Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 731: debated on Monday 24 April 2023

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pre-1997 Non-indexed Occupational Pensions

You will notice, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am not the Secretary of State. He sends his apologies as he is currently travelling back from the G7 in Japan, but we will endeavour to do a reasonable job in his absence.

Pre-1997, as the hon. Gentleman knows, occupational pension defined-benefit schemes were not required to be indexed. I emphasise that defined-contribution schemes, which most people are on today, are also, obviously, not required to be indexed.

As we know, inflation is racing ahead at the moment, and more and more pensioners who are members of occupational pension schemes with pre-1997 service that has not been index linked, and those who are part of the Pension Protection Fund, are noticing the difference. Will the Department carry out an audit of how many people are being affected by those rules, and by how much?

Those rules were in place for a large period of the last Labour Government, and if Labour Members were interested in changing them, I suggest they should have done so at the time.

Social Security Recipients: Employment and Earnings

2. What steps he is taking to help increase the future employment and earnings potential of people receiving social security benefits. (904566)

We have comprehensive support in place to help Department for Work and Pensions claimants to secure, stay and succeed in work, including in-work progression, youth hubs and targeted support for people of all ages. In addition, there is a comprehensive package in the Budget to assist each and every one.

I thank the Minister for his response. My constituents in Vauxhall have seen food prices go up by nearly 20%, their household bills go through the roof, and their already high rents going up, in some cases by up to 16.5%. That is while real-terms pay has been falling for 18 months. How does the Minister propose to give workers in Vauxhall, and those on benefits, a real pay rise?

A whole host of things are being done on in-work progression. More importantly, vacancies have fallen for nine successive quarters, employment is up, the claimant count is down, economic inactivity has fallen, and disability employment is up. All those things are helping the hon. Lady’s constituents, and all other constituents up and down the country.

I strongly support the efforts that my hon. Friend is making to boost in-work progression. After all, the original vision behind universal credit was to see more people on benefits earning more and increasing their income over time. Does he agree that one key to the success of this, alongside tailored and relevant training, is better contracts? Research seems to show that a claimant on a permanent contract does significantly better with in-work progression than those on zero-hours or temporary contracts.

My right hon. Friend makes a number of very good points. He is a former Secretary of State in this Department, and has great wisdom on this issue. The main thing that the Department is doing is providing the in-work progression offer, which assists people who are in work and trying to progress to greater hours and full-time work. We are also fully in support of greater training, whether through sector-based work academies or the skills bootcamps, to allow people to have permanent long-term contracts, and enable them to thrive and survive in a better way.

The Department’s recently published research on sanctions, including those relating to in-work conditionality, show that sanctions have a negative impact on claimant earnings. How will the Minister take account of those findings in setting future sanctions policy?

We want to encourage claimants to comply with reasonable requirements, which are set and agreed with their work coach in the claimant commitment. That will continue on an ongoing basis, and I see no change to that.

Disabled People: Benefits System Support

Our recent White Paper sets out our ambitions to create a better experience for disabled people when applying for, and receiving, health and disability benefits. Our proposals will transform support, so more disabled people can start, stay and succeed in work.

A disabled constituent who came to my advice surgery recently described the many hurdles she had to go through to get welfare support. She felt stigmatised by the whole process and was subjected to really frustrating delays, so I am keen to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing to reform assessments and improve the way the benefits system works to help disabled people get the support they need without it feeling like a battle.

I really appreciate my right hon. Friend highlighting the concerns raised with her by her constituent. I know she supports the fundamental change we are determined to bring about, whereby we will focus more on what people can do. We will remove what is a structural barrier to work: the impediment that means people feel prevented from trying work because of the fear that if it does not work out they will lose their entitlement and have to go back through a re-application and reassessment processes. I hope she will welcome the steps we are taking, for example to link expert assessors with particular conditions to help us to get decisions right first time, as well as the commitment we have made to reduce the assessment burden more generally.

The experiences of the constituent of the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) are, unfortunately, far too common. The assessments disabled people go through often go badly wrong and the great majority of appeals against refusal succeed. It all causes immense and unnecessary anxiety for disabled people. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions recommended that all assessments should be recorded to help put things right. The assessment providers all support that recommendation. Will the Minister give the House an assurance that he will give that recommendation very serious and sympathetic consideration?

I am always grateful for the opportunity to hear from the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee. It is important to recognise that both the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), and I are set to appear before the Committee next week. What I will not do this afternoon is make specific commitments, but I can say—I have said this regularly now, including in the many conversations we have had with disabled people and various stakeholders that we want to work constructively to get the reforms right. This is the biggest set of welfare reforms for over a decade, so I am very willing to consider all views about how we can improve processes. Of course, people are able to make recordings of assessments at the moment, but we should look at that. I am very willing to do that, and to come back to the Committee formally.

