No-fault Benefit Debts

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Thursday 21st July 2022

(3 weeks, 3 days ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Linden Portrait David Linden
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I thank the hon. Gentleman. When I and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) visited his constituency office on holiday during the Easter break, I saw at first hand how hard he works for his constituents; there were piles of casework all around him that day. His intervention is born of the fact that he is a hard-working constituency MP and can see the reality of this issue. He is right to call for that special clause.

Speaking about the rule before the introduction of universal credit, the then Employment Minister, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), said:

“The practical reality is that we do not have to recover money from people where official error has been made, and we do not intend, in many cases, to recover money where official error has been made.”––[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 19 May 2011; c. 1019.]

Yet the DWP almost always asks for the money back now. Overpaid claimants can ask the DWP to waive recovery, but only about 10 waiver requests were successful in 2020-21, set against 337,000 new overpayments caused by DWP mistakes in the same period. The DWP openly asserts that it will abandon recovery only in “exceptional” cases.

When the DWP insists on recovering a no-fault debt, it has the power to make large deductions from somebody’s future universal credit payments—up to 15% of their standard allowance. To be clear for those watching today’s proceedings at home, I should say that the standard allowance is the amount that the Government believe a person needs to live on, so reducing it by 15% certainly causes hardship. The Government have already suspended energy companies from that, so why on earth are they doing it?

All this is out of line with basic ideas about fairness and fault. The rules about recovering overpayments are very different from what they were for the legacy benefits and tax credits that the universal credit system replaces.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. There is another issue here—this goes back to fairness—about the case law on the overpayment of wages, where there is an error in law and an error in fact. Perhaps that is something the Department should reconsider.

Oral Answers to Questions

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Monday 11th July 2022

(1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Julie Marson Portrait Julie Marson
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It seems churlish, on day one, to mention the Labour party’s record on jobs. Every time it has left power, it has left more people unemployed than when it started.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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9. What support her Department is providing to benefit claimants to help meet increased living costs.

David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (David Rutley)
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Our £15 billion cost of living package includes a one-off £650 cost of living payment to low-income households in receipt of a means-tested benefit, a one-off £150 disability cost of living payment, and a £300 top-up to the winter fuel payment for pensioners. That is on top of a wider package of measures that takes the total Government help for households to £37 billion this year.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The Minister will be aware that during a recent Work and Pensions Committee meeting, the Secretary of State told me that she was not satisfied with the progress of bereavement benefits for cohabiting partners, and that she was meeting her officials the next day. When will the second remedial order be laid so that people who would qualify for that benefit can meet their living costs?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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The hon. Member is a determined terrier on this issue, and understandably so. Important issues have been raised and it is vital that we get it right. We are carefully considering the issues and we will lay the order before the House as soon as we are able. In parallel, DWP officials are working at pace on implementation plans for the order, as I have discussed with him separately.

Cost of Living

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 5th July 2022

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to follow my good friend, the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), and it is a pleasure to be a member of that Committee in holding the Government to account. I of course refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, particularly my role as chair of the PCS parliamentary group, as I will have some things to say about the office closures issue.

I want to start with the Secretary of State’s appearance at the Work and Pensions Committee last week, when she said that, on Thursday, she was going to meet her officials to discuss a second remedial order on bereavement support benefits for cohabiting couples. This is a very important issue, and we have had many great campaigners, including my Glasgow South West constituent Ailsa MacKenzie, who has been in the vanguard of pushing this issue. I hope the Minister will update the House on that issue, because it affects many thousands of people. The quicker we get the remedial order laid down, the quicker people can start receiving those bereavement support payments, which will no doubt help them deal with the cost of living crisis.

Let me touch on what I think lies at the heart of the problems in the Department for Work and Pensions: the start of the claim, the five-week wait and the deductions that come with that. The Minister responded to a written question from me, and the figures are becoming increasingly alarming. Ever since, I have periodically tabled such questions, and the number of deductions and the amount deducted have increased over the past 18 months. A total of £11 million a month is now being taken off claimants as a result of deductions. In my view, that has become a poverty tax.

For example, figures show that in February this year, 189,000 households in Scotland—an increase of 9,000 in just three months—had an average of £60 deducted from their social security payments. That is mainly to pay back the loans issued by the Department to cover the five-week wait at the beginning of a new claim, but some of it is due to overpayments, which include the Department’s errors. I hope the Department will look at that issue, because there is already case law when it comes to pay. By law, if there has been a mistake and someone has been overpaid, the employer cannot take that back. I suggest that if the Department has made a genuine error, it should not be deducting payments from future claims. I hope the Government will look at that, because a number of organisations have said that a deduction should not be made if the Department for Work and Pensions is to blame.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
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Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the lack of reassurance regarding top-up payments, as announced by the Chancellor last week? We may end up in the same situation, because if DWP accidentally gives that money to someone, it might try to claw it back, putting people in an even worse state of poverty than they are in already.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I share that concern, and I hope the Department will respond positively to the concerns that hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), have raised.

On departmental error, taking £60 a month from people who require state support can be the difference between whether they can buy food or not, or whether they can heat their homes. I am sometimes a bit concerned about the phrase “heat or eat”, because some people will now not be able to do either. That is the desperate situation that far too many people face across these islands, particularly with the cost of living being so high.

On the one-off payments, the Department appears to have conceded the point that grants are better than loans. I welcome that, but I hope it will now look seriously at the report by the Work and Pensions Committee about the five-week wait and introduce a non-repayable grant—a starter payment, as we call it—within two weeks of the claim. That would stop people getting into debt as a result of deductions, and I suggest that it would save money on administration, compared with paying people after five weeks and then deducting £60 a month from them. It seems a false economy to insist on continuing the five-week wait, and then going back and deducting money from people’s claims.

A good friend of mine, Andrew Forsey, director of the charity Feeding Britain, which is involved with Threehills community supermarket in Glasgow South West, recently said:

“Last year, figures like these prompted the DWP to lower the cap on deductions and double the length of time people had to repay those upfront loans. What these latest figures show is that there remains a lot more work to be done, to bring these deductions down still further, if people are to have the money they need each month to put food on the table.”

The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee mentioned no recourse to public funds, and I agree with what he said. I hope the Department will look seriously, once again, at the Committee’s report that recommends extending child benefit to all children, irrespective of their parents’ immigration status. The right hon. Gentleman laid that out well, and, as someone who represents a city that has signed up to the Home Office’s asylum seeker dispersal scheme, I know this is a very real issue. In areas where asylum seekers have become refugees, it was certainly an issue during covid. I hope the Department will go back and look at that.

We need more resources to go into ensuring that those who are entitled to pension credit receive it. It is reckoned that between 65% and 70% of people who are entitled to pension credit receive it. I would like the Department to do more work on that, and I would like more resources to go into working with pensioners’ groups and various third-sector organisations to ensure that those who are entitled to pension credit get it. It seems to be a very real issue, and some of the statistics from the independent charity Age UK about the amount of unpaid claims for pension credit suggest that the figure is far too high; it is in the millions. Frankly, that pension credit could do a lot of good for pensioners who are dealing with increasing food and fuel costs.

Finally, let me raise my concern about office closures by the Department for Work and Pensions; I know that you also have a constituency interest in this subject, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have Government offices in areas of high economic deprivation, and the Department is one of the largest employers in some constituencies, but it wants to close those offices. That will not just impact on people employed by the Department, although of course it will do that, but have a wider effect on the economy. Many small businesses round and about those offices rely on custom from people who work in the Department, and I refer the Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), who has done a survey on this issue in relation to the proposed closure of the Springburn office.

The Department seems to want to take out far too many of the 91,000 jobs that the Government want to cut. The Department responsible for employment and helping people get into work really should not be laying off its own workers and throwing people into unemployment; that would send completely the wrong message and make no sense whatsoever. I will leave it there, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I hope—indeed, I am sure—that I will get a positive response from the Minister to all the points I have raised.

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Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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I recognise what the hon. Member says. I visited Glasgow last week—the constituency of my friend the hon. Member for Glasgow South West is there—and it was interesting to see the reforms being introduced there, particularly those for disabled people.

Many hon. Members will not be aware of yesterday’s report from Deaths by Welfare, which provided even more evidence of the impact of the so-called reforms on premature deaths and suicides. It had a timeline that showed when there had been reforms and further cuts, and what they meant in terms of deaths of vulnerable social security claimants. Another recent report shows a detrimental impact on social cohesion. The University of Newcastle quantified that, between 2013 and 2015, for every £100 lost in income per working age adult, motivated hate crimes increased by about 6%. The effects are much wider than the Government recognise.

My second point is about the pandemic. We know that people on the lowest incomes, and particularly those reliant on social security support, were disproportionately and negatively affected by covid. They were more likely to be exposed to the virus and to be infected, and they were more likely to be seriously ill and die. Within that group are disabled people. After adjusting for a range of factors including health, the Office for National Statistics has estimated that disabled people were between 1.3 and 1.6 times more at risk of death from covid. The reasons for those disproportionate deaths must be investigated in the covid public inquiry, but given the context that I have just described—the inadequacy of our social security system—the contribution of the cuts in social security support cannot be ignored.

On the cost of living package and its impact on the DWP spending estimates, of course I welcome the package, but I have just spent the past few minutes describing the context and, much though the Government congratulate themselves on what they are doing, it just about scratches the surface of the cuts that they have made. I must, as others have done, highlight some of the gaps in the package. As support is on a household basis, larger families will not get the same support as smaller families. As the Resolution Foundation suggested, in the light of inflation, a 9.5% uplift to all social security support would have been more progressive than the 3.1% awarded at the beginning of the year, and would have taken us beyond the Chancellor’s stop-start, ad hoc approach.

