All Carolyn Harris debates involving the Department for Work and Pensions

Thu 8th February 2018
3 interactions (113 words)
Mon 18th December 2017
3 interactions (67 words)
Thu 14th December 2017
5 interactions (818 words)
Wed 29th November 2017
11 interactions (614 words)
Mon 13th November 2017
6 interactions (87 words)
Tue 24th October 2017
9 interactions (596 words)
Mon 30th January 2017
3 interactions (191 words)
Wed 30th November 2016
5 interactions (321 words)
Mon 21st November 2016
7 interactions (104 words)
Mon 17th October 2016
7 interactions (86 words)
Mon 14th March 2016
3 interactions (52 words)
Tue 23rd February 2016
5 interactions (858 words)
Fri 29th January 2016
3 interactions (54 words)
Thu 28th January 2016
22 interactions (1,503 words)
Thu 7th January 2016
9 interactions (805 words)
Tue 15th December 2015
14 interactions (1,900 words)
Wed 14th October 2015
9 interactions (2,301 words)
Mon 20th July 2015
13 interactions (496 words)

Statutory Sick Pay and Protection for Workers

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Wednesday 18th March 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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18 Mar 2020, 1:08 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I have said many times at the Dispatch Box that I admire the way that he contributes and offers support in trying to help some of the most vulnerable people in society. There were two aspects to his question, the first of which was about general communication. These are fast-moving events, and all constituency MPs are getting a lot of correspondence that asks very reasonable questions. We are trying to give answers that are as good as possible, but we really have to keep pushing people towards the gov.uk website, on which there is consistent communication. On the second point about a minimum net, that is where the welfare system comes into play, because statutory sick pay—it is important, and I will go over that—applies in only some cases, whereas the welfare safety net applies to all who need it.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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18 Mar 2020, 1:08 p.m.

I believe the Minister will know that cross-party working is in my DNA, and I really do want to do everything I can to make sure we get this right. This is a personal but pertinent point: my son Stuart is self-employed; he has a wife who has had dialysis since she was 14, and a 10-year-old son, Liam. They are all self-isolating; Stuart does not have an income. They live in rented accommodation and utilities are essential to keep the dialysis going. I have a very frightened family and very many frightened constituents. We would be most grateful for any clarification on what we can do.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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18 Mar 2020, 1:09 p.m.

I have worked very closely with the hon. Lady on a number of issues, and I know that she is held in huge respect across both sides of the House.

Prior to being an MP, I ran my own business, so I understand the concerns of self-employed people who have suddenly overnight seen dramatic changes to their cash flow and ability to trade as a business. I absolutely understand the worries that people will have, which is why we are allowing access to statutory sick pay or, depending on people’s personal circumstances, looking at whether they can turn to new-style ESA—the contributory benefit—which is probably the case for the self-employed, or the wider support offer through universal credit and the welfare net. People would need to look at their circumstances and talk to the jobcentres. We are all trying to do our best to provide as much certainty as possible, as quickly as possible, through the daily updates.

Oral Answers to Questions

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2019

(2 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Amber Rudd Portrait Amber Rudd
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13 May 2019, 2:55 p.m.

I would ask the hon. Lady to work with us on UC and with her local jobcentre. The National Audit Office recently commented that the right thing is to continue with UC. I understand that it is often difficult for individuals who are concerned about moving from the six legacy benefits to one benefit, but my experience from talking to people is that even though they were concerned, once they are on UC they almost exclusively say that it is a better system than the previous one.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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13 May 2019, 2:55 p.m.

Shelter Cymru, a Welsh housing association, has growing concerns that tenants threatened with eviction who are dependent on UC payments are not able to meet the deadlines to settle arrears claims. Will the Minister consider allowing fast-track payments, especially for those facing eviction?

Amber Rudd Portrait Amber Rudd
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13 May 2019, 2:55 p.m.

I would hope that the possibility of evictions will be reduced by our new plans to allow many more people to have their rent paid directly to housing associations and, increasingly, to private landlords. The hon. Lady raises an interesting point, and she needs to give me an opportunity to look at it; perhaps she would like to come to my surgery in the House of Commons next week or write to me about it.

DWP Offices Closures: Merthyr Tydfil

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Wednesday 9th May 2018

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Work and Pensions
Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones
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9 May 2018, 4:20 p.m.

The geography of south Wales is quite unique and people have to navigate the transport difficulties to which my hon. Friends have alluded on a daily basis. There are huge difficulties in access across valleys and from parts of south Wales to others and the transport links need to be addressed.

If the closures go ahead, they will decimate the economies of town centres across south-east Wales—town centres that are already struggling to cope. The DWP is planning to relocate staff to a site that, until last week, was known only as “north of Cardiff”. Last week, we had confirmation that it has signed a lease for a site on Treforest industrial estate. It was probably the worst-kept secret, but anyway it has now been confirmed.

In January, I and my Welsh Assembly colleague, Dawn Bowden AM, along with members of the PCS union, undertook an early morning journey on public transport to the proposed new site. It proved that to get to the new location by public transport will, for some existing employees, involve travel by train and bus, and walking a distance through a poorly lit industrial estate, which will undoubtedly be a major challenge in the winter months. The journey took all of two hours.

The site has poor access from the nearest train station along a narrow road with no pavement and my understanding is that it will have 1,700 full-time equivalent roles, but initial observations show that the car parking provision would be limited. There is a clear expectation that members of staff will travel by public transport, but it is also clear that many would find it extremely difficult to make that daily journey by public transport. Some members of staff already commute long distances to get to their workplace in Merthyr Tydfil as a result of previous DWP workforce reorganisations. Having to travel even further would, in many cases, cause hardship.

The construction of a brand-new building with a view to lowering costs seems a little confused. In many communities across south-east Wales, there is an opportunity to look at existing buildings, which would undoubtedly have a competitive financial case and retain jobs and viable office space in town centres. Alternatively, if a large employer such as the DWP pulls out of town centres, buildings such as the former tax office in Merthyr Tydfil, which closed nearly a decade ago, will remain empty and become dilapidated over time, often becoming a blight on the local community and impacting heavily on the wider public purse in the medium to long term.

UK Government offices are currently based in a number of towns in south Wales, supporting local jobs and economies. I am bound to highlight the opportunities that exist in Merthyr Tydfil. The option of retaining current jobs and having an enhanced presence is more than worthy of consideration. The current DWP office in Merthyr Tydfil is well-established and the staff turnover rate is low. Many employees have worked in that location for a long time and are committed to providing a good service to the public, and the local jobs market means that vacancies in Merthyr Tydfil are filled quickly and applicants remain in jobs. The DWP office is modern and has space for additional staff. Traffic congestion coming into Merthyr Tydfil at peak times is minimal in comparison with larger towns and cities and would mean that staff and customers would gain easy access, whether for employment or accessing the service.

I hope the Minister will comment on the concerns I have raised. Has the DWP yet undertaken an equality impact assessment regarding members of staff? DWP announced the proposed closure of Merthyr Tydfil benefit centre along with others in the south Wales area, yet, to date, local, district and senior managers state that equality impact assessments have not been completed or even commissioned. I received a letter in July last year from the then Minister for Employment, stating that an equality analysis was due to take place, so I would be extremely disappointed and annoyed if, after nearly 12 months, that had not happened. I cannot understand how the decision to close a site that provides quality jobs in such a deprived area of south Wales can be made without an equality impact assessment being carried out and its findings being considered. Surely carrying out an impact assessment on such a move is an essential first step.

