Alok Sharma answers MPs’ questions to the Department for Work and Pensions.
Let me first wish you a very happy new year, Mr Speaker.
The UK’s employment rate is at a joint record high of 75.7%, and more people are in employment than ever before. Thanks to the policies of this Conservative Government, 3.4 million more people are in work than in 2010, and wages are growing faster than inflation.
Many of my constituents have been able to find work, but much of it involves low-paid service-sector roles and few career prospects. What is my hon. Friend doing to help those who are already in work to move towards higher-paid, more rewarding occupations?
About 75% of the jobs that have been created since 2010 are full-time, permanent, high-skill occupations attracting high wages, but my hon. Friend is right to say that we need to help people with low earnings to progress. That is why, under universal credit, work coaches offer one-to-one support, and we are undertaking trials to determine what further support we can provide to help people to move into better-paid work.
Since 2010, unemployment in my constituency has fallen by two thirds. Can the Minister tell us how many employment records the Government have broken?
My hon. Friend has highlighted an important point, which, of course, the Opposition never want to talk about. Under this Conservative Government, 80 new employment records have been set since 2015, underlining the confidence that employers have in our policies. That confidence would evaporate if that lot got anywhere near government.
Getting people into work is a good thing, but there is no point in trapping them in in-work poverty. About two thirds of children in poverty are growing up in working households. What is the Minister doing to address that?
The hon. Lady has raised an important point, but I should point out that there has been no particular increase in in-work poverty. Indeed, 1 million fewer people, and 300,000 fewer children, are living in absolute poverty. Ultimately, however, this is about helping people into work, and, as we have said, we are doing an enormous amount through universal credit to ensure that that happens.
Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith), will the Minister not acknowledge that there is a big challenge for many of my constituents who work in more than one job on low wages, who do not have the time or the money to progress to further training, and whose employers are not willing to invest? How will he help those people to move to better, long-term, secure jobs?
As I said in answer to an earlier question, 75% of the jobs created since 2010 are indeed in high-level occupations which attract higher wages, but of course we need to do more and that is why the Government are investing in apprenticeships for both young and more mature workers. We are also investing in a national retraining scheme and technical skills. That is what is going to create support for individuals looking for jobs in the market right now.
How do our low unemployment levels compare with those of France and other countries unfortunate enough to be trapped in the eurozone?
That is a typically forthright question from my right hon. Friend. To compare rates, in France the unemployment rate is over 9% I believe, but of course the other incredibly important progress we have made is in youth unemployment. That has been almost halved since 2010, thanks to the work we have been doing in government.
The roll-out of universal credit is now complete and is available in every jobcentre across the United Kingdom. By 2023, all existing legacy claimants will have been moved to universal credit which, as set out in our business case, will result in £8 billion in economic benefits a year to the British economy.
Local authorities in Scotland have spent over £20 million on mitigating the harmful effects of UC, thus diverting money from key local services. Does the Secretary of State think this is acceptable, and was it envisaged when universal credit was conceived? Is it not more evidence that this system needs to be stopped and fixed to make it fit for purpose?
We do of course have the policy of new burdens funding, and in 2017-18 the Government paid out £30 million to local authorities across the country. If the hon. Lady has specific issues in relation to local councils on her patch, she should come forward as I will be very happy to have a discussion with her outside this oral session.
I would like to highlight one particular universal credit case that my office is dealing with. My constituent has incurable skin cancer which requires using a cream treatment. He has to use the cream at home and it needs to be applied for several hours every day. He has been told that as his treatment for cancer is not radiotherapy or chemotherapy he should be able to attend work. My constituent has daily and lengthy treatment for an incurable condition. Can the Secretary of State or the Minister tell me what my constituent should be applying for?
I am very sorry to hear about the distress the hon. Gentleman’s constituent is undergoing, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his regular engagement with the jobcentre in his constituency. I would be very happy to discuss this case with him in detail and see what more we can do to support his constituent.
Last night on Twitter Steven McAvoy contacted me about the issue of disabled students being unable to access universal credit unless they have already passed their work capability assessment by the time they become a student. This is an incredibly difficult issue for some of the most vulnerable people in our constituencies, so will the Minister look into this again?
I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter.
Can the Minister reassure my constituents who have heard claims that some housing associations are refusing to accept tenants in receipt of universal credit by giving an assurance that the Government will make sure this is never the case?
