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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 721: debated on Monday 31 October 2022

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Cold Weather Payments

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the criteria for cold weather payments. (901910)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I also associate myself with your remarks regarding Paul Pelosi and the Speaker in the United States. Our thoughts are with them both.

It is a huge honour to stand here as the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. In so doing, I pay tribute to all those who have preceded me, in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who was an outstanding Secretary of State and also an outstanding Minister of State for disabled people.

The cold weather payment’s design ensures that support reaches those most vulnerable. The energy price guarantee is supporting millions of households with energy costs from now until April 2023. This is on top of the cost of living support worth more than £37 billion for around 8 million households on means-tested benefits.

Mr Speaker, may I associate myself with your remarks about the Pelosi family?

I congratulate the right hon. Member on his appointment. The £25 cold weather payment rate has not been updated since 2008. In today’s money, it should be worth £37. Parts of Blaenau Gwent are more than 1,000 feet above sea level, and the constituency itself is one of the most deprived in the UK. Will the Secretary of State look again at the criteria for this scheme? Surely areas with bad weather, higher energy costs and lower incomes should get a fairer deal.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question, because these are very important payments. They are automatic, as he will know. Typically, they are received within 14 days and they are targeted at those who are most vulnerable. His point about the particular local conditions and the elevation of parts of his constituency are well made and I would be very happy to have further discussions with him about that. I should point out though that I believe there are 72 different weather stations to serve as reference points for different temperatures, so it may be that there is one very close to the area he describes.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. Will he tell the House what progress his Department is making to increase the uptake of pension credit, which means that more vulnerable elderly people will be eligible for cold weather payments?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this very important benefit, pension credit. He will be aware that the Department has been fully engaged in encouraging pensioners who will qualify to take up this benefit, and it is important that they do, because it is worth more than £3,000 a year and it is a gateway benefit for other benefits in turn. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who has done a great deal to push greater uptake, including a week of effort back in June when the uptake increased by 275% in that week.

Economically Inactive People

2. What steps his Department is taking to help reduce the number of people who are economically inactive. (901911)

3. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the level of economic inactivity in the labour market. (901912)

19. What steps his Department is taking to help reduce the number of people who are economically inactive. (901928)

The labour market has recovered strongly since 2020, with payroll employment up on the pre-pandemic level in all 12 regions of the United Kingdom. We have comprehensive support in place to help people to find, progress and stay in work, with additional support for groups we know are more likely to be inactive, such as those aged 50-plus and people with a disability.

Work is the best route out of poverty, and it is concerning that claimants of, and public spending on, working-age benefits have increased significantly since 2019. There is more that the Government can do beyond the conditionality regime, so can the Secretary of State confirm that implementing universal support, which is designed to help those facing barriers to work and to overcome the complex challenges holding them back, will be considered?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that work is the best route out of poverty, and in that regard I commend her for her private Member’s Bill, which the Department is pleased to support. Our low unemployment rate demonstrates our extensive support for those moving into work; universal support has been replaced, as she may know, by Help to Claim, which provides tailored support to individuals making a universal credit claim across England, Scotland and Wales.

The economy is plagued by labour shortages, from care to hospitality. On Saturday, 200 bus services in Cambridge were cancelled because of a lack of drivers, leaving health workers unable to get to and from their places of work. After a decade of zero-hours and short-term contracts, it is no surprise that people want out—they do not want to be at work because it is too tough. Is it not time for the Government to recognise that good workplace rights are not just good for workers, but good for employers and good for us all?

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. He is right to raise the issue of economic activity. That will be a major focus of mine as Secretary of State: we have 9 million people who are economically inactive, and we desperately need to get as many as we can into the workforce, not least because under this Government we have very low unemployment, very high levels of employment and 1.25 million vacancies in the economy.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and send him my best wishes for his time in this important job. May I suggest that he has a look at some research published earlier this year by the Prince’s Trust, which found that there are hundreds of thousands of young people not in education, employment or training, many of whom are economically active? They want to work, but many of them are living with physical or mental disabilities. Does he agree that the right support would enable them to stay in touch with the labour market and prevent patterns of worklessness from setting in at a very young age?

I recognise the great work that my right hon. Friend did as a Secretary of State. There are 820,000 young people out of work and not in full-time education, and he is right that there are many things this Government can do, and indeed are doing, with our youth offer. That includes our youth employment programme, youth employability coaches and 150 youth hubs across Great Britain.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman, who is one of my neighbours, to his new post and congratulate him on his appointment. What estimate has he made of the number of people who would like to work but currently cannot do so, because they are among the hundreds of thousands waiting on record-long NHS waiting lists?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his warm words. That is a question that would probably be best answered by the Department of Health and Social Care, and I would be happy to look into that for him. We know that there is a long tail of people who would otherwise like to work but who are long-term sick—some 2.5 million in total—and, to go back to my earlier answer, it will be a prime focus for our Department, working with the Health Department, to see how we can assist and support them back into the workplace.

