While this Bill seems to be a technical piece of legislation, it raises fundamental questions about this Government and the trust that they enjoy among people across the country. I want to address a number of issues today: the substance of the Bill; how it is part of a pattern of behaviour; the changes we would like to see to protect pensioners; and the context of wider Government policy towards the most vulnerable in our society.
Turning first to the substance of the Bill, we are being asked to vote today for a change in the law to suspend the earnings-related part of the triple lock for one year while retaining the link to prices and the commitment to raise the state pension by a minimum of 2.5%. This is an important issue that directly affects millions of people today as well as the value of state pensions for future generations. Labour supports the triple lock. Indeed, all the major parties committed to maintaining it in the 2019 general election. I should add that it was a Labour Government in 2002 who committed to raising the state pension by the higher of 2.5% and inflation. It is also important to note that, taking inflation into account, state pensions rose more on average under the last Labour Government than they have under the coalition or the Conservative Governments.
Of course, the covid-19 pandemic distorted the earnings growth figures for this year, and the impact of the furlough scheme and the distribution of jobs lost in the crisis has artificially inflated the headline earnings growth figure. The Government have said that they expect earnings to be above 8% as a result of this anomaly. We have been clear that the Government cannot be allowed to use the current crisis as a smokescreen to break their word to pensioners and to abolish the triple lock by the back door. We accept that the pandemic has distorted the earnings data, but we knew that this problem was coming and it was surely not beyond the wit of the Treasury to find a solution to the anomaly in wage data that maintained the link to earnings and offered certainty to pensioners.
I am afraid that the Government have failed to be open about the earnings data they are using. They have also failed to show that they are concerned about low-income pensioners. They are asking us to vote on trust alone, but that is something I am afraid this Government do not enjoy much of. By downgrading the triple lock, they are breaking a manifesto promise. Trust in the Government has been badly damaged. I should not have to say this, but given the history of the Prime Minister and his Government, I want to set out what the House and the public have a right to expect. Over the last months we have seen a series of actions that show that the Government do not understand, and that in some cases they just do not seem to care. This should be obvious, but sadly it does not seem to be, to the Prime Minister and his Administration.
Today’s broken promise is the third breach of trust in just a few months. This is starting to become a pattern of behaviour. First, there was the cut in overseas aid that the Government made despite a wide range of opposition. We are the only G7 country to cut aid, breaking a manifesto commitment to support the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, and this Conservative Government are retreating from our moral duty. This has already weakened the UK’s position at the G7 summit and it will continue to do so at the upcoming summit on education and COP26. Parliament has repeatedly made it clear that it does not support aid cuts and that Britain must not turn its back on the world’s poorest. I would add that a Labour Government will build partnerships with other Governments, civil society groups and communities to overcome global challenges by using the aid budget to tackle poverty and inequality.
Secondly, there was the breach of trust we saw last week when the Government broke their promise not to raise national insurance. The Government had already weakened social care and our NHS, cutting £8 billion and leaving us with long accident and emergency, cancer and mental health waiting lists even before the pandemic. Their solution, when finally pushed to act by the coronavirus pandemic, is an unfair tax on jobs—the biggest tax rise on families in over 50 years.
With a cut to universal credit in the Government’s sights, it seems that they are going after the same people time and time again. A tax rise that hits less well-off areas—so much for levelling up. The CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce have all criticised the national insurance rise as illogical and harmful to businesses and our recovery.
Now we face the third broken promise, on the triple lock, which Ministers have consistently said they would protect. I repeat that the Government must not use this crisis to leave the door open to scrapping the triple lock altogether. We recognise that the pandemic has caused an anomaly in the earnings data and, crucially, we are not calling for an 8% rise in the state pension, but the Government must come clean and show why they cannot calculate underlying earnings growth over a longer period of time. They have not adequately made the case for why an earnings link, with this year’s anomaly resolved, cannot be maintained.
At the very least, Ministers should maintain an earnings link, explain their decisions, offer binding commitments to protect the triple lock and protect the incomes of less well-off pensioners. There is nothing in the Bill that seeks to increase the uptake of tax credits or, indeed, to set out other steps the Government will take to protect low-income pensioners.
The public, and we as the Opposition, expect the Government to look at this thoroughly, to be diligent and to treat people fairly. When the Secretary of State first informed the House of her decision, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) asked the Government to publish their reasons. That is the least pensioners could expect. Governments should explain the evidence used to make key policy decisions, as evidence-based policy making has been a central plank of good governance for a very long time. Sadly, no answers were forthcoming, but perhaps we will see some actual evidence in this debate. The Government’s track record on the use of evidence, however, does not offer much hope.
Finally, I pay tribute to the right hon. Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and for Ashford (Damian Green) for tabling their amendment. Opposition Members are deeply concerned about the cut to universal credit and the devastating impact it could have. It will hit thousands of families and many people in work, including nurses, teaching assistants and supermarket workers. I know from experience that 9,000 people in my constituency will be affected. Like colleagues on both sides of the House, I have spoken to residents who are desperate and who do not know how they will cope.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, as I understood that the Government had frozen the housing allowance. I look forward to discussing that further in this debate.
The Government have left it late to do the right thing and end the cut, but it is not too late. There is clearly a strength of feeling on both sides of the House on the universal credit cut and the state pension uplift. I think we agree that trust is important and is the basis of good government. The Government will be letting down pensioners and the country if they plough on with these unfair changes without any explanation or reassurance about the future and without any assessment of the impact on many pensioners. We have now seen three successive breaches of trust in just a few weeks, and the last two were only days apart. Trust in this Government has fallen dramatically, and it will fall even further if they fail to listen.
We are making a very important decision today, but the Government can still correct some of their mistakes if they listen to their own Back Benchers as well as to the advice of the Opposition.
The point is that the Minister’s Department is required to address poverty and to make work pay, but the minimum wage is simply too low. Otherwise, why is it that 2.3 million working families are on universal credit? Now there is a triple whammy coming to those poorly paid people: withdrawing the furlough, raising national insurance payments and cuts to universal credit. The underlying causes of poverty are greedy bosses and rapacious landlords, but does the Minister accept that the cuts they are now imposing will drive up already shameful levels of poverty? Will he say to his colleagues that it is time to cancel the cuts?
The Minister and the Secretary of State have a proud record of putting in place programmes that increase opportunities for everyone to access high-quality employment and training. Further to his earlier answer, can the Minister confirm what specific steps he is taking to ensure that the bespoke needs of people on the autistic spectrum are no barrier to accessing employment or training opportunities? Will he join me in thanking local organisations in Bury, such as the Met theatre which runs confidence-building sessions for children on the autistic spectrum, for the role they play in developing the skills that each child needs to thrive in the job market?
It was disappointing that the Government chose to sneak out their disability strategy over the summer recess, meaning that we had no opportunity to question the Minister on its failure to address barriers to employment for disabled people. Why are his Government not introducing mandatory reporting on the disability employment and pay gaps? Why does the strategy contain no proposals to work with trade unions? Most importantly, can he explain why no parliamentary time has been given over to the scrutiny of this strategy?
Could the Secretary of State—or the Minister for Pensions, who is doing such great work in this area—explain what they are doing to ensure that when pensions are invested, the environmental, social and governance agenda is about incentivising high-quality sustainable products across the world, for instance in Africa, and not just becoming a box-ticking exercise here at home?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Twigg.
