constituency with that local recovery plan.

In June, the Prime Minister promised an opportunity guarantee for every young person. With 800,000 young people now not in education, employment or training, and only 4,000 kickstart placements to date, the Minister recently told the Work and Pensions Committee, “Watch this space”, and that details on the guarantee would land at the Budget. If the Prime Minister announced it and she supports it, did the Chancellor not get the memo or has the Treasury once again blocked support where it is needed? Can the Government not get their act together on a jobs promise such as the one Labour has proposed so that young people out of work or training at six months get the opportunities that they need?

I know the hon. Lady is committed to opportunities for young people, as am I, and our plan for jobs has multiple interventions: the £2 billion kickstart scheme, job finding support, JETS—job entry targeted support—the 13,500 new work coaches, our £150 million boost to the flexible support fund, and restart coming this summer. I assure her that our focus on youth continues. In her constituency, 17 employers are engaging with kickstart for young people, with 77 vacancies available and 11 starts. Of course, 140,000 opportunities are coming through the system now and I continue to have this focus on youth employment, as she rightly points out that we should, and I will continue to work across Government to highlight that.

Universal Credit: Monthly Assessment Period

What steps her Department is taking to ensure universal credit payments are not reduced in the event of a claimant receiving two payments in the same monthly assessment period as a result of a wage payment being delayed by a bank holiday or weekend. (912996)

We introduced legislation on 16 November so that monthly earnings can be reallocated to another assessment period, meaning that claimants affected by this issue will therefore have one salary payment taken into account in each assessment period. We have also produced guidance to help to ensure that claimants, staff and representatives are aware of different earning patterns and the impact on universal credit payment cycles.

People such as Mr B in my constituency and across the country have been forced to survive with little to no support, all because of an error through the Minister’s Department. Worse still, the pain has been prolonged by pursuing this through the courts. Will the Minister do the right thing and properly recompense those affected, such as Mr B, who suffered as a result of utilities being cut off and consequent costs as a result? And will the Minister meet me to discuss that specific case?

Of course, I will be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that individual case, and I am very sorry to hear of those circumstances. However, the Court of Appeal judgment was very specific and was limited to double earnings for those paid calendar-monthly caused by a non-banking day salary shift. We have chosen to go further and include all the monthly-paid who are affected by double earnings, but the judgment did not require the Department to apply the new arrangements retrospectively.

Kickstart: Departmental Discussions

What discussions her Department has had with the Department for Communities on the kickstart scheme. (912999)

The Northern Ireland Executive will be running the job start scheme to support young people to progress. Similar to the kickstart scheme available in England, Scotland and Wales, it is also focused on helping young people most at risk of long-term unemployment. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the DWP has been in regular contact with colleagues in Northern Ireland to discuss the development of the job start scheme and share progress and insight on the kickstart scheme.

The Minister is absolutely right that the kickstart scheme is a wonderful, innovative scheme, which should be applied to Northern Ireland, but it has not yet been rolled out there. I wonder whether the Minister will be honest with us and tell us whether that is the fault of the UK Government or the fault of the local Communities Minister, who has been allocated the money but has not yet applied it to the scheme? Will the hon. Lady encourage her to get on with applying this scheme to Northern Ireland in the next telephone call that she has with the Communities Minister in Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Northern Ireland received Barnett consequentials to support the job start scheme, and our officials have been talking. The money is not ring-fenced, and I am keen to see all young people access this type of scheme across the United Kingdom so that they can get the support they need to progress. Should anybody need further support to make this happen in Northern Ireland, our officials continue to stand ready to see it start.

Covid-19: Support for Universal Credit Claimants

We have injected over £7 billion into our welfare system, including increasing the universal credit standard allowance for a further six months until September, providing claimants with an additional £1,560-worth of support over 18 months. We are extending the minimum income floor relaxation to July 2021 for all self-employed UC claimants affected by the economic impact of covid-19, and we are increasing the number of work coaches by 13,500 this financial year.