I wish my right hon. Friend and his team every success in leading this vital mission in Government, helping people into work and protecting the most vulnerable. As he says, with more vacancies than people unemployed, and with 9 million people—and rising—economically inactive, does he agree with British business that labour shortage is one of its greatest obstacles? What is his plan to unlock the talents of those who have not recently looked for work?

My right hon. Friend’s analysis is entirely right. We have an overheated labour market and a high number of vacancies, and the key issue that businesses up and down the country constantly raise is a lack of staff to be taken on. Broadly speaking, economic inactivity breaks down into several sectors, although I will not go through all of them; we have already touched on the 2.5 million long-term sick, and we have 900 disability employment advisers within the Department for Work and Pensions. We also have 1.2 million people who retired early, for whom we do have some schemes, but we need to give further attention to coming up with new ways forward for that group.

At last week’s Work and Pensions Committee meeting on the plan for jobs and employment support, Tony Wilson from the Institute for Employment Studies highlighted the role of Scotland’s local employability partnerships in providing tailored support that reflects local circumstances. In the light of recent analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that health-related economic inactivity in the working-age population has had its largest increase since the end of 2019, will the UK Government consider following Scotland’s approach of providing more customised support and helping people into work, instead of the Department’s punitive sanctions regime?

We already have a local skills improvement plan, but I would be delighted to listen to the hon. Lady’s thoughts; we are always happy to share best practice, and to learn from her experience and that of the devolved Administration in Scotland.

I welcome the new Secretary of State and all the new Ministers to their positions. We have heard Conservative Ministers, not least the many Prime Ministers we have had in recent months, crowing about low unemployment, but the new Secretary of State will know from his time chairing the Treasury Committee that sometimes it is important to look at the figures yourself. There are 1.2 million people unemployed in our country, but also 1.8 million inactive people who say they want a job. Taken together, that is a disaster for our country. I want to know what it is about years and years of Tory misrule that always leaves 3 million people on the scrapheap.

I have taken a personal vow not to engage in too much Punch and Judy politics with the hon. Lady during Question Time, so I will not talk about what happens to unemployment when different parties get into power; I will leave that for another day. She is absolutely right about the key challenge around economic inactivity. That is why the Department doubled the number of new work coaches in the last two years; there are an additional 13,500 people working to support the exact people whom she rightly identified as needing that assistance to get into work. As I said, I intend to put considerably more energy into the whole issue of economic inactivity, and to bring announcements on the subject to the House in due course.

Universal Credit Sanctions

4. What assessment his Department has made of changes in the level of the sanction rate for universal credit between November 2021 and May 2022. (901913)

No assessment has been made. Emergency measures brought in during covid meant that the sanctions rate was artificially low. We always expected the rate to increase when we reintroduced face-to-face appointments and conditionality in order to help fill record numbers of job vacancies.

I am disappointed with that answer. The current high rate of universal credit sanctions is unprecedented. Right now, twice as many people on universal credit are being sanctioned and having their benefits cut as did before the pandemic, three years ago. At this very moment, families face the reality of hunger and freezing homes because of soaring food prices and energy bills, as well as rising rents. Instead of making things harder for those who are struggling, and punishing those on the lowest incomes, will the Minister commit to raising social security in line with inflation and end the sanctions regime, which will only inflict more hardship and homelessness this winter on those in areas such as mine?

I am afraid that I do not agree. People are sanctioned only if they fail to attend appointments without good reason, and fail to meet the requirements that they have agreed to meet. Conditionality is an important part of a fair and effective welfare system. It is right that there should be a system to encourage claimants to take reasonable steps to prepare for and move into work. I reiterate that claimants with severe mental health or wellbeing conditions are not subject to work-related requirements or sanctions.

The Secretary of State has indicated that there will be a difference in tone in the Department. There is a way that he can demonstrate that. The Department conducted an examination of the effect of sanctions and conditionality that his predecessor refused to publish. He has the opportunity to allow us to have an informed debate in the Chamber on the effectiveness of sanctions. Will he now publish that report?

Sanctions are incredibly important to support the work coach in doing their job. This really matters, because engaging with the work coach is important where there can be underlying issues—if an individual is a care leaver or there is something going on at home. Sanctions do not apply to all claimants. As I said earlier, if an individual has limited capability to work or there are issues around how they can work, work coaches will use their full discretion to ensure that people are supported, but not engaging is not the right option.

Cost of Living Payments: Isle of Wight

5. What recent estimate he has made of the number of Isle of Wight residents who will receive the second cost of living payment. (901914)

We published an impact analysis for the Social Security (Additional Payments) Bill, which estimated that, in the Isle of Wight constituency, 18,300 families are eligible for the means-tested benefit cost of living payment and 17,300 individuals are eligible for the disability cost of living payment.