As the Minister rightly outlined, the change in legislation simple removes the potential for any overlap between the disability living allowance and the new Scottish equivalent, CDP. As colleagues may be aware, CDP is due to be piloted in Scotland in Dundee city, Perth and Kinross and the Western Isles for families of children with a disability or long-term health condition. Applications open on 26 July and families in need of financial support should apply to the new Scottish system from that date. It is the first application-based disability benefit to be introduced by the Scottish Government since the transfer of those powers in 2016. The pilot is due to followed by full national roll-out in the autumn. The payments will be managed by Social Security Scotland. CDP will replace the disability living allowance for children, which is currently delivered by the DWP.
The three-area pilot has been designed to provide a further opportunity for feedback and analysis, to ensure that CDP meets the needs of disabled children and their families before its national expansion. Although the Opposition support the payment, my Scottish colleagues and I are concerned that little is being proposed to improve the lives of disabled people. Scottish Labour is of the view that, much like the broader disability allowance, alongside implementation and the transfer of claimants to the new Scottish payment, there should be a review of how the system operates, what eligibility criteria are used and so on. The Scottish Government’s intention, however, is to finish the transfer process first, and then begin a review, which is not likely to take place until at least 2023.
The lower rate of the mobility component should be reviewed and revisions made for children in specific impairment groups, such as those with autism, learning difficulties and/or mental health issues. It is also disappointing to note that there is no deviation from the current benefit rates. A full assessment should be made of what level of financial support people need to ensure that they can lead fulfilling lives.
The Scottish Government should take this opportunity to improve the system rather than just replicating existing arrangements and simply moving the administration to Scotland. However, if the administration of the benefit is seen to be easier and more compassionate as a result of bringing it in-house, I want to know what are the Government’s plans to learn from that?
Labour will not oppose the SI, but we place on record our desire to have a benefits system that meets the needs of disabled people fully and reflects the increased cost of living that many face. It should also treat disabled people with dignity, allow them to have fulfilling lives and enable them to reach their full potential.
As the Minister knows, it is nearly two years since the DWP announced its review of the special rules for terminal illness and we are still waiting for it to be published. Last July, the Minister said it would be published shortly; today, he says, “in due course”. In the meantime, many have died while waiting for benefits decisions. How long do we have to wait until the Government scrap the six-month rule?
Like the review of the special rules for terminal illness, the Government’s disability strategy has been much delayed. After two long years, we are told to expect it “soon”. Disabled people are hoping for radical policies that will improve their lives. However, many fear it will contain warm words and platitudes but no real action. Can the Minister convince us that his strategy will be published with a fanfare and not just a whimper?
My constituent Feras Al-Moubayed is engaged in a dispute with a high street bank but has been unsuccessful in his attempts to secure time with a BSL interpreter to sort through and categorise evidence documents for his case. As a result, he has missed several Financial Ombudsman Service deadlines, which has caused considerable stress and anxiety. If the Minister will not commit to bringing forward legislative proposals to provide BSL with a full legal status, will he commit to making more provision available to support people such as Mr Al-Moubayed in my constituency in the interim?
What assessment she has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the disability employment gap. (901850)
MPs, like businesses, must do everything possible to ensure inclusion in employment for people with disabilities, but there is great concern that the employment gap will increase as a result of covid-19. I would like to thank the Department and the Minister for their recent assistance; a quarter of MPs across the House have now signed up as Disability Confident employers following our recent all-party parliamentary group for disability workshop. Could the Minister encourage those MPs who are still considering signing up to do so, so that we can reach our next target of a third of cross-party MPs being Disability Confident employers and ensuring that Parliament is a role model for inclusive workplaces?
One of my constituents who is severely disabled and vulnerable had her personal independence payments removed and lost vital care as a result—that was because medical advice was ignored by the assessors. Another lost his mobility car at the height of the pandemic, leaving him trapped, isolated and suicidal, unable to access vital services. Another had to turn to food banks to survive. They all had rejected applications overturned many months later at tribunal. Four out of five disabled and vulnerable applicants have faced unnecessary barriers to PIP support during covid. I am proud of my team in Cardiff North, who have been there to support my constituents through this traumatic time, but many are not so fortunate. So what is the Minister doing to make sure that assessments are right first time, to avoid this trauma and delay?
When she plans to publish her Department’s review of the special rules for terminal illness. (900011)
I have a constituent with incurable mantle cell lymphoma who does not meet the definition of terminal illness. She has been refused the personal independence payment, she is one year off her state pension, and because she owns a property that her disabled son lives in, she cannot claim means-tested benefits. She is in a dire financial situation. How much longer will she have to wait for the rules on terminal illness to be changed?
My constituent Martin Burnell is living with motor neurone disease, which is a progressive terminal illness for which there is no effective treatment or cure. Earlier this year, he was told to reapply for his benefits or risk having them stopped. Will my hon. Friend commit to removing the burdensome and unacceptable requirement under the special rules that people with a terminal illness have to reapply for their benefits after three years? (900065)
Youth unemployment is rising and one route out of this is through apprenticeships. One of the problems with apprenticeships can be apprenticeship pay, often described as apprenticeship poverty, where it costs more to attend work than the young apprentices earn. What is the Minister doing across Departments to address that injustice? (900061)
This Government are focused on getting more people into work through an ambitious plan for jobs. However, last week I was contacted by a constituent in Redcar and Cleveland who is a qualified primary teaching assistant looking for work. She told me that, every time she declares her autism and epilepsy, employers sadly decide not to pursue her applications further. What more can the Government do to encourage employers to give differently abled people such as my constituent the equal opportunity of work? (900073)
Govanhill Housing Association has told me that, each time there is a rent increase, some tenants inadvertently go into arrears as they do not realise that they have to notify the DWP. Will Ministers make a common-sense change to this bureaucracy to allow housing providers to report any rent increases directly for all their tenants rather than as a fallback? (900067)
I welcome the DWP’s commitment to delivering an improved welfare system for people with a terminal illness, and I hope that it can be delivered very soon. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the proposals to change the special rules will not be included in the upcoming Green Paper, which would result in further delay and would be unnecessary, as the DWP has already consulted stakeholders? (900074)
Will the Minister recommend that his colleagues purchase and read the recently released e-book, “The Brown Envelope Book”, which contains more than 200 poems, pieces of prose and short plays about disabled people who say they have been“brutalised by the bureaucracy of the Department for Work and Pensions”? (900069)
Tomorrow, I will be hosting a workshop between local disability support groups and the DWP in my constituency to discuss the Green Paper. Ahead of that meeting, will the Minister update the House on what steps are being taken to increase access to benefits and support for the most vulnerable people during the pandemic? (900075)
I have a constituent who, after having her jab recently, had a nasty reaction and could not go to work the following day. She then found that she had lost 10 hours’ pay—half her week’s wages. That is the world of precarious work, and it certainly does not encourage people to have a jab, so what can the Government do to rectify the situation? (900072)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Graham. May I begin by thanking the Women and Equalities Committee for its invaluable work in writing this incredibly important and serious report? The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who is the Chair of the Committee, made a number of vital points in her opening address, which I hope the Minister will respond to fully. I thank the Labour Members of the Committee, including my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), for their robust contributions both to the report and to this debate. I join them in thanking the individuals and organisations that contributed evidence to the inquiry so that the Committee could provide the focus and consideration that the Government have failed to give to the lived experience of disabled people in this country.
