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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 724: debated on Monday 5 December 2022

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Local Housing Allowance

1. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of real-term reductions in local housing allowance rates on levels of poverty. (902572)

2. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of real-term reductions in local housing allowance rates on levels of poverty. (902573)

5. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of real-term reductions in local housing allowance rates on levels of poverty. (902576)

6. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of real-term reductions in local housing allowance rates on levels of poverty. (902577)

13. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of real-term reductions in local housing allowance rates on levels of poverty. (902585)

First, on behalf of the whole House, may I welcome the hon. Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) to this House, and wish her every happiness and a productive time in the House?

The Government have maintained the uplift they provided in the local housing allowance in 2020, at a cost of almost £1 billion, targeting the 30th percentile of rents. Those who need assistance with housing costs also have recourse to the discretionary housing payments administered by local authorities.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments about my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon), but that is as far as I can go.

The local housing allowance is a lifeline for tenants to access the private rented sector. The Government have accepted the need to uprate most benefits in line with inflation, so why have they chosen to freeze the local housing allowance, which will have a disproportionate impact on constituents in my constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? Will he commit to reviewing that situation urgently?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, annually I review all benefits, including LHA—indeed, around this time next year, I will do precisely that. It has to be borne in mind that we are currently spending almost £30 billion a year on housing allowance and that figure is expected to increase to around £50 billion by 2050, so there are cost considerations.

The ongoing impact of the freeze on LHA is that more people are effectively being priced out of the private rental sector, with more and more housing becoming unaffordable. Research by Crisis showed that just 4% of three-bedroom homes advertised in Manchester were affordable on LHA rates. Tenants are forced to use increasingly larger proportions of their income on rent, at the height of a cost of living crisis. Will the Minister commit to annually raising the local housing allowance in line with inflation?

As I have just indicated, I will review that in just under a year. There are of course the discretionary housing payments, which are administered by local authorities for those who feel that they need additional support, and I also point the hon. Gentleman in the direction of the significant cost of living payments that we are providing at the moment to support those in most need.

As my hon. Friends have said, the very least the Government must do is to raise the local housing allowance to keep pace with the real rate of rent inflation. The Department has also cut the funding of last resort, namely, that given to the Welsh Government to provide discretionary housing payments—a cut of 18% last year and a whopping 27% this financial year. Will the Secretary of State now commit to reversing that latest cut, so that local councils in Wales can at least offer some help to those in most dire need and avoid further evictions?

I would just say to the hon Lady that there is the household support fund as well, which she did not mention. That is there to provide support in the circumstances that she described, along with the discretionary housing payments that I set out and the fact that, in 2020, we did indeed raise LHA to be in line with the 30th percentile of local rents.

The reality is that a family in one of the cheapest three-bedroom homes in Luton have faced a shortfall of about £2,300 over the last year, and that gap increased by £650 from five months earlier. That proves that the growing gap between housing benefit and the cost of the cheapest private rents is forcing people into poverty. When the Secretary of State chose to freeze local housing allowance for another year, did he consider how that might make more and more families across the country homeless?

I did of course very carefully consider the points that the hon. Lady has made, just as I very carefully considered the extent to which there should be an uprating of benefits more generally; they went up by 10.1%—the level of the consumer prices index at that time. I also considered very carefully what the uplift in pensions should be and, again, that was 10.1%, the level of CPI. For pensioners, we also stood by the triple lock.

In Liverpool, the shortfall between housing benefit and the cheapest rents has now risen to £1,360 over a year. Outside London, private sector rents are rising across the country at an average of 11.8%, yet no one from the Conservative party seems to recognise that rent increases also cause inflation. Conservative Members are frequently eager to call for pay restraint and for benefits to be held down but never for landlords to heed the same advice. My constituents now face homelessness. Does the Secretary of State recognise that high housing costs and completely inadequate housing benefit lie at the root of the cost of living crisis and that the choice for the Government should be between capping rents and raising support?

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises inflation, which we are all having to contend with at the moment. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor came before the House at the time of the autumn statement and set out a clear plan as to how to bring inflation down. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that it will be half its current level in a year’s time. A large amount of support has been put forward, with the £650 cost of living payment this year to those low-income households that he describes, covering some 8 million people up and down the country.

May I also warmly welcome my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) to her place?

