Debates between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey during the 2019 Parliament

Mon 13th September 2021
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Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits

Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Wednesday 15th September 2021

(1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds
- Hansard - -

No, we have had enough history and the hon. Gentleman has intervened twice; we can look forward to his speech.

In relation to the tax rises announced last week, the combination of this cut and the rise in national insurance is absolutely outrageous. As many as 2.5 million families will lose £1,300 a year. This Government are already a high tax Government, and due to that and the decision to freeze personal allowances and hike council tax combined with the much lower than expected Government borrowing costs, projections are already coming in for the October spending review suggesting that there is far more room for manoeuvre than anyone previously thought.

The Resolution Foundation, the most respected analyst of the labour market and welfare state in the country, said last week that the Chancellor

“will be significantly boosted by the good news the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) will deliver within its updated forecasts on 27 October. Borrowing this year is likely to come in several tens of billions lower than expected, having already borrowed £26 billion less than previously forecast in the first four months of 2021-22. More importantly, if the OBR moves its forecast for the long-term scarring effect of the pandemic on the British economy (currently 3 per cent of GDP) into line with the more optimistic consensus (the Bank of England now expects scarring of just 1 per cent) he will have a windfall that lasts, possibly to the tune of around £25 billion a year.”

I believe the final forecast might be slightly less generous than that, but the point remains that a decision to keep UC and working tax credit at the current levels could be made within the fiscal headroom the Chancellor already has when the spending review takes place.

As the Resolution Foundation made clear,

“To govern is to choose”,

and the question for hon. Members today is do they really believe that those on the lowest incomes, in some of the hardest jobs in the country, who got us through the pandemic, should take a disproportionate share of the burden going forward? Is that fair, is that a recipe for national success and is that ensuring our country is as resilient as it needs to be to meet future challenges? No, no, and no again.

Looking to the future, I want to replace UC with a better system because I recognise that the argument we are having today over the core amount is not the only problem: the five-week wait is a huge issue for people; the level the taper rate is set at is wholly wrong; and people should be able to keep more of the money they earn. Fundamentally, the Treasury caused a huge problem by causing UC to be associated for many of our constituents with austerity, cuts and sanctions, but that is an argument for another day. The choice we have to make right now is whether to proceed with this cut and, whichever way we look at it, we should not. I hear there are rumours that a reshuffle is under way. As Members will know, if a Cabinet Minister were to lose their job today and return to the Back Benches, they would receive a pay-off of £15,000. Will anyone in this debate say that that is unaffordable? It always seems to be a different rule for the people we are talking about than for everyone else in the country.

I implore Members to think about the wide-ranging effects of their decision in this place today. Charities say that the cut will cut a lifeline to millions. Economists say it will suck spending from our local high streets. Even the Government’s own internal analysis makes it clear that it will be catastrophic. No one in this House can say they did not know. No one will be able to say they were not warned. The effects of this cut are clear as day. It is wrong for our constituents, wrong for the British economy; quite simply, it is wrong for Britain. Conservative Members have a choice to make. I, and the millions this cut will hit, implore them to see sense, back the families who sent them here, and cancel the cut.

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

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.

--- Later in debate ---
Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds
- Hansard - -

It is incredibly generous of the Secretary of State to take an intervention from me on the Front Bench, but if relative poverty is what we are measuring—although Conservative MPs have broadly run away from that measure since saying that they would accept it—I have to say that child poverty in the UK is heading towards 5 million under this Government.

If the Secretary of State wants a discussion about the legacy of 2008, rather than about what is happening today, let me say first that benefits had not been frozen for four years under the Labour Government, so they kept their real-terms value. Secondly, the Secretary of State says that she has put more money into the system, but take the money for housing that she mentioned on Monday. That was not more generosity; it was not a boost; it was funding the level of policy that the Government already had with the 30th percentile. They were not improving on it; they were simply putting in the money that should have been there from the beginning. That is the crucial difference.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
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This morning, during her television appearance, the Secretary of State said that a person could make up for the Government’s £20 a week cut in universal credit by working just two extra hours a week. I am sure she is aware by now that she got that completely wrong: the taper rate would of course remove a proportion of those additional earnings, so the net earnings for those extra two hours would be far less than £20. May I therefore ask her if she now knows how many more hours a single parent working full time would have to work to make up for the money the Government is cutting?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds
- Hansard - -

The figure is 10 extra hours a week, so the cut would force that person to work 50 hours a week in total to get what he or she is receiving now. That is why I have said that reducing the taper rate will be our absolute priority in our replacement for universal credit, but it is also why we oppose the cut. It is why six former Conservative Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions oppose the cut. It is why every Labour Mayor, and even Conservative Mayors such as Andy Street, have spoken out against it. It is why the Government’s own analysis, leaked last week, says that the cut will be “catastrophic”.

