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Topical Questions

Volume 737: debated on Monday 4 September 2023

May I begin by welcoming my new opposite number, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), to her post? I know she will agree that it is an honour and a privilege to be associated with this Department, whether on the Opposition Benches or the Government Benches, and the very important mission of looking after the most vulnerable, which I know we both share. I look forward to a constructive engagement with her in the weeks and months to come.

My Department continues to focus on supporting the most vulnerable through cost of living payments, pension credit and the benefits system more generally; bearing down on fraud and error; and promoting work and, in particular—as we have been discussing—reducing economic inactivity.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the recent decision on the national disability strategy, which allows us to get on and improve the lives of so many disabled people?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I very much welcome the Court of Appeal’s decision in July, meaning that the national disability strategy is lawful. The Government are now able to continue with the important work of implementing that long-term strategy, and I can confirm that my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People will shortly come forward with further details of some of the individual commitments we will be making around that strategy.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words. However, whatever he says about economic inactivity, it remains a serious problem in this country, with the UK lagging behind all other G7 countries in terms of workforce participation since the pandemic. Indeed, last month, the number of people off work due to long-term sickness hit an all-time high. What is this Government’s response? The Chancellor tells the over-50s to get off the golf course, and the DWP Secretary tells them to literally get on their bike. Is not the truth that this Government’s failure to cut waiting lists, sort social care and have a proper plan for reforming our jobcentres is harming individuals and our economy as a whole?

To the extent that the hon. Lady was suggesting that economic inactivity was worse in our country than in all other economies, or all similar economies—I think that is what she said—that simply is not the case. It is true that economic inactivity spiked during the pandemic; none the less, as I said earlier, the average rate is lower than the average across the OECD, the EU and the G7.

The hon. Lady mentioned those who are long-term sick and disabled. That is why we are bringing forward pilots such as WorkWell and rolling out universal support, to make sure we bring the world of work together with the world of health, to the betterment of those who we look after.

This is not just about the over-50s. Is the Secretary of State aware that the biggest relative jump in economic inactivity due to sickness is among young people, with mental health being the biggest concern? Labour has a plan to transform mental health in this country, paid for by closing private equity loopholes. When will this Government act and put a proper plan in place?

There is a proper plan in place. I invite the hon. Lady to spend some time looking more closely at the announcements that have been made, particularly at the time of the last fiscal statement, and especially those about WorkWell, universal support, and the work we are doing with the national health service and other agencies to make sure—as I say—that we bring together the world of work and the world of health and provide support, particularly for those with mental health conditions.

T3.   The Health and Safety Executive website currently makes no mention of the aerated concrete issue that we all heard about at the end of last week. Can we be assured that the Executive has the resource and motivation to get that guidance out there, so that employers and other building owners know what they should be doing in this situation? (906170)

The HSE’s focus has been on raising awareness of RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—through its engagement and stakeholder groups via the public sector, and this was actually raised in a bulletin back in April 2021. I will look into the point my hon. Friend has made, but I am certain there has been clear guidance to those who need it.

T2. Thousands of women who have been underpaid their state pensions due to departmental mistakes will be forced to wait until the end of 2024 to see this error addressed. Does the Minister really think this is acceptable? (906169)

The hon. Lady asked about this last time, and I believe I informed her previously that all alive people will be receiving the benefits they are entitled to by the end of this year.

T5. What action are the Government taking to deal with the difficulties that many disabled people face with accessing the support they need? In particular, has there been a move back to making face-to-face contacts part of the assessments and decisions in the benefit system? (906172)

We have made available a diversity of assessment channels to people, but the key point is that anybody who wants to have a face-to-face appointment is able to have one. They can request one and that will be facilitated, and I think that is important. Jobcentres will be at the leading edge of delivering on our new supported employment programme—universal support—and we have WorkWell coming on stream as well. We do not want to write anybody off. Where people want to work or to try to work, we should be supporting that wherever we can, and that is precisely what we are all about.

T6. A constituent of mine has cerebral palsy, a lifelong condition for which there is no prospect of improvement and which affects her mobility and balance. Despite this, she has faced repeated unnecessary and inaccurate reassessments for the personal independence payment, and she lost her PIP mobility after the most recent assessment. The DWP justifies its decision by saying that it was advised that her last fall was over three months prior to the consultation. What kind of system demands that people with lifelong conditions regularly have to hurt themselves to receive the support they are entitled to? (906173)

I would obviously want to see the details of the case in question before commenting on it, so perhaps the hon. Member could kindly share those details with me. One of the things we are focused on is getting to a place where people with conditions or disabilities that are unlikely to improve or are only likely to deteriorate are not having to go through repeat assessments. That is the objective we are working towards through the White Paper reforms. [Interruption.] I hear a lot of chuntering from the Opposition. I would be absolutely delighted if they would get on and support our reforms so we can make those improvements.

T8. Universal credit has been hugely effective in making sure it always pays to work, but for jobseekers with no savings who used to be paid daily or weekly the five-week wait for their first payment can plunge them into debt, whether it is a DWP advance or other loans. Will Ministers consider the proposals in “Poverty Trapped” for initial payments to be made at the same daily or weekly frequency as a jobseeker was previously paid, so they can focus on finding a job rather than juggling their debts? (906175)

I can tell my hon. Friend that there are no plans to change the assessment period and payment structure of universal credit, but I am very happy for him to sit down with officials and discuss his paper.