My concern is that the cost of living will not just be an issue this year; it will carry on—and what will the Government do then? We need principles that ensure that all social security support is uplifted to account for inflation.

As my friend the hon. Member for Glasgow South West mentioned, there are huge issues with deductions. We asked the Secretary of State about that last week. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, StepChange and many other charities have pointed out that 4.6 million households are in arrears on at least one bill, so what is handed out with one hand will be clawed back by another. I join those charities and hon. Members in their calls to reduce the amount that can be deducted from the universal credit standard allowance; it is now 25%. I would like it to be less than 15%. When the deductions are for debts to Government—figures indicate that the Government are the largest debt collector—it would only be reasonable to reduce it to 5%.

My final point is that given the cuts in spending and the culture in the Department, our social security system does not provide the safety net that everybody thinks it does. I really like the approach being introduced in Scotland, which is not about people proving that they are entitled to support; there is trust. We should try to make that the basis of the culture in England as well.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I thank the hon. Lady, my good friend, for giving way. She mentions culture; there is also the issue that sanctions are part of that culture. It had seemed that we were persuading the Government to introduce a system in which there were warnings before sanctions, but they seem to have rowed back on that. Does that not add to the concern that she rightly raised about the culture?

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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We have spoken many times about that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have a system in which there is conditionality, but I believe that there are other ways of recognising that than by taking away somebody’s income and making things even harder for them.

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Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to take part in this estimates day debate. I do love estimates day; it is wonderful every time that this rolls around—I am not being sarcastic, I promise.

I will talk briefly about the shortcomings of the estimates process. We are discussing the DWP estimate today—which involves spending of £240 billion—under, I think, Standing Orders 53 and 54, which were written before I was born. We are unable to table meaningful amendments in relation to £240 billion of spending because of the way in which the Standing Orders are written. That is shocking. Has anyone here ever tried to explain the Budget process to people outside the House? Have they ever tried to explain the fact that we have to stand here and discuss hundreds of billions of pounds of expenditure without any meaningful way to amend that? It is absolutely ridiculous, flawed and deeply inadequate.

The DWP’s objectives in the main estimates book are, first,

“Maximising employment and in-work progression”;

secondly,

“Improving people’s quality of life”;

and thirdly,

“Delivering excellent services for citizens and taxpayers”.

Those are the Department’s aims for the next year. I suggest that the Government have failed and continue to fail in what they are doing. I make it clear that that is not, for a second, the fault of DWP staff, who are working incredibly hard to make the social security additional payments.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Is it not ironic that the DWP says in the main estimates book that it wants to maximise employment when it is threatening its staff with redundancy?

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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It is, and it is ironic that the DWP is asking staff to step up and deal with its creaking, unfortunate, flawed computer system. It is asking them to do all this additional work to make that happen while failing to make the investment where it should be making it, in the computer system and in the people. I am also seeing a reduction in DWP office staff in Aberdeen. I very much hope that the Government change their mind about the direction in which they are going.

We have heard from Members across these Benches about the issues affecting people’s quality of life as a result of the DWP’s failures and the failures of the Government’s policies. Loads of people have mentioned the safety net. The whole point of a safety net is that it catches people. The point is not to make the holes as big as possible so that as many people as possible fall through. I would rather have a social security system like the one that we are building in Scotland; a social security system that ensures that everybody is caught by the safety net, so that everybody gets what they are entitled to and people do not accidentally fall through. This Government’s policy seems to be to give social security payments to as few people as they possibly can and to try very hard to set the bar as high as possible so that people cannot meet the requirements.

We have heard about the Scottish social security system and its openness compared with the DWP’s system, where the report on food banks and the equalities impact assessment were buried. Audit Scotland recently audited the Scottish social security system. It said:

“The Scottish Government has continued to successfully deliver new and complex social security benefits in challenging circumstances. This is a significant achievement. There is a conscious focus on the needs of service users, building on the principles of dignity, fairness, and respect. People are positive about their experiences of engaging with Social Security Scotland.”

How different that is from the views that we are hearing down here, from what is in our inboxes, from the absolute intransigence and the issues that people face every day when simply trying to get what they are entitled to.

The social security uprating fails to get anything close to inflationary levels this year. We have seen an increase, but it is nothing close to the level of inflation. In fact, the £650 payment that the Chancellor announced does not even cover the £1,000 that was taken off people last year—never mind going any way to cover the increase in the cost of living. The Chancellor, the Minister and the Secretary of State have repeatedly said, “But people are getting more, with the £650, than they would have if we had uprated benefits”. We are asking them to do both. We are asking them to adequately uprate the benefits and backdate that to April as well as to make the additional payments. Only then can we get to a situation that is close to helping with the cost of living.

This is a tale of two Governments. We can see that another country is possible. We can see the failings, with the bedroom tax, the benefit cap and the two-child policy being carried on with. We have heard a lot about no recourse to public funds. When we discussed the Social Security (Additional Payments) Bill last week, I mentioned that children were literally starving and I was scoffed at by Government Members. If we look at reports, we see that junior doctors talk about children presenting with rickets because of the level of malnutrition, because they have no recourse to public funds, because they have been sanctioned, or because they otherwise cannot afford to eat a healthy diet. Comments have been made about the lack of variety and the lack of healthiness in the diets provided by food banks, which try incredibly hard but just cannot meet the requirements. In addition, they cannot provide food for people who cannot afford electricity. If people cannot afford electricity to boil something in a pan, it is difficult for them to cook adequately.

In the main estimates book, the Government talk about providing £5.6 billion—that is the initial spend—under the Social Security (Additional Payments) Bill. However, they mention providing £37 billion for increases in the cost of living. That £37 billion is made up of additional payments, as the Chancellor has stated, but can the Minister confirm that he is including things in it like the freeze on alcohol duty? It cannot be said that the freeze on alcohol duty relates to improving the cost of living for people who cannot afford to eat.

I am pleased to have been able to talk about the DWP estimates today. What is happening is woefully, woefully inadequate. Our constituents are coming to us and we just cannot provide them with the hope that they need and want, because the Conservatives are digging their heels in and refusing to offer adequate support.

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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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As I have said, the Secretary of State will be looking at the wider economic environment when making these decisions.

Let me now pick up some other points that have been made today. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who is terrier-like in his tenacity, mentioned bereavement orders. The Secretary of State has met officials to discuss the proposed draft order, and they are now working on that as a priority. Others have referred to the five-week wait for universal credit payments. It is not possible to award payments as soon as a claim is made, because the assessment period must run its course before an award can be calculated, and it is not possible to determine accurately what the entitlement will be in the month ahead. Our measures will ensure that the correct entitlement is paid, and will prevent significant overpayments from being made.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Will the Minister give way, on that point?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I will give way, but this is the last time I shall do so, because I need to make some progress.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way, and also for his generous comments. The Select Committee did not argue that a payment could be made straight away; we argued that within two weeks of a claim, a starter payment could be made. Has the Department considered that as a way of addressing the five-week wait?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I have set out our approach, which is to ensure that advances are made available to help people in those difficult circumstances to get the money that they need.

Another point that has been raised is about deductions. We have systematically reduced the amount that can be deducted from benefits from 40% to 30% and now to 25%. If claimants have issues, they can go to the debt management service for further advice and support. Others have mentioned the carers allowance. I want to highlight, as I did in the recent Second Reading debate on the Social Security (Additional Payments) Bill, that the carers allowance is not a means-tested benefit. Nearly 60% of working-age people who are carers will get the cost of living payments, as they are means-tested benefits, or disability benefits. Carers allowance is paid on an individual basis to people in households across the income scale, so they may live in a household that is able to receive the £650 payment or the disability payment as well, which will help them to pay the bills in their own households. We also talked about how larger families will be getting the same payment as individuals. This is because we needed to get the payment out fast to as many people as possible. We will be making the means-tested benefit-related cost of living payment from 14 July, and that is absolutely critical. We were not able to develop a system that would account for every single eventuality.

I conclude by saying that this Government have worked incredibly hard over recent years to ensure that we help people to get into work, that we make work pay and that we support people with the cost of essentials. The latest cost of living payments that have been made and the additions to the household support fund demonstrate that we are absolutely committed to providing this help for households. I would like once again to thank hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions to this important debate.

DWP Office Closures

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Thursday 23rd June 2022

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I want to raise the issue of Department for Work and Pensions office closures. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in particular my role as chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I believe you have made representations on behalf of your constituents who are employed in the Department for Work and Pensions. This issue affects DWP staff across these islands. The PCS is the largest trade union in the civil service, representing 180,000 members, with workers throughout the civil service and Government agencies, including 50,000 members employed by the DWP. They are concerned, as hon. Members across the House are, about the DWP’s announcement of 17 March 2022 that more than 40 of its processing sites are to close, which we believe has the potential of putting more than 3,000 jobs at risk of redundancy.

There are three categories of processing site closures. The first is where the site is closing and the work will not be consolidated anywhere in the vicinity. I understand there are 13 sites in that category. The second category is where the site is closing but work will be consolidated into an office that the DWP has deemed is within the vicinity, which I understand is 28 sites. The third category is sites that were originally announced as transitional, which will be retained in the short to medium term but will remain badged as transitional. That is eight sites.

Despite the initial assurances given by Department Ministers at an urgent question I secured, the real concern is that we were told that the closures would not impact frontline services, but a further announcement, on 30 March, was for the closure of five jobcentres. That is very concerning and seems to be the latest push by the DWP to implement its network design strategy, which will put jobs and services at serious risk, and there is concern that the latest announcements could signal further jobcentre closures.

The PCS parliamentary group is clear that, following the previous closures under the people and locations programme, these closures will have a devastating impact on the services that staff provide and the local communities where the offices are based. They are a serious threat to DWP staff jobs.