This is a Government who half the time do not know what they are doing, and the rest of the time they just do not care. Is not the truth that the only way to get the Government to see sense will be the House of Commons voting to defeat them this Wednesday?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Pensions Update

Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Tuesday 7th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

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

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - -

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement and for our telephone conversation this morning after the Cabinet meeting informing me that it would occur.

I believe Governments should keep their manifesto promises. It may be out of fashion—it may even seem old-fashioned—but that is what I believe and that is what is right. Before I address this announcement, I want to make some observations about the triple lock policy itself. The UK state pension is low by international comparison. It compares better when pension credit and the NHS are folded in, and a lot better when occupational pensions are considered, but the core state pension itself is still very important for millions of pensioners. The last Labour Government drastically reduced the link between old age and living in poverty, but there can be no room for complacency. The triple lock and the issue of indexation of the state pension is fundamentally about what the value of the state pension will be in future for working people today when they retire. I reject the presentation of this issue as a source of intergenerational tension or unfairness, because we all have an interest in ensuring that there is a decent state pension in future.

We should never present increased longevity as a problem. The fact that people are living longer is a good thing and it has come about because we have an NHS, because the school leaving age is no longer 14, and because pioneering Ministers of the past, such as Barbara Castle, were prepared to fight for a decent pension and retirement system. There is no doubt that the triple lock has made a significant contribution to restoring the value of the state pension following the Thatcher Government’s decision to break the link with earnings in 1980.

Turning to the Secretary of State’s proposals, the Government’s case, which is that the furlough data and the pandemic have produced a statistical aberration, has to be considered by us alongside the other decision made today, which also breaks the promises in the Conservative manifesto. Of course, we know that the promise on international aid was also broken before the recess. It is more a triple let-down than a triple lock. This decision is not a one-off but a significant repudiation of the basis on which the Government were elected and it would be naive to say otherwise.

I say to the Secretary of State that we simply cannot take the Government on their word alone. Will they show us their analysis that has led to this decision? Will they explain why they could not assess the underlying levels of wage growth with the impact of furlough discounted? Will they publish the legal advice cited as the basis for this decision? Only then could any Opposition or any MP make a decision on what is being proposed.

Finally, while the Prime Minister is well known for making and breaking promises at will, and for frequently being economical with the facts, that does come at a cost. That cost is a lack of trust, so I hope the Secretary of State appreciates that pensioners and workers, as well as the Opposition, need fuller reassurance before any decision can be made on prospective legislation.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Monday 8th March 2021

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Indeed, I will. I commend my hon. Friend for his advocacy for young people and making sure that they get into a growth sector.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - -

The economic forecasts that accompanied last week’s Budget painted a challenging picture for the Department for Work and Pensions over the next few years. Forecasts are not always correct but, if those are, we face a period of low growth and high unemployment. Based on what the Chancellor said about unemployment peaking at 6.5%, what would be the shortfall between the total number of young people out of work for more than six months and the maximum number of places available on the kickstart scheme?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds
- Hansard - -

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her reply. I appreciate that that might not be information that she has to hand. Perhaps she could write to me with the specific figure because matching the scale of the challenge is surely what we all want to see.

In the Budget, the Government also chose to align the end of furlough, the end of the self-employment support scheme and the end of the universal credit uplift, so they all now come to an end on 1 October. She knows that we believe that the uplift should stay in place until we can replace universal credit with a better, fairer system, which, by the way, would be one where people are not worse off if they move on to it from the legacy system. Given that we all expect the end of furlough to at least have some impact on unemployment, would it not have made sense even to this Government to keep the uplift in place to at least help absorb the end of the furlough scheme? As it stands, just when people will again really need it, out-of-work support will be reduced to the lowest level in 30 years.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Monday 25th January 2021

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op) [V]
- Hansard - -

As we have heard, last week this House voted that the Government should not proceed with the £1,000 cut to universal credit set to take place in April. That position is now supported by 280 MPs, more than 60 charities and campaign groups, and the majority of the British public. I have listened to the Government today, as ever, but, as it stands, that cut is formally written into official Treasury documents, and the Prime Minister has indicated that he thinks the cut should happen, but last week the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), said that it was too early to make the decision. Will the Secretary of State clarify what is Government policy on reducing universal credit in April, what criteria will affect the decision, and who in Government will ultimately make that decision?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds
- Hansard - -

