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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 708: debated on Monday 7 February 2022

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Progression out of Low-Paid Jobs

I associate myself with your comments, Mr Speaker, on the magnificent service of Her Majesty the Queen.

People can use the Train and Progress scheme to access courses so that they can progress out of low-paid jobs. We are appointing progression champions throughout the country and, from April onwards, will open up access to work coach support to address skills barriers or wider barriers to progression among people who are already in work.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for that answer. In sectors such as offshore wind and nuclear power in Suffolk, either there are skills shortages or new opportunities are emerging. Currently, many people are not able to acquire the skills needed for such jobs because of the rigid and complex universal credit conditionality rules. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a review of universal credit conditionality, as she and I have discussed and in accordance with the new clause that I have tabled to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill?

As my hon. Friend is my neighbour, I am conscious of the opportunities in his constituency thanks to the Government investment, alongside that of private investors, in our progress to net zero. I do not agree with him that we need to reshape student finance in such a way; that is not the purpose of universal credit, and only a limited number of people can undertake that training. I assure him that Train and Progress, which I mentioned, the lifetime skills guarantee and the opening up of access, as well as apprenticeships to get into a sector in the first place, are better ways to make sure that we help people to get on in work.

I similarly associate myself and all my colleagues with your remarks before questions, Mr Speaker.

The Government know that, as the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) suggests, there is a problem with progression out of low pay, because they commissioned the Ruby McGregor-Smith review, which reported in July last year. In January this year, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), told me that the Government would publish their response “shortly”. Meanwhile, kickstart has failed to deliver and, as the journalist Ed Conway pointed out this afternoon, in the past year the average house has earned more than the average 18 to 29-year-old in this country. That is a disgrace. Will the Secretary of State announce today when she will at last publish the Government’s response to the Ruby McGregor-Smith review of low pay? Will she say how the Government propose to make progress on two key issues that the review identified: public transport and childcare?

I reject the hon. Lady’s assertion that kickstart is not working. More than 130,000 young people have now had access to a proper job in which they have gained employability skills, so it has been an effective response. At the same time, she will be aware that there are more people in work on payroll than there were before the pandemic. People are making good progress in that regard.

The review is important. I will be candid and say that I am the person who has held it up, because I want to make sure we have got all the questions answered as best we can. Meanwhile, we continue to work across Government on some of the hurdles that people are trying to get over, such as childcare and similar issues. I hope that the response will be published shortly.

Menopause: Women Leaving the Workplace

2. What assessment she has made of the economic impact of women claiming benefits after leaving the workplace early due to symptoms of the menopause. (905447)

Too many women feel forced to leave work, reduce their hours or take a step back in their careers because of the impact of the menopause. That is why I asked my Department for Work and Pensions “50 PLUS: Choices” team to work with employer organisations and produce the “Menopause and Employment” report. I will be responding to the recommendations in the report shortly.

A poll by the Fawcett Society reported that a quarter of employees currently experiencing the menopause said they would consider leaving the workforce. Furthermore, 10% are actually doing so. That is one in 10 experienced and talented women who have symptoms of the menopause leaving their jobs and their incomes, and potentially entering the benefit system. I know the Minister understands the issues that these women are facing, so would she consider creating a resource specific to women and their employers to help them overcome those barriers and keep more women in work?

I absolutely agree about the challenges when it comes to employment. That leads us to the need for a longer-term plan for pensions and everything that comes with it. Indeed, one in 100 women experience menopause by the age of 40. The hon. Lady and I were both in the first cross-Government taskforce, with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), on Thursday. This is a key agenda point, and I look forward to working with the hon. Lady on it.

Poverty: Pensioners

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place in the House of Commons, and I welcome back the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan). It is good to see her back in her place—I am pleased to see that.

The practical truth is that pensioner poverty has reduced under this Government. This Government increased state pension by 2.5% in 2021-22 and will uprate it by 3.1% in 2022-23. We are also spending approximately £5 billion to support 1.4 million pensioners through pension credit.

Pensioners across North Shropshire and the rest of the country are falling into poverty. Last week, a retired couple from Ellesmere, in my constituency, contacted me to tell me that even though they live in a modest bungalow, because of the rising costs of their food and energy bills they have been put in the heartbreaking position of having to choose between heating and eating. That is a choice no one should ever have to make.

Rural communities are being hit hardest by the energy bill price hike, and they have higher numbers of pensioners hit by the suspension of the triple lock. In Shropshire, the Conservative-led council is pushing through the maximum council tax increase this spring. What steps can the Secretary of State or the Minister take to ensure that our retired residents are not put into this dreadful position of choosing between heating and eating?

