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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 729: debated on Monday 6 March 2023

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pension Credit

1. What steps his Department is taking to increase the number of eligible people claiming pension credit. (903868)

My Department has carried out a comprehensive campaign of communication since April 2022 to promote pension credit. I am pleased to inform the House that the average number of pension credit applications is up 73% compared with this time last year.

I strongly backed my right hon. Friend’s campaign in December last year, particularly in my Clwyd South constituency. Will he give us a further assessment of how effective that campaign has been in Wales and across the rest of the UK?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he has been doing in his constituency on this matter. I can inform him that for the week commencing 12 December, for example, there were 7,200 claims, which is a 177% increase compared with this time last year.

This is not party political; we all want to make sure that pensioners in need get the help and support that they can get. The Secretary of State will understand, though, that in communities such as mine there are still too many pensioners eligible for pension credit who are not yet accessing it. Given the success of his campaign so far, what further will he do to ensure that the really hard-to-reach pensioners get the support that they deserve and need?

I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question and the non-partisan way in which he presented it. He is absolutely right; there must be no let-up in this matter. Two thirds of those we believe are eligible for pension credit receive it, but that means that one third do not. We cannot identify them precisely in advance, which is why communication is so important. We will write to 11,000 pensioners soon to tell them about the uprating and to stress the point about pension credit. From today, we are launching television advertisements to further that message.

The Government seem to be trying to pat themselves on the back after years of failure on pension credit. As we just heard, hundreds of thousands of pensioners are still missing out on a vital top-up benefit that is needed to get them through the cost of living crisis. Why has the Government’s response been so ineffective, and what on earth will the Government do about their dismal failure to help pensioners during their hour of need?

I am very surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman pose that question, first, because of his party’s record on this matter when they were in government; and secondly, because of the clear progress that I have outlined to the House today and on previous occasions about the increase in take-up that the Government are securing.

Pensioner Poverty: State Pension Age

2. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of increasing the state pension age on trends in the level of pensioner poverty. (903869)

My review of the state pension age is under way. The review will consider a wide range of evidence, including two independent reports, to assess whether the rules on pensionable age remain appropriate.

I hope that the evidence that the Secretary of State examines includes analysis by Age UK that 1.5 million pre-state pension age households have no savings at all. Age UK warns that accelerating the rise of the state pension age

“will condemn millions to a miserable and impoverished run up to retirement”.

Instead of risking that increase in pensioner poverty, should he not establish an independent pensions and savings commission to ensure that pension policies are fit for purpose and reflect the demographic needs of different parts of the United Kingdom?

The two reports to which I have just referred are independent—from the Government Actuary’s Department, on matters such as life expectancy; and from Baroness Neville-Rolfe, on the metrics that should be taken into account in determining when the next increase in the state pension age should occur. We certainly take into account issues such as pensioner poverty, on which we have an excellent record. In fact, relative pensioner poverty before housing has halved since 1999, and there are 400,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty—that is before or after housing—compared with 2009-10.

I have great respect for my right hon. Friend, but I am afraid that although he tempts me to answer that question, I cannot prejudge the decisions that I will take in the review.

Economic Inactivity: Working-age People

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.

Economic Inactivity: Towns and Cities

The Office for National Statistics regularly publishes statistics relating to estimates of local inactivity. I have been leading work across Government with a further piece on participation, and the Chancellor and I will shortly be setting out more details of our plans.

Some 2.5 million people are economically inactive as a result of long-term illness, and half a million have left the labour market due to ill health since 2019. Does the Secretary of State accept that tackling health inequalities and improving health outcomes in deprived communities such as Birkenhead is essential to achieving equitable economic growth? Can he inform the House what conversations he has had with colleagues across the Cabinet about the need for a holistic economic strategy that recognises that health and wealth are inextricably linked?

It is important that we take into account the issues of poverty and regional variations to which the hon. Gentleman refers. They lie right at the heart of all the decisions we have taken. We have come forward in recent times with significant cost of living support measures. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies) will be taking through the remaining stages of the Social Security (Additional Payments) (No. 2) Bill this very afternoon to address the people to whom the hon. Gentleman refers.

