Alok Sharma debates with Department for Work and Pensions

There have been 28 exchanges between Alok Sharma and Department for Work and Pensions

Mon 1st July 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 17 interactions (384 words)
Wed 5th June 2019 Universal Credit and Debt (Westminster Hall) 14 interactions (1,831 words)
Mon 13th May 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 32 interactions (566 words)
Tue 7th May 2019 Universal Credit Helpline (Westminster Hall) 6 interactions (1,412 words)
Tue 9th April 2019 Devolution of Welfare (Westminster Hall) 7 interactions (1,280 words)
Mon 18th March 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 67 interactions (1,191 words)
Mon 11th February 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 46 interactions (823 words)
Mon 14th January 2019 Universal Credit (Urgent Question) 73 interactions (2,617 words)
Tue 8th January 2019 Universal Credit: Managed Migration (Urgent Question) 88 interactions (3,380 words)
Mon 7th January 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 56 interactions (1,257 words)
Wed 28th November 2018 Universal Support: East Suffolk (Westminster Hall) 2 interactions (1,689 words)
Tue 27th November 2018 Universal Credit and Child Tax Credit: Two-child Limit (Westminster Hall) 16 interactions (1,375 words)
Mon 19th November 2018 Oral Answers to Questions 43 interactions (970 words)
Wed 14th November 2018 Universal Credit Roll-out: Nottingham (Westminster Hall) 8 interactions (1,283 words)
Wed 17th October 2018 Universal Credit 9 interactions (950 words)
Tue 16th October 2018 Universal Credit 121 interactions (3,528 words)
Mon 15th October 2018 Oral Answers to Questions 58 interactions (984 words)
Wed 11th July 2018 The Secretary of State’s Handling of Universal Credit 8 interactions (634 words)
Mon 2nd July 2018 Oral Answers to Questions 38 interactions (791 words)
Wed 6th June 2018 Employment Rates (Westminster Hall) 9 interactions (2,572 words)
Mon 21st May 2018 Oral Answers to Questions 41 interactions (643 words)
Wed 9th May 2018 DWP Offices Closures: Merthyr Tydfil (Westminster Hall) 18 interactions (1,329 words)
Tue 20th March 2018 Scottish Welfare Powers (Westminster Hall) 11 interactions (1,408 words)
Wed 14th March 2018 Women and Work (Westminster Hall) 4 interactions (1,072 words)
Thu 8th February 2018 Work and Pensions Committee 3 interactions (67 words)
Mon 5th February 2018 Oral Answers to Questions 46 interactions (685 words)
Mon 5th February 2018 Jobcentre Closures 22 interactions (2,062 words)
Tue 16th January 2018 Food Poverty: Merseyside (Westminster Hall) 38 interactions (2,502 words)

Oral Answers to Questions

Alok Sharma Excerpts
Monday 1st July 2019

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Work and Pensions
Bob Seely Portrait Mr Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con) - Hansard

6. What steps her Department is taking to increase working people’s incomes through universal credit. [911644]

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Parliament Live - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 2:57 p.m.

One of the key transformations that universal credit provides is to support people who are in work, ensuring they can increase their earnings and develop in their career. It removes the 16-hour cliff edge, which held so many back on legacy benefits, and gives improved, tailored support through jobcentre work coaches.

Bob Seely Portrait Mr Seely - Parliament Live - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 2:57 p.m.

Will the Minister join me in thanking the excellent DWP staff on the Isle of Wight, some of whom I met in Newport a few weeks ago? I am sure he and the team will seek to make further improvements to universal credit, but it was clear to me, talking to those staff, that universal credit enables them to do more good for more people than the inflexible system that preceded it.

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 2:58 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend for being a huge champion for the Isle of Wight and working so well with his local jobcentre. I am very pleased about that and he is absolutely right. As a result of universal credit, people are able to get the support—that one-to-one support—that is so vital. Since 2016, an extra £10 billion has gone into the system.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 2:58 p.m.

My constituent, Amanda, who is a single mum with significant mental health problems, had her UC claim closed—unknown to her—at the beginning of May. She was told by the DWP that this was a sanction because she failed to complete an online review. I should also mention that she was in the last few weeks of her pregnancy. Given that Amanda is clearly a vulnerable person, will the Secretary of State commit to ensure that all work coaches are aware of their obligations following last year’s High Court judgment, which demands that they should treat vulnerable claimants appropriately?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard

Of course. The Secretary of State, I and all colleagues want to ensure that absolutely every single person claiming universal credit gets the appropriate support and the right level of support. I would be very happy to look at that individual case with the hon. Lady. I would just say on sanctions that these are not just handed out; there is a clear process. I can tell her that, in February 2019, only 2.45% of those who were under conditionality requirements actually had a sanction and the average sanction’s length was 30 days. But I will look at that case for her.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP) - Parliament Live - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 3 p.m.

My constituent, Craig Ferguson, has Asperger’s, but works in retail. He broke his leg, was not entitled to statutory sick pay and was advised to switch to UC. He then lost his severe disability premium. His UC has automatic deductions for an employment support allowance overpayment and, at times, he receives no UC award at all, which means that he has to depend on savings. How is that fair? Can his case be reviewed?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard

Of course, I am happy to look at that individual case. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will get in touch with my office after this session.

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab) - Hansard

7. What recent assessment her Department has made of the adequacy of levels of local housing allowance. [911645]

Break in Debate

Luke Graham (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard

T6. I established a universal credit action group in my constituency to track local progress and add performance indicators to see how the roll-out is going in Clackmannanshire. What measures are in place to track local success and progress? Are Ministers willing to meet me to discuss the progress of my action group? [911669]

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Parliament Live - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 3:29 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend for the energy with which he is supporting his constituents on universal credit. One of the key performance indicators is, of course, payment timeliness, which has improved significantly over the past couple of years, and that progress is matched in Alloa jobcentre. His local jobcentre staff will be happy to interact with him and, of course, I am also happy to meet him.