Universal credit has helped millions of people during covid, including thousands in Hastings and Rye. It is one of the positive news stories to come out of the pandemic, but it is clear that many universal credit claimants need ongoing support tailored to their specific circumstances. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to deliver a strengthened universal credit support service that meets the needs of claimants and ensures a consistent and streamlined service for claimants, not just in Hastings and Rye, but across the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is a strong advocate for her constituents in Hastings and Rye. Since April 2019, and throughout the covid pandemic, we have provided funding to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland to deliver Help to Claim, which gives specific and targeted support for those people needing additional support to successfully make a universal credit claim. I am pleased to say that we will be funding that support for a further 12 months.

Self-isolation: Financial Barriers

What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the financial barriers to people’s compliance with the requirement to self-isolate; and if she will make a statement. (913005)

The Government have delivered an unprecedented package of support during the pandemic. Where eligible, financial support for those self-isolating in line with Government guidance includes access to employment and support allowance, universal credit, statutory sick pay and the test and trace support payments scheme, depending on individual circumstances.

The scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies have said that many people are still not self-isolating for financial reasons. What assessment has the Department made of the means-testing involved in the £500 payment? Does the Minister not agree that this should go, and that everybody should be eligible for that £500 payment, because we cannot allow a stop-start recovery as we come out of lockdown? Secondly, does he agree that statutory sick pay is pathetically low for those jobs that are eligible for it, and that there are far too many jobs where people do not even get basic statutory sick pay?

While the £500 test and trace scheme payment is rightly targeted at those most in need, we have also provided local authorities with £35 million for discretionary payments, and we will continue to provide local authorities with a further £20 million per month while this scheme carries on. The rate of statutory sick pay should not be looked at in isolation because, depending on eligibility, people may also be able to claim universal credit or new-style employment and support allowance, and the majority of employers pay more than the statutory minimum.

Contracted-out Health Assessments

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 payment. (913006)

Throughout the pandemic we have ensured that disability benefits remain open and we are committed to ensuring that claimants receive a high-quality, consistent and efficient service. We continue to complete paper-based assessments where possible and are now carrying out telephone assessments alongside a trial for video assessments.

The outsourcing of assessments for employment and support allowance and personal independence payments to companies such as Capita has been a travesty. Constituents tell me how they have been signed off work by their GP, only for non-specialist Capita assessors to refuse their claims. When they appeal, they are forced to wait absurd lengths of time for the decision, which causes severe financial hardship. Coventry Law Centre, which deals with the majority of appeals in the city, has found that a staggering 90% of appeals are successful. This pandemic has shown that things can be done differently, so will the Minister take this opportunity to scrap these cruel assessments, kick out outsourcing companies such as Capita and bring in a framework that treats disabled people with dignity and respect.

We have increased, in real terms, by £3 billion the support provided to those with disabilities and health conditions, through disability benefits. All of our assessors have at least two years’ experience and extensive training. The Department monitors closely the quality—this is carried out independently—and 92% of claimants have found their experience either satisfactory or better.

Legacy Benefits

In April 2020, legacy benefits were increased by £600 million, and they will increase by a further £100 million as part of the Government’s annual uprating exercise. Support is also available for legacy claimants migrating across to universal credit. Since July 2020, a two-week run-on of housing benefit, income support and income-related employment and support allowance and income-based jobseeker’s allowance is paid to eligible claimants to provide additional support to move to UC.

Nearly 2 million sick and disabled people claiming ESA have missed out on £1,000 this year, at a time when they are facing increased costs. The Minister will know that for many of them a transition on to UC would see them significantly worse off. Will he review the Chancellor’s decision to continue to discriminate against those disabled people on legacy benefits? Almost a year into the crisis, what possible justification is there for this two-tier system?

