There have been 9 exchanges between Alok Sharma and Margaret Greenwood
|1||Mon 18th March 2019||
Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Work and Pensions
|3 interactions (181 words)|
|2||Mon 11th February 2019||
Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Work and Pensions
|5 interactions (167 words)|
|3||Mon 14th January 2019||
Department for Work and Pensions
|4 interactions (1,024 words)|
|4||Tue 8th January 2019||
Universal Credit: Managed Migration
Department for Work and Pensions
|4 interactions (1,022 words)|
|5||Tue 16th October 2018||
Department for Work and Pensions
|3 interactions (472 words)|
|6||Wed 6th June 2018||
Department for Work and Pensions
|6 interactions (4,501 words)|
|7||Tue 20th March 2018||
Scottish Welfare Powers
Department for Work and Pensions
|4 interactions (859 words)|
|8||Wed 14th March 2018||
Women and Work
Department for Work and Pensions
|2 interactions (287 words)|
|9||Tue 16th January 2018||
Food Poverty: Merseyside
Department for Work and Pensions
|10 interactions (1,572 words)|
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?
On the evening of 14 January, the Government announced that, from this May, mixed-aged couples on a low income will no longer be able to claim pension credit when the older partner reaches state pension age and will have to claim universal credit instead. Couples affected could lose out by up to £7,000 a year, and the Conservative party manifesto pledged to safeguard pensioner benefits. Why have the Government broken that pledge?
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement on universal credit.
On 6 January, it was reported in The Observer that the Government had decided to ask for powers from Parliament for a pilot of the managed migration of 10,000 people from legacy benefits to universal credit, rather than for a pilot of managed migration as a whole. However, on 7 January at oral questions, and the following day in response to an urgent question, Ministers failed to provide clarification of the Government’s plans. Then on Thursday, the Secretary of State told Sky News that she did not expect the social security freeze to be renewed when it came to an end in April 2020.
On Friday 11 January, the Secretary of State made a wide-ranging speech on social security, setting out her intentions in relation to managed migration, private sector rents, childcare costs and the two-child limit, but she did not make it in this House or give Members the opportunity to ask questions about those really important matters. On the same day, the High Court found in favour of four single mothers who had brought a legal challenge against the Government on the grounds that universal credit failed to take into account their fluctuating incomes after they were paid twice in a month because their paydays fell very near the end of the month.
How do the Government intend to respond to the High Court judgement? Does the Minister think that the two-child limit is fair to the children affected, and will the Government not scrap it altogether? Will they address the key concern with managed migration, which is that nobody’s claim for benefits that they are currently receiving must be ended until they have made a successful new claim for universal credit?
Will the Government make sure that the levels set for payments to people in receipt of severe disability premium who have already transferred to universal credit reflect the financial loss they have suffered? Will they take immediate action to ensure that no one has to wait five weeks to receive their initial payment of universal credit? Why are they not cancelling the benefits freeze now rather than waiting until April 2020, given that the Secretary of State says she believes that the reasons for it being introduced no longer apply? Finally, will the Government call a halt to the roll-out of universal credit?
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement on the Government’s plans for the managed migration of people claiming legacy benefits to universal credit.
Over the weekend, it was widely reported in the media that the Government had decided to ask for powers from Parliament for a managed migration pilot to move 10,000 people from legacy benefits to universal credit, rather than the managed migration as a whole of about 3 million people. One headline read:
“Threat of revolt forces rethink of ‘catastrophic’ universal credit”.
The Minister’s response does nothing to clarify the situation.
This is a matter of very real concern. Under so-called managed migration, the Government intend to switch off the vital financial support received by millions of people and leave them to apply for universal credit. There are very real fears that vulnerable people will be put at risk of falling out of the social security system altogether. Over a third of these people are currently claiming employment and support allowance because they are ill and disabled. In some cases, they will have been claiming it for a long time and may find it extremely difficult to make a claim for universal credit. A policy change of this significance, which was indicated in the press, clearly should have been announced in the House but the Government failed to do so. The Secretary of State failed to clarify the situation when she was asked to do so yesterday.
Will the Minister—it is disappointing that the Secretary of State is not in her place—tell the House whether the Government intend to ask Parliament initially for powers to carry out a pilot for the managed migration of 10,000 people or for the process as a whole, which would affect nearly 3 million people? Will the Government pledge, as they did before Christmas, to debate the regulations, in whatever form they take, on the Floor of the House? If the Government seek powers for a pilot in the first instance, will the Government address the fundamental concern of numerous voluntary organisations that nobody’s claim for a legacy benefit will be ended until they have either made a new claim for universal credit or have said that they do not wish to do so?