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP) - Parliament Live - Hansard

T2. I have the honour of chairing the all-party parliamentary group for terminal illness, and we have been taking evidence over recent months on the challenges that dying people face in accessing social security due to the six-month rule. Incidentally, the Scottish Government are already committed to allowing clinicians to make judgments for PIP, with their limited powers. We will be launching the report on Wednesday at 4 o’clock in the Members’ Dining Room, so will the Minister attend and agree to meet me and Marie Curie to discuss the report’s findings? [911665]

Break in Debate

Eddie Hughes Portrait Eddie Hughes (Walsall North) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard

T8. Will the Minister provide an update on the Department’s work to help people who are out of employment back into work, particularly in the Black Country and, more specifically, in my constituency of Walsall North? [911671]

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 3:31 p.m.

As my hon. Friend knows, more people are in work now than ever before. Indeed, the employment rate is higher in every region of the country than in 2010, including in the Black Country. Specifically, he may already be aware that Willenhall jobcentre is working closely with major employers on employment opportunities and, of course, that our mentoring circles programme is being rolled out for 18 to 24-year-olds to help them increase their employability skills.

Lord Field of Birkenhead Portrait Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Ind) - Parliament Live - Hansard

T3. I want to ask the Secretary of State about my constituent who hanged himself shortly after losing his personal independence payment. I wrote to her asking whether she would establish an inquiry, whether that inquiry would be independent, whether it would be headed by somebody who knows something about this area, whether it would report in three months, and whether the report will be made public. [911666]

Universal Credit and Debt

Alok Sharma Excerpts
Wednesday 5th June 2019

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Work and Pensions
Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury - Hansard
5 Jun 2019, 3:59 p.m.

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful contribution that shows the need for more compassion and flexibility in the system. It is clear from the evidence and from this debate that initial decisions to apply deductions follow rigid rules and rates and do not include an affordability test. Will the Minister introduce an affordability test for deductions, particularly multiple deductions, to ensure that nobody is pushed into poverty or destitution?

The Government’s stock response to criticism of their welfare policies is to deny that there is even a problem, but their talk of a jobs miracle is nothing more than a mirage to many people who struggle on zero-hours contracts or in low-paid and part-time employment, with wages not even at 2008 levels. The same attitude is on display again in the new “Universal credit uncovered” propaganda campaign, with newspaper ads—seemingly designed to look like journalism—that aim to explode what are perceived to be media myths about universal credit and set the record straight, as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) pointed out. It is perhaps telling that one charity has already reported the campaign to the Advertising Standards Authority. As we have heard today, these are not myths. They are facts, which illustrate a social security system that is failing—a system hollowed out by cruel cuts.

In conclusion, I call on the Minister to halt managed migration in its entirety, end the five-week wait, stop punitive sanctions, introduce split payments, restore the local housing allowance to at least the bottom 30th percentile, pay 85% of childcare support up front, stop the benefits freeze and the immoral two-child limit, and properly fund a compassionate social security system.

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Hansard
5 Jun 2019, 4 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, in this very important debate secured by the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George). Whatever our political differences, I am happy to acknowledge that she and indeed all the hon. Members who have spoken care very deeply about their constituents. I want to be clear that I want to ensure that every single person who is claiming universal credit gets the support that they absolutely deserve.

Let me start by setting out where we are with universal credit. Last year, universal credit completed its roll-out to all jobcentres across the country. We now have just under 2 million people claiming this benefit, and all new entrants to the benefits system now claim universal credit.

I entirely agree that we must ensure that we provide support through the welfare system to the most vulnerable. I am pleased that colleagues from all parties, including the hon. Member for High Peak, have acknowledged that changes have been made. My hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous), and for Gloucester (Richard Graham), talked about the fabulous work being done by work coaches in our jobcentres.

As colleagues will know, in the last two Budgets, we announced changes to universal credit worth an additional £6 billion. I do not like to introduce rancour into this type of debate, and I am always open to discussion, but I gently point out that on those occasions, Opposition Members did not vote to support that extra money going into the system.

In the 2017 Budget, we announced a two-week run-on for those on housing benefit, the removal of the seven-day waiting period, and the ability for a claimant to get up to 100% of their estimated first-period payment as an advance, on the same day if needed. In last year’s Budget, among other measures, we announced increases to work allowances worth £1.7 billion a year. Colleagues touched on the additional run-on; from July 2020, there will be a two-week run-on of Department for Work and Pensions out-of-work legacy benefits for existing claimants who are being moved on to universal credit.

Neil Gray Portrait Neil Gray - Hansard

The Minister lists the changes that have been made of late; does he acknowledge that none of them make up for the cuts made in the 2015 Budget?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
5 Jun 2019, 4:03 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman will know that we inherited dire financial circumstances from the Opposition—I know that colleagues will not be happy at my mentioning that—and that is why we had to make difficult decisions. However, if Labour Members want more money introduced, then when that money is made available in Budgets, they should support those Budgets.

I will go back to the point about payments, including advance payments. I highlight that advances are interest-free.

Debbie Abrahams - Hansard

Oh!

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
5 Jun 2019, 4:03 p.m.

I am sorry that the hon. Lady is unhappy, but that is a statement of fact.

Debbie Abrahams - Hansard
5 Jun 2019, 4:03 p.m.

They are still loans.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair) - Hansard
5 Jun 2019, 4:03 p.m.

Order.

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
5 Jun 2019, 4:03 p.m.

Also, individuals will receive that money as an advance to their universal credit payment, so they will receive 13 payments over a 12-month period. I make it absolutely clear once again that, as I hope colleagues will acknowledge, these are interest-free advances. Of course, from October this year, the Government will reduce the maximum rate—

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens - Hansard
5 Jun 2019, 4:03 p.m.