I congratulate all the Ministers on their new roles and thank the Minister for that information. Regarding the cost of living, what reassurances can the ministerial team give me that pensioners on the Isle of Wight, and indeed throughout Britain, will be looked after this winter, considering that they are on fixed incomes?

My hon. Friend is always a passionate advocate for people on the Isle of Wight, raising the issues and concerns that are relevant to them. We have a Prime Minister who has consistently demonstrated that he is on the side of vulnerable people and hard-working people across the country. That will continue to be the case. We have put in place a £37 billion package of support to help with these cost of living pressures, and of course we always keep the appropriateness of that under review.

Jobseekers and People on Low Incomes: Skills

6. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure jobseekers and people on low incomes develop the skills required for highly skilled and well-paid jobs. (901915)

15. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure jobseekers and people on low incomes develop the skills required for highly skilled and well-paid jobs. (901924)

Our dedicated work coaches engage with claimants to determine what additional support they may need to enter or progress in work. Where skills gaps are identified, claimants will be encouraged to access skills-related employment programmes such as sector-based work academies, skills boot camps or appropriate local training provision.

My constituent in Clwyd South, Kerry Mackay, recently wrote to me saying:

“There’s lots of talk about getting people back into work and those on low incomes finding a better job, but I think the government is missing a trick by not highlighting how much they will help people, single mothers and mature students like me, to get a decent education and ultimately pull themselves out of poverty for good.”

Will the Minister advertise as effectively as possible how universal credit can support people like Kerry to study for their degrees?

We want to support our constituents like Kerry, and I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I suggest that he writes to me with the specific details, but I can assure him and Kerry that recipients of UC can take part in training without compromising their benefit entitlement. Generally, there are great efforts being made to ensure that people who want to get into work can do so.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place, and the whole of his new Front-Bench team. I am sure that we can expect great things. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that apprenticeships and further education are a key way of upskilling our young people? Will he visit Southend West soon and meet some of our successful apprentices, such as Holly at Guardian Exhibition and Display in Eastwood, and Ipeco in Southend, which also offers fantastic apprenticeships?

All roads lead to Southend as far as I am concerned. My hon. Friend is proving to be a fantastic champion and successor of our good friend Sir David Amess. I would be delighted to visit. I welcome the great work of the companies she mentioned and believe very strongly that we need to improve skills through the package that we are taking forward.

May I start by sending my condolences and thoughts to all those who were tragically killed in Seoul, South Korea, at the weekend? I am sure that we will all be thinking of them at this time.

Education, formal and informal, is vital to developing a highly skilled workforce. Adults with neurodivergences such as autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may require personalised support with their learning. What assessment has the Minister made of the efficacy of the support currently in place, and what steps are the Government taking to improve it?

Skills and education are a devolved matter. I echo the hon. Lady’s worthwhile words about South Korea. Obviously, great work is being done in youth hubs in particular, which I recommend to her.

Universal Credit: Food Insecurity

I begin by recognising the important work that the right hon. Gentleman carries out as Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee and thank him for the co-operation that he showed me when I was a fellow Chair of a Select Committee. I look forward to appearing before his Committee before too long.

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, universal credit is but one factor in addressing food insecurity. The Government have provided significant support with the £37 billion cost of living package.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment and warmly welcome him. We already have a date in the diary for him to come before the Committee and we look forward to that.

Current large-scale food bank dependence is shameful. It was up by 46% in August and September on a year previously, according to the Trussell Trust, and it is reported in the press today that hospitals are seeing a big rise in malnutrition cases. The family resources survey also says that food insecurity among universal credit claimants fell from 43% to 27% after the £20 a week uplift was introduced. Does not all that show how crucial it is that the Prime Minister keeps the promise he made as Chancellor to uprate benefits next April by 10.1%?

I am not going to pre-empt my decision on the uprating of benefits or indeed the triple lock. We will need to wait until at least 17 November when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will come to the House with his autumn statement and those details will be known at that point.

The right hon. Gentleman raises the family resources survey. One statistic that caught my eye was that the percentage of households with UC claimants who are in food security rose from 57% in 2019-20 to 73% in 2020-21. Any element of food insecurity is too much—I recognise that—which is why this Government and this Prime Minister are absolutely determined to use whatever we have at our disposal to work on those figures and to improve them. That includes the various interventions that we have already discussed during these questions.