I put it to the Secretary of State that she must give clarity to the millions of families this cut will affect. If she wished, she could give that reassurance now. I also ask for clarity on reports that the Chancellor is planning on giving a one-off payment to universal credit claimants, ignoring those on other benefits, and leaving the hundreds of thousands of likely new claimants expected this year with lower levels of support. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be not only unfair, but a very poor use of public money to pay a lump sum to people on universal credit now, while cutting unemployment support to its lowest level for 20 years, just as unemployment is set to peak?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Monday 30th November 2020

(10 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - -

Last week the Chancellor described the scale of the unemployment crisis in the UK when he said that we could be facing 2.6 million people out of work next year. The Government’s major announcement to tackle that was the restart programme, but analysis of the spending review document shows that restart will not get up to scale until 2022, a full year after unemployment has peaked, so what will the Government be doing next year, as unemployment peaks, to help people get through the crisis?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds
- Hansard - -

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but last week the Chancellor said that this is the biggest economic crisis for 300 years, and he is right, so I cannot understand how those same spending review documents show the Government cutting universal credit next April—a £1,000-a-year cut, taken from 6 million families just when they need it most. No Government since the great depression have cut unemployment benefits during a crisis, so how can the biggest economic crisis for 300 years be the time to do so?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Supporting Disadvantaged Families

Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Monday 9th November 2020

(11 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Dr Thérèse Coffey)
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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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

9 Nov 2020, 5:25 p.m.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. The Opposition welcome any move that will stop children from going hungry over the tough months that lie ahead. I would hope that that is true of everyone elected to this Parliament, so I still cannot believe that the Government have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the right place and to acknowledge that, in this country, in this day and age, no child should be going hungry. I am astonished that the Government can somehow pretend that we did not all hear hours and hours of justification from them, in this House just a fortnight ago, for why they thought the absolute opposite of what has been announced today.

In my 10 years in Parliament, I have never been so depressed as I was when I listened to the comments made on the Conservative Benches during the holiday hunger debate and on social media afterwards. That was not because of the disagreement on policy; debate and disagreement are what Parliament is all about. What I could not stand was the toxic commentary and the stigmatising of good people in hardship due to the economic mess this Government are themselves responsible for. I am talking about the unacceptable insinuations about money for children’s food being spent on brothels and drugs, with no evidence to back that up. I am talking about Tory MPs attacking businesses in their own constituencies that had stepped up when the Government would not do so, and using that compassion as evidence that financial support was no longer required for those businesses. I am talking about the same tired old clichés about state dependency at a time when it is the state itself that has had to close businesses and workplaces to deal with the virus. People who themselves have only ever known privilege were showing us that they did not even know how poverty was measured in this country, and in one case did not know the difference between the calculation of a median wage and an average wage. It was unedifying, it was ignorant and it was insulting to British families, so I ask the Secretary of State to start with an apology for that debate and that vote, because the tone of her statement today does not match the tenor of the debate.

Welcome as this statement is, the Government have, as at every stage of the pandemic, acted too late. Half term has been and gone, so let me thank the real hero of the hour: Marcus Rashford. I think the Secretary of State might have forgotten to mention him, but Marcus deserves immense credit for his campaign and for what he has achieved in such a short space of time. The depression that I and many others felt when we listened to the debate here in Parliament turned to joy when his activism unleashed the most incredible response from UK businesses over the half-term holiday. Even though they are facing extremely tough times themselves, they stepped up. That is because in a compassionate society it is a given that children should not go hungry, but why did it take that extraordinary outpouring of community support to make the Government see that?

Let us get to the heart of the issue. All of this is so important because the social security system in this country does not give people the support they need when they hit hard times. That is why this announcement matters so much. That is why furlough had to be invented. That is why the self-employed and contractors are in such a precarious position. In her announcement today, the Secretary of State once again referenced the £9.3 billion that the Government have put into social security since the beginning of the crisis. I ask the Government and all Conservative MPs to reflect on this question: if, after they have spent an additional £10 billion, there is still so much incredible hardship and unmet need out there, what does that say about the system that they have created over the 10 years preceding the crisis? I note, by the way, that there is still no sign of the Department for Work and Pensions’ review of food bank use, which was due out on 19 October, but we all know what it will say.

