Just this week, the official jobs statistics showed that more people are getting back into work and there is a record number of vacancies. That is a tribute to the British people and businesses. It shows that our plan for jobs is working. It shows that our comprehensive and unprecedented support for citizens and corporations as well as the NHS, in trying to protect lives and livelihoods, has worked. After the terrible personal and economic impact of covid, boosted by the successful vaccination roll-out, Britain is now rebounding.
It was right that we took prompt and decisive action to support our nation during this challenging time. We had the job retention scheme, the self-employment grants, the VAT changes, the business rates relief, the suspension of evictions for people and businesses who were renting—I could go on. We could only do that, though, because we went into the global pandemic with strong economic foundations built as a result of 10 years of Conservative measures to restore the nation’s finances after the financial crisis on Labour’s watch, when, memorably, there was no money left. Those measures included a sustained focus on supporting people to move into and progress in work through universal credit, with the highest level of employment ever seen in this country just before covid hit.
I will not, because I am conscious that we are nearly an hour into this debate and many hon. Members will want to speak about this important matter.
Right across Government, we are investing to help people to get better-paid jobs, whether that is through digital boot camps, the lifetime skills guarantee, the £650 billion infrastructure programme that will generate 425,000 jobs, the £8.7 billion affordable homes programme expected to support up to 370,000 jobs, and the green jobs taskforce, which goes from strength to strength as we work our way towards net zero. I have referred to the extra funding through the health and social care levy, which will include support for care workers, but we will not stop as we help people to progress in work. This Conservative Government and Conservative party want people to prosper as we build back better and level up opportunity across the country.
Tackling poverty through boosting income is one element and we will continue to support people with the cost of living. We have kept the uplift in housing support through the local housing allowance rates, as I mentioned to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), maintaining it in cash terms this financial year. We spend over £6 billion on supporting childcare, which is equivalent overall to about £5,000 per family. As I said to the House, that can be up to £13,000 per family for people on universal credit.
We have increased the automation of matching benefit recipients with energy suppliers to make it easier for the warm home discount to be awarded almost automatically. I was very pleased to see that more mobile and broadband suppliers stepped forward with social tariffs for people, which is why I am delighted to let the House know that we are working with those suppliers to make it easier for them to verify the identity of people seeking those special discounts. I am also leading cross-Government action to do more on tackling poverty and the cost of living, which will help many families with their day-to-day costs.
We have heard that universal credit is flexible and that people are treated individually. I am very aware of the challenges on food insecurity. That is why we included the questions we did in the family resources survey so that we can start to think about how we can direct our policies specifically to those people. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) was trying to get out of the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), what is accurate—I am pretty sure to say—is that, in 2008, tax credits may have changed, but that was effectively for people in work. What we did not see was a boost in the unemployment benefits, so when the shadow Secretary of State criticises us for putting an extra £20 a week in the pockets of people who were newly unemployed, I do not think that his assertion is defensible.
One thing that the House may see in a couple of years is that, although in the last year of the last Labour Government we saw a reduction in relative poverty, that was largely driven by the fact that higher-paid people were unemployed—we saw a shrink in relative poverty simply because of a statistical anomaly. We have to deal with real-world facts and make sure that the provision of cash, by helping people with their income, is really the way to help them to get on in work but also to help them with the cost of living.
The last Labour Government—admittedly that was quite a long time ago and many Members of this House will not have been serving here then—did not build enough homes. Prices were not tackled, money was not well spent and we were left with no money.
The shadow Secretary of State will be aware that I am not a fan of talking about relative poverty, because it is simply a statistical element. However, since 2010, there have been 60,000 fewer children in absolute poverty before housing costs. Children living in workless households were around five times more likely to be in absolute poverty last year than those in households in which all adults worked. We know that full-time work reduces the chance of being in poverty. Overall, there are also 220,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty.
My hon. Friend is right to praise his local jobcentres. One thing we have done as part of the plan for jobs is increase the number of work coaches, and indeed the number of jobcentres, thus demonstrating to people—particularly those who have been out of work already but are coming off furlough—that we are ready to support them so that they can get back into work as quickly as possible.
Every single universal credit payment depends on the individual, so I cannot articulate that, but it is fair to say that a number of different levers appear when people work more hours, and that includes the lifting of the benefit cap. There are a number of ways in which people can earn more and keep more of their money when they are working more hours.
I do not know the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s calculation and his suggestion, but what I do know is that the Labour Government did nothing to help people in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008, whereas we have injected more than an extra £7.5 billion. We recognised the need for the temporary uplift, particularly for those who were newly unemployed and coming on to benefit for the first time. That is why we made the temporary uplift similar to that of the minimum paid through statutory sick pay. We will continue to do what we have been doing: investing in our plan for jobs, helping people back into work and helping them to make progress in work.