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend saw my article in The Times a few weeks ago, but it discussed opportunities for towns, such as Mansfield, that have specific local requirements when it comes to tackling economic inactivity, the opportunities of building bespoke local schemes with local employers and training providers, and the opportunities from those relationships on a local level as part of a wider strategy within the region. What is his stance on devolving decision-making powers in this space down to local areas?

My hon. Friend raises a significant and important point. There are areas, particularly around the Work and Health programme, where we have done exactly that. We are engaged in discussions, contingent upon or subsequent to the White Paper that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities published on levelling up, and in particular with areas such as the west midlands and Greater Manchester, to make sure that we leverage the knowledge, know-how, expertise and all the resources they have at the local level to continue to bring people back into work.

It is always a joy at Question Time to hear Labour MPs supporting Labour policy, but even more so to hear Conservative MPs supporting Labour’s policy of localising our efforts to get people back to work. On that, may I ask the Secretary of State something? I have been listening to what he has said, and I know that he will not pre-empt the details of the inactivity review, but can he just confirm that one of its objectives will be to rebalance our economy, particularly in this connection between health and labour supply?

That is at the heart of our manifesto, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] Sorry, Mr Speaker! Where did I get that from? It is a sign of the times. Right at the heart of our manifesto, and of the Government’s raison d’être, is the need to make sure that we level up communities across the United Kingdom. Of course, our action will take many forms, but one of them is most certainly the support that we will provide to make sure that, up and down the country, there is equality among those seeking work, and those who are economically inactive, and that they have the same opportunities.

Support into Employment: Over-50s

The Government are already providing £20 million for an enhanced offer to help older workers remain in, or return to, work. That includes provision for 37 full-time 50-plus champions, who deliver the midlife MOT, and for older workers jobs fairs. That includes the three 50-plus fairs held in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) in the last few months.

The over-50s are a massive resource for our workforce, so could the Minister please outline how we might incentivise back into work those who retired during the pandemic, and those aged over 50 who have left the uniformed services and are seeking a second career?

My hon. and gallant Friend served with dedication in the armed forces before becoming Bracknell’s champion. He will be aware that our armed forces champions go to great lengths to assist ex-servicemen and women in finding second careers after their service keeping us safe. He will also be aware that the Chancellor may have more to say on the issue next week, on the 15th.

The Minister speaks about the ambitions for encouraging the over-50s to remain in the workforce. Will the Minister tear up his prepared answer, and tell the employees at the Department for Work and Pensions Clydebank office—mostly working-class women over the age of 50—how he squares that with his Government’s rank hypocrisy, which has left them struggling for work during a cost of living crisis?

There are now 10.7 million 50-plus workers—a figure that has gone up by 2 million in the last 10 years. Local DWP jobcentres are constantly engaging with employers to showcase the benefits of hiring older workers. I urge the hon. Gentleman to go to Halfords in St James retail park in Dumbarton in his constituency, because Halfords is one of the employers employing over 100 new over-50s apprentices on an ongoing basis. The hon. Gentleman should visit and learn something.

As you know, Mr Speaker, because of my youth, I do not have to declare an interest. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that, on the whole, older people tend to be more punctual, dedicated and reliable, and able to spell? What is he doing to tell employers that those factors are the reason why they need to employ older people?

Of course my hon. Friend, who I am sure is under the age of 50, does not need to declare an interest in the Government’s desire to ensure that we have more over-50s in employment. He will be aware, however, that in the past few months there have been four jobs fairs across Staffordshire and Derbyshire open to those from Lichfield who are 50-plus, and planning is under way for another event that will take place shortly.

May I add my voice to the calls for us to use the talents of people who are over 50? I am approaching that stage myself. Some of the best years of my life were after 50, in terms of the number of jobs that I was able to do, and the new schemes and social enterprises that I was involved with. I know many people who are waiting for that second chance to contribute to our economy, and to social enterprises, if the Minister will give them the right incentive.

The hon. Gentleman is right. I agree with him; there is life in the old dog yet, as they say. It is important that we continue to make the case that employment for the over-50s should be supported by all employers.

Single-parent employment levels

6. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the fall in the level of single-parent employment between 2019 and 2022. (903873)

15. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the fall in the level of single-parent employment between 2019 and 2022. (903882)

We are committed to helping parents to increase their income through work. We have cut the earnings taper on universal credit and increased work allowances, meaning that families are, on average, better off by £1,000 a year. Additionally, eligible parents can claim up to 85% of their childcare costs through UC, and further assistance is available through the flexible support fund, Jobcentre Plus and work coaches.