I refer the hon. Lady to the specific points set out by the Chancellor last week, namely the £144 million-worth of discretionary funding, the non-repayable £150 cash rebate and the £200 smoothing rebate on energy bills for all households. Those are in addition to the ability to claim for pension credit, which is, of course, a passport to many different pension awards in many different situations.

This Government have a very good track record when it comes to protecting pensioners against poverty, not least through the state pension triple lock and the pension credit. However, will the Minister sit down with his colleagues the Employment Ministers and look at participation rates in the workforce among older workers? Some estimates suggest that there are now around 200,000 fewer older workers in the economy than there were pre pandemic. It is important that we bring out all the skills in the economy, not least to fill some of the employment gaps.

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, as he should do, being a former Secretary of State and very wise on these issues. The Under-Secretary of state, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), has set out the “50 PLUS: Choices” programme and the amazing package of work that is available to people over the age of 50 who wish to return to the workplace. I am certain that if my right hon. Friend was to sit down with her, and other colleagues, there would be much that we can do in this particular space.

Before I start, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very moving, very personal and very brave tribute to our friend Jack Dromey last week. It is hugely appreciated across the House.

I disagree with the Minister: pensioner poverty is increasing. As we have heard, many pensioners are facing an impossible choice between heating and eating. Pension credit and the basic state pension are being cut in real terms today. He mentioned the package the Chancellor announced. A million pensioners are on the council tax benefit reduction. Will those million pensioners who do not pay council tax get the £150 rebate automatically or will they have to apply for it? If they have to apply, will he guarantee that 100% of pensioners will get that money this April?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. I wanted him to stop there, but I fully understood why he did not. On his specific point, I understand that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is publishing guidance on that today.

Can my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that before this Government came into office in 2009-10, the state pension was £95 a week and that this year it will rise to £185 a week? Does he agree that this explains why there are over 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty than there were a decade ago?

Under the coalition and the Conservative Government there has been a record increase in the state pension. We have never spent as much as we now spend on the state pension—£105 billion. It has almost doubled compared with under the last Labour Government. The practical reality is that there is £129 billion when all the other benefits are added in. As I say, it has never been a larger figure. My hon. Friend is right: there are 200,000 fewer pensioners in poverty than there were previously.

Despite what the Minister said at the Dispatch Box earlier, his Government’s statistics show that even before the effects of the £700 energy cap kick in, pensioner poverty is at a 15-year high, with 2.1 million pensioners classed as living in poverty. The Red Book also shows that the removal of the pension triple lock is going to take £30 billion out of the pockets of pensioners over the lifetime of this Parliament. What impact assessment have the Government undertaken on the removal of the triple lock, and how many more pensioners are going to be plunged into poverty?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there are 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty than in 2009-10. Through the triple lock and the work that the coalition Government did and this Conservative Government have done, we have never paid pensioners more. There are also the three matters set out by the Chancellor previously. I spent some of the weekend reading “Scotland’s Future” and I see that the SNP has now abandoned its previous position on the state pension—a question that SNP Members did not want to raise today, I conclude.

Will the Minister ensure that supporting our pensioners remains a top priority across Government? What is he doing personally to ensure that as many pensioners as possible benefit from the Chancellor’s support package on energy prices?

Yes, of course, is the short answer. We are doing a huge amount, particularly on pension credit, which addresses the situation of low-income pensioners. We are working with the BBC, various energy companies, Age UK and many other organisations to get greater take-up of pension credit. It is a cross-departmental initiative to ensure that there is take-up of the various things that are available, as announced by the Chancellor last week.

Disabled People’s Benefits: Cost of Living

4. What recent assessment her Department has made of the adequacy of benefits for disabled people in the context of increases in the cost of living. (905449)

The hon. Lady will know that the personal independence payment is aimed at providing assistance to disabled people with extra costs. As the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has just outlined, alongside the £9 billion energy bills rebate announced on 3 February the Government are providing £12 billion of support over this financial year and next to ease cost of living pressures, with help targeted at working families, low-income households, and the most vulnerable.

The increasing cost of living is having a huge impact on so many people, and instead of doing the right thing, this Government buried a £70 million stealth cut to disability benefits in the autumn Budget. For the hundreds of thousands of people impacted, I ask the Minister: exactly how does she expect disabled people to manage their rising energy bills while this Government stand by with woefully inadequate proposals?

I am afraid the hon. Lady has simply misread things. What she is referring to in the spending review is our intention to create extra support for the most severely disabled. She needs to read it again.

I asked the Minister if she would publish the NatCen report into disabled people’s experiences of the benefits system. She said no. The Work and Pensions Committee used its powers to publish the report instead. Having reviewed this research, it is crystal clear what the Government were hiding. Disabled people are struggling on a day-to-day basis. Does she agree that the money disabled people receive is not enough to cover their additional living costs? If she does agree, why has her Department not done anything to address it?

