The Department has been busy supporting the most vulnerable, with the third instalment of the £900 cost of living payments starting to reach the bank accounts of 8 million low-income households tomorrow. We are also on the verge of publishing our disability action plan. We have seen economic inactivity decrease by 330,000 since its peak during the pandemic.
I have made it a priority for my Department to engage across Parliament. As Secretary of State, I appeared before the Work and Pensions Committee in December. The pensions Minister, my hon. Friend Paul Maynard, appeared before the Committee on
Lambeth Council and Southwark Council have worked hard over the past few years to deliver targeted cost of living support through the household support fund. Many local people continue to face serious hardship as a consequence of this Government’s political decisions, but local authorities do not know what, if any, funding they will receive after
I am pleased that the hon. Lady recognises the importance and value of our various interventions. Ten million payments have been made through the HSF since its inception, and £1 billion has been put into the fund in the last year. She will know that her question is a matter for the Chancellor, and the matter will quite possibly—I really do not know—be dealt with at a future fiscal event. There is no news on that at this stage.
Anglesey has an active autism parents’ group, and brilliant coaches like Ryan Gibbs—he runs a “fighting for Autism” class—who work hard to support autistic children and each other. For parents such as Shelly Rankin Jones and young autistic people such as Becca Pierce, can the Minister update the House on the Buckland review of autism employment?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question, because autism is an issue of great importance to the House and to her personally. I know about the work that she is doing with Ryan Gibbs, Becca Pierce and Shelly Rankin Jones. She will know that the Buckland review was instigated in April 2023 and will conclude relatively shortly, with a report being published online. I look forward to visiting her disability jobs fair in Holyhead at the end of this week.
This morning the Office for National Statistics published the long-awaited updated figures from the labour market survey. Can the Secretary of State now confirm that our employment rate is even lower than previously thought, and that there are at least 200,000 more people out of work due to long-term sickness? We thought that the cost of health-related inactivity was an additional £15 billion a year since the pandemic, but given these new figures, can he tell the House how much more his Government’s failure is costing taxpayers every single year?
Order. I remind Front Benchers that this is topical questions, which are meant to be short and punchy, and they should stick to the rules. Do we understand each other?
The hon. Lady refers to the latest weighted numbers just released by the Office for National Statistics, which show that unemployment as a percentage is lower than originally forecast. She cannot get away from the fact that there are 330,000 fewer people in economic inactivity since the peak. As a result of our work capability assessment reforms, the Office for Budget Responsibility has scored us as having 371,000 fewer people on long-term sickness benefits than would otherwise have been the case.
“the economic hit will be hard”.
The Minister would do well to listen to his words. Yesterday, the Education Secretary said that the Government cannot guarantee that their promises will be met on childcare, which parents need in order to work. Today, their Prime Minister admitted that he has failed on NHS waiting lists, which the long-term sick need dealt with if they are to get back to work. Why does the Secretary of State not do the decent thing and admit that he has failed too, and adopt Labour’s plan to cut waits, roll out breakfast clubs, overhaul jobcentres and get Britain working again?
We are getting Britain working, unlike the Opposition, under whose last Administration unemployment increased, youth unemployment went up by 40%, some 25% more women were unemployed and 1 million people or thereabouts were stuck on long-term benefits for almost a decade. That was a disgrace.
Like my hon. Friend, I am excited about the jobs and opportunities at Sizewell. Local jobcentres have been engaged with Sizewell C, and I understand that a local partnership manager will be designated to promote opportunities, and to find people for 1,500 apprenticeships and thousands of jobs. We will invest in local skills through sector-based work programmes and the like.
I call the spokesperson for the Scottish National party.
Last month, a report by the pension provider Royal London showed that women lose, on average, £92,000 as a result of juggling part-time work and childcare. What are the Government going to do about that?
As the hon. Gentleman will have heard earlier, the proportion of women saving for their pensions has gone from 40% 10 years ago to 89% now.
