Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 17 May 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 4:15, 17 May 2022

My Lords, on behalf of all noble Lords, I thank Her Majesty for her gracious Speech. I am grateful for the privilege of opening today’s debate on the Motion for an humble Address. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Her Majesty for the outstanding service and dedication to our country over these last 70 years. Her Majesty is deservedly held in the highest regard and deepest affection across the country and around the world, and it is an honour to serve in her Government.

Today, I will outline the Government’s plans regarding education, welfare, health and public services. These are at the heart of our mission to level up: to spread opportunity right across the country so that no matter where someone lives, where they were born or who their parents are, no matter what their background, health condition or circumstance, they can access excellent public services to improve their quality of life and realise their potential.

To deliver this levelling-up agenda, our public services and the Civil Service need to be set up in the right way so that we can deliver in an efficient and timely way for all parts of the UK, while we also focus on delivering front-line reforms that will improve lives: such as the Schools Bill that will level up standards in schools so they deliver for every child; by strengthening the academy trust system and supporting more schools to become academies; reforming attendance measures; and delivering the long-standing commitment of a direct national funding formula. Alongside this, it will improve the protection of children across a range of educational settings, making sure that the most vulnerable are not falling through the cracks.

The Government will also introduce a Bill to ensure our post-18 education system promotes real social mobility, is financially sustainable and will support young people to get the skills they need to meet their career aspirations and help grow the economy. In addition, the Government are fulfilling our 2019 manifesto commitment by taking steps to strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities in England. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will strengthen existing freedom of speech duties and directly address gaps within the existing law, including the lack of a clear enforcement mechanism. This will help ensure that, as a country, we have the skills our economy and employers need for the future while providing young people with the very best start in life, so they can pave a solid path towards their future. Developing the right skills is key to unlocking greater prospects and prosperity for young people and adults alike. That is why the Prime Minister introduced the lifetime skills guarantee, so adults have the opportunity to gain new qualifications for free to help them to gain in-demand skills and secure great jobs.

We understand that there are some people in this country who, for a variety of reasons, cannot work and we are committed to providing the support these people need. That is why we are spending £242 billion overall on welfare and £64 billion on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions in Great Britain this year. Understanding people’s personal circumstances is an integral part of the universal credit system. Each claimant signs a claimant commitment, which is a mutually agreed contract between the claimant and the department. Sanctions are at very low levels and will be administered only when a claimant fails to comply with a requirement in the commitment, which is tailored to each claimant’s circumstances.

We know, however, that for those who are able to, work is the best and most sustainable route to raising living standards and lifting people out of poverty, and we want as many people as possible to take advantage of this and stand on their own two feet. The evidence shows that working-age adults in a job are around six times less likely to be in absolute poverty after housing costs than those not working. The latest data from 2019-20 shows there were 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty before housing costs compared to 2010, with nearly 1 million fewer workless households and almost 540,000 fewer children living in workless households than in 2010. During this time, we have placed a sustained focus on making work pay—for example, through universal credit, and we entered the pandemic with the highest levels of employment this country has ever seen.

Since then, our plan for jobs, together with the great work of our jobcentre work coaches across the country, has been hugely successful in supporting, creating and protecting jobs and helping people get the skills and experience they need to move into, or back into, work. For example, sector-based work academies have supported people to move from struggling to surging sectors such as social care and engineering. Our job entry targeted support programme, which we have extended to September, supports the recently unemployed with specialist advice on how people can move into growing sectors, as well as with CV and interview coaching. Restart is providing intensive support for claimants unemployed for more than nine months and we aim to help 1 million people by June 2024. Kickstart has enabled over 162,000 jobs to be started by young people. Unemployment is now back to low levels, as we saw before Covid. In fact, today’s labour market stats show that the unemployment rate fell to 3.7% in the first three months of the year, which is the lowest since 1974.

In 2017, the Government set a goal to see 1 million more disabled people in employment between 2017 and 2027. The latest figures show that between this quarter and the same quarter in 2017 the number of disabled people in employment increased by 1.3 million, meaning that the goal has been met in half the time set and demonstrating just how much progress has been made. Through our disability and health White Paper, which we will publish later this year, we will set out our plans to help even more disabled people to start, stay and succeed in work where possible, and to live independently through a more effective health and disability benefits system.

We are committed to improving the nation’s mental health by modernising the Mental Health Act and will shortly publish a draft mental health Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. It will contain draft measures that will allow for greater patient choice and autonomy, help us address racial disparities that currently exist within the Act and make it easier for people with learning disabilities or autism to be discharged from hospital.

We also need to focus on education. The special educational needs and disabilities—SEND—Green Paper, for example, aims to deliver a more inclusive education system with excellent local mainstream provision providing targeted support at the right time for those with special educational needs.

Through the Conversion Therapy Bill, we will continue our commitment to ensuring the safety of individuals by bringing forward a ban that protects everyone from attempts to change their sexual orientation. Recognising the complexity of issues, we will progress work to consider the issue of transgender conversion therapy further. Our actions to protect people from conversion therapy extend beyond legislating. We will deliver a support service for victims via a contracted helpline and website, which will provide initial pastoral support and signpost to services such as counselling and advice about emergency housing. This support service will be open to everyone who has been through, or is going through, conversion therapy, regardless of their background or identity.