An announcement was recently made that staff on fixed-term appointments in Merthyr Tydfil benefits centre will not have their contracts renewed, meaning that there will be at least 40 fewer staff by the end of the year. Yet the work will still need to be processed. Staff at the centre are concerned that current workloads will be exported to other sites, some possibly outside of Wales. They are concerned that something is being kept from them. Does the DWP have plans to close the site earlier than originally announced?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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9 May 2018, 4:23 p.m.

Just last week, Virgin Media announced its intention to close a flagship site in my constituency of Swansea East, with the potential loss of 770 jobs. Jobcentre Plus will be the first port of call for all of those people who will be seeking new opportunities. Does my hon. Friend agree that any attempt to minimise local access to Jobcentre Plus can only add to the fear and frustration of those vulnerable people, who are already very fearful for their futures?

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones
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9 May 2018, 4:27 p.m.

I wholeheartedly agree. My hon. Friend’s point reinforces the point about having access to quality jobs and services in local communities.

The plans for the Merthyr Tydfil office have caused real concern in my community. The workforce are clearly concerned. The local and regional branches of the PCS union have raised objections. I and a number of Parliamentary colleagues from across south-east Wales have raised concerns. My Welsh Assembly colleague Dawn Bowden and many of her Welsh Assembly colleagues have raised concerns. Local traders and employers in the town are also concerned.

Although the Minister may ignore some of those concerns, I feel sure that he would not wish to ignore the concerns of the newest Conservative Association in the UK, the Merthyr and Rhymney Conservative Association, which stated in March that it also objects to the relocation of those jobs. I understand that the association has written to the Minister to raise its objections:

“Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney Conservatives are against this move as we believe the 200 jobs should be kept locally and not moved down the valley. We believe this would have a negative impact on workers by increasing commuting times and adding extra travel costs which would impact their cost of living.”

The deputy chairman for membership also said:

“I believe the proposed move of the DWP office to Treforest will have a detrimental effect on the current 200 strong workforce. I am a strong believer in the idea that local jobs should be for local people hence why we have contacted the minister in a bid to get him to re-think this decision which could potentially have a wide impact on the wider economy.”

Perhaps the Minister will share his response and confirm whether he agrees with his Conservative colleagues.

I have serious concerns that such huge changes for staff and customers are being taken forward at a time when universal credit is about to be rolled out in the area. Universal credit has proved to be challenging in many other areas. For the staff to be worried about their future while dealing with a major policy change is not a constructive or a timely mix.

Will the Minister confirm whether an equality analysis has been carried out regarding Merthyr Tydfil benefit centre? The DWP prides itself on being a diverse and inclusive employer and has many disabled and vulnerable workers. As we know, the public sector equality duty in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 requires public authorities, including Government Departments such as DWP, to consider the potential impact on people with protected characteristics when making policy decisions and delivering services. The PCS union has been vocal in demanding that a full equality impact assessment and health and safety review be carried out.

Why is the DWP ignoring the Government’s green policy, which is trying to reduce the number of cars on the road, by relocating service centres to an industrial estate with poor public transport links? Why is the DWP ignoring the Welsh Government and the TUC’s “Better jobs in local areas” campaign by relocating away from local communities to centralised locations in cities or remote industrial areas?

Finally, why is the DWP suddenly not renewing the contracts of staff on fixed-term contracts, leaving sections decimated and unable to function? Is it planning to close the site earlier than announced? I would be grateful for the Minister’s answers to those queries in the hope that he can quell some of the concern, anxiety and growing anger about the decision, which does nothing to support local town centres and economies, or to protect local jobs.

State Pension Age

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Thursday 8th February 2018

(3 years, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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8 Feb 2018, 1:38 p.m.

With respect, this matter was debated at great length in 1995 and in 2007, under the Labour Government, and they could have altered the decision if they wished to do so. At that stage they took the view that the changes were fiscally sensible, and in 2011 the matter was again debated by Parliament and there was a concession of £1.1 billion, after much consideration by this House.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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Having heard the statement, I can only assume that the Minister really does not get this, because the strength of feeling, not just among the 1950s women, but among colleagues, is extremely high—they are angry. Maybe I can offer some help. If he agreed to meet me and his hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), we could share with him the findings of a consultation we have recently undertaken on behalf of the all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality for women. We could talk him through the problem and encourage him to do the right thing by acknowledging the problem and coming up with a respectful answer.

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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8 Feb 2018, 1:39 p.m.

With respect, this matter has been debated since 1995—long before the hon. Lady and I arrived in this House—and successive Governments have taken a similar view on the appropriateness of the action, based on affordability, workability and the applicable equality legislation.

Oral Answers to Questions

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Monday 18th December 2017

(3 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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18 Dec 2017, 3:25 p.m.

Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend is quite right about the enthusiasm of jobcentre staff for universal credit, because it enables them to do more of what they want to do, which is to help people to get on and get into work. I can confirm to him that, yes, computers are available in jobcentres, and assistance is available when needed.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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18 Dec 2017, 3:25 p.m.

With the uncertainty of universal credit payments following the roll-out in Swansea last week, my local paper, the South Wales Evening Post, has co-ordinated the collection of food and warm clothes to help those in need. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the South Wales Evening Post on doing what the Government are failing to do, and making sure everyone has a good Christmas?

David Gauke Portrait Mr Gauke
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18 Dec 2017, 3:25 p.m.

What I would say to anyone—Members of Parliament, newspapers, advisory bodies and food banks—is that we need to make sure that the facts are set out to new claimants: if they need to get access to support, they can get it quickly; they need to get in contact with their jobcentre; and they are able to access an advance, and they can get that money before Christmas.

Pension Equality for Women

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Thursday 14th December 2017

(3 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Scott Mann Portrait Scott Mann (North Cornwall) (Con)
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14 Dec 2017, 12:49 p.m.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), and I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing this important debate. I am here to speak on behalf of my North Cornwall WASPI women. I have met them numerous times at different events over the past two and a half years. I presented a petition on their behalf last year, and many of them have come to see me at surgeries in the towns and villages of my constituency to express their concern about the challenging times that many women are facing. Other hon. Members have alluded to some of those challenges today.

Most people who come to see me have worked their entire life. They might well own their own home and not be in a position to make the transition for those 18 months. I support transitional measures for our WASPI women, and I believe we can reach a practical solution by reducing the state pension over a longer period of time. Private pension providers already allow that. The option should be given to people with public pensions.

The changes in 2011 were rushed and wrong. The equalisation of pensions from 1995 was the right thing to do but, with increases of between two months and 18 months, people have suffered in different ways, which we should acknowledge. People should be able to take their pension earlier, or have the option to wait and have the £159 a week, as it currently sits. I have produced some figures, and my benchmarks are based on the current life expectancy for a woman in the UK of 83 and the pension age in 1995 of 66.

At the moment, the state pension is £159.55 a week. Over the 17 years leading up to average life expectancy, the pension would cost just over £141,000. I have done some modelling based on £130 a week, £140 a week and £150 a week for a reduced pension over a longer period. I have used the baseline to measure that against the least affected women, those affected for two months, and the most affected women, those affected for 18 months.

I put together my proposals over the past few days. The conclusion I have reached, according to the figures, is that the only group that would be affected if the proposals were introduced are the people who have to wait for 18 months, the most affected group. Even then, the Government would have to find only £2,357 over the lifetime of the pension. All the other models come out positively for the Government. We should do this as a gesture to the affected women.