Fifty-nine per cent. of private renters on universal credit—844,000 households—have rents above the maximum level that local housing allowance will cover. That means that they have to make up the difference, which, as we have heard, is often substantial, either by reducing spending on other necessities such as food and heating, or by getting into arrears, risking homelessness. With homelessness already rising, local authorities predicting how much more they will have to spend and the Government only today announcing an extra £50 million having to be spent on the homelessness prevention grant, does the Secretary of State accept that what the Government are saving through the freeze on housing allowance is merely popping up in additional spending elsewhere and that it is time to get a grip?

As I set out, the amount being spent on housing and housing support is almost £30 billion a year. That has grown strongly over the last decade or so and is on a trajectory to reach £50 billion by 2050. The Government are therefore putting huge support into that area. In addition to LHA, there are, as I have said, discretionary housing payments. When it comes to the homeless, we have brought forward a £2 billion package to help to resolve those issues.

Universal Credit: Death of a Child

3. Whether his Department is taking steps to support parents in receipt of universal credit with the financial transition when a full-time caring role changes following the death of a child with a life-limiting condition. (902574)

The answer is yes. We want universal credit to provide support to claimants even where they have suffered bereavement of a child. Where a bereavement happens, we seek to ensure that the child element, disabled child element, childcare, carer element and housing element with the run-on provisions will all continue, notwithstanding the loss.

I am not entirely certain whether the Minister just announced a change in what the Government are doing, but may I press him on the issue affecting my constituents? The loss of these benefits places a heavy financial strain on parents who are already suffering from overwhelming grief. One of my constituents knows this. I have asked the Minister and his predecessor on several occasions for a meeting to see how to mitigate that. If he has just announced a change, I would be happy if he could explain what has now changed. Will he please meet me to explain what the changes are?

The hon. Lady may not know, but I lost twin boys and fully understand the difficulties her constituent faces in terms of bereavement. It is clearly the case that there are the run-on provisions, but I would happy to sit down with her to explain the run-on provisions and the extent to which there is ongoing support for the bereaved.

Karl MᶜCartney is obviously not here. Can the Secretary of State answer as though he is present?

Cost of Living: People on Low Incomes

20. What steps his Department is taking to support people on low incomes with the cost of living. (902592)

In 2022-23, the Government provided £37 billion in cost of living support. We also uprated benefits, pensions and the benefit cap, as I described in previous answers.

I welcome the steps my right hon. Friend has taken to support Carshalton and Wallington residents. Will he join me in welcoming the work of Wallington Jobcentre Plus in putting on advice events with local charities, especially in St Helier and Roundshaw? Will he commit the Department for Work and Pensions to supporting me when I put on my cost of living advice fair, which I hope to host very soon?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for his question and put on record my support and thanks to Wallington Jobcentre for its extraordinary work, which I know is encouraged by him. I will certainly look at what the Department can do to support his job fair.

I praise the Secretary of State for his work to help those on benefits get the support they need this winter, but does he agree that with inflation running high, a symptom of Putin’s barbaric war in Ukraine, we need to ensure we get support to households on low and middle incomes, too? Will he work with me to ensure we protect constituents such as mine in Hyndburn and Haslingden?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. She is perhaps referring to those who are not necessarily on benefits but are still struggling. I would point to the £400 payment, which has gone out through fuel bills; the increase in the personal allowance over the years, taking many of the lowest paid out of tax; the recent increase in the national living wage to historically high levels; and the energy price guarantee, which has been rolled out to support those struggling with their energy bills.

Given the cost of living crisis, or emergency, we are living in, it is deeply worrying that the Government have still chosen not to uprate local housing allowance, despite there being no change since 2016. Even those on the lowest income will face challenges in relation to being on housing benefit and universal credit. Could the Secretary of State say how much additional resource is being given to local authorities to pay for additional housing costs via the discretionary housing payment? Can he set out the Government’s rationale, because I do not believe he has answered why they are still freezing local housing allowance?

On the discretionary housing payments, I believe the figure is about £1.5 billion over the last few years, but I will get—[Interruption.] There was a recent announcement about further moneys which are included in the figure I have just provided to the hon. Lady. I will look to get a more precise answer, but it is of the order of £1.5 billion.