Although it is a huge achievement to have the lowest unemployment since 1974, after the last two years we have been through, we know that many people up and down the country face huge pressures at the moment with the rising cost of living. We are keeping measures under review and doing all we can to help people, while maintaining a responsible fiscal position to ensure that we can continue to provide support in the longer term.

As we heard from the Bank of England, there is absolutely no room for complacency about unemployment and the wider economy. Alongside this, we are taking action to cushion the impact of price rises on people’s pockets, providing £22 billion of support. The Chancellor’s £9 billion energy package provides a £150 discount on council tax for those living in properties in bands A to D and the £144 million discretionary fund is available through local councils. The £200 rebate on energy bills this year will help spread the costs of the expected increase over the next few years. We have also extended the household support fund, providing a further £500 million to help households most in need with the cost of essentials: £421 million is being made available to households in England, as well as £79 million for the devolved authorities.

With more than a million vacancies available in the labour market right now, filling these posts means fulfilling potential and providing help with a pay packet. That is why the DWP is pulling out all the stops to get more people, including disabled people, moving into jobs and, importantly, progressing in them so that they can boost their pay, prospects and prosperity. For example, through our Way to Work scheme, we are getting people into jobs more quickly, with the aim to get 500,000 claimants into work by June. Way to Work is helping people move into any job now, to get a better job tomorrow and build a longer-term career.

To help people progress at work when they land a job, we are rolling out a new national in-work progression offer to provide extra support for claimants to build the skills, confidence and contacts they need to get on at work and move up the career ladder. This is underpinned by the stronger work incentives we have introduced as a result of lowering the universal credit taper rate from 63% to 55% and increasing the work allowance by £500 a year, which means people can keep more of what they earn.

As well helping people progress in the labour market, DWP also helps some of the most vulnerable people in society. That important work is about helping improve people’s quality of life, including those going through the most challenging of times. To improve their lives, we need to continually look at how we can improve the system.

The Social Security (Special Rules for End of Life) Bill will ensure that thousands more people nearing the end of life can access benefits sooner, without needing a face-to-face assessment or waiting period. The Bill extends eligibility so that those expected to live for 12 months or less, rather than six, will get fast-tracked access to three disability benefits: personal independence payment, attendance allowance and disability living allowance. It builds on changes we have already made to universal credit and employment support allowance. It will ensure a consistent end-of-life definition across the NHS, and health and welfare services more broadly, and introduces easily understood criteria which support implementation. The changes will ensure that we have a system that works—a system that gives those affected the support they need when they need it, and one that clinicians and charities can engage in with confidence. Above all, it is the right thing to do to help those facing the end of their lives with earlier and faster access to financial support.

At the heart of policies, processes and procedures are people. If we are to deliver on levelling up and break down the barriers people face, we must make sure that the government services on which people rely meet their needs.

That is why I am proud of the landmark British Sign Language Act. It legally recognises British Sign Language and requires the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to report regularly on what each relevant government department has done to promote or facilitate the use of British Sign Language in its communications with the public. This will give us a much better understanding of how British Sign Language is being used across the Government, and how we can continue to improve communication for British Sign Language users.

More widely, the Government are bringing forward Bills to improve the way services are delivered and accessed by the public. The pandemic has shown how important it is that people are able to access government services online. Noble Lords will remember that, as a modern, digital and dynamic system, universal credit successfully stood up at the start of the pandemic when it faced a case load that almost doubled in the first year. Through the OneLogin programme, we will make it easier for more people to use a range of government services online. This will provide a single account for any member of the public in the UK to log in, prove their identity and access all central government services.

Through the procurement reform Bill, we will replace the bureaucratic EU regime for contracting services with a simpler, more flexible commercial system that is better and meets the needs of our country, while also complying with our international obligations.

That is in conjunction with various government initiatives to improve IT systems, such as the modernisation of the Child Maintenance Service. This feeds into the overall reform Bill and underlines the Government’s commitment to continually improve how they operate.

A key part of that is addressing the regional imbalance in where public sector roles are and where government operates from. Through our network of jobcentres, DWP has long forged deep and wide connections to communities across the country. Since the pandemic, we have increased our presence in even more towns and high streets, having opened 194 new jobcentre sites, 160 youth hubs and recruited 13,500 new work coaches. This is helping us to help more people in all corners of the country. Across government, we know we need to do more. That is why we are committed to moving 15,000 civil servants who design and make decisions about public services out of Greater London by 2025 and rooting them in more of the local communities they serve across the country.

Her Majesty’s gracious Speech reflects this Government’s commitment to levelling up across the United Kingdom, underpinned by our focus on changing the way public services are designed and delivered—looking beyond London to all parts of the UK. The reforms to education will spread opportunities and level up standards, ensuring that everyone can get the best from, and out of, school and higher education so that people can thrive in work and have the talent and skills our economy needs for the future.

Together with DWP’s expert support and focus on improving people’s quality of life, we want every person and every community to have hope, pride, opportunities and the satisfaction and dignity of knowing they achieved their potential and are not forgotten. My noble friend Lady Barran and I look forward to hearing all noble Lords’ valuable reflections on the measures I have outlined.