On Friday, I visited my local citizens advice bureau at its new offices on George Street in Lancaster, where I heard at first hand of the challenges that single parents are having with the amount of the childcare element of universal credit being capped at the level set in 2005 and with its being paid in arrears. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that benefits go up in line with the cost of childcare and to look at paying this element up front?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. The UC childcare element can be used to top up a claimant’s eligible free childcare hours if more hours are worked and more childcare is required. We also use the flexible support fund to support those up-front costs, as we heard earlier. However, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about employers; this is not solely about what the Government can do on our own to help lone parents. Job design, the opportunity to progress and flexible work are really important too, as is the opportunity to return and progress. We cannot do this on our own.

It is alarming that last year the employment rate for single parents had the biggest annual fall on record, and it is all the more worrying because the single parent employment rate has been on an upward long-term trend since the mid-1990s. Surely the Minister would agree that the eligible cost limit on childcare in universal credit needs to be uprated to reflect the ground reality of today’s soaring childcare costs.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Under this Government since 2010, we have seen a significant increase in lone parents in work, with the rate going up from 56.1% in 2010 to 65.5% in 2022. However, the reality—and I think he describes it—is that there are too many challenges for lone parents, and it is absolutely right that we look at this. As we have heard from the Secretary of State, we are hoping to hear more: the Chancellor is ever present in our minds. As a lone parent, I again make the plea to employers to help people come back to work, because we know it is more than just a pay packet; it is really important to see the whole of society represented in the labour market.

Figures published today by the Centre for Progressive Policy show that the lack of affordable childcare prevented a quarter of parents of children under 10 from working more hours, with all the implications that has for family finances, but also for economic productivity. In fact, parental underemployment is estimated to cost this country over £20 billion. With expectations having been raised again this afternoon that next week’s Budget will do something about the cost of childcare, can the Minister tell us how long it will be before she expects the level of lone parent employment to rise again to where it was three years ago?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I think we have some amazing childcare out there and some brilliant opportunities for lone parents, as I have described. It is important to let people know that, on universal credit, they can claim back 85%. It is better than legacy benefits, and they should please look at the benefits calculator on gov.uk and use the flexible support fund. We should also recognise that it is not right for everybody to go straight back to work—this needs to be individualised—and that we should support the lone parent and make sure they can get the skills and the opportunity to always be better off in work.

Cost of Living: Pensioner Support

The Government are committed to helping pensioners with the increased costs of living. From April, pensioners will receive the largest ever cash increase in the state pension, and pension credit will also be uprated by 10.1%.

I strongly welcome the additional support His Majesty’s Government are providing to all households across the country, especially pensioners, with the costs of living. In contrast, many pensioners in Bexley are facing additional concerns because of Labour’s outrageous ultra low emission zone tax raid on drivers in Greater London. Will my hon. Friend outline what further support is available to pensioners through the likes of pension credit and join me in Bexley to promote it so that more people sign up for this support?

The ULEZ is an outrageous attack on pensioners who can least afford it, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the amazing work he is doing to fight it and to help all pensioners in his constituency. I would be delighted to visit him and see that work for myself.

I thank the Minister for her answer. With 26,500 pensioners in the borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme, the 10.1% increase in the state pension and pension credit will be very welcome, but what other schemes are the Government putting in place to help people with the cost of living at this time?

Pensioners will receive a further £300 cost of living payment this winter and all on pension credit will receive a further £900.

The pensions dashboard will provide important support. It was due to be rolled out from August, but last week the Minister, very disappointingly, announced a delay and we do not now know when it will be implemented. Is it a delay of weeks or months, or even longer? Will the Minister give us a full, urgent update before the Easter recess?

Since 2015, more than 219,000 1950s-born WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—have passed away. What more are Ministers doing to ensure that WASPI women get the pensions they deserve?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the new state pension is very beneficial for women. We know that under automatic enrolment, more women than ever have got a private pension. On the specific matter he asked about, he will know that there is ongoing work by the ombudsman, and I cannot comment until that is completed.