Research shows that nine in 10 disabled people are worried about their energy bills this winter. People with disabilities have been one of the hardest-hit groups during the cost of living crisis, yet many are being denied crucial support. One of my constituents is a disabled single mother who is currently undergoing chemotherapy. She told me that the mobility element of her personal independence payment has recently been removed and that without it she is really struggling. With many disabled people worrying about rising costs and unable to afford basic essentials, do Ministers really think they have done enough to support them through this cost of living crisis?

I am very sorry to hear the details of the hon. Lady’s constituent; if she writes to me, I will be happy to look into the matters that she raised. More generally, it is only fair to say that the Government have done an extraordinary amount to support those who are disabled, not least into work, beating all the targets that we set to get 1 million more disabled people into employment. As for the cost of living payments, along with various other payments, there was a £150 payment to 6 million disabled people up and down the country.

This Christmas, the £66 energy voucher will be the difference between heating and eating for many of my constituents, but many on prepayment meters are still waiting for their vouchers. Ministers have been warned countless times about the gap in payments, so what are the Government doing to ensure that those on prepayment meters do not miss out?

The vouchers that are administered by the energy companies come under the remit of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, rather than the DWP. None the less, that is a concern right across Government. We have been liaising with BEIS, and I am satisfied that the Secretary of State there is totally aware of the situation and has been in close contact with the companies to see that things improve. My understanding is that very much a minority of the payments are affected, but for everybody who is affected, that is clearly a serious matter.

I am glad that the Secretary of State has expressed concern for my hon. Friends’ constituents. He is keen to explain just how much money the Government are spending, but let us look at what the results of 12 years of Conservative Government mean for the money in people’s pockets, especially those on low incomes. We have double-digit inflation and 2.5 million working-age adults out of work, and more than 2 million emergency food parcels were handed out in this country last year. Could that be the reason that the public in Chester looked at the Government’s record and gave the Tories their worst result in that seat since 1832?

I am rather surprised that the hon. Lady raises unemployment, in particular. Under Labour, we saw unemployment rise by nearly half a million; female unemployment go up by a quarter; youth unemployment rise by 44%; the number of households with no one working in them double; and 1.4 million people spending most of their last decade on out-of-work benefits. That is not a record to be proud of.

A recent report for the Aberlour children’s charity found that the DWP deducts an average of £80 a month from Scottish families on universal credit to cover debts such as advance payments caused by the five-week wait. Does the Secretary of State think that it is acceptable that 56% of our constituents claiming universal credit have been left with such tiny sums of money that they have been forced to go without food or to eat just one meal a day? Will he consider replacing the advance payment loans with a non-repayable grant?

On deductions from universal credit, the hon. Lady will know that, during the pandemic, when things were extremely difficult, we paused that entire process. As a matter of principle, it is important that, when claimants are in debt, arrangements are made such that they can work their way through that and come out of debt. That often means deductions—I say “often” because it does not always mean that, and our debt management team are always very aware of the circumstances of those with whom they are dealing. We also reduced the maximum amount that can be deducted—first, from 40% to 30%, and now to 25%—so I am satisfied that the balance is broadly correct, but wherever there are individual instances where somebody feels that they are not being treated appropriately, they always have recourse to appeal.

Universal Credit Taper Rate

7. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of reducing the universal credit taper rate on the levels of people’s incomes. (902578)

11. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of reducing the universal credit taper rate on the levels of people’s incomes. (902583)

We reduced the earnings taper to 55% last December and we increased the work allowance by £500 a year. As a consequence, 1.7 million households will benefit from these measures, which mean that they keep, on average, around an extra £1,000 a year. That encourages in-work progression as claimants are clearly better off in work.

The claimant rate in Rugby is just 2.8%, and I hear regularly from employers about the workforce challenges that they face. The low rate in Rugby has arisen in part because of the cut to the taper rate that the Minister referred to, which was extremely welcome to working people on universal credit. Will he set out what further steps his Department can take to encourage claimants—those who can—to increase their income by taking on more and better-paid work?

My hon. Friend will be aware that Rugby jobcentre is doing a fantastic job locally; I look forward to visiting in 2023. Since April 2022, we have been rolling out the new in-work progression offer, which will support approximately 2.1 million working universal credit claimants to progress into higher-paid work. They will also be supported by progression champions, of whom we have 37 across the country, including in Mercia.