The temporary UC standard allowance uplift was introduced to support those facing the most financial disruption due to the pandemic. Legacy benefits were uprated by CPI—the consumer prices index—last year and will be uprated again by CPI as part of the annual uprating exercise. Claimants on legacy benefits can make a claim for UC if they believe they will be better off. I encourage anybody to go on and use one of the independent benefit calculators to check carefully their eligibility, because on applying for UC their entitlement to legacy benefit will cease.

Covid-19: Disabled People and their Carers

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the financial effect of the covid-19 outbreak on disabled people and their carers. (913010)

Disabled people and their carers have access to the full range of social security benefits according to their circumstances. DWP Ministers and officials regularly discuss support for disabled people and carers with their counterparts across government, and recognise and value the vital contribution made by carers in supporting some of the most vulnerable in society.

I thank the Minister for his answer. A recent survey of disabled people conducted by Inclusion London, a disability organisation based in my constituency, found that more than one in three disabled people had experienced a worsening financial situation during the lockdown, and recent research by Citizens Advice found that one in four disabled employees has faced redundancy since the pandemic started. We know that even before this pandemic, disabled people faced an employment gap of nearly 30% when compared with non-disabled workers. Will the Government commit to using the upcoming national disability strategy to bring forward comprehensive proposals to address the chronic employment insecurity that disabled people face in the wake of covid-19?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising a very important point about disability employment. The Government are very proud that we delivered record disability employment—it is up 1.4 million since 2014 alone. Even during these unprecedented challenging times, over the past 12 months 25,000 more disabled people are in work. But we recognise that there will be challenges going forward, which is why we have made changes to Access to Work so that people can get support working at home; we have increased our support through Disability Confident, sharing best practice and providing resources to employers to be able to make changes, often small ones, to take advantage of the huge talent pool available. This is a key area, and in both the forthcoming national strategy for disabled people and the health and disability Green Paper we will continue to look at ways in which we can support employers to offer more opportunities for disabled people of all ages.

Youth Unemployment

This Government are committed to providing support to help young people move into work and avoid the scarring effects of long-term unemployment as we recover from the pandemic. The £30 billion plan for jobs includes new youth hubs and specific interventions targeted at young people. Our DWP youth offer and the kickstart programme are designed to move young people towards meaningful and sustained employment opportunities.

Happy International Women’s Day, Mr Speaker.

Last year, youth unemployment went up by 420,000, reaching 600,000, and it is set to reach 1 million, yet the Government’s kickstart programme has got only 4,000 young people into work, despite employers providing placements. Will the Minister explain by what date her Department’s own target of 200,000 placements will be met?

The hon. Lady is absolutely correct: we are converting more than 140,000 job placements into starts and 30,000 jobs are currently being advertised. In her area, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has approval for more than 500 kickstart opportunities in a variety of sectors across the borough. A virtual youth hub is also operating in Tower Hamlets to support people and we hope it will move to face-to-face contact shortly. There are 119 new work coaches in Hoxton and a new temporary Jobcentre Plus is opening in Leman Street in Tower Hamlets in April. We take youth unemployment incredibly seriously. As we move into recovery, we will make sure that young people take up roles and move into work safely, to get those kickstart opportunities going.

Topical Questions

The Minister for Pensions updated the House last week through a written ministerial statement on category pensions and the comprehensive correction exercise that we are undertaking. I am concerned by some of the ongoing accusations and assertions being made about how we are addressing the issue. I am very grateful to Sir Steven Webb for bringing his concerns to our attention last year, but it will not be lost on the House that he was Minister for Pensions from 2010 to 2015—indeed, he was a shadow Minister beforehand—when the issue was neither noticed nor tackled, including when the comprehensive reform of the pension system was under way.

