Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:09 pm on 17th November 2016.

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Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 3:09 pm, 17th November 2016

I, too, congratulate Neil Gray and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this debate, and all Members on the tone in which it has been conducted. Even Anne McLaughlin has managed to restrain herself today, and we are grateful for that. On these important issues, the House is often at its best when it takes this tone, and on this issue, for all the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend Mr Burrowes, it is important that we have done so.

Good policy cannot be created in a vacuum; we must think about how something will be delivered, how it will work in practice and how it will affect those concerned. As Christina Rees said, the welfare state is a safety net, but if it works well, it should also be focused on helping someone’s future ambitions as well as their basic needs. Proof that we have listened and understood will be in our actions, and a person’s experience of the system and the support they receive is the only thing that will ensure confidence in that system. So we must deliver and we must deliver well.

We must understand the personal impact of a policy on a person, often someone in a complex situation, under considerable strain and challenge. I refer to the budgeting challenge for those who have suddenly had to stop work or who have lost employment because of their condition or ill health, or who are facing increased costs—or both; the challenge of preparing for employment, while focusing on recovery; the challenge as those new constraints restrict a person’s choices and flexibility just at a time when such flexibility becomes an imperative; the challenges faced by people who, as well as having their own issues to deal with, often have other responsibilities and priorities—carers, parents or people who are both. Even where recovery or the all-clear is achieved, these people will still have concerns about their illness reoccurring, their ongoing relationship with their employer and the possibility of having to go through it all again.

We must ensure a person’s liquidity is in place, so that they can afford the additional costs brought by looking for work, or by being poorly or disabled: higher energy bills; mobile and internet access costs; the cost of getting insurance; the cost of a special diet, in some cases; the extra travel costs that come with unpredictable itineraries; clothing and bedding costs; and the cost of specialised equipment—to name just some of those costs. Someone with a neurological condition will spend almost £200 a week on costs related to their disability. Someone with a physical impairment will spend nearly £300 a week.

When that security and liquidity goes, often so, too, does a person’s dignity and wellbeing. They may face the embarrassment of having to pay for a train fare with a pot of 2p coins because that is all the cash they have left; the stress of having no mobile phone credit; the strain of extra planning and budgeting; the knock-on effects of all that to an already stressful situation; and the pressure of not wanting their kids to be disadvantaged or to miss out on what others are doing or what they used to do—or of not wanting that for their grandkids, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East mentioned.

Although I can answer the question from Ms Ritchie about benefit levels having a significantly negative association in terms of employment by waving a report by Barr et al. at her,9j I will not be relying on those arguments in my speech. I say that because of the obvious point, and one made by Patricia Gibson, that someone is more likely to get into work, make a success of it and recover from ill health if they are able to devote themselves to that. If a person has other worries or concerns, their energy and focus on those objectives will be diluted. Many who find themselves in receipt of universal credit or ESA will already have complex situations to deal with, and the delivery of our services should not add to that.

Yesterday, I outlined in detail how we will deal with those issues, but let me briefly recap. We will use funds to alleviate costs directly related to work, through the flexible support fund. May I just correct my hon. Friend Heidi Allen as the figure is not £15 million—it is an extra £15 million that we have put in because of these changes, and this is currently standing at £83 million? In addition, we will have national and local schemes, such as the Jobcentre Plus travelcard, but I am also negotiating deals with third parties to help with expenditure not directly related to employment: broadband costs, phone charges, energy costs and insurance.

We are extending our hardship fund, as per the announcement yesterday, to new groups. That will be new money from Treasury over the next four years with immediate effect. For thoroughness, I will mention personal independence payments, which will help to cover costs for 53% of the people we are concerned about today.