Work and Pensions Questions

18th December 2017

David Gauke answers questions from MPs on the work of the Department for Work and Pensions.

Disability Confident Scheme

 

1. What progress his Department is making on implementing the Disability Confident scheme. [902978]

Over 5,000 employers have signed up to Disability Confident since its launch in November 2016. The Disability Confident business leaders group, made up of prominent national businesses, is promoting the scheme to other employers. I am pleased to report that all the main ministerial Government Departments have now achieved Disability Confident leader status.

Does the Secretary of State agree that Disability Confident will prove to be an effective way of breaking down barriers for disabled people to get into work, particularly by addressing the issues of stigma that a lot of disabled people still feel? In that regard, would he consider attending my Disability Confident event in Halesowen on 26 January?

I will certainly consider my hon. Friend’s kind invitation. I agree that a lot of Disability Confident events have been very productive in engaging employers at local level and encouraging them to see the benefits of employing disabled people. The Department for Work and Pensions continues to support local authorities and MPs in holding such events, so maybe I will have the opportunity to attend one in his constituency.

The truth is that this simply is not working. My constituent, Alan, has just graduated with a BSc honours degree in computing technology. He is blind and has a guide dog to assist him, but when he tells prospective employers about this in advance, they just do not take his applications. He has applied for 857 jobs but he has got absolutely nowhere. What is he going to do?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. We have undoubtedly made progress in the last few years. We have 600,000 more disabled people in work than was the case in 2010, but there is more to do, which is why the Government have an ambition to increase the number from 3.5 million to 4.5 million over the course of 10 years. It is also why we published our recent Command Paper on the subject. It is really important to bring about a culture change among employers so that people like Alan can have those opportunities.

How many of the FTSE 250 companies have signed up to this excellent campaign?

That is a very good question, and I will have to write to my hon. Friend with the answer. I can tell him that businesses small and large have participated in the scheme, including large organisations such as Microsoft, GlaxoSmithKline, Sainsbury’s and Channel 4, as well as many small businesses up and down the country.

May I take this opportunity on behalf of my colleagues on the Scottish National party Benches to offer our sincere condolences to Mr Deputy Speaker after the weekend’s tragic incident? Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to Lindsay and his family.

The Chancellor told the Treasury Select Committee earlier this month that

“far higher levels of participation by marginal groups and very high levels of engagement in the workforce, for example, by disabled people, may have had an impact on the overall productivity measurement”.

The Chancellor belittled the efforts and contribution of disabled people in the workforce. How disappointed was the Secretary of State by that unhelpful statement?

First, I should like to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the Deputy Speaker, who has the thoughts of the whole House with him at this time.

In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s question, however, I disagree with him. The point that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was seeking to make is that we have made great progress in recent years on increasing the level of disabled people in work. That is a good thing to do, and he made it clear that he considered it to be a good thing. That is what the whole Government want to achieve.

The small employment adviser at Rugby jobcentre has just signed up 15 new employers to become Disability Confident. Does the Secretary of State agree that the role of those officers in building links with small employers in local areas is crucial to ensuring that more disabled people get access to the workplace?

Yes, I do. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is really important that that engagement happens up and down the country, and I am pleased that we are making progress. As I have said, we have over 5,000 Disability Confident employers, and I hope that we will continue to increase that number. My Department will certainly be doing everything it can to achieve that.

In the recently published “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families” paper, the Government said that they wanted to work in partnership with employers to help them to draw fully on the talents of disabled people. However, following the Chancellor’s recent comments scapegoating disabled people as being the reason for low productivity, does the Secretary of State agree that there is a need for a clear and coherent message from the Government that employing disabled people can enhance productivity and make a real contribution to organisations and businesses across the UK?

There is a clear and coherent message from this Government. We have seen significant increases in the number of disabled people in work, which is good for disabled people, but it is also good for the economy as a whole. That continues to be our message, and that is why we published our “Improving Lives” document. We will continue to work to improve the opportunities for disabled people in the labour market.