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on the annual uprating of state pensions and survivors’ benefits in industrial death benefit.
Each year, as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I am required to undertake a review of certain benefit and pension rates in relation to the general level of earnings. Just as last year, this year I anticipate an unusual change in earnings due to the effects of the covid pandemic. The unprecedented but necessary covid restrictions we introduced last year protected lives, especially the most vulnerable, many of whom are pensioners, and protected the NHS, but those restrictions caused disruption to the economy, including preventing many people from working, wages falling and, sadly, many people being made redundant.
As we sought to protect lives, so we sought to protect livelihoods. To mitigate the worst impacts, we introduced a £407 billion package of support, including the furlough and self-employment schemes, to support incomes. Nevertheless, last year we saw earnings fall by one percentage point. In response, we legislated to set aside the earnings link, allowing me to award an uprating of 2.5%, as that was higher than inflation. If we had not done that, state pension would have been frozen.
Thanks to our vaccination programme, which started with the eldest and most vulnerable in our society, we have seen that as the economy and businesses have reopened and millions have moved off furlough and returned to work, the labour market has shown strong signs of recovery and earnings have risen at an unprecedented rate. We face a distorted reflection of earnings growth. The latest Office for National Statistics figures from August show an increase in average weekly earnings of 8.8%, compared to the same time last year. Confirmed figures will be published next month, but we expect growth of 8% or more for May to July 2021. The relevant period earnings are taken into account as part of my uprating review.
This year, as restrictions have lifted and we experienced an irregular statistical spike in earnings over the uprating review period, I am clear that another one year adjustment is needed. So tomorrow, I will introduce the social security (uprating of benefits) Bill. For 2022-23 only, it will ensure that basic and new state pensions increase by 2.5% or in line with inflation, which is expected to be the higher figure this year. As happened last year, it will again set aside the earnings element for 2022-23, before being restored for the remainder of this Parliament. That will ensure pensioners’ spending power is preserved and protected from higher costs of living, but also ensure that as we are having to make difficult decisions elsewhere across public spending, including freezing public sector pay, pensioners are not unfairly benefiting from a statistical anomaly. At a time when we have made tough decisions to restore the public finances which have impacted working people, such as freezing income tax personal thresholds at current levels, that would not be fair. Setting aside the earnings element is temporary and only for one year. This means we can and will apply the triple lock as usual from next year for the remainder of this Parliament, in line with our manifesto commitment.
While the earnings growth is a welcome sign of the country’s overall economic recovery given the unique and exceptional events of the past 18 months, this year’s measure is being skewed and distorted, reflecting a technical and temporary period of reverting or rebounding earnings—the differing cohorts of people who were retained or made redundant. As a result, the earnings measure is a statistical anomaly and is not a real-life basis for considering this year’s uprating of state pensions. As other commentators have said, for example the Institute for Government:
“The figure for earnings growth is distorted...the increase is artificially high because so many workers were furloughed last year”.
The Social Market Foundation also endorses my proposal, stating:
“The triple lock should be replaced with a double lock...pensions would still rise, but less quickly, reducing the fiscal burden on the working-age population”.
In addition to those receiving basic and new state pensions, this adjustment will apply to those receiving standard minimum guarantee in pension credit, and widows’ and widowers’ benefits in industrial death benefit. The Bill will not extend to other benefits that are linked to prices, which I will review under the existing legislation, as I did last year.
The Government are committed to ensuring that older people can enjoy their retirement with security, dignity and respect, and that those who have worked hard and put in for decades can be confident that the state will be there to support them when they need it. Since 2010, the full yearly basic state pension has increased by over £2,050 in cash terms. There are also 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty, both before and after housing costs, than in 2009-10.
I am proud of our record on support for pensioners and of the action we took last year to ensure that pensioners’ incomes continue to increase despite falling earnings among working-age taxpayers. Our recovery is based on the principles of fairness and sustainability as we level up opportunities across the country, invest in jobs, skills and public services while repairing the public finances. This is the fair and reasonable course of action, given the temporary statistical anomalies in earnings we have seen this year as a result of unprecedented interventions in the economy and the labour market. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for having read the statement and for recognising some of the challenges that we face. I accept that it is his role and that of the Opposition to suggest that the Government are not taking the right course of action. However, this is where I disagree with him. He referred to the earnings link that was dropped in, I think, the late ’70s or early ’80s. It was not reinstated by the Labour party until the late noughties and was not commenced until the coalition Government were in place. That is why we have followed the triple lock policy for the last decade, recognising that we wanted to restore the earnings link and to see an increase in pensions overall. We have made good progress on that, as I set out, with the £2,050 cash-terms increase in just over a decade.