Will the Minister sit down with me to look through my figures to see whether there is a satisfactory solution to the problem? I am happy to meet him if he is happy to meet me. We should consider a sensible way forward. I am not entirely sure I will be here for the winding-up speeches, but I would welcome the opportunity to meet the Minister at a later date to discuss a practical solution.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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14 Dec 2017, 12:53 p.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing this important debate.

I say to the Government, one more time, that they need to stop burying their head in the sand and do the right thing by these women. We are at the same point yet again, debating the unfairness and injustice to women born in the 1950s as a consequence of the pension changes. Without time to prepare and make the necessary alternative arrangements, so many women born in the 1950s are left in financial despair. The reality is that the women are desperate. Affected women call, write and email my office every day to let me know that they have had to sell their belongings and are relying on family, friends and food banks just to exist.

More than 2.5 million women have been wronged by this injustice, which is 2.5 million voices that will not be ignored and 2.5 million women who will not go away.

The changes in the Pensions Act 2011 gave women insufficient time to prepare for retirement, which has caused particular hardship for certain groups: those with lower average life expectancy; those who depend more on their state pension in retirement; those who are more likely to suffer from health problems or disability; and those who have to care for elderly parents, husbands and grandchildren, limiting their ability to work up to and beyond 65.

For some of those women, their jobs are physically demanding and, because of their health, they can no longer do the things they were able to do when they were younger. Although the Minister believes that apprenticeships and accessible work are available to these women, I believe that is an insult. Caseload data shows that the number of women aged 60-plus claiming unemployment benefits increased between 2013 and 2017, more so than the increase among claimants of all other ages.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)
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14 Dec 2017, 12:55 p.m.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are still loads of inconsistencies, such as that a one-year change in date of birth means an additional three years to reach the pension age for some of these women? That makes the way in which the Government have introduced these changes even more illogical.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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14 Dec 2017, 12:56 p.m.

I have put my thoughts on that on the record many times. Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend.

The number of women aged 60-plus claiming benefits increased by some 9,500 between 2013 and 2017, a 115% increase. Pension age changes have played a substantial part in that increase. It is crucial that this Government recognise the need for fair transitional state pension arrangements, yet they are still not listening. They have deceived these women, stolen their security and shattered their dreams.

In September, my co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality for women, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and other cross-party members of the APPG joined me in tabling the Pensions (Review of Women’s Arrangements) (No. 2) Bill, which will have its Second Reading in April 2018. In preparation for the Bill, the APPG recently launched a consultation to gather opinions from affected women. The number of responses to our questionnaire within the first few hours was staggering. To date, we have received nearly 90 responses from groups representing many thousands of women. These women are the people who are living with the consequences of the pension changes, and their voices will be heard.

I have met many women, both in my constituency and as chair of the APPG. I have visited many constituencies across the country to speak to affected women. Most recently, I have visited women with my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). My office is currently dealing with requests to visit 1950s women’s groups in Scotland, northern England and across Wales.

Wherever I go, the story is always the same. These women feel cheated and disrespected, and they are angry. Every meeting is packed. Not one of these women has any intention of giving up until they get the result that they have earned and that they deserve—fair transitional payments that allow them to enjoy the retirement for which they have worked very hard over many years.

What about women born in the 1950s who have left this country to live in other parts of Europe? They are not only concerned about how their lives will pan out after Brexit; they are currently feeling extremely vulnerable and, to be honest, left out in the cold when it comes to their pension. Those women do not have an MP to voice their concerns, so they have contacted me and, I am sure, many others in the Chamber to ask what is happening to their pension. They left this country believing that they would get their pension at 60, and they feel robbed.

Many colleagues on both sides of the House agree that the changes to the state pension are unjust and unfair, so it really is time for the Government to stop blocking their ears and start listening. They should let these women have justice. They should do the right thing, the honourable thing, and give the WASPI women, and all 1950s women, the transitional payments they deserve. [Interruption.]

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing)
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14 Dec 2017, 12:59 p.m.

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) to begin his speech, let us make it very clear that we do not have cheering and clapping in any part of this Chamber. We do have, “Hear, hear” and we do have smiles and laughs, but we do not have cheering and clapping.

State Pension Age: Women

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Wednesday 29th November 2017

(4 years ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Ross Thomson Portrait Ross Thomson (Aberdeen South) (Con)
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29 Nov 2017, 3:58 p.m.

Equalising the state pension age between men and women is a principle about which the UK Government, the WASPI campaign and I am sure all of us in the Chamber agree. However, there is rightly concern about the unfair and disproportionate impact of the 2011 reforms on women born in the 1950s, and this concern is shared by Members on both sides of the House.

Some 5,200 women in my constituency are affected. Since the general election in June, as Members might imagine, I have been meeting local women who are affected by the changes and who, in some cases, have had to change their retirement plans radically because they were not made properly aware of the changes made by 1995 Act.

One constituent I recently met was employed by NHS Grampian for 39 years. She worked hard and full time for her whole working life, with no maternity leave and no long-term sick leave, until in 2014, during her last few years of work, she had to take a couple of months off for health reasons—first due to cancer of the womb, and subsequently cancer of the bone marrow. She requested retirement, and she was 60 on 1 December 2016, but because of the changes to state pension policy, she is not receiving a state pension, even though she paid in, in full, during her 39 years of working. This has caused her great strain and worry, and she is naturally concerned about her finances.

Last Friday, I met a 61-year-old constituent who expected to receive her state pension in 2016. She also contributed through national insurance for more than 40 years. When she received her first letter about the age changes from the DWP back in 2013, she was in full employment and good health, but her circumstances changed in 2015, when she was made redundant and diagnosed with breast cancer. I am thankful that my constituent has made a recovery following successful treatment to date, but she finds herself with no income, and the downturn in oil and gas in Aberdeen has made it very difficult for her to get even a job interview. At the moment, therefore, she has to rely on the very pot of savings that she worked hard to build up.

I wanted to highlight my constituents’ cases as a reminder that the state pension system is founded on a contributory principle. It is not a welfare benefit. Those cases show that this group of women have done the right thing. They worked hard all their lives and paid their dues in good faith, but now they face being completely short-changed. That is not fair.

We have heard a lot of bluster from SNP Members, but let us be clear that the Scottish Government have the powers to make a change. Their record clearly shows not only their incompetence, but their refusal to use those powers. Let us be absolutely clear: my constituents know that I will make their voices heard loud and clear in this place.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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29 Nov 2017, 4:01 p.m.

Here we go again: another day, another debate on the injustice facing the 1950s-born women as a result of the pension changes. More than 3 million women have lost out because of the changes to pension law, and more than 3,000 in my own constituency of Swansea East have been unfairly treated by the changes to the state pension.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
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29 Nov 2017, 4:01 p.m.

Does my hon. Friend agree that many of those women have worked in manual jobs since they were 15 years of age—some of them since they were 14—so they deserve fair play?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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29 Nov 2017, 4:01 p.m.

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. These women have been the backbone of our country and they have been betrayed by this Government.

What is really scary is how many women do not realise that they have been affected. Yet this Government are still not listening. They have betrayed these women, stolen their security and shattered their dreams. Without the time to prepare and make the necessary alternative arrangements, very many women born in the 1950s have been left in financial despair.

Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
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29 Nov 2017, 4:02 p.m.

On shattering lives, the life expectancy for women in my constituency is among the shortest on these islands. This is a brutal attack on their end-of-life progress, especially if they are living with a short-term condition that will come to a brutal end with no pension from the Government.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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29 Nov 2017, 4:02 p.m.