I recognise that Ministers should expect the administration of pensions, however complex, to be undertaken accurately. I commend the Minister for Pensions, who is putting his shoulder to the wheel to put right this historical error. The House should be conscious that, when we became aware of the problem, we undertook a comprehensive investigation into its extent, which showed that the issue dated back many years and at a larger scale. We are now undertaking detailed, thorough processes for individual assessments that will take some time, but we will contact people whose payments should have been updated and they will receive any arrears.

As covid-19 restrictions are hopefully relaxed over the coming months, will my right hon. Friend support the establishment of a bricks-and-mortar youth hub in Bury, to offer invaluable support to all young people in my local area and build on the current virtual provision?

Indeed, I will. I commend my hon. Friend for his advocacy for young people and making sure that they get into a growth sector.

The economic forecasts that accompanied last week’s Budget painted a challenging picture for the Department for Work and Pensions over the next few years. Forecasts are not always correct but, if those are, we face a period of low growth and high unemployment. Based on what the Chancellor said about unemployment peaking at 6.5%, what would be the shortfall between the total number of young people out of work for more than six months and the maximum number of places available on the kickstart scheme?

I do not have that assessment to hand. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Office for Budget Responsibility significantly reduced its forecast in respect of the impact on unemployment, in recognition of the excellent provisions already made by the Government in the past few months and the ongoing measures set out in the Budget. We made a commitment to aim for a quarter of a million kickstart jobs to be in place by the end of this calendar year; we are well on track to doing that. We should recognise that kickstart is designed for those people who are furthest from the labour market. We will continue to use our excellent jobs army of work coaches, of whom we will have nearly 13,500 extra by the end this month, to help young people to get into work.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her reply. I appreciate that that might not be information that she has to hand. Perhaps she could write to me with the specific figure because matching the scale of the challenge is surely what we all want to see.

In the Budget, the Government also chose to align the end of furlough, the end of the self-employment support scheme and the end of the universal credit uplift, so they all now come to an end on 1 October. She knows that we believe that the uplift should stay in place until we can replace universal credit with a better, fairer system, which, by the way, would be one where people are not worse off if they move on to it from the legacy system. Given that we all expect the end of furlough to at least have some impact on unemployment, would it not have made sense even to this Government to keep the uplift in place to at least help absorb the end of the furlough scheme? As it stands, just when people will again really need it, out-of-work support will be reduced to the lowest level in 30 years.

The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question about why these have all been taken in parallel. I think that it is to give certainty and direction to the country and to employers, particularly when it comes to the operation of the furlough scheme. As I have said before, this is really the time for those employers to get their workers ready again to go back into work, ideally sooner than before the end of September. Thinking about the temporary £20 uplift that was applied to universal credit, I think it is also fair to say that that is not the only way that we have supported people on benefits in the last year. There are also things such as the increase in the local housing allowance rate, which is on a permanent setting in cash terms. Those are the sort of other measures that we have taken, including to help some people on low incomes with the cost of living.

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps she is taking to improve the Child Maintenance Service and, in particular, to ensure that children of separated parents get all the money to which they are entitled? (913046)

My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the Child Maintenance Service in what we are trying to do to make sure that children have income coming ideally from both parents during their upbringing and to give them support. My noble Friend Baroness Stedman-Scot is actively working on ways to potentially improve aspects of the running of the Child Maintenance Service, which I am sure is something that the whole House will want her to continue to do.

Due to continued British Government inaction, more than 126,000 UK pensioners living in Canada have seen their state pension fall in real value year on year, with average payments as low as £46 a week. In November, the Government of Canada wrote to the British Government offering a reciprocal social security agreement. Has the UK responded to that letter and, if not, what message does the Secretary of State think it sends from global Britain of its attitude to UK pensioners who live in poverty overseas?

I have not yet responded to that letter—I understand that officials will be responding to the embassy —partly because, and some of the aspects of this have been raised, I wanted to explore some of what our policies—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is trying to intervene and I am trying to give him an answer. [Interruption.] I think I have probably said enough as he does not want to hear the answer.

