Topical Questions

Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 2:36 pm on 17th May 2021.

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Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The nation is today uniting to toast an important milestone in the Prime Minister’s road map to recovery, with the long-awaited full reopening of the hospitality sector—thank God for that, given the rain we are suffering. The British public have stood up to the challenge of the pandemic and, while still being cautious, we need to get out there and spend our dosh. Let’s do our bit to support our communities, businesses and jobs, including more than 1 million workers who were furloughed and whom I hope we will now see back at work. As hospitality booms, I am sure that many more new kickstarters will be out there, able to hit the ground running.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Before the introduction of universal credit, single parents under the age of 25 received a higher rate of benefit payment in recognition of the increased costs of raising a child as a single parent, but that support has sadly not been extended to young single parents who are in receipt of universal credit. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and the assessment of One Parent Families Scotland that the omission amounts to a “young parent penalty”?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

No; we took a sensible approach in having a differential rate for universal credit. Of course, if any of the hon. Lady’s constituents would like support to secure extra income via the child’s other parent, the Child Maintenance Service is there to help parents in such situations.

Photo of Giles Watling Giles Watling Conservative, Clacton

We have heard a lot about youth unemployment this afternoon. The House of Commons Library tells me that it has increased by 10%, with a 110% increase in the number of young people claiming unemployment benefits. Those statistics are concerning, especially for the Clacton constituency, where historically we have struggled with youth unemployment. We must get these young people back to work. The new lifetime skills guarantee will help, but what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Treasury about the introduction of national insurance contribution relief for employers who hire young people, as we have done for those that hire veterans? If discussions have not taken place, will they soon?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I have regular discussions with a range of Ministers across the Government about how best to get young people into work and thriving. We are already incentivising employers to hire young people through the kickstart scheme, through which we pay wages and the associated national insurance contributions for six months. It is a job creation scheme for the young people who are most at risk of long-term unemployment, building vital experience throughout the pandemic and giving them the confidence and skills needed to thrive in their future workplace.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The kickstart scheme was launched with much fanfare but it has been a bit of a flop, not to mention a headache for many businesses such as METERology in my constituency, which has been given a total runaround by the Secretary of State’s Department. Recent figures suggest that if the UK Government maintain a rate of 400 new employees starting each day, they should hit their target of 250,000 new jobs in 625 days—that is two years—so what more are they going to do to ensure that kickstart can really live up to its hype rather than just be a slogan for the Chancellor’s naff hoodie?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman is being ungracious. We are still at step 3 of the road map to recovery. Dare I say that the Scottish Government are putting up a roadblock to recovery by pursuing the whole independence agenda when they should be focused on the economic recovery? If the hon. Gentleman has specific constituency matters to raise, he is welcome to do so. As we go through the steps, we will see even more kickstarters taking full advantage of the generous support, which will help them and employers alike.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

As the Pensions Minister knows from when we visited Airedale Springs together last September, climate change is a major concern for many constituents of mine across Keighley and Ilkley. With COP26 now less than six months away, will my hon. Friend update the House on the progress the Government are making to ensure that pensions play their part in tackling climate change so that we can build back greener from the pandemic?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

We are the first G7 country to legislate for net zero and lead the world in sustainable environmental investment, with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures and more, all of which address climate change. It was a pleasure to visit Airedale Springs, which is a great company that is doing good business but with due regard to climate change. That is our approach to UK pensions as we build back greener.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

Some 200,000 women who worked hard and paid their taxes all their lives have been underpaid their state pensions. It is an absolute scandal. I welcome the announcement that the DWP is trying to repay the money owed to these women, who have been so badly let down, but the repayments are being made far too slowly. Will the Minister confirm how many repayments were made last month and when the Department will finally speed up the process?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

It is good to see that the hon. Gentleman survived the deputy leadership reshuffle.

The simple point is that the DWP formally commenced correction activity on 11 January this year, and I published a written ministerial statement on 4 February this year. We are clearing up a mess, the responsibility for much of which goes back to the changes made under the Labour Government in 2008, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware. Where underpayments are identified, the Department will contact the individual to inform them of the changes to their state pension amount and of any arrears payments that they will receive in accordance with the law.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

My constituent Martin Burnell is living with motor neurone disease, which is a progressive terminal illness for which there is no effective treatment or cure. Earlier this year, he was told to reapply for his benefits or risk having them stopped. Will my hon. Friend commit to removing the burdensome and unacceptable requirement under the special rules that people with a terminal illness have to reapply for their benefits after three years?

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

As part of the Green Paper, we will be going further than the special rules for terminal illness evaluation to look at the principles of extending the severe health condition criteria to remove unnecessary assessments and reviews.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Shadow Minister (Education)

Youth unemployment is rising and one route out of this is through apprenticeships. One of the problems with apprenticeships can be apprenticeship pay, often described as apprenticeship poverty, where it costs more to attend work than the young apprentices earn. What is the Minister doing across Departments to address that injustice?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I thank the hon. Lady for pointing out the great opportunities of apprenticeships. The kickstart scheme can lead to such an opportunity, and we will be explaining to young people the opportunities that exist through our youth hubs. On supporting people, we have our flexible support fund for people to get into work and to thrive in work. Our in-work progression report will be reporting soon and we will look at it closely to see whether it covers any of these matters.