At the beginning of this crisis, the Opposition asked for five urgent measures to stop families falling into significant hardship: sharing the £20 increase in universal credit across legacy benefits; scrapping the savings threshold so that savers would not be punished; ending the punitive two-child limit; ending the benefit cap so that people could receive what the Government had already announced; and turning the universal credit advance into a grant, rather than a loan. Those five measures would have been a big step towards alleviating child poverty and giving people the support they need, and they are still required. Yet, unbelievably, instead of acting, the Government are still on course to cut universal credit by £20 in April next year, when we know the pandemic will still be affecting people’s livelihoods. That will be a cut for 6 million families. I ask the Secretary of State to spare Britain’s families that brinkmanship and spare us the inevitable U-turn after the event. On top of the announcement today, will the Government commit to not cutting universal credit in six months’ time? For once, will they make the right decision before it is too late?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

9 Nov 2020, 5:29 p.m.

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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Monday 19th October 2020

(12 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
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19 Oct 2020, 12:06 a.m.

As the Government place millions of people across the country under new covid restrictions, they will be asking many people to undergo significant cuts to their income. Last week, the Prime Minister said that due to the job support scheme and universal credit

“nobody gets less than 93% of their current income.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 368.]

Unfortunately, that is just completely wrong. The reality is that a person employed by a business that the Government are ordering to close could still lose a third of their income, and for an unspecified length of time. Their rent, mortgages and food bills will not be any lower, so how does the Secretary of State expect those people to get by?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds
- Hansard - -

Secretary of State, this is important, because it is the barrier to additional restrictions being introduced. As the Government know, people who are eligible for the job support scheme and may be losing only a third of their income are, comparatively, the lucky ones, as people in receipt of UC or jobseeker’s allowance will be left on just a fraction of their current income. With that in mind, I have a straightforward question for her: it is clear that we are not going to be out of this crisis by April next year, so will the Government do the right thing and scrap their plans to cut UC to an even lower amount next April?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Pension Schemes Bill [Lords]

(2nd reading)
Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Wednesday 7th October 2020

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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7 Oct 2020, 12:01 a.m.

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
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7 Oct 2020, 12:02 a.m.

I am grateful to be called to speak in this Second Reading debate. Since I became the shadow Secretary of State earlier in the year, I have been carefully following the progress of the Bill in the other place and am pleased that it has finally reached this House.

First, I record my sincere admiration for and thanks to my colleagues in the other place—noticeably Baroness Sherlock, Baroness Drake and Baron MacKenzie—for their laudable work in carefully and thoughtfully amending the Bill.

In opening the debate for the Opposition, I shall outline our perspective on the Bill as it stands, as well as addressing the three areas—protecting people, protecting pension schemes and protecting the planet—in which Labour would like to see further amendments made as the Bill progresses. However, let me say clearly at the outset that my colleagues and I broadly welcome the Bill. We have been in dialogue with the Government for some time about its contents and the issues that it covers, and I am grateful to the Pensions Minister for his time this week on a number of matters. We will therefore not oppose the Bill today.

My message to the UK’s pensions industry is that it should have confidence in the strong commitment that exists across the House of Commons to a pension system that is sustainable, sufficient and able to meet the challenges of an ageing population. Although we broadly support the measures in the Bill, we believe there is more to be done to create the robust system that we want. As the Bill progresses, we will seek to make those arguments in the usual way.

A new piece of pensions legislation is always an important step. Personally, I am fascinated by pensions, but I appreciate that not all people feel the same way. For many people, retirement feels like a distant concept. The understandable financial pressures that many families experience—especially at the moment—make longer-term considerations harder to contemplate. Even in better times, talk of defined contributions or lifetime allowances can cause some eyes to mist over. I feel strongly, though, that we will not be able to address the major public policy questions we face without getting people of all ages to make a genuine connection between their future prosperity and happiness and the pension plans that they are making today.

The connection I mention is essential because the outlook for today’s young people is drastically different from that in years gone by, and that has become even more critical in the light of this year’s events. We already know that the combination of student debt, higher house prices and—most of all—the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis and the austerity that came after it has meant that for the first time there is a generation of British people who might not be better off than their parents. That is why in last week’s debate on the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill I made the point that the triple lock is not just about the level of the state pension for existing pensioners but about how we index the state pension so that it keeps its value for future generations who are not yet retired. We also have to make sure that we have a complementary system of occupational provision in which people have knowledge and control of their savings, with strong regulations to protect consumers’ interests, and in which people can easily comprehend how the decisions they make will affect their retirement plans.