I fear we have some serial misreading going on here. As the research shows, health and disability benefits, alongside other income streams, such as passporting and the Motability scheme, help to meet almost all identified areas of additional need.

Vulnerable Children: Support

5. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Education on support for vulnerable children. (905450)

I met the Secretary of State for Education in January to discuss shared priorities on a wide variety of issues, including vulnerable children.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that our Education Committee is doing an inquiry into the educational outcomes and opportunities of children in care. We know that 41% of care leavers aged 19 to 21 are not in education, employment or training. I welcome the Government’s bursary scheme, but a care leaver over the age of 21 is eligible to receive the bursary for apprenticeships only if they are in education, employment or training. Will my right hon. Friend look into the policy and work with colleagues across Government to see what more can be done to support the 59% of care leavers not eligible for this support?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s passion for this particular group of people looking to find work. This is really a matter for the Secretary of State for Education, but the information I have been provided is that all care leavers aged up to 25 who take up an apprenticeship are considered to be in education or training and therefore would be eligible for the bursary.

From April, the Scottish Government are doubling the Scottish child payment to £20 a week a child. The Scottish child payment, together with the Best Start grant and Best Start Foods, will provide a package of financial support worth £8,400 by the time eligible families’ first child turns six. None of this support is available anywhere else in the UK. Have the UK Government considered matching the level of support that the SNP Scottish Government are offering to families with children in Scotland?

I do not think we have undertaken that assessment. Of course, a benefit of being part of the United Kingdom is the subsequent extra money per head that is given through the Barnett formula, and the Scottish Government can decide what to do with that. I am sure they will be carefully costing their independence things, or that sort of financial support will simply not be there.

Armed Forces Champions in Jobcentres

In April 2021, we updated the offer in our jobcentres, boosting our network of armed forces champions to 50, supported by 11 area leads. They are focused on providing key support to our veterans and other members of the armed forces community to ensure that their talents and abilities are recognised and that they can move quickly on to their next step. I saw that in action on Thursday at the military careers fair in Aldershot with the Veterans Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty).

As the Minister will know, our veterans have particular skills and needs. Can she confirm that veterans in my constituency in the Scottish Borders, whether they attend a jobcentre in Hawick, Galashiels or Eyemouth, will be able to access the support offered by their district armed forces champion?

Yes, I can confirm that they will. The great work that is being done by our DWP armed forces champions in my hon. Friend’s constituency is playing out, for example, in how the local champion from High Riggs jobcentre has already been working with the local council to secure bus passes for veterans, alongside providing veterans with direct employment support.

With Lincoln and Lincolnshire continuing to have a growing armed forces community—with RAF Waddington playing a national role and the Royal Anglian Regiment 2nd Battalion celebrating its freedom of the city last Friday—delivering the champions scheme along with other important parts of the armed forces covenant is important to my constituents, not least Councillor Bill Mara in Witham ward. What more can be done in respect of the scheme to signpost veterans to these services?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In Lincoln, the armed forces champion is already receiving good feedback in their role. They work with several councils and local homeless veterans to make sure that those veterans get suitable housing. In fact, in the case of West Lindsey council, they worked with adult social care to get permanent housing for a claimant with a history of alcohol addiction. They are also helping claimants who are veterans back into work, using the flexible support fund and working with local employers and employment agencies.

In theory this should be an excellent initiative, but the Minister will know that the previous veterans action plan, for 2019 to 2021, promised to

“increase the number of Jobcentre Plus Armed Forces Champions and District Leads from the current position of around 45 unfunded, part-time posts to funding an Armed Forces lead in each Jobcentre Plus District and 100 support posts.”

That is not happening, so how can the Minister claim to be supporting the work of armed forces champions, while cutting the number of paid posts?

We have a new model of 11 armed forces champion leads across the DWP districts. We are working with armed forces champions and the covenant locally. We have 50 armed forces champions across the jobcentre network. With covid, of course, some of this upskilling and these add-ons were paused, but we are absolutely committed to making sure that our veterans get the best service at DWP.

I thank the Minister for her response. In Northern Ireland, the role of the armed forces champions in jobcentres and in district councils presents difficulties with the security of some ex-soldiers. What discussions have taken place with the Minister or with jobcentres in Northern Ireland to ensure that veterans in Northern Ireland can access these services?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. Universal credit now has an identifier to help us enhance support for all our claimants who may have a veteran background. Many people do not declare that background and can be working with us for a long time before they recognise that it needs to be understood. Some 83% of veterans are employed within six months, but we need to do better and make sure that all are supported.