We have used the earnings link since the policy came into effect a decade ago, and we have done this on the same basis. As for trying to mess about with different bits of earnings, the Office for National Statistics produced some data but we did not find it necessarily reliable, in terms of what could be considered as a substantiated basis to make the change. I have made the recommendation to the Government—that has been endorsed today and I hope that the House will endorse it in the forthcoming legislation—to set aside the earnings link, as we did last year, recognising the challenges of covid and the implications that that would have had last year directly on pensioners. There is the same fairness of approach here.
I do not intend, as is usual, to publish legal advice. That legal advice is quite straightforward. I would summarise it as “The best way to introduce this temporary set-aside is through legislation, just as we did last year.” I intend to take this forward on that basis.
As for making comparisons with other countries, I am conscious that we have a substantial amount of occupational pension here. We also have a whole fringe of pensioner benefits alongside it that are not necessarily available in many other countries. Just this year alone, which is about to come to an end, while the pension cost is about £105 billion, we are spending about £129 billion directly on pensioners. We have genuinely shown a measured approach to supporting pensioners during our time in office. We think this is a sensible thing that will be broadly welcomed by the public, recognising the balancing act that we continue to face.
I do not have that assessment to hand. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Office for Budget Responsibility significantly reduced its forecast in respect of the impact on unemployment, in recognition of the excellent provisions already made by the Government in the past few months and the ongoing measures set out in the Budget. We made a commitment to aim for a quarter of a million kickstart jobs to be in place by the end of this calendar year; we are well on track to doing that. We should recognise that kickstart is designed for those people who are furthest from the labour market. We will continue to use our excellent jobs army of work coaches, of whom we will have nearly 13,500 extra by the end this month, to help young people to get into work.
The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question about why these have all been taken in parallel. I think that it is to give certainty and direction to the country and to employers, particularly when it comes to the operation of the furlough scheme. As I have said before, this is really the time for those employers to get their workers ready again to go back into work, ideally sooner than before the end of September. Thinking about the temporary £20 uplift that was applied to universal credit, I think it is also fair to say that that is not the only way that we have supported people on benefits in the last year. There are also things such as the increase in the local housing allowance rate, which is on a permanent setting in cash terms. Those are the sort of other measures that we have taken, including to help some people on low incomes with the cost of living.
We have provided an unprecedented economic support package to protect and create jobs through the pandemic. For people who need to change careers, our sector-based work academy programmes—SWAPs—offer training, work experience and a guaranteed job interview to get those people ready to start a job, allowing them to learn the skills that employers in that particular industry look for. Alongside that, our flexible support fund has been boosted by an extra £150 million so that work coaches can help to support individuals facing redundancy through retraining and overcoming barriers to work.
As has been explained several times to the House today, and previously by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the Government introduced a raft of temporary measures to support those most impacted by the covid pandemic. The hon. Member is aware of the statement I made to the House, where I said that the situation would be reviewed in the new year, and that is exactly what I am doing. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor as we consider the options on how best to support people through the pandemic.
I can only more or less repeat what I said before. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I are actively working on proposals on how we can continue to make sure that we support people most badly affected by the pandemic. This is part of the discussions that are still ongoing, and I can assure the House that we are actively considering it and hope to make an announcement when we can, in order to give that certainty, as the hon. Member points out, to a number of people.
My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to this important point. As a result of actions by this Government the UK is the first major economy to put climate risk and disclosure into statute for pension schemes, leading the way on this issue, having already legislated for net zero by 2050 and introduced ESG—environment, social and governance—legislation through 2018 amendments to the occupational pension schemes investment regulations. I genuinely look forward to when we manage to complete the Pension Schemes Bill to bring all that into effect.
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to our plan for jobs. He will be aware that there are a number of schemes already under way, including kickstart, JETS and the sector-based work academy programme. It will take a little time to contract for the long-term unemployment programme, but I assure him that, compared with the last financial crisis just over a decade ago under the Labour Government, we have acted far more quickly in getting these employment contracts in place, because we need to make sure that people do what they can to try to remain connected to the labour market.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government introduced a raft of temporary measures to support those hardest hit, including the furlough scheme, the self-employment income support scheme and the £20 UC uplift. The Chancellor has confirmed the UC uplift until March ’21, and it is right that we wait for more clarity on the national economic and social picture before assessing the best way to support low-income families moving forward. That is exactly what I put in the written ministerial statement last week.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, this Government have put an unprecedented package of support in place to strengthen the safety net for individuals, families, communities and businesses who need help at this critical time. We recognise that this has been a challenging year for everyone, especially for those who have lost their jobs and those families who are feeling the extra strain, worrying about putting food on the table or money in the meter. The Prime Minister has been clear that this Government will use all their efforts to make sure that no child should go hungry this winter. This Government also want to ensure that every child reaches their full potential. That is why I am announcing a comprehensive package of support to see these families through the winter months and beyond, through the new covid winter grant scheme, increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers, and the national roll-out of the holiday activities and food programme for the longer holidays in 2021.