On a recent call with stakeholders in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department revealed that only 11 individuals had so far been included in the severe disability test group, which, as the Minister knows, is aimed at simplifying the application process for those with the most severe disabilities and health conditions. Worryingly, there also appears to be very little clarity about the definition of severe disability. Despite that, the Department signalled that it was preparing to further roll out the group. Can the Minister confirm today whether that number is correct, provide further information on which individuals qualify, and confirm when the Department will start the roll-out?

What I am certainly very willing to do is to provide further detail to the shadow Minister, separate from this afternoon’s proceedings. I am absolutely clear that the severe disability group has an important role to play, recognising the challenging conditions people have and that, for many, those conditions will not improve. I am keen to reduce the reassessment burden on people wherever we can, streamline processes, and ensure that people feel properly supported and properly cared for during the course of those processes. That is the right step to take. I am determined that we get this right. Exactly as I said just now, I want to work collaboratively and constructively as we move forward with the White Paper reforms. We have made commitments to test and trial various things, and we will get on and do that.

Pensioners in Poverty

Mr Brooke from my constituency is nearly 70. He contacted me when his application for pension credit was rejected on the basis that he is £2.55 over the threshold, which rules him out of not only pension credit but any other associated benefit. Mr Brooke signed off his letter to me saying:

“I just can’t afford to live. Yours, Truly Broken”.

What are this Government doing to help people such as Mr Brooke in that incredibly difficult position?

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s raising that case. I encourage her—I am sure she has already—to check whether her constituent would be eligible for housing benefit in her constituency. That is not necessarily linked to pension credit, although it automatically passports. We are doing other things to support pensioners in those situations—the pensioner cost of living payment was received by 8 million pensioner households over the winter, and will be repeated this year.

The UK already has the lowest state pension as a proportion of pre-retirement wages in north-west Europe. Independent Age has highlighted that 5% of pensioner couples and 19% of single pensioners have no source of income other than state pension or any associated potential benefits. Will the Minister finally take action to address pensioner poverty and shockingly low state pensions relative to most of Europe?

We challenge those figures, as the hon. Lady knows. I point her to the record increase in state pension that we have just introduced—10.1% for both the state pension and pension credit. That will make a real difference to pensioner poverty levels, alongside the cost of living payments that are going out this year—£900 for pensioners on pension credit and £300 for all pensioner households.

Two weeks ago I visited West Cheshire Foodbank in my constituency, where volunteers told me that for the first time a couple who were both pensioners had turned up in tears because they could not afford the cost of living and the basics. The Government have failed to fix the issues with pension credit uptake, with over a third of those entitled not claiming. Given that there are 400,000 more pensioners in poverty today than when Labour left office, why should the pensioners forced to visit the food bank in Chester trust a Government who have repeatedly let them down?

I am sorry to hear about the pensioners involved. If they are eligible for pension credit and not claiming, I assume the hon. Lady is helping them. As a Department we are happy to give any assistance to those individuals. We are doing all we can to boost pension credit uptake. There was a campaign before Christmas, which I am sure she was part of, to get people to claim the cost of living payment, which we will repeat this year. We saw a 177% increase in claims just before Christmas. There will also be the pension credit week of action for the summer on 12 to 16 June, which I hope many hon. Members will take part in.

Ministers agitated for us all to get involved in the campaign to extend the uptake of pension credit. Has the Minister any innovative plans that will make it easier for us to do so, such as toolkits and the like?

Absolutely. I am also looking at what more we can do to use data from housing benefit and from His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to make it easier to target people for a claim. Working together, we can make a real difference in the number of pension credit claimants in this country.

Support into Work: People over 50

The Government’s 50-plus plan and our offer to help older workers return to work are being rolled out. That includes more intensive tailored support for eligible jobseekers, 37 full-time 50-plus champions, delivery of the mid-life MOT in jobcentres, online and with the private sector pilot project, and multiple older worker job fairs up and down the country.

I thank the Secretary of State, who I know cannot be here today, for his visit to a mid-life MOT session for the over-50s at the brilliant jobcentre in Guildford. I was incredibly impressed with everyone I saw participating in that session. Will the Minister join me in welcoming this Government’s belief that no one is ever too old to retrain and start a new career?

In common with anybody who is over 40, which I confess to, I think we should support all older workers in whatever shape or form—I certainly want to do so. I particularly recommend the Guildford jobs fair for older workers that is taking place in May, which I know my hon. Friend will try to support and which her constituents should go along to as well.

I declare an interest in the issue of older workers.

In addition to encouraging people who are 50-plus to get into work, it is also important that employers understand that such people have immense experience and capability to add to their organisations. What more is the Minister going to do to ensure that companies, and all sorts of employers, take the opportunity to employ older workers, as they can provide great benefit to their firms?

I promised my hon. Friend I would not mention the 6-1 drubbing that his beloved Spurs received from Newcastle United yesterday, albeit that Spurs are obviously looking for a 50-plus manager of quality to go forward.

More seriously, there has been much that employers are doing. I know my hon. Friend’s two local jobcentres in Harrow East are working together with Stanmore College and local employers to try to drive forward older workers.