Universal credit was always intended to ensure that work pays. Reducing the taper rate is a critical part of that, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is not the only critical element? To keep unemployment as low as it is today or lower, things like increasing access to work coaches are equally important.

A huge amount is being done to increase the time that individual claimants spend with work coaches. More intensive support is being provided. The additional earnings threshold, which my hon. Friend will be fully aware of, is also being rolled out across the country to ensure that we see claimants in better-paid jobs on a longer-term basis.

Transfer from Universal Credit into Work: Cost of Childcare

9. What assessment his Department has made of the potential effect of the cost of childcare on incentives for people to transfer from universal credit into work. (902581)

The Government are providing generous, tailored support for parents through universal credit, the free childcare entitlement and skills support to help parents to get into work and to progress. Eligible claimants can receive financial support for up-front childcare costs as well as support for ongoing costs.

Sandra in the Northwich part of my constituency—like many people up and down the United Kingdom, predominantly women—faces a significant barrier as a result of increased childcare costs. The childcare element of universal credit has been frozen since 2016. When does the Minister intend to do the right thing and unfreeze that element of universal credit?

Universal credit-eligible claimants can claim up to 85% of their registered childcare costs each month, regardless of the number of hours they work; I would compare that favourably with 70% in tax credits. What I would say to employers who may be overlooking single parents is that they are not understanding the wide range of childcare challenges. I am a single mum—I get it. Looking at job design and flexibility is equally important.

Cost of Energy: People with Disabilities

10. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the adequacy of levels of benefit payments to support people with disabilities with the cost of energy. (902582)

19. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the adequacy of levels of benefit payments to support people with disabilities with the cost of energy. (902591)

Ministers across Government, of course, discuss policy proposals. The Government are spending £37 billion this year to support people on low incomes and disabled people with rising costs of living and energy prices. On top of that support, which includes cost of living payments, we have committed to a further £26 billion in cost of living support in 2023-24.

Earlier this year, 300,000 disabled people were taken out of eligibility for the warm home discount scheme, causing them huge worry. What does the Minister say to those 300,000 worried disabled people, who lost £150 because of his Government’s decision to remove them from the warm home discount scheme?

I am happy to raise with Ministers across Government the hon. Lady’s point about eligibility for the scheme, but I would make the argument that this Government have put in place a comprehensive package of support that is worth £37 billion this year and £26 billion next year. It is comprehensive support, meeting a number of needs. Of course, there is also discretionary help to meet particular needs where they exist in particular households.

We should not forget that since 2010, £34 billion of social security support has been taken away from working-age people, including disabled people. Back in April, the Equality and Human Rights Commission identified requiring the Department for Work and Pensions to enter into a section 23 agreement as one of its areas of focus. Eight months on, that agreement has still not been presented. At the Work and Pensions Committee last week, I asked the Secretary of State when it would be agreed. I would like some confirmation—here, today—of when exactly that will happen.

The position is exactly as the Secretary of State described it to the Select Committee last week. We, as Ministers, continue to engage constructively on that section 23 issue, and will provide further updates whenever we are able to do so.

Many disabled people are having to make unimaginable sacrifices to keep life-saving equipment running in the face of huge energy bills. For instance, Carolynne Hunter’s 12-year-old daughter Freya requires oxygen for chronic breathing problems, and the bills that she had to pay to keep her daughter alive rose to £17,000. Thankfully, Kate Winslet stepped in and donated the full amount after being “absolutely destroyed” by the family’s story, but disabled people should not have to rely on celebrities to swoop in and save the day. When will the Government finally ensure that all disabled people are receiving the support they so desperately need?

I thank the shadow Minister for raising the issue of Carolynne’s situation. I am, of course, under no illusions about how challenging many people are finding the current circumstances and climate. We are providing the package of support that I have already described—which is the right thing to do—in addition to the discretionary help that is there to address particularly pressing needs in individual cases. As the hon. Lady will know, the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement that as part of ongoing future work we would be considering, for instance, social tariffs, and I also want to look into what more we can do in the longer term to help families deal with continuing significant costs.

State Pension Age: Women Born on or after 6 April 1950

14. If he will take steps to compensate women born on or after 6 April 1950 affected by changes to the state pension age. (902586)

State pension age equalisation and subsequent increases have been the policy of successive Governments. The phasing in of state pension age increases was agreed to by the hon. Lady’s party in 2011 and 2014.