Benefit Fraud

We take all fraud very seriously and have a range of measures in place, supported by two tranches of additional investment totalling around £900 million, which will prevent a further £2.4 billion of loss by 2024-25. In May last year, we published “Fighting Fraud in the Welfare System”, which details our proposals for reducing fraud and error, including legislative change and closer working across Government.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but I have had numerous reports from constituents of alleged incidents of benefit fraud and what they perceive as a lack of action when they report them to the Department, so will the Minister inform the House by how many his Department plans to increase staff in the counter-fraud teams?

I am very appreciative of my hon. Friend raising this point. It is fair to say that we are coming after those who commit benefit fraud: it is unfair on the taxpayer, it is wrong, and that message must go out in the strongest terms. That is being backed up by action, as we set out in the plan. For example, over the next five years, we will see 2,000 specialists dedicated to getting across 2 million universal credit cases. That is an important contribution to make sure that we bring this money back into the Department where it rightly belongs.

No, but you did stand at the beginning. In that case, I call somebody who is always going to stand: Jim Shannon.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is very important that all benefit fraud is taken on board, but many times in my constituency over the past few years, people have inadvertently filled in forms incorrectly and have found themselves having to pay money back. May I ask that compassion be shown to those who have inadvertently done wrong but realised they have to pay back, to ensure that they can pay back at a level they can afford?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this point, and it is important to note that we work on a case-by-case basis. Of course, where there are instances of error of that kind, we work on an individual basis to work out a repayment plan that is appropriate for those individuals, taking into account any financial vulnerabilities or challenges they might face.

Cost of Living: Support for Vulnerable Households

9. What steps his Department is taking to support the most vulnerable households with increases in costs. (903876)

The Government recognise the pressures people are facing and have acted, providing cost of living support worth over £37 billion in 2022-23. In April, we are going further by uprating benefits, state pensions and the benefit cap by 10.1%. We are also providing £1 billion for the extension of the household support fund in England, with Barnett consequentials for the devolved Administrations. That includes £12.4 million for Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council residents from October 2021 to March next year.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that her Department has changed the way it makes cost of living payments, so that those in the most need continue to benefit, while ensuring that we do not overburden the hard-working majority of my constituents in Rother Valley with ever higher taxes?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. We are legislating this afternoon for the three further cost of living payments for the next financial year, ensuring that more people are eligible for support and that we are reaching the most vulnerable. The payments will be worth up to £900, with a further £300 for pensioners and £150 for those with a disability. In Rother Valley, we estimate that 10,600 households will be eligible for means-tested cost of living payments, and that 11,800 households will be eligible for disability cost of living support.

It has been nearly 12 months since the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued a section 23 notice against the Department for Work and Pensions, following concerns about the deaths of and discrimination against disabled claimants. Has an agreement yet been reached, and, if not, when will it be?

I thank the hon. Lady for her point. I am assured by the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work that constructive conversations are ongoing and that this matter is being taken seriously. I am sure that he will have the hon. Lady’s question.

Cost of Living: Support for Disabled People

Six million people receiving an eligible disability benefit received a £150 disability cost of living payment last year, and they will receive a further £150 payment this year. Those on a qualifying means-tested benefit will also receive up to £900 in cost of living payments.

People in Bosworth will be grateful for the disability support they have, but a key challenge that I saw as a GP was getting people who are disabled back into work. We know that work is good for their welfare and their wallet, so what more can we do to create a conducive environment, from diagnosis all the way through, for those suffering from a disability to get back into the workplace?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We are committed to supporting people into work and, importantly, to retain roles once they have them. We recognise, working across Government, that for many disabled people work is a determinant of better health outcomes. No doubt we will continue to take on board feedback about what more we might do in that space, and I would be delighted to have a conversation with my hon. Friend, based on his experiences, about the support we already provide and where we might go from here.

On benefits, I am delighted to hear that some things are being done, but, from a Scottish perspective, I really do not think that it is enough. 38 Degrees has done polling across all our constituencies, and 70% of respondents in Stirling agreed that this UK Government

“do not understand the impact the cost of living crisis is having on people”.

Do Ministers accept that vote of no confidence?

Certainly not, and I am delighted that I actually have a far more constructive working relationship with the Scottish Minister responsible for these issues than the question from the hon. Member suggests.