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Universal Credit: Food Bank Usage

 

6. If he will make an assessment of the effect of the length of waiting time to receive universal credit on levels of food bank usage. [902983]

15. If he will make an assessment of the effect of the length of waiting time to receive universal credit on levels of food bank usage. [902992]

There is no reason for people to go without support while they wait for their first UC payment. New benefit claimants starting on UC today will be able to access an advance. This is normally paid within five working days, but can be delivered in a day if needed. Changes announced in the Budget will allow claimants to receive larger advances and for advances to be recovered over a longer period.

Given the waiting period for universal credit, people face a choice: they can have no money to buy food, so either use a food bank or starve, or they can get a loan, as the Secretary of State says. Does he agree that pushing people who are already on a low income because they are on a benefit into debt in this way is totally unacceptable?

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s categorisation at all. The complaint that has been made about universal credit is about the cash-flow point—that people have to wait a period of time before they get their first payment. To address the cash-flow point there is a system of advances in the universal credit system so that people have the flexibility to receive the money earlier. It is an advance, they get it paid earlier—they do not get it paid twice, I accept that, but they get it paid earlier—and it is a perfectly sensible way to address a cash-flow issue.

The Peabody Trust estimates that 60,000 households will have made a new universal credit claim in the six weeks before Christmas and will not receive their first payment before the holiday period. The need is already being felt in my constituency, where last week Norwood food bank provided food for an extraordinary 128 people in a single session. What is the Secretary of State’s advice to families who are trying to provide a happy Christmas for their children without the means to afford even basic necessities?

We should be clear: if people need cash before Christmas, they are able to get it under the universal credit system, which is designed so that they can do that. People trying to discourage claimants from taking an advance, which I am afraid is the tone that we hear too often from the Labour party, are causing unnecessary anxiety for claimants.

The chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority has recently warned about high levels of debt among young people incurred just by their covering basic household bills such as rent. Young people aged 18 to 21 are not entitled to housing support under universal credit. Why did the Government ignore a Social Security Advisory Committee recommendation that young people on the edge of care should be exempted from that?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, there are a whole host of exemptions that do allow 18 to 21-year-olds to access housing benefit, if those exemptions apply to them. I have to come back to this point, which the Labour party does not seem to accept: the best way in which we can sustainably lift people out of poverty is to have a welfare system that encourages them to work and to progress in work. That is what universal credit does and it is what the legacy system failed to do, which is why we are making these changes.

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Job Creation

 

10. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the number of jobs created since 2010. [902987]

The number of people in employment has increased by more than 3 million since 2010 to reach 32 million in the last quarter. The employment rate is close to the record high and has increased by almost five percentage points since 2010.

Despite a small recent decline in total employment, unemployment has continued to fall. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this suggests that the Government’s policies and the work of our great jobcentres across the country are making all the difference in matching jobseekers with available jobs? As it is Christmas, would he thank Ian Spalding—the manager of the Newark jobcentre—and his fantastic staff for ensuring that unemployment in Newark is now at 1%?

I will very happily join my hon. Friend in thanking Ian Spalding and, indeed, Jobcentre Plus staff up and down the country, who do a fantastic job in helping to reduce unemployment. I think that the claimant count in Newark has fallen by 42% since 2010. In the meetings that I have had with jobcentre staff across the country, I have seen that they are enthusiastically implementing universal credit because they can see that it will help them to make further progress.

Is the Secretary of State not aware that hundreds of thousands of people in this country are yearning for a good and well-paid job? Many are young people who cannot get an apprenticeship. Apprenticeship starts are down by 62% this year and further education colleges are in trouble. When is he going to do something about training young people and really giving them the chance of a good job on good pay?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the recent apprenticeship numbers were affected by a spike at the end of the previous period, but the reality is that we have substantially increased the number of apprenticeships in recent years. We have introduced the apprenticeship levy, which puts apprenticeships on a sustainable financial footing. It is this Government, with our industrial strategy, who are ensuring that we create the highly skilled jobs that the country needs.

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Social Security Spending: Working Households

16. What assessment his Department has made of trends in the level of spending on social security for working households since 2015. [902993]

Since 2015, the level of social security spending for families on in-work benefits has reduced from £28.9 billion to £26.7 billion in real terms. This has happened during a period when we have introduced the national living wage, employment has reached record levels, free childcare has doubled, the personal allowance has increased and income inequality has continued to fall.