Cost of Living: Social Security Payments

23. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of benefits in meeting increases in the cost of living. (901932)

We have already taken decisive action to make work pay by cutting the universal credit taper rate to 55% and increasing UC work allowances, which mean that on average low-income households have about an extra £1,000 a year. In addition to that, two cost of living payments, which total £650, are being paid to more than 8 million low-income households on UC, tax credits, pension credits and legacy benefits. There has also been extra help for pensioners and those on disability benefits. That totals more than £37 billion this year.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has warned that if social security does not get uprated with inflation, it will be the

“largest permanent deliberate real-terms cut”

to the basic rate of social security by a British Government in history. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, that would push 200,000 children into poverty. Even the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights warns that it will mean that “lives will be lost”. What will the Minister do to stop that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I note that he will be visiting his Dumbarton Jobcentre Plus shortly, which I am sure will help him to see the range of interventions in jobcentres, as well as the benefits calculator and the cost of living interventions on I remind him that the Scottish Government have a range of powers, including the ability to provide their own welfare benefits to people in Scotland using existing reserved benefits. The Scottish Government can see how they would like to use their powers and budget themselves.

Happy Hallowe’en, Mr Speaker. Many of my constituents have found social security payments inadequate, because they have not kept pace with the cost of living. For William Thompson and Anne McCurley, however, it is even more frustrating because they narrowly miss out on pension credits and all the passported benefits—Anne misses out by only £3 a week. Will the Minister review the cut-off so that as many people as possible can access the support that they badly need this winter?

I thank the hon. Lady for the point, and I have mentioned two particular websites that I think are incredibly important for people to make sure they get every single bit of help they need. There is always a cut-off point, which is very challenging. I understand there is a huge amount of work going on in her own community to support people, including getting people into work and progressing them, and working with local employers. Of course, the pensions issue is something that the Secretary of State has just answered and will be further updated on 17 November.

I thank my hon. Friend for the answers she has already given for those people meeting the costs of living on social security payments. A big concern many of my constituents have is about the cost of energy over the course of the winter, and the Government have a plan for the next six months to support people. Can my hon. Friend give my constituents reassurance that that plan, when it comes towards its end, will be under review to see what ongoing support could be offered, if required?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I worked with the Prime Minister on the plan for jobs, and he has been very clear that he wants to protect the most vulnerable, which is why we are providing families with direct payments worth at least £1,200 over the winter. We will all look with interest at what the Chancellor does on the 17th.

Too many disabled people have been disproportionately hit by the cost of living crisis, with extra costs of over £600 a year. Sadly, we have seen too many unable to cope with this. The Information Commissioner ruled that the DWP unlawfully prevented the release of over 20 reports into the deaths of benefit claimants. We must be able to scrutinise whether the actions taken by the DWP were sufficient or timely enough to prevent the harms identified from happening again. So will the new Secretary of State agree to publish these and all other secret reports—and a yes or no would actually suffice?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I understand the Opposition have an interest in such reports. However, my role at the DWP is about people—helping people up and down the land—and that is what we are doing for people with disabilities. With the extra costs part of the disability payment, about 6 million will be helped by the extra one-off payment of £150, ensuring that we all across the DWP are focused on the most vulnerable.

I welcome the new ministerial team to their place. I hope to meet the new Secretary of State in early course; it was quite difficult to secure a meeting with some of his predecessors, unfortunately. The new Prime Minister spoke of the difficult decisions that will have to be made, but the real difficult decisions are those being forced on our constituents—people on low incomes struggling to afford the basics, pay their bills, heat their homes or feed their children. Let us not forget the reality of the tragic human cost of over a decade of Tory austerity, which urgently needs to end. Does the Minister agree that uprating benefits in line with inflation is not a difficult decision, but is instead the only moral course of action?

That is not a matter for me, but I would like to reiterate at the Dispatch Box that the Government fully understand the pressures we are all facing. We all have constituents facing these matters, and it is absolutely right that we take that decisive action to support people with their bills. Members are talking as if we are not supporting people, but there is £37 billion of help with the cost of living, including the £400 of non-repayable discounts to eligible households provided by the energy bills support scheme. In addition to the benefits calculator and the cost of living webpage on, I would ask people please to reach out to their councils. Members are talking this afternoon as if there is no help, and it is important that our constituents know that that is far from the case.

Women’s State Pension Age: Additional Support

9. If he will take steps to provide additional support during winter 2022-23 to women affected by the rise in state pension age. (901918)

Members across the House will have appreciated the sense of grievance and injustice from women born in the 1950s who were not given proper notice of the rise in the state pension age. The ombudsman has recognised this as maladministration, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), when he was the Prime Minister and leading the campaign in the 2019 general election, said he would address this matter. Since then, more of those women are now living in poverty and 200,000 of them have died, yet not a single Minister has met them since 2016. Is the Minister willing to meet a delegation from the WASPI campaign to talk about their plight and find a way forward?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and understand where he is coming from, but there is an ongoing investigation so it would be inappropriate for me to meet people at this stage.

The Minister knows that in July 2021 the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman found the DWP guilty of maladministration regarding state pension age increases. The PHSO also suggested that the Department could consider being proactive in remedying the injustice suffered by 3.8 million women, rather than waiting for its final conclusions. Given the ongoing cost of living crisis, does the Minister agree that now is the time for the Government to step up to the plate and agree fair and swift compensation for the women suffering that injustice?