The whole country has looked to the Government for action to keep us safe, and they have a particular obligation to protect the most vulnerable, who have been especially exposed to the virus. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) highlighted that the virus has exacerbated existing inequalities. Although the past year has been difficult, depressing and frightening for us all, disabled people have suffered even more than the rest. I join her in paying tribute to the work of Inclusion London, which I have also met recently, in highlighting the multiple injustices that disabled people have faced during this pandemic.
As the report states, the Office for National Statistics found in September that almost 60% of deaths with coronavirus were of disabled people, even though they make up only around 16% of the country’s population. In November, Public Health England estimated that the death rate with coronavirus of people with learning disabilities might be more than 6.3 times higher than that of the general population. The report clearly sets out a number of areas where disabled people were unfortunately let down by a Government who should have done better to protect them. Instead, they were failed. The report sets out how too often they were an afterthought throughout the pandemic.
On the provision of food, 60% of disabled people struggled to access essential supplies in the early months of the pandemic, but the report notes that the Government’s definition of “clinically extremely vulnerable”—those medically shielding—“was an inappropriate proxy” for disabled people who needed help accessing food. That influenced the policies of the supermarkets, as the British Retail Consortium made it clear that it had been directed by the Government to prioritise the clinically extremely vulnerable group for online deliveries. We all know that demand for delivery slots increased vastly, and many disabled people who were not considered clinically extremely vulnerable had to rely on community volunteers. We thank everyone who stepped up to assist in that way, but it is not the standard of support that disabled people deserve.
The report calls for a Government assessment of the effectiveness of using the clinically extremely vulnerable definition for food provision, and we would welcome that assessment as well, because, in the words of the report, the definition
“may have contributed to some supermarkets overlooking their legal obligations to make reasonable adjustments for the broader population of disabled people”.
The report quotes the evidence of Fazilet Hadi of Disability Rights UK, who said that
“tens of thousands of other…disabled people felt that, for various reasons, maybe not medical, they could not go out either. It may have been that they were blind or had learning disabilities and felt social distancing would have been difficult. […] it might have been because they could not stand in queues for a long time. There are a whole host of reasons.”
That is why Labour agrees with the report that the Government need to adopt a social model of disability that recognises the challenges of lived experience that go beyond medical impairments to consideration of how we remove societal barriers.
The Government’s response to the report does not address that issue, even though it was the subject of a specific recommendation. Will the Minister explain why the Government did not recognise this issue sooner and urge supermarkets to use definitions other than “clinically extremely vulnerable”? When the NICE guidelines for critical care put too much emphasis on the clinical frailty scale, a revised set was published four days later. Why could the Government not make adjustments as they saw the real world impacts of their decisions?
I have discussed a number of the impacts on people with learning disabilities before, such as in a debate in December. At that time, the Minister for Social Care assured me that the blanket “do not resuscitate” orders were unacceptable and had been stopped, that the CQC was reviewing them and that an updated framework required GPs to review all such decisions for people with learning disabilities, to make sure that they are appropriate. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) was absolutely right to highlight the horror it has caused disabled people and their families to learn that they may not receive the care that they deserve and should be able to expect in their time of greatest need.
The CQC has since reported, saying that
“poor record keeping and lack of audits meant that we could not always be assured that…decisions…were being made on individual assessments. Once…decisions were in place, it varied whether providers and local systems reviewed them.”
The CQC also said that of the 508 decisions put in place during the pandemic that had not been agreed in discussion with the person, their relative or carer, around a third— 180 out of 508—were still in place by mid-December. Is the Minister confident that all of these decisions have now been properly reviewed?
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside powerfully raised the crisis in social care and its impact on disabled people, alongside the harmful easements in the restrictions under the Coronavirus Act that affect the quality of care that they can expect to receive and the impact on their dignity. The report highlights the Government’s initial focus on the health service at the expense of social care, and the lack of personal protective equipment provision. That speaks to the Government’s ongoing neglect, as spending on adult social care has fallen in real terms by 2.1% since 2010-11, despite an increase in demand. Adult social care needs both funding and reform.
My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow spoke at length about the impact on children with special educational needs or disabilities during the pandemic. On SEND, the report sets out how many children and young people received little or no support for three months, and it stresses the importance of the Government’s SEND review. I hope that the Minister can tell us in his response what scope the review will have to consider the focus on SEND in mainstream schools, including funding arrangements, and when the review is expected to be published.
Across all of these areas, the report says that
“we have been disappointed…with the Government’s attention to equality issues.”
It will not come as a surprise to those of us who see Ministers’ attitudes to equalities as just another opportunity to wage their tired and divisive “war on woke”, but this is where we see the real world impact.
The report states that, because of the need to restore disabled people’s confidence that their needs are given equal consideration, the Government
“should consent to the Equality and Human Rights Commission issuing a statutory Code of Practice on the Public Sector Equality Duty.”
Labour supports that call.
One issue not mentioned in the report, but which has a massive impact on disabled people, is the Government’s failure to uplift legacy social security benefits, even in line with the temporary £20 increase in universal credit. They have failed to support more than 1.9 million disabled people who have faced increased costs as a result of the pandemic, such as to pay for PPE for their carers. That once again exposes the fact that the Government’s priorities do not include the most vulnerable. There is some unintentional comedy in the report, about consultation:
“Ministers described a very positive, inclusive approach with open lines of communication.”
Most witnesses had a different perspective.
All of us understand and, indeed, sympathise about the difficulties of setting up new rules and systems in a hurry at the beginning of the pandemic, but Ministers should learn from mistakes and not deny reality. Something that has been raised in the debate by several hon. Members, and repeatedly with the Government over months, is the question why they—and not least the Prime Minister—have been so resistant to having British Sign Language interpreters at the briefings. The report makes it clear that that has been alienating and dangerous for deaf people, and people with hearing difficulties.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn rightly raised the question of other barriers that deaf people face, including the lack of provision of clear face coverings in public sector settings, which made communication extremely difficult for those who rely on lip-reading. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead also raised important issues about the adverse effects in connection with accessibility of public transport—something that the shadow Women and Equalities and Transport teams have raised with the Government—particularly for such things as pre-booked passenger assistance.
The lack of progress in those areas says much about how the needs of disabled people have been overlooked or neglected during the crisis. The Select Committee report calls for a separate independent inquiry on the impact on disabled people, once the situation is stable, as I hope it now is. I look forward to the findings of that inquiry, so that disabled people cannot be overlooked again. I look forward to the Minister setting out a timeline for the beginning and conclusion of the inquiry. We cannot accept more delay while the needs of our disabled constituents continue to be unmet by the Government.
I thank the Minister for giving way on the point about the Secretary of State for Education’s powers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that he would require a compelling reason to use them, but he has not used them, he does not plan to use them and there is much less need to use them. Will my hon. Friend indicate whether there might be a timescale for when they are going to go?
I put on record my thanks to all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I recognise that lots of Government Departments are very much in the frame here, whether it be the DHSC, the DWP, the DFE or, indeed, DEFRA, and my hon. Friend the Minister has not done a bad job of answering for all of them. However, what has been singularly lacking is the provision to him by those Departments of dates. When might we see an independent inquiry? When might we see the SEND review from the DFE? When might we see measures to integrate health and social care effectively from the DHSC? I ask him in particular to take back to fellow Ministers the message we heard repeatedly from colleagues about social care, the lack of attention on it, and the impact that has had on the lived experience of way too many disabled people up and down the country in every single one of our constituencies.
