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Unemployment: Support

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 21 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to provide additional support to the increasing number of people claiming benefits for unemployment.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

Without wishing to denigrate the size of the issue that we are facing, I make the point that although we have 2 million new claims to universal credit, this does not equate to the number of people who are becoming unemployed. Some are claiming because they are on part-time hours or their pay has decreased. Government employment Ministers are engaging with all government departments, businesses, stakeholders and front-line staff, to hear their views, learn from them, listen to ideas and make sure that we can provide the best possible support in this difficult time. I can assure all noble Lords that much is going on across government and that, in time, we will update the House with our progress.

My Lords, those 2 million claims are up 856,000 in a month, and with one-quarter of the workforce on furlough this could get a lot worse soon. I welcome the changes that the Government have made but they do not match the scale of the crisis. People are losing jobs and hours but finding that the standard rate of universal credit is only £94 a week and the JSA just £74. When will the Government remove the savings threshold for universal credit and level up legacy benefits? Crucially, what is their plan to stop rising unemployment leading to home repossessions and widespread poverty?

I am unaware of any plans to change the savings threshold at present, nor indeed to level up legacy benefits. The noble Baroness is right to keep us focused on the potential size of the problem that could be coming down the road, and I assure the House that we are closely monitoring the evolving labour market and the public health situation to identify and implement the most effective way to help people to stay in work and stay close to work.

My Lords, many unemployed workers will not benefit from the additional financial support that has been announced because of the benefit cap, despite the grace period. Last week the Minister failed to answer my noble friend Lady Sherlock’s question as to why the Government are refusing to lift the cap during the crisis. Could she therefore answer it now and explain what purpose the cap serves when the labour market has “collapsed”, to quote the IFS, and moving home is not a realistic option?

As it stands, the Government are not going to change the benefit cap, but it will be reviewed at some point. The noble Baroness’s point about people’s circumstances in terms of loss of income and not being able to move house is a very fair one; I thank her for raising it and I will take it back to the department. Tomorrow we have the all-Peers briefing with the Minister for Welfare Delivery, and I urge the noble Baroness to raise this point yet again.

What will the Government do to address the needs of under-25s and care leavers who find themselves on zero income and are currently treated unfairly under universal credit?

The issue of care leavers is very important. We are providing a range of support. I am not aware of any changes to our position on universal credit regarding them, but I will take the matter back to the department and write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, I am concerned about young people, so I ask my noble friend what tools are available to help young people looking for employment to match their skills to current labour market vacancies.

The Government have announced a National Skills Fund of £2.5 billion so that we can continue to upskill young people. Jobcentres are continuing to support them through these difficult times: they have started to re-engage with new and existing claimants and are reviewing all measures at their disposal. The DWP is in discussions with local partners, national partners and the Youth Employment Group set up by the Prince’s Trust. More importantly, we are working with all departments across Whitehall to make sure that a range of appropriate support is available to young people, including those from complex backgrounds, as raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Janke.

My Lords, what assessment is being made of those currently unemployed and those facing imminent unemployment, particularly people with disabilities and autism? Can the Minister assure the House that her department, particularly post lockdown, will ensure that adequate financial support is made available to NGOs specialising in preparing specifically young disabled people for work and supporting them in it? Will she consider meeting the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Disability on this issue once she is available?

I will answer the noble Baroness’s last point first: of course, I am prepared to meet groups that are trying to help people in this very difficult position. I am sorry that I am not in a position to make financial commitments, but I can say that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made it clear that we will do whatever it takes to help those affected by Covid-19. We are keeping the situation under continuous review.

My Lords, the level of unemployment that we are confronting is, frankly, unthinkable. We know that even before this crisis many individuals and families were literally one pay cheque away from financial disaster. Noble Lords may not know just how low benefits are and how impossible they are to live on. We as a society have to find the resources to ensure that people can keep a roof over their heads, food on the table and clothes on their backs. Will the Government therefore convert universal credit advances into grants and end the five-week wait?

The noble Baroness asks about converting advances into grants. I am sorry to say that the Government have no plans to do that. On the five-week period, no one has to wait five weeks for their money, but the five-week wait is an integral part of the design of universal credit. The Government are cognisant of the difficult situations that people find themselves in and are doing everything they can to support them in this difficult time.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is essential that government regulators and creditors work together to ensure that unemployed people who fall behind on essential bills and credit commitments are protected from falling into unsustainable debt by an immediate pause on all forms of collection and enforcement activity?

I agree with the local Baroness that we must all work together to support those who are in debt. When it comes to suspending enforcement, there are very difficult questions and answers. I would like to go away and write to the noble Baroness after this Question on the specific point that she raises.

Like other noble Lords, I am concerned about young people. Will the Minister be more specific about extra support, such as the transitional funding for training, support for the many disrupted apprenticeship schemes and perhaps reintroduction of Labour’s Future Jobs Fund, with guaranteed offers of work for, say, six months? Surely she will agree that improving their future careers would help us all through higher productivity, higher standards and fewer benefits paid.

I completely agree with the noble Lord that we must invest in young people’s future careers, and I take his point about the Future Jobs Fund. I can only reiterate what I have said: we are doing everything that we can to help young people re-enter the labour market.

My Lords, many of the self-employed in the hospitality and tourism sectors in rural areas such as North Yorkshire have suffered great losses. What support is being given to the self-employed in situations where they might have lost the greater part of the season, which is comparatively short? Are the Minister and the department braced for the next wave of major losses when the furlough scheme comes to an end?

With regard to the hospitality sector, I assure the noble Baroness and the whole House that the Department for Work and Pensions is looking at what can be done to support people in it. With regard to a second wave, we will continue to respond in the way that we have done up to now.

My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I sincerely thank noble Lords and Ministers today. That concludes the Virtual Proceedings on Oral Questions. The Virtual Proceedings will resume at a convenient point after 12.45 pm for the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, but for the time being proceedings are adjourned.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.