The result of putting back the timetable for managed migration, as the Government already did in the Budget, will mean that many more people will transfer to universal credit through natural migration. Can the Minister tell us how many people the Government estimate will move to universal credit through natural migration, and what savings that will make for the Treasury?
The Government announced in June that those in receipt of severe disability premium would not have to transfer to universal credit without transitional protection. Will the Government compensate those who have already done so and missed out as a result? What action will the Government take to ensure that those affected are fully compensated? The Government have chosen to shift the burden of what should be the Government’s responsibility to ensure continuity of social security on to claimants, forcing them to apply for universal credit. Will the Minister explain precisely what the Government are going to do and will they stop the roll-out of universal credit?
Universal credit is causing severe hardship for many people claiming it, and over the past two weeks conflicting statements from the Government have caused real confusion over the impact it will have on people who are required to move across to claim it in the next phase. First, we were told that austerity is over and then that families on low income are in danger of losing up to £200 a month as a result of transferring to UC. Next, the Prime Minister said that nobody would be worse off, but the Secretary of State contradicted her the following day by confirming that in fact some families would be worse off. So will the Government now publish their impact assessments of that next phase? How many households currently claiming legacy benefits will be worse off between now and 2023 as a result of making a claim for UC?
Yesterday, the Secretary of State met criticism of UC with accusations of scaremongering. So can the Minister tell us: are Citizens Advice, the Child Poverty Action Group, the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers, the Residential Landlords Association, the National Housing Federation, the Resolution Foundation, the National Audit Office, two former Prime Ministers and more than 80 organisations representing disabled people scaremongering? From these Benches, we again call on the Government to stop the roll-out of UC now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) on yet again securing this debate, and on his work on youth employment as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on youth employment. We have heard some very interesting contributions today, including from the hon. Gentleman himself, and I really look forward in particular to the group’s work on care leavers and prison leavers, who are a matter of concern; I am sure he shares that concern.
We heard a good contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who quite rightly raised the issues of in-work poverty, insecure contracts and food bank use, all of which have risen, as well as discussing how zero-hours contracts devalue the rights of employees. He also spoke about the importance of looking at a broad range of measures and at the lived experience of work; the testimony he received from his constituency, via his Facebook page, was very interesting.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) made a useful intervention about the question of the availability of hours for people in insecure work, and said that rather than looking at a “jobs miracle” we are looking at a “jobs mirage,” which I thought was a pertinent way of describing the situation.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) spoke about the particular issues that rural communities face. He also called for the quality and quantity of work that is available to be a focus for the Government across the board.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) said that he did not agree with banning zero-hours contracts. I have to disagree with him on that, and I remind him that the number of people on zero-hours contracts is heading towards a million, so it really is a significant issue and I will touch on it later in my speech.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) quite rightly called for fair pay—enough for people to live on—and pointed out that the national living wage is not, of course, an actual living wage.
Increases in employment are welcome, but we also need to look beyond the statistics, as many Members have said, to see what the world of work is really like. Average real pay has still not returned to the level it was at before the financial crisis, and although inflation has started to fall, it has nevertheless outstripped wages for almost all of the period since 2010. Public sector workers have been particularly badly hit; they saw their pay frozen for two years, in 2011 and 2012, and since then any increase has been capped at 1% a year, regardless of the rate of inflation.
Then, of course, there is a generation of people who were in their twenties at the time of the financial crisis, so they have spent almost all of their adult life in this period of austerity. They are now in their thirties—an age when many of them will have young children—yet median pay for people in that group is nearly 9% below the level that it was at in April 2008.
The Resolution Foundation predicts that this decade is likely to be the weakest decade for real pay growth in almost two centuries. Some 20% of Britain’s 33 million workers earn £15,000 a year or less, and a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice forecast that the pay of those workers in particular would be squeezed over the next decade, as a result of trends such as the growth of the gig economy, automation and global competition. So can the Minister tell us what action the Government will take to improve the prospects of low-paid workers and what investment they will make in skills?