As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the pandemic gave the Government an unprecedented challenge, and in many instances there was really good cross-Government working to rise to the challenge. What Members need now is some sort of assurance that lessons have been learned and will continue to be learned because, should another public health crisis like covid hit us in future, we cannot afford to have disabled people pushed to the back of the queue, have their needs forgotten and feel, as too many of those who spoke to us of their lived experiences said, forgotten, marginalised and as if they did not matter. I urge him to ensure that that sensation is not left with them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, “Unequal impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services: full Report”, HC 1050.
I wrote to the Minister last week telling him about the work of the Morecambe Bay Poverty Truth Commission, which has empowered people who have experienced the social security system to speak truth to power and try to improve the system. Will he meet the PIP claimants in my constituency who want to tell him about their experiences?
Following the coroner’s damning prevention of future deaths report in the case of Philippa Day, who took an overdose and, sadly, passed away because of DWP and Capita failings, have the Government implemented the recommendations, and if not, when will they? As well as responding to the coroner, will the Minister keep this House updated, and do the Government not accept that, when so many people have to go through an inhumane assessment process, the system is flawed and it is time for a radical change?
Will the Minister urgently correct the anomaly whereby someone with a severe condition eligible for an ongoing award under the normal rules has a light-touch review after 10 years, but someone with a terminal illness such as motor neurone disease has to reapply after three years under the special rules or risk having their benefits stopped?
The scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies have said that many people are still not self-isolating for financial reasons. What assessment has the Department made of the means-testing involved in the £500 payment? Does the Minister not agree that this should go, and that everybody should be eligible for that £500 payment, because we cannot allow a stop-start recovery as we come out of lockdown? Secondly, does he agree that statutory sick pay is pathetically low for those jobs that are eligible for it, and that there are far too many jobs where people do not even get basic statutory sick pay?
The outsourcing of assessments for employment and support allowance and personal independence payments to companies such as Capita has been a travesty. Constituents tell me how they have been signed off work by their GP, only for non-specialist Capita assessors to refuse their claims. When they appeal, they are forced to wait absurd lengths of time for the decision, which causes severe financial hardship. Coventry Law Centre, which deals with the majority of appeals in the city, has found that a staggering 90% of appeals are successful. This pandemic has shown that things can be done differently, so will the Minister take this opportunity to scrap these cruel assessments, kick out outsourcing companies such as Capita and bring in a framework that treats disabled people with dignity and respect.
I thank the Minister for his answer. A recent survey of disabled people conducted by Inclusion London, a disability organisation based in my constituency, found that more than one in three disabled people had experienced a worsening financial situation during the lockdown, and recent research by Citizens Advice found that one in four disabled employees has faced redundancy since the pandemic started. We know that even before this pandemic, disabled people faced an employment gap of nearly 30% when compared with non-disabled workers. Will the Government commit to using the upcoming national disability strategy to bring forward comprehensive proposals to address the chronic employment insecurity that disabled people face in the wake of covid-19?
It has been 19 months since the Department for Work and Pensions announced the review into the special rules for terminal illness and, in that time, an estimated 6,000 people have died waiting for a decision on benefits claims. Can the Minister explain why there has been such a delay, assure us that every possibility is being pursued to rectify this and reassure those who are still waiting? (913045)
In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that unmarried cohabiting couples should be able to qualify for bereavement support payment if one of them dies. Currently about 200,000 families with children lose out on payments worth almost £10,000 each year. Can my hon. Friend let me know: when do the Government plan to implement their commitment to the 2018 Supreme Court ruling and ensure that grieving children and their surviving parents receive bereavement support payments no matter whether their parents are married or not? (913049)
The Minister for Disabled People will know that many disabled people’s organisations are extremely unhappy about the national disability strategy consultation, which closed last month. They were quoted as being “shocked and dismayed” and I know the Bristol Disability Equality Forum feels the same. What conversations has he had with the Disability Unit in the Cabinet Office to try to rectify this and ensure that disabled people do not feel insulted and excluded but are properly engaged in this process? (913047)
I am sure the Minister will join me in paying tribute to staff at Warrington jobcentre, who are doing excellent work to help people to find a job. Does she agree that, by making it easier and cheaper to do business, a new freeport here in the north-west will generate good-quality jobs for local people? Will she work with me to ensure that anyone looking for work in Warrington South is quick to seize these opportunities? (913051)
There is real and understandable anxiety from individuals in our former mining communities about a range of DWP issues including Dupuytren’s contracture, pneumoconiosis, mesothelioma and other prescribed diseases. Will the Minister meet me, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health, and others so that we can attempt to resolve those continuing, avoidable outstanding problems? (913055)
As unemploy-ment has been going up in recent months and is set to increase further, will my hon. Friend join me in commending the efforts of jobcentres around the country for all their work, especially the jobcentres in Leigh and Bolton that serve my constituents so well? (913053)
Too many of my constituents on assessed benefits —ESA and personal independence payment—find that the reports from their assessments bear no relation to what was discussed in the interview. What measures will Ministers put in place to ensure that accuracy and honesty are carried through in those assessments so that we do not see huge numbers of those decisions overturned on appeal, which is happening at the moment? (913063)
I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations and I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to respond virtually. As the Minister noted, these schemes stand apart from the main social security benefits uprating procedure and there is no statutory requirement to increase rates. It is right that the Government will increase the amounts payable from 1 April 2021 in line with the September consumer price index figure of 0.5%, and, as in previous years, my Labour colleagues and I will support the increase.
I know that many Members of this House will be aware of the impact that these awful diseases can have on victims and their families. I am sure that they will want to join me in paying tribute to organisations such as Mesothelioma UK, the British Lung Foundation and Macmillan Cancer Support, which provide ongoing support and information.
The Health and Safety Executive estimates that 12,000 deaths each year are linked to occupational lung disease. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is almost always linked to asbestos exposure and most commonly affects the lining of the lungs. According to NHS website statistics, more than 2,600 people are diagnosed with this condition each year in the UK. Most of those diagnosed are aged between 60 and 80, and men are more commonly affected than women. Sadly, it is rarely possible to cure this disease, but treatment can help to control the symptoms.
Before the dangers were known, asbestos was frequently used for insulation, roofing and flooring in commercial buildings and homes. Its use was banned under the Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations 1999. Buildings constructed before 2000 may still have asbestos in them. Many colleagues will be aware that, unfortunately, those who worked in industries such as building and construction, particularly from the ’70s to the ’90s, may therefore have been exposed to asbestos. It can take many years for mesothelioma to develop, between exposure to the hazardous material and the onset of symptoms.
The term pneumoconiosis refers to a group of lung diseases caused by the inhalation and retention in the lungs of dust. People working in construction, quarrying, mining, pottery, sandblasting, ceramics and glass manufacturing are most at risk. As with mesothelioma, there is a long delay between exposure and the onset of disease, so most new cases or deaths reflect past working conditions and occur in individuals who have retired. Although both diseases are usually caused by employment conditions, sufferers are often not able to pursue claims for civil damages because of their long latency.
At last year’s Committee on the uprating of these payments, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) raised, as others had before her, the question of why this does not happen automatically. In response, the Minister stated that there would be “no monetary gain” in automatic uprating because benefit payments are already
“uprated… in line with CPI every year.”
