Work and Pensions Questions

18th March 2019

Alok Sharma answers MPs’ questions to the Department for Work and Pensions.

Universal Credit

2. What steps she has taken to ensure that universal credit is tailored to individual claimants’ needs. [909830]

12. What steps she has taken to ensure that universal credit is tailored to individual claimants’ needs. [909840]

Under universal credit, our work coaches provide vital one-to-one support to all claimants. Work coaches receive appropriate training to ensure that they can offer support to claimant groups with a variety of characteristics.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Will he say what support he is giving to people in my constituency to help them back into work?

I thank my hon. Friend and her parliamentary office for engaging with their local jobcentre in Stockport. I know that she has visited it and seen the one-to-one support provided. She asked for a specific example; in the past week, Stockport jobcentre has been working with claimants to prepare them for a sector-based work academy opportunity with the NHS, which will lead to 20 guaranteed interviews.

I have seen the positive effect that the roll-out of universal credit has had in the jobcentres in both Boston and Skegness, but it remains the case that some applicants’ assessment is overturned on appeal. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to get this right first time more often, and can he tell me what he is doing to make that happen?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He will know that earlier this month, the Secretary of State announced a range of measures to better support people with disabilities and health conditions, which of course included exploring whether we can improve the mandatory reconsideration process to reduce the volumes of cases going to appeal.

When I last read the claimant commitment, it was like a prison manual. The duties were all on the claimants’ side, with none on the Department’s. Will the Minister meet me and community groups that have designed a fairer commitment, in which there are duties on the Department to make a success of universal credit, as well as duties on claimants?

Of course I am always happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman. I would say, though, that claimant commitments are agreed with claimants. It is work that is done together; that is what is important.

15. In 2015-16 in Wales, 22,000 households were eligible for homelessness assistance. In 2017, universal credit was introduced. By the time the roll-out finished in 2018, the figure was 28,000—a 30% increase. Will the Minister acknowledge the harm that universal credit has done in promoting homelessness in Wales? What immediate help can he give to those people who are suffering? [909843]

The hon. Gentleman will know that, across Government, we have a strategy to tackle homelessness. He will also know that we have introduced measures such as the landlord portal, so that payments for rent can be paid directly to social landlords, and that, just a few weeks ago in January, the Secretary of State announced a further change that will allow rents to be paid to private landlords much more easily. We are keen to make sure that this works for everyone.

I thank my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for both coming to my Harlow jobcentre to see how universal credit works in practice. May I ask the Minister specifically what he is doing to help single parents who are moving on to universal credit?

My right hon. Friend is a huge champion for his constituents. He is extremely well regarded in the jobcentre, interacting with constituents and indeed with those working there. The Secretary of State has already referred to the fact that, from 1 April, we will be increasing work allowances by £1,000.

Four single mothers won a legal challenge against the Department for Work and Pensions in January because their universal credit payments did not take into account the way in which their incomes changed from month to month, yet the Government decided to apply for permission to appeal. This was turned down, with the judge saying that the way in which the Secretary of State had interpreted and applied the legislation

“was not only wrong as a matter of language, it produces absurd results”.

Why did the Government choose to spend public money seeking to appeal the original decision, and what are they going to do now to address this grotesque injustice?

As the hon. Lady will know, we are considering this case, so it would not be appropriate to comment at this stage.


Universal Credit: Telephone Applications

5. Which criteria her Department uses to decide whether people can make an application for universal credit by telephone. [909833]

Any claimant may claim universal credit by telephone. Each request will be considered on its merits, through discussions between the Department and individuals to see which method of claiming is most suitable and beneficial. After those discussions, phone claims are available to any individual who wishes to proceed with one.

What efforts are made to engage by telephone with those who are considered to be in need of making a claim, who may include elderly, disabled or rural claimants with poor or no internet access?

There is a freephone line. Last month, in February, 1.2 million calls were received on the universal credit full service line, and for those who are particularly vulnerable, home visits are also available.

How fast will the fast track be for cases of mental disability?

We are starting on this work; I made reference to the speech that the Secretary of State made earlier this month. However, if my right hon. Friend has a specific case to raise, we will be very happy to take it up.


Employment: Hampshire

7. What recent assessment her Department has made of the number of people in work in Hampshire. [909835]

There are more people in work across our country than ever before, wages are growing at the joint-fastest rate in a decade, and Office for National Statistics data estimates that in the year to September 2018 there were 938,400 people in work in the great county of Hampshire.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. That is great news, but what more will the Government do to help people who find themselves out of work into new jobs?

Under universal credit, as we have noted before, work coaches provide that vital one-to-one support and advice to help people into work. The disincentives of the legacy system are gone, and the reforms are working. In my hon. Friend’s constituency of North East Hampshire, the number of claimants is down by 42% over the past five years.



16. What assessment the Government have made of trends in the level of employment since 2010. [909844]

The number of people in employment has never been higher, with a record 32.6 million people in employment. That is up by more than 3.5 million since 2010. The UK’s employment rate is at a joint record high of 75.8%.