With Christmas coming, we want to give disadvantaged families peace of mind and help those who need it to have food on the table and other essentials so that every child will be warm and well fed this winter. Through the covid winter grant scheme, we are delivering £170 million to local authorities in England, starting next month, to cover the period until the end of March. That fund builds on the £63 million already distributed earlier this year and, as then, funding will be disbursed according to an authority’s population, weighted by a function of the English index of multiple deprivation. Any Barnett consequentials are already included in the guaranteed £16 billion funding for the devolved Administrations, so there is funding available for every child in the UK, and I hope that the devolved Administrations will play their part in this mission.
Local councils have the local ties and knowledge, making them best placed to identify and help those children and families most in need, and it is important to stress that the scheme covers children of pre-school age, too. Targeting this money effectively will ease the burden faced by those families across the country worrying about the next bill coming through the letterbox or the next food shop. Grants will be made under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003, and different from earlier in the year, they will carry conditions and reporting requirements to ensure that the scheme is focused on providing support with food and utility costs to vulnerable families with children who are affected by the pandemic. We will require that at least 80% of the grant is spent on children with their families, providing some flexibility for councils to help other vulnerable people. We will also require councils to spend at least 80% on food and key utilities, again providing some flexibility for other essentials.
In trying to give children the best start in life, it is important that food for young children and expectant mothers should be nutritious, as that will help in their future health and educational attainment. That is why we are increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers by more than a third, helping low-income families to buy fresh milk and fruit and vegetables, and helping to boost their health and readiness for school. From April 2021, the value of vouchers will rise from £3.10 to £4.25.
The third part of our comprehensive package is the extra support we will be giving children and families during the longer school holidays. After successful pilots of our holiday activities and food programme, I am pleased to let the House know that it will be expanded and rolled out across the country starting from Easter next year, through the summer and the Christmas holidays, supported by £220 million of funding.
Our manifesto set out our commitment to flexible childcare, and the expansion of the holiday activities and food programme has always been part of that commitment. We are building on the learning from the successful delivery of the programme over the past three years to expand it across England, as we had set out to do. The programme, which is being extended to all disadvantaged children, offers that vital connection for children during the longer school holidays to enriching activities such as arts and sport which will help them perform better in school, as well as a free, nutritious meal while they are there.
In May, the Government provided £16 million to charities to provide food for those struggling due to the immediate impacts of the pandemic. I announce today that we will match that figure again, making a further £16 million available to fund local charities through well-established networks and provide immediate support to frontline food aid charities, who have a vital role to play in supporting people of all ages. The package taken as a whole will make a big difference to families and children throughout the country as we continue to fight the virus.
We are taking a long-term, holistic approach, looking at health, education and hunger in the round, not just over the Christmas period but throughout the winter and beyond. This is not just about responding to the pressures of winter and covid but about further rolling out the holiday activities fund, which is an established part of the Government’s approach to helping children reach their full potential. With this announcement, we are ensuring that as well as taking unprecedented action to protect jobs and livelihoods, we are protecting younger generations.
We are living under extraordinary circumstances, which require an extraordinary response, but I am steadfast in taking action to support all children to fulfil their potential long after we have beaten the pandemic. Social justice has been at the heart of every decision this compassionate Conservative Government have made, whether that be protecting over 12 million jobs through our income support schemes, injecting over £9 billion into the welfare system or providing over 4 million food boxes to those shielding. This is yet another example of how the Government have supported people throughout the pandemic.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for these measures, but I am somewhat disappointed by his approach. It is quite simply false to label this as anything other than a significant expansion of existing support measures and delivering on our manifesto commitments to support disadvantaged children and families. This summer alone, 50,000 children benefited from the holidays and activities fund and, as we have said, next Easter, summer and Christmas, that will be open to all eligible children who want to take part in it. Also, I think that an additional 2,500 breakfast clubs have been started during covid.
I would remind Labour Members that their proposal simply to extend vouchers for free school meals recipients over Christmas would have cost £40 million for the two-week period, and that only school-age children would have been eligible. By contrast, our new package of support, building on the £63 million earlier in the year for the local welfare assistance fund, is £170 million. It will last 12 weeks and support thousands more disadvantaged children and families. That is not to mention the commitment to extend the holiday activities and food programme, the Healthy Start vouchers and food redistribution charities. Recognising the Barnett consequentials, this represents more than half a billion pounds of support for children and families. That is happening in a much more targeted way, trusting our local councils, which can draw on the variety of information they have to ensure that we help the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people at this time.