He also noted:
“These debates provide a valuable avenue for Members to discuss their thoughts on the lump sum schemes and, more broadly, on support for people with respiratory disease”.—[Official Report, Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee, 25 February 2020; c. 8.]
While I agree with the latter point, I suspect that many sufferers and campaigners would prefer to have the security of knowing that the uprating will happen every year without fail. I further note that the Minister promised to keep this under review. I would be grateful if he clarified his current position on this.
We also continue to have concerns about the huge discrepancy between lump sum payments made to victims and those made to their dependants. For example, a qualifying individual suffering from mesothelioma who was aged 60 at the time of diagnosis would currently receive £44,092. Payments to dependants, however, are significantly lower, and a dependant of someone who died aged 60 could currently receive £19,087. In response to a written question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) in January last year, the Minister stated:
“It is right that available funding is prioritised where it is needed most, that is to people living with these diseases.”
I ask him again today whether he thinks that this is a fair level of compensation, given that these conditions were caused by individuals’ working environments and a substance that has since been banned.
We also cannot ignore the fact that this disparity is more likely to impact on women. Only 12% of the 2,025 new cases of mesothelioma assessed for industrial injuries disablement benefit in 2019 were female. That gives us a good indication of the gender imbalance. I am keen to know what assessment the Government have made of the impact of this lack of parity in payments on women in particular.
I also ask the Minister to share the most recent estimated cost of providing equal payments for sufferers and their dependants. I am aware that, as with automatic uprating, this issue has been raised annually by my predecessors and other Members. Does the Minister agree that this is rather telling? In 2010, the then Labour Minister, Lord McKenzie of Luton, pledged to equalise payments, yet here we are, 11 years on, still asking the Government do the right thing. Once again, I urge the Minister to reflect on this.
I will finish with two points that may not fall within the scope of this legislation but are nevertheless important to put on record. The first is on funding for treatment and research. As we know, cures for this condition are sadly lacking. Will the Minister and his colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care consider additional funding for research into the increasing number of treatment options available? I know that many will also be keen to know what action the Government are taking to raise awareness of these conditions, their causes and the support available. That feels particularly important during the pandemic, given that victims of these diseases have been at increased risk for the past year.
My second point is on funding for the Health and Safety Executive, with which responsibility for asbestos primarily lies. Under successive Conservative Governments, funding for the HSE has been cut by £144 million in real terms. Although the Government announced £14 million in extra funding in May 2020, that is a drop in the ocean. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues about the impact that these cuts have had on the HSE’s ability to regulate, monitor and take proactive action to prevent work-related injury and ill health?
While we are very happy to support today’s uprating of these lump sum payments in line with inflation, I hope I have made it clear that we continue to have a number of unresolved concerns. I would welcome further commitments from the Minister to look again at the equalisation and automatic uprating of these payments in future years.
Since coming to the House in 2010, I have spoken on this issue on each and every occasion, and I wish to do so again today. I have spoken on it over the years because I have had constituents—other Members have said the same—both during the past 10 and a half or 11 years as a Member of Parliament and when I was a Member of the Legislative Assembly, who have been affected by or died as a result of pneumoconiosis and mesothelioma. These were people I knew personally, so I was very concerned about them. I was pleased that Government responded during that period of time to make sure that the moneys that were necessary were put in place. Some of those people have died, but those who are left still live with the severe health problems, including some who worked at Harland and Wolff, the shipbuilders in Belfast. Many of my constituents worked there over the years, and that is where they ended up having their health problems from. Harland and Wolff used to employ some 30,000 people at one time, which gives us an idea of the magnitude of the number of people who could be touched by this.
I wish to echo the points about the equalisation for relatives that were made by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), because I fully support that, as others have done. Perhaps the Minister might respond on that. I welcome the increase, but may I gently ask the Minister what rationale was behind the decision to uplift this by a mere 0.5% during a pandemic, when most homes, especially those with old people who are shielding, have been put under a large amount of pressure? Instead of being able to shop around for cheaper goods, those people have to do their orders online and to accept whatever products are available. Most of their purchases have increased by 0.5%.
As the Minister is aware, I know him as a compassionate, considerate and assiduous Minister. Does he not agree that these payments, made to the most vulnerable of people, in these most difficult of days, should see an uplift that is appropriate? I ask, even at this late stage, that this amount of reconsidered, taking into account the additional pressures on not simply those who are ill, but their entire households. Not only those who are suffering from mesothelioma, but their families collectively are under health and financial pressure as never before seen in our lifetimes. Minister, I am not being churlish, far from it, but I would appreciate a response to the question: why an increase of only 0.5%?
The idea behind statutory sick pay is as simple as it is important: workers who are ill are financially supported so that they can stay off work to recover. But during a rapidly spreading virus pandemic, it also helps to prevent the spread of infectious illnesses. The test of whether a system of sick pay is working is whether it achieves those simple aims.
Unfortunately, as has been shown time and again during this crisis, the UK’s statutory sick pay system is quite simply broken. In the middle of a global pandemic, it is failing to protect either workers who are ill or their wider community. This failure, like so many others of this Government—from Serco test and trace to the personal protective equipment debacle—has contributed to the virus having spiralled out of control and so many losing their lives unnecessarily.
From the very start of this crisis, I have been contacted by constituents who simply cannot get by on statutory sick pay. Before this debate, I invited my constituents to share their experiences of having to rely on statutory sick pay. The stories that people from my constituency sent to me were quite simply heartbreaking: workers forced to use up their annual leave to self-isolate because the sick pay they would get is not enough to keep them going; families who found that sick pay did not cover even a quarter of their bills; and people forced to use a food bank to feed their family and go into debt to pay their bills after just three weeks of relying on statutory sick pay.
I have described just a glimpse of the horrific social harm inflicted on people in this country by this Government’s refusal to provide proper financial support during this crisis. People are being forced to choose between putting food on the table and self-isolating to protect their community and their colleagues. This is happening in every constituency of every Member across the country. MPs in this House know it is, and those who refuse to call for better sick pay have to take responsibility for the consequences.
The two biggest problems with sick pay have been clear from the very start: the level that it is paid at is far too low and, even then, huge numbers of workers are excluded from actually getting it. At £95.85 a week, statutory sick pay is an 80% cut in income for an average worker. Many workers simply cannot afford the immediate loss of income. And who can live off £14 per day? The TUC found that two fifths of workers would have to go into debt or miss paying bills if they had to take statutory sick pay.
Of course, the terrible consequences of this unacceptably low level of support are not felt equally. Many of the workers hardest hit by it are the same workers on the frontline fighting this pandemic. Let us look at social care. The GMB trade union has revealed that the majority of the UK’s social care workers are entitled only to statutory minimum sick pay, with no additional sick pay from their employer. When the GMB consulted its members who work in social care about what they would do if they had to rely on statutory sick pay, a full 81% said that they would be forced in to work. The Office for National Statistics found that care homes where staff got contractual sick pay above the level of statutory sick pay were less likely to have covid cases than those where staff were forced to rely on the statutory minimum. It is hard to imagine a more fatally self-defeating system during a pandemic than one that leaves care workers forced to go in to work when they should be self-isolating. How many people died in care homes because of this Government’s refusal to properly support workers financially when they are unwell?