Will the Minister give way?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
5 Jun 2019, 4:03 p.m.

I will not, as there is quite a lot to get through.

From this October, the Government will reduce the maximum rate at which deductions can be made from a universal credit award from 40% to 30% of the standard allowance. By the end of 2019-20, it is forecast that around 290,000 universal credit households will have had deductions reduced, by an average of £295 over the year. It is already possible to extend the period over which advances are repaid to 15 months in certain circumstances, and of course, as Members have acknowledged, from October 2021, the maximum period will be extended to 16 months for all claimants.

One issue not touched on in the debate was payment timeliness, but it is worth pointing out that it has been raised in previous debates, certainly during my time as a Minister. Payment timeliness has improved significantly. We now pay around 85% of new claimants of universal credit in full on time. In addition, 95% of claimants are paid in full within five weeks of their payment due date. If there are delays in making the first payment, that can be due to outstanding verification issues, such as the need to provide bank statements or proof of rent. It can also be due to a claimant not signing their claimant commitment. For ongoing claims, payment timeliness is around 98%.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), raised the issue of employment. The whole point of simplifying the welfare system is to remove the cliff edges and the disincentives to take on work and extra hours that existed under the legacy benefit system. We now offer claimants one-to-one support to help them to move into work.

I hope that colleagues will acknowledge that we are seeing record rates of unemployment, month after month. The shadow Minister talked about zero-hours contracts, but he will know that less than 3% of people in employment in the UK are on zero-hours contracts. That figure has fallen this year. Indeed, those on zero-hours contracts are doing about 24 hours of work a week on average.

We have recognised that we need to provide a consistently high level of support to those who may have difficulties in making a universal credit claim. That is why we announced our partnership with Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland, which are now funded to provide the “help to claim” service for claimants.

In the past, a number of colleagues have spoken about debt advice. They will know that debt advice is now fully funded by the financial services levy, and that service delivery is commissioned by the Money and Pensions Service, which was launched in January this year. In 2019-20, MaPS will provide around 560,000 sessions of debt advice in England. It is also worth noting that in addition to the funding that Citizens Advice receives for the “help to claim” service, it will, like other organisations, receive additional funding from MaPS to provide debt advice.

A number of colleagues raised the issue of rent arrears. I point out that a report published in July 2018 by the National Federation of ALMOs, or arms-length management organisations, showed that over three quarters of their tenants who had started claiming universal credit were already behind with their rent prior to commencing their claim. Also, research that we have carried out shows that the proportion of universal credit claimants who were in arrears at the start of their claim fell by a third after four months. In the universal credit full service claimant survey, which was published by the DWP in June 2018, 84% of claimants said that they felt confident about managing and paying their housing costs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester raised the issue of rent arrears and asked what further work were doing on it. I can confirm that we are carrying out further analysis with a number of housing providers to investigate and understand the true level of rent arrears among their tenants, and what is causing those arrears. Of course, when we have that information, we will publish it.

A number of colleagues raised the issue of tax credit debt. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs already seeks to recover overpayments of tax credit debts. When a claimant moves on to universal credit, any outstanding debt is transferred to the DWP for recovery. This does not include debt that is subject to ongoing disputes or appeals, and HMRC tells the claimant the amount of debt that is being transferred to the DWP for recovery. HMRC and the DWP continue to work closely to improve the claimant journey. This includes having a joint inquiry team to handle any issues that tax credit customers might experience during their move to universal credit. Of course, if claimants are struggling with the rate of repayment applied, they can ask the Department to review that rate.

A large number of points were made during the debate, so I say to hon. Members that if they want to meet me separately to discuss any points in more detail, I am very happy to do that, or they can write to me. However, in the remaining couple of minutes that I have, I will try to cover off some of the points made in the debate.

On the discussion about poverty, I point out that income inequality and absolute poverty are lower now than in 2010, and indeed the number of children—

Debbie Abrahams - Hansard
5 Jun 2019, 4:09 p.m.

Will the Minister give way?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
5 Jun 2019, 4:09 p.m.

I will not, because I literally have just a couple of minutes left. As I was saying, the number of children in workless households in the UK is down by 665,000 since 2010.

There was a discussion about homelessness. Since 2011, the Government have provided local authorities with about £1 billion in discretionary housing payments to protect the most vulnerable claimants. The hon. Member for High Peak raised the issue of how people know what deductions are being applied to them; that is shown in their statement, separately from the journal, and is available online. She also raised a point about deductions. I point out that if a claimant is subject to deductions to repay an overpayment, and those deductions are causing financial hardship, they can request a review of that rate by contacting the Department. Claimants have had their repayment rate lowered, temporarily suspended, or indeed both.

A number of colleagues also asked why we were not able to bring forward the 30% deduction rate on the standard allowance. The delivery date was chosen to achieve the best balance between continually improving universal credit in order to respond to claimant needs, and ensuring that the service is technically and operationally scalable as the volume of universal credit continue to rise. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) raised an issue about the breathing space scheme; the Department is supportive of that scheme, and officials are reviewing it to see how it could be applied to DWP debts. I would be very happy to sit down and talk with her further when more information is available.

A number of colleagues, including the shadow Minister, raised the issue of the Metro campaign. The whole point of the “Universal Credit Uncovered” campaign is to tackle common myths about universal credit. The Department has consulted the Advertising Standards Authority, and our adverts reflect its advice. To those Members who talked about the amount of money being spent on this campaign, I advise them that it is certainly not £23 million.

The issue of split payments was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney; as he knows, those are already available. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) raised the issue of Highland Council. He and I have met a number of times about this issue, and as he will know, my officials continue to engage with Highland Council about that point. Finally, the Scottish Government have themselves cut funding for Highland Council.