It is that targeted approach that really sets this policy apart. We will work with councils up and down the country to ensure that every child is warm and well fed this winter.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I praise him for raising this issue on behalf of the many people he represents. This Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty, particularly among pensioners, and will continue to deliver winter fuel payments this year. I was pleased by the work done by my Department to make sure that those on pension credit, including in your constituency, Mr Speaker, received the £140 from the warm home discount scheme, without lifting a finger.
The Government have taken unprecedented action in the design of their new schemes, recognising that some businesses right around the country are still experiencing a loss in demand. As a consequence, we have developed two different schemes, one of which is “a third, a third, a third” in terms of helping people with their cost of living. Where we believe, in conjunction with local leadership, that it is the right thing for certain sectors to be closed in areas, the two-thirds support of wages is important. Of course if people do come under a certain threshold, they may well be eligible for UC, which would help top up their ongoing income during these difficult times.
What is different from the regime we had earlier in the year is that then the strong message was very much for people to stay at home and retail was closed, along with a number of different sectors. That is not the case anymore: we have now had to intervene in a much more limited number of sectors, often in conjunction with the local leadership. As a consequence, we will continue to review the best ways to support people through the welfare system, as well as through the plan for jobs and the measures that the Chancellor has introduced.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has just told me he will share with the hon. Gentleman the letter that he sent to the Chair of the Select Committee. Generally, pensions legislation has broad support across the House, in recognition of the fact that these are long-term decisions, so of course the Government will look carefully at any amendments in Committee and any points made by the hon. Gentleman. We want to make sure that, going forward, we have conference in the long-term objectives of the changes that the Bill will bring in.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who is passionate about pensions, exceptionally assiduous and, in my humble opinion, the best Pensions Minister we have had in a very considerable period of time. I hope the House will agree that having safer, greener and better pension schemes is good for our constituents, as we encourage people to invest in themselves today to prepare for a comfortable retirement, and help to make them better informed about how their money is growing and being used for them and the planet. I commend the Bill to the House.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We always want to encourage people to take up benefits to which they are entitled. There was an extensive amount of advertising earlier in the year, which was linked into GP surgeries and other public places, in order to encourage that uptake. The changes that the BBC has made in regard to the TV licence has also encouraged some people to take that up. We will continue to try to encourage people to access the benefits to which they are entitled.
If the Bill does not receive Royal Assent ahead of the deadline, the current legislation will apply and it is almost certain that state pensions will remain frozen. The prompt passage of the Bill is essential, which is why I am grateful to the usual channels and the House for expediting this important legislation. In our discussions with the shadow Front-Bench team, we were able to highlight that there has been similar legislation, with a clause in the Welfare Reform Act 2009, to give similar flexibility to the then Secretary of State in consideration of uplifting benefits.
I have set out that this is a technical but important Bill. The Government have worked hard to protect people of all ages during the pandemic by strengthening the welfare safety net, introducing furlough and income protection schemes, as well as supporting those who have lost their jobs to try to help them get back into work. It is right that we also provide protection to our pensioners. Provided the Bill has passed into law by the time I conduct my annual review next month, those pensions and benefits need not remain frozen next year and we will provide our pensioners with important peace of mind.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that Scotland was already starting to struggle with unemployment rates compared with other parts of the United Kingdom, but I want to assure him that we will not only work with kickstart, but ensure that we have a Scotland-specific job entry: targeted support—JETS—programme so that we can tackle people who perhaps need either support to pivot into different sectors, or intense support which recognises that they may have been unemployed for some time. We will ensure that the people of Scotland get the full support of the UK Government.
The hon. Gentleman will know that when people have a substantial amount of money—and I recognise the route he indicated on how they have received that—it usually takes them over the £16,000 threshold for support through the welfare system. He specifically referred to some other programmes, where it is absolutely acknowledged that there has been a complete failure within Government in that regard. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that that is not the case regarding the NHS, but I am sure, as the NHS is a separate employer from the Government, it will continue to work with its employees and the relatives of people who have sadly died.
We have set out the unprecedented steps we took to ensure that vulnerable people would not go hungry as a result of the pandemic, focusing especially on children. While schools were closed to most children, free school meal vouchers were still in operation if schools could not provide a meal. Further support was given through the summer food fund, money was provided to food charities to help get food to people who were struggling, and 4.5 million food boxes were given to vulnerable people who were shielding. Together with the extra £9.3 billion in welfare support that has been given to households across the country, we believe that this is a strong way to have supported people in these difficult times.
Yesterday, the Government launched our new kick-start scheme, as set out in the written ministerial statement and the letter sent to all Members of both Houses. This £2 billion programme will fund the direct creation of thousands of additional jobs for young people at risk of long-term unemployment, to improve their chances of progressing to find long-term, rewarding and sustainable work.