As if the paltry level of sick pay was not enough of a problem, nearly 2 million of the lowest paid workers do not even qualify for sick pay because they do not earn enough. The lower earnings limit means that those earning less than £120 a week are prohibited from accessing sick pay—a discriminatory measure, given that 70% of the workers excluded by that limit are women. Millions of self-employed workers are also excluded. That is the stark reality of working conditions in this country in the 21st century: millions of workers—disproportionately women, black and minority ethnic workers, and those on zero-hours contracts—excluded from even the most basic and limited support by the Government.
From the start of the pandemic, Labour has called for urgent action to remove the barriers to sick pay that have left the lowest paid workers without support. Throughout the pandemic, trade unions such as Unite the union have made consistent demands on the Government to increase statutory sick pay to the level of the real living wage, and to remove the minimum income requirement so that every worker who needs to self-isolate is supported to do so. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union has also called for the Government to legislate for full rights to contractual sick pay for all workers from day one, paid at 100% of wages. Outside the Conservative party, there is even widespread support in Parliament, with MPs from seven parties signing up to support my motion calling for sick pay at a real living wage level.
I am sure that the Minister’s response will include reference to the Government’s £500 self-isolation support scheme. It is true that, six months into the pandemic, the Government introduced a scheme to give a one-off payment to some people on low incomes who have to self-isolate. Unfortunately, the scheme is woefully inadequate. Only one in eight workers qualify automatically for the main payment; the rest have had to apply for a discretionary payment, and figures suggest that 70% of applications for support from that scheme were rejected.
Back in November, I asked the Government how many people had applied for that payment. It took more than 100 days to get an answer, and when it finally came, it was that the Government still did not have the figures. No one could honestly look at the scheme and claim that it is an adequate alternative to providing proper sick pay at real living wage levels.
We know that covid is increasingly a disease of the poor. Those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods have been more than twice as likely to die from covid as those in the least deprived. People in some of the lowest-paid manual jobs are three times more likely to die of covid-19 than those in higher-paid, white-collar jobs. Covid is still circulating at higher levels in the poorest neighbourhoods than in the wealthiest. Proper levels of statutory sick pay would disproportionately help those in poorer areas and in manual occupations, and that is what needs to happen. When we look at why the Government have never acted on increasing sick pay as a priority, perhaps that is the real answer.
Sick pay was already broken before the pandemic struck, yet even in a global health crisis, the Government have chosen not to fix it, helping the virus spread out of control. The Government cannot claim not to have been warned in advance of the scale of this problem, because just months before the covid crisis struck, their own consultation on sick pay said that the system of statutory sick pay
“does not reflect modern working practices, such as flexible working,”
and looked at
“widening eligibility for SSP to extend protection to those on the lowest incomes”.
I, along with many in the labour and trade union movements, have been demanding better sick pay for workers for almost a year. In fact, it was a year ago tomorrow—when the UK had a total of just three deaths from covid—that the TUC published a report warning the Government to urgently make our sick pay system fit for purpose. The report called on the Government immediately to raise sick pay to the level of the real living wage and make it accessible to all workers, including the lowest paid. Those recommendations were ignored. It was also last March that the Health Secretary himself said that he could not afford to live off statutory sick pay, but, 12 months on, his Government have done nothing to raise it. If only the Health Secretary were as generous with the payments to working people as he appears to be with his friends when handing out Government contracts.
The Government’s refusal to act decisively has meant that the virus has spread more than it would have done, and people have lost their lives who otherwise would be with us still. The Government knew about this problem from day one but chose not to address it. The decision not to raise sick pay to a level that workers can actually live on is a deliberate political calculation from this Government. They feared that if sick pay was improved during this crisis, they would never be able to lower it again in the future; it would be a permanent gain for working people. This Conservative Government cannot allow that because it would go against the grain of the constant undermining of our welfare state. Fundamentally, the Conservative party sees the social security system as a means to punish—be that by setting universal credit deliberately low or the cruel bedroom tax— rather than it being there to support people when they need help.
The Chancellor has a chance finally to sort this issue out tomorrow at the Budget. If he does not, once again he will have shown which side this Government are on, and it is not on the side of working people and their families.
In my constituency, quite a number of employers did not buy into the furlough scheme, and sick pay simply does not cover costs. I understand that the Minister is always very responsive to the issues; he always has been in any debates that I have been in, and I hope that he will be to this one. Will he and the Government consider grants or a help scheme for those who have got into debt just to feed and heat themselves at this particularly difficult time?
I thank the Minister for giving way again. One thing that is very much an issue in my constituency—it probably is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) as well—is mental health. When it comes to accessing all those benefits, there is absolutely no doubt that mental health and anxiety issues are one of the greatest crises we have had for a long time. Can the Minister and his Department offer help to those people with anxiety or depression or wellbeing issues?
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, and he reads my mind—I am just about to come to that section of my speech. This is an issue across the whole UK, and the devolved Governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland appear to be treating it as a higher priority than the UK Government do. The Scottish Government passed a law to change the six-month rule for devolved benefits back in 2018, and that will be coming into force later this year. The Northern Ireland Assembly unanimously backed a motion to scrap it in October, and the Executive are proactively looking to fix this issue and deliver reform quickly. Why, then, is Westminster dragging its heels?
When I introduced my Bill last July, the Minister for Disabled People, Welfare and Work indicated that change would be coming shortly. He confirmed in the House on 19 October last year that the Government would be changing the six-month rule following their review. However, all this time later, we are still waiting to hear exactly what it would be changed to and when that change will be introduced. If Ministers have made up their minds that change is needed, why is there any need for further delay? Why the long silence?
Every day the Government postpone an announcement on the outcome of their review, more people are diagnosed with a terminal illness and risk being unable to get fast-track support from the benefits system if they cannot prove they have less than six months to live. These people are facing exactly the kind of inappropriate medical and work capability assessment that the special rules for terminal illness are supposed to exempt them from before they can access the support they need. They also face huge delays in getting payments. The average wait for a first personal independence payment is now 16 weeks, at a time when someone’s illness may mean that they cannot work and have no other money coming in. These are people like Alan, who has terminal pulmonary fibrosis, and who told Marie Curie:
“When I was diagnosed, I was told I would have five years’ life expectancy, as an average. Day to day, it affects everything I do. I can’t get dressed by myself. I can’t go to the shop by myself. I get very breathless doing anything. When I first applied for PIP, they were very dismissive. One of the things they did was, because I walked from a lift to a room, which was about 10 steps—on that basis they judged I could walk 200 yards. Because I was refused PIP, I couldn’t get hold of things like a parking card or a discount for train travel. So, I was in receipt of no benefits at all, although I do have a terminal illness, which gets worse year after year, month to month.”
For some, that delay will mean they die without receiving any support at all. Between April 2018 and October 2019, 2,140 people who applied for PIP—only one of the benefits affected by this rule—had their claim turned down under the normal rules only to die within six months of making their claim. Many of them will have been terminally ill people unable to claim via the special rules because they could not prove they had six months to live.
Even when the DWP does accept a claim, that often comes too late. According to the DWP’s own figures, an average of 10 people die every day while waiting for a decision on their PIP claim. End-of-life charity Marie Curie estimates that that means more than 5,900 people have died waiting for a decision since the DWP announced its review. That is nearly 6,000 families put through needless distress and anguish, and more will face it every day because of a rule that the Government have already admitted needs to change.