People with disabilities often take on voluntary roles, as there can be societal barriers to gaining employment. My constituent Philippa has a son with Down’s syndrome who volunteers, providing much-valued music workshops for local children. How can the Minister ensure that the work of people with disabilities is properly recognised in the workplace?
I congratulate Philippa’s son on the very good work that he does. We have disability employment advisers in our jobcentres. I am visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency later this week; I know that he has been involved in the Denbighshire project, including the We Mind the Gap programme for young people, and I will be interested to discuss that and other matters.
Fife Gingerbread, based in my constituency, contacted me to point out that most of the provisions in the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act 2023, which was unanimously agreed by the House and received Royal Assent at the end of June last year, have still not been brought into force. That means that far too many vulnerable people who want to make a claim through the Child Maintenance Service find that abusive ex-partners use it to control their behaviour. Why is it taking so long to put in place the measures in the Act?
I wish to place on record my thanks to the Secretary of State for helping to guide my private Member’s Bill through Parliament. It lowers the pension auto-enrolment age from 22 to 18, and abolishes the lower earnings threshold. Briefly, has the Secretary of State received reassurances from the Chancellor that the necessary forms will be implemented in the spring Budget?
Given that the Secretary of State has just said that the continuation of the household support fund after the end of March is up to the Chancellor, and given that, last week, we had the support of all parties in Westminster Hall for the continuation of this vital fund, will he assure the House that the subject is a top priority in his negotiations with the Chancellor?
The specifics of my negotiations with the Treasury remain between me and the Treasury. As I have said, the any of those decisions on the HSF are matters for the Treasury.
In 2005, the DWP failed to make a reasonable decision about targeting information at the women affected by state pension age changes. The ombudsman ruled that there was maladministration. These women, in Dudley and around the country, deserve more than just an apology. Does the Minister accept these findings, and if not, will he explain why not?
The Department is co-operating with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman investigation, which is ongoing, and it would not be appropriate to comment on it or the outcome.
My constituent’s universal credit payments have been stopped over Christmas for two years running, because her employer pays her salary early in December. Why will Ministers not do more to ensure that caseworkers know that they can use the discretion that they have, so that my constituents and others like her have financial certainty at what is a very difficult time of year?
The way that universal credit works means that work coaches can use their flexibility, but if a payment is short one month, the appropriate thing to do is to sort it the next.
In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State mentioned the assessment period for cost of living payments, but people on four-weekly pay schedules miss out on support because they fall foul of the assessment period rules for universal credit. What assessment have the Government made of the number of people missing out, and what remedy do they have?
Cost of living payments can be affected by when people are paid, and therefore by whether they are on universal credit and qualify at precisely that point. I do not have the figure to hand that the hon. Lady requests, but I will of course get back to her with it.
This morning’s report by the Academy of Medical Sciences revealed that our appalling child health and infant mortality rates are worse than those of 60% of similar countries and is the key driver of child poverty. What assessment has the Secretary of State undertaken to make on the impact that stopping the household support fund in April will have on relative child poverty and, subsequently, infant mortality?
As the hon. Lady will know, the number of those in child poverty has decreased by 400,000 since 2010. We do not yet have a decision on the household support fund, to which she refers, but I point her to the very significant uplift in the local housing allowance, which will give 1.6 million people £800 a year more on average, thereby taking many of them out of poverty.
From unanswered emails to unreturned calls, it has been heartbreaking to hear from so many vulnerable constituents who are in a state of limbo and distress, and trying to chase up personal independence payments. When will Ministers ensure that people can get the support that they need in a timely and straightforward manner?
I call the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee.
Will the Secretary of State point out to the Chancellor that many councils have used the household support fund to pay £3 per day per child during the school holidays to families entitled to free school meals, and that if the fund closes at the end of March, those families will be straight into hardship in the Easter school holidays?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his representation, and indeed would be grateful for any others that he is minded to make to me as we conduct our ongoing review on where we go with the household support fund.
I would be delighted to do so on my tour of England. I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. My father is an engineer. It is a fantastic profession, and the more we can encourage apprenticeships right across the board, the better. Nearly 6 million people have now taken them up. I would be delighted to come.