Almost 700,000 women over 50 are currently on long-term sick leave. Many are recorded as having depression or anxiety, with no consideration being given to the menopause as the primary factor. What consideration has been given to offering menopause awareness training to occupational health specialists, to enable them to better support women back into work?

The hon. Lady raises a serious and important point. She will know that the Department has appointed Helen Tomlinson as its first ever menopause employment champion, and we are working on persuading employers to develop menopause-friendly policies. I know the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), is particularly working on this issue and will be delighted to work with the hon. Lady to address this very important point.

Like the Minister, the closest I can get to 40 is No. 40, where I live.

Helping over-50s to get back into some form of employment allows them to boost their savings and increase their quality of life in retirement. I know the Minister is keen to engage with people in Northern Ireland, so what discussions has he had with the Department for Communities at the Northern Ireland Assembly, so that those who have ability, talent and energy can find employment? There are many opportunities to do just that.

I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman says. He knows I am attempting to visit Northern Ireland on 15 May, subject to Whips and slips and all that fun and games. The point has duly been noted, I am sure. The simple point is that we are engaging with the team in Northern Ireland as much as we possibly can, and trying to roll out the good work we are doing on the mainland as much as possible in Northern Ireland. I will engage with him further, hopefully when I come to see him in May.

Does the Minister agree that this Government are committed to supporting over-50s, including those in Ynys Môn, into work? Will he join me in thanking Tony Potter and the brilliant Anglesey DWP team, who are working with me to host a jobs fair for over-50s in Holyhead town hall soon?

Diolch, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend was kind enough to host me in Llangefni only a couple of weeks ago, when I met Mr Potter and all the DWP team working on the island. They are doing a fantastic job. We should be very proud of the work they are doing to address both mainstream employment and older-worker employment. I am sorry I cannot be at the jobs fair for older workers that she is hosting, but I encourage everyone on the island to go along to that.

Personal Independence Payments: Application Process

6. What steps his Department is taking to simplify the application process for personal independence payments. (904570)

The health transformation programme is modernising the entire personal independence payments service, including the application process, to improve the claimant experience and ensure the service meets the needs of claimants over the longer term.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but my constituent Gary Thacker was diagnosed with autism later in life and, despite the assistance of a friend, it took him many hours to complete his PIP form. I know the Minister has introduced a variety of formal methods of assistance, which are provided by organisations such as Citizens Advice, but Mr Thacker was unaware of those. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to make sure applicants know about the levels of support that are available?

It is fair to say that the Department offers support according to ability and according to need. For the very vulnerable and in exceptional cases, we are able to refer claimants not only to visiting officers, but to the forms completion service. If my hon. Friend provides me with more details about his case, I will be happy to take a look, but I hope I can reassure him by saying that we are looking to digitalise the personal independence payment journey. That is currently in testing; it should help to provide greater signposting within the processes and towards other support for which people may be eligible, which I think is really welcome. I hope that he will welcome it, too.

In February, a survey carried out by the charity Mind and Censuswide found that 66% of people with a mental health issue who had experience of the benefits assessment system discovered that it made their mental health worse. The majority of negative decisions that make it to a tribunal are eventually overturned. When does the Minister expect an improvement in decision making and in the impact on people’s mental health?

I certainly think that journey times are an important factor. We want to provide certainty as quickly as possible in relation to people’s claims. Waiting times for PIP claims have come down very considerably, and the PIP journey is certainly shorter than in the pre-pandemic period. As I have said, I genuinely believe that there is a significant opportunity, through the reforms that we are introducing in the White Paper, to focus on quality decision making. Reducing the assessment burden will help us to get decisions right the first time, as will matching people who have particular conditions with assessors with the right expertise.

The Minister’s proposal to essentially collapse the work capability assessment into the PIP assessment means that up to 1 million people who have fluctuating health conditions, or who may be recovering from treatment, could lose out on up to £350 a month. That is causing considerable distress, and it will not actually get anyone back to work now. Why does he not adopt instead the policy that we have put forward, which is supported by the Centre for Social Justice: to change the work capability assessment rules and offer an “into work guarantee” for those with no work requirements? Is he content to leave 700,000 sick and disabled people who want to work blocked from journeying into work?

No. What this Government are doing is making sure that we support people into work. We are removing the structural impediment to getting into the workplace. We believe that scrapping the work capability assessment is the right thing to do; we have had many debates about the issue in this House over the years, and we think that we are responding properly to the feedback we received on the Green Paper proposals. There was a strong message that people wanted to see that happening, and we will get on and deliver it. We will focus on quality decision making and on making sure that people are transitionally protected. There may, for example, be people not currently claiming the PIP who will be entitled to it; I would always encourage people to access the benefits to which they are entitled.

I must say that it is rather surprising to hear the shadow Secretary of State’s comments today, given what one newspaper has written:

“Disability benefits changes: Labour pledges to scrap reforms but shadow minister holds back details”.

Where are Labour’s plans?

I can certainly assure the House that SNP Members will not be trumpeting ideas advocated by right-wing think-tanks such as the Centre for Social Justice.