That is families like Michelle’s. Her mum, who died aged 62 in 2018, was initially awarded zero points for PIP and told she was capable of working. She was hooked to a feeding tube 16 hours a day, seven days a week and weighed 32 kilograms when she died. She had several illnesses including Crohn’s, osteoporosis and terminal lung cancer, yet she was awarded nothing. Michelle took her mum’s case to a tribunal, but by the time the decision came back that her mother should be awarded maximum points for PIP, she had died. Michelle says:
“This should have been money that my mum had to make her final days better. It should never have gone as far as a tribunal.”
Dying people deserve to be treated with dignity by the benefits system. Nobody given the devastating news that their illness is terminal knows how long they have left—not their loved ones, not their doctor and not a DWP benefits assessor. However much time they have left should be spent living as well as they can for as long as they can, making memories with loved ones. It should not be spent worrying about money, filling in endless forms, being dragged to assessments and fighting for the support they need. As Madeleine Moon said back in 2018,
“The unknown time you have must not be spent worrying about accessing benefits or keeping a roof over your head; it must be spent in love, laughter, and taking the painful journey together with dignity and compassion.”—[Official Report, 18 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 456.]
People living with terminal illness and their loved ones have been campaigning tirelessly for change for more than two years. Many of them will not have lived to see the change they have fought for: an end to the six-month and three-year rules and a change to the system to allow anyone who has received the devastating news from a clinician that they are terminally ill to get fast-tracked access to benefits via the special rules. The clinician’s judgment should be evidence enough.
We all understand that since the Government announced their review there have been unforeseen circumstances with covid-19, but people do not have time to wait further. For the past 19 months, they have been waiting in a frustrating limbo, told that change is coming but with no announcement in sight from Ministers. They, and the charities campaigning on their behalf, are understandably impatient with 19 months of warm words from the Government and promises that change is always coming soon. For many, soon is already too late and, with each day that passes, soon will be too late for many more.
I urge Ministers to do better than soon. Will the Minister give us a date today for when the outcome of the DWP review will be published, give the campaigners who have called for change some clarity and give us a timeline setting out when the Government will make the changes to the law, which they have already accepted are needed, without further delay?
Many disabled people are on legacy benefits, which of course means they have not had the £20 a week universal credit uplift that has been made available. As the Government did not vote against our motion last week to retain that payment, I presume that they understand the value of retaining it, so will they now do the right thing and ensure that all disabled people have access to that extra cash?
There are 2.2 million people who are having to shield. Many disabled people cannot work from home and do not qualify for furlough, and sick pay is only £95.85, which does not even come close to the definition of doing what it takes to look after people, which the Prime Minister tried to use on Thursday. May I push the Minister not to give the same tired answer about what he has done for other people but to answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) has just asked? When are the Government going to give support to disabled people so that they can be protected and stay at home?
I thank the Minister for his response, but it was not very satisfactory, so I will give him another opportunity to give a more concrete answer. When will he end the discrimination against disabled people and offer the same uplift that universal credit claimants have been given to legacy claimants on employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance, which disproportionately support the disabled?
But people claiming severe disability premium cannot switch to universal credit; they are not allowed to. The costs facing many in that group have increased by more than average during the pandemic. Why is that particular group denied the £20 a week increase?
May I just say how utterly disappointing it is still to have no uplift to legacy benefits 10 months into this crisis? Since the start of the pandemic, shielding people have been an afterthought. The increased costs they are facing are doing untold damage to their lives, and the Government’s solution of claiming statutory sick pay is woefully inadequate. Will the Government finally do the right thing and ensure that shielding people and people having to isolate are furloughed? Guaranteed furlough from day one would help people stay home and support businesses up and down the country.
A number of my constituents in Southend West who suffer from mental or physical disabilities do not have access to computers or the internet. Many of them rely on in-person support in normal times, through places such as the citizens advice bureau or the wonderful Kings Money Advice Centre. With many in these vulnerable groups unfortunately now shielding, what assurances can my hon. Friend give me that support is being made accessible to those without online access?
In its latest briefing, the Child Poverty Action Group has highlighted the plight of universal credit claimants whose work capability assessments have been delayed indefinitely because they require a face-to-face assessment. These claimants have gone months without hundreds of pounds of extra support, which they need. What assurances can the Minister provide these claimants about when they will be able to access this element of universal credit?
According to TUC polling, two fifths or 40% of workers say they will have to go into debt or into arrears on their bills if their income drops to £96 per week, which is the equivalent level of statutory sick pay. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that SSP is set at a level that does not require people to take on extra debts or avoid paying bills? (911321)
Over a year ago, one of my constituents had her complaint accepted for investigation by the independent case examiner. Today, she is still waiting for that investigation to start. She is a single parent and is now without universal credit or tax credits for her children. This kind of hardship is often the situation for those taking their cases to the independent case examiner, and the delay is not uncommon. The average time between a complaint being accepted by the examiner and an outcome being provided is a year and a half. That is completely unacceptable, so can the Secretary of State urgently look into the operation of the case examiner and drastically reduce waiting times and ensure that complainants are properly supported throughout the complaints process? (911337)
I am actually in Goole, Mr Speaker. With the upcoming health and disability Green Paper and the national strategy for disabled people, it is vital that those with real lived experiences are able to shape Government policy in this area. Can the Minister assure me that that will be the case? (911340)
Research from the TUC shows that statutory sick pay currently covers less than a fifth of annual earnings. Does the Secretary of State agree with the head of the Government’s test and trace programme, Dido Harding, that low levels of statutory sick pay are acting as a financial barrier to people being able to self-isolate, creating additional public health risks? What steps is she taking to ensure that statutory sick pay provides sufficient support to enable everyone to self-isolate when necessary? (911324)
The covid-19 pandemic has presented some stark economic challenges for Crawley affecting people of all ages. What support has the Department for Work and Pensions put in place to help workers get back into work across my constituency? (911341)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Gray. As I think is reasonably obvious, the Opposition will not oppose the draft regulations. Social security with the EU and EEA countries will be vital post Brexit, and the temporary unilateral measures that are ended by the regulations are clearly not a basis for that ongoing co-ordination. We support bringing forward the changes to the Social Security Administration Act 1992 to the extent that that facilitates agreement on ongoing social security co-ordination. However, I have to note the absurdity of the circumstances under which we are discussing the statutory instrument. It is now 7 December 2020. On the 31st, the transition period will come to an end, and we still do not know whether there will be a deal between the UK and the EU—
—let alone whether that deal will include social security co-ordination or whether it will replace the regulations being ended by the draft SI. It is testimony to the Government’s entire approach to the negotiations that the draft instrument has come before the Committee so late in the day and under such continuing uncertainty. The time to discuss these measures is when a deal has been secured and the future framework of co-ordination that will replace the regulations that are being ended is a known quantity, but that is not the situation that we are in.
We therefore need clarification of the implications of the draft regulations in the event of a deal and in the event of no deal. First, I am sure that the Minister will be happy to confirm that in the event of no deal, nothing in the draft regulations will in any way alter the social security protections afforded to resident EU, EEA or European Free Trade Association citizens under the withdrawal agreement.
Secondly, can the Minister clarify the implications of the draft regulations for EU citizens living in the UK who are not covered with the withdrawal agreement provisions, in relation to such matters as accidents at work, maternity pay, state pension contributions, access to the NHS and benefit entitlement? Will they enter a legal no man’s land until future reciprocal agreements are negotiated? What are the implications for UK social security expenditure in the event of no deal?