On 17 March, when the original announcement was made, there were 1,118 staff in processing sites that will close without the work being consolidated within the vicinity and 7,341 staff in sites where the work is being consolidated into other offices. The speed at which the Department is operating and has moved to issue “at risk of redundancy” letters to staff across 25 of the 43 sites vindicates the concerns that many of us have that jobs will be lost as a result of the closures.

While some of the sites in the second category are seeing work moving into buildings that are very close by—the Falkirk and Preston sites, for example—other offices that the DWP has classed as being in the vicinity, and so plans to move staff to, are actually some considerable distance away. That includes the proposal to move the Doncaster office to Sheffield, which you will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, is 22 miles away. In many of the offices, one-to-one meetings have taken place with members of staff and it is clear that many will not be able to move; it is therefore certain that many DWP staff will be faced with the very real prospect of redundancy.

There are two processing sites in Wales due for closure from a previous round of closures, where staff have also been confirmed as at risk of redundancy as part of the 16 June announcement. That is because there are more than 120 staff based across the two sites who are unable to make the long journey to the proposed new office. The offices are closing in two tranches. On 16 June, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that, of the 29 sites in the first tranche, at 25 sites a total of 903 staff were at risk of redundancy. We believe that at the remaining 14 sites, which are due to be closed on a slightly slower timeline, similar numbers of staff are likely to be at risk of redundancy.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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No Adjournment debate would be complete without an intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Adjournment debates do not usually come this early in the day, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you and I know, but none the less we are very pleased, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on coming forward with it. He is assiduous when it comes to these issues, and I thank him for that. I think the whole House should thank him for it, by the way.

Coming from a rural constituency, with intermittent public transport as well as an intermittent internet and mobile service, I know that centralisation or closure of services is never a good suggestion for people in isolated areas. I know the hon. Gentleman is referring to towns, but does he agree and will he call on the Minister to consider, where this is possible, the suggestion of having satellite offices in rural areas such as where I live as well as in the centralised urban areas he has mentioned?

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because I have family members in his constituency, as he knows, so I am well aware of his constituency. He raises a very important point about satellite offices, but there is also homeworking. We were told that homeworking was a suggestion, but it seems now that the Government want to force people away from working at home into offices—only the Government are now closing these offices, so there do seem to be some mixed messages from the Government. I do thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes a very important point, and I hope the Minister will respond to it.

On 16 June, a voluntary redundancy scheme was offered to those staff at the 25 sites identified as being at risk of redundancy. Most of these closures are based on plans originally drawn up in 2016 and announced in 2017, and they are seriously out of date. The sites chosen for closure have, according to the Department, been selected after not just looking at the condition and suitability of buildings, but considering the potential impact of taking work out of locations that score more highly for economic deprivation.

However, many of these closures do not seem to make a lot of sense if their impact on the local economy has been taken into account. Many of these closures are in areas of economic deprivation that can hardly afford to lose good-quality public sector jobs. For example, 29 of the 41 processing sites are in constituencies that have higher than the national average claimant rates, and 18 of the 33 England office closures are in constituencies rated in the top 100 most deprived constituencies in the country. I do not call that levelling up.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) has done a survey of businesses near the Springburn site, which is earmarked for closure. It makes interesting reading, and I will take a moment to mention what has been identified in that community impact assessment. There are many businesses that staff at the Springburn site use. The off-sales, where people may perhaps buy a bottle of wine before they go home for the evening, and the Chinese restaurant next door, have concerns about the closure of that office.

The local florist is very concerned because the staff use that service, the local pharmacy has concerns about the closure and the local butcher has made representations about the closure of the Springburn office. That is the very real impact, just in Springburn alone, that such office closures will have on the local economy. It seems—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—that the overriding reason for many of these closures is that the Department for Work and Pensions has itself let the buildings in which it is located fall into major disrepair.

Let me now turn to concerns about the lack of opportunities to redeploy staff. When offices have been closing, Ministers have sought to reassure Members that staff will be redeployed elsewhere in the DWP or in other Departments whenever possible. However, the potential for redeployment elsewhere in the civil service has become less likely following the Government’s announcement on 13 May, through the press and without consultation with staff or trade unions, of their plan to cut 91,000 civil service jobs. The DWP’s decision not to make permanent thousands of staff on fixed-term appointments will, I believe, have come as a blow to staff as well as service delivery.

Under the recent permanency exercise for 12,000 work coaches who joined the Department on fixed-term contracts, only 9,300 have been offered permanent posts. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us whether those who are not among the 9,300 will be offered permanent employment in the DWP. Not all the posts have been offered to staff in their preferred workplaces, so they face making significant journeys if they want to continue their employment with the DWP.

The current position is that 1,400 full-time equivalent staff are on a waiting list but are being told that their contracts will end on 30 June 2022. Other FTEs have not been put on the waiting list and have been selected out of the process, despite having joined the DWP on the basis of fair and open competition. If this position does not change, it will lead to significant shortfalls in staff in jobcentres and DWP offices, which face staff reductions of up to 5,000. That will lead to increased workloads, place greater pressure on existing staff, and have a detrimental impact on the services that the public receive from the DWP. We believe that it makes no sense to threaten experienced staff with redundancies when the Department needs more staff, not fewer, to deal with higher workloads. If these closures and job cuts are allowed to go ahead, we will face the absurd prospect of staff being made redundant in one area while new staff are recruited in another to do the same job. That would be both costly and inefficient.

There is also the issue of the buildings. I understand that the Department aims to rationalise its estate, taking into account matters such as hybrid working, making offices fit for the future, and considering the green agenda as it reviews existing offices. I am told that all offices will be looked at, including jobcentres, and that the Department wants to ensure that everyone is working in an office that is of good quality.

The employers seem to believe that much of the DWP’s existing estate is no longer fit for purpose. They will seek to leave sites that are no longer suitable and relocate in new premises in the vicinity where they want to maintain a presence, overhauling some sites and closing others where they believe the DWP no longer needs to be located. They also seem to believe that having fewer, bigger buildings is a more efficient way of running the Department, although, as we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), that will not necessarily always be the case.

However, many of the processing sites are based in buildings from which the DWP will still operate. For example, jobcentres remain in the same location in Doncaster, a site that could easily accommodate the 300-plus staff that the DWP considers to be the minimum number to make a building viable. It will not be possible to sub-let parts of the buildings that it will be vacating, so we question the sense in making experienced staff redundant only for the part of the empty office space that they have vacated to—potentially—become unused. One such example is the Gloucester jobcentre at Cedar House, where only one part of one floor is being vacated and more than 40 staff who are unable to move to Worcester have now been identified as being at risk of redundancy.

The Department and Ministers have claimed that the estate programme is in support of the Government’s commitments on sustainability and net zero carbon. However, these plans are likely to lead to staff having to travel further to work as a result, which in turn would lead to more carbon emissions. No doubt the hon. Member for Strangford would agree with that, given his earlier intervention. It is also worth considering that the DWP is not totally vacating many of the buildings in question but has not said whether it plans to invest in making these buildings more energy-efficient in future. There is little evidence that the DWP is doing anything to improve the rest of its estate. Much of the remaining estate is similarly unsuitable and unsustainable. We also have concerns that not all the buildings the DWP proposes to move staff to will be able to accommodate the numbers.

That brings me to the issue of equality impact assessments. The restrictions on the equality impact assessments have been lifted by the Department and they are now available in the House of Commons Library. However, there are concerns that the equality impact assessments have identified that there will be groups disadvantaged by the closures but said very little about what is being done to mitigate those impacts. The assessments were produced before the one-to-one interviews were conducted with staff facing closure of their offices. It is likely that this process would further confirm the impact on people with protected characteristics.

Women form a significant majority of the DWP’s workforce, on some sites constituting over 75%. There are no tangible mitigations offered in these documents that are likely to compensate for the clear detriment that women face from this office closure programme. People with disabilities, particularly if they impair their ability to travel to work, are likely to face disproportionate impact from office closures as they will have to travel, in some cases by making significant journeys, further to work.

The DWP aims to mitigate the impact on disabled staff by exploring reasonable adjustments and flexible working arrangements. However, this is unlikely to provide sufficient mitigation as the Department is currently not prepared to fully embrace working from home as a redundancy avoidance. I am sure that people in Strangford and other rural parts of these islands have benefited, and Departments have benefited, from staff working from home, particularly those in the DWP, where there was a huge increase in the number of universal credit claimants, for example. DWP staff should be congratulated on the work that they did during that period and should not now have to face their offices being closed and the prospect of redundancy.

In some sites—for example, Hackney—there is a high percentage of staff from ethnic minority backgrounds. The proposed solution inevitably means longer travel at greater expense if they are able to relocate, which is a clear detriment for those impacted. In Blackburn, 36% of staff have been identified as being ethnic minority. Despite this, the DWP’s analysis is that there is no evidence to suggest that they will be negatively impacted. We believe that that analysis is flawed. There are high proportions of part-time workers, who are more likely to be carers, in many of these sites. Again, there is little by way of mitigation offered to those workers.

We are aware that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the permanent secretary invited a limited number of staff to attend a meeting on 26 May 2022 that they addressed with a presentation of the departmental plan for 2022-25. Once again, the DWP and Ministers have gone to staff without proper engagement with the trade unions. I would suggest that there should be full and proper consultation with the trade unions on the detail of a plan that has huge implications for trade union members, DWP staff and the public they serve. The plan identifies a cut in funding for staffing resources while at the same time introducing more work. It suggests a 12% cut in funding for staff over the three-year period. It also suggests a 16% increase in payments for universal credit, legacy benefits and pensions. This can only mean more work for less staff.