It is wonderful to hear from the Secretary of State about the progress on the kickstart scheme. Does she know that one of the sole traders in West Worcestershire, who is keen to take on a kickstarter, discovered that they needed a company number to do that? Also, with farmers in my constituency saying that they are lacking labour, has she thought about setting up a seasonal agricultural work kickstart scheme? (913048)

We welcome the involvement of all employers of all sizes in all sectors in the kickstart scheme. We have made it even easier to bring in small employers and sole traders by developing an important kickstart gateway-plus model to accommodate their specific needs. They can apply through an approved gateway-plus organisation that can provide a suitable pay-as-you-earn scheme process for young people on placements with them. With regard to working on agriculture, I am engaged with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers on this and we are focused on supporting all sectors that need labour. There is a covid economy and growing jobs in some sectors and we are keen to support them.

It has been 19 months since the Department for Work and Pensions announced the review into the special rules for terminal illness and, in that time, an estimated 6,000 people have died waiting for a decision on benefits claims. Can the Minister explain why there has been such a delay, assure us that every possibility is being pursued to rectify this and reassure those who are still waiting? (913045)

I thank the hon. Member for this question. While there were delays to the review because of covid, we are committed to the three themes that have come out of the review: raising awareness, improving consistency and changing the six-month rule. I thank all the health and disability organisations and charities that have helped to support that review. I am committed to going further to explore extending the principle of the severe conditions criteria to remove unnecessary assessments as well as changing the six-month rule.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that unmarried cohabiting couples should be able to qualify for bereavement support payment if one of them dies. Currently about 200,000 families with children lose out on payments worth almost £10,000 each year. Can my hon. Friend let me know: when do the Government plan to implement their commitment to the 2018 Supreme Court ruling and ensure that grieving children and their surviving parents receive bereavement support payments no matter whether their parents are married or not? (913049)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We understand how vital this support is to families who have suffered the loss of a loved one. We intend to take forward a remedial order to remove the incompatibilities from the legislation governing widowed parents allowance and bereavement support payment by extending those benefits to unmarried cohabiting couples with children. The order will be laid before the House in due course.

The Minister for Disabled People will know that many disabled people’s organisations are extremely unhappy about the national disability strategy consultation, which closed last month. They were quoted as being “shocked and dismayed” and I know the Bristol Disability Equality Forum feels the same. What conversations has he had with the Disability Unit in the Cabinet Office to try to rectify this and ensure that disabled people do not feel insulted and excluded but are properly engaged in this process? (913047)

I thank the over 15,000 individuals and organisations who have already responded to the national strategy pre-consultation. However, this is only part of our extensive stakeholder engagement ahead of the forthcoming national strategy for disabled people. I have also written to all MPs of all parties to say that I am keen for them to host events either with me or with senior officials, depending on parliamentary business, to get more real lived experience, whether from individual disabled people, organisations or charities. I would be very happy if the hon. Member would agree to do one of those on behalf of her constituency.

I am sure the Minister will join me in paying tribute to staff at Warrington jobcentre, who are doing excellent work to help people to find a job. Does she agree that, by making it easier and cheaper to do business, a new freeport here in the north-west will generate good-quality jobs for local people? Will she work with me to ensure that anyone looking for work in Warrington South is quick to seize these opportunities? (913051)

My hon. Friend is right to praise the work coaches at his Jobcentre Plus, who are exactly the people who will help prepare people to get those opportunities as and when they arise. I was particularly pleased with the initiative of freeports, recognising not only the one that will help people in his constituency but the one—freeport east—that will benefit people in mine.