Last July the pensions ombudsman concluded that the Government had been too slow to inform many women that they would be affected by the rising state pension age. Along with the cost of living crisis, this means that many of the WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—are struggling to get by, and it is one of the concerns most frequently raised in my weekly surgeries. I wonder whether the Secretary of State will commit himself to an interim payment for the women affected by the change in pension age while they wait for the release of the ombudsman’s final report.

As the hon. Lady knows, the investigation is ongoing, so it would not be appropriate to take any further steps at this stage.

Benefit Fraud

Dealing with fraud is, of course, a key mission for the Department. We have recently announced two tranches of additional investment totalling £900 million to prevent more than £1 billion-worth of fraud by 2024-25.

At difficult economic times like this it is particularly important for us to protect taxpayers’ money, so I welcome the Government’s further investment to tackle fraud, but what efforts are they making to address organised crime in the benefits system?

My right hon. Friend has raised an extremely important matter. Unfortunately, fraud does not happen just at the level of the individual, but involves organised crime as well. Since July 2019, the Department has secured the removal of 1,500 social media accounts, many of which were related to organised crime, and since May 2020 it has suspended 170,000 claims.

Personal Independence Payments: Processing Times

16. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of processing times for personal independence payments. (902588)

We are committed to ensuring that people can access financial support through PIP in a timely manner. By prioritising new claims, increasing resources and using different assessment channels, we reduced the average new claim process from 26 weeks in August 2021 to 18 weeks in October 2022.

Capacity is key to assessment. What progress is being made to extend the severe conditions criteria in the PIP system, learning the lessons of the changes we have made to the special rules for the terminally ill, which would potentially allow us to remove 300,000 unnecessary assessments from the system, benefiting claimants and the taxpayer?

I am hugely grateful to my hon. Friend, who is of course a distinguished former Minister for disabled people and whose views on these matters I listen to incredibly carefully. We announced in “Shaping future support: the health and disability green paper” that we will test a new severe disability group, so that those with severe and lifelong conditions can benefit from a simplified process to access PIP, employment and support allowance and universal credit without needing to go through a face-to-face assessment or frequent reassessments. We will consider the test results, once they are complete, to influence thinking on the next stages of this work.

Cost of Living: Pensioners

All pensioner households are in the process of receiving an extra £300 to help them cover the rising cost of energy this winter. For those in receipt of pension credit, the second cost of living payment of £324 was issued in November.

Rural pensioners face additional challenges to the cost of living crisis, and I have recently heard from constituents in the villages of Forton and Winmarleigh who are still waiting for information from the Government on the payment of the alternative fuel payment scheme, as they are off grid. Additionally, the removal of the Bay Plus Megarider bus ticket has increased the price of bus tickets, which may not directly affect those pensioners, but where they are supporting adult children and school-age children in their households, it is impacting on their family budgets. What steps are the Government taking to support pensioners who live in rural parts?

I recognise a lot of the challenges that the hon. Lady mentions, and this is why we are giving pensioners £850, and people on pension credit £1,500, to get through this winter.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her position and I would like to thank her for the answer she has just given us. I wish her well in her job. The Government’s £300 boost to the winter fuel payment will give pensioners vital support this winter, and I know it is much appreciated by my constituents. However, will she join me in encouraging pensioners on low incomes to look into whether they are eligible for pension credit and to submit an application for this additional support as soon as possible?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He is, as always, absolutely right. I know that he visited Age UK recently and raised these issues. It is vital that any pensioners receiving less than £182.60 a week look into whether they are eligible for pension credit, and if they are, they should try to claim it before 18 December, because the cost of living payment of £324 can be backdated.

Pensioners who have worked hard and saved all their lives face an unprecedented cost of living crisis. Meanwhile, the Government dithered and delayed, but after considerable pressure from the Opposition side of the House, they eventually agreed to increase the state pension to offer some help with fuel bills. However, these delays have left pensioners angry, confused and, as we heard earlier, frustrated. Can the Minister please tell the House how many pensioners will be left freezing and cold with no heating on this winter?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for highlighting the record rise in state pension brought forward by this Government. We are, as ever, on the side of pensioners as we go through this winter, and I would point out that the state pension has doubled from the level we were left by Labour in 2010.