We want to see the Department take a realistic approach to a likely surge in demand for services as the impact of the war in Ukraine and the fall-out from the pandemic devastate the economy. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer many of the points that have been raised on this office closure programme and the concerns that we have for DWP staff, who deliver a great service. I hope that she will be able to confirm that there are no redundancies for those staff.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I am checking whether anyone else present wishes to speak; there being time, I cannot stop that. Excellent; no Member has risen to their feet, so I call Minister Mims Davies.

Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing the debate and for his immense interest in this issue, and I also note his register of interests declaration, but I want to take this opportunity to reassure him that there are currently no planned changes that would affect his constituency.

I have very proudly held the role of employment Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions for almost three years now and I greatly recognise the tireless efforts of our workforce up and down the country. From St Austell to Loughborough to Forres, I visit offices and meet staff regularly, and hear at first hand their experiences and some frustrations with the poor quality buildings, some of which have no proper kitchen facilities for example, but in which they are nevertheless delivering truly excellent DWP services.

Our staff are always positive and focused, and this was especially noticeable during the pandemic when their agility and commitment shone through as thousands of DWP staff were redeployed to process new claims, which doubled in a matter of weeks. This was a truly heroic effort, resulting in payment timeliness for our claimants remaining incredibly high and, vitally, vulnerable people receiving the support they needed in their time of need. I am proud and immensely grateful that our DWP Jobcentre Plus offices remained open throughout the pandemic for the most vulnerable.

Importantly, this transformation needs to be viewed alongside the significant recent investment in DWP frontline services. Since the start of the pandemic we have —or, rather, I have—opened 194 new temporary additional jobcentres as part of our rapid estate expansion programme to support our Plan for Jobs. We have also recruited 13,500 new work coaches in order to provide our claimants with the tailored face-to-face support they need. This new boost to our DWP workforce has played a leading role in delivering on our vital plan for jobs, getting people back into work and transitioning into growing sectors as we focus on building back better. I am incredibly proud of the over 163,000 young people under 25 most at risk of long-term unemployment due to covid impact who took advantage of the life-changing ability to take up a first job through the kickstart scheme and our brilliant Way to Work scheme which is on track to get half a million more people into work this year.

I want to strongly reassure Members here today that staff are being fully supported throughout this modernisation. While we are right-sizing our estate and making the DWP a better place to work—which is at the heart of this—we understand, and I very much do, that a change of work- place can be unsettling for people. However, we are committed to our plan of making our estate smaller, greener and—importantly, as we have seen with covid—more resilient.

These new sites will enable further progression and career opportunities due to larger teams being able to come together, meaning staff can more easily move between business lines and react to operational requirements, with more support in these larger cohorts. The support we are offering to our teams—to our people—absolutely includes regular one-to-ones with line managers about the impacts and confidential advice and support through the employee assistance programme, as well as CV and job application support if needed.

The DWP is absolutely committed to continuing to deliver for our customers, families and the economy. We need to continue to work positively with our teams to modernise and transform the way we deliver our service. As the hon. Gentleman says, that builds on the approach that was announced back in 2017. I am always struck by, and thankful for, just how positive and willing our DWP teams are to embrace the new changes and the challenges that we face in such a large operational Department. We believe that that means that we will drive better experiences for claimants and employees alike by building increased resilience in modernised and, crucially, higher quality sites, which will also reduce fraud and error.

These actions will generate savings for the taxpayer, which is the right and responsible approach that the Government must adopt, considering the fiscal position that we face. Given the recent increase in the cost of living, driven by global demand shock, the impact post covid and Russia’s unacceptable invasion of Ukraine, we are always looking for opportunities across Government to make taxpayers’ money go further. In reality, for the DWP, that means taking the decision to exit oversized, poor-quality estates when opportunities or—as in this case—lease breaks arise, making our public services more efficient and space-saving where we can.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I join the Minister in praising the supreme efforts of Department for Work and Pensions staff over the past couple of years, but why should those who will find it difficult to travel 20-odd miles to another site because of transport issues or disabilities face the prospect of losing their job? That seems to go against everything the Government claim to want for disabled customers, for example.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am trying to give some context and to reiterate to the hon. Gentleman that the DWP is the biggest public service Department. The current issue is that we occupy 20% of the civil service estate. It is right that we seek to reduce our footprint while committing to retain what makes us great—I absolutely agree with him about that—in our national presence, which means that we can deliver locally for our customers. I think that hon. Members will find it helpful if I provide some numbers to illustrate the point and, I hope, answer some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions.

The DWP currently operates from more than 920 buildings. In March 2022, it employed just over 92,000 people, but based on recent estimates, our buildings have the capacity for more than 158,000 people. More than 60% of our buildings are 30 years old or more; 3.3% of them currently meet the top two energy performance certificate ratings. The Department is committed to occupying only A and B-rated buildings by 2030. To answer one of the hon. Gentleman’s questions, we will be investing in the quality of the remaining estate, making sure that our buildings are the right places for our people to work. I believe that that will please him and those he represents.

The modification to a better estate will generate significant gross savings: it is estimated that £3.5 billion will be saved over a 30-year period, with ongoing annual savings of £80 million to £90 million realised from 2028-29, supporting the delivery of efficiency savings across Government. Importantly, we are bringing in a better quality of workspace for our employees, as the hon. Gentleman and many of our workers have requested. It is important to stress that the estates-driven rationalisation programme is ambitious in terms of how we reshape the DWP and how the Department works. I recognise the impacts on people, but it supports the ongoing modernisation and transformation that we also need to provide for our people to create career progression.

These changes will also support those Government priorities of fewer and better-quality buildings, investment in the condition of buildings, the future sustainability of the estate and, above all, our commitments to net zero. It is also about ensuring, vitally, that the Department maintains a footprint in Scotland and Wales and shows a firm and vital commitment to our precious Union. [Interruption.] You have to let me have that one. We are supporting our places for growth programme by committing to roles outside of London. It also supports levelling up. We are committed to retaining a presence in some of the most deprived areas throughout the nation and regions and creating career opportunity for our people.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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It is good to see the Department for Work and Pensions preparing itself for an independent Scotland, but that is not the point I want to make. The point I want to make to the Minister is on areas of economic deprivation. Some of these offices will be closing in areas of economic deprivation—I am thinking of Springburn in Glasgow, for example, and I have raised the concerns that the businesses have—which seems to go against the levelling-up agenda. How would the Minister square her argument with the fact that offices in areas of high economic deprivation are closing?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will go on to say how we are managing this and the opportunities that hybrid working affords us and our staff and how it supports caring and other responsibilities that people may have. I also draw back to the point of the nearly 200 new jobcentres—we are also heading towards 200 new youth hubs—that the DWP has invested in and brought forward as part of our plan for jobs. We are looking at a small part of a very large moving picture of a very large operational Department. For those affected, of course, this situation is concerning. The Department intends to make progress and during this pending review period, we have to set the foundation of the modernisation and transformation I have described.

Let me take the hon. Gentleman through the situation in Springburn in Glasgow, where 138 people are moving to Atlantic Quay. As part of the first tranche of conversations, all of the one-to-ones have been completed. I reassure him that only one of those 138 people is currently at risk. If people continue to live in the area, they will continue to spend in the area, especially through hybrid working.

On the question of fixed-term appointments, 8,800 permanent positions have been confirmed, with more offers. We have had to safeguard the opportunities for permanent staff, with 500 more offers—I do not know the exact number; it is around that number but it is a moving picture. I am trying to give the House an idea. We are continuing to engage with the attrition we have with an older workforce and with people looking to progress and stay, but we are also trying to make sure that those who have come in and given their all to the Department get the opportunity to stay with us.

To respond to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I will take him through the issues in Northern Ireland. The areas are operated, as he will know, through the Department for Communities, and the sites affected are GB-only. Homeworking was a covid business-related opportunity measure. Hybrid working is absolutely there. It is not our preferred operating model for the DWP—our people need to be face-to-face with our claimants, and that is very important—but we have opportunities in terms of GB for outreach and help through the flexible support fund and partnerships within our local communities, and that is something I encourage. The DWP is not only in jobcentres; it is working in youth hubs, it is partnership working and it is supporting communities in a completely different way—not everyone will come and meet us in a jobcentre.

The recent additional JCP closures mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West are not related to the wider network design. However, the Department is taking opportunities over the coming years, as I have said, to improve incrementally our jobcentre network and the quality of the buildings both for colleagues and for customers. For example, we should get those jobcentres into town centres and on bus routes. We should use the opportunity to take forward some of those new temporary jobcentres, which offer better quality buildings and, above all, a better quality working experience.

Let me turn now to hybrid working. The Department has introduced hybrid working, where colleagues are expected to spend 40% of their time in the office. It is anticipated that this will help those colleagues who may need to travel a little further to get to their new sites. Relocating individual teams into current roles or into existing smaller offices does not fit. What we do not want to do is create more smaller offices. We are trying to create hubs of 300 to 500 plus people. As I have said, those hubs work well in terms of people being able to pivot into the operational needs.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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That was a helpful response to my questions on hybrid working. Does that suggest that all redundancies can be completely avoided if there were an offer of either hybrid or home working for staff? Is that the Department’s intention?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Let me take the hon. Gentleman back to the point that I just made with regard to Glasgow Springburn. A total of 138 people are moving to Atlantic Quay. In terms of the one-to-ones, only one person is at risk at this point. This is, of course, an ongoing process of conversations around the redeployment, retraining and retaining of staff. We have an ageing workforce. We need to future-proof things and look after people and bring them forward. As I have said, this is only one moving part of what we are doing with our 92,000 people.

Drawing on that, the DWP is taking advantage of shifts in post-covid expectations around customer service delivery—not at the expense of face-to-face work—making use of the opportunity of estate lease breaks in 2023 to enable the Department to achieve its future service delivery aspirations. I want to reassure hon. Members that our people are at the heart of this transformation and that their needs will not be overlooked. The transformation is being delivered in two tranches over the next 18 months. Where possible, if an alternative strategic site has been identified, subject to colleagues’ ability to move to that new site, they will transfer, in their current role, to that new site. Where no consolidation site is available, all efforts—I reiterate the words “all efforts”—will focus on retaining and redeploying colleagues.