With 8 million people living in poverty in working households and 28% of my constituents earning below the voluntary living wage, what action is the Secretary of State taking to address labour market inequalities with low-paid, low-skilled and insecure work?

Let me give the hon. Lady two examples. First, there is the industrial strategy. Secondly, if we want to address in-work poverty, one way in which we can do that is to ensure that people are able to work extra hours. We need a benefits system that does not trap them in working 16 hours a week, because if they can work extra hours, they can increase their income.

Looking back over these trends, has the Secretary of State drawn the conclusion that every Labour Government leaves office with higher unemployment than when they took office? What impact does he believe that that has on working families?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We heard a very revealing comment earlier when it was said from the Labour Front Bench that work is not the route out of poverty. If work is not the route out of poverty, exactly what is?

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Topical Questions

 

T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [903003]

Since automatic enrolment was introduced in 2012, 9 million people have been enrolled in a workplace pension by over 900,000 employers. Today, I can announce the Government’s ambition to extend automatic enrolment to support more people to achieve greater financial security in later life. The Government’s 2017 review of automatic enrolment, published today, sets out the next steps we intend to take as we continue to develop a culture of routine pension saving. We will help young people to save by lowering the age for automatic enrolment from 22 to 18. We will also enable people to start saving from the first £1 of their earnings to provide a better retirement income for lower earners and for those in multiple jobs. I have today tabled a written statement setting out further detail, including trialling a number of targeted approaches to identify the most effective ways to increase pension saving among the self-employed.

The universities superannuation scheme is a strong pension scheme that recently closed its defined-benefits section, moving to a defined-contribution scheme and, in effect, transferring all risk to the employee. Many argue that over-cautious accounting rules drive these changes, creating a poorer scheme that leaves many people less well off in future and puts pressure on our universities. What is the Secretary of State doing to protect the future of our higher education sector?

Any changes that might be made to this scheme are a matter for the scheme’s joint negotiation committee, not for the Government. The independent Pensions Regulator remains in ongoing discussion with the USS’s stakeholders. Nothing has been brought to the DWP’s attention that we consider to be of concern. It would be improper for the Government to tell the joint negotiation committee how to run the scheme.

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Reports suggest that the Foreign Secretary, the Environment Secretary and others used this morning’s Cabinet meeting to start the campaign to scrap the working time directive after Brexit. That directive protects us when it comes to hours worked and paid holidays, as well as giving extra protection to night shift workers. Can the Secretary of State confirm what representations he has made at Cabinet to ensure that his Brexiteer colleagues are not successful at ripping up our workers’ rights?

As I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said, “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.” The Government are committed to protecting employment rights.

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T8. I thank my right hon. Friend for the flexibility he has shown in the budget in terms of the changes to universal credit. Will he continue with the dialogue and the flexibility as the roll-out continues? [903011]

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to listen to constructive critics and those who want to make sure that universal credit works. In doing so, I thank him for his positive and constructive engagement. It is very clear that Conservative Members are united in ensuring that we deliver universal credit successfully.

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With the uncertainty of universal credit payments following the roll-out in Swansea last week, my local paper, the South Wales Evening Post, has co-ordinated the collection of food and warm clothes to help those in need. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the South Wales Evening Post on doing what the Government are failing to do, and making sure everyone has a good Christmas?

What I would say to anyone—Members of Parliament, newspapers, advisory bodies and food banks—is that we need to make sure that the facts are set out to new claimants: if they need to get access to support, they can get it quickly; they need to get in contact with their jobcentre; and they are able to access an advance, and they can get that money before Christmas.

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Every year, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is lost due to fraud or errors in benefit claims. Will the Secretary of State say whether the introduction of universal credit will improve this situation?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the areas of good news about universal credit is the fact that it will enable us to reduce fraud by over £1 billion. That in itself is an important step, and there are of course many other very positive reasons why universal credit is a good thing.

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Croxley Rail Link Petition

Surgeries

David holds regular surgeries at various places in the constituency, including Rickmansworth, South Oxhey, Berkhamsted and Tring. 
 
Forthcoming dates:

2018

4th May, Berkhamsted
18th May, Rickmansworth
8th June, Tring
22nd June, South Oxhey
6th July, Berkhamsted
20th July, Rickmansworth

Call 01923 771781 to make an appointment.

Record of surgeries

 

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