Helping People into Work

24. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department's policies in helping people into work. (902596)

I have visited around 50 jobcentres, and this is an opportunity for me to thank the many disability employment advisers who do a fantastic job ensuring that we get disabled people into work. That figure is up 2 million since 2013, with nearly 5 million disabled people in work at the moment.

One of the great accomplishments of the Down Syndrome Act 2022, brought in by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), was to affirm the great potential of people with Down’s syndrome if they just have the right support. So can my hon. Friend outline what steps the Department is taking to support those with Down’s syndrome into work, to ensure that everyone who wants to work has the opportunity to do so?

My hon. Friend is right that this is a landmark piece of legislation, and I praise him for raising it today. I pay similar tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox).

A range of Government initiatives are supporting those with Down’s syndrome to start, stay and succeed in work, including through increased work coach support. Disability employment advisers across the country have been tasked with tackling this precise problem, to enable people with Down’s syndrome to progress in work.

Twenty-one per cent. of those aged between 16 and 64 are currently not in work or seeking work, at a time when the British Chambers of Commerce estimates there are 1.2 million unfilled jobs in the economy. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that those who are not in full-time education, and who might be a bit shy about coming back into the workplace, take steps to do so?

There is far too much for me to outline at the Dispatch Box, but I will write to my hon. Friend. I will also visit him in Orpington to set out in more detail the various things we are doing to tackle the vacancy list on many levels. He will be aware that the labour market has recovered strongly since 2020, with payroll employment up on pre-pandemic levels, but we accept there is more to do.

Topical Questions

Since my last appearance at Question Time, there has been the benefits uprating we have been discussing this afternoon. I am very pleased to have had a 10.1% increase across the board, including for pensions as we stood by the triple lock.

I also had the great pleasure of appearing before the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which was particularly looking at the issue of economic inactivity. I urge all Members to read the transcript of those exchanges. I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) for giving me almost two and a half hours of the Committee’s attention.

I was kindly asked in April to open the new jobcentre in Kings Norton, which has since enabled 973 people to get back into work. Will the Secretary of State set out how we can help jobcentres such as those in Kings Norton and Longbridge in my constituency do even more to get even more people into work? Will he visit Kings Norton so we can both thank the jobcentre’s fantastic teams that have got so many people back into work?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The talented and hard-working people at Kings Norton jobcentre do an extraordinary job, and I know he has personally done a great deal to encourage them. This is why overall unemployment is as low as it is. I will certainly consider his request for a ministerial visit.

The Secretary of State will know that employment is lower than before the pandemic, that 2.5 million people are out of work for reasons of sickness—a record high—and that half a million young people are not in education, employment or training. There is a £1 billion underspend on Restart and other schemes, so why not use that money to help the economically inactive get back to work?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we look at our budgets on an ongoing basis. Where we have an underspend, such as on the Restart scheme, it is largely because the Government have been so successful in lowering the level of unemployment. Compared with 2010, youth unemployment is down by almost 60%. It is 29,000 down on the last quarter, and 77,000 down on the year.

The Secretary of State will have seen the Office for Budget Responsibility’s projection that we are likely to spend more than £8 billion extra on health and disability benefits. We are getting sicker as a society, yet only one in 10 unemployed disabled people or older people are getting any employment support. Does he think that is acceptable? How will he fix it?

On assisting the disabled into employment, this Government have an excellent record through Disability Confident. Our work coaches do a huge amount of work to ensure that those with disabilities are in work. The right hon. Gentleman will know the Department is currently undertaking a large amount of work on economic inactivity. I heard his recent comments, which were very interesting, and my door is always open to conversations about working together.

T2. Research by Macmillan shows that 83% of people with a cancer diagnosis experience a financial impact from that, with the average figure being £891 a month on top of their usual expenditure, which sometimes means they cannot afford to get to their medical appointments. What more can be done to ensure that those with a cancer diagnosis get rapid access to everything to which they are entitled? (902598)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point. The experience he describes illustrates the troubling and worrying times for families when a diagnosis of cancer comes through. We are committed to ensuring that people can access financial support, through the personal independence payment and other benefits for which they are eligible, in a timely manner. We are seeing a gradual improvement on PIP claims, with the latest statistics showing that the average end-to-end journey has steadily reduced from 26 weeks in August 2021 to 18 weeks at the end of July 2022. However, I am not complacent on this; digitisation clearly plays an important part and we are going to go further.