It is cruel—there is no other word to describe the current state of play. These women have fought tirelessly for justice, but appallingly their cries for justice are falling on deaf ears.

I think that most people are aware of my passion for the campaign. Like the 1950s women, I am not going to give up. I know that they are not going to give up, either, so none of us is going away. And do you know what? The problem isn’t going away either.

These 1950s women have been inexcusably disadvantaged by the handling and communication of the changes to the state pension, and some women will be as much as £40,000 out of pocket. These women have paid into the system since the 1960s. They paid in with the expectation that they would retire with a state pension at 60, but due to an abysmal lack of correspondence they find themselves severely out of pocket. They have not been given enough time to make alternative arrangements, and as a result very many are facing dire financial hardship.

Philippa Whitford Portrait Dr Whitford
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29 Nov 2017, 4:03 p.m.

Obviously, this is a UK-wide issue, not one that applies only to women in Scotland. The women I have spoken to are not looking for the kind of crisis grants that the Scottish Government can deliver. They do not want to go begging. They actually want what they are due.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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29 Nov 2017, 4:04 p.m.

I do not want to get involved in the argument about what the Scottish Government can and cannot do, but I agree that this matter affects all women, regardless of their nationality.

Many in this House stand by these women. I call on the Government to make a commitment to look again at this gross injustice, to discuss a productive and constructive way forward for the women affected, and to listen to what we are saying.

Not all women are fit enough to work. Some women who are expected to jump through hoops before they can receive unemployment benefit do so risking their own physical and mental health.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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29 Nov 2017, 4:04 p.m.

I am going to make progress.

The reality is that these women are desperate. I have women affected all over the country calling my office every day, letting me know that they have had to sell their belongings and that they are relying on family, friends and food banks just to exist. I understand that this might not be comfortable to listen to, but it is the reality. These women are only asking for compassion, for fair play and, more importantly, for respect.

I will continue to call on the Government to stop burying their head in the sand and to do the right thing by these women. My private Member’s Bill is due to have its Second Reading debate in April. It states that these women need reasonable, transitional arrangements to allow them not just to enjoy retirement, but to survive it. So many Members across the House agree that these changes to the state pension age are unjust and unfair, and that these women have been robbed of their pension. When will the Government recognise the mistake they have made with the 1950s women? These women will not be ignored.

Mike Wood Portrait Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con)
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Over the past two and a half years I have met many constituents who have been directly affected by the various changes to the state pension age. Listening to them, it is impossible not to feel every sympathy, given the circumstances in which many find themselves. If I suddenly found out that I would not be able to retire at the age I had expected, I am not sure that I could say how I felt—actually, I probably could, but I fear my language would not be parliamentary.

As a teenage boy in the early 1990s, I probably did not pay as much attention to women’s pensions as many other people did, but I do remember the announcement in 1993 that the state pension age would have to be equalised upwards. There was widespread publicity at the time, through the media and the leaflets that have been referred to. None the less, it is clear that many women, for one reason or another, were genuinely unaware of that. As late as 2012, 6% of the women affected still expected to retire at 60, despite the Department for Work and Pensions having sent out 11 million leaflets and letters. However, that was significant progress since 2004, when just 73% of the women affected were aware of the 1995 reforms.

Clearly there are solid reasons why successive Governments here and in many other developed economies have been increasing and equalising the state pension age. The fact that even a relatively small proportion of people affected were unaware of changes that will have such a large impact on their retirement raises broader issues about how public authorities communicate pension matters, and Government at all levels need to consider that.

The truth is that the state pension age will not be reduced to 60—arguably, that would be illegal under anti-discrimination legislation—so we must look at what can be done not only to help those women born in the 1950s back into work, but to help all those who will find themselves working later in life. I hope that the Government can come up with further suggestions on what support can be provided.

Oral Answers to Questions

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Monday 13th November 2017

(4 years ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
David Gauke Portrait Mr Gauke
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The timing of both ESA or PIP assessments has improved in recent months: the waiting time has been reduced. I welcome that, but we continue to work closely with the providers of the assessments to ensure that their performance is adequate.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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4. What assessment the Government have made of the equity of pension provision between men and women. [901835]

Yvonne Fovargue Portrait Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab)
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6. What assessment the Government have made of the equity of pension provision between men and women. [901837]

Guy Opperman Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Guy Opperman)
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13 Nov 2017, 2:49 p.m.

In 2012, overall participation of female eligible employees in a workplace pension was 58%, but since the introduction of automatic enrolment this had increased to 80% in 2016. For males, this has increased from 52% to 76% in the same period.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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13 Nov 2017, 2:50 p.m.

Two former Pensions Ministers have criticised the Government for the policy, all Opposition parties recognise that the Government are wrong, the continuously growing number of cross-party MPs who have joined the all-party parliamentary group say it is wrong, and hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged 1950s-born women know it is wrong. When will the Pensions Minister and the Government admit their mistake and take action to rectify this grave injustice?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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13 Nov 2017, 2:50 p.m.

The Government will not be revisiting the state pension age arrangements for women born in the 1950s who are affected by the Pensions Acts of 1995, 2007 and 2011. This would require people of working age, and more specifically younger people, to bear an even greater share of the cost of the pension system.

Universal Credit Roll-out

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Tuesday 24th October 2017

(4 years, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Mark Harper Portrait Mr Harper
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24 Oct 2017, 2:55 p.m.

I am not going to give way. I have only a minute left.

The Minister has accepted, as the Secretary of State did last week, that the system was not paying people fast enough initially, but also pointed out that the more recent figures showed that the Department had speeded up the payments, and that it has refreshed the guidance to ensure that people can receive advance payments, which I think is very sensible. [Hon. Members: “Loans.”] They are not loans; they are advance payments. Anyone who earns a salary is familiar with the concept of an advance.

I have looked at all the issues that the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth raised last week. The Secretary of State dealt with each and every one of those issues thoroughly during the debate, but the motion, which called for a pause, did not give a single reason why the Government should pause roll-out. The Secretary of State, the Minister and the Leader of the House have made it clear that as we develop changes in the policy, they will be reported to the House. That is why I do not find it surprising that after only three sitting days—as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare)—Ministers had not come to the House.

I think that the Minister set out the position very clearly today and that the House has debated it very clearly, and I therefore think that people should have confidence in a policy that will get more people into work.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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24 Oct 2017, 2:57 p.m.

Last Wednesday I came to this place to do what I, like everyone else here, was elected to do: to debate the issues that affect our constituents, and to vote on those issues in the way that we believe will best support them. The Ayes definitely had it last week, with 299 votes to zero in favour of pausing the full roll-out of universal credit until the problems encountered in the pilot scheme had been fixed. Not only did the Government forfeit their right to vote, but they are now ignoring the result, pretending that it did not happen and burying their heads in the sand.

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
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24 Oct 2017, 2:58 p.m.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is one thing for the Government to ignore Opposition Members, but it is another thing—and foolhardy and irresponsible—for them to ignore organisations such as Shelter, Citizens Advice, Gingerbread and the Child Poverty Action Group, to name but a few, which are at the forefront of dealing with the chaos of this roll-out?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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24 Oct 2017, 2:58 p.m.

I certainly do. Such is the Government’s arrogance.

Coastal Housing, one of the leading social housing providers in my constituency, tells me that 90% of its tenants who are already on the pilot scheme are behind with their rent. In total, those tenants are over £73,000 in arrears, which means that, on average, each of them owes approximately £830. Coastal Housing and its tenants have told me of a series of problems with the scheme. The initial seven-day waiting period does not cover housing costs; the month-long assessment period, followed by a wait of up to seven days for the money to be paid into their banks, is putting too many people in debt before they even start on the scheme; and people are being forced to rely on food banks for the first time ever while they wait for their money. However, despite all those issues with the pilot scheme, the Government think that the best way forward is to plough on regardless.