In conclusion, we are making changes that are benefiting claimants, but I am always happy to talk to colleagues about how we can do better.

Ruth George Hansard

I called on the Minister to bring forward some of the changes. I do not know whether he understood the waffle that his Department gave him to explain why that will not happen, but I would be very grateful to hear his proper explanation for it.

I thank everyone who has contributed, and the organisations for all their research and briefing. To anyone who is watching who is suffering under universal credit and the deductions that are being made, I say this: get advice, challenge those deductions, and come and see your MP about them. Let us get them sorted.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10 (6)).

Oral Answers to Questions

Alok Sharma Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Work and Pensions
Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard

10. What steps she has taken to tailor universal credit to claimants’ needs. [910842]

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:05 p.m.

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.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:06 p.m.

As I understand it, the test and learn approach has been crucial to improving the system and getting it right for individual claimants. What key lessons have been learned and what steps have been taken to address them?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:06 p.m.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the test and learn approach has allowed us to adapt the delivery of universal credit to support claimants more fully. Examples include: abolishing the seven-day waiting period; the introduction of 100% advances; the landlord portal; and the flexible support fund being used to cover initial childcare costs.

Dr Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard

19. It is no coincidence that, as universal credit has hit Ealing in the past year, food bank use has doubled. Ealing Churches winter night shelter and Ealing soup kitchen report unprecedented demand, and six deaths have been reported among users of the soup kitchen in the past year. Are the Government not ashamed that Christian charities are having to mop up thanks to the gaps in their policy, and when will they put in place the National Audit Office’s recommendation to look into hardship as well as spouting statistics at us? [910852]

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:07 p.m.

Of course there is a range of reasons why people make use of food banks, but what is important is that the DWP makes sure that we get funds to claimants in a timely manner. The Secretary of State has already talked about the 100% advances and the two-week housing benefit run-on, and, of course, there will be additional run-ons coming on in 2020.

Stephen Kerr (Stirling) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:07 p.m.

I have constituents in Stirling who would like to take up work or to extend their hours of work but cannot afford to pay the upfront costs of childcare. Can the Minister tell the House what is being done to help parents with upfront costs of childcare?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:08 p.m.

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Under universal credit, up to 85% of childcare costs can be covered and, as the Secretary of State announced earlier this year, we are making the flexible support fund available so that funding can be provided up front to take care of childcare costs, which will help people get into work.

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:08 p.m.

It is welcome that the Secretary of State has finally responded to pressure and abolished three-year sanctions, but failure to scrap this punishing regime entirely means, as we have heard across the House today, that many people including children will still suffer. Six months is a long time to go without money, so will she go the extra mile and abolish punitive sanctions altogether?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard

I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has, in turn, welcomed what the Secretary of State has announced—it has absolutely been the right thing to do. Sanctions are not put forward indiscriminately; a very clear procedure takes place, and right now less than 3% of those who are on universal credit and under conditionality are getting a sanction. The average sanction rate is 31 days.

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan Portrait Dr Rosena Allin-Khan (Tooting) (Lab) - Hansard

11. What steps her Department is taking to support people with disabilities in employment. [910843]

Break in Debate

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard

15. What assessment her Department has made of trends in the level of unemployment in the UK since 2010. [910847]

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:15 p.m.

The unemployment rate is at its lowest since the 1970s. We have record employment with more people in work than ever before, and wages have been rising faster than inflation for 13 months in a row.

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:15 p.m.

The latest figures do indeed show that Britain’s economy is booming, unlike those of the rest of the European Union. Do the Minister and his colleagues on the ministerial team agree that the prospect of Brexit, with or without a deal, is driving forward the British economy and confidence in it?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard

My hon. Friend is of course right to point out that, despite any uncertainty around Brexit, the British economy is in good shape. We do have one of the highest employment rates in the EU, Britain is the No. 1 destination in Europe for foreign direct investment, and the IMF projects that our economy will grow faster than Germany’s this year. Unlike the Opposition, Conservative Members believe in supporting businesses and employers.

Mark Menzies Portrait Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard

16. What steps the Government are taking to support ex-offenders into employment. [910848]

Break in Debate

Christine Jardine Portrait Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD) - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:31 p.m.

A constituent of mine is being passed from pillar to post by the DWP and the Scottish student loans group, both of which say she is entitled to support. She wants to start studying full time in September but, as a single parent, cannot do so without appropriate financial support. Will the Secretary of State or one of her Ministers meet me to see whether we can find a way out of this Catch-22 situation and ensure that my constituent and other single mothers like her, who want to improve their families’ opportunities, have the support to do so?

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:31 p.m.

Yes, I will of course meet the hon. Lady.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op) - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:32 p.m.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1.9 million pensioners now live in poverty, which is a complete disgrace. Given that 46,000 pensioners died prematurely last year, why has the winter fuel allowance not been increased for more than a decade?

Break in Debate

Thangam Debbonaire Portrait Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard

My caseworkers recently updated me on the thousands and thousands of pounds of public money that they have helped to recover for constituents who are entitled to it, often after many months of delays. I am not satisfied with that; I am angry that this Government Department is keeping so many of my constituents and, I presume, others across the country in poverty for so long when they are owed this money. What is the Government doing about reviewing DWP’s shameful record on paying people money to which they are entitled?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 2:30 p.m.

I would just point out to the hon. Lady that, under the legacy benefits system, there are £2.4 billion of unclaimed benefits. That is changing and being fixed under universal credit. If she has specific cases, she will know that this ministerial team is always happy to talk to Members of Parliament to try to resolve issues. If she wants to talk about specific cases, I would be happy to do so after this session.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:35 p.m.

Visits to one of the food banks in my constituency have increased by 20% since the roll-out of universal credit. Trussell Trust referrals have risen by 52% since the roll-out of universal credit. Everything suggests that universal credit is not lifting people out of poverty, but pushing them further into it. Was that the Government’s intention with the roll-out of universal credit, because that is what is happening?