As in the constituencies of many Members of the House, there are constituents in Glasgow South West who are potential victims of furlough fraud. There are obviously people who will now have to claim universal credit in order to get money, so can Ministers assure the House that the cases of those who are caught up in this predicament will be dealt with sympathetically? (913050)

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Peter Duffy, a British 94-year-old who has lived in Canada since 1980 and who also served this country as a world war two pilot. Peter’s British pals who live just 500 metres away over the border in the US get the full state pension, but Peter only gets £46.90 a week living in Canada. Can my right hon. Friend, on this day, Commonwealth Day, tell Peter— and me, because I want to hear the answer —when Her Majesty’s Government intend to respond to the Canadian Government’s request for a reciprocal social security agreement? (913052)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. If the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) had not tried to intervene on me, perhaps I could have given the fuller answer that I intend to give now.

It is my intention that the Department will respond to the Canadian embassy on this matter. My hon. Friend will know that UK state pensions are payable worldwide and there is often a reciprocal arrangement in place where that is a legal requirement. For the last 70 years, it has not been the policy to initiate new agreements. However, I understand the points that he and other Members have made in their representations and we will continue to consider the matter carefully.

There is real and understandable anxiety from individuals in our former mining communities about a range of DWP issues including Dupuytren’s contracture, pneumoconiosis, mesothelioma and other prescribed diseases. Will the Minister meet me, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health, and others so that we can attempt to resolve those continuing, avoidable outstanding problems? (913055)

Yes, I would be happy to host such a meeting. I know that the hon. Member has a long-standing track record of raising very important issues in this area.

As unemploy-ment has been going up in recent months and is set to increase further, will my hon. Friend join me in commending the efforts of jobcentres around the country for all their work, especially the jobcentres in Leigh and Bolton that serve my constituents so well? (913053)

I echo my hon. Friend’s words and those of other Members who have praised the very hard work of all our DWP staff, especially of course in Bolton and Leigh. They include an additional new 41 work coaches recruited for jobcentres that serve my hon. Friend’s constituency. Thanks to their efforts, the kickstart scheme has so far seen the development of more than 300 roles across more than 50 employers in the Bolton and Prestwich area.

A number of constituents have contacted me regarding issues with the Child Maintenance Service, which we have raised with the appropriate officials, but there are long delays, which cause much distress to families in Stockton South. Will my right hon. Friend please address this with officials in her Department so that we can get much-needed answers and solutions? (913054)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issues that constituents face. I encourage him to engage directly with my noble Friend Baroness Stedman-Scott, who runs surgeries for MPs. As I said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), I encourage my hon. Friend to recognise that we are looking into this issue and that we will continue to try to make progress to ensure that children get the money to which they are entitled.

I support the Government’s policy of levelling up, but I think it is important that when the Government allocate money, it goes to those communities that have the highest level of unemployment and the highest level of children living in poverty or in need of free school meals. It is an age-old policy, namely: from each according to her ability, to each according to her need. Would not anything else be utterly corrupt? (913062)

The hon. Gentleman used the word “her”. I do not know if he is trying to suggest that I am corrupt in any way. That is not something that I would normally associate with him. However, just to be clear, I am very pleased to be working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on what we are doing about the initial element of the community fund, following into the UK shared prosperity fund. In that, the DWP will be particularly involved in making assessments for programmes that are targeted at helping those who are furthest from the labour market and not necessarily on benefits today. We want to try to ensure that as many people as possible get the opportunity to work and to take that follow-up to help UK plc’s productivity.

I just want to reassure the Secretary of State that that was never the intention of the question.

Too many of my constituents on assessed benefits —ESA and personal independence payment—find that the reports from their assessments bear no relation to what was discussed in the interview. What measures will Ministers put in place to ensure that accuracy and honesty are carried through in those assessments so that we do not see huge numbers of those decisions overturned on appeal, which is happening at the moment? (913063)

Although the vast majority of people who access their benefits get the outcome they were hoping for, we recognise the need for continuous improvements, which we make working hand in hand with health and disability charities, organisation users and frontline staff. In the forthcoming health and disability Green Paper, we will look at the specific themes of evidence, advocacy, assessment and the appeals system to ensure we continue to deliver those improvements.

I am suspending the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.