Recent figures from the Department for Work and Pensions, acquired from an answer to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), show that the Department took £2.3 million from claimants in Scotland, at an average of £250 per sanctioned household. Sanctions against young people in Scotland have almost doubled since 2019, undermining the significant investment the Scottish Government are making in tackling child poverty. Does the Secretary of State stand by the practice of sanctioning the most vulnerable and leaving them hungry?

As we focused on in our earlier exchange, the most important thing is that there is a proportionate response to those who are in debt, for whatever reason. It is appropriate that we help people out of debt, and reductions—or deductions—are part of that process. As I explained to the hon. Lady, the maximum that can be taken from the universal credit standard payment is now 25%—it used to be 40%. We are very careful to assess every case on its individual merits, to take into account the circumstances of those impacted.

T3.   One of my constituents has motor neurone disease. She became disabled after she reached pensionable age and the only support she can now claim is attendance allowance, which, as we know, has no additional mobility element of payment. Others who have the same condition but are under pensionable age can claim and receive the mobility addition. Does my right hon. Friend agree that people on benefits who end up with these health issues should be able to claim for their disability based on a disability and not their age? (902599)

Nearly 1.5 million pensioners are receiving attendance allowance, at a cost of about £5.5 billion this year. It is normal for social security schemes to contain different provisions for people at different stages of their lives, which reflect varying priorities and circumstances. People who become disabled or develop mobility needs after reaching state pension age will have had no disadvantage on grounds of their disability during their working lives. I understand that that position is long standing, having been in place since the 1970s, under successive Governments.

T5.   Unemployment in my constituency is still significantly higher than it was before the pandemic and it is twice the national average. Ministers keep saying that times are tough and that we need to make difficult decisions. Will the Minister commit to raising payments in line with inflation to prevent misery for thousands in Ealing, Southall? Will he work with his colleagues to help the economy, not hinder it? (902602)

I am slightly puzzled by the hon. Gentleman’s question. Clearly, we did raise a significant proportion of benefits in line with inflation at the autumn statement. He will also be aware of the taper that was reduced to 55%, and the work on increased work allowances, additional earnings thresholds and the in-work progression—I could go on. All of those things are designed to assist and progress people in work.

T4. My right hon. Friend will be aware that my private Member’s Bill on supported housing exempt accommodation is making its way through Parliament. He will also have seen the Inside Housing exposé that demonstrates that more than £1 billion is going out in housing benefit to providers. Many of them are providing an important service for vulnerable people, but a large number of rogue landlords are ripping off the system. Will he undertake a review to make sure that people who are claiming this benefit are properly assessed and provided with the support they need? (902600)

I recognise the extraordinary work that my hon. Friend has done over many years to campaign for those in social housing, private housing and also, indeed, those who are homeless. I fully support his Bill. It is absolutely right that we clamp down on these rogue landlords. I think I recall him saying in this House how he had examples of those who were supposed to be supporting people living in their accommodation simply knocking on the door, calling up the stairs to say, “Are you alright?” and then leaving. That is completely and utterly unacceptable. I look forward to the progress of his Bill.

T7. My constituent, Mr Hudson, has raised with me that the DWP has not been paying any of his national insurance contributions for his state pension for the past three-and-a-half years, and that the Department has been unable to advise him on when he will receive the update to his records, because he is in receipt of class 3 benefit contributions. Will the Secretary of State or his Ministers explain when this will be undertaken, so that my constituent can get the much-needed contributions re-established, enabling him to claim his state pension when the time comes? (902604)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising Mr Hudson’s situation. If he would care to write to me, or have Mr Hudson write to me, I will be very happy to make sure that it is thoroughly looked into.

Can my right hon. Friend give the House an update on the new disability action plan that the Government are preparing at the moment?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for asking about that. It is right that we work across Government to identify priority areas where we can deliver meaningful change and progress for disabled people to improve their lives. That is what that action plan will do. We will be drawing up ideas, consulting on them, and then getting on delivering them. I look forward to hearing his views as we take that work forward.