Break in Debate

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op) - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:36 p.m.

The Verify identification function for those claiming universal credit online does not work properly. When the Secretary of State is looking at that, will she also look at the problem that requires couples making a joint claim to verify their identity in person at the same time, which causes those sharing childcare and working shift patterns difficulty in claiming?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:36 p.m.

I am happy to discuss any issues around Verify with the hon. Gentleman, but, as he will know, there is more than one way for someone to verify their identity. Of course, they can use gov.uk Verify, but they can also use documentary evidence or a biographical test. Those are known, recognised tests, and they are all available in the system.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:37 p.m.

The Secretary of State just said that universal credit is better than the legacy system, yet evidence published this weekend shows that twice as many children will be pushed into poverty by universal credit, the two-child limit and the benefit cap. On top of that, universal credit is actually increasing infant mortality—the first time we have seen an increase in 100—

Break in Debate

Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 3:38 p.m.

Centrepoint’s evidence to the DWP Committee showed that 96% of the young people it surveyed were not offered a traineeship or work placement if they were still on the youth obligation for six months. Does the Minister think it is worth having a closer look at what more could be done to improve the youth obligation?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 May 2019, 2:30 p.m.

I share the hon. Lady’s desire to make sure the youth obligation support programme works properly. We are looking at extracting information from the system, and I hope shortly to come and report on the findings from that.

Universal Credit Helpline

Alok Sharma Excerpts
Tuesday 7th May 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Work and Pensions
Danielle Rowley Hansard
7 May 2019, 1:14 p.m.

My hon. Friend and other hon. Members—I am sad to see no Back-Bench Conservatives here—will be familiar with the experience of the journal letting people down, just like the helpline.

I have some questions for the Minister, which I hope he will answer. Will he take the opportunity to be clear about what happened in the Department leading to the development and implementation of a deflection script on the helpline? Will he apologise to claimants who have not received the support they deserve, often in times of great need, and to the whistleblowers on whom we have had to rely to expose these damaging practices?

Have any changes been made to the helpline since the Secretary of State said that there should not be a deflection-script strategy and that she had taken control to ensure that that was the case? If so, what changes have been made and what evaluation was carried out to inform those changes? When were those changes made, or when will they be made? What checks have been put in place to ensure that people receive the support that they need on the helpline and they are not deflected online? Does the Minister really believe that the helpline is sufficiently resourced and run, with the best interest of claimants in mind and staff being fully supported?

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Hansard
7 May 2019, 1:16 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. As we saw at the start, you are characteristically generous when dealing with colleagues. I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) for raising this issue—I know she cares deeply about it. She has written to me, and I apologise that my response has not arrived yet. I signed that letter yesterday, so I hope she will receive it in the next 24 hours. She has also raised this issue in parliamentary questions and, in February, at DWP oral questions, when I responded to her. I will come on to that.

I will begin by setting out where we are in terms of universal credit. Universal credit rolled out to all jobcentres across the country last year. We now have 1.8 million people claiming this benefit. When we talk about support, it is worth pointing out that, over the last two Budgets, we have announced changes to universal credit worth an additional £6 billion—in particular to ensure that vulnerable claimants are supported in the transition to universal credit. That includes changes to work allowances worth an extra £1.7 billion a year. Those changes, which increase work allowances by £1,000, were brought in from April this year, providing a boost to the incomes of the lowest paid. That will result in 2.4 million families keeping an extra £630 per year of what they earn. I hope that underlines our learning and adapting approach.

We have always been clear that universal credit is primarily a digital service, which allows claimants to manage their own data and account online at a time that is convenient to them. Via their accounts, claimants can check their universal credit benefit payments, notify us of changes, and record notes via an online journal facility. Some activities still require a call from a claimant, as they are not yet automated, such as booking an appointment. The telephony channel remains an important part of our service offer.

The universal credit telephone helplines have been freephone numbers since the end of 2017. Claimants who call the universal credit helpline are connected directly to the person or team dealing with their case. We also have dedicated national service hubs, which provide telephony for third parties, such as landlords, welfare rights organisations and those citizens without a claim.

For those unable to access or use digital services—this is an important point—assistance to make and maintain their claim is available via the freephone universal credit helpline. The universal credit service centre will establish the best means of support for the claimant. We also provide comprehensive support for claimants who do not have digital skills or who do not have access to a computer. Support is provided in person in jobcentres and through the computers that are available for claimants to use, as well as through home visits for those unable to attend a jobcentre.

From April this year, we introduced a help to claim service delivered by Citizens Advice. This provides additional support for any claimant from point of entry to the first award of universal credit, and is available by phone, webchat and in person at local Citizens Advice outlets and jobcentres.

The hon. Lady asked about training. The DWP staff who service the universal credit helplines have a three-week facilitated learning period. That structured learning provides the skills and knowledge required to support them to answer claimants’ queries. For new universal credit helpline call handlers, the learning journey is broadly made up of soft skills such as customer service learning, which covers how to gather information through active listening; equality and diversity training; and bespoke IT system-based technical learning, all of which is supported by consolidation activity.

Colleagues receive ongoing learning in their roles alongside experienced case managers and have access to universal credit guidance, which is refreshed at regular intervals. We are committed to continuous improvement, and as part of that we regularly review call plans, service levels and intelligence to improve our offer and understand why claimants are calling.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson - Hansard
7 May 2019, 1:20 p.m.

The Minister may know that a jobcentre employee described universal credit as like being in a leaky boat: a leak springs up, and someone sticks their finger in the hole, but then a new hole appears, and they end up sprawled across the boat trying to block all the leaks. The holes are not the problem though; it is the boat. The Minister will know that many people and many groups in civil society believe that universal credit should be paused. Will he think about pausing it so that all the holes in the boat can be fixed?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
7 May 2019, 1:21 p.m.

