As the House knows, the Prime Minister has asked me to review economic inactivity. We have 9 million people who are economically inactive at the moment, and I will be looking closely at all those in that review, not least the long-term sick and disabled, those with caring responsibilities and those over the age of 50 who have retired early.
Following on from the question from the Select Committee Chair, my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms, many of my constituents are required to seek a housing solution in the private rented sector, but cannot afford it due to the freezing of local housing allowance and the increase in rents. Can the Minister have a conversation with his colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to see whether they can do more to enable councils to widen their lists for the housing register to ensure that people can access housing they can afford?
I can provide the hon. Gentleman with that reassurance. There are discussions ongoing between officials in my Department and in DLUHC, and we will continue those through time. We are aware of the issue. I have raised the inordinate expense of these measures, but none the less it is important that we look at them closely.
We have some fantastic engineering companies in Stoke-on-Trent, including Don-Bur, IAE and Rayne Precision Engineering. However, they are struggling to fill what amount collectively to hundreds of vacancies. Will my hon. Friend look at what more we can do to help those companies recruit people and get them back into work?
My hon. Friend is right that there are great things happening in Stoke. We are working with the North Staffordshire Engineering Group to develop a sector-based work academy to fill those specialist engineering roles. A jobs fair is planned at Port Vale football club—[Interruption] —which is some people’s favourite football club, on
According to my friends at the Centre for Social Justice, around 700,000 people with no work requirement could go to work if given the right support. The Labour party put forward proposals. The Secretary of State’s spin doctors said they were cynical. Then, two days later, he briefed that he was going to copy them. So when will he introduce reforms to the work capability assessment and Access to Work to get more people back into the workplace?
The right hon. Gentleman knows the answer to his own question, which is that we are looking at precisely those matters as part of our review of economic inactivity. He is well aware of the extensive consultation that surrounded the White Paper, which we will come forward with in due course. All the questions he poses will be answered in greater detail then.
Economic inactivity has been rising for three years, and the Labour party wants to get Britain back to work, but all the Secretary of State can say is that he will bring forward a White Paper in due course.
Let me ask about the long-term sick. The Secretary of State will know that a third of the inactive across South Yorkshire are long-term sick and that a quarter of the inactive across the west midlands are long-term sick. In answer to my hon. Friend Dan Jarvis, he said he was looking carefully at the long-term sick programmes across South Yorkshire and the west midlands. However, in December, his Department withdrew the funding. Why is he cutting the funding for Andy Street’s West Midlands and across South Yorkshire when we need to get the long-term sick back to work?
As I have said, we have invested £7 million in the west midlands engine pilot, and we are looking closely at that pilot. The right hon. Gentleman criticises us on the employment front, but it is Labour that saw the number of workless households almost double on its watch, Labour that always has unemployment higher at the end of its term of office than when it went in, Labour that parked millions of people on benefits with little incentive to leave them, and Labour that left us with 2.5 million unemployed in 2010.
I have visited local businesses in the Colne and Holme valleys and in Lindley, so it is great to hear that so many are expanding, have vacancies and are looking to hire local people. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State please join me in commending the excellent work of Huddersfield jobcentre staff, who are busy preparing for a jobs fair on 2 February, as they seek to improve people’s lives by helping them into work?
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the Huddersfield jobcentre and the extraordinary work of the staff there. They organise several job fairs every month, and I commend my hon. Friend for the support he provides to them in that endeavour.
Today, we have probably had an insight into one of the battlelines for the next general election. It was on the front page of the Daily Mail—not something I would normally read—which talks about a “something for nothing” Britain. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to distance himself from that ridiculous remark? I suggest it would be a brave move by the Conservative party to tell pensioners that their state pension is something for nothing.
I have a clear view on all these matters, which is that a hallmark of a civilised society is that it looks after the most vulnerable; the Government have a proud record in that respect. I could go through chapter and verse on the various measures, not least the cost of living support for 8 million low-income households up and down the country. If people—fraudsters and others—are prepared to abuse the system that is there to support the most vulnerable, we should not hesitate to come down hard on them and they should face the full force of the law.
Will the Minister for Social Mobility, Youth and Progression join me in commending the Longbridge and Kings Norton jobcentres, and the Factory youth hub in Longbridge, for their work to ensure that young people are equipped with the skills they need to get back into work and that they have the dignity of work, and to reduce youth unemployment in my constituency?
I wholeheartedly agree that, as we have heard, work is more than just a pay packet. I am delighted about the impact of more than 150 youth hubs, such as the Factory—I visited the one at the central library, but I did not get to that one—that are working with flagship employers and small employers. I am keen to see how that youth hub changes lives and opens up progression for young people who would like to learn from my hon. Friend’s local DWP team’s success.
I have been contacted by two separate disabled constituents who were previously eligible for the warm home discount. This year of all years, however, they have been told that they are no longer eligible, because of the way that the various support schemes interact. Will the Minister meet me to look into those two individual cases, and the wider issue, to ensure that the most vulnerable people are not missing out on the support that they need?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. It is important to point out that the reform to the warm home discount, which expands the support available, means that 160,000 more households where a person is disabled or has a long-term illness will receive a rebate. If she provides me with the details of the cases in question, I will be happy to look at them.