My hon. Friend has huge experience of the housing sector of course, and I thank him for the work he does in his constituency; I have been to visit him. The landlord portal has now been rolled out across almost 70% of the social housing sector, but I will be happy to discuss with him any specific cases he wants to raise.
I very much look forward to welcoming the Secretary of State to Stirling shortly, and when she comes will she take time to visit the Jobcentre Plus at Randolph Field, where she can talk to work coaches who will give a far more positive story about the impact—the positive, life-changing impact—of universal credit than the critics on the other side of the House have given?
The Secretary of State has already outlined the visits that she has made, and I know that she is going to make many more. What my hon. Friend describes is something that I also consistently find when I visit job centres—namely, the huge enthusiasm and the real desire to help individuals. For the first time, jobcentre workers and work coaches are able to do precisely that, through the one-to-one support that was not possible under the legacy system.
If true, the reported U-turn on managed migration in response to considerable pressure from the voluntary sector and those on the Labour Benches, is welcome, but any attempt to avoid scrutiny is not. Can the Minister assure the House that those regulations will still be debated in full in this Chamber, and if so, when?
The Secretary of State has set out the position very clearly. Of course we will be bringing forward any potential new regulations. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues talk a lot about supporting vulnerable people, but they voted against the £1.5 billion of support last year and against the £4.5 billion of support introduced in the Budget. He should be supporting those policies, not talking them down.
Universal credit supports self-employed people to develop and grow their businesses where doing so is the best route for them to become financially self-sufficient. We recently announced changes to the grace period for the minimum income floor and the extension of the new enterprise allowance scheme, all of which provide additional support to self-employed claimants.
Citizens Advice estimated in October that self-employed workers could lose up to £630 a year because of the way universal credit payments are calculated. It also stated that 400,000 claimants could suffer losses because of the minimum income floor, which the Minister mentioned. Those claimants are people who are trying to make a living for their families and themselves. Will the Secretary of State commit to reviewing the effects of the minimum income floor on self-employed workers who are claiming universal credit?
As I highlighted in my earlier answer, we have made a change to the minimum income floor. The grace period will be extended to one year for all people coming in who are gainfully self-employed running a business. Ultimately, different businesses take different lengths of time to reach profitability, so, in the period before the minimum income floor is applied, we are giving people a chance to develop their business. That is also why we provide support through the new enterprise allowance.
Mention was made earlier of the fantastic fall in youth unemployment since 2010—around 50%, I believe. What action can the Minister take, or is the Minister taking, to ensure that that trend continues evenly across the United Kingdom so that our young people get the best start to their working lives?
My hon. Friend highlights a very important point. Youth unemployment has almost halved since 2010, and we have the youth employment support programme to thank for that—the work we do through jobcentres in schools to make sure that people do not end up not in education, employment or training. Ultimately, however, this is about supporting people through the process, and that is what we are doing in universal credit.
I hope it does turn out to be the case, as reported, that the Secretary of State is going to pause the roll-out of universal credit in order to fix it. I hope she has noticed that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) congratulated her because he thought that that was what she had decided. Can the Minister assure the House that those who are being transferred to universal credit from other benefits will not have to wait five weeks before they are entitled to support? That is what is forcing them into debt.
I know the right hon. Gentleman cares very deeply about these issues, and we have had many discussions about this. It is precisely to help people with their cash flows that we have made advances available up front—up to 100%, if that is what they require—as well as two weeks of housing benefit run-on.
We have previously published an equalities assessment and, as we have noted, we will do the same ahead of the full roll-out of managed migration.
As my hon. Friend will know, we now have a new partnership with Citizens Advice to deliver universal credit support, and his constituency is part of the early mobilisation of that programme. However, it is important that for those who are not able to use such technology, we still make a freephone helpline available, and that, as the Secretary of State has outlined, home visits can be arranged.
I thank my hon. Friend for the enormous amount of work that he does in supporting employers so that they can create jobs. He is right. We need to make sure that the jobs market is very strong, and that is why we make support available through universal credit, with one-to-one interaction.
We have been told time and again that people will not be worse off under universal credit, but my constituent is £463 a month worse off after transferring from tax credits in work to universal credit. Is that something the Government are proud of?
I am happy to look at the individual case that the hon. Lady raises, but I would point out that £2.4 billion was unclaimed under the legacy benefit system, and that is changing under universal credit.
Under tax credits, under-25 lone parents got paid the higher over-25 rate. Under universal credit, they do not. What is the Secretary of State going to do about that? I ask her on behalf of the group of young parents from Newport who are worse off under this system and in hardship.