The health and disability White Paper introduces a new universal credit health element, with eligibility through PIP that could be far more restrictive than work capability assessments. Indeed, the Tories’ new in-work progression offer will inevitably mean exposure to sanctions for disabled people. Given that the Department’s own published report, which it tried to keep under wraps for many years, shows what we knew all along—that sanctions do not work—why will the Minister not finally do the right thing and just scrap them?

May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his marathon time yesterday? He put in an impressive effort. I know the training, commitment and dedication that go into running a marathon, so I congratulate him on it.

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the Centre for Social Justice. I think that these are genuinely common-sense reforms that reflect the feedback that we received from disabled people and from their representative bodies. We will work with them to make sure that we get this right. Replacing the work capability assessment is the right thing to do, recognising that we want to concentrate more on what people can do than on what they cannot do, and doing so on a tailored, individual basis.

Of course we know that more than 20% of disabled people could start work within the next two years, and that they want to do so and, with the right support, would. We think that the right way of dealing with that, and supporting that employment, is to work constructively with them on plans which work, meeting their circumstances and needs. That is what the Budget announcements were all about. There is good practice out there, and we want to extend it.

Universal Credit Recipients: Food Banks

7. If his Department will make an assessment of the reasons for which families in receipt of universal credit use food banks. (904571)

The DWP does not assess the reasons why families may use food banks, but we do understand the pressures that they face as a result of the cost of living, and have therefore increased benefits by 10.1% this month. That is in addition to the increase in the national living wage to £10.42 an hour, and the provision of more than £11 billion in cost of living payments.

Food banks in my constituency and across the country are struggling to deal with demand. More than 40% of people using them are in work, and they are used by one in six children whose families receive universal credit. Meanwhile, the local housing allowance remains frozen and the five-week wait for universal credit is increasing debt. All those factors contributed to the reason why one of the food banks in my constituency nearly closed its doors last week, namely that it had no food to give out. Can the Minister tell me what else the Government will do to support families? It seems that there is very little understanding of the scale of the problem that the country is facing, let alone a willingness to do something about it.

Let me draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the household support fund, which will provide an additional £50 million to help families in Wales through difficult times. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents who are in need will also be pleased to know that the next stage of the cost of living payments will begin tomorrow, with £301 being paid to households between then and 17 May. The DWP will be issuing further communications about those payments.

We have heard today about social tariffs and other ways in which people can obtain support and reduce their bills. The Help for Households website, which I commend to everyone, provides information about assistance with childcare, travel, energy and household costs, and about income support. It will help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and, indeed, all our constituents.

The Minister has just said that the DWP did not assess the reasons for which people are using food banks. Perhaps she will go back to her private office after this and ask her officials to look into whether people are using them because the Government cut universal credit by £20 a week, and cut it in real terms last year. Perhaps she could ask her officials whether it is because the DWP is taking deductions from universal credit payments every week. Perhaps she could ask the DWP if it is because earnings are worth less than they were in 2007. Perhaps she could ask the DWP whether it is because the Government have raised the taxes on working people. Perhaps she could ask the DWP whether it is because the Government crashed the economy and sent mortgages and rents through the roof. Perhaps she could ask the DWP whether more people are using food banks because that is the price of 13 years of economic failure.

May I remind the hon. Gentleman of Labour’s 10p tax rate, and the fact that we have doubled tax-free allowances? [Interruption.] Food banks are important. They are independent charitable organisations where people in local communities can support each other. [Interruption.] This is a great example of the generosity of spirit in our communities. [Interruption.] If this mattered to the hon. Gentleman, perhaps he would listen to my response rather than chuntering from the Front Bench.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that we take the issue of food security very seriously. That is why we added the internationally used food security questions to the “Family Resources Survey: financial year 2019 to 2020”. The new statistics on usage will help the Government to understand more about the characteristics of the people who are most in need, and we will continue to do what we pledged to do and are proving to do in supporting the most vulnerable.

Child Poverty

This Government believe that work is the best route out of poverty for families and we are supporting parents to progress, to stay in work and to be better off. That was shown in our spring Budget, which will deliver an ambitious package of measures, across Government, to support people to enter into work, increase their working hours and extend their working lives. We have also raised benefits and benefit cap levels by 10.1% and we are providing those further cost of living payments, which commence tomorrow.

The reality of the policy that the hon. Gentleman mentions is about fairness for the taxpayers who support the most vulnerable and making sure that we have a welfare and benefit system that works. We will spend around £276 billion through the welfare system in 2023-24, including £124 billion on people of working age. I would again point people towards the cost of living website and the benefits calculator on and I would ask him to note that the benefit cap was raised this year as well.

