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Topical Questions

Volume 705: debated on Monday 13 December 2021

Thanks to our taper rate cut and the increased work allowances announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, almost 2 million households will now benefit from a cash boost worth £1,000 a year on average. Thanks to diligent work by my officials, we have brought this change in a week earlier than planned, so that up to 500,000 more working people can get that extra boost before Christmas. We are also delivering today a less welcome early Christmas present to criminals who target our benefits system and steal from taxpayers, with a £500 million cash injection to root out fraudulent benefit claims and stop scammers. Finally and importantly, very much at the top of my mind today is the booster programme and the acceleration scheme. I am very pleased that our jobs army is going to become part of the jabs army, as DWP civil servants right across the country join the Government’s effort to get as many people boosted as possible.

My right hon. Friend has already touched on the impact that the recent changes in the taper rate and work allowances will have on claimants’ net income, but will she expand on this? Also, will she consider a major advertising campaign to highlight that now is an excellent time to be in work?

My hon. Friend, who is of course on the Select Committee, is very wise in her suggestions. That is exactly the sort of communications that we will be doing in the coming months. This is particularly of interest for people on working tax credits, where we know that the cliff edges, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) mentioned, can be a real barrier to people working extra hours. Those sorts of communications programmes will be released as we continue to try to help more people into work and to progress in work as well.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. May I ask the Secretary of State about Christmas? My question is not what her latest recommendation is should I find myself under the mistletoe, or indeed whether she hosted karaoke Christmas parties in lockdown in her office, but a very simple one: how many children will go hungry this Christmas?

I want to put on the record that no karaoke parties were hosted by me during lockdown; the last time I did karaoke with the right hon. Gentleman was a couple of years ago. I am conscious that he has raised a very serious point about children this Christmas, and that is why we have been working relentlessly on making sure that people can get into work and progress in work, but have also set aside half a billion pounds for the household support fund, half of which is entirely ringfenced for families with children.

I fear the Secretary of State’s answer betrays poverty of ambition. The last Labour Government lifted 1 million children out of poverty, and we did not need footballers to run campaigns on child hunger. With universal credit still being cut for many families, prices going up in the shops, heating bills going up and taxes going up because this lot voted for them, can she guarantee that in 2022 child poverty and the shame of destitution will not also be going up?

I forgot to welcome the former shadow Secretary of State for Health to his new position. The right hon. Gentleman should reflect on the fact that his party opposed extra funding for the NHS through the health and social care levy, which we voted for. The different elements of trying to get people into work are key to lifting many more children out of child poverty. We should also flag up the £1 billion of child maintenance we have collected in the last year; we will keep doubling down on that to ensure deadbeat dads pay for their kids and help to lift their children out of poverty.

T2. I was surprised to learn that child benefit ceases at the age of 16 for somebody starting an apprenticeship. That is clearly a disincentive for some parents to recommend that their children follow that route. Will my right hon. Friend look at this policy and consider making changes? (904725)

I believe it may be more appropriate for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Education to respond to this question, but I will happily flag up to the DfE anything that deters young people from entering apprenticeships and the labour market, and being able to move into long-term work.

We do not talk often enough in society about old-age poverty. Besides the inadequate state pension and the latest triple-lock betrayal, another factor is the low uptake of pension credit: about 1 million pensioners in the UK miss out on £1,600 a year on average, with single women being most affected. We have heard the Pensions Minister say countless times that the Government want to increase the take-up of pension credit, so why is the Department refusing to introduce a proper take-up strategy for pension credits and other benefits, as we have done in Scotland?

We are doing a huge amount to increase the take-up of pension credit. I have met repeatedly with the BBC, and we have set up a pension credit taskforce which involves energy companies, the Local Government Association, various banks, BT and others. The reality is that pension credit take-up is increasing. It is also the case that we have never spent as much money on pensioners as we do now—up to £129 billion, of which the state pension is £105 billion—and pension credit is the highest it has ever been.

T3. With the omicron variant spreading rapidly it is more important than ever that we do whatever it takes to minimise transmission but, at £96 a week, our statutory sick pay is among the lowest in Europe and the TUC found last week that 647,000 workers in hospitality, retail, arts and entertainment do not even qualify. The result is either destitution or desperate workers taking risks. Will the Secretary of State commit to extending statutory sick pay to all workers and increasing it to the real living wage? (904726)

Statutory sick pay is just one part of our welfare safety net and the wider Government support offered to people in times of need. We have been able to look closely at statutory sick pay during the pandemic, but more consideration is needed and it certainly should not be looked at in isolation.

T5. I have a constituent on the legacy benefit system for whom it might be beneficial to move to universal credit. What help and advice is there in making that switch, and what further considerations should he take into account going forward? (904728)

My hon. Friend is right to point out the opportunities for people on legacy benefits. They may be better off on UC, but if not, they should wait for the managed migration programme, where they will have transitional protection. It is also important to note that benefits calculators are readily available online, and the Department funds Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland for the help to claim programme. I am sure such organisations can give individual support. We will be resuming our plan to move to UC in 2022.