Young Jobseekers: Support

Young people claiming universal credit and searching for work are supported through our boosted DWP youth offer. This includes new, dedicated support from youth employability work coaches. Despite the challenges of covid-19, the DWP has opened over 160 new, specialised youth hubs across Great Britain. These innovative and vital interventions contributed to over 130,000 young people starting kickstart roles and, most importantly, to a record low youth unemployment level.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. Last week I was fortunate enough to visit the jobcentre in Barrow. It is rare to meet such a dedicated and enthusiastic bunch of people, and they have really been empowered to do their job, working with young people, using the kickstart scheme, and making sure that young people are prepared and have the clothes they need to get to interviews and get to work. It is absolutely fantastic to see. With that in mind, could I invite my hon. Friend to Barrow to see the good work they are doing and hear more about the route into work that they are planning for young people in the future?

I thank my hon. Friend for such warm, generous feedback. That work happens up and down the land in our jobcentres and I hear similar good news stories every day. I invite those on the Opposition Front Bench to actually step into a jobcentre, see what is really going on, meet the kickstarters and see what this has meant to their lives. In fact, at BAE, not far from my hon. Friend’s constituency, one young man has moved into an apprenticeship and is now inspiring people through our youth hubs to do exactly the same by talking about his work journey.

Disabled People: Trust in DWP

As we said in our Green Paper, and as I discussed with the right hon. Gentleman last week, we recognise the need to improve disabled people’s experience of our services. In response to feedback, we have already committed to changes for the special rules on terminal illness. In the British Sign Language Bill and its supporting work, we also show that we are listening to disabled people with an advisory board of BSL users.

DWP’s social security advisory committee highlighted just over a year ago the serious problem that disabled people do not trust the Department. Burying the NatCen report, in breach of the cross-Government social research protocol, has made matters worse. The failure to consult properly on the national disability strategy has also now been found to be in breach of the law. As a first step, should the Minister not accept the social security advisory committee’s recommendation to establish a protocol for engagement to do the job properly with disabled people?

I do want to engage more with disabled people and continue all the work that is going on to listen to disabled people and disabled people’s organisations. That is a priority across a number of areas of work for all the Ministers on the Front Bench. I take issue with the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the NatCen research and the use of the protocol. As has been the habit of successive Governments, including the one that he served in, protecting a private space for policy development has always been a relevant factor and is a permissible technique for ensuring that we can bring research out at the right time, as we undertook to do in this case.

In addition to the Minister’s vital work with leading health and disability charities, can she confirm that she is fully engaged with the regional stakeholder networks to ensure that a full diverse range of disability voices has an opportunity to shape Government work?

I certainly can. My hon. Friend is correct: we need to be able to listen to disabled people and disabled people’s organisations of all shapes and sizes. That is what will help us to come to the right conclusions; for example, in the White Paper that we will be bringing forward in the summer.

The NatCen report is a shocking read that again highlights the hostile environment created by the Department. Disabled people are having to undergo cruel and unfit-for- purpose assessments for their employment and support allowance and personal independence payment; face long delays before a decision is made; and, in most instances, must appeal to a tribunal where they have to wait even longer for vital support. Can the Minister understand why, given those experiences, thousands of disabled people feel let down by the Department? What action will she take to reduce long delays and unfair waiting times?

We are working to ensure that that benefit gets to the people who need it most as quickly as possible. I must take issue, however, with the hon. Lady’s assertion that most claims go to tribunal or reconsideration. They simply do not. I set out the facts on that last week in Westminster Hall.

I welcome the British Sign Language Bill and the important commitment to ensure that the access to work scheme better meets the needs of BSL users. Will the Minister commit to driving that work forward at pace to ensure that more deaf people are supported in reaching their potential?

I am glad to hear that there is support for the Bill on both sides of the House. It is an important piece of work and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) whose Bill it is and with whom I am pleased to work to bring it forward. As my hon. Friend asks, we are all committed to doing that as quickly as we can because there is so much that we can do to support deaf people to be better involved in education, employment and wider society, which is what the Bill aims to do.

Before I call question 9, I understand that it has been grouped with question 13 but not questions 20 and 22, which are identical. I find that rather strange. Of course, it is up to Ministers to propose groupings, but I make it clear that if the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) wish to catch my eye, they will be called for their supplementaries.

Child Poverty

9. What assessment she has made of the reasons for the finding in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s “UK Poverty 2022” report that child poverty in families with more than two children increased from 33% to 47% between 2012-13 and 2019-20. (905455)

13. What assessment she has made of the reasons for the finding in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s “UK Poverty 2022” report that child poverty in families with more than two children increased from 33% to 47% between 2012-13 and 2019-20. (905460)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer Questions 9 and 13—and, with your guidance, probably a whole load more—together.