All that brings me to the contents of the Bill. First, I want people to know that their pension savings—their assets—will directly contribute to the future they want for themselves and their family. I am immensely proud of the work that my Labour colleagues did in the other place—much of it behind the scenes—to put climate commitments for pension funds into UK legislation for the first time ever. This is not just lip service, but genuine commitments, formalising the requirements of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures and enshrining a commitment towards the Paris agreement for trustees and managers of occupational pension schemes. That is fundamental to tackling the climate emergency and it is a vital contributor to the health of pension funds. The long-term prospects of fossil fuel companies have implicit risks and it is only right that those risks are taken into consideration as part of the financial responsibility that schemes have towards their members.

The UK should be leading the way on green finance, but we have been slipping behind internationally in recent years. I want to explore ways that we can go even further to achieve that goal. The connection between people, really thinking about where their money is invested, is a key component of helping them to become more involved and more informed about their financial future overall.

The Bill also contains the blueprint for the pensions dashboard, one of the most long-awaited policy initiatives in history. We want to future-proof that dashboard, so that one day people can see in black and white an easily understandable measure that tells them how exposed to climate risk their retirement portfolio is. I know that the industry wants to make sure that we learn to walk before we start to run, and that the creation of the dashboard in itself is no small proposal, but I want us to be as ambitious as we can. Frankly, there is no time to waste when it comes to the climate emergency.

That takes me to my second point, on protecting people. For too long, there have been cases of unscrupulous people using the complexity of the pensions industry to exploit those using it. The dashboard, in particular, has a vital role in making information transparent and easily accessible. That includes making sure that it has the capacity to clearly spell out to people what their fees are and who they are really paying, and for what. One of the very good amendments in the other place was to protect the dashboard from private transactions for a fixed period, and I am disappointed that the Government seem not inclined to keep that.

When consumers are presented with the new information that the dashboard will provide, we would prefer to have a moratorium on how products and new services are sold and marketed until people get used to having ready access to this information. In the wake of, for instance, volatile markets brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, it would be very easy for people to panic and make decisions that might not be in their long-term interests. We want to look at how we use the Money and Pensions Service to best mitigate this, especially when it comes to transfers.

Small pension pots, as has been mentioned, continue to be a major problem. How we can use the dashboard to easily consolidate those pots with minimum hassle and cost has to be on our minds. The dashboard will bring a sense of immediacy and transparency to that, but we need to make sure that people make their decisions when they are fully informed.

The other element of this, sadly, is pension scams. Regrettably, George Osborne’s pension freedoms, exactly as was warned of, have been a watershed moment for fraudsters, who have taken advantage of such a significant change in the rules. As the shadow City Minister and now as the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I have been made aware of some truly dreadful stories. I remember one especially bad case where the victim not only lost their pension to the scam, but was then pursued by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for many years for the tax payable on that money, because they had accessed it under the age of 55, even though they had been under the impression that they were moving it to a legitimate investment for nowt. That is the kind of scam that absolutely ruins lives, and the penalties and action taken against fraudsters should be severe.

We should also take pride in the fact that there have been several substantial successes in pensions policy in the last few years. Auto-enrolment is a prime example of that—a hugely successful policy begun by the last Labour Government. Thanks to auto-enrolment, by March 2019 more than 10 million people had been auto-enrolled in a pension scheme, according to figures from the Pensions Regulator. Of course we want people to be more engaged in their pensions, but default options that are easy to set up and straightforward to contribute to are essential.

That brings me to my final point, on protecting pension schemes. What that means is ensuring a strong infrastructure so that we have a well-protected and well-functioning system. First, we will urge the Government to retain the cross-party Bowles amendment inserted in the other place. We do not want the regulation to work in a way that unnecessarily closes defined-benefit schemes that would otherwise be open for new members, and that is what we are worried will happen if open and closed schemes have to meet the same investment and maturity profiles. That is why we believe it is wrong to treat open and closed schemes in the same way, but that is another issue we intend to explore further in Committee.

Big challenges demand big answers, and that is why Labour supports the introduction of collective defined-contribution schemes as a potential way to get a better deal for workers than traditional DC schemes might offer. In doing so, we are mindful of the arguments from other countries about the need to ensure intergenerational fairness in those schemes, but we believe that those safeguards can be built in.

However, one area where we feel the Bill is silent is the creation of pension superfunds. These are very large funds of capital intended to consolidate several smaller DB schemes and run them as one large fund on a for-profit basis. Many are advertising substantial returns to potential investors. That is potentially an extremely significant development, and we do not believe it is appropriate for the Government to leave it in the hands of the Pensions Regulator to rule on this matter. The Government know the concerns that we have raised, and concerns have also been expressed by the Governor of the Bank of England and many people in the industry. I do not understand why these measures are not in the Bill, and the Opposition plan to push the Government again for more answers on this in Committee.