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman but I must repeat that I cannot comment where there is an ongoing investigation.

Pension Credit Claimants

I welcome the new Minister to her place and hope she can continue the excellent work done by the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) in this area. Despite all that excellent work, however, take-up is still relatively low, and my constituency has 20% more over-65s than the UK average. Will the new Minister meet me to discuss how we might be able to make pension credit at least in part an automatic benefit so that struggling pensioners can get the money they are rightly entitled to?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point but it is difficult to enrol people automatically on pension credit given the data the Government hold. I am, however, keen to see how increased data sharing could be used to produce a larger number of claims.

Cost of Living Crisis: Support for Pensioners

This winter more than 8 million pensioner households will receive an increased winter fuel payment; in addition, those eligible for pension credit will receive an extra £650. This Government will always support the most vulnerable.

Earlier this month I contacted approximately 6,000 people in my constituency who may have been eligible for pension credit, and about 200 people attended a local action day organised with my local citizens advice bureaux. Citizens Advice informs me that as of last week at least £200,000 has been accessed in take-up of pension credit and other benefits as a result of contacts on that day. So far the Department’s action has been limited and half-hearted; the Government should put their money where their mouth is and pay pensioners what they are entitled to. With the information and data the Government have at their disposal, what further action will they take to increase pension credit take-up?

I applaud the hon. Gentleman for the work he is doing in his constituency. This is an incredibly important matter; seven out of 10 people who are entitled to pension credit claim it and we want to drive that rate up. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) has done a huge amount of work on this and I intend to continue that in the Department.

Irresponsible Conservative policies have meant pension funds needed three emergency bail-outs to the tune of billions of pounds, while the spiralling prices of energy, food and other essential items have meant millions of people will be facing a very difficult winter. Statistics from earlier this year, before the cost of living crisis worsened even further, showed that 20%, or well over 2 million, pensioners already lived in poverty, a dramatic increase from a decade ago. Why should pensioners trust this Government to help them through this mess when the reckless behaviour of Conservative Ministers has worsened their plight?

I point the hon. Gentleman to our record: absolute pensioner poverty has gone down; real incomes have gone up. This Government are on the side of pensioners.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and I welcome the work that the Government are doing to support pensioners, particularly on winter fuel costs in difficult times. However, many of my pensioners in Aldridge-Brownhills are anxious about the continuous rise in the cost of living. When can we have some clarity regarding the triple lock?

I completely understand my right hon. Friend’s question. However, that is a matter for the autumn statement, and I would not want to pre-empt that.

I welcome the new Minister to her place. The last few weeks have been difficult and, at times, chaotic. The Government have crashed the economy and there has been a revolving door in Downing Street and Government Departments. After all that confusion, will the Minister take the opportunity to reassure the House that the Government are truly committed to the triple lock? Will she apologise to pensioners for the stress and uncertainty that the Government have caused through their repeated attempts to wriggle out of their manifesto commitment?

I do understand the uncertainty, but we must wait for 17 November. However, the average state pension is £185 a week, which is about double what it was in 2010 when we took over.

Uprating of Benefits

13. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues, (b) the devolved Administrations and (c) other relevant stakeholders on uprating benefits in line with inflation. (901922)

I am currently conducting my statutory annual review of state pensions and benefit rates. The outcome of that review will be announced in due course.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Trussell Trust is reporting that 40% of universal credit claimants are skipping meals due to budgetary constraints. Does he accept that with the full energy crisis costs yet impacting them and, indeed, with winter still to arrive, it would be perverse if bankers’ bonuses were to be uncapped while pension benefits were not to increase at least in line with inflation?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the various answers given from the Dispatch Box about the support that the Government are giving, particularly to those who are most vulnerable, across winter. In respect of food and food banks, that is pertinent. However, I am afraid that he will receive the same answer about when the House will come to know of the uprating that may be applied to pensions and benefits more generally, and the pensions triple lock. That is a decision for me as Secretary of State, of course in conjunction with discussions with the Treasury, and those figures will be available at the time of the autumn statement on 17 November.

I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment that compassion will be at the heart of Government. It is so important that we support the most vulnerable in society. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that we can show that compassion and support by uprating benefits in line with inflation?

Universal Credit: Housing Element

In April 2020, the local housing allowance rate in Epsom and Ewell increased to the 30th percentile of local market rents. The Government further boosted LHA rates by £1 billion.

I congratulate the new ministerial team on their appointment. The challenge in a constituency such as mine in the south-east and inside the M25 is that, even when the Government are spending a substantial amount of money on housing support, the local housing allowance simply does not enable people to get into private rented accommodation. Will my hon. Friend and his colleagues look again at how local housing allowance is structured and allocated across the country to try to ensure that it works everywhere?