Photo of Chris Green Chris Green Conservative, Bolton West

As society leaves lockdown restrictions and recovery accelerates, will my right hon. Friend confirm that universal credit is designed not only for people who are unemployed, but to support people into work and to continue to support them while they are in employment?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend is right. The design of universal credit means that people will always be better off working than not working. It is important that people take advantage of extra hours that they may be offered in order to get that benefit, and we will continue to help people get into that type of job.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Chair, Finance Committee (Commons), Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

According to research by the Resolution Foundation, we are facing a U-shaped unemployment crisis, which will hit the youngest and the eldest workers the hardest. For women who are already being forced to work beyond their expected retirement age, this only adds to their financial hardship and many fear that they will never find work again. Do the Government have any plans to help, or will they continue to let down these hard-working women, many of whom started in the labour market when they were just 15 or 16 years old?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Older workers can get help from their work coach if they need further qualifications or modern certifications. The DWP works with the Government’s business champion for older workers, providing outreach and advice for employers. We encourage all employers to reap the many benefits of recruiting workers who can bring a wealth of skills and experience to any workplace. I advise people to head to the JobHelp website, to look at the Department for Education’s digital toolkit, or to speak to their work coach about any support so that they can perhaps have the best part of their career in the final years of their career.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Conservative, Redcar

This Government are focused on getting more people into work through an ambitious plan for jobs. However, last week I was contacted by a constituent in Redcar and Cleveland who is a qualified primary teaching assistant looking for work. She told me that, every time she declares her autism and epilepsy, employers sadly decide not to pursue her applications further. What more can the Government do to encourage employers to give differently abled people such as my constituent the equal opportunity of work?

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend highlights a vital issue, which is why we have developed a disability confident toolkit with stakeholders to provide comprehensive information and guidance for employers on autism and hidden impairments. I hope that his constituent’s undoubted talents will be unlocked shortly.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Govanhill Housing Association has told me that, each time there is a rent increase, some tenants inadvertently go into arrears as they do not realise that they have to notify the DWP. Will Ministers make a common-sense change to this bureaucracy to allow housing providers to report any rent increases directly for all their tenants rather than as a fallback?

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I have explored this issue, which is a little bit more complicated than the hon. Lady makes out. We have been working with housing associations. I would be very happy to sit down with her and have a briefing on the matter with officials.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk

I welcome the DWP’s commitment to delivering an improved welfare system for people with a terminal illness, and I hope that it can be delivered very soon. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the proposals to change the special rules will not be included in the upcoming Green Paper, which would result in further delay and would be unnecessary, as the DWP has already consulted stakeholders?

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The SRTI—special rules for terminal illness—evaluation has been completed and will not need to be rerun through the forthcoming Green Paper.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Will the Minister recommend that his colleagues purchase and read the recently released e-book, “The Brown Envelope Book”, which contains more than 200 poems, pieces of prose and short plays about disabled people who say they have been

“brutalised by the bureaucracy of the Department for Work and Pensions”?

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The Government are rightly proud of providing record amounts of support for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. Through our forthcoming health and disability Green Paper, we will work with stakeholders and those with real lived experience to make sure that we improve the services and support we provide.

Photo of Robert Largan Robert Largan Conservative, High Peak

Tomorrow, I will be hosting a workshop between local disability support groups and the DWP in my constituency to discuss the Green Paper. Ahead of that meeting, will the Minister update the House on what steps are being taken to increase access to benefits and support for the most vulnerable people during the pandemic?

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I thank my hon. Friend for being so proactive, along with about 50 other MPs who have already agreed to host health and disability Green Paper events to look at the key themes of advocacy, getting supportive evidence, the assessment process and the appeals process. It is the Government’s absolute priority to support those with disabilities and long-term health conditions.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I have a constituent who, after having her jab recently, had a nasty reaction and could not go to work the following day. She then found that she had lost 10 hours’ pay—half her week’s wages. That is the world of precarious work, and it certainly does not encourage people to have a jab, so what can the Government do to rectify the situation?

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I thank the hon. Member for raising that point. We have been improving guidance and sharing best practice with employers. We have also made changes to statutory sick pay for those who are either self-isolating or sick to remove the four-day wait. It is disappointing to hear how that specific employer has treated their hard-working employee.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

What support is the Department for Work and Pensions providing to those who have unfortunately been made unemployed in aviation communities, which have of course been particularly negatively impacted by the covid-19 pandemic?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend knows the pain of the impact on the aviation sector, as do I in my nearby constituency. The DWP has a range of support for individuals who have been employed in this sector and are affected. The DWP rapid response service provides key help and advice for employers and their employees if they are facing redundancy. Our work coaches provide claimants with individual personalised support, utilising our plan for jobs, which includes SWAP—the sector-based work academy programme—for those currently displaced by the impact on the aviation sector. That can help to build confidence and transfer their very wide-ranging skills into other opportunities for the short or the longer term. I am pleased that many of them are working locally, vaccinating—

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Every day, 7.6 million people go without sufficient nutritious food, according to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, so will the Secretary of State look carefully at the Welsh Government’s pilot for a universal basic income, and will she provide an estimate for the cost of a UK roll-out of a universal basic income?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Ah, my favourite question on UBI. The answer is no. If the Welsh Government wish to use the extra money they receive through the Barnett formula to undertake other aspects, the question is whether it is within their legal powers to do so. I am conscious that we all want to make sure that food insecurity comes to an end, and that is why we are working across Government to tackle it.