We believe that the measures in this Bill are important and worth while. We want well-managed, sufficient and sustainable pension provision that addresses long-term needs and is intergenerationally fair, and we want to begin the process of allowing savers to be much more engaged and in control of their assets. While the Bill does not give us everything we want, it makes solid steps towards that goal, and it is our belief that it deserves to have its Second Reading today.

Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill

(2nd reading)
Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Thursday 1st October 2020

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

1 Oct 2020, 12:08 a.m.

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - -

1 Oct 2020, midnight

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak on Second Reading of the Bill today. I would like to express my thanks to the Secretary of State and to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for the discussions the three Front Benchers have had in relation to this legislation.

As with so many things during the coronavirus pandemic, we find ourselves in an unusual situation that calls for an unusual course of action. It is an extremely sad and regrettable consequence of the pandemic that we expect that national earnings will be negative this year. That statistic tells its own story about the hardship many families are facing at the moment. However, the added complication this brings, as the Secretary of State explained, is that when earnings are negative, there is no legal power to increase state pensions at all, and this also affects the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit and some survivors’ benefits in industrial death benefit.

This is due to the drafting of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, and we need to correct that with the legislation before us today. As the Secretary of State said, there is a precedent for this. The previous Labour Government encountered a similar problem following the global financial crisis and brought forward similar legislation. I therefore believe that the correct and constructive course of action today is to ensure the passage of these powers through the House of Commons. It is clearly in the national interest and in the interests of Britain’s pensioners to address this problem.

The Bill is extremely limited in length and in scope, applying only to this financial year. However, I believe this is an appropriate opportunity to seek some information regarding the Department’s intentions in this area. I was pleased to see in the explanatory notes to the Bill that the Government stated they wanted the Bill passed

“to meet its commitment to the Triple Lock.”

In the comments the Secretary of State has made, she has reiterated that commitment, which I very much welcome. Labour believes that everyone deserves financial security in retirement, and we believe the cornerstone of that is a decent state pension, properly indexed to ensure it keeps its value for future generations of pensioners. That is why we will hold the Government to account to ensure that they keep their manifesto promises.

One of the things I find so frustrating in the national conversation about pensions is the way that rising longevity is sometimes presented as a public policy problem, rather than something to be celebrated. For many of us in the Chamber today, our grandparents worked very hard lives, yet had very little by way of retirement. My grandfather, for instance, worked 51 years down the same coalmine, yet never owned his own home or was able to travel abroad. So we should celebrate, as a country, that in a relatively short space of time our expectations of retirement have been transformed, and we should thank those who came before us who founded the national health service, raised the school leaving age and improved health and safety in the workplace, because that increased longevity. It is their legacy, and it is an achievement, rather than a problem.

We know and appreciate that the pandemic poses additional problems for the way in which we calculate how we should uprate pensions. The volatility of earnings in the crisis means that we are likely to be faced by the opposite problem when we are discussing this in future years—when it comes to the calculation, for instance, for 2022. Distortion in the earnings statistics as wages bounce back from their 2020 fall due to furlough and unemployment could create a significant one-off jump in earnings in 2021. I would like to know from the Secretary of State how her Department is planning for this eventuality when calculating the triple lock.

One suggestion, as outlined in a recent report by Lane Clark & Peacock, is that the disruption in earnings statistics could be smoothed by applying the principles of the triple lock over two years instead of one. Its conclusion is that, if this is applied, the most likely outcome would be that the triple lock could be delivered over two years by subsequent increases of 2.5% in both April 2021 and April 2022. I know many people are anxious to know what the Government are planning to do in this scenario. I wonder if the Government could elaborate on what options are being considered, and if there is an intention to continue the triple lock across future years of this Parliament in line with the manifesto commitment from the Government in December last year.

Finally, I would appreciate it if the Minister, when summing up, confirmed the Government’s intentions on the timeline for bringing forward proposals for the annual uprating of all social security benefits. At a time of such significant national economic insecurity, there is understandable anxiety about this. That is the point at which we will be able to have a full and involved debate on the Floor of the House on what is being proposed.