I gently say to the hon. Lady that I visit jobcentres, as do my ministerial colleagues, and that is not the feedback that we receive from people on the frontline. In terms of pausing universal credit, we have been rolling it out across the country since December, and we have been clear that it will be the main welfare provision for the country in future.

To return to the universal credit helpline, when someone calls it they are presented with a series of options to select from. They are then put through to the agent best placed to answer their inquiry. All further triage is done through conversations to establish the claimant’s needs. There are 26 service centres across the country that aim to support people with their universal credit claim.

We have between 5,000 and 7,500 staff answering calls in our service centres to support our customers. An important point in terms of the statistics—I would not want any hon. Member to be in any doubt that we are making a big effort when it comes to supporting people over the phone—is that, in March, we answered about 1.3 million calls to the universal credit full service helpline.

The hon. Member for Midlothian talked about waiting times. In March, the average waiting time for a call to be answered was two minutes 43 seconds. In February, the average duration of a call to the UC helpline was just over six minutes. I hope she will appreciate that it is not about rushing people off the lines but about providing support to them.

As I said earlier, the hon. Lady raised this issue in parliamentary questions on 11 February. I reiterate what I said to her then, which is that she has already been sent a copy of the universal credit digital channel document. She talked about FOI requests, but she already has that document, which is what DWP staff use as a guide when taking calls from claimants. She will be aware that the document says clearly that staff must use a common-sense and sensitive approach in resolving queries ahead of any digital discussion. Again, I want to be absolutely clear that there is no intention to deflect and there are no targets for getting claimants to use a digital channel.

The hon. Lady made several other points, including about supporting people who struggle with English or Welsh. We have an interpreting service available for those with language barriers. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the issue of people being held on the phone and not being given an answer. We regularly review service levels on the UC helpline to improve our offer. If we cannot answer a question, we will call the claimant back.

Ruth George Hansard
7 May 2019, 1:24 p.m.

The Minister says that the universal credit helpline is there and that staff are not necessarily trying to direct people on to digital platforms, but the complaints procedure for universal credit cannot be undertaken by phone—people are simply directed to make a complaint online. Those who struggle with online access are unable to do the very basic thing of making a complaint when they have a problem with the online service or the helpline. How does that square with his commitment that people are not being directed online? Will he make sure that people can make a complaint over the phone?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
7 May 2019, 1:25 p.m.

When a conversation takes place between a DWP staff member and a complainant, of course there is the opportunity for the staff member to answer the question. There are standard procedures when people want to make complaints. The hon. Lady takes a deep interest in such matters, and she knows that if any of her constituents ever have such an issue, she can write to me. I understand that, and it is incumbent on us, as Ministers, to make sure that we provide a response. In terms of the statistics that I have put out there, however, I hope she will appreciate that DWP staff make a huge effort to answer phone calls and deal with them sensitively. She also made a point about journal entries. The journal is available 24/7 for claimants to communicate with their work coach. That was not available under the legacy system.

DWP colleagues are fully committed to supporting claimants through a range of channels, and we are clearly making progress in the support we provide. In our latest claimant survey, which was published in January, four out of five people were satisfied with the support they had received when claiming universal credit, which is broadly consistent with satisfaction levels in legacy benefits. Satisfaction levels are high, and the vast majority of claimants who use the telephony system found staff to be helpful and polite. Of course, I acknowledge that we want and need to continue to make progress and improve further so that everyone claiming universal credit gets the support they rightly deserve.

In conclusion, if hon. Members raise individual cases with me, I hope, again, that they will find that the Department and I are open and that we acknowledge when we have made mistakes.

Question put and agreed to.

Devolution of Welfare

Alok Sharma Excerpts
Tuesday 9th April 2019

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Work and Pensions
Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 10:49 a.m.

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the excellent record of Labour in Scotland, campaigning to change things for people on the ground.

Together, SNP and Tory politicians repeatedly voted down a £5 a week top-up to child benefit during the passage of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill and the budget process. In February, they endorsed George Osborne’s uprating cuts, blocking Scottish Labour’s move to revert to RPI uprating of the carer’s allowance. During the recent budget, the SNP refused to mitigate the two-child limit—a policy that would have supported 4,000 families and lifted 5,000 children out of poverty, and would have cost just 0.2% of the Scottish budget. After years of warm words and claims that it will build a system based on human rights, the SNP relied on the Tories to block the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights from being included in the social security Bill.

Labour Members know the effects of Tory welfare policy all too well, wherever in the United Kingdom we represent. We have heard about those effects today: my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian argued that we need bold action for women born in the 1950s, and was right to highlight the woeful response of the Tory Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) argued that in-work poverty is a major problem in Scotland, as well as out-of-work poverty, with over a million people in Scotland living in poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) attacked the political choice of austerity, and called for a social security system that draws on the founding principles of the Attlee Government: security, opportunity and dignity. My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) correctly pointed out that she needs to be the champion of women in this place, because women are disproportionately affected by that political choice of austerity—a choice made by this Tory Government.

Labour believes that the Tories’ approach to welfare is flawed and failing. It is a story of failure that begins with the Tory Government in Westminster’s cruel and unnecessary welfare policies, but has been worsened by the decision by the SNP Government in Holyrood not to use their powers to effectively mitigate those policies. As a result, it is a story of hardship and hunger, wherever in the UK a person is affected.

My questions to the Minister are simple. First, will he accept that universal credit is failing? It is cruel in design, it is under-resourced, and its roll-out needs to be halted. How about scrapping the benefit freeze, the two-child limit and the five-week wait? Hardship is hardship, wherever we are in the UK. Finally, will the Minister confirm whether the devolution of welfare to Scotland could have happened earlier, had the Scottish Government not asked the Department for Work and Pensions to delay the process twice, in 2016 and 2018? The only way we will change things is by having a Labour Government.