We have long championed the principle that work is the best route out of poverty, based on clear evidence of the importance of parental employment, particularly where it is full time, in substantially reducing the risk of poverty. In 2020-21, there were more children living in a home where at least one person was working, with nearly 580,000 fewer children living in workless households than in 2010.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights that child poverty in families with more than two children has risen, on this Government’s watch, to levels not seen since before 1997. Those families are disproportionately affected by increases in the cost of living and are treated punitively by the benefits system. Does the Minister really believe that it is acceptable for children to suffer more just because of the number of siblings they have? If not, what is he going to do to ensure that all families with children have the support they need at this very difficult time?

At a time of record vacancies, the key thing we need to do is to focus on getting parents into work and helping them to progress in work. That is our underlying priority. For those with vulnerabilities, we will make sure that extra support is available through the household support fund. I understand that Lambeth alone has £2.7 million to support people in the borough.

The End Child Poverty coalition reports that of the 20 UK parliamentary constituencies that have seen the highest increase in child poverty, 17 are in the north-east of England. My constituency of Jarrow is at No. 5. Will the Minister say what he and the Secretary of State are doing to tackle child poverty, specifically in the north-east?

As I said to the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), our key priority at a time of record vacancies is to encourage people into work. The opportunities for the north-east highlighted in the recent levelling-up White Paper and those sponsored by local Mayors and, indeed, local MPs will be a real boost. Of course, the household support fund will be available. In South Tyneside alone, £1.4 million is available.

20. Child poverty and destitution are increasing under this Government. In Lewisham, 39% of children are growing up in poverty and more than 14,000 families are on universal credit. Not only have the Government cut universal credit by £1,000 a year; today they are again cutting support in real terms. A lone parent who is out of work will be £300 worse off. That means more children in Lewisham living in poverty. How is that fair? (905468)

We need to make sure that we support lone parents into work and help them realise the opportunities that are available. I strongly suggest that they take time to speak to their local jobcentres and work coaches, who can help them get on. Of course, even in Lewisham £2.6 million has been made available through the household support fund.

We want to tackle child poverty in every way, shape and form. As I said earlier, there are now 580,000 fewer children living in workless households. That is a really important statistic. Helping more people get into work means that, over time, they have the support to stand on their own two feet and look after their children fully.

We know that the chance that a child will grow up in poverty falls when both their parents are in full-time work. Last Friday, I visited Stafford College ahead of National Apprenticeship Week. What are we doing to help more parents into work, in particular full-time work, to help my constituents in Staffordshire?

We have a full plan for jobs, which sets out a huge range of initiatives from kickstart for the young through to SWAPs—sector-based work academy programmes—and restart, and even a midlife MOT. Those are incredibly important tools that will help people get their children into a better financial situation. Of course, childcare is also available. We spend about £6 billion a year to support childcare. We need to make sure, as the Secretary of State said, that we make that work better for the families who rely on it.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that the best route out of poverty is work. By lowering the taper on universal credit, we are enabling people to get into work and retain their benefits. Does he agree that that combination has to be seen through the prism of encouraging people to work and to earn their own living?

I strongly agree. I have seen the amazing work my hon. Friend does in his constituency and did previously in Brent and he sets out our clear direction. Through our plan for jobs, and now, in a time of record vacancies, we are putting huge focus on the Way to Work, which I think he will agree provides even more incentives for those getting closer to job readiness to move into a job and then advance their career.

We know from the Department’s own recently published abstract of benefit rates statistics that the real-terms value of child benefit fell by 16% between April 2010 and April 2021. How many fewer families would now be in poverty if that and universal credit had been uprated consistently in line with inflation?

Questions on child benefit are obviously for the Treasury, but the work we are doing to improve the universal credit taper and the work allowance will help a huge number of families to have greater financial security over the years ahead.

Work Coaches in Jobcentres

11. What steps she is taking to (a) measure, (b) improve and (c) publish the performance of work coaches in jobcentres. (905457)

We often hear in this House about honourable colleagues going into their jobcentres and seeing the marvellous work of work coaches, and we see that by the number of people getting back into work. However, we want to constantly improve the performance of our work coaches in terms of outcomes for people and we will continue to do that.

I completely agree that good work coaches can level up opportunities by breaking glass ceilings that hold people back, but inevitably some will be better than others, as we have seen in schools and other public services. If we publish those findings, every jobseeker and their MP will want to know how their local service compares and how it might be improved, so will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss this as outlined in my recently published work, “Poverty Trapped”?

I do not agree with my hon. Friend’s suggestion about the external assessment. I have asked one of my team to look into his report and I am sure we can arrange a suitable meeting, but I want to assure him that all new work coaches are undertaking a level 4 City & Guilds qualification in service delivery.

The DWP is looking to cut thousands of fixed-term contract work coaches at EO level from jobcentres but reportedly will retain almost all staff at the lower-paid AO grade. Have the Government considered how this will impact on lower-grade staff in terms of workload and stress and how those losing their jobs will afford their living costs until they can secure a new role?