T7. A constituent battling multiple sclerosis recently came to one of my surgeries after his PIP application was refused without ever receiving a face-to-face assessment—and he did request one. The automated letter dismissing his appeal used incredibly insulting and derogatory language. Without ever meeting him, the Minister’s Department declared my constituent fit and able despite this clearly not being the case. I am doing whatever I can to support my constituent, but surely the Minister will agree that PIP applicants deserve face-to-face assessments rather than this dismissive, humiliating letter language. (906174)

If people wish to have a face-to-face assessment, they ought to be able to have one—that is the position. There are claimants for whom a different form of assessment—a telephone assessment or a virtual assessment—is more appropriate and is perhaps what they want, but that choice should be available to people, and providers should be facilitating that. Again, if the hon. Member would kindly share the details of that case with me, I will look at it as a matter of urgency.

I warmly welcome the considerable progress this Conservative Government have made in supporting pensioners. The triple lock and targeted support with the cost of living are welcome in my part of Devon. Will my hon. Friend outline how this Conservative Government will ensure that this great progress continues?

The triple lock was a Conservative invention. It was a pledge in our manifesto and the Secretary of State will be looking at it again this year when he makes his decision on benefits.

T9.   In 2016 the United Nations committee responsible for monitoring the UN convention on the rights of disabled people published a damning report that found that the Government had systematically discriminated against disabled people, in breach of their rights. Last week the UN committee reviewed evidence describing the further deterioration of disabled people’s circumstances and rights since 2016, but the Government refused to attend. Isn’t this just another kick in the face for disabled people? (906176)

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the situation. We have followed all of the committee’s procedures; we are engaging with this process in good faith and will present our progress at the session in March 2024. [Interruption.] It is rather frustrating that the hon. Lady often gives the impression that this country is not a world leader on disability issues. The Equality Act 2010, for example, is the cornerstone of ensuring equalities legislation, and we also have the British Sign Language Act 2022 and the Down Syndrome Act 2022. We have also taken other steps forward, and we should be supporting that.

I am fortunate to represent a part of the country that is blessed with near-full employment. However, businesses in Bracknell and beyond struggle to recruit enough staff. Can the Secretary of State reassure me that his Department will leave no stone unturned in getting as many people as possible back into the workplace?

I welcome the good news but also accept the challenge. I have visited Bracknell to meet my hon. Friend and am happy to sit down with him and the local jobcentres to ensure we are addressing his constituency’s vacancy issues.

Last week I met the citizens advice bureau in Cheshire west and Chester, which informed me that 75% of those who appeal their PIP assessments win. Why does the Minister not get it right in the first place, and what is he doing, at pace, to address that?

I am very appreciative of citizens advice bureaux around the country for all the work they do in supporting constituents in each of our constituencies. In the interests of time, I will just refer the hon. Gentleman back to the points I made earlier about the steps we are taking.

The recent changes to access to means-tested benefits for those in receipt of vaccine damage payments are very welcome, and I thank the Minister for his engagement. Will he join me in paying tribute to those who campaigned for that change in the law, including my constituent Sheila Ward?

I pay full credit to Mrs Ward and also to my hon. Friend. I read with interest the Stoke Sentinel report on this particular issue. There is a genuine change to be made, there has been a long-standing campaign, and all parties should be pleased with the outcome reached.

In all honesty, I probably ought to declare an interest, but pensioners living in Edinburgh and Glasgow do not face the same sorts of increases as pensioners living in a remote and faraway constituency such as mine when it comes to living costs such as running a car, buying groceries and heating the house. Will the Government look at ways of targeting these particularly hard-hit people?

We of course look at particularly targeting harder-hit pensioners through pension credit, and the Pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), has done a huge amount to promote that. But we are always open to receiving further ideas and having discussions, and if the hon. Gentleman would like to come forward with further ideas, we will certainly look at them.

I have been contacted many times each month by parents left seriously out of pocket by their ex-spouses’ failure to pay child maintenance owed. What steps are the Government taking to ensure parents are able to receive their child maintenance on time so that many families are not left subjected to coercive control by their ex-spouses or left out of pocket?

I thank the hon. Lady for making those points. Child maintenance payments keep about 160,000 children out of poverty each year and are absolutely vital. They play a key role in ensuring both parents play their part in supporting their children whether or not they live with them. If the hon. Lady has particular cases or interests, I am happy to meet her.

A constituent of mine has a small work pension, rendering her ineligible for pension credit yet still struggling to get by. Another constituent who is 80 and misses out on pension credit by just £10 has contacted me several times angry and hurt that he now has to pay for his TV licence. Will Ministers review the rules on pension credit, because ineligibility for so many of the passported benefits leaves many of my constituents out of pocket? They want to be eligible for it but are not.

Obviously this is without looking at the individual case, but it is important to note that the threshold has gone up significantly, so it is worth questioning whether the hon. Lady’s constituents are now eligible. If not, applications to the household support fund can be helpful, and local councils may be able to offer housing benefit support. If there is an individual case that she would like to write to me about, I am happy to respond.