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 10:49 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on securing this important and timely debate. He spoke with great passion. He cares deeply about his constituents and he wants an effective welfare system in Scotland that leaves no one behind, which is something that we all want to see. We have heard passionate speeches. If I have time I will refer to some of the points raised. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for their contributions today.

To reiterate the context of where we are—colleagues have set this out—the Scotland Act 2016 provided a significant shift in the way that welfare would be delivered. As has been said, we are transferring responsibility for an estimated £2.8 billion of welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament, which currently support around 1.4 million people in Scotland. That will of course have a major impact on people living in Scotland as we move into a shared welfare space for the first time.

We should not underestimate the significance of the task. We recognise that responsibility for many vulnerable claimants will be transferred to the Scottish Government, and it is vital that both Governments get it right. The DWP has been instrumental in the Scottish Government’s delivery to date of certain benefits, and we will continue to support them to achieve their plans. We must ensure that the transfer of the welfare powers proceeds in a safe and secure manner with the claimant at the heart of what we do. That is why we have established strong Government structures, including a joint ministerial working group on welfare and joint working practices to oversee the transfer of powers and to ensure that we work together to identify and mitigate any issues that arise.

The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) raised points about the ministerial working group. As he knows, there was a recent meeting that was both cordial and constructive. In terms of the support from DWP, we have approximately 80 DWP staff working exclusively on the Scottish devolution programme. Between 2015 and October 2018, DWP managed more than 2,297 requests for information from the Scottish Government. I gently point out to him that I do not think there is any intransigence on our part. He knows that I am happy to take up cases, and we are meeting later today to discuss a constituency case that he has.

Following Royal Assent to the Scotland Act 2016, the DWP has worked hard to support the Scottish Government in the transfer of powers. We have given them access to DWP payment and customer information systems to support their delivery, as well as providing training and knowledge transfer as they build up their capability. We have provided support to enable them to deliver their new employment support programme, Fair Start Scotland, with DWP work coaches making the majority of referrals.

As we approach the first anniversary of the programme, the Scottish Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills has recently written to me to praise our staff in Jobcentre Plus for the work that they have done to date. It is important that politicians talk not only about the challenges. Of course we should challenge each other to get things right, but we should also praise and acknowledge good joint working when it takes place.

Since 2017, we have also delivered Universal Credit Scottish Choices, giving people in Scotland a choice over the frequency of their payment and whether their housing element is paid directly to their landlord. We supported the Scottish Government to deliver their first new benefit, the best start grant, and we are on track to support delivery of their replacement for funeral expenses payments later this year. Critically, since September 2018, we have been paying carer’s allowance on behalf of the Scottish Government, enabling them to pay a six-monthly supplementary payment to carers in Scotland.

Neil Gray Portrait Neil Gray - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 10:54 a.m.

The Minister is setting out well some of the areas where there has been good working between the Scottish and UK Governments, particularly at ministerial level, as I said in my speech. I should put on the record that there have previously been problems at ministerial level between the two Governments, but in the most recent exchange of letters the Secretary of State appears to make a more conciliatory and helpful suggestion for work going forward. So I hope that the two Governments will be able to work together constructively, whereas previously that has not happened.

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 10:55 a.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Over the past few years we have been working constructively, and we want that to continue. My hon. Friends definitely want that. They come in to see me and the Secretary of State regularly to raise issues, and it is right that we continue in that spirit.

Many lessons have been learned in the first wave of devolution, such as in the transfer of accountability of carer’s allowance, where the DWP continues to pay carer’s allowance on behalf of the Scottish Government but under the same rules and rates as for people in England and Wales. It is vital that we consider these lessons as we move forward with the next wave of delivery.

Stephen Kerr Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 10:59 a.m.

Will the Minister give way?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 10:55 a.m.

I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind, because time is short.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) criticised the Government’s delivery of universal credit. I believe it is working, and we have put in an extra £6 billion to support the most vulnerable in the past two Budgets, which unfortunately he has not been able to support in votes. I point him to the summary of a Public Accounts Committee report from 2005 on tax credits, which says:

“In April 2004, the Committee reported on the severe problems following the introduction of the New Tax Credits, which meant that several hundred thousand claimants were not paid on time.”

I gently point out that we all want to get the system right, and I am not sure that constantly criticising is the best way forward.

As colleagues have noted, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People recently announced the Scottish Government’s delivery timetable for their replacements to the current disability, carer’s and industrial injuries benefits, as well as replacements for winter fuel and cold weather payments. The timetable proposes that the Scottish Government will progressively take over responsibility for delivery from April next year, with the final cases being transferred by 2024. That reflects the pace that Scottish Government believe that they can commit to and is achievable.

On timing, it will be for the Scottish Government to keep it under review. The Scottish Government’s plans involve considerable work for DWP in both supporting them to achieve their ambition and, as necessary, continuing to deliver benefits on their behalf. We share the Scottish Government’s commitment to a safe and secure transfer, and our priority is as seamless a transfer as possible from the person receiving the benefit’s point of view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk raised a number of issues in his remarks. He spoke of his concerns about the Scottish Government’s delivery plans, the continuity of provision for his constituents and the cost to the public purse from the DWP continuing to deliver devolved benefits on behalf of the Scottish Government. We will, of course, continue to work with the Scottish Government, and costs arising from the DWP’s delivery of services on behalf of the Scottish Government will be reimbursed by the Scottish Government.

Many other points were raised, and if colleagues want to write to me I will be happy to respond to them. A number of colleagues mentioned WASPI. It is for the Scottish Government to determine how to use their powers to make further payments, including to fix issues for those individuals.