The hon. Lady will recognise that this is an operational matter, but she is incorrect; I am conscious that she may have been given that information separately. Last week the permanent secretary outlined the start of the process potentially for people on fixed-term contracts. We need to make sure we have the work coaches in the right parts of the country where they are most needed for both current claimants and anticipated future demand.

Autistic People in the Workforce

We are working with the National Autistic Society to test ways to make jobcentres more inclusive of people with autism; this test will inform changes to the wider jobcentre network. We encourage employers to consider autistic people for roles and can offer support where needed to Access to Work.

I thank the Minister for that response and the work she is doing. The Office for National Statistics highlighted back in November last year that, tragically, only 25% of autistic adults are in any form of meaningful employment despite record job vacancies. I am encouraged by the Minister’s additional steps, but what can we do to get the regional adjustments in place so employers really take this seriously?

There is a lot that we can do together and this is an effort for the Government, for employers and for others such as the National Autistic Society and the all-party group on autism, to which my hon. Friend gives a lot of time. He asks what we are doing: we are engaging with employers through the disability confident scheme; we are supporting jobseekers, workers and employers through Access to Work; and, as I have said, we are making our jobcentres and youth hubs inclusive in the way they ought to be.

My constituent has a range of conditions, including autism, which has left him with a mental age of 10. He underwent a telephone work capability assessment without a parent or guardian present, which resulted in a reduction in his employment and support allowance. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the case? What steps are being taken to ensure that autistic people and those with additional support needs are helped into work and not targeted in such a manner?

I would be happy to look in more detail at this case—or ask officials to do so—which appears to raise a number of issues. More generally, we are absolutely committed to supporting disabled people appropriately into employment that might be right for them. To do that, for example, there is more than £1 billion of funding in the spending review for disability employment. All our providers who conduct benefits assessments have training in a wide range of conditions so that they can properly support those whom they are working with.

Benefits System: Fraudulent Activity

Fraud in the benefits system is an issue that we take extremely seriously. The Department is working on a proactive and comprehensive approach to ensure that those who commit fraud are tracked down and held accountable. That includes undertaking a targeted review of universal credit claims, investing in advanced analytics and expanding our serious and organised crime team.

The vast majority of my constituents work hard and pay their taxes. They rightly expect the welfare state to be there to support them if they need it, but understandably they have little time for those who seek to exploit the system for their own ends. What investment is the Department making to assist efforts to clamp down on those who seek to rip off the taxpayer?

I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from. In late 2021, the Department secured an additional £613 million that will enable a targeted review of universal credit claims and lead to even greater investment in advanced analytics and in our serious and organised crime team so that we can crack down on fraudsters and save the taxpayer billions of pounds.

Topical Questions

I am pleased that we have launched Way to Work to help job-ready people get into jobs as quickly as possible. The new approach is focused in particular on bringing many more employers directly into the jobcentre so that we can accelerate the process from application to interview and job offer. In essence, given the number of vacancies right now—particularly in economically important sectors—it is important that we take the ABC approach: any job leads to a better job, which leads to a career.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made about how the two-child benefit cap negatively affects faith communities, where larger families are more prevalent?

The hon. Member and I are both practising Catholics, and I am conscious of the point he is making. However, I am also conscious that the benefit cap takes into account the amount of benefits available to a family compared with median income. It is important that we keep that approach, recognising in particular that the cap can be lifted when people earn, I think, about £605 a month.

T3. Will my hon. Friend ensure that veterans who leave the services with skills in strategic sectors such as heavy goods vehicles are given support through the Way to Work scheme? (905473)

DWP already has a range of provisions in place to upskill jobseekers to take on key roles such as HGV drivers, including through the sector-based work academy programme, which give claimants the skills and qualifications that they need directly to take up local driver roles.

Mr Speaker, may I associate myself with your remarks and thanks directed at Her Majesty the Queen?

I read in the newspapers at the weekend that the Secretary of State is considering resigning over the Prime Minister’s rule breaking and partying. Before she heads for the exit door, given that 550,000 children are destitute, half a million children do not have a suitable bed to sleep in and she has cut universal credit by £1,000, why is she pushing through real-terms cuts to support that mean 10 million households will lose £290? How many more children will be in poverty as a result?

Mr Speaker, I want to assure you, the right hon. Gentleman and the House that I am fully behind our Prime Minister as he gets on with the job. Not only has he got Brexit done, but we are getting more people on to the payroll and achieving all the other things voted for by the British public in 2019. What I will say to the right hon. Gentleman is that I do not recognise some of the numbers he used. However, I am conscious of what we will be voting on later. I am also conscious that elements were based on the fact that it was a temporary uplift to universal credit, recognising the impact of what was happening early on, as people new to the benefit system were able to get a similar amount as people on statutory—[Interruption.]