The draft regulations will be made under the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act 2020. The Home Office’s explanatory notes on the Bill note:
“The power to make regulations under Part 2 of the Bill has the potential to be used in a way that could change the cost to the public sector in terms of social security co-ordination. It is not possible to quantify precisely what those costs may be at this stage, but there is the potential for costs that are more than merely notional.”
Why have the Government not provided an impact assessment to enable us to assess that?
On part 4 of the draft regulations, which brings forward the date on which changes to the Social Security Administration Act 1992 come into effect, the explanatory memorandum states that
“subject to the outcome of the negotiations with the EU, and the details of any agreement, it may be necessary to use the powers in section 179 of the SSAA 1992 and section 155 of the SSAA(NI) Act 1992 to make a reciprocal agreement with the EU prior to the end of the transition period. This instrument brings forward the changes as a precaution given that the amendments in the Social Security (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 and the Social Security (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 only take effect from the end of the transition period, as a consequence of the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020.”
I read this as saying that if there is to be an agreement on social security as part of a deal, the necessary amendments to the 1992 legislation will need to already have come into force beforehand. The question is, have the Government only just realised this? Have they have been negotiating on social security all year without noticing that they did not have the powers to do a deal until after the transition period? Some clarity on this important point would be welcome.
It is a pleasure to see a son of Glasgow in the Chair, Mr Gray. I will not detain the Committee for particularly long, and will not be forcing a vote on today’s proceedings either, but I want to put a couple of quick points on the record.
The explanatory memorandum states:
“The territorial application of this instrument is the entire United Kingdom. The changes being made to DWP areas of social security policy, which is transferred in Northern Ireland and partially devolved in Scotland, are in this context subject to the foreign affairs reservation.”
However, it is our view that the revocation of retained EU law that has effect in respect of devolved social security benefits is within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. The DWP has obviously made these regulations with UK-wide extent, but with no carve-out whatsoever for devolved social security matters, on the basis that it considers the draft regulations to relate entirely to reserved matters, by reference to the foreign affairs reservation. In our view, the UK Government have construed the foreign affairs reservation in part I of schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 far too widely. The modification, including repeal, of retained EU law on social security co-ordination, insofar as it has effect in respect of benefits, is devolved by the Scotland Act 2016. It is quite clearly a devolved matter.
I ask the Minister to confirm whether these powers are indeed fully devolved or not, but sadly the United Kingdom Internal Markets Bill, which runs roughshod over the devolution settlement, will make that point moot, as every aspect of devolved Government is undermined and could be overruled. It therefore follows—before I veer too far off course, Mr Gray—that these draft regulations will be ultra vires and thus ineffective in relation to devolved benefits.
It was only on 16 November, three weeks ago, as the UK Government laid their regulations, that the need for a Scottish statutory instrument became clear. Failing an agreed approach, Scottish Ministers were left with no choice but to table an SSI, which they have now done. The outcome is undesirable, as it will result in UK and Scottish legislation seeking to achieve the same result in relation to devolved benefits. Not only does that mean less legal clarity; it is a further example of the UK Government ignoring the needs and wishes of a democratically elected devolved Government. No disrespect to the Minister, who I have met with before, but I feel that the approach thus far has been high-handed and arrogant, which has increasingly frustrated Scottish Unionists, even those from his own party.
What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of statutory sick pay during the covid-19 outbreak. (909474)
At £95.85 a week, the level of statutory sick pay is just too low, and it excludes 2 million of those on the lowest pay. To qualify for the Government’s test and trace support payment, people need to be receiving social security payments like universal credit; according to the Resolution Foundation, seven out of eight workers will not qualify for it. What assessment have the Government made of the number of people who are ineligible for either statutory sick pay or the test and trace support payment? Will they commit to increasing the level of statutory sick pay and extend it to everyone, including the low-paid and the self-employed?
For testing and tracing to work effectively, people need the reassurance that they will be able to feed their families. Statutory sick pay is not adequate to support people who need to self-isolate, so will the Minister give us hope that the Government will provide the necessary support to allow people not to have to choose between their health and their livelihoods?
I have been inundated with constituents contacting me about low statutory sick pay and problems claiming the isolation benefit. One said:
“I work as an agency nurse. If I don’t work I don’t get paid. My husband tested positive who works and so I had to self-isolate. I fulfilled 3 of the 4 isolation criteria so I didn’t get a penny. As a result I have lost 2 weeks wages. I am NOT happy. I can very easily see why people don’t bother to get tested and go into work even if they have symptoms or have been in contact. Simply lack of income.”
What will the Minister do to stop people on low incomes being financially punished when they are trying to do the right thing?
According to recent research, 42% of employers feel discouraged from hiring people with a disability because they are not confident about how to support their needs through the pandemic. Will the Government consider fast-tracking Access to Work applications for disabled people through the kickstart scheme, as recommended by the charity Leonard Cheshire?
The decision to deny disabled people on legacy benefits the crucial £20 uplift has been a bitter blow to those who already face years of navigating barriers in the welfare system. Will the Department commit to using the welfare Green Paper and the national disability strategy to ensure that disabled people have access to a welfare system that provides financial security without cruel sanctions?
I say thank you to Secretary of State Coffey and her team—we have cleared everyone on the list. Thank you, everybody—we have all worked well together.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
I am glad that the scheme is already helping my constituents in Penistone and Stocksbridge, many of whom are now struggling to find work as a result of the pandemic. However, getting people back into work will require a national effort, so will he provide a broader update on the roll-out of the scheme?
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that 1.3 million people across Scotland will lose out if the DWP does not make the £20 increase to universal credit permanent and extend it to legacy benefits. The Resolution Foundation also reports that one in three working-age families in the so-called red wall constituencies will be £1,000 a year worse off if the planned cuts to universal credit go ahead. How exactly is that levelling up?
More than ever, with millions facing unemployment and reduced hours or earnings, our social security system must be properly funded. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has rightly pointed out that cutting social security takes money out of the economy by reducing consumer spending. If the Minister is not yet convinced that cutting universal credit is grossly unjust, will he at least consider making this permanent to stimulate the economy?
Recently, I was pleased to meet my constituent, Tony Davies, who sadly lives with motor neurone disease. On behalf of Tony and the MND Association community, will the Minister kindly announce when he is likely to publish the outcome of the review into access to benefits for the terminally ill?
The disability employment gap in my constituency is 25.4% and there are concerns that it will widen as the economy suffers from the impact of covid-19. What reassurance can the Minister give me that disabled people will get the specific help they need to find work —for example, through tailored support or the funding of reasonable adjustments on the kickstart scheme?
The Knaresborough Connectors community group and Knaresborough chamber of trade are working together to build a scheme to enable participation in the kickstart scheme for smaller businesses in the area. It is good work and I am keen to help it. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State be encouraging the Department to work with local community organisations to ensure that all areas, urban and rural, and all businesses, small and large, can access the benefits of kickstart? 
Many disabled people have lost carers and are struggling to employ replacements during the covid crisis. This can mean that they have lost vital support in applying for benefits. I spoke to a constituent today who flagged up that there is nowhere on the system for people to indicate that they have a high support need, so that extra care is taken in dealing with their application. She has missed the benefit deadline because of that. Will Ministers look into this matter and ensure that we help disabled people when they apply for benefits?