Many families with disabled children are struggling with energy costs right now. The £150 for those receiving personal independence payment is clearly welcome, but if someone is dependent on a machine, such as a powered wheelchair, a ventilator, an oxygen concentrator or a ceiling hoist, the cost is more like £150 a month, not £150 a year. What more can the Department, and the Government more widely, do to ensure that those families do not turn their machines off and put their children’s health at risk?

It is fair to say that none of us would want to see people putting their health, or their relatives’ health, at risk. We of course have a comprehensive package of support in place, as my hon. Friend is aware. There is also discretionary support provided through the household support fund and administered by local authorities, as well as the energy support that Ministers elsewhere in Government are leading on. However, I am very mindful of the need to future-proof people against those costs, and that is work that I am currently looking at.

This might help the Minister, who is very aware that disabled people are more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people and are particularly vulnerable to the cost of living, as has been demonstrated by colleagues. Legacy benefit claimants, many of whom are long-term sick or disabled, have been unjustly denied the additional uplift that universal credit claimants got during the pandemic. Will the Minister commit to remedying that injustice by reintroducing the universal uplift, increasing it to £25 a week and giving it to all legacy benefit claimants?

I thank the hon. Lady for her suggestion of new policy. As a Government Minister, I am not in a position to create new policy on the hoof. What I would say, however, is that there are significant cost of living support measures in place, and individuals will be able to access the support that is appropriate for them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and I have asked numerous written questions about the shocking 461% increase in the number of personal independence payment claims disallowed for the non-return of the AR1 review form between 2017 and 2021. The Minister, sadly, has no idea why the increase has happened, or by extension whether vulnerable people are being left struggling to manage, as the Department does not collect information on the reasons for the non-return of the AR1 form. So I ask the Minister again today: when will he take action to investigate this issue?

There may be many and varied reasons why individuals choose not to return the forms. [Interruption.] If the hon. Lady will allow me to answer the question, that would really benefit the House. The bottom line here is that there may be many and varied reasons why people do not return the forms, including their circumstances changing materially, but I am very happy to take the point away and look at it further.

Pensioner Cost of Living Payment

13. How many people have received the pensioner cost of living payment in (a) Kettering constituency, (b) north Northamptonshire and (c) England. (903880)

In 2021-22, almost 18,000 pensioners in Kettering, over 60,000 pensioners in north Northamptonshire and more than 9 million pensioners in England received a winter fuel payment. We estimate that similar numbers will have received the £300 pensioner cost of living payment in 2022-23.

Will those 18,000 pensioners in receipt of the pensioner cost of living payment also receive additional support, such as the £400 energy bill discount, the £150 council tax rebate, the £150 disability cost of living payment and the £150 warm home discount? Will they also benefit from the energy price guarantee, saving a typical household £900 a year?

Unemployment Levels: Towns and Cities

The January Office for National Statistics labour market statistics publication shows that payroll employment reached a new record high of 30 million in January 2023. That is, of course, higher than at any stage under the last, or any, Labour Government.

We hear of a record number of vacancies, yet so many who are looking to get into work are out of work. In Blackburn, the claimant count among 18 to 24-year-olds is at 7.9%, against a national rate of 4.6%. What is the Minister doing to bring down barriers to work such as unaffordable childcare, transport, a failed apprenticeship scheme and a levelling-up agenda that is just not meeting the skills agenda?

The hon. Lady should be aware that last Tuesday there was a jobs fair in her constituency. There were 59 exhibitors, and 900 customers attended the event. They provided fantastic feedback on the support and interventions given. If she did not attend that particular jobs fair, she might want to go to “March into manufacturing” on 21 March, an upcoming jobs fair in her patch.

We started the sitting with a non-party political point, so may I continue in that mode? I absolutely agree that those on the Opposition Benches want to reduce the level of unemployment. Unfortunately, their policies do not follow. Does the Minister agree that every single Labour Government have left unemployment higher than when they came to office?

Industrial Relations: Department for Work and Pensions

Constructive discussions take place with the Public and Commercial Services Union, FDA and Prospect unions on a range of topics, as is set out in our employee relations handbook. The PCS and Prospect unions are in dispute with the Department for Work and Pensions, along with a number of other Departments, about various issues. As ever, we will remain positively engaged.