I have consistently reassured hon. Members, whose constituencies are affected, that the driver for this programme is not a reduction in our headcount. Where possible, colleagues in offices that are due to close are being offered opportunities to be redeployed, or retrained so that they can undertake a new role in the DWP, or be offered opportunities with other Government Departments. We are currently working with 15 other Government Departments, which are madly keen on having those people with DWP operational experience join them. Absolutely, we note that recent announcements about the future of the civil service may have caused additional concern. The DWP will consider its response to the challenge and will come forward with its proposals in due course.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The Minister has been extremely generous in taking my interventions. She outlined the discussions that she has had with other Government Departments, which is very welcome. Can she outline the discussions that she is having with the trade unions within the DWP, because, as yet, that is not something that she has mentioned in her reply?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman keeps interrupting me. I can assure him that I will get to that in good time. Let me just follow through on this and then I will reply to his question.

Let me return to how we will support those who may be affected by our estate changes. Again, our focus continues to be on the best quality of estate, alongside retaining colleagues and supporting them. We are absolutely determined to continue to follow up on the conversations that we are having with individuals. Around 5,800 individual conversations with colleagues took place in 29 of the 43 affected sites. Pleasingly, following those conversations, more than 80% of colleagues have confirmed that they can move to a new site.

On trade union engagement, consultation is ongoing with the trade unions. Meetings are scheduled for twice a week, and they ensure that appropriate time is dedicated to discussions with the unions about their members’ concerns. In the period from 6 January to date, we have spent more than 65 hours in discussions with the unions, and we are fully committed to continuing that as we deliver the programme’s outcomes. Officials have also arranged a number of deep-dive sessions in consultation with the unions, including one with MyCSP on the civil service compensation scheme. I hope that that allays the hon. Gentleman’s fears about our conversations, which are ongoing, important conversations. I do not want this transformational change to impact our operations and, above all, the morale of our staff.

A clear measure of the success of the DWP’s updated hybrid working is that we have more flexible and inclusive workplaces that are capable of adapting to the needs of employees—those with health conditions, for example—and our customers. That has been welcomed by much of our workforce. In return, as I mentioned, the Department has been able to retain more people by enabling them to commit to moving with their role to an alternative, larger site. At those sites, they will get more training, learning and progression.

On 11 May, the Department started the engagement of redeployment activity for about 1,000 colleagues in the first tranche who were impacted by the closure of their site. The process has already successfully matched more than 100 colleagues with new roles, and it continues to happen on a weekly basis. As a responsible employer, the Department has had to explore all options, including voluntary redundancy. That just might be an option for some, depending again on personal circumstances and on the outcome of our redeployment activity. However, voluntary redundancy is the absolute last resort, and it is boring, but I will continue to say that all our efforts are to retain, retrain and redeploy both within the DWP and in all other Government Departments. We will continue to do that until all avenues have been exhausted. Importantly, the scheme does allow our colleagues to request a quotation to allow them to consider what it might mean for them if an offer is made. No offers will be made until September. Every effort throughout this period is about supporting colleagues with redeployment.

Colleagues will be delighted to hear that I will conclude. Reducing the back-of-house estate’s footprint will deliver value for money for the taxpayer, with significant gross savings of £3.5 billion over a 30-year period. We will deliver better quality estates and better quality working experience and progression opportunities. I hope to have reassured the hon. Gentleman and the House that we at the DWP are doing everything we can to redeploy and support DWP colleagues who are impacted by the modernisation and that they will continue to be fully supported throughout the process.

Question put and agreed to.

Oral Answers to Questions

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Monday 6th June 2022

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

We are. It is unfortunate that the hon. Lady cannot engage with the wider point that I am making around the nature of means-tested benefits—for example, the many on unemployment and support allowance or universal credit who are also disabled and who will benefit from the approach we are taking.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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12. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps to tackle in-work poverty in the context of the rise in the cost of living.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

15. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps to tackle in-work poverty in the context of the rise in the cost of living.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Dr Thérèse Coffey)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This Government have taken decisive action to make work pay, giving 1.7 million families an extra £1,000 per year, on average, through changes to the universal credit taper, work allowances, and increasing the national living wage to £9.50 an hour. Some extra support is coming in through the packages we have already mentioned today. It is also important to make the House aware that we extend help to people already on universal credit who are working to see what we can do to help them to progress in work and to take up other opportunities, such as making sure that they know about things like childcare support.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

So grants rather than loans are the solution after all. Evidence from Feeding Britain and Good Food Scotland shows, for example, that people who work in a supermarket cannot afford to shop there, with fridges being switched off and lightbulbs being removed at home, and more pawning, borrowing and reliance on credit. Now that the principle is that grants are preferable to loans, will the Secretary of State apply the same principle to universal credit advance payments, as argued for by the Work and Pensions Committee?

Child Maintenance Service: Reform

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Thursday 19th May 2022

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing the debate. She has campaigned on the issue for many years now, and I hope that much of what she has said will be taken on board by the Minister and that action will be taken.

The SNP is clear that, at a time of a cost of living crisis, child maintenance matters even more to protect children from poverty. We are calling for a long-overdue root-and-branch review of the Child Maintenance Service so that it can work more effectively for the children it is supposed to serve. I also want to take the opportunity to ask the Minister about the 91,000 civil service jobs that are supposed to be disappearing. I know you will appreciate this point, Ms Rees, as a friend of the worker. A press release last Friday said that 91,000 civil jobs will disappear. I would hope that not one of them is from the Child Maintenance Service, because it seems to me they need more workers. No worker in the Child Maintenance Service should find themselves out of work as a result of those changes.

What we want to focus on today are the clear, systemic errors that happen and affect so many people. That is why in the root-and-branch review, we have to come back first to the fact that the Government introduced charges for parents seeking support from a former partner through the child maintenance service. There is a fee of £20 for using CMS, unless someone is under 19 or has suffered domestic or violent abuse. The paying parents must pay an additional fee of 20% to use the service, and the receiving parent 4%. The fees imposed on receiving parents using the child maintenance service include the 4% surcharge for using collect and pay and the original £20 charge. I believe that that unfairly penalises receiving parents who are not receiving proper payments, and charging lone parents to access their right to support for their child is deplorable. We would certainly demand an end to that tax on child support, and we should continue to demand an end to Child Maintenance Service fees for parents receiving the payments.

A recent National Audit Office report, which was touched on earlier by previous speakers, exposes the failures of the Child Maintenance Service and shows that it simply is not working for far too many lone parents. The report found that the UK Government do not appear to have learned one of the key lessons from the now defunct Child Support Agency about preventing appears from building up, and that enforcement can be too slow to be effective. The report suggests that unless the UK Government write off more CMS debt, outstanding arrears will grow indefinitely. As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said, they are forecast to reach £1 billion by March 2031 at current rates, and the Department for Work and Pensions does not yet fully understand why those without an effective arrangement do not use its service. It could do more to help prevent around half of direct pay arrangements failing and leaving maintenance unpaid. There seem to be significant problems with its customer service, which undermines trust in its service, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, and the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) identified in their contributions.

The latest DWP figures are for the quarter ending in December 2021. Of the 158,400 paying parents due to pay the collect and pay service, 51,300 paid no maintenance and 107,100 paid some maintenance—and of those, 36,500 paid up to 90% of the maintenance due for the quarter, and 70,600 paid over 90%. The Department for Work and Pensions figures also show that since 2012, when the Child Maintenance Service began, £451.1 million in unpaid maintenance has accumulated. That amounts to some 8% of all the maintenance due to be paid since the start of the service. The SNP has made it clear that we are calling for effective enforcement action to be taken in the collection of maintenance arrears.

Like the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, I am grateful for the excellent briefings that we have received from One Parent Families Scotland, Gingerbread and Mumsnet. In the survey that Gingerbread and Mumsnet did in England in 2020, 86% of Child Maintenance Service customers said that the service had allowed their ex-partner to financially control or abuse them post separation. Some 83% said they would likely never receive what they were owed in arrears, and just 11% of those parents described their experience of using the Child Maintenance Service as positive. That really cannot continue, and people need more confidence in the Child Maintenance Service going forward.

Lone parents and their children are facing increased hardship as a result of the combined effects of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, which is why it is vital that family income must be protected for over 800,000 children across the United Kingdom who rely on it. Some 803,000 children are covered by Child Maintenance Service arrangements—an increase of 5,000 since September 2021—with 510,000 covered through direct pay arrangements and the rest covered through the collect and pay service. The number of children covered by Child Maintenance Service arrangements has increased steadily over the last two years.

Lone parents of children are more likely to be in poverty, so any reduction in income is likely to be particularly harmful, which means that, in the face of the cost of living crisis, maintenance matters even more for protecting children from poverty. That is why the SNP is calling on the Government to introduce a minimum maintenance payment to provide parents with care and their children a guaranteed income, in order to prevent hardship and ensure a dignified standard of living. We are also clear that a long-overdue root-and-branch review of the Child Maintenance Service is needed—not only to enforce the payments, but to ensure that the process does not put vulnerable families through additional stress. It is ultimately the children who are being permanently disadvantaged.

The Scottish Government are using their devolved powers to ensure that children and families are supported during this difficult time and prevent them from being pushed into fuller hardship. The Scottish Government have invested £770 million per year in cost of living support, including in a range of family benefits not available elsewhere in the UK, doubling the Scottish child payment, mitigating the bedroom tax and increasing Scottish benefits by 6%, which was the figure in April. The Scottish Government are putting money into the pockets of families now and helping them to deal with that cost of living crisis.