More people in Southampton, Itchen are in work than has been the case for years, but many of them are in jobs with poor prospects and low pay. What are the Government doing to create jobs with higher pay and better prospects, not just in Southampton, Itchen, but across the country?

Well, 75% of the jobs that have been created since 2010 are permanent, full time and in high-level occupations that attract high wages. Of course, my hon. Friend is right that we need to do even more to upskill people and help them enter better-paid work. That is why, across the Government, we are investing in higher level apprenticeships, technical skills and a national retraining scheme.

Last month’s unemployment figures showed rises in six areas, including the north-east. There are more than 800,000 people on zero-hours contracts and wages are £9 a week lower than in 2008. Will the Minister describe how he intends to address job insecurity, low pay and the clear failure of the Government to tackle regional inequalities?

The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, be aware that since 2010 employment has gone up in every region and country of the United Kingdom. As I have pointed out, 75% of the new jobs are in high-level occupations. He talked about zero-hours contracts. He will know that there has been a drop in the number of zero-hours contracts over the past year. Ultimately, he talked about failure. The only failure we recognise is that absolutely every Labour Government have left unemployment higher than when they entered office.

We are glad to hear that employment has gone up in every region of the country. Will the Minister at some stage, if not today, put out a written statement on why it is thought that unemployment always rises with a Labour Government and employment increases with a Conservative Government?

We can all have our theories, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that that is precisely what happens. What the Labour party should be doing is congratulating the Government on the work we have done over the past nine years to get employment up.


Universal Credit

24. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of universal credit. [909852]

Universal credit is now available in all jobcentres across the country and is helping people into work. The universal credit claimant survey published last year showed that, under universal credit, the likelihood of being in work almost doubles between the point of making a claim and nine months into the claim.

Of the claimants who have been transferred from legacy benefits on to universal credit, what proportion are now receiving more money than they were under legacy benefits, what proportion are receiving the same and what proportion are receiving less money than they were?

The hon. Gentleman is referring to where people have a change in circumstances. That is not anything new under universal credit: changes in circumstances exist within the legacy benefits system. People get a different calculation in terms of the amount of money, and that has not changed under universal credit.

The Minister will know that universal credit uses Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs real-time information to determine the amount of money a claimant will receive each month. Late submissions by employers have led to claimants having reduced or cancelled payments because of money they earned a long time ago. Does the Minister not agree that this issue needs to be looked at if universal credit is to be an effective system that does not increase poverty?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We make sure, working with our colleagues in Her Majesty’s Treasury, that employers are made aware of the fact that they need to get the right date into the RTI system.

Topical Questions

My SNP colleagues and I have been seeing a growing number of constituents who are EU and European economic area nationals and who were previously entitled to social security payments but who are now seeing their universal credit claims rejected because they have failed the habitual residence test. Can the Minister tell me categorically whether DWP guidance has been issued or changed on this matter, and whether this is just an extension of the hostile environment?

The hon. Lady may have written to me about this previously, but let me just make it clear that the right of EEA nationals under freedom of movement is not an unqualified one. EEA nationals who stay in the UK beyond the initial three months must be exercising treaty rights, and this means they must be working, studying, self-employed or self-sufficient.


T4. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I did not quite hear you at first. In the west midlands, workers involved in the administration of universal credit recently voted to strike over an oppressive workplace culture and understaffing. Does the Minister believe that the roll-out of universal credit has been affected by understaffing, and is there an oppressive workplace culture coming from the top? [909857]

Our frontline staff deliver vital support to more than 20 million people across the country, and of course we are committed to supporting them in their roles. That includes monitoring staff levels and ensuring that their caseloads are indeed manageable.


T6. Council tax payers in the highlands are continuing to bear the burden of additional administration expenses amounting to many hundreds of thousands of pounds as a result of universal credit. The Minister met me in January, and his officials have subsequently met council officers. The situation is clearly unfair. When will it be sorted out, and the money reimbursed? [909859]

I thought that we had a constructive discussion. As the hon. Gentleman says, my officials have also talked to the council, but I am always happy to have another discussion. I should add that the total amount of new burdens funding is increasing from £14 million to £18 million in 2019-20.


Were the Secretary of State to get a tax rebate she would be very surprised if she was taxed on it, but my constituent saw an abatement by 63%. Will the Department sort out the reductions to universal credit when people get tax rebates?

I am very happy to look at the individual case the hon. Lady raises, but, as she knows, under UC we have a taper that works: it incentivises people to take on extra hours because they get to keep more of the money that they earn.


My constituent received a UC sanction for accompanying her younger sister, who has severe cerebral palsy and for whom my constituent cares, to an appointment at the children’s hospice at Loch Lomond. Surely that is an inhumane way to treat young carers under the UC system.

I am very happy to look at the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raises. Of course, he will be aware that easements are available in the system, but I will be very happy to talk to him about that specific case.


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