My right hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner on this issue. He will be aware, though, that it cannot be looked at in isolation and that we must look at the additional support available such as discretionary housing payments through the local authority—they are worth up to £1.5 billion overall across all local authorities—as well as the cost of living support package of £37 billion-plus and the household support fund, which again is administered by local authorities.

Supporting People into Work

Unemployment is at 3.5%. That is the lowest in nearly 50 years. We have recruited an extra 13,000-plus job coaches and are taking specific action to ensure that we are rolling out our new in-work progression offer.

Loughborough jobcentre is doing a great job in supporting new and fledging business owners to become gainfully self-employed. What steps is the Department for Work and Pensions taking across the country to help support small business owners and to support the growth and development of the self-employed across the UK?

I thank the staff at Loughborough jobcentre. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: they are doing an outstanding job and I know they usually hold a very successful jobs fair. On the self-employed nationwide, universal credit gives them a 12-month start-up period to grow their earnings to a sustainable level. We believe that is the way forward.

To try to help fill the very many vacancies that exist in a number of industries, will the Minister have discussions with fellow Ministers in the Treasury to see if more changes to the tax system can be brought in to really make sure that work does pay?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a very good point. It is absolutely the case that we are working on that. I highlight in particular the taper rate, which was reduced from 63% to 55%, but also the additional work we are putting into job coaches, the sector-based work academy and the increased work allowance, which makes sure that individuals get an extra £1,000.

One of the things preventing people from getting back into work is waiting for operations, thanks to the massive NHS backlog. One thing making that even worse is that lots of doctors are retiring early because they are worried about the pension cap issue. When will the Government rectify that issue, so that more doctors can stay in the profession, more people can get their operations quickly and more people can get back into work?

I appreciate that this is a genuine issue. The Treasury is looking specifically at the high earners pension situation. I am sure the Treasury will get back on that very shortly.

Topical Questions

I am honoured to have been appointed as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I can inform the House that I have two early key missions: to focus on those who are economically inactive, as I have been suggesting already at the Dispatch Box; and to pursue with vigour the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to us being a compassionate, caring Department supporting the most vulnerable, which, at the end of the day, is a hallmark of a civilised society.

I welcome the Secretary of State, a fellow Devon MP, to his position. Will he agree to meet me and Barnardo’s to discuss the concerns of care leavers from Devon, whom I recently hosted in Westminster, who without a rent guarantor cannot afford a deposit on a rental property of their own. Will he consider a pilot to help those young people get a better start in life?

I thank my hon. Friend—I will call him an hon. Friend, certainly—and colleague from Devon for his question. I know of the excellent work he has been carrying out with Barnardo’s in that area. I would be delighted to meet him and Barnardo’s, and whoever else he feels appropriate, to discuss those issues.

T5. We heard earlier about those who are economically inactive. Figures show that in the west midlands, including in my constituency of Rugby and Bulkington, over-50s have been less likely to return to the workplace after covid than their younger counterparts. Businesses in all sectors tell me just how badly those workers are needed. What initiatives is the Department working on to get more older people back into work? Will the Minister join me in coming along to an over-50s fair we are holding in Rugby in the new year? (901940)

I would, of course, be delighted to go to Rugby and I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend is holding an over-50s fair. He will be aware that the Department is rolling out 50 PLUS: Choices and the mid-life MOT to ensure that those matters are addressed.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to his post. I also welcome the new Ministers and welcome back returning Ministers. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State saying that he wants a compassionate approach, so may I press him further on the point that numerous Members have put to him? He will know that not sticking to the triple lock for pensioners will mean a real-terms cut in their pension of hundreds of pounds. He will know that not inflation-proofing universal credit will mean an average household will lose £450 and that a household with a disabled person in it will lose over £550. Why does he no longer agree with himself when he said, on 4 October, that this is

“one of those areas where the Government is going to have to think again”?

I reassure the House that I always agree with myself. That is not the same thing as saying that I am always right, incidentally, but at least I am always consistent in that respect. We will have to wait—sorry, I should say that it is a pleasure to serve opposite the right hon. Gentleman and that I look forward to many months of constructive engagement with him.

It is very important that we do not overlook the huge amount that the Government are doing to target assistance at the most vulnerable. In the cost of living support package alone, there is £650 for 8 million of the most vulnerable households, £300 for pensioners on pension credit and £150 for those who have disabilities. That is very important.

The Prime Minister tells us that we do not need a general election because the 2019 manifesto gives him and the Conservative party a mandate. Given that that manifesto committed to the triple lock, why can he not give pensioners the reassurance that they deserve? Let me ask him about a second point: can he give a categorical assurance that, in the autumn statement, he will rule out means-testing personal independence payments, carer’s allowance, attendance allowance and disability living allowance for children?

