Department for Work and Pensions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:46 pm on 2nd July 2019.

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Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle 3:46 pm, 2nd July 2019

It is a pleasure to be the last, I think, of the Back-Bench speakers today on the important issue of the spending of the Department for Work and Pensions and its estimates. That vital Department takes a quarter of the £800 billion-odd spent each year on public services. I congratulate Alison McGovern on securing this excellent debate.

I spent a happy year sitting behind Ministers PPS-ing at the DWP. I was really passionate about working there, because it is a Department that can really make a difference; it has a huge spend and a vast range of levers to really help people and make a difference. Alternatively, if things go wrong, we see where people are hindered.

In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend Alex Burghart referred to a number of Conservative Members elected in 2017 to seats that might previously have been described as the Labour heartlands. I want to add North East Derbyshire, a seat we won in 2017, to the list. I stood for that seat in 2010 against Natascha Engel—a former occupant of the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and an excellent MP. I spent two and a half years there. I remember how toxic the benefits culture there had become: an issue that set neighbour against neighbour.

People were concerned that they were working hard while they saw other people who they thought were not putting in the shifts. At times, that was unpleasant and unfair: it is very difficult to tell who is capable of work and who is not, and neighbours are not necessarily able to make the distinction. But I was troubled by the situation and by the statistics showing that, in 2010, 1.4 million people had been on long-term benefits for nine years and 2.6 million had been on them for five years. Clearly, that was a difficulty.

The big challenge for any Government elected in 2010, whether Labour or Conservative, was to work out how to get people capable of work off benefits and give them the tools, access and ability to step into work, thus reducing the benefits bill and focusing funds on those who really could not work. It was about helping and empowering those who could work to get into and rise up the jobs market.

I think my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar is right about electoral success. Fast forward to now, and we see that the approach has gone down incredibly well with voters—not only those who saw people on benefits who perhaps should not have been, but those people themselves, who wanted the help and were given the encouragement.