T7. I am sad to say that I agree with my hon. Friends that the most vulnerable in our society are being forced to make unthinkable choices. Dozens of my constituents have written to me recently, concerned about the impact this winter will have on elderly residents who face not only loneliness and isolation, but a heartbreaking choice between heating and eating, while disabled people struggle with cuts to their support and those on low incomes face a £20 per week cut to their universal credit. Is it not true that under this Government the most vulnerable in our society are being left without the dignity they deserve and the basic means to get by? (904730)

Far from it. I recognise the hon. Lady is trying to stand up for her constituents, but she should also recognise the significant increases in benefits that have been provided, whether that is for people of pensionable age—about £129 billion—or the increase in financial support to people with disabilities. She should recognise that we will continue to strive at local level through our jobcentres and Jobcentre Plus, and through our automation of things such as the warm home discount, so that people do not even have to go looking for that sort of energy support, and the household support fund, from which many of her constituents will benefit.

T6. I welcome the efforts being made by the ministerial team to get people into work, but will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State advise me of the steps she is taking to ensure that jobseekers can take advantage of the many opportunities in sectors with growing demand for workers? (904729)

The DWP and the Department for Education are working with other Government Departments on priority sector action plans in construction, digital, manufacturing, care and logistics. One example is the DWP national employer and partnership team, NEPT, which also has a dedicated green team rightly focusing on filling vacancies in green jobs here and now.

T8. May I take the Minister of State back to the answer she gave my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on statutory sick pay? People in Hull North face a very tough winter. Even with the new circumstances that have been announced for work, many of them will have to go to work because they work in factories or in manufacturing. Is it not now time that the Government take some action on statutory sick pay and reversing the £20 cut to universal credit? (904731)

The right hon. Lady is right to consider the vulnerable people in her constituency. We looked at some of the policy choices we were making, published in our response to “Health is Everyone’s Business”, in which aspects of sick pay were considered, but there was a change in ministerial appointments near that time. We continue our discussions, and I am confident that we will continue to try to make progress on this element, but it is important to say that those who are required by law to stay at home are still eligible for a Test and Trace payment, administered through the Department of Health and Social Care.

The announcement made last week by my right hon. Friend regarding historical institutional abuse will have been greeted very warmly by those people who were abused in Northern Ireland but now live in Great Britain. On behalf of the Select Committee, which did a lot of work in this area, may I thank her for listening to our representations, making this important policy change and ensuring that there is equity and fairness in this important area of financial support and redress?

I thank my hon. Friend. He will be aware that in the original primary legislation, which allowed for disregard, only Northern Ireland specifically was considered, so I am very pleased to have brought that disregard forward. At the same time, we wanted to take a consistent approach, so I am pleased that we will be applying the same disregards to the forthcoming payments being made by the Scottish Government and through, I think, Islington and Lambeth Councils. I commend him and his Committee Members for their pursuit of the matter.

A free university-level education is a monumental benefit of living in Scotland. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with her colleagues in the Department for Education about the benefits of making higher levels of education accessible and the impact that would have on the employability of young people?

I am conscious that the hon. Lady thinks that just because there is a free course, those people who are most disadvantaged in her country will take advantage of it. In fact, that has not been the case; we see far more people in England from less privileged backgrounds getting into university and benefiting from that. It is important that we have a balanced approach, recognising the importance of level 3, 4 and 5 apprenticeships in particular and the fact that, once they have graduated, those people will be better off financially, except compared with those in Russell Group universities, within 10 years.[Official Report, 5 January 2022, Vol. 706, c. 2MC.]

This time last year, the Canadian Government asked the UK Government to enter into talks to bring about pension parity for pensioners like Royal Navy veteran Alan Wren, who was forced to work until he was 78 years of age because his pension had been frozen in Canada. The Government refused to enter into those discussions. What does the Secretary of State say to veterans such as Alan and the 492,000 other pensioners who are trapped on meagre state pensions, all because they live in the wrong country? In Alan’s case, the country is a commonwealth and NATO partner and ally.

As the hon. Gentleman and I have met and spoken about this matter in the past, he will be aware that the UK state pension is payable worldwide and that all veterans are treated the same as non-veterans when it comes to the payment of the UK state pension overseas.

In an earlier answer, the Secretary of State mentioned that she has not sung karaoke for a number of years, but I seem to recall she was singing, “I’m having the time of my life” just a few months ago, the night before the universal credit uplift was removed. On that point, I recently visited a Trussell Trust foodbank in my constituency, where staff and volunteers raised serious concerns that the reduction in universal credit will push more and more families into poverty. Will the Department concede that the cut to the uplift will mean that more households will become reliant on foodbanks?

The hon. Lady should be aware that there was a temporary uplift, reflecting what was happening with the covid pandemic, which was extended. I am sure she will appreciate the change in the taper rate and the work allowance. Jobcentres will be helping her constituents to get into work. If I may, I will just put on record my thanks to people involved in a variety of ways, whether in foodbanks, food recycling or similar, because it is important that we all continue to work in our local communities to support our constituents.

Mr Speaker, is it in order for me to mention the B word in this Chamber? If it is okay, I want to say Blair—Tony Blair. Has the Secretary of State seen his remark that if we want to give real skills to people, it is FE colleges that are the key to skills? Tony Blair’s idea is that we upgrade the profile of all FE colleges to polytechnics and that we put the resources in to accompany that? What does she think of Blair’s ideas?

What I noticed was that when the hon. Gentleman referred to Tony Blair there was silence on the Labour Benches. What I will say is that we are absolutely committed to the lifetime skills guarantee. We are levelling up across the country and making sure that relevant courses get people into work. I am really pleased that we are united in recognising that that is the most important thing our Department can achieve.