As we build back our economy and return fully to work, a lack of work experience can be a barrier to stepping on to the jobs ladder, which is why, through kick-start, employers will be supported to access a massive recruitment pool of young people who want to work and are bursting with potential. Employers from all industries and across the private, public and voluntary sectors are eligible if they can meet our simple criteria on the provision of roles. Employers will need to show that these are additional jobs which provide the experience and support a young person needs to improve their chances of permanent employment. These need to be new roles that do not simply replace staff recently made redundant.
Funding available for each job covers the relevant national minimum wage rate for 25 hours a week, the associated employer national insurance contributions, and employer minimum automatic enrolment contributions, as well as £1,500 for wraparound support. There is no limit to the number of jobs that can be created, and organisations of all sizes are encouraged to participate.
If a business wants to offer only one or two kick-start jobs, as set out in the online guidance, employers can contact their local employer support managers with an expression of interest, and we will work to link them to an appropriate intermediary. These intermediaries could include local enterprise partnerships, local authorities or business groups, ensuring the necessary support is in place to deliver placements effectively. We will continue to be proactive on involving employers and intermediaries following the scheme’s launch yesterday.
We have already undertaken substantial engagement on our labour market strategy. I want to pay tribute to our civil servants in DWP and the Treasury who have brought this scheme to fruition, and I particularly want to thank and recognise my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), the Minister for employment, who has worked tirelessly with her usual passion for helping young people get on in life and who I know will continue to do so.
Kick-start is a key strand of our plan for jobs focused on young people and will be a boost for the British economy. I want to encourage businesses and organisations all to take advantage of the most ambitious youth employment programme in our history and help kick-start to become a flying start for our young people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his sort of support for the kick-start scheme. I really think that across the House we should see this as an opportunity for us all to help young people in our constituencies. On the principles of the future jobs fund, we have actually taken some learnings from that, on where it worked and where it did not. He referred to the fact that it had taken so long to get here, but we had the pandemic in March and this approach was announced in July. We have worked tirelessly on it and, as I say, I pay tribute to my civil servants in that regard. This is actually quite a contrast to the financial crisis of the late noughties, because I think I am right in saying that that placement scheme did not get going until October 2009. It was a long time before that happened, so we have worked at pace.
There are other elements from last time that we have learned from. Hardly any private sector businesses were involved, and the criteria were so stringent in different ways that, frankly, that scheme was very limited. I know that it is not about setting targets for these things, but the consequence of that was that the future jobs fund achieved just over 100,000 placements, although the ambition had been higher. So we have simplified the criteria.
The hon. Gentleman points to the threshold for small employers to get involved, but it is exactly the same threshold that applied to the future jobs fund, where businesses could only get involved by going through their local councils. We are opening this up in a different way, and I think we will start to see local enterprise partnerships and chambers of commerce getting involved as intermediary bodies, as well as councils. There is also a lot of support for this from many of the mayoral combined authorities.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of hours per week. The reason for this is that this is not just about rebates like the coronavirus furlough scheme. Young people will be expected, with their employers, to do more to prepare themselves for the world of work, and that may include work search in additional time. So that is another reason why intermediaries are going to be a key element in helping some of our small businesses to provide these placements, as well as the wraparound support that will be required. On the other elements to which he referred, I know that he has tabled several written questions and he will be answered.
My hon. Friend is spot on. The Department has acted at incredible pace to bring in measures as quickly as possible to help those most financially disadvantaged as a result of c-19. Through the digital universal credit system, we have enabled those changes while meeting that unprecedented demand. The legacy system, which was heavily paper-based, would simply have been unable to cope.
It is important that as the jobcentres fully reopen this week we reinstate the need for a claimant commitment. It is an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there are, but I know that I can trust the work coaches and jobcentre managers, who are empowered to act proactively with people. There will be some people right now who have not had to look for a job for the last 20 to 30 years, and they will need careful support, tailored to make sure they can start to look for the jobs that are available and which I hope will soon become available.
The benefit cap does play an important part, but the hon. Gentleman may not aware of the exemptions to it. New and existing claimants can benefit from a nine-month grace period when their benefit will not be capped if they have a sustained work history. Since 2013, nearly 220,000 households which were subject to the benefit cap are now no longer capped.
As I outlined earlier, we want to ensure that we have that ongoing local support between jobcentres and businesses. I know that in Beaconsfield the local jobcentre staff are working with the local enterprise partnership to explore how they can collaboratively support people back into work. I am sure that the company to which my hon. Friend refers will also be looking at the Employer Help website, which provides a range of guidance and advice, including on identifying transferable skills, promoting opportunities to work in different sectors of the economy, and supporting staff.
The independent Pensions Regulator published guidance on an interim regime for pensions superfunds. I want to stress that this is an interim regime, and that the Government will continue to develop the permanent regime before legislating with full and proper parliamentary scrutiny in the usual way. Market participants are well aware that they should not assume that the interim regime will automatically transfer into the permanent regime.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement updating the House on the work of my Department. First, I want to pay tribute to the civil servants in my Department as well as our contractors and partners, who have been working tirelessly to provide help and support to those in need. They are the hidden heroes for many people in this country, and they should take great pride in their hard work in and dedication to supporting people through these difficult times.