The right hon. Gentleman is inviting me, in a whole host of areas, to break with what has been a very long-standing and quite correct convention that Ministers simply do not provide a running commentary about what may or may not be in a major fiscal event. However, he has my personal assurance that when and as it is appropriate to pass him information of that kind, he will be the first to know.

T6. Now then: last week in Parliament, I met a young lady called Florence who has Down’s syndrome. She told me that she has five paid jobs and three voluntary jobs, because she is trying to get into the workplace, and she is coming across lots of barriers. Does the Minister agree that we should do more to help people with special educational needs, like Florence, to get into the workplace? What better place to start than right here in Parliament? (901941)

I strongly agree. Programmes such as the Access to Work scheme have supported the Government in meeting five years early their commitment to see a million more disabled people in work in the decade to 2027. We want to create more of those opportunities—in which spirit, I commend Florence for her determination. As a Government, we are determined to help her to succeed.

T3. Since I came to this place in 2019, I have worked with and fought the corner of all the women in Newport West who face discrimination due to their gender and age. Those WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—have shown incredible perseverance and tenacity over the years. Will the Minister set out the steps that are being taken to address this issue? If she cannot meet the women because of the ongoing investigation, will she meet me to discuss this important issue at the earliest opportunity? (901938)

I am happy to meet the hon. Lady. I point out, however, that the state pension system corrects some of the historical inequalities of the previous system, producing considerably higher outcomes for women.

T8. At Runnymede and Spelthorne citizens advice bureau, I recently met and was incredibly impressed by Becky and her superb team of staff and volunteers and the crucial support that they give to Runnymede and Weybridge residents, working alongside the Department for Work and Pensions. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking Becky and her fantastic team for the work that they do? (901943)

I echo and support what my hon. Friend says, and he is right to laud what Becky and her team are doing. He will be aware that over the past few years, Citizens Advice in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has done fantastic work and plays a hugely valuable role in rolling out the Help to Claim scheme across the United Kingdom.

T4.   I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment and welcome his team of Ministers on to the Treasury Bench. He will understand that lots of people, including many, many people in east Hull, work incredibly hard and incredibly long hours, but despite all their efforts still rely on benefits. Does he agree that it would be incredibly mean if the Chancellor of the Exchequer was now to row back on the commitment of uprating benefits in line with inflation? (901939)

The hon. Gentleman has been in the Chamber during questions for long enough to know that I cannot comment on the uprating or otherwise of benefits. However, he should take into account the numerous positive tax changes that there have been over the years for the hard-working constituents he refers to—not least the very significant increase in the personal allowance since 2010 and the change to the taper under universal credit, which makes a difference to many millions of people up and down the land.

My constituent suffered months of worry and stress because his employer failed to pay any pension contributions into his workplace scheme. Raising it with his boss made him fear for his job. The regulator gives no feedback on investigations, so will the Secretary of State consider whether the current £400 statutory penalty notice and regulatory powers are sufficient to ensure that employers fulfil their pension contributions duties?

The independent Pensions Regulator has robust powers in place to investigate compliance and issue fines; I urge my hon. Friend’s constituent to report his concerns to it in confidence. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.

Harry, my 11-year-old constituent, has cerebral palsy. He was previously awarded the higher rate mobility component of the disability living allowance, until it was downgraded. It took nearly two months for a mandatory reconsideration to uphold the decision, which his family are now appealing. There is currently no tribunal date, which means that the family face a prolonged period of uncertainty and anxiety. Will the Minister look at the detail of Harry’s case with a view to expediting a date for the tribunal?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the constructive way in which he has approached the issue. I will be very happy to contact him if he shares the details of the case with me. What I can say, which I hope will give some reassurance, is that 400 extra people are dedicated to mandatory reconsideration work and waiting times are dropping. We need to sustain that performance as well as getting things right the first time.

I have no doubt that this fine ministerial team will be pleased to know that my recent jobs fair perfectly complemented the employment and skills pathfinder programme. Will a Minister come to Willenhall jobcentre to meet its excellent policy and partnership staff and discuss what more we can do together to help people to progress in employment?

I am fantastically pleased to hear about my hon. Friend’s jobs fair. He is a doughty champion for Walsall. Either I or our much more illustrious Secretary of State would be delighted to come to Walsall and see the great work being done there.

Saturday was World Stroke Day. I simply ask if this Government will uprate benefits in line with inflation, which would particularly help the growing population who are living with a disability. I know that I will not get an answer or a commitment today, but I ask them to consider it for the autumn statement.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for making that argument. As my colleagues and I have said consistently at the Dispatch Box, we will not provide a running commentary ahead of the autumn statement on 17 November, in which the Chancellor will set out the situation in the normal way.