I anticipate mayhem for far too many vulnerable people on 13 December, when the scheme is rolled out in Swansea. It does not take a mathematician to work out that if they transfer 12 days before Christmas and the payments take between 35 and 42 days to appear in bank accounts, a lot of Swansea residents will be in dire straits at the worst possible time.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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24 Oct 2017, 2:59 p.m.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that if the Government had a heart, they would put that pause on the roll-out of universal credit—and, indeed, on other benefit sanctions—before Christmas, so nobody goes without over the Christmas period?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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24 Oct 2017, 3 p.m.

I certainly do agree. No money and no support services open over the festive period means that my most vulnerable constituents are going to be desperate. Where is this Government’s compassion?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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24 Oct 2017, 3 p.m.

The hon. Lady says there is mayhem. In my area, universal credit was rolled out 15 months ago, and although there are undoubtedly some problems, it is certainly not mayhem, and the measures introduced by the Government in recent weeks will fix the vast majority of the problems. So may I give the hon. Lady, and hopefully her constituents, the comfort that this will not be mayhem?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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I do not agree, and I can give examples from the summer when there was mayhem, even before this system came into operation.

How can Conservative Members be so oblivious to the predicament they are putting people in? [Interruption.] If they quieten down, they will be able to listen to what I have to say.

During the summer holidays I became aware of the empty shelves in my local food bank. These shelves were empty because mothers could not afford to feed their children. They were relying on the free school meals during term-time, but during the school holidays they had no choice but to visit the food banks. So I decided to do something: I set up a lunch club for local children. I anticipated that me and my team would feed around 500 children, yet we ended up feeding 6,638 over 10 days. That was the scale of the problem, and that was before universal credit.

So how on earth are my constituents going to cope at Christmas with less money coming in and an even greater demand for money going out? Should I start planning a Christmas lunch club now, and asking local companies for donations yet again, or will the Government please open their eyes, look at the situation they are creating, and put a hold on the roll-out until the fundamental flaws of this ridiculous universal credit are resolved?

Kelly Tolhurst Portrait Kelly Tolhurst (Rochester and Strood) (Con)
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24 Oct 2017, 3:03 p.m.

Last week we had a Labour Opposition day debate on pausing the roll-out of universal credit, and now we are debating the outcome of that Opposition day debate. Universal credit is a great move forward in how benefits are claimed. It is replacing an outdated system—a system which is complex, and which I have seen from my own experience in my constituency discourages people from working for more than 16 hours a week. Many of my constituents have wanted to work more than 16 hours a week and have said that it is just not worth the hassle, because if they were to do more than 16 hours even for a short period, they would be affected and could be left in financial difficulty, with waits for benefits to be reinstated.

Universal credit will ensure that people are better off in work and will make it far easier for constituents who want to work more hours and gradually increase hours to be better off, and to be able to do that without the stress or worry about the impact. This is a gradual roll-out over nine years, moving from 8% of the claimant count to 10%, and all new claimants. The number of people on universal credit as of the summer was 590,000, and 230,000 of them—nearly 40 %—were in work.

As with all policies, implementation is key. Of course when we move from an extremely complex system to a more simple system there will always be things that crop up, which the Government then work to address. That is shown by the fact that the Government are doing a gradual roll-out.

State Pension Age for Women

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Wednesday 5th July 2017

(4 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Work and Pensions
Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams
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5 Jul 2017, 3:19 p.m.

It is not just in Wales that that happens, but in other deprived areas of the UK—the north-east and south-west.

The Government claim to be making the changes in response to increases in life expectancy, but life expectancy varies significantly from region to region. Wales will be particularly hit. In some parts of England newborn babies might now expect to live to the age of 87, but in parts of Wales they might expect to live to just 76. Payments in might be equal, but payments out vary enormously. I urge the Government to phase in transitional state pension arrangements for all WASPI women. That requires a bridging pension and compensation for those affected, to cover the period between the age of 60 and the new pension age.

The voices of the women who have been so badly treated must be heard and heeded. Otherwise it might seem that the Minister believes that accepting unfairness and keeping quiet is just a girl’s job.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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5 Jul 2017, 3:20 p.m.

Today’s attendance is testimony to the depth of feeling on the issue, and the Minister will know how passionate I and my colleagues are about such a grave injustice. I am sure that his predecessor left him a health warning about my personal passion on the issue. I need say nothing more about it, because my colleagues have been saying it for me. However, I feel compelled to say that the Government have betrayed the women. They have stolen their security and shattered their dreams. Without the time to prepare and make the necessary alternative arrangements, many women born in the 1950s have been left in financial despair. They do not ask for special treatment—merely for respect and fair play.

In the recent general election all my Labour candidate colleagues, most of those in the current Opposition parties and, indeed, some Conservative candidates signed the WASPI pledge. I believe I saw that on many Twitter accounts, including that of the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), who showed support for the west WASPI campaign. I applaud those who made that brave move. Now is the time for the Government to respect their colleagues, if not the WASPI women, and to do the right thing. The women have suffered for too long. The injustice must stop now. It cannot be allowed to continue.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
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The WASPI women are angry and the Government are mistaken if they think, as I suspect they have thought up to this point, that if they hold firm the women will get bored—that they will be broken or beaten in the face of intransigence and give up. They will not give up. Even if they wanted to, they cannot. It is not a matter of pin money, but money to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. It is about being paid the pension to which they are entitled, so that they can have some kind of dignity in their retirement. They are not asking for a handout. They are not even asking for a hand up. They are asking for what is rightfully theirs—for what they should be able to expect.

The women have every right to be angry. Any fair-minded person who knows anything about the issue must surely be angry on their behalf. The delay to their pensions effectively deprives them of, potentially, tens of thousands of pounds. It is a travesty and must be addressed. Let us not forget that an attack on their pensions is ultimately an attack on the pensions of us all. The contract between the governed and the governing lies in tatters.

If the Minister feels that the Government have painted themselves into a corner and that retreat is difficult, I say this: there is courage and strength in admitting being wrong, in doing the right thing and in giving the women their due, not because the parliamentary arithmetic demands it but because it is right. I urge the Minister today to make the right choice and right a terrible wrong—to pay the women what they are owed, so that we can start to have a serious, mature and grown-up discussion about the future of state pensions. No one is opposed to the equalisation of state pensions. That is the way forward and I urge the Minister to start walking that path today.

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Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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5 Jul 2017, 3:51 p.m.

Thirdly, we have also extended apprenticeship opportunities—one of the best routes into skilled employment—for people of all ages and gender. For example, in England in 2014 to 2015, 12% of those starting apprenticeships were aged over 45.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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5 Jul 2017, 3:51 p.m.

Will the Minister give way?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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5 Jul 2017, 3:52 p.m.

I am going to set out these matters; please bear with me. In the 2017 Budget, the Chancellor allocated £5 million to increase the number of returnship schemes. We are working with employers across the public and private sectors to understand how returners can be supported back into permanent employment, building on successful examples run by companies such as Centrica.

I realise it is not going down well, but the point I am trying to make is that the Government are actually doing a significant amount to address the individual difficulties for those persons attempting to enter the labour market. Last year, the Government appointed Andy Briggs, CEO of Aviva, as the dedicated business champion for older workers, to spearhead work with employers on a business-to-business basis. I met Mr Briggs two days ago. He is clearly passionate about his mission to persuade employers to increase the number of older workers they employ by 12% by 2022. [Interruption.]