I look forward to the Minister’s remarks and response. I would hope that he can confirm that there will be a root-and-branch review, and that he will give us some positive news on staffing and other matters.

--- Later in debate ---
David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I give way to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens).

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I thank the Minister and, as my constituency takes in Ibrox stadium, I associate myself with his remarks. I inform the House that an early-day motion will be tabled, praising the Rangers team for their achievements in the Europa League this season.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I give way to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw.

Universal Credit and Jobseeker’s Allowance (Work Search and Work Availability Requirements @0017 Limitations (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Wednesday 20th April 2022

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

General Committees
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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is good to see in the Chair a friend of working people, Ms Elliott, because I think that is important when we are discussing this issue.

I have a number of concerns similar to those outlined by the shadow Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Wirral South. They are particularly about the culture that we develop as a result of these changes, and particularly about the issue of sanctions. The Government seem to have rowed back on their commitments. The Minister is aware that I am a member of the Work and Pensions Committee. We have been advised as a Select Committee that what the Department was looking at was introducing a warning or yellow-card system of sanctions, rather than sanctioning people right away. The problem with these particular proposals is that they could force people into taking work that involves unsuitable hours for someone with, for example, children or caring responsibilities—or people might be forced into a zero-hours contract. I take the view that if someone is offered a zero-hours contract, they are offered it. That type of contract is not for everyone. It may suit some people, but a lot of people could not take a zero-hours-contract job and they could well find themselves, under these proposals, receiving a sanction because they have refused the offer of a zero-hours contract job. This is going back to a culture that I thought we had managed to persuade the Government to step away from, so let me ask the Minister whether this is the Department’s intention. It undertook a pilot to look at introducing a yellow card or warning system before someone is sanctioned during the period in which they are trying to find work, because for some people, they do have to look at their caring responsibilities. We have a culture where some people are in work but have no hours until they receive a text message and are told that the first person to turn up gets a shift. There does not seem to be anything stopping such practices.

My other concern is that the provision does not address the problem of in-work poverty. The Minister was present in the Select Committee this morning when we discussed universal credit and childcare costs. It was revealed by officials that someone working 30 hours would get less money than someone working 25 hours, because of the way the universal credit system works. I have very real concerns about that.

The other issue relates to poverty pay. We are going to be forcing people into work on minimum wage only. That, of course, includes the jobs that are advertised at the national minimum wage, because we know that the DWP’s website sometimes advertises jobs that do not meet the national minimum wage.

I hope that the Minister will answer questions around the sanctions regime. There is a very real fear that what we are trying to do is force people into work, and if they do not take the job, they are sanctioned. That should not apply to everybody. I hope that we are not going to back to the sanctions culture that we saw in films such as “I, Daniel Blake”. Going back to that culture would be damaging to many in this country.

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The Minister is being exceptionally generous in giving way. Will she confirm that the DWP’s position, as outlined in the answer to a recent written question, is that jobseekers are expected to commute up to three hours per shift or face being sanctioned?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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There is a fundamental misunderstanding on the Opposition Benches about what our work coaches do and how we are helping people to progress and move forward. The hon. Member for Wirral South made some comments earlier about jobcentres and our work coaches—

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I can say that the feedback consistently is that they are a continually positive place to be. It is important that when people make comments—including about jobcentres wanting to sanction people more and being negative places to be—they do it from a position of understanding their strength.

At the heart of the debate is the perception that we are just trying to sanction people more. The reality is completely the opposite. We are trying to get people into work quicker.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The Minister has confirmed the answer to the written question and that a jobseeker is expected to commute up to three hours per shift. That shift could be on the national minimum wage. Will the Minister please confirm whether, as the DWP has told the Select Committee, it is considering having a warning system, sometimes referred to as a yellow card system, before progressing to a sanction?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman needs to understand me when I say that work coaches will also agree to restrictions of the hours, type of work and location of work based on the tailored needs of the claimant. Of course, there is a travel to work requirement, which I think is what he is referring to, but I can reassure the Committee that all work preparation activities and all that we do to improve the claimants’ work prospects in undertaking training and work experience—everything that counts towards moving forward—is absolutely at the discretion of the work coach, understanding the claimant but making sure that discretionary easements are in place where needed for domestic emergencies, caring responsibilities and so on. Some of that is not fully defined in legislation; it is down to good quality, tailored work coaching.

I shall try to conclude, Ms Elliot. I would like quickly to cover the sanctions issue. I reassure all Members that the regulations are not a change in sanctions policy. That is not what we are trying to achieve with the amendments to the duration of the permitted period. We are not changing the reason why people might have a sanction applied, such as for refusing to take a job that has been offered, nor the sanction rates. Claimants will only ever be sanctioned if they fail to meet the requirements agreed in their claimant commitment by their work coach without providing good reason. If they have good cause, they will not be sanctioned. I reiterate that sanctions are at a record low.

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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You certainly won’t hear me criticising jobcentre staff. I should probably refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group.

The Minister said that there was not a change in policy here. My view is that there is. I think that the sanctions regime has got tougher, because it has changed so that someone can face sanctions four weeks after their initial universal credit claim. We have heard it confirmed today that people can be sanctioned if they refuse to travel three hours to a shift or if they say no to a zero-hours contract. We have not yet been given any assurances about what will happen. The Department has given commitments on sanctions to the Work and Pensions Committee, but it now seems to have abandoned those commitments. I think that the Minister should be invited to confirm whether those commitments have been abandoned.

This is about the parameters that jobcentre staff are being asked to work within. For example, if they are advised that they should sanction someone on a zero-hours contract, that is what they will do, because those are the parameters they have been given. I invite the Minister to say a bit more about sanctions and to give the Committee some assurances about what is, I am afraid, a return to the sanctions regime.

None Portrait The Chair
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Does the Minister wish to respond?

DWP Estate: Office Closures

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Thursday 17th March 2022

(5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement on proposed office closures in the Department’s estate.

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con)
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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I seek your guidance on whether it is orderly for an hon. Member who has taken very substantial donations from a trade union to ask an urgent question on a matter of direct interest to that trade union?

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David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (David Rutley)
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At the Department for Work and Pensions, we constantly look at ways to improve our services. I wish to say up-front that we know it is important to communicate changes to all relevant stakeholders so that everyone understands our plans and why we are making changes.

This seems to be an unusual situation, Mr Speaker. It is very disappointing that the embargo agreed with the Public and Commercial Services Union does not seem to have been respected. Clearly, our staff should be the top priority at this time. I hope colleagues will understand that I am not able to go into all the detail this morning as we are briefing affected colleagues as we speak. In fact, the delivery of the first stage of the strategy is being announced to affected colleagues at 10.30 today—right now. The Minister for Employment will write to MPs with an affected site in their constituency after 1 pm today, and there will be a written statement to Parliament tomorrow morning. The letter to MPs will include notification of a virtual surgery that the Minister for Employment will hold on Wednesday 23 March.

The change is to back-of-house offices and will support the delivery of the Government priorities to get more people back into employment, to deliver long-term savings for the taxpayer and to meet Government commitments to modernise public services. The Department has developed a strategy that will, over the next 10 years, reshape and improve how, where and when it delivers services to claimants. The Department is transitioning to an estate that is smaller, greener and better. This will deliver substantial benefits by increasingly developing modern, secure, resilient, sustainable and automated systems to drive better experiences for our customers, colleagues and taxpayers.

The plans for the next three-year period affect the future delivery of back-of-house services—that is, services that are delivered remotely via telephone and online, without the need to see customers face to face. I assure the House that the plans do not affect Jobcentre Plus and customer-facing roles. We have been engaging fully with PCS union representatives at the sites affected since January, and PCS union representatives will be present at sites for the announcements today, as the House would expect. Our focus today is, of course, on supporting staff through the changes.

Changes to DWP estates are not unusual. Like most public services, we are always looking to meet our customers’ changing needs, reflecting developments in technology and the approaches of successive Governments. We value our staff and are working with them now to support those who will be affected by the changes as we seek to deliver the best possible services to our customers at all times.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my position as chair of the PCS parliamentary group—which, of course, contains more than 100 Members of Parliament.

Will the Minister confirm that the announcement could mean that 3,000 jobs in the Department for Work and Pensions are at risk of redundancy? What measures will he take to ensure that that does not happen? Has there been an equality impact assessment of the proposals? I am thinking particularly about the impact on employees who have disabilities, for example, and may not be able to move to another location that may be miles away.

The Minister is aware that the proposals were first mooted six years ago and that the Department is looking to close offices in areas of high economic deprivation. That seems rather counterintuitive in the context of the so-called levelling-up agenda. Has an economic assessment been made of the closures and their impact on the local economies in the areas where it is proposed to close offices?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

On our plans, we have, as I said, been working closely with colleagues and PCS over recent months. Around 12,000 colleagues will be moving from one site to another that is in close proximity—that will involve around 28 sites. Around 1,300 colleagues could be involved at sites where there is no other strategic site nearby. We are looking at what opportunities there are within the DWP and at what other opportunities there might be across other Government Departments. We have seen in other areas how this can work, and we are committed to doing that. Clearly, we will look at any other options that might work for those individuals.

Let me turn to the impact on the local economies. There are not normally too many people involved on each individual site, but, clearly, we have been working very hard to strengthen local economies, with the opening of a large number of new jobcentres. Again, I stress that this is about back-of house roles. This will not impact on jobcentres and the customer-facing interactions within the constituencies.

In-work Poverty

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Wednesday 16th March 2022

(5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered in-work poverty.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. Before I start, I want to pass on our best wishes, from all sides of the House, to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), who I am sorry to hear has covid. I am sure that her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), will do an admirable job in her place.