Is the Secretary of State aware that more than a quarter of DWP staff are paid so little that the national living wage floor increase this April will lift their salaries? Is he aware that thousands of civil servants forced to take strike action are going without food and having to use foodbanks? Will he commit to constructive talks with the PCS union to resolve the dispute, to put a real pay rise on the table and to make ending the scourge of low pay in his Department a priority?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We will continue to have constructive and positive discussions with the PCS and other unions. She raised the national living wage; she will know that it is to rise by 9.7% this April, to its highest level on record.

Topical Questions

The Department’s major focus is looking after the vulnerable and those most in need. I am therefore delighted that next month, the basic state pension will increase by 10.1%, as will most benefits. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), will be taking legislation through the House this afternoon to ensure that we continue substantial cost of living payments for the year ahead.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcements. The extra £842 million for the household support fund, of which Harrow will receive £3 million, is extremely welcome. Could he update the House on what monitoring is taking place so that best practice is followed across the country and that the money that the Government are allocating reaches the most vulnerable?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. He is right that almost £3 million from the household support fund will go to his constituency, on top of the £7.4 million that his local authority will receive in total. We monitor very closely how the money is administered to ensure that it has the maximum effect, by liaising closely with the local authorities concerned.

Does the Secretary of State understand and agree that expediting the rise in the state pension age is less about life expectancy, which, according to the Office for National Statistics is very much arrested, and more about a cost-cutting measure for the Treasury? Can he tell the House what representations he has made to the Chancellor about that in advance of next week’s Budget? Or is it just the UK Government’s policy that people should work until they drop?

The hon. Gentleman is prejudging an awful lot of potential outcomes. He should wait until the Chancellor and I have taken those particular decisions. I am focused on a variety of metrics. Life expectancy is one of them, as is regional impact. The fiscal impact certainly cannot be ignored, and I would be surprised if he suggested otherwise. Fairness between generations and the period of life in which one is expected to be healthy in later years are also important considerations.

T2. I warmly welcome the Government’s decision to increase the state pension by more than 10% in April, but does my right hon. Friend agreed that we should encourage private provision alongside state provision? Will he say what conversations his Department has had with the Treasury about extending the lifetime allowance or annual allowance for pensions, and anything more on auto-enrolment? (903894)

I am delighted that the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) passed Second Reading on Friday, and I look forward to its Committee next week. This excellent piece of legislation will bring 18 to 22-year-olds into automatic enrolment in full for the first time, and will ensure that people are saving from the first pound earned—two vital steps to ensure that people get the retirement that they want.

T4. A constituent recently contacted me about the lack of reasonable adjustments in place at the local jobcentre for those with mental health or cognitive difficulties. How do Ministers plan to improve staff awareness and the reasonable adjustments offering? (903896)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this issue in such constructive terms. I expect teams to be responsive to needs for reasonable adjustments. Perhaps she could share the details of the specific experience so that I can look into it. It is fair to say that staff go through ongoing learning, and we refresh the guidance at regular intervals.

T3. Can my hon. Friend provide an assessment of how personal independence payment appointments are being administered? Many constituents have kindly contacted me to say that they are still having claims processed over the phone rather than at an in-person appointment. I am sure he agrees that in-person appointments are vital to ensuring that our constituents get the right level of support. (903895)

Regardless of the form that PIP assessments take, the structure is the same. Evidence suggests that both forms are equally effective, but I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend by saying that if individuals want to have a face-to-face assessment, they absolutely can.

T7. In Bath and North East Somerset, the gap between local housing allowance and rent for the cheapest three-bedroom property is nearly £4,000. My inbox is full of emails from desperate families on low incomes who are being squeezed out of living in Bath. Will the Secretary of State unfreeze the local housing allowance so that benefits are better aligned with rent in the local area? (903899)

The Government are projected to spend £30 billion—about 1.3% of GDP—on support for renters. Approximately £100 million has been allocated for the discretionary housing payment in 2023-24 to help local authorities, if necessary, which can top up from their own funding to help the hon. Lady’s constituents.