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Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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5 Jul 2017, 3:57 p.m.

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, the whole thrust of what he said in June 2016 was that there was no objection to the 1995 Act, due to the passage of time. He has now changed that position. I am only pointing out that the 1995 Act had a 15-year time limit. He knows full well that that is the case, and that that was his position at the time.

Sixteen years later, the coalition Government changed the approach in the Pensions Act 2011. The change was in a context where the impact of the post-war baby boom years is clearly still being felt. The number of pensioners is going up dramatically; notwithstanding any of the changes made by the 1995 and 2011 Acts, there will be around 25% more pensioners in 2050 than today. That is an extra 4.5 million pensioners compared with now.

Life expectancy has increased massively. In 1940, Government policy making indicated a retirement age at 60, and our forebears looked at a life expectancy of three score years and 10. Those days are long gone. A girl born today has an average life expectancy of 93. Those changes in life expectancies are significant, and the reality cannot be ignored. It is not ignored, and is set out in greater detail in the Cridland report, which looks at the future situation in relation to long-term pension age changes.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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5 Jul 2017, 3:56 p.m.

Will the Minister give way?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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5 Jul 2017, 3:58 p.m.

I have a minute and a half to finish, so I will culminate on this point. In 2011, there was extensive debate on those changes in the House of Commons. The matter was debated on a number of occasions between February and November 2011 in both the Commons and the Lords. Subsequently, the Department for Work and Pensions and the coalition Government made efforts to notify those affected, with 5 million letters sent out and a range of information provided, to make individuals aware of their state pension age.

I will make three final points. In relation to the transitional provisions, it is the case that the position was different in the original 2011 Act. Following extensive parliamentary debate in both the Commons and the Lords, that Act was changed such that no woman affected by the 2011 Act would have to wait more than 18 months from the date that they might have been expecting their pension. For some, the time will be much less. I also make the point that the new state pension introduced in 2016 is better and much more generous for many women than that which existed under the old system.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington on securing the debate. It is not the Government’s proposal to repeal or ameliorate the 1995 or 2011 Acts, but I accept that we must do all we can to assist everyone affected into retraining and employment, and to provide support if that is not possible. The commitment to provide support is clear, unequivocal and ongoing.

State Pension: Working-class Women

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Thursday 9th February 2017

(4 years, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Work and Pensions
Robert Flello Portrait Robert Flello (in the Chair)
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Order. May I remind the Front-Bench speakers that in 90-minute debates it is customary to make 10-minute speeches? I am being more generous because we are not so pushed for time, but 10 minutes is expected and not what we just had. Thank you.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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I thank you, Mr Flello, for your excellent chairmanship—very stern, but firm. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing this vital debate, which is so essential for securing a dignified retirement for some 2.5 million women. Her speech was factual, relevant and presented the arguments succinctly. I also congratulate the hon. Members who are here from the SNP for their elegant speeches and the contribution they have made today.

The injustices currently being experienced by women born in the 1950s at the hands of the Government are a travesty and it is right that they are discussed here today and at every other given opportunity. We must not allow this Government to turn a blind eye. Today it is especially poignant that the debate focuses on working-class women who are feeling the effects of this injustice so acutely. Many of the women have no savings and are likely to be working in physically demanding jobs. I am of an age that means I need to work a lot longer than I originally intended, but I am very fortunate—I have a clean job that involves a lot of sitting down. When I was in my 30s I was a dinner lady in a special school. That involved lifting children and young people, to allow them to go to the bathroom or have their lunch, and all the other things that have to be done for children with special needs. I could not do that job today; I physically would not be able to do it. There are women today doing heavy jobs, not for the luxuries of life but to live life.

There are those of us on this side of the House who are passionate about helping these women, and indeed there are also some on the Government Benches who lobby for fair play and justice for them. However, our efforts to date have been frustrated by the Government’s reluctance to engage in productive dialogue. At the end of last year, Labour’s suggestion to extend pension credit to those who needed it was turned down by the Secretary of State and his Pensions Minister. That would have extended support to hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable women.

Our suggestion that the Minister set up a special proactive helpline for the women affected to ensure that they all had access to the social security system, which is claimed to be sufficient to meet their needs, also went unheeded. Perhaps the Minister needs reminding of the hardship that the poorly managed changes that this Government have put in place have caused to more than 2.6 million WASPI women. The Minister argues that the social security system will step in to support women struggling to make ends meet as a result of the changes. May I remind the House that that is the same social security system that this Government have spent seven years savaging, with swingeing cuts to universal credit and employment and support allowance alongside sharpened conditionality measures in a punitive and discredited work assessment system?

In our work to support the WASPI women and WASPI Voice we have heard from many women who have been left in dire straits by the pension age changes but cannot obtain sufficient social security support. I hear every day, as I am sure many Members do, of hardship cases that are beyond belief—women going to food banks, women losing their homes, women being forced to move in with their children because they cannot afford to live in their own homes. One woman whose pension age was moved back and could no longer afford to pay the rent has spiralled into debt and is on the verge of losing her home. Another is struggling to keep her sick husband out of care so that they can hang on to their family home, without the state pension income that she was planning to use to keep them both going in her retirement.

By now, most Members of this House will have heard of similar cases—repeated reminders of the Government’s failure. Thankfully, an army of campaigners are now planning to work with us to keep the pressure on the Government. Those groups stand shoulder to shoulder in the message that this Government have got it wrong and should reconsider. The two main campaigning groups, Women Against State Pension Inequality and WASPI Voice, both agree with equalisation of the state pension age; where they differ from the Government is on the means by which that should be achieved.

Lessons must now be learned from the failure to communicate the changes to state pension timetables to those affected. However, that does not go far enough as a means of redress. Fair transitional arrangements should be put in place to support the most vulnerable. The Opposition have suggested plans, but the Government have dismissed all suggestions of measures for amelioration. One of the WASPI campaign groups has decided to mount a legal action against the Government; its representation is preparing to pursue maladministration complaints against the Department for Work and Pensions. Labour proposals call on the Government to extend pension credit to those who would have been eligible under the 1995 timetable, so that women affected by the chaotic mismanagement of equalisation will be offered some support until they retire.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore (Ogmore) (Lab/Co-op)
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I beg your indulgence, Mr Flello; I have been serving in a Bill Committee as the Opposition Whip. On the point about fairness, my hon. Friend will be aware that last week, on the Floor of the House, I asked the Prime Minister about my constituent Dianah Kendall and the impact of the state pension age changes on her life. The Prime Minister’s response was that no woman would wait longer than 18 months, but the reality is that many women will wait five, six or even seven years. That does an utter injustice to what she said on the Floor of the House.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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I repeat my previous comments about chaotic mismanagement; it obviously goes to the top.

Our proposals would make hundreds of thousands of WASPI women eligible for up to £156 a week, but we will not stop there. We are developing further proposals to support as many WASPI women as possible. We are considering proactive ways to support the most vulnerable now. The proposals will be financially credible, based on sound evidence and supported by WASPI women.

It was disappointing that the Government did not use the opportunity provided by the autumn statement to do anything to support those women. It was equally disappointing that our amendment to the Pension Schemes Bill, which would have implemented our pension credit proposals immediately, was unsuccessful. My party believes in standing up for the most vulnerable, which is what we are doing today and will do tomorrow, the day after, next week and next year. We will continue to support the WASPI women in this fight. I made a personal promise in the Chamber to raise this issue at every opportunity, and I stand firm in that commitment. My party and I call on this Government to stop burying their heads in the sand and do the right thing by these women. Give the women affected the respect that they deserve: act now and rectify this injustice.