Work should always be a pathway and route out of poverty. The fact that the phrase “in-work poverty” even exists is a damning indictment of successive Conservative Government policies over the past 12 years. The Government are clearly making life harder for working people, as I will illustrate with a number of examples. I am conscious that a large number of Members want to participate in this important debate, so I will truncate my remarks, but I want to illustrate my argument with some examples from a number of sectors.

Clearly, one of the issues is the increase in taxes and national insurance, which is in direct contravention of a commitment that the Conservatives made in their last general election manifesto. We are also having to deal with the problem of the huge increases in energy prices that the Government, via Ofgem, have allowed to take place. Members may recall that I had a question for the Prime Minister last Wednesday in order to contrast the position of the French Government, who have capped energy price rises at 4%, with that of our Government, who have capped energy price rises at an incredible 54%. That has had a huge impact on people who are in work.

Fuel poverty, food poverty, energy poverty, housing poverty and child poverty are all measures of economic failure, and they are all on the increase. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, one in eight workers are struggling to make ends meet. If work guaranteed a decent standard of living, the UK would be going through a golden age of prosperity. Instead, the Conservative party has delivered successive year-on-year policies of austerity over a decade. The social security safety net has given way, after a decade of wear and tear.

Without the most basic protection, a decade of pay cuts and wage stagnation has left working families ill prepared. Many have no savings at all, and people certainly have far less resilience to cope with the current cost of living crisis. In the workplace, we have seen employment rights deliberately weakened, a dramatic increase in the number of zero-hours contracts, and an expansion of the gig economy, with a growing proportion of working people in insecure employment.

I also want to mention the appalling employment practices. Poor employment practices, such as fire and rehire, are rife, even with very profitable and long-established companies, some of which are household names. Despite recent and repeated assurances from Ministers at the Dispatch Box—often condemning the practice—they have done nothing to outlaw the practice of fire and rehire by rogue employers. The Government have disregarded the interests of working people and dismissed the private Member’s Bill brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner).

The key workers we all clapped for and honoured during lockdown are bearing the brunt of our low-wage, poverty-pay economy. Figures produced by the TUC reveal that 43% of north-east key workers—over 173,000 people —earn below £10 an hour. Personally, I do not think that £15 an hour is an unreasonable ask in this day and age.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I thank my honourable comrade for giving way. Is he as surprised as I am at a recent article, published by The Herald newspaper and The Ferret website, showing that 20% of jobs advertised on the Department for Work and Pensions website paid under the national minimum wage rate of £9.50? The Department really needs to launch an inquiry into why that is the case.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris
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Absolutely. It should concern us all when the DWP is advertising jobs that fall below the minimum standard and even the limited protections afforded to working people.

We know that even a modest increase in the minimum wage to £10 an hour would transform the lives of key workers, including one in three care workers—so many of us applaud care workers for their contribution, particularly during the pandemic—and 173,000 childcare workers. It would raise the incomes of over half a million people.

Workers across the country are struggling to feed their families and heat their homes. I will give some examples, including one I received from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. Like many of us, I have met the cleaners employed by the Churchill Group who are fighting for a real living wage of £15 an hour. I will also highlight the fact that the GMB trade union is campaigning against real-terms pay cuts for nearly 150,000 ASDA staff, and the ongoing University and College Union strike in the university sector. The pattern is the same: terms, conditions, wages and pension rights are being eroded; workers who try to negotiate are blocked, ignored and blamed; while well-paid directors shrug their shoulders with uninterest, often while picking up huge bonuses.

The workers who kept our supermarket shelves stacked during the pandemic are now struggling to feed their own families. I was shown a survey by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union, which was very illuminating; it was conducted by the union of its members, who are in the food sector. It found that between February and March 2021, 40% of those surveyed had eaten less than they should have eaten because they did not have sufficient cash; 35% had eaten less than they should have to ensure that other members of their household got a meal; and 21% relied on goods and contributions from family and friends to make ends meet. These are people who are in work—shift workers who supplied the country with bread during the pandemic.

I will also highlight the excellent Right to Food Campaign, which was mentioned in this very Chamber yesterday. The campaign was set up and promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), and it has been endorsed by my own union, Unite. It seeks to make the Government responsible for addressing the raging income inequalities and the broken benefit system that have pushed so many people into a spiral of poverty.

I saw a quote on social media just before this debate and thought how relevant it is to what we are discussing, because we are talking about the cost of living crisis. The country has more than enough resources and more than enough money to keep everyone warm, housed, free from hunger and properly clothed; in fact, the country has enough wealth to do that a hundred times over. So it is not really a cost of living crisis; what we have is an inequality crisis.

I think the Government should scrap some of the provisions that currently apply to those in receipt of universal credit. Let us not forget that a substantial number of those in receipt of universal credit are in work—they are the working poor. The five-week wait before they can receive a penny is a major contributing factor to the huge increase in the number of people having to turn to food banks.

We need to start putting people before profits. Sadly—it is lamentable, really—poverty has become the norm in Britain; it has become normalised. Yards away from where we are having this debate, homeless people are freezing on the streets and sleeping rough for want of a home. Children go hungry. We see Members of Parliament, particularly Members of the Conservative party, posing for photographs at food banks, and I think the irony must be lost on them that those food banks exist only because of the policies that this Government have promoted.

To return to energy prices, the French Government have capped cost rises at 4%, Germany has cut tariffs and Spain has introduced a windfall tax on the energy companies. But here in Britain, standing charges are doubling and the energy price cap will see energy bills rise by 54%—that is £700 more on average—for our families. Peterlee is the biggest town in my constituency, and EDF, one of the big six energy companies, has many customers there. It is interesting to contrast what is happening in Peterlee with what is happening in Paris. Will the Minister explain why French state-owned EDF can cap cost increases at 4% in Paris while my constituents in Peterlee face a 54% increase in their bills?

Tax rises are exacerbating the cost of living crisis as many in our nation struggle with rising prices. I happened to meet a farmer last weekend, and we chatted about a number of issues. He grows oilseed rape and wheat, and he said that the price of wheat is doubling, and that the price of fertiliser is doubling as well, which will cost him an extra £10,000 a year. He reliably informed me that the cost of wheat, which was £150 a tonne, is now £300 a tonne. That will filter through into dramatic increases in food costs for staples such as bread. The prices of many basic staples, including margarine, tomatoes and apples have increased by as much as 45% in the past year.

Figures from the Trussell Trust and the Independent Food Aid Network show that more than 3 million food bank parcels were distributed in 2020-21. I tried to get the figures for the food banks operating in my constituency —at the community centre in Dawdon and at the East Durham Trust in Peterlee—but they are not part of the Trussell Trust, so the excellent work that they do is not included in those statistics, meaning that the figure is even bigger.

Average petrol and diesel prices are £1.61 and £1.73 per litre respectively, but regional public transport is expensive and unreliable after a decade of neglect, meaning that families have no alternative to protect against increasing fuel costs. The energy cap is up at 54%, and further increases are in the pipeline. The Conservative party once promised to be the “greenest government ever”, but the Public Accounts Committee recently described the green homes grant as a “slam dunk fail”.

House prices are rising beyond the reach of first-time buyers; sky-high rental costs leave little at the end of the month for deposits and savings; and we as a country have abandoned council housing, which is quite disgraceful—that social housing delivered low-cost homes for the post-war generation.

Nelson Mandela said:

“poverty…is man-made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings… Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life… While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

Once again, we see that poverty is a political choice. It is a Conservative political choice, and one that this Government should be ashamed of.

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to see a friend of the worker in the Chair, Ms Rees. I thank my good friend and comrade the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for making an excellent speech to kick off the debate. The contributions—with the possible exception of one—have been very impressive indeed.

I want to make a number of points. First, in-work poverty and inadequate living standards remain the norm for far too many people on these islands. We urge the UK Government to look at the minimum wage rates in the country. They need to not only amend the definition of a worker, but go further by strengthening protection for workers.

The UK is experiencing the highest levels of in-work poverty this century, which disproportionately impacts groups facing high living costs, such as lone parents—the majority of whom are women—disabled people and people with caring responsibilities. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report that was mentioned earlier shows that around two thirds—the actual figure is 68%—of working-age adults in poverty in the UK live in a household where at least one adult is in work. The figure has never been higher since records began in 1996, so we now have the highest ever levels of in-work poverty. For too many people, low-paid jobs offer no opportunities to progress to better work and better wages, and far too many people are in insecure work with unpredictable hours and incomes, which is something that I want to touch on. That is, of course, in stark contrast to the situation in Scotland.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member is making some excellent points, but I wonder what impact the Government’s decision to close jobcentres will have on constituencies such as mine and perhaps 60 others. What impact will that have on alleviating in-work poverty and on encouraging people who are out of work into paid employment?

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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It will increase in-work poverty. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government tried to close half the jobcentres in the city of Glasgow. People there are having to spend more money and go further in order to get to a jobcentre to see whether they can get better work.

As we have a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions in front of us, I want to point out that a number of people claiming universal credit are in work. We have a situation—the Minister responded to a written question on this issue—whereby half of DWP claimants have their universal credit claims deducted. I would argue that that is a poverty tax. In some cases, £60 a month is taken away from someone’s universal credit claim. Universal credit is supposed to be a subsistence benefit that is paid at a rate that people can live on. If we take £60 a month away from them, people have to choose whether to heat or eat. That really needs to end. Advances need to be replaced by an up-front grant or a starter payment, as we argued on the Work and Pensions Committee. The recovery of tax credits needs to be at a lower level, and I would say that debts of more than six years should be written off entirely. There are a number of lawyers in the Chamber and they know that if I try to sue them for a debt that is over six years old, a sheriff in a Scottish court would write that off and absolve the debt.

