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Topical Questions

Volume 724: debated on Monday 5 December 2022

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.)