The devolution of welfare powers represents a significant constitutional change that will require substantial work by both Governments to ensure that the people of Scotland are well served. We are committed to working constructively with the Scottish Government. I look forward to the future and seeing the Scottish Government successfully delivering their new social security benefits for the people of Scotland.

Mr Clive Betts Portrait Mr Clive Betts (in the Chair) - Hansard

I thank the Minister and other colleagues for keeping within the time limit. John Lamont has a minute to wind up.

Oral Answers to Questions

Alok Sharma Excerpts
Monday 18th March 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Work and Pensions
Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con) - Hansard

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

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:40 p.m.

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.

Mary Robinson Portrait Mary Robinson - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:40 p.m.

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:41 p.m.

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.

Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:41 p.m.

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:42 p.m.

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.

Lord Field of Birkenhead Portrait Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Ind) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:42 p.m.

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:42 p.m.

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.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard

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]

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:43 p.m.

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.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:43 p.m.

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard

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.

Margaret Greenwood Portrait Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, midnight

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:51 p.m.

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

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab) - Hansard

4. What assessment her Department has made of the financial effect of universal credit on disabled people. [909832]

Break in Debate

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab) - Hansard

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

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:50 p.m.

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.

Rosie Cooper - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:50 p.m.

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:51 p.m.

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.

Sir Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 2:51 p.m.

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

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard

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.

Mr Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard

6. How many people in Kettering constituency receive (a) personal independence payment, (b) employment and support allowance and (c) universal credit. [909834]

Break in Debate

Mr Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire) (Con) - Hansard

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

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Parliament Live - Hansard

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.

Mr Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Jayawardena - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, midnight

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard

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.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP) - Hansard

8. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of her Department’s policies on levels of poverty. [909836]

Break in Debate

Royston Smith (Southampton, Itchen) (Con) - Hansard

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

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:10 p.m.

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%.

Royston Smith - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:10 p.m.

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:10 p.m.

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.

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:11 p.m.

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:11 p.m.

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.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:12 p.m.

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard

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.

Dame Diana Johnson Portrait Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab) - Hansard

17. What recent assessment her Department has made of the (a) accuracy and (b) efficiency of contracted-out health assessments for (i) employment and support allowance and (ii) personal independence payment. [909845]

Break in Debate

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab) - Hansard

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

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:18 p.m.

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.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:18 p.m.

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:14 p.m.

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.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:19 p.m.

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard

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.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con) - Hansard

T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [909854]

Break in Debate

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:23 p.m.

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:23 p.m.

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.

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:24 p.m.

A mother in my constituency is struggling due to a lack of financial support from the father of her children. The woman’s ex-partner is not in work, but he gets considerable income from several properties he owns. However, that income is not considered by the Child Maintenance Service when calculating maintenance for his children. What can the Minister do to make sure the Child Maintenance Service focuses on not only salaries but other forms of income?

Break in Debate

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard

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]

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard

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.

Stephen Timms Portrait Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard

T5. When Bright Blue surveyed claimants for its new universal credit report, it found that the five-week wait was their biggest concern. According to the report, “Only a handful of interviewees said they had enough…to cover their expenses in this period.”The Secretary of State cannot justify the five-week wait. Will she scrap it? [909858]

Break in Debate

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP) - Parliament Live - Hansard

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]

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:28 p.m.

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.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op) - Parliament Live - Hansard

T8. Disability Direct, an advocacy organisation in my constituency, has a staggering 89% success rate at tribunals where its clients appeal against judgments on employment and support allowance and personal independence payments. Do Ministers really not accept that when they are losing nearly 90% of the time, their system is not working? [909861]

Break in Debate

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:30 p.m.

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?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:31 p.m.

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.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:31 p.m.

Like the Secretary of State, I will miss the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton); she was working with me on my Access to Welfare (Terminal Illness Definition) Bill—a critical Bill at a time when the Scottish Government are consulting on new standards for clinicians to decide when someone is terminally ill. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the Bill and move it forward?

Break in Debate

Stuart C McDonald Portrait Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:32 p.m.

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.

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:32 p.m.

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.

Louise Haigh Portrait Louise Haigh (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 3:32 p.m.

My constituent has a connective tissue disorder that has left her bedbound for three months because she regularly dislocates her joints. Despite evidence from her GP and chiropractor, the Centre for Disability and Health Assessments has refused a home assessment because she takes taxis to her GP appointments. Does the Secretary of State think that decision is fair? If not, will she look into it to overturn it?

Oral Answers to Questions

Alok Sharma Excerpts
Monday 11th February 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Department for Work and Pensions
Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP) - Hansard

2. What recent progress she has made on the roll-out of universal credit. [909108]

Alok Sharma Portrait The Minister for Employment (Alok Sharma) - Parliament Live - Hansard
11 Feb 2019, 2:41 p.m.

We have now successfully rolled out universal credit full service across the country, with 1.6 million people now claiming universal credit. For the next phase, referred to as “managed migration,” we will test and refine our approach in a pilot, with up to 10,000 people moving from legacy benefits to universal credit. That pilot will start in July 2019.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day - Hansard
11 Feb 2019, 2:41 p.m.

It has now been a calendar month since the High Court found the DWP unlawful in its universal credit work assessment periods, yet hard-pressed families are still being penalised for receiving payments on a four-weekly basis. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment to make a statement to this House on how to rectify that appalling anomaly?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
11 Feb 2019, 2:42 p.m.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point but, as he is aware, the Department is considering the High Court judgment carefully—I have said this before in the House—and it therefore would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.

Stephen Kerr (Stirling) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
11 Feb 2019, 2:42 p.m.

Can the Minister confirm that, because of the Budget, there will be £4.5 billion available in additional measures over the next couple of years?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
11 Feb 2019, 2:42 p.m.

Yes, we set out in the last Budget that there will be £4.5 billion available, with a large amount of that obviously coming through the increase in work allowances.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab) -