I would say, on behalf of myself and my hon. Friends, that when the Government themselves admit that a further 4 million jobs could be lost, any suggestion that benefits for unemployed people could be cut in April would be met with the strongest opposition from these Benches. Today, however, I welcome this Bill to ensure that the Government can fulfil their promise to pensioners. We want to make Britain the best country in the world for people to grow up and a place where retirement is a time of leisure, dignity and fulfilment, however that may come. There is no doubt that this legislation is a requirement of a pension system that can deliver that.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Monday 14th September 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a tragic consequence of the pandemic that some families of NHS key workers have lost their loved ones to covid-19 after they contracted the virus while serving on the frontline. It is absolutely right that they receive compensation for that. May I ask the Secretary of State to justify the news that low-paid relatives who receive the compensation payment are to be stripped of their benefits? That is not the case with comparable payments such as the Grenfell and Windrush compensation schemes, so why are NHS families being treated in that way?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds
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I find that answer lacking in reason and compassion. There was news this morning that the country’s largest food bank network has warned that UK destitution rates are set to double by Christmas. We know that the Government believe they deserve praise for the fact that universal credit has not collapsed like the test and trace system, but the real test of a social security system is whether it gives people the support they need. The food bank statistics prove that this is just not happening at the moment. Clearly that will get worse as the furlough scheme ends. We have set out our further suggestions on how to prevent the looming disaster. What are the Government’s plans to prevent it?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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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.

Kick-start Scheme

Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Thursday 3rd September 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op) (Urgent Question)
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To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement on the implementation of the kick-start scheme.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Dr Thérèse Coffey)
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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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds
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3 Sep 2020, 12:02 a.m.

Since the crisis began, we have been urging the Government to introduce a scheme based on the last Labour Government’s hugely successful future jobs fund to get as many young people into work as possible. We therefore welcome the kick-start scheme in principle, but we want assurances that it will be delivered in a way that maximises its impact. On that note, it is disappointing that it has taken until September for the scheme to be launched, and it is disappointing to have to summon Ministers via an urgent question just to ask basic questions on how the scheme will work.

In July of this year, there were already over 1 million young people not in full-time education or full-time employment. This is an urgent problem and we believe that the three key tests of this scheme are: whether the jobs it provides are real, quality jobs; whether it is available to support smaller businesses as well as larger ones; and whether it provides opportunities for long-term employment beyond the initial subsidised placement.

I ask the Secretary of State, first, how the Government will ensure that the jobs provided under this scheme are genuinely new, additional jobs. That is essential for the scheme to be a success, but how will it be evidenced? Secondly, given the existing scale of need, how will the Government ensure that the jobs that are created go to those who need them most? Even if, say, 200,000 new jobs were created, we could reasonably expect over 1 million young people to be eligible for those jobs. We need those jobs to go where they will have the biggest impact.

Thirdly, what feedback have the Government already received on the arrangements the Secretary of State has outlined for small businesses to participate in the scheme, given that the minimum number of jobs that can be created from a bid is 30? I hope she understands the considerable strength of feeling that already exists from small businesses in relation to that point. Fourthly, the jobs will be for a minimum of only 25 hours a week, but the Secretary of State has already brought back conditionality and sanctions, expecting people to look for work for 35 hours a week. If the Government’s expectation is that everyone should be working 35 hours a week, why are the jobs that the Government themselves are creating not for 35 hours a week?

Finally, while welcoming the scheme, I was alarmed by the Prime Minister’s presentation yesterday of kick-start as an alternative to providing continued targeted furlough support. The furlough scheme was there to ensure that people had jobs to return to when the alternative for many people would have been redundancy if their employers did not have the revenue to meet their payroll. Those circumstances still exist in some businesses—not in all, but in some—and that is why countries such as Germany, France and Ireland are continuing their furlough schemes until 2021. Needed as this scheme is, it cannot be a replacement in those sectors that do not have the ability to train and recruit new staff yet, and I strongly urge the Secretary of State to acknowledge that point too.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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3 Sep 2020, 12:09 a.m.

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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Monday 29th June 2020

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
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I also pay tribute to all the frontline staff at the DWP for the way they have processed so many claims for support since the beginning of the crisis. It is important to recognise, however, that the universal credit they have been processing so far in this crisis is a significantly different product from usual. In particular, all sanctions and conditionality have been temporarily suspended. That suspension is due to end tomorrow. At a time when unemployment has risen sharply, the number of vacancies has dropped, people are shielding and schools have not yet gone back, threatening people with reducing their financial support if they do not look for jobs is surely untenable, so will the Secretary of State announce an immediate extension?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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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.

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Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
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29 Jun 2020, 12:05 a.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on her promotion to the shadow Cabinet.

The Government say that the aim of the benefit cap is to make people work more hours or move to cheaper accommodation. Neither of those options has been possible during the covid crisis, so what possible justification have the Government got for persisting with that policy, which prevents families from receiving what the Department for Work and Pensions itself believes to be necessary?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Dr Thérèse Coffey)
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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.

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Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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29 Jun 2020, 3:16 p.m.