From16 March to the end of April, we received over 1.8 million claims for universal credit, over 250,000 claims for jobseeker’s allowance, and over 20,000 claims for employment and support allowance. Overall, that is six times the volume that we would typically experience, and in one week we had a tenfold increase. The rate for UC claims appears to have stabilised at about 20,000 to 25,000 a day, which is double that of a standard week pre-covid-19. I am pleased that my Department is standing up to the challenge. We have redeployed a significant number of DWP staff—about 8,000 so far—and staff from other Government Departments, about 500 so far, to process these claims. Our payment timeliness for universal credit is running at a record high.
We have also issued almost 700,000 advances to claimants who felt that they could not wait for their first routine payment, and the vast majority of those claimants received money within 72 hours. Where possible, and mindful of risk, we have streamlined our processes. We will consider learnings carefully from this time in the response phase, and whether any of them can be made permanent.
We have also sought to make it possible for people to work from home, and have deployed 10,000 computers. We are now at a level of deploying 750 new devices a day to enable working from home, and have added to the IT capacity for remote users. However, if staff need to continue to work at the office, we are applying social distancing. Making sure that our claimants and civil servants are safe is a key priority. From 17 March we suspended all face-to-face assessments for health and disability benefits. We automatically extended awards for existing claimants that were due to be reassessed by three months, and will only undertake reviews or reassessments when claimants notify us of changes that could lead to a higher payment. Any claim made under the special rules for terminal illness continues to be fast-tracked—it takes an average of six days to process those claims.
Since 24 March, job centres have not been open for regular appointments, but we continue to offer face-to-face appointments in exceptional circumstances if claimants would not otherwise be able to receive support. Claimants can continue to receive support over the phone or through their online journals. All local jobcentres have been turned into virtual processing teams, prioritising advances and the registration and payment of new claims. We have also paired jobcentres across the country to support one another with processing, using fully our network capacity.
That focus on the processing of claims means that we have stopped checking the claimant commitment on looking for and being available for work for three months. We do, however, want claimants to continue to look for work wherever they are able to do so. Ministers are working hard to make sure that existing vacancies can be accessed by people who have become unemployed. We will continue to support those people while they are waiting for the opportunity for work. We have created a new website to guide people—jobhelp.dwp.gov.uk—and we are advertising 58,200 vacancies.
Although our IT systems have worked—thanks to extensive work by the universal credit team, including our contractors—I know that some claimants experienced significant delays in the verification of their identity. Identity checks are crucial to reduce fraud risk, so we worked closely with the Cabinet Office to increase substantially the capacity of the online Verify system, and average wait times are now below five minutes.
Call volumes have been extremely high, with more than 2.2 million calls in one day at the peak. Having recognised the delays that people were experiencing—or, indeed, that they were not able to get through at all—we turned it around with our “Don’t call us—we’ll call you” campaign. A bolstered frontline team now proactively calls claimants when we need to check any information provided as part of a claim. This has been successful in freeing up capacity and reducing the time that customers need to spend on the phone.
In respect of other departmental operations, although we have redeployed staff we have kept critical work ongoing in child maintenance and bereavement. We are monitoring our performance and will return staff to these areas if the response rate is unacceptable. We have cancelled the pension levy increase, supported defined contributions through the job retention scheme, and worked with regulators to assist defined benefit pensions and to combat scams.
It is worth reminding the House of our financial injection of more than £6.5 billion into the welfare system so that it can act as a safety net for the poorest in society. We have focused on changes that could be made quickly and would have significant positive impact. We have increased the standard rate of universal credit and working tax credit for the next 12 months by around £1,000 per year; we increased the local housing allowance rates for universal credit and housing benefit claimants, so they now cover the lowest 30% of local rents; and we increased the national maximum caps, so claimants in inner and central London should also see an increase in their housing support payments. I have been made aware that some councils have not made the adjustment in housing benefit, and my Department is communicating with them all this week. Furthermore, across England we had already increased the discretionary housing payment by an extra £40 million for this financial year.
The 1.7% benefit uplift was implemented in April, ending the benefits freeze, and the state pension rose by 3.9%, as per the triple lock, reflecting last year’s substantial rise in average earnings. We have introduced regulations to ease access to benefits: we legislated to allow access to employment and support allowance from day one of a claim; we relaxed the minimum income floor so that the self-employed can access universal credit more readily; we have made it easier to access ESA by launching an ESA portal for online applications; and we legislated to ensure that statutory sick pay was available for employees from day one of sickness or self-isolation due to covid-19. I remind the House that statutory sick pay is the legal minimum.