Order. Can I just remind Members that topicals are meant to be short and punchy? We cannot have long statements, because there is a whole list of Members I still have to get in. That is why I am trying to cough: to speed you up a little—nothing else, nothing personal.

Cutting to the chase, by getting more people into work, people will be better off not only financially but in other aspects of their future prospects.

The shadow whipping operation will be pleased that the karaoke queen is standing by the party and the Prime Minister. The right hon. Lady talks about getting people into work. Earlier today, the pensions Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) said that pensioner poverty has gone down. However, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report shows that pensioner poverty is increasing. Why is she today pushing through real-terms cuts to the pension credit and the basic state pension, which will result in more pensioners in poverty?

As we will discuss later, the one-year approach we take every year is the basis on which almost all benefits are uplifted. We will continue to have that consistent approach.

T5. Last Friday, I paid another visit to Consett jobcentre in my constituency to see the great work it is doing. This Friday, I am hosting an apprenticeships fair in my patch. Auto-enrolment in pensions has transformed the lives of millions of people in constituencies across the country, including in mine. Those aged 18 to 22, who will be attending my apprenticeships fair and going into work, will not benefit yet from auto-enrolment. Will the Minister confirm that he will look at that and do what he can to ensure that everybody in work benefits from auto-enrolment in Britain? (905475)

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is also my constituency neighbour and a massive improvement on his predecessor. Auto-enrolment is a massive success as you know, Mr Speaker. I promise my hon. Friend that we will build on that work with the automatic enrolment review. I look forward to reading his Bill in great detail.

We know the benefits regime is counterproductive and punitive. In 2016, the National Audit Office told the Department for Work and Pensions to carry out its own research into benefit sanctions. The Department is now refusing to release that research, despite promises to Committees of both Houses, because it was

“unable to assess the deterrent effect”.

Why is the Secretary of State ruthlessly pushing ahead with the renewed sanctions regime if almost six years later it still cannot find any evidence that they work?

The sanction regime has not changed. In fact, sanctions have been at a record low over the past year. We are applying a sensible approach, recognising the number of vacancies, so that we can help people to get back into work as quickly as possible.[Official Report, 28 February 2022, Vol. 709, c. 5MC.]

T8. When the lovely Karen came in to celebrate her new job, I saw at first-hand the impact of work coaches like Victor and Harlon at Eastbourne’s Jobcentre Plus. The untold story is perhaps how brilliantly the same Jobcentre Plus can support employers. What work is the Minister and the Department doing to promote that aspect of their work, so we can double down on local unfilled vacancies? (905478)

We have seen 130,000 people going into work through kickstart, working with employers. Way to Work is exactly the same, so we can showcase that local talent to local employers at JCPs.

T2. Kevin Dooley, the father of a constituent of mine, Leanne Dooley, took his own life after the DWP decided to stop his benefits. Leanne was one of five bereaved families who wrote to the Secretary of State calling for an urgent public inquiry into deaths related to the benefit system and asking for a meeting. Six months’ on, the Secretary of State has not replied. Will she agree today to meet that group of bereaved families, including my constituent, Leanne? (905472)

I am very sorry for the family of the individual to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. It is the role of the coroners to undertake appropriate investigations. I am surprised, and am sorry to hear, that the letter has not gone back. It is not my intention to meet them, recognising the ongoing work that we continue to do to try and provide service to such people.

Afghan refugees in north Hampshire have been supported through the hard work of many organisations, including our local jobcentre. Many of those refugees now want to get back into employment. What specific support is my hon. Friend giving to that group?

There is incredible work going on across DWP, including the launch of Jobs First. We are in every bridging hotel, our work coaches are at the forefront of helping people into work, and we have great news and great stories every day.

T4. The Minister will be very much aware that Dupuytren’s contracture is a prescribed industrial disease, but the prescription for that disease is causing so much confusion and concern. Will the Minister be kind enough to agree to a meeting with me and others to discuss those outstanding issues? (905474)

I recognise the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, and I think he will be pleased to see some updates coming out very shortly on this matter.

T6. Constituents in Batley and Spen who contact me regarding issues they are having with PIP, universal credit and other benefits mention the complexity of both the application and appeals processes and the length of time they take. Bearing in mind that many of these people are facing huge physical and mental stress and, given the current cost of living crisis, are really struggling financially, what steps are being taken to simplify and speed up those processes? (905476)

A number of steps are being taken to ensure, as I said earlier, that we get the right benefits to people at the right time, in order that they have the support that we recognise they need. In addition to that general point, we have tried to improve processes in a number of ways during the pandemic. I would be happy to write to the hon. Lady with a little more detail so that she can understand the situation.