T5. A constituent of mine who has been in full-time work since he was 16 is now in his mid-40s and is unable to work as he awaits major surgery. For people like him, navigating a complex welfare system for the first time is difficult and worrying. Does my hon. Friend agree on the importance of people such as my constituent being able to access clear advice about the welfare benefits system to remove added financial worries? Will he outline the support available for people in such circumstances to access high-quality occupational health support to help them get back to work? (903897)

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend and send my best wishes to his constituent for their surgery. The Department offers support through disability employment advisers who work alongside all work coaches, specialising in finding the right support to help customers who have a disability or health condition into work. I know that the dedicated team in Nottinghamshire would certainly be delighted to engage with my hon. Friend or his constituent and try to help with this issue.

T9.   At the end of last year, the National Audit Office found that levels of benefit fraud and error were “unacceptably high”, totalling £8.6 billion for the year. How exactly will the Secretary of State reduce benefit fraud and error and claw back this appalling waste of taxpayers’ money? (903901)

I would argue that the Public Accounts Committee report does not reflect the steps that we took and that we set out in the plan that was published last May. As I set out to the House earlier, we are taking a tough approach to the issue, and rightly so—this is taxpayers’ money. For example, the work of the 2,000 extra officials on targeted case reviews, 2 million of which are in universal credit, is a really important part of getting that money back.

T6. I know from speaking to staff at Longton jobcentre that additional support has been put in place to help the over-50s back into work. Will the Minister update the House on what more is being done to upskill adults and help more of them to get back into work, especially in Stoke-on-Trent? (903898)

My hon. Friend will be aware of the 50-plus champions, the midlife MOT, the sector-based work academies and the skills bootcamps specifically for over-50s. The mighty Port Vale football club held a fantastic recent jobs fair attended by 1,400 customers, including many over-50s; 600 job offers resulted and there were 100 employers present. That is the sort of thing that the Department is doing.

As the recent Britishvolt investment shows, the north-east has real strengths in growing sectors such as battery technology, green energy and life sciences. Does the Minister agree that it is not possible for nationally controlled training programmes to really support people into employment in these emerging sectors? Will he therefore devolve responsibility to those in local areas who know local skills and local opportunities?

Local DWP jobcentres work hand in glove with local employers. It is very different in Banff and in Brixton—it is very different up and down the country. That is what we do with sector-based work academies, skills bootcamps and innovation pilots on a local basis in each individual jobcentre.

T8. I co-chair the all-party parliamentary engineering group. One of our objectives is to get young people to consider taking up employment in engineering. A number of companies in my area, for example, are short of young people. What more can the Government do to make young people aware of the excellent opportunities that exist in engineering? (903900)

We are focused, across Government, on helping young people to become involved in science, technology, engineering and maths projects and careers. A new science and technology framework was announced today, and will be vital for long-term economic success. DWP Train and Progress helps claimants take advantage of the bootcamps run by the Department for Education, and our partnership with Google is helping to boost digital skills. These activities are flexible in that people of any age and at any stage in their careers can engage in them.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I have a constituent who is facing the consequences of an overpayment in employment and support allowance. She has been able to show that she gave the Department the correct information time and again, but according to the Department, that is not relevant to whether she should pay the full sum. If the Department is not subject to any comeback after making mistakes, how will it ever improve?

It is important to note that official error loss fell from 1.3% in 2019-20 to 0.9% in 2020-21 and to 0.7% in 2021-22. It is of course right for us to work constructively with individuals to identify appropriate repayment plans, ensuring that we live up to our legal obligations to get the money back into the Department, but I expect officials to work constructively with people, taking account of their specific financial circumstances. I should be delighted if the hon. Gentleman shared the details of this case with me so that I can look into it.

I know that my hon. Friend takes great interest in supporting women in work, and working with employers is crucial to ensuring that they can both retain and recruit women and that there is no stigma in the workplace for those experiencing the impact of the menopause. I am delighted to announce the appointment of Helen Tomlinson as the DWP menopause employment champion. She will have a key role in driving awareness and promoting the benefits of a fully inclusive workplace to both business and the economy, and I will be sharing further details of her appointment later today.

Research conducted by the Bevan Foundation has established that local housing allowance is not a solution to the cost of living and housing crises for families on low incomes and for the most vulnerable because it is too low, and has been frozen since 2020 while private rental costs have soared. Will the UK Government help those in need and uprate the allowance?