We will continue to look at issues that arise—for example, we are ensuring that maternity pay is based on standard pay, not furlough pay levels—and see what we can do quickly and straightforwardly to fix either unintended consequences or unforeseen issues, but it is not my intention to change the fundamental principles or application of universal credit.
We have undertaken a significant project to support the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the national shielding service by establishing the outbound contact centre. Furthermore, we use the contact centre to contact proactively our most vulnerable customers who receive their benefits or pensions solely through Post Office card accounts. I thank the Post Office for helping us to support this group of customers. We have been able to provide contact-free cash payments by Royal Mail special delivery, and we were able to signpost people to extra support from their local council.
I can inform to the House today that the DWP will stop any new benefit and pension claimants from using the Post Office card account from 11 May, as we prepare for the end of the contract. The uptake of accounts in the past year has been exceptionally low, but, in any event, given that we believe the vast majority of people using POCA already have a bank account, the cost of the contract is poor value for taxpayers. Existing customers who currently receive payment through a Post Office card account will see no change and will continue to receive payment into their accounts for the remainder of the contract period. We can use the HMG payment exception service for people who cannot access any bank account.
I thank the Health and Safety Executive—an arm’s length body for Great Britain that is sponsored by my Department—for its work on covid-19. It has been doing crucial work with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Public Health England to provide guidelines for employers to adhere to once restrictions can begin to be eased. The HSE is working hard, along with local authorities, to enable work to continue safely in the sectors for which it is responsible. It has developed practical guidance on the enforcement of the law where workers are being exposed to unnecessary risk.
In conclusion, my Department is standing up to the challenge of unprecedented demand for its services, and we are getting support to those who need it. We will continue to work across Government to help the nation get through this health emergency. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and welcome him to his position. We are in an unusual place today—literally, as he is appearing virtually for our first exchange in a statement—but we will be seeing each other again next Monday at questions.
On legacy benefits, I should stress that the increase to working tax credits and universal credit is only temporary —until 12 months from when it was applied. There are two things here. First, we have a digital UC system. The working tax credit system is digital. It is far more straightforward and it was quick to change that. It would take quite some time to change the legacy benefits system—I am talking about several months—with the process we have. When we make changes to benefits, they tend to happen four or five months before the actual changes come through, because that is how long it takes our computer systems to work.
Secondly, the statutory sick pay weekly rate is about £95. The change to UC is about £94. We anticipate and hope that people will be on UC for a quite a short time while we go through this significant emergency. It was, as I pointed out, straightforward to change that. There are other things that people will benefit from, including the work we have been doing on mortgage holidays, on stopping renters being evicted due to issues connected to covid-19, and on electricity pre-payment. No utility supplier will restrict supply due to issues at this time.
On the benefit cap, I said in my statement that it is not the intention to change fundamentally the process, principles or application of universal credit. I am conscious of the benefit cap, but we are still talking about a potential yearly income outside London of £20,000, or £23,000 in London, being given to benefits claimants. I am conscious that that could effectively be something like a £25,000 to £30,000 take-home salary after we take into account taxation and similar, so I do not think it is necessary right now to change the benefit cap. What I do want to point out to the hon. Gentleman is that claimants may benefit from a nine-month grace period, where their UC will not be capped if they have a sustained work record.
On the savings threshold, there is no universal credit eligibility where people have savings of £16,000. UC is designed to help the poorest in society. I am conscious that, if any changes were contemplated, they would have taken some time to process. We have decided to focus our efforts on those who are the poorest in society. I should also say that money saved for taxation payments, such as by the self-employed, will effectively be treated as business assets, and so would not be included for consideration or be deemed personal savings.
On the five-week wait, there is no intention to change that. In fact, in terms of the largest number of people who have claimed, this will be our biggest payment week going ahead. I am aware of what the hon. Gentleman says about people who have been paid in the last month. My understanding is that there is a phasing issue in terms of the calculation of universal credit payments that people would be entitled to with regard to the standard allowance. One of the benefits of having the advance is that it is designed to spread an annual income over 13 payments, instead of 12. For people who are going through that right now, my recommendation is that they should consider getting the advance. As I say, the total annual payment will be spread over the year.
On universal credit regulations relating to maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay, I will look into that for the hon. Gentleman and write to him. I know that quite a lot of consideration has been given to the different rates supporting people in maternity, but I will write to him on that.
On people only receiving statutory sick pay, I point out to the House that that is a legal minimum, but one of the purposes of the furlough scheme was that people, instead of being made unemployed, had this opportunity. Of course, if people are sick, an employer is entitled to do statutory sick pay. I should also point out that the furlough scheme can be applied straightaway for people who have been shielded and cannot go to work and cannot work from home, and we are encouraging employers to do so.