A few weeks ago, at Paul’s Sports and Social Club, I met my constituent Nigel Seaman, who is a veteran, to discuss his work with Combat2Coffee to get veterans who may be homeless or struggling with the transition to civilian life into work and employment. Will the Minister meet me and Nigel to discuss what more can be done to support excellent veterans’ charities such as Combat2Coffee with helping veterans into work?

I am very pleased that I am wearing my Help for Heroes band today. I am delighted to hear about the work of the charity that my hon. Friend mentions. We are working with our champions in jobcentres to get people who have been service leaders into work, and we have work coaches who are dedicated to that. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to find out more about the charity and tell him more about what we do in jobcentres.

It appears that the Government’s plan to clear up the economic disaster that they created is to implement austerity 2.0. Nearly 1.5 million people, including many of my constituents, have now been pushed into poverty as a result of their policies: the cuts to the social security net, the benefit cap and the cuts to support for disabled people, as well as the cruel and inhumane conditionality and sanctions regime. What discussions is the new Secretary of State having with the Chancellor to ensure that those in low-income households will not have to face any further cuts to social security to help to clear up this mess created by his Government?

The benefit cap is important because it restores fairness to the balance between those on working-age benefits and taxpayers in employment. Along with changes in the taper rate, this means that moving people into work wherever possible is the best way out of poverty.

Last year an estimated 1 million people of working age were receiving carer’s allowance. A constituent of mine, after three and a half years of caring for his father full time—his father passed away recently—is now unable to access jobseeker’s allowance because he is not considered to have been employed. What is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State doing to rectify the position?

If my hon. Friend writes to me giving the specific details, I will ensure that the ministerial team and the civil servants involved look into it as a matter of urgency.

Does the new Secretary of State—whom I welcome to his place—still agree with his statement that cutting maternity rights will be good for business?

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker—sorry, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.] I will not be called next time, will I?

The Government have done a great deal to help people with their cost of living challenges, but elderly residents in my constituency are troubled by reports in the newspapers suggesting that we may not meet our manifesto commitment to retain the pensions triple lock. Pensioners face a triple whammy of dwindling savings value due to low interest rates, rising costs due to inflation and, owing to their age, an inability to go out and earn any more. Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that we will increase pensions in line with inflation?

I admire my hon. Friend’s persistence on this matter, but I am afraid I must give her the same response that I have given on numerous occasions this afternoon, namely, that we will have to wait until at least 17 November for an answer. I understand the particular pressure that pensioners are under because they are often unable to change their economic circumstances, as others within the labour force can; but we will have to wait.

A number of my constituents who work for the DWP have told me that they are not being given the enhanced holiday pay that they were promised in return for working overtime consistently. In response to my inquiry, the DWP has told me that current legislation provides no definition of regularity. Will the Minister please address this issue?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter; I shall be happy to look into it if he writes to me with the details.

I have written to the DWP twice about the relocation of back-office staff from Crossgate House in Doncaster city centre to Sheffield, but have received only negative replies. This is not what the staff want and, with many council offices empty owing to the new model of hybrid working, Doncaster is losing much-needed footfall. Will the Minister meet me so that we can establish whether the decision can be reversed?

This is an issue that I was already looking into. I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concern, and I shall be happy to meet him and be given an update on the situation.

Along with many other Members who are present today, I have received a number of emails from concerned pensioners, including one who wrote that if the triple lock is not maintained:

“myself and many others will have to pare our spending even more. Occasional meet-ups with friends will be the next to go and then more and more people will become isolated and depressed.”

Does the Secretary of State agree that maintaining the triple lock will improve the health and wellbeing of our pensioners as we go into the winter?

I completely understand those concerns, but that is why we have provided a package of support—now—which is worth more than £850 for everyone receiving a state pension and £1,500 for those receiving pension credit.

Last week we celebrated the 10th anniversary of automatic pension enrolment. This is, genuinely, an amazing cross-party policy achievement which has transformed the saving culture across our country. As we look back on that success, will the Ministers consider expanding the system to 18-to-22-year-olds?

In my former life I was very much looking at that specific policy and I am quite sure that the Government will address it shortly.

This morning I attended the York cost of living summit and heard about the impact that food poverty, heating poverty and housing poverty are having on my constituents. One issue is the rate at which the benefits cap is set. By 2027, it will not have been reviewed for 11 years, so will the Secretary of State make representations to the Chancellor to ensure that it is reviewed before 17 November?

I am in the process of reviewing just that matter and many of the others that we have discussed, so we will have to wait, but it is one of the matters that is under review.

We look forward to the Secretary of State appearing before the Work and Pensions Committee. Can he give us an assurance before he does so that the Department will publish the systematic evidence-based review of food bank use that it promised to publish and place in the Commons Library two years ago, so that we can debate the policy issues required to eliminate hunger across these islands?

I look forward to appearing before the hon. Gentleman and his fellow members of the Committee. He raises a specific point, and I will look into it and come back to him.