We recognise that rents are increasing, and that a challenging fiscal environment means we need to support people effectively. We have therefore announced a support package for the most vulnerable households, which includes help through the household support fund. Those who are entitled to housing benefit or the housing element of universal credit and who have a shortfall can reach out for discretionary housing payments from local authorities.

There are some notable and fantastic businesses in my constituency, including Argus Fire and Pegasus, which do a brilliant job in recruiting young adults and providing career opportunities. What more can the Department do to bridge the gap between employers and young adults and create that one-stop opportunity for 16-year-olds to find employment?

As you know, Mr Speaker, I am very supportive of getting young people into work. The Dudley youth hub is a classic example of the Department’s working in partnership locally, providing a single location for employers to engage with the under-25s from Stourbridge and the wider area. Claimants can attend recruitment events and take advantage of a range of on-site services, and I know that they greatly welcome the opportunity to work with Argus Fire and Pegasus.

Public and Commercial Services Union members in Scotland get a raw deal from this Government on pay, with many civil servants themselves using food banks. When will the Government give them a proper pay rise?

As the hon. Lady will know and as I explained earlier, we are engaged in positive discussions with the PCS. It has been pointed out that many people working in the DWP are on the national living wage, and that will increase by 9.7% in April.

Working with Disability Action Yorkshire in my constituency, I have observed the important and growing role in the jobs market played by people with disabilities. I have spoken before about the Access to Work programme. Will the Minister update the House on what is being done to promote that excellent scheme among employers?

My hon. Friend is a brilliant advocate for Harrogate generally, but on this issue he is a passionate advocate for Access to Work and Disability Confident. We work to promote those schemes through our social media, through working with stakeholders, through working with local employer partnership teams and employer associations and through the Disability Confident scheme generally. I would certainly welcome the opportunity to look at ways in which we can spread the word further, including on a localised basis. I am about to do that as a constituency MP in Corby, and perhaps my hon. Friend could do the same in Harrogate.

On Friday night I was given the terrible news that a popular business in my constituency, Mortons Rolls, had ceased trading, putting at risk 250 jobs. Will the Secretary of State take the time to meet me to discuss what can be done to support that business and the 250 staff who are now threatened with redundancy?

The hon. Lady raises an important matter, and she is right to raise it on the Floor of the House. We have a number of measures that we would typically stand up in the circumstances that she describes, including a surge of local support to get jobs going and vacancies matched up with those who are sadly going to lose their jobs. I will certainly ask the Employment Minister to meet her to discuss this as a matter of urgency.

I echo the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) about Access to Work. Can I ask what progress is being made on the disability action plan and how the Minister will ensure effective work across Government?

The disability action plan is a really valuable opportunity to drive forward meaningful progress in a number of areas to help to improve the lives of disabled people. We are in the process of assembling the ministerial disability champions, and I want to see ideas from across Government brought together. We will then hear from disabled people, get out there and consult on the plan, then make sure that we deliver it over the next 18 months to two years. This is about quick wins and getting those off the stocks and delivering for disabled people.

I want to place on record my thanks to the Pensions Minister for her incredible hard work on automatic pension enrolment to get the age and the earnings lowered. Does she agree that it is a major concern for the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke that 25% of people leave work without a workplace pension in place? That is why the Pensions (Extension of Automatic Enrolment) Bill is so important and I am grateful to have had support for it from colleagues across the House.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I congratulate him on his brilliant Bill, which will help women, the lowest paid and part-time workers in Stoke-on- Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, and beyond.

Before proceedings on the urgent question begin, I want to make it clear that the question is about the proposed appointment of the second permanent secretary to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities as chief of staff to the Leader of the Opposition. It is not about the Committee of Privileges inquiry; let me stress that now. The House has charged the Committee with undertaking that inquiry and it must be allowed to complete it without interference. The Committee has been clear that the report issued on Friday does not contain its final conclusions, and that its work continues. It is for the Committee to decide how to weigh up the evidence before it, and any attempt to use this urgent question to prejudice proceedings will be out of order and will not be tolerated. Can I also say that although I was not surprised by the number of requests for this urgent question, I was surprised that they nearly all had the same wording and length of sentences? Whichever side of the House it comes from, I will not be moved by mass lobbying. I was more impressed by the individual ones that took the time to express why this was important than by those that were just a one-line sentence and signed by numerous Members of the House, so please do not try mass lobbying again.