Caroline Nokes Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery (Caroline Nokes)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I congratulate you on having chaired this debate in a fair and exemplary manner, and for allowing those Members who were busy elsewhere in the House this afternoon the opportunity to speak, even if just briefly in an intervention. Important debates have been taking place this afternoon, and important work has been done in Bill Committees.

It is only right that I should take this opportunity to thank the hon. Members for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for being here. I know that they have been much occupied with the Under-Secretary of State for Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) in the Pension Schemes Bill Committee, which explains why I am here instead of him. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for opening the debate and hon. Members from all parties—and all parts of the British Isles, with the exception of Northern Ireland—who have contributed. It is most unusual for the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) not to be present.

In recent decades, there has been a huge shift in how people spend later life. We are living longer, staying healthier for longer and leading far more active lifestyles, regardless of our age. More and more people are proving that age need not be a barrier to achieving great things. Some of the Olympians whom we sent out to Rio last summer were among the oldest athletes on record. I, for one, celebrate the fact that age increasingly places no bounds on those wishing to achieve new goals, try new things and play an active part in society.

The new state pension was introduced as a key reform to the UK pension system. The Government recognised that the pension system needed to change in response to the demographic and behavioural shifts of recent decades. For most people, we know that work is beneficial. It not only provides an income and a bedrock for saving, giving people greater control over their lives but crucially, the evidence shows that for most people, being in work can be immensely beneficial for both physical and mental health. The social and cultural benefits of remaining in work are sorely under-recognised. This Government’s pensions strategy does not focus only on the benefits to people. We know that the skills, experience and talents that older workers bring to organisations are invaluable. Older workers still have an incredible amount to offer.

It is also true that the living standards of pensioners have risen significantly, but we must remember that not all pensioners are in the same position. More than 1 million pensioners rely solely on the state for their income. That is why we introduced the triple lock in 2011 and have committed to continuing it over this Parliament. As well as guaranteeing increases to the state pension, we have fundamentally reformed it. Under our reforms, people will have a much better idea of what their pension will be, bringing more certainty and clarity where previously there was confusion. That design is integral to the Government’s ambition to provide a better foundation on which people can plan and build for a secure retirement. We want to make life easier and more comfortable for people in retirement.

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Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
- Hansard - - Excerpts

If the hon. Lady will give me time, I will come to exactly that point later in my contribution.

It is important that we all recognise that the age at which we receive the state pension must rise. Life expectancy continues to rise, and it is a key priority for this Government to ensure the long-term sustainability of the pension system. For that reason, the Government have introduced regular reviews of the state pension age. The issue is also likely to feature heavily in the Cridland review, which will be published in the coming months.

We recognise that employment prospects for women have changed dramatically since the state pension age was first set in 1940, especially for the women affected by the acceleration of the state pension age. Alongside the age increases under the new state pension, we have made huge progress in opening up employment opportunities for women and older workers. Since the 1970s, women have seen repeated increases in employment rates in later life compared with their male counterparts. The number of older women aged 50 to 64 who were in work in 2016 stood at more than 4 million, which is a record high. Approximately 150,000 more older women are in work than this time last year.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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Does the Minister acknowledge that women who are currently in work may be there not because they want to be, but because they have to be?

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
- Hansard - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady makes a valid point, but I would argue that there are also many men, and indeed many younger people, who have to be in work. We want to encourage more people to be in work and to play their part in society. As I said earlier, work is an important part of wellbeing. Work in itself provides emotional, physical and mental wellbeing effects.

The rate of employment for women aged between 60 and 64 is more than 40%—another record high. [Interruption.]

Pension Schemes Bill [ Lords ] (First sitting)

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Tuesday 7th February 2017

(4 years, 9 months ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Department for Work and Pensions
Richard Harrington Portrait Richard Harrington
- Hansard - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman is right, and this is not just a question of communication as in a formality—communication if there is a problem. We will be speaking to those points later. This is a point about communication and making sure that people know what they have, in the same way as a bank communicates, now mainly by the internet, so that people—

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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Will the Minister give way?

Richard Harrington Portrait Richard Harrington
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I will finish answering the previous intervention and then of course I will happily give way. The two points about communications are correct, and after the hon. Lady has intervened, I will do my best to go into the other point.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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The Minister, in a private conversation, said that I would find it difficult to mention this subject, but he has kindly given me an opening. We have to learn lessons from the experience of the WASPI women—the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—and we cannot go forward and experience the same inability to engage as we are experiencing now, so this scheme must ensure that communication is sufficient to attract all people.

Richard Harrington Portrait Richard Harrington
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I smile, but not out of disrespect for the hon. Lady—quite the contrary. I knew that she would manage to bring in her favourite subject and I am grateful for the indulgence of the Chair in not declaring it out of scope, because she makes a relevant point. I nearly said “you”, Mr Rosindell. You would probably make it as well, if you were invited to speak on the subject.

The communication point that the hon. Lady raises has to do with the state pension. Generally, things have moved on dramatically—not just from a regulatory point of view, but with communication generally. We just have to look at the state pension side—before you rule us out of scope, Mr Rosindell. Millions of people look on the internet every year to see what the position is with their state pension. The same will apply—to bring us within scope—to private pensions. The younger generation of people do not just wait for something to come. They are aware the whole time; they see the information on their pay packet. My younger son started work after graduation in September. They sign up for the pension, it is explained and they are interested. They think it is years away, obviously, but they are interested. That is why I do not take the communication point lightly, and I will do my best now to talk in more detail about it.

We have mentioned the automatic enrolment review. That is critical—this is not just a way of sidetracking the point—because it will consider how individuals engage with their workplace pension scheme and how that can be developed so that members are better able to understand and maximise their savings. That is probably the most relevant change that we have to try to bring about—we as a Government are going to do this, but I am sure that any Government would—to get people really involved. We have appointed an external advisory board, including members that represent consumer interests as well as pension provider representation. We will lay a report before Parliament before the end of 2017. The relevant point, to bring us back to the Bill—you have been very patient, Mr Rosindell—is that it will take into account these findings. We will take them into account when considering the regulations under clause 12—that is the relevant clause—which I referred to a moment ago.

Pension Schemes Bill [Lords]

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Monday 30th January 2017

(4 years, 10 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Royston Smith Portrait Royston Smith (Southampton, Itchen) (Con)
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I hope that Members will forgive me for not going into as much detail as the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). My comments will be considerably shorter, which will give people some comfort tonight.

If we are able to have the financial resources in the future to spend on things our constituents rightly take for granted, such as our NHS and our children’s education, one challenge for the Government is to rebalance the economy away from an over-reliance on the state. Where it is possible and appropriate to do so, the individual and their employers should take more responsibility for their future financial security. The national living wage, which was introduced by this Government—and at a far higher rate than that proposed by the Labour party—has helped to shift the burden back on to employers and away from the state, which had found itself topping up wages through in-work benefits. Many in-work benefits did nothing more than subsidise hugely wealthy businesses at the expense of the British taxpayer. With the introduction of the national living wage, employers will now be required to take more responsibility for paying their employees properly.