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
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29 Jun 2020, 3:17 p.m.

Last week, the Pensions Regulator introduced an interim regime to cover so-called superfunds, which are funds that aim to bring together several corporate pension schemes to be run collectively. This is a sensitive area, because breaking the link between an employer and their pension scheme means that the employer cannot in future be called upon to fill any deficits. Given that sensitivity, will the Secretary of State explain, first, why the Government have not legislated for this area in the current Pension Schemes Bill; secondly, why the regulatory requirements for these superfunds are so much lower than they are for a buy-out from an insurance company; and, thirdly, whether the Governor of the Bank of England is right to say that this lack of action by the Government is a potential risk to the UK’s financial stability?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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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.

Covid-19: DWP Update

Debate between Jonathan Reynolds and Thérèse Coffey
Monday 4th May 2020

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Dr Thérèse Coffey)
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4 May 2020, 12:02 a.m.

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.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op) [V]
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4 May 2020, 3:44 p.m.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of her statement. May I add my thanks to the dedicated frontline staff of the Department for Work and Pensions for everything they have done and are doing during this crisis to ensure that we can process the unprecedented volume of claims that have been made?

I welcome the measures the Secretary of State has announced so far. The social security system we had going into this crisis was a safety net with too many holes in it, and it is good that the Government have recognised that. My questions for the Secretary of State are about how we can widen that net so that everyone who needs support gets it, and about the steps that will need to be taken as we move from response to recovery.

First, the Government have significantly increased universal credit, but people on legacy benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance have not seen a corresponding increase in their benefit. More than 100 charities have pointed out that that discriminates against disabled people in particular. When will those benefits be uprated?

Secondly, there are now 100,000 families who will not be able to receive this increase because they are still limited by the benefit cap. The Government say the benefit cap exists to force people to work more hours or move to cheaper housing, both of which are clearly impossible during the crisis. Almost every organisation, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies to the Resolution Foundation and the Child Poverty Action Group, believes it should be temporarily suspended. Does the Secretary of State agree?

Thirdly, anyone who has been saving for a housing deposit, for a rainy day or for a substantial item could find themselves ineligible for universal credit because of those savings. Those people paid into the system when they were in work; should it not be there for them now? I do not believe we should punish those savers, and I believe those saving limits should also be suspended.

Fourthly, the Government say the two-child limit exists so people supported by social security have to make the same family choices as those who are not, but this crisis shows how absurd that claim is. People could not have been expected to make family choices three years ago based on the likelihood of a global pandemic shutting down our economy. The Government have suspended sanctions during the crisis, but the two-child limit is effectively an 18-year sanction on the third and fourth child in a family. Surely it should go too.

Fifthly and finally, those people who are eligible for support from universal credit will still have to wait five weeks for their money or take an advance that will be deducted from future payments. Many people do not appreciate that if they claim universal credit before they receive their final salary payment, their income means they have no entitlement for their first month and could have to wait as long as nine weeks for any payment. Since it was introduced, the five-week wait has been the single biggest driver of housing arrears, short-term debt and food bank use in the country. It should not exist at all, but in this crisis it is particularly egregious, and it simply must go.

May I also raise a very specific issue with the Secretary of State? It has come to light that the universal credit regulations treat maternity allowance, which is received mainly by low-paid women, as unearned income but statutory maternity pay as earnings, which are disregarded by the work allowance. That could result in a low-paid pregnant woman being as much as £4,000 a year worse off. Why is that? Will it change?

I turn to preparations for the recovery. As the Cabinet Minister responsible for the Health and Safety Executive, what conversations has the Secretary of State had with it about the process by which workplaces will be made safe when people are asked to return to work? When the lockdown began, most MPs were inundated with questions from constituents still in work about whether their workplace sounded safe. That simply will not do when lockdown ends. There must be a clear process agreed by the workforce and management, not least because a failure to do so would likely result in significant litigation.

This crisis has confirmed in terms what the UK’s unequal and unfair labour market really means. Although some people have been able to work from home on full pay, others have faced having to go into work and risk their health, or have lost their job through no fault of their own and will receive social security or sick pay set at just a fifth of the UK’s weekly median income. More than 4 million British children grow up in poverty, living in poor accommodation and perhaps without the internet connections many of us take for granted. The lockdown will have a severe impact on their wellbeing. Many have likened our response to coronavirus to fighting a war. If that is true, the aftermath should be equally so, with a renewed national effort to fight the inequality, poverty and insecurity that should have no place in this country at any time.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

4 May 2020, 3:45 p.m.

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.