Around 8 million people are living in poverty in the UK, even though at least one person in such households is in work, and of course many people move in and out of low-paid work. Universal credit was originally aimed at smoothing the transition into work and at making work pay, but the cuts to work allowances announced in the summer Budget of 2015 severely damaged the work incentives that universal credit offers.
Reports by independent organisations such as the Resolution Foundation and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have made it clear that the increase in the national living wage and personal allowance do not compensate for the cuts to social security since 2010 for people on low income, with disabled people and single parents being hit especially hard.
According to a TUC report, the public sector pay cap, coupled with cuts to in-work support, means that the number of children in working families growing up in poverty will be 3.1 million this year, which is 1 million higher than in 2010. Will the Government listen to the call from the TUC and Labour to reverse the cuts to work allowances in universal credit and abolish the pay cap across the public sector, which Labour has committed to doing?
There are deep inequalities in the labour market, on the basis of where people live, ethnic background, gender, age and disability. The Government have repeatedly failed to address those inequalities, despite the Prime Minister’s fine words outside No. 10 Downing Street on coming to power. More than eight out of 10 companies employing more than 250 staff—such companies were required to report on their gender pay gap in April—paid men more than women and three out of 10 of them had a gender pay gap higher than the national median of 18%—in some cases it was over 50%. So now we know about those companies, but they will not face any action as a result, except perhaps reputational damage. Labour would introduce fines for companies that have a high gender pay gap that they have failed to reduce. Are the Government going to act on the gender pay audit, and if not, why not?
According to the Prime Minister’s race disparity audit, around one in 10 adults from a black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or mixed background are unemployed, compared with one in 25 white British people. There are also significant differences in the kind of work that people do. For example, more than two in five people from a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background work in low-skilled occupations. Audits are important to tell us what the facts are, but we need action to address the issues they raise. How are the Government going to do that?
I turn to the situation for disabled people. Back in November, the Chancellor disgracefully sought to somehow blame disabled people for the UK’s poor productivity record. That was particularly shocking given the Government’s approach to supporting disabled people into work. The Work and Pensions Committee has highlighted that funding for specialist employment support for disabled people will fall substantially, from around £1 billion under Work Choice and the Work programmes to £554 million over the lifetime of the Work and Health programme.
A study by WPI Economics for the Employment Related Services Association estimates that the number of disabled people receiving specialist employment support will drop from around 300,000—the number it was between 2012 and 2015—to only 160,000 between 2017 and 2020. That would be a cut of around 50%, so I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that, as it would not only be clearly detrimental to the lives of many disabled people, but would make no economic sense. Research by Scope suggests that a 10% increase in the number of disabled people in work would increase GDP by £45 billion by 2030 and benefit the Exchequer by £12 billion. If the Chancellor really wants to address the UK’s productivity problems, he might like to give those figures some thought.
The majority of employment support for disabled people will be provided through Jobcentre Plus by general work coaches. If the Government are going to take employment support back in-house, will they look again at providing specialist support, rather than adopting a generalist model for work coaches?
With youth employment, the figures are less rosy. One in eight young people aged 16 to 24 are unemployed, which is much higher than the overall unemployment figure. The number of young people who are economically inactive rose over the past year. That is a matter of real concern. Just over 11% of 16 to 24-year-olds, or 808,000 young people, were not in education, employment or training—NEET—in the final quarter of 2017. Only about two fifths of those young people were registered as unemployed. The rest were economically inactive and hidden from the benefits system. The proportion of certain groups that are not in education, employment or training is shockingly high. Some 30% of disabled young people and 40% of care leavers are NEET, as compared with 9% of other young people. The Children’s Society has made a strong case for there to be a specific marker for care leavers in universal credit, as in legacy benefits, so that we can measure their progress. Will the Minister commit to doing that?
Since April 2017, young people aged 18 to 21 claiming universal credit receive employment support through the youth obligation. After six months of what is supposed to be intensive support, they are required to take up an apprenticeship, training or a work placement. However, organisations such as Centrepoint are concerned that young people who face the greatest challenges in finding work—for example, care leavers—might need longer than six months and more personalised support to get to the point where they can do that. The all-party group has also made that point, stressing the importance of young people with greater challenges being given support in the first instance to develop basic skills. Can the Minister tell us what percentage of young people have found work through the youth obligation so far? Will he look at the case for personalised support for young people on universal credit through specialist work coaches?