T8. My constituent, Brandon, was medically discharged from the armed forces in 2020 after serving six years. He sustained a number of physical injuries and mental health consequences, but the DWP is failing to adhere to the armed forces covenant and to recognise the Ministry of Defence’s medical assessment for universal credit purposes, or to recognise the assessment of Combat Stress for personal independence payment purposes. Will the Minister consider his case and take the appropriate action to address those deficits? (902605)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter and it is a concern. There are 11 armed forces leaders and 50 champions across the DWP. I would be very happy to look at this particular case, if he were able to raise it directly with me.

We were grateful for the answers that the Secretary of State gave at the Work and Pensions Committee meeting last week, and we are looking forward to him returning on 11 January. He has been pressed this afternoon, repeatedly and rightly, about local housing allowance, and I have heard his answers to those questions. Next year will be the fourth year that the local housing allowance has been frozen at its current level, during a period when rents have risen sharply. Does he recognise that the case for rebasing local housing allowance, so that it reflects actual local rents, is becoming a very pressing one?

Once again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to appear before his Committee last week. He raises again the LHA. In 2020, it was, of course, raised to be in line with the local 30th percentile of rents at a cost of approaching £1 billion. He is absolutely right that, clearly, the higher the rate of inflation, and house rental inflation in particular, the more pressure that is put on that particular allowance. All I can undertake to do is to look at this matter very closely the next time I review these particular benefits, which will be in about a year’s time.

I raised 11-year-old Harry Sanders’s disability living allowance appeal at the last DWP questions, but despite a letter from the Minister, for which I am grateful, his parents are still waiting for a tribunal date. Will the Minister look again at Harry’s case, understand why the long wait is causing such anxiety and work with me to resolve this matter as soon as possible?

Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue so constructively. He is right to say that I responded to his earlier question in a letter last week. This matter is sitting with the HM Courts and Tribunals Service, which of course relates to the work of the Ministry of Justice and is independent as part of the judiciary. I will take his point away and flag it with Justice Ministers so that they can see whether there is anything that they can do to raise it.

The Secretary of State mentioned the reduction to 25% of the deductions to universal credit to claw back overpayments or advances, but deducting 25% of money that barely covers the essentials is far too much. A report by Lloyds Bank Foundation says that even at 25% the deductions are pushing people into other debt and leaving them without enough to live on. The Secretary of State will also know that the Work and Pensions Committee has recommended pausing debt recovery during the cost of living crisis. Will the Secretary of State now pause that debt collection and, when it resumes, resume it at a lower level?

The hon. Lady will know that the level of 25% she refers to has been decreasing through time; it was 40% not that long ago, then 30% and now it is 25%. It was paused altogether during the pandemic, and the experience then was that debt started to increase among claimants, in many cases in a way that was not helpful to the claimant. It is an important principle that, where people are in debt, we work with them to make sure we get them out of debt through time, but I accept that we need to do that with great care, hence the various elements of the process that I described earlier.

What measures are the Government taking to speed up repayments to the 200,000 pensioners who have yet to be compensated for the historical underpayments in the state pension?

We have hired more than 1,000 people to look at that. It was a mistake and we are working as hard as we can to rectify it as quickly as possible.

A number of constituents have written to me about the build-up of childcare vouchers that they were not able to use over the pandemic. It has been suggested to me that we could reduce restrictions on getting a refund and allow parents to take advantage of that during the cost of living crisis. Is there something the Minister can suggest we should do about that?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue. This is the first I have heard of it and I would be keen to meet him and hear more about it.

Many Barnsley pensioners would be better off if they were on pension credit. Why will the Government not automatically enrol all pensioners on pension credit to help to lift them out of poverty?

Pension credit is a complicated system that also involves people’s savings, so it is not possible with the information the Government have to award it automatically. That said, we are looking at what we can do, working with local authorities and others, to try to speed up delivery of the payments.

Order. As there are no more questions, we are going to have to suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

Online Safety Bill (Programme (No. 3))


That the Order of 12 July 2022 (Online Safety Bill: Programme (No.2)) be varied as follows:

(1) In paragraph (2), the words “and Third Reading” shall be omitted.

(2) In paragraph (3), in the second column of the Table, for “6.00pm” substitute “9.00pm”.

(3) Paragraph (4) of the Order shall be omitted.

(4) No order shall be made for Third Reading of the Bill until the motion in the name of Secretary Michelle Donelan relating to Online Safety Bill: Programme (No.4) has been disposed of.—(Jo Churchill.)