I also want the Minister to respond to a point that I made earlier during my intervention on the hon. Member for Easington. In the jobs advertisements on the DWP website, 31% of full-time jobs and 50% of parti-time jobs pay less than the real living wage of £9.90 an hour. Some 20% are advertised as paying less than the national living wage of £9.50. I will give three examples: Burger King pays £6 an hour, Pizza Express £6.56 an hour, and Farmfoods £6.66 an hour. None of the adverts clarifies wage rates for different ages, and all the companies have made substantial profits in the last year or two, so increasing the wage rates and asking them to pay more certainly would not harm those businesses all that much. I am talking about multinational companies, and I would like to know what the DWP is going to do about the adverts. Will it refer itself to the national minimum wage compliance unit, which has a number of vacancies? Perhaps we can advertise those jobs on the DWP website.

I want to touch on what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said about discrimination in the national minimum wage rates, because he is absolutely right. There is a nonsensical argument that somehow young people are not active participants in the labour market. If Burger King has a 17-year-old next to a 37-year-old and they are both flipping hamburgers, they are equal participants in the labour market and should be paid the same rate for doing the same work. That is what I call equal pay. The equal pay legislation always encourages people to get the same rate for the same job, the same work.

What would happen if we increased wages? People would spend money. A false argument is also made about public sector pay—that somehow it takes money out of the economy. But that is not how it works. When people get a wage increase, they do not put it in a shoebox and hide it under bed; they go out and spend it in the economy. It means that they can afford things that they could not afford before, so they spend more on food and other items.

To touch on the contribution of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald)—I support his Bill and I know that he supports my Workers (Definition and Rights) Bill—there needs to be a definition of “worker”, so that we can strengthen workers’ rights. For four years the Government have been sitting on the Taylor report, which sought to address the issues, but at the last Queen’s Speech we were told that it was no longer a priority for them. That is scandalous. We need to take a real look at protection for workers and at eliminating zero-hours and other unfair contracts.

Employers are currently able to text four people to say, “The first one here gets the shift.” That has to end. People phone taxis and run out of the house to get there first, spending money as they do so, only to end up as the runner-up and get nothing. That is completely and utterly scandalous. I have included that in my Bill, because we need to address it. We also need to look at flexible working and at strengthening parental, neonatal and miscarriage leave for workers.

SNP MPs have consistently sought to strengthen workers’ rights and have promoted Bills to do so. I commend the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union for its Right to Food campaign. I will welcome that in Glasgow, because it has identified Glasgow South West as one of the constituencies in which it wants to do work. There is much that the Government need to do to address in-work poverty, before it gets even worse.

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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand the point that the hon. Lady makes; she makes it well and she makes it long. Perhaps we could do an Adjournment debate on the subject later. I recognise her point—I was trying to bring in a bit of humour there. With the fuel duty freeze that has been put in place we have been able to keep that cap over time. I recognise that we are in challenging circumstances; that is why the Chancellor has put in place a three-point plan. We have £20 billion set out in this financial year that is designed to help vulnerable people facing challenges and to deal with rising energy costs, £9 billion of which goes to the Chancellor’s three-point plan. We are doing substantial work to try and address those challenges, and we will continue to review the situation. As hon. Members will appreciate, throughout the pandemic we looked at what the challenges were and we responded. We responded well in the Department I work in—universal credit was particularly resilient.

I want to address the questions raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens)—a good man who understands a lot of those matters—asked about jobs being advertised on the DWP website. They go through a process and are checked to make sure that they are at the minimum wage or above—there are obviously some exceptions. If he has further information on that, I will gladly follow up because I know he takes the issue very seriously.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I will send the Minister the articles from The Ferret website and The Herald, which found 10,000 such jobs in Scotland alone. Does that not suggest that there is a problem?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will take a look at the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am not familiar with all those issues, but he knows that I will follow that up.

Other points were raised about the health and social care levy, the purpose of which is to deal with backlogs in the NHS and the future costs of social care. Those with the broadest shoulders will rightly pick up the bulk of the cost, with the highest earning 14% paying around half of the revenues.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who is no longer in the Chamber, spoke about statutory sick pay. That is just one part of our welfare safety net and the wider Government offer of support for people in times of need. As we move on from the pandemic, the Government are continuing to take a broader look at the role of SSP—we are keeping the system under review.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) always contributes well in these debates; I hope I have addressed some of his points about energy costs. We will continue to take a look at those issues.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) was concerned about uprating, but we have followed the time-worn process of looking at inflation in the year to September. All benefit ratings since April 1987 have been done on that basis; the Opposition could have changed that approach when they were in Government. However, in recognition of the challenges we face, we have a £20 billion package of support this year to help people.

The hon. Member for Glasgow South West also talked about deductions. I remind colleagues that we have put a spotlight on dedications, and we have reduced the maximum amount from 40% to 25%.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
- Hansard - -

Will the Minister look at the issue of pursuing debts that are over six years old? It seems a nonsense that we still pursue people who have had a debt for longer than that period, and then taking a deduction.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but as a member of the Work and Pensions Committee he will also realise that we are experiencing record levels of fraud, and we are absolutely determined to bear down on that. We need to get the balance right, because it is taxpayers’ money that we are talking about.

Benefit Cap

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 1st March 2022

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Linden Portrait David Linden
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Ever since its introduction in 2013, the benefit cap has limited the support that some of the most vulnerable people in our constituencies receive. Based on the latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions, as of August 2021, 180,000 households have had their benefits capped, including over 6,400 households in Scotland, and are receiving on average £54 per week less in support than they would if the cap was not in place.

Perhaps the most counterproductive aspect of the cap is the fact that the people who require the highest level of support are the most likely to be affected, which is not only unjust but simply does not make sense. Why reduce the amount of support that the most vulnerable people in our society require? On top of that, the vast majority of households affected by the cap are exempt from working to increase their income, either because they have a disability or because they have childcare responsibilities. It is a Catch-22 situation for so many people on benefits: they are unable to work to increase their income and they have their benefits cut regardless.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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Is my hon Friend, my good friend, as concerned as I am that having the benefit cap in place is leading to—he has outlined the figures—an increase in food insecurity across these islands, and that the pressures on food banks, pantries and citizen supermarkets will be immense because of the actions of the Government?

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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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The internal assessments we have produced—and we have produced several—showed that UC does help more people get into work. At the moment, in an economic environment where there are record vacancies, which I will touch on later, we are helping more people get into work.

The benefit cap was introduced as part of a strategy to reform the system of benefits for people of working age. The cap limits the combined sum of prescribed welfare benefits that households may be entitled to. The aims of the benefit cap policy are: to incentivise behaviours; to encourage people to work and to reduce long-term dependency on benefits; and to introduce greater fairness in the welfare system between those receiving out-of-work benefits and those in work, by putting in place a reasonable limit on the amount a household can receive in welfare benefits. For context, let me say that about four in 10 households earn less than the annual benefit cap’s limits of £23,000 in London and about £20,000 in the rest of Great Britain. The final aim is to make the system more affordable, better balancing the burden on taxpayers. Let us not forget that households can still receive benefits up to the equivalent salary of £24,000—or £28,000 in London.

We continue to protect vulnerable claimants for whom work may not currently be a viable option. In recognition of the additional costs related to a disability, households are exempt from the cap if someone is receiving disability living allowance or a personal independence payment. UC claimants who receive the limited capability for work-related activity element—that phrase is a bit of a mouthful—or employment and support allowance claimants in receipt of the support component are also exempt from the cap.

The Government recognise and appreciate the vital contribution made by carers, which is why there are exemptions for those entitled to carer’s allowance, the carer’s element in UC and guardian’s allowance. Households in receipt of UC are exempt from the cap if their earnings reach just £617 a month, to help encourage people into work. Those who still receive housing benefit are also exempt if they are entitled to working tax credits. Eligible childcare costs that are repaid through UC payments are exempt from the cap. That also supports people getting into work and progressing in employment.

I also want to support those with a strong recent work history who find themselves without work or whose earnings reduce. As a result, the benefit cap is not applied for nine months for those receiving UC where the claimant, their partner or ex-partner has received at least the benefit cap earnings threshold of £617 in each of the previous 12 consecutive months.

I should also remind the House that the proportion of capped households remains low in comparison with the overall working-age benefit case load, at 2.7% across Great Britain. In Scotland, the proportion is even lower, at 1.1%. In the last quarter, to August 2021, on average 710 households every week moved off the cap through increasing their earnings or starting work. There is a statutory duty to review the benefit cap levels once in each Parliament; the country has been through very challenging times, which has delayed that statutory review, but it will happen at the appropriate time in this Parliament, to be determined by the Secretary of State. When the Secretary of State decides to undertake that review, which must currently happen by December 2024, she will consider the national economic situation and any other matters she deems vital at that time.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I will give way to the esteemed member of the Work and Pensions Committee.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The Minister is being very generous. Can he tell us then, with the assessments the Department is doing of the benefit cap, whether it will do further assessments alongside its much-awaited review on the drivers of food bank use and food aid provision, which the House has waited 18 months for the Department to place in the Commons Library?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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That report will come forward—I think there have been exchanges between the Committee and the Secretary of State’s office—but we are talking here about a statutory requirement, which certainly will happen during the course of this Parliament. As the hon. Gentleman, a well-respected member of the Committee, will be aware, we have gone through very uncertain times; we must ensure that review is done when we have the proper body of evidence and at the right time. I am sure he will seek to hold the Secretary of State to account during that process, as he rightly should as a member of the Select Committee.

There is clear evidence that work, particularly full-time work, substantially reduces the likelihood of being in poverty. Children living in workless households were around six times more likely to be in absolute poverty before housing costs in 2019-20 than those where all adults worked. At a time of record vacancies, we are not only focusing on getting people into jobs, but taking action to boost the take-home pay of lower-income working households by giving nearly 2 million families an extra £1,000 a year through our cut—