The European social fund is a vital source of funding for employment support at the local level for disabled people and young people who are NEET, for example. In the present funding round for 2014 to 2020, the UK is receiving around £500 million a year, but ESF funding is important not only for the direct support it provides, but for attracting funding from other sources. The Government have announced that they will create a shared prosperity fund to replace the ESF, but time is running out to have a successor ready in time. They have said that they will publish a consultation some time later in the year, but no timescale has been announced. Can the Minister tell us when the consultation will take place? Can he tell us what he is doing to ensure that there will be no gap in the provision of employment support when ESF funding comes to an end?
Young people are also more likely to be working part time, in temporary employment or on a zero-hours contract than workers who are older. It is little wonder that the chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority warned last year about levels of debt among young people that are built up in just trying to cover basic bills. Women are especially likely to be in part-time or insecure work. Some 55% of people on a zero-hours contract are women, and 45% are men. Similarly, a high proportion of people from some ethnic minority communities are more likely to be in part-time or insecure work. According to the Government’s race disparity audit, more than one in four Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers were employed in distribution or in hotels and restaurants, and one in five were in transport and communications industries, where low-paid, insecure work is common. Around 900,000 people are on zero-hours contracts.
More than half the zero-hours workers in a TUC survey said that they had shifts cancelled at less than 24 hours’ notice. People with caring responsibilities simply cannot afford to take shifts at such short notice. Having made provision for childcare, to then have a shift cancelled is particularly frustrating and expensive. Three quarters of the people responding to the survey said that they had been offered shifts at less than 24 hours’ notice, and a third said that they had been threatened that they would not be given shifts in future if they turned down work. How are people supposed to manage their finances and their lives when they are on zero-hours contracts—when they do not know how much money will be coming in each week and how much childcare they are likely to need? Will the Government ban exploitative zero-hours contracts, as Labour would?
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk spoke of the importance of the work of self-employed people. In evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee in January, the director of universal credit at the Department for Work and Pensions said clearly:
“Self-employment is a cause of in-work poverty.”
We should all be alarmed by that statement. The number of self-employed people has increased. They now make up about 15% of the workforce, or 4.8 million. That figure is for 2017, and compares with 12%, or 3.3 million, in 2001. The design of universal credit means it can fail to protect self-employed people on low income from poverty. Under the minimum income floor, self-employed people claiming universal credit are assumed to be earning the equivalent of 35 hours at the national living wage after a year, even though in many cases their earnings may be much less. That is exactly why they need to claim universal credit.
In February the Office for Budget Responsibility estimated that by 2022-23 more than two thirds of self-employed people claiming universal credit would lose out from the minimum income floor by an average of £3,000 a year. Someone who is self-employed, but on exactly the same annual income as someone who is an employee, can be entitled to less universal credit because it fails to take account of the fluctuating earnings that are a basic characteristic of self-employment.
In conclusion, high rates of employment should be good for those who are employed. They should mean higher wages and more security, but in reality people can face years as agency staff on temporary contracts, and zero-hours workers can have shifts cancelled at less than a day’s notice, with all the insecurity that that brings. It is little wonder that the TUC has reported parents being penalised by employers for asking for flexibility for family reasons, such as for simply wanting to take annual leave when their child is sick. Work should be a route out of poverty, but recent research by the Living Wage Foundation reveals that more than a third of working parents on low incomes have regularly skipped meals because they are short of money, and almost half have fallen behind on household bills. On coming to power, the Prime Minister promised outside Downing Street to be on the side of families who were just about managing, but it is clear that her Government are failing to do that. High employment rates are welcome, but they do not tell the whole truth about most people’s experience of the world of work.
Will the Minister comment on the 900,000 people who are on zero-hours contracts and cannot manage their lives? They do not know how much money they are going to earn. They do not know how much childcare they need. It is a state of real insecurity, creating anxiety for a lot of people, and it is not good for the economy either.
I thank the Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous. Is he aware of the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace among staff on zero-hours contracts? What advice would he give to a young woman on such a contract who is experiencing that? Where can she go for support? How can she tackle it, and how can she remain employed, but in a safe environment?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point, but I am so short of time.
In Scotland, some 50,000 households with three or more children are in receipt of tax credits. From April 2017, families no longer received support through child tax credits or universal credit for any third or subsequent child born on or after that date. That also applies to new UC claims. On top of that, the abolition of the family element of the child tax credit for all families whose third child is born after the April 2017 deadline will affect thousands of families who will lose £545 a year. Yet in Scotland the SNP blocked Labour’s plan to introduce a child benefit top-up of £260 each year, which would have lifted 30,000 children out of poverty. After housing costs, 26% of children in Scotland were living in relative poverty in 2015-16—approximately 260,000 children. Does the Minister think that is acceptable? Why does he refuse to act?
