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Economic Inactivity: Working-age People

Volume 729: debated on Monday 6 March 2023

The Prime Minister has asked me to review the matter of economic inactivity, and the results of that review will be shared with the House shortly.

One of the keys to getting working-age people to return to work is obviously providing the right incentives, such as the training programmes and advice provided by my right hon. Friend’s Department—the likes of Jobcentre Plus—but it is also important to remove disincentives. What discussions is he having with Treasury colleagues about ensuring that tax policy, especially on pensions, does not stand in the way of people who have skills and experience staying in, or returning to, the workplace?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important matter, which of course is well known to the Chancellor and Treasury colleagues. We have a variety of discussions with the Treasury on those kinds of matters and others. Of course, tax policy is a matter for the Treasury.

I commend my right hon. Friend for the work that the Department is doing to try to reduce economic inactivity. He will know that many of the over-50s moving out of employment and into economic inactivity are concentrated in the self-employed and part-time workforces. Can he confirm that his review will look at measures to bring those people back into the workforce?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are most certainly looking carefully at that particular cohort of people who have prematurely retired—if I may use that term—and are over the age of 50. It is one of the biggest cohorts that we are trying to encourage back into the workforce, and I will have more to say on that matter in due course.

The pandemic made a revolutionary change to the way we work. I know the Secretary of State has heard me mention Work Hull: Work Happy before, but research published today by the Phoenix Group on economic inactivity in the over-50s states that

“flexible work…support with new technologies…and the opportunity to work from home”

are favoured support strands for people returning to work. Will the Secretary of State therefore back Labour’s plan to make flexible working a force for good for all workers?

I very much welcome the hon. Lady’s question—I certainly enjoyed my time working with her on the Treasury Committee, where she raised these matters with great passion. She is absolutely right that flexible working is the way forward, and not just for the over-50s but often for those who have disabilities. This is a big opportunity that we need to seize.

I understand that the latest figures reveal that there are 788,000 young people not in employment, education or training. Does the Secretary of State regard that as an acceptable figure, and if not, how and when is he going to tackle it?

Even one person in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman refers to is one too many. We are going to come forward very shortly with further measures on how we address those particular people, and at the time of the Budget on 15 March—which is very close now—the hon. Gentleman will probably learn more.

I understand that Ministers are struggling to convince the Office for Budget Responsibility that their inactivity plan will get half a million people back to work. One way in which the Secretary of State could hit his target is by encouraging more parents to move into work. Of course, many women, in particular, are blocked from returning to work because of childcare costs. Given that we should be doing more to help parents move into work, why has he now frozen the childcare cost cap in universal credit for the seventh year in a row?

As to whether the OBR is or is not scoring the various measures that are being presented to it by the Treasury, I am intrigued as to how the right hon. Gentleman seems to know that it is having problems. The OBR operates under conditions of utter confidentiality in these matters, and I would not doubt that that is the way it has proceeded this time around. As for childcare, he is absolutely right. He will have to be a little patient—I know that he sometimes struggles to be patient—and we will then come forward with measures, and no doubt we will have something to say about the matter he has raised.

I know that because the Secretary of State’s Government sources briefed The Sunday Times yesterday on that particular point, but I will wait and see. I will wait for the OBR report next week, and we will see what target for inactivity the Government publish and what the OBR endorses. He will know that many working parents would return to work if they could afford childcare, but many are expected to find hundreds of pounds—sometimes £1,000—to pay for childcare up front. Who has £1,000 down the back of a sofa? Will he make universal credit work by introducing more flexibility in how it operates, or is he prepared to punish hard-working parents by pushing them into more debt?

I am afraid that I am just going to have to repeat what I have said, which is that the right hon. Gentleman will have to be patient. I am confident that we will have some things to say about the matters he has raised, but he will just have to wait another couple of weeks before he learns what we are doing.

Post pandemic, and under this uncaring Conservative Government, we have seen sanctions skyrocket, pushing many people into destitution. Can the Secretary of State come to the Dispatch Box and outline how plunging people into poverty helps deal with economic inactivity? Is it not the case that the only activity it stimulates is at local food banks?

I am surprised, in a way, that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of poverty, because what we have seen, certainly since 2010 and under this Government, has been absolute levels of poverty declining and fewer children growing up in workless homes, for example, in distinct contrast to Governments prior to my party coming into office.