Carers: Health and Disability White Paper

9. What assessment he has made of the importance of the role of carers in implementing the health and disability White Paper. (904573)

Unpaid carers can play a vital role in supporting disabled people to live active lives, including through working when they are able to do so. The White Paper sets out how we will create a better experience for disabled people, people with health conditions and their carers when applying for and receiving health and disability benefits.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answers, because carers are integral to looking after people up and down the country, especially with an ageing population who are living longer and with more frequent and difficult disabilities. Will he make sure that they are at the centre of the White Paper, because if this policy is to succeed, we need to support our unpaid carers.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The insight and experience of carers and their feedback were invaluable through the Green Paper process in helping us to come up with our final White Paper proposals. As we move forward into the implementation stage, it is key that we continue to sustain that engagement and focus on meeting the aspirations of carers and the disabled people they care for. I also want to look at this issue from the other end of the telescope, in looking at what more we can do to support those with caring responsibilities to access employment if they want to do so, because from a health and wellbeing perspective, there is real value for them in that too.

Job Vacancies: Rother Valley

The jobcentres across Rother Valley have been doing some amazing work to fill local vacancies and bring greater employment to the local area. Our Budget package of enhanced care support for working parents and investment in people with disabilities and long-term health conditions will make a massive difference, on top of the sector-based work academies and skills boot camps that are available for further training.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Obviously, jobs are one of the most important ways of getting people out of poverty and growing household incomes. That is why I held three job fairs last year and sent a leaflet round to every constituent telling them how to get job opportunities in Rother Valley. Another job fair is coming up next month, aimed at older people and young people coming into employment, and I would be grateful if the Minister could come along. Getting older people over the age of 50 and younger people who are just leaving school into jobs is incredibly important. What further steps are this Government taking to ensure that younger people and older people have great job opportunities?

I think my hon. Friend has the record for the most job fairs and doing the greatest amount of work I know with the local DWP. He is doing a fantastic job as a doughty champion for Rother Valley and I support the work he is doing. There is no doubt that, whether it is through the youth hubs making a massive difference to younger workers, the older persons’ jobs fairs being held up and down the country or the hundreds of jobs fairs that have been held since the Budget last year, we are massively driving things forward to ensure that in Rother Valley and across the wider country we have much greater employment.

Personal Independence Payments: People with Disabilities

11. What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of personal independence payments for people with disabilities. (904576)

No assessment has been made of the adequacy of PIP for people with disabilities. PIP is intended to provide a contribution towards paying for the additional costs faced by disabled people. Individuals then have a choice and flexibility in prioritising according to their needs.

A report by the Work and Pensions Committee found that people experience “psychological distress” due to the health assessment required as part of the PIP application process. Many of my Bath constituents feel the process does not reflect their needs and are concerned about the lack of support—some of those issues were covered by earlier questions. The Government have promised to trial the use of specialist assessors with knowledge of specific health conditions. Can the Minister please clarify which conditions are covered and how the assessors are being trained?

When we are able, we will set out more detail of the relevant conditions and the approach we will take in delivering on this commitment. I raised the issue in my conversations with officials this morning, because I am keen to progress this as quickly as possible. I see real benefit and value in matching assessors with specialisms to people with particular conditions. It is clear from the feedback that people believe this will make a significant difference. Along the lines I set out earlier, we want to reduce PIP journey times as much as feasibly possible, and I want to make sure that we get more decisions right first time and that we focus on quality, which is precisely what the reforms will do. We will share further detail with the House when we are able to do so.

I have a bedbound constituent who relies on food banks and is unable to do basic tasks such as getting herself dressed and collecting food. She has two young children who are happy to take on these tasks, yet she has been told that her PIP assessment will take four months. How can the Minister justify families having to rely on food banks while they wait for a PIP assessment? What will he do to change this?

Again, I refer to my earlier remarks on the steps we are taking to improve PIP journey times as far as possible. I am keen for the hon. Lady to share the details with me so that I can ask officials to look at this specific case. I want people to have certainty on their PIP claim as quickly as possible, as people require this important help. I would always encourage people to apply for PIP if they believe they might be eligible. If she provides me with those details, I will gladly look at them as a priority.

Pensioners: Cost of Living

12. What steps his Department is taking to help pensioners with increases in the cost of living. (904577)

This month, pensioners received the largest ever cash increase to the state pension and pension credit. In addition, all pensioner households will receive a £300 cost of living payment. The Government are committed to helping pensioners with the cost of living.

I thank the Minister for her answer. One of the best ways to help pensioners with the cost of living is to ensure that everyone claims the pension credit to which they are entitled. What work is she doing to engage with the high street banks on their more vulnerable customers who are over the state pension age, both to identify those who might be missing out and to facilitate applications for pension credit, which can make a vital difference?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the vital role that high street banks play in interacting with vulnerable pensioners and vulnerable customers. Organisations such as Virgin Money and HSBC have worked to promote pension credit uptake. I will be working with them and a variety of other stakeholders as we build up to the cost of living payment deadline on 19 May and the inaugural DWP pension credit awareness week on 12 to 16 June.

Pension credit continues to be a serious issue, with £1.7 billion going unclaimed each year. Will the Minister introduce an effective strategy in the coming year, perhaps following some of the initiatives we see in Scotland, to make sure everyone gets what they are entitled to in these very difficult times?