On top of that, the switch to universal credit will cause up to 100,000 families in Scotland who are currently in receipt of housing or council tax benefit to lose an average of £1,196 a year in state support for childcare costs. Universal credit is clearly not fit for purpose, so why does the Minister refuse to pause the roll-out and fix the problems to make the system work?
Members have spoken about the flexible payment system, which is important—we have been calling for one for the rest of the UK—and the system of split payment. I would be grateful if the Minister explained to us whether there are any practical reasons why split payments cannot be the default position. There is a great deal of concern about the impact that the current system has on the safety of people living in situations of domestic violence.
Labour has long campaigned for the abolition of the bedroom tax right across the UK, so we welcome the Scottish Government’s action to mitigate its impact. Like the bedroom tax, the imminent changes to support for mortgage interest is another Conservative policy that will hit those on low incomes. Right now, 11,000 people in Scotland who rely on the current scheme have little more than a month to decide whether to take out a loan or pay for the shortfall. I am eager to hear what the Minister has to say about that devastating yet avoidable change. Will he delay the impending changes and review the impact of the options before him?
We welcome the Scottish Government’s agreement with Labour that the new social security agency in Scotland should have a duty to ensure take-up, but we should go further. Will the Minister commit to considering a duty for the rest of the UK? We need a social security system that is reliable, is there for us in our time of need, and provides support should any of us become sick or disabled, or fall on hard times. I am interested to hear how the Minister intends to address that in the light of the changes his party is pursuing.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and for many disabled people, the need to heat their home is also a bigger element in their weekly bills.
Will the Government reverse the cuts to support for disabled people in universal credit? Those cuts will have an increasing impact as universal credit is rolled out to a wider range of claimants. Lone parents and their children constitute the largest number of people receiving help from food banks overall. A study for the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that lone parents were set to lose around 15% of their net income on average—around £1 in every £6—and that households with three or more children could lose as much as £5,400 per year. Will the Government look again at reversing the two-child policy, and heed the warning from the Resolution Foundation that cuts to the work allowance could act as a disincentive for some lone parents to work additional hours, once they have entered employment doing a smaller number of hours at the start?
The Government recently announced that children would be eligible for free school meals if their family’s income was £7,400 per year or less, excluding social security. That creates a cliff edge in universal credit, which could create a disincentive for people to work additional hours—that has always been the Government’s argument against tax credits in general. Free school meals are worth £2.30 per child per day, which over a 38-week school year works out at £437 per child. The Resolution Foundation has calculated that crossing the threshold by earning more than £7,400 a year would effectively mean losing £11 a week in income, and it would take £30 of earnings to claw that back, given the universal credit taper rate. Eligibility for free school meals is another area where families lose more the larger they are. People in insecure work whose income may fluctuate from week to week could face a difficult choice. Will the Government act to avoid families being put in that situation by removing the cliff edge and ensuring that all children in families who receive universal credit are eligible for free school meals?
To conclude, let me underline the seriousness of the situation. New figures this morning show that food prices are still increasing by more than 4%. There is a freeze in key working age benefits until 2020, and wages are stagnating for those in work, particularly those on low incomes. Universal credit is far from fixed, and aspects such as the low level of support for disabled people and the cliff edge for eligibility for free school meals have received much less attention. The Government should act to fix those problems with universal credit at an early stage before people are driven into extreme poverty, and they should return to the original principles of universal credit to ensure that work always pays. They need to tackle poverty, not push families into it.
Just as people are experiencing multiple forms of destitution, there may be more than one reason why someone is forced to turn to a food bank for help. If those groups most likely to use a food bank—disabled people, lone parents, and larger families—are also those who have been hit the hardest by cuts to social security support since 2012, and by cuts to local authority spending and a reduction of services in their areas, then the social security net is clearly not doing the job it is designed to do. It should be protecting people in their time of need.
Break in Debate
The Minister is being generous with his time. He is talking about support for the most vulnerable, so would his Government reverse the cuts to support for disabled people under universal credit?
Break in Debate
That being the case, why will some disabled people receive £65 a week less than they would have before universal credit?