We have heard on several occasions about visits to jobcentres, and I have had the opportunity to visit Rugby on several occasions to see the excellent work of the work coaches there. Will the Minister thank them for their work, together with the 13,500 extra work coaches that we have provided to deliver the Way to Work plan?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the daily work that is going on in our jobcentres through Plan for Jobs, Way to Work, and our new additional jobcentres—150 more have opened, and 160 youth hubs. They are absolutely changing people’s lives, and we are committed to helping people to progress.

T7. Recent Citizens Advice research shows that an astonishing 80% of people with no recourse to public funds are behind with one or more essential bills, and 60% are behind on rent. When will the Secretary of State and the Home Secretary get together to stop forcing people into poverty through these abysmal no recourse to public funds rules? (905477)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, it is for the Home Office to make that decision, and of course, people who are in that situation can apply to the Home Office for it to be changed. It is a fundamental principle that if people are coming into the country, we want people to be able to support themselves, rather than rely on extra support to which they knew they would not be entitled.

Jobcentre staff across the country are doing excellent work getting people back into jobs, but a team in the east midlands led by my constituent Nicola Brindley are also doing fantastic work on top of their day jobs to spot jobcentre users who are victims of domestic abuse, and connect them to the help they need. The scheme is called J9; it is named after a lady called Janine Mundy, who was murdered by her former husband. Will the Minister join me in thanking Nicola Brindley and her amazing team of volunteers, and will she come to Nottingham to meet with the J9 team and learn more about the incredible work they do?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that brilliant work. It is efforts such as those—the flexible support fund, the trust and empowerment that we have in our jobcentres, and working with the employer covenant on domestic abuse and getting people into work and back on their feet—that are changing lives every day, in Rugby and other local areas. I am delighted by DWP staff across the land, and proud of them.

T10. A constituent sent me the following message: “I am concerned for April 1st this year. My fire will be turned off and I will start to feel the cold. At seventy eight years, I did not expect to face, like many others, a six hundred pound rise in my gas bill which I cannot afford. How come this government is not bothered about the people?”That plea comes on top of the news that, for millions of people, the Government’s new energy bill rebate will be wiped out by a real-terms cut to their pension. What will the Secretary of State say to my constituent and to all the pensioners whose hardship will be compounded by the Government’s flawed energy rebate plan? (905480)

What I will say is that we continue to try to support pensioners through aspects of pension credit, but it was inaccurate to say that what was proposed was a statistical anomaly. That is why we took the steps we took, and that is why we will continue the debate later today.

I recently hosted the first ever jobs fair in Blyth Valley. It was an amazing success, with more than 50 local businesses taking part. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the Port of Blyth, the DWP and all the local firms that made it possible?

My hon. Friend, again, raises the work of local DWP teams and jobs fairs, which we have seen in Way to Work. Up to 409,000 more people are on payrolls as a result of the DWP’s hard work in my hon. Friend’s community and more widely.

My disabled constituent Ann’s monthly fuel bills of £95 have now risen to £140 and will rise to £200 in April; she also faces inflation-busting care costs. In her budgeting, she has to choose between heating and eating—exactly the problems that were highlighted in the NatCen report. Who benefited most from suppressing that report: my constituent Ann or the Government?

I am rather more interested in the hon. Gentleman’s constituent Ann than in party political game playing. I sincerely hope that his constituent Ann will be able to benefit from the £9 billion package that the Government have laid out, which comes on top of £12 billion and is targeted at the most vulnerable. Meanwhile, we are spending record amounts on health and disability benefits: £59 billion this year.

I recently visited Basildon jobcentre and heard how it is bringing employers in to engage with work coaches and jobseekers. Does my hon. Friend welcome that new initiative, which helps to break the stereotypical view of those who use jobcentres to find work?

As a result of the pandemic, many people who never expected to need help have worked with the DWP, as we have heard. Many Conservative Members have seen just what a change that has meant for people. Again, I invite Opposition Front Benchers to actually go down and see what is happening in local communities.

In July 2020, I met my constituent Stacey Conlin—not at a constituency surgery, but in the physically disabled rehabilitation unit at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. We recovered from our strokes alongside each other, and I got to hear her story.

Too many people like Stacey have survived catastrophic life events only to be let down by this Government’s woeful welfare system—unable to work and unable to pay for basic necessities that many of us take for granted. Will the Secretary of State commit to revisiting the current levels of universal credit so that stroke survivors such as Stacey can fully live their lives instead of barely getting by?

I am very conscious of the important work that the hon. Lady has delivered, including the status that was addressed for her, and I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and I have also undertaken such elements in the national scheme. I am more than happy to find out about the specific example that the hon. Lady refers to, but I know that generally we are trying to make sure that this is the right approach and that people have that access to work.