The Department for Work and Pensions is straining every sinew because this is incredibly important to us, and to me. We need to make sure we are doing all we can to reach those vulnerable customers. We have done a nationwide advertising campaign, which the hon. Gentleman may have seen. We are doing a lot in the build-up to 19 May, and I want to work with everyone in the House to make sure we use Members of Parliament as much as possible to reach out to vulnerable pensioners in our constituencies.

The price of food is rising by 30%, yet the Government are continuing to fail pensioners at this very difficult time: nearly 200,000 women in their 80s have been underpaid for years because of errors at the DWP; hundreds of thousands of pensioners are missing out on pension credit, as we have heard; and when pensioners do get their pension credit application in, it can take up to three months for officials in the Department to process a claim. When will the Government finally tackle this appalling pattern of failure?

Labour put up pensions by 75p. We put them up by nearly £20. We are doing all that we can to support pensioners, and they know that we have got their backs.

Disabled Jobseekers: Support at Jobcentres

13. What steps he is taking to help ensure disabled jobseekers can access specialist support at jobcentres. (904578)

16. What steps he is taking to help ensure disabled jobseekers can access specialist support at jobcentres. (904582)

Disability employment advisers have expertise on how to help disabled jobseekers into work and build work coach skills to help these claimants. That is in addition to broader support, including our increased work coach support, the Work and Health programme and intensive, personalised employment support.

Successive Tory Governments have failed to reduce the multiple barriers facing disabled people entering work. Research by Sense has found that disabled jobseekers say that they do not have the support and equipment they need to look for work, and it is vital that every jobcentre across this country is accessible and has essential pieces of assistive technology so that disabled people can find and apply for work. If this Government want to finally get serious about reducing the disability employment gap, which remains at about 30%, will they commit today to a jobcentre assistive technology fund to support disabled people to look for work?

I categorically reject the initial point made in the hon. Lady’s question. The fact is that this Government set a target of getting 1 million more disabled people into work and we met it five years early, but now we must go further. That is precisely why we have brought forward the reforms in the White Paper, which we genuinely believe will remove that structural barrier to work. We will have the packages of support alongside this, which I believe people will want to engage with, because they are aspirational and want to enter the workplace. We will never ask people to do anything that is not appropriate for them. We will work on an individualised, case-by-case basis to support customers. Of course, it is absolutely right that we make sure that our services are as accessible as possible, and that is the whole thrust of the reform. The health model officers are helping us to test what works, and we will continue to work along those lines. I hope she will want to work with me, in the spirit of partnership, to make this a success.

One frustration for disabled people occurs when they have an assessment that identifies what support or adaptations they need in order to go into work and then that support is never actually available or employers cannot provide it. Is there some source of optimism to be found in the funds and the changes announced in the spring Budget that support will be lined up in advance, so that people can take a job when one is offered to them?

It is really welcome that the whole of Government are focused on what more we can do to support disabled people and people with health conditions into work, if that is appropriate for them. That was reflected in the commitments that the Chancellor made on the Work Well programme and on universal support. Of course, we are also introducing additional work coach time into jobcentres, the latest tranche of which will go live this week in another third of jobcentres. Those are really important steps forward. Alongside initiatives such as Access to Work and Disability Confident, we have the opportunity to transform matters in our society to make our workplaces more inclusive and, on a tailored, individualised basis, not only to support people into a role, but to help them retain it.

The DWP uses private company Maximus to assess benefit eligibility for a number of people in the claims process. That includes responsibility for deciding on former mineworkers’ entitlement to industrial disablement benefits. What training and qualification requirements are there for Maximus assessors making these potentially life-changing decisions that affect so many of my constituents?

Continual quality assurance processes are in place that monitor and keep tabs on the quality of the decisions made by any of the assessment providers that work with the Department. Of course, we always keep that under constant review. If there are specific issues that the hon. Lady is keen for Ministers to look at, I would be very happy to do that. She knows that I am always willing to work collaboratively and constructively along those lines. If there is feedback about areas where she or her constituents feel that improvements could be made, including on responsiveness, I would be happy to look at that. I also go back to the point I made about the reforms earlier, where, for example, the work we are doing to try to match expert assessors with conditions will really help to improve people’s confidence in decision making, as well as build capacity and performance.

Topical Questions

Normally, the Secretary of State would make a statement at this stage, but, on behalf of the whole ministerial team, I will say just two things. First, overall, measures from the Department for Work and Pensions in the Budget represent an investment of £3.5 billion over five years to boost workforce participation. That includes: £2 billion of investment in support for disabled people and people with long-term health conditions on top of the Health and Disability White Paper; £900 million investment in support for parents; £70 million investment in support for the over-50s; and £485 million investment in support for unemployed people and people on universal credit and working fewer than full-time hours.

Secondly, DWP Ministers had the great honour of working with the amazing Len Goodman, who sadly passed away over the weekend. The pension credit video that he filmed with me last summer for the annual Pension Credit Awareness Day in June was the most successful piece of communications that we have ever done on this issue and massively boosted pension credit applications. I can tell the House that, throughout the day’s filming, he was kind, immensely professional, totally polite and a delight to work with, and he still had all the dance moves even at his age. He will be sadly missed by this House and by his many fans around the country. Our thoughts, prayers and condolences go out to his family.