I know that the Minister for Disabled People shares my enthusiasm for the Disability Confident campaign and ensuring that more employers sign up to it. What discussions is he having with the Migration Advisory Committee to ensure that, when considering representations from sectors about, for example, the shortage occupation list, being a Disability Confident employer is part of what is considered?
It is fair to say that my hon. Friend and I have experience of such matters from previous roles. I know that there is no bigger advocate of Disability Confident in Torbay than him. Of course, we want to continue to build on the brilliant work that has happened through that scheme and its success in getting disabled people into work, which I think should be an overarching mission for the whole of Government.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s earlier remarks about looking to address the causes of economic inactivity in the over-50s. The people and skills element of the UK shared prosperity fund could be well placed to fund the kind of support that that age group needs to get back into the workforce, but that funding will not be available until 2024-25, which is much too late to address the current crisis. Will the Department work with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to bring the funding forward to 2023-24?
The hon. Lady raises an interesting and important point. We are certainly in discussions with DLUHC about those kinds of matters—perhaps I will leave it at that.
The number of people claiming unemployment benefit has fallen in my constituency over the last year, but does the Minister agree that more needs to be done? Will he therefore support the jobs fair that I am holding on
I welcome my hon. Friend’s work in Halesowen. He is right that jobs fairs, not just by the DWP but by individual Members of Parliament, are a vital way to drive greater employment. He is also right to say that the in-work progression offer that we are developing will truly make a difference to those already in work.
It is clear that nationally led employment support simply is not working. Why are the Government not matching the Opposition’s commitment to let local communities take charge of that crucial work so that local support matches local labour market need?
I will stand up for our jobcentres, which are providing fantastic employment to people up and down the country. On top of that, we are doing the in-work progression offer, about which the Labour party, as usual, has absolutely nothing to say.
The Rumbles café in Sutton-in-Ashfield does marvellous work with people with Down’s syndrome, helping to train them and get them back into the workplace. People with Down’s syndrome are living longer and more independently, but they are struggling to get into the workplace, so what more can the Government do to help people with Down’s get into the workplace?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Perhaps we could organise a visit so that I can see this organisation for myself. I had a really rewarding visit to Bristol just before Christmas, where I saw the huge difference made by work experience opportunities organised and facilitated by charitable organisations. I would be delighted to visit.
Last week, the Prime Minister became the second holder of his office to have been found to have broken the law while serving in No. 10. He has now been issued with a fixed penalty notice, his second in 12 months. But unlike many of my constituents who have been hit with punitive benefits sanctions, the Prime Minister is unlikely to be forced to resort to payday loans and food banks in order to get by. Will the Secretary of State concede that the Government policy of sanctioning claimants for even the most minor and accidental breaches of the rules is simply too severe?
Sanctions quite rightly play a role in the work of work coaches and jobcentres, because the provision of benefits involves a contract between the jobcentre and those receiving those benefits, who in many cases have an obligation to seek work. Where that contract is broken by the individual who is meant to be seeking work, it is only right that a sanction should be available. But it has to be applied with due care—and, indeed, that is the case.
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for Grimsby and will be pleased to know that an adult social care jobs fair, with 10 employers in attendance, will take place on Wednesday, and a whole host of events will take place every single day during apprenticeship week in two weeks’ time. We are also rolling out the in-work progression offer to Grimsby, starting in March, which genuinely will make a difference and promote greater employment.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism are severely underdiagnosed in women and girls, and are often misdiagnosed as mood disorders. What discussions have Ministers had with the Health and Social Care Secretary about the impact this is having on women’s ability to access and maintain employment, and what steps will be taken to support them?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this issue. It is fair to say that Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions meet Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care and across Government. We are in the process of appointing the new ministerial disability champions to take a lead on taking deep dives into particular issues. I am really happy to take that one away to raise with DHSC colleagues.
The people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke would like to ask when the Minister for Pensions is going to act on the recommendations of the 2017 automatic enrolment review to lower the age threshold for automatic enrolment from 22 to 18, and to remove the lower limit of the qualifying earnings band, so that contributions are paid from the first pound earned.
Automatic enrolment has been a huge success. I know that my hon. Friend does a huge amount of campaigning on this, and we remain committed to implementing the 2017 reforms in the mid-2020s.
During the lockdowns, conditionality was, understandably, relaxed, but I fear that it has not returned to its pre-covid levels. Can the Secretary of State assure me that those pre-covid levels of conditionality, which are so vital to getting people back into work, will return as a matter of urgency?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Conditionality plays a central role in the way in which the benefits system works and our drive to get people back into work. She is right that it was relaxed during the covid crisis, and I think it is right that it was, including in relation to people coming in for face-to-face appointments. That has now been reinstated and I will be looking at conditionality as part of my review of economic inactivity.