I am sure the whole House will join the Minister and others in remembering with fondness Len Goodman and in sending our good wishes to his family and friends.

I thank the Minister for his answer. On Thursday, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) visited One Parent Families Scotland. The young single parents we met were outraged and upset about the young parent penalty, as they are receiving less universal credit than older parents. Does the Minister care to explain why he feels that younger parents are worth less than those who are over 25?

We do not feel that in any way whatsoever. I will write to the hon. Lady setting out the legal and statutory basis behind the policy.

T2.   A key area that we need to consider is people who have a diagnosis and then try to return to work. One way that we can solve this is potentially having DWP or jobcentre workers in primary care to help support people from diagnosis to desk. Is that something that Ministers will consider in the White Paper? (904591)

My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate of the join-up between health and work, and work as a determinant of better health outcomes for people. It is important to note that a number of jobcentres and Health Model Offices have work coaches working with GP surgeries to provide employment support to customers with health conditions. That is a valuable approach, and we are determined that the Work Well partnerships programme that was announced in the Budget will build on this to design an integrated approach to work and health with that proper join-up on the ground reflective and responsive to local needs. I shall take on board his observation as we look to shape that.

We on the Labour Benches join you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the Minister in the tribute to Len Goodman, and we think of all his loved ones today. He was not just a national treasure, but someone who helped to put money in pensioners’ pockets, which is where it belongs.

The local elections are next week, so people will be thinking of the fortunes of their towns or cities. In many places, unemployment is not low, as the Minister has said, but high. In Blackpool, for example, one constituency has unemployment at an excruciating 8%. What about that chronic poor performance should be rewarded at the ballot box next week?

We all know that unemployment is always higher when the Labour party leaves office. The hon. Lady might care to listen to a few key points: vacancies have fallen for nine successive quarters; employment is up; payroll employment is at a record high; claimant count is down; economic inactivity has fallen; disability employment is up by 1.3 million over the past five years; and, as for Blackpool, massive work is being done there. She will be aware of the intervention by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which has been working very hard across Government to transform the fortunes of Blackpool, with record investment—something that definitely did not happen when Labour was in Government.

T3.   A few weeks ago, I visited Tools with a Mission, a 40-year-old charity in Ipswich with 70 or 80 local volunteers. It takes old, disused and discarded tools, the volunteers work incredibly hard to make them as good as new and those tools are sent to developing countries, where they make a tremendous difference—Zambia and Uganda are two examples. But the impact does not stop there; there is a local impact also. Many of the volunteers are of pensionable age or have recently retired; their involvement in the charity gives them a great sense of purpose and community, and the charity’s work with many individuals with educational needs has helped them to go on with the skills they have learned at the charity to get full-time jobs elsewhere. Will the Minister join me in applauding that work, and work with me to find funding to enhance what the charity is doing? (904592)

Local charities play an important role in providing support in our communities. I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency later this month to see what Combat2Coffee can do to support veterans and their families, and I hope to take a keen interest in Tools with a Mission too, if possible.

When he appeared before the Select Committee in November, the Secretary of State said that,

“the more transparency there is, the better. It informs public debate and allows a feedback loop for the Department. It is all part of holding us to account and that is extremely important”.

In light of that and in the spirit of the Department’s new approach to transparency, can the Minister provide me with figures on how many DWP staff are themselves reliant on universal credit?

I know the hon. Gentleman takes a particular interest in transparency. I work strongly on the Department’s behalf, with the Minister in the Lords, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman with a response.

T4. I welcome the measures in the Budget to encourage over-50s back into work, harnessing their experience and skills. I also notice that the Department has signed the Age-friendly Employer pledge—I have signed my office up too. What is being done to promote the scheme more widely among employers to encourage them to do the same? (904593)

We are doing huge amounts of work to encourage over-50s employment. My hon. Friend refers to the pledge, and we encourage all employers up and down the country to sign up, to participate in the mid-life MOT, to embrace older workers’ fairs and generally to accept that older workers have a great deal to offer.

Some 5,260 women in Liverpool, West Derby have been affected by the changes made to the women’s state pension age, and many have contacted me about the devastating impact it has had on their lives. What consideration has the Minister given to early-day motion 1040 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth), which calls for an alternative dispute resolution process, including representatives of the 3.8 million women affected, to address the injustices they have been through?

T5. As the Minister will know, the Disability Confident scheme is a great way for employers to support people into work. What is the Minister doing to ensure that local councils such as Torbay Council are setting an example to other employers in their area? (904594)

I am hugely appreciative of my hon. Friend, who is a passionate advocate of Disability Confident. I would hope that local authorities would want to engage with the scheme and set the example that they would like to see businesses and other organisations in their communities follow. I know he has good conversations on this question with Councillor David Thomas, the leader of the Conservative group, who I hope may be in a position in a few weeks’ time to help set the standard in the Torbay area and blaze a trail for Disability Confident at Torbay Council.

T9. Do Ministers think it acceptable that thousands of women who have been underpaid their state pensions will be forced to wait until the end of 2024 to see that error addressed? (904598)

We have massively increased the number of people working on that at the moment. We are undertaking work against scams, we are prioritising cases in which the recipient is alive, and we will try to get that done by the end of the year. I am accelerating that as much as I can. I am very aware that it is a problem.

T7. This month has seen the uplifting of pensions and benefits by 10.1%, but what more is the Department doing to ensure that people in my constituency and around the country get the maximum that they are entitled to and, therefore, take up pension credit? (904596)

I thank my hon. Friend for all that he is doing to encourage pension credit take-up in Crawley. The Government have undertaken a sustained communications campaign to raise awareness of pension credit and promote its take-up. The latest stats release at the start of the year shows a substantial rise in the number of claims.

My constituent had a brain injury 20 years ago and was receiving personal independence payment for care and mobility support. A recent review said that there was no change to his condition, but somehow the decision has been made to stop his benefits. The Minister has already indicated that he is considering this matter, but will he meet me to discuss that particular case?

I am always very happy to meet colleagues from across the House to discuss such issues, and this circumstance is no different.

T8. We must do more to tackle delinquent parents who do not pay child maintenance. When can we expect the home curfew powers to come into effect, and how many people do we expect to be subject to them? (904597)

Enforcement action is used as a last resort when a parent is failing to pay their maintenance payments and other action has failed. Home detention is a powerful deterrent and, as such, we would expect usage to be low—perhaps less than 10 cases a year on average. I know that my hon. Friend focuses on this matter. The Child Maintenance Service continues to explore how existing powers can be used to encourage compliant behaviours and facilitate constructive relationships between parents to ensure that, importantly, financial support reaches the children for whom they are responsible.

A new Work and Pensions Committee report on the health assessments for disability benefits such as PIP and employment support allowance has found that “issues or errors” in the DWP health assessment system have, in some ways, contributed to the deaths of claimants. What assurances can the Minister give the House that those issues and errors will not continue to kill our disabled constituents?

We take those matters incredibly seriously, which is why we have internal process reviews in the Department to look at them. We have serious case panels constituted by senior leaders from within the Department, and the independent case examiner, for example. Where there are issues and learning that must be taken on board, that must always happen. This is structured through that. We will look very carefully and closely at the Select Committee report, and we will, of course, respond appropriately in the normal way. The hon. Gentleman can be absolutely assured that these processes must always be looked at carefully, and that any learning is taken on board and acted on.

T10. The apprenticeship levy can play a significant part in improving economic activity rates, but some employers—particularly small employers—find the process through which they draw down and seek support to be somewhat unwieldy. Although the policy is led by other Departments, it has direct relevance to the Department for Work and Pensions. Will the Minister agree to engage with the Department for Education and the Treasury on how the apprenticeship levy can be made more relevant to small employers? (904599)

The apprenticeship levy has been a fantastic success, but as Employment Minister, I am conscious that there is widespread concern among small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly smaller businesses, that there should be greater flexibility going forward, building on what we are already doing. I am very happy to meet my right hon. Friend and Ministers in the Departments that control the policy to discuss any improvements.

On 19 April last year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission informed the Government that it was issuing a section 23 agreement against them under the Equality Act 2006, in response to serious concerns regarding discrimination against sick and disabled people. Twelve months on, that agreement still has not been reached. When will it be reached and why has it taken so long?

I cannot give the hon. Lady a definitive conclusion date, but what I can say is that we have entered into a phase of advanced discussions with the Equality and Human Rights Commission. We will come forward with further detail as soon as we are able to do that, and the process will be concluded in the proper way.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work to his place. I look forward to working closely with him on the review into autism and employment, which we have embarked upon this very month. What further measures will the Government take to close the appalling gap in employment, such that only two in 10 adults with autism are currently in work?

It is fair to say that we have had a good debate this afternoon about the whole host of initiatives that we as a Government are determined to take forward to shift the dial and make meaningful improvements to support more disabled people and people with health conditions into work, and autism is no different. I am delighted that my right hon. and learned Friend has agreed to take on this review on behalf of the Government. I look forward to his bringing forward recommendations, suggested areas for improvement and initiatives that we might want to embark on, focusing on knowledge and responsiveness, seizing the opportunity for workplaces to unlock the talent that undoubtedly exists out there, and helping to improve people’s lives for the better.

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The use and abuse of unpaid work trials continues to grow, despite the Government’s guidance published a couple of years ago urging employers not to use them. Given that the guidance clearly is not cutting through, will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss what legislation might look like?

I am not sure I totally accept the premise of the hon. Member’s argument, but if he writes to me with the details of what he is asserting, I will certainly consider it.

That concludes questions, so we now come to the urgent question. I will pause for a moment to allow the turmoil of people leaving to settle down, but I would be grateful if Members left quickly and quietly.