I see automatic enrolment in a pension scheme in the same way as I see the national living wage. It is a way of helping working people to save for their future and a dignified, funded retirement. Auto-enrolment requires employers to pay into a pension scheme along with their employees, and the Government do their bit by giving tax relief on employee contributions. I expected employers to be less than enthusiastic about auto-enrolment and the additional costs it would mean for their business, but if anything I have found that businesses in my Southampton, Itchen constituency are very supportive. In fact, one business even suggested making auto-enrolment compulsory to ensure that its staff are saving for their future and not choosing to opt out, as up to 50% of them currently do.

As with all legislation, it is sensible to review how auto-enrolment operates in practice and to improve it where possible. The Bill does that. It contains particular provisions on the role of master trusts and those who operate them. Master trusts are the favoured financial product for investing employees’ pension contributions for the majority of small businesses in the UK. Many of them, including the National Employment Savings Trust, operate within the Pensions Regulator’s guidelines and have the quality assurance mark. However, there is widespread agreement that regulation for trust-based pension schemes in general is inadequate. The Bill aims to address that and, in so doing, give comfort to savers and protect their retirement savings.

There seems little in the Bill that anyone can disagree with, although some Members have said that it does not go far enough. We insist that our taxi drivers pass a fit and proper person test so that they can carry passengers, but until now there has been no such requirement on all those who operate master trusts and are potentially responsible for a worker’s entire retirement savings. The Bill will ensure that those responsible for running master trusts have to demonstrate their suitability to do so—not before time, in my humble opinion.

The Bill also requires schemes to prove their financial sustainability—something that most investors would assume was already a requirement—and will give the regulator new powers to supervise master trusts and intervene if a scheme is at risk of falling below the required standards. With more than 10 million workers estimated to be saving in auto-enrolment schemes by 2018 and more than £17 billion of extra workplace pension saving per year by 2020, it is imperative that master trusts, which will be responsible for much of that investment, are more tightly regulated than is currently the case.

Once the Bill is passed, a consultation process will begin. When he responds to the debate, will the Minister inform the House of any specific regulations that will be presented in the consultation document? How frequently will those regulations be reviewed by the Secretary of State?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
- Hansard -

I can beat the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) on length of speech, because, not wishing to draw the wrath of Madam Deputy Speaker, I have crossed out 95% of my speech.

As the newly elected chair of the all-party group on state pension inequality for women, I feel obliged to say to the Government that they have missed the opportunity to make provision for that women group of women we have come to know fondly as WASPI, although many other pressure groups with different names are also lobbying for the same cause. I have promised those women that I intend to work with every group to fight this injustice and give them a voice. I will come to the Chamber at every given opportunity to speak up for them until they get justice. All they ask for is a simple transitional payment to support them financially until they reach state pension age. I say to the Government that the problem is not going away. The Bill does not do what it should have done, which was look after the WASPI women, and I fear the Government will regret that.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) (Con)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

The House will be rather pleased that I will focus purely on the Bill, which I very much welcome and have no hesitation in supporting.

It may be helpful briefly to explain the framework and history of master trusts. Such pension plans were historically designed primarily for single employers, or a group of related sponsoring employers with an in-built paternalistic and altruistic nature of management. However, the world of workplace pensions has changed rapidly and for the good, with the introduction of workplace pensions under auto-enrolment following the Pensions Act 2008. As we have heard from the Secretary of State, the latest figures suggest that more than 7 million employees are now enrolled across 370,000 employers. As we reach the final phase of the staging dates roll-out across smaller employers over the coming year, the number will expand massively, approaching 10 million people across possibly 1 million employers. The figure for current assets under management is at more than £10 billion a year and will grow rapidly. It could easily be the case that, over the next 30 years, master trusts contain assets exceeding £1 trillion.

The larger employer may already have had an employer scheme in place, but those are likely to have been contract based, whereby a pension provider—often an insurance company—is appointed to run an individual scheme. It is the smaller employer, under auto-enrolment obligations, that will be using the other possible course of action, which is the trust-based defined contribution scheme, whereby a number of employers—perhaps tens of thousands of smaller individual employers—will take part in an individual scheme. The new legislation will apply to those new trust-based schemes, ensuring that they are well run, financially sound and subject to appropriate oversight by the Pensions Regulator. It is essential that employees have confidence that schemes will protect their assets. After all, it is perfectly likely that an employee’s pension fund, after their house, will be the primary life asset upon which so much will depend.

The Select Committee on Work and Pensions, in its report of 15 May last year, devoted some time to highlighting the risks under the current limited regulatory arrangements for master trusts, amounting to little more than Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs registration that practically anybody could overcome—loose arrangements that suited the original purpose of trust-based schemes, but which are wholly insufficient in the new auto-enrolment world. I pay tribute to the work of former Pensions Minister, Baroness Altmann, who similarly highlighted the lack of regulation of master trusts.

Following investigations, including one by the BBC, there were reports of unregulated applicants to the master trust market—notably, a promotion by MWP Pension Ltd, a company owned by former sports fashionwear traders that formerly traded as Wide-Boys R Us. With that type of background, new legislation is urgently needed, otherwise this area could easily become the financial scandal of the future.

Far from being overdue, it is a tribute to the ability of our legislative framework that risks have been recognised and the Government have acted quickly. The market itself has recognised the risks of the current lightweight regime. The Pensions Regulator, working with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales—as my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), a chartered accountant like myself, mentioned—created the master trust assurance framework, with a list available to all on the Pensions Regulator’s website. The list now includes 13 institutions that are complying with good practice. Before the Bill becomes law, I urge smaller employers considering their options as their staging dates approach to use any of those recognised schemes; do not use any other.

I welcome other aspects of the Bill, as it proposes triggering events, pause orders and an appropriately draconian penalty fine of up to £10,000 a day for non-compliance. I welcome the proposals and, with others, will examine their extent in Committee. Finally, and to the delight of all, the Bill gives authority to the Secretary of State to restrict charges, mirroring in part the provisions applying to the charges structure introduced within personal plans under the Bank of England and Financial Services Act 2016, and extending the Pensions Act 2014. As all Members will know, it is purely due to the effect of compounding that, over 40 years, a fund can grow by 50% or more with a simple fee-charging difference of just 0.75%. I certainly hope that the Secretary of State will use these powers to reduce charges as appropriate.

This Bill comes at the right time before contributions under auto-enrolment escalate over the years come, and I will support it.

State Pension Age: Women

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Wednesday 30th November 2016

(5 years ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
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I think we all know that that is not a point of order, but, not to worry, it has been put on the record.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
- Hansard -

If I may say so, this is starting to feel like déjà vu. The story is now one that we are all familiar with, and the injustices are being experienced right across the country. However, at the risk of repeating the same old argument, I am going to continue just in case anyone is in any doubt about where I stand on this matter.

Because of the 2011 pension changes, over 500,000 women born in the 1950s are now unable to collect their pensions until much later than they thought. Most Members will have substantial numbers of women in their constituencies who are affected by the changes. These women have worked hard all their lives, holding families together and, in many cases, holding down jobs. These women have been the carers of their children and grandchildren and, in many cases, of elderly parents. These women are the backbone of this country.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore (Ogmore) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

As always, my hon. Friend speaks with great passion on a subject that she cares about. One of the things about the women born in the 1950s is that they were actively encouraged to give up work when they had children, so their pensions are actually smaller now than they would be had they taken maternity leave, and they are therefore at more of a disadvantage. Does she agree that we owe these women justice because they have been the backbone of this country for decades?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

I think my hon. Friend already knows my answer, but I would most certainly never disagree with him.

The Government’s refusal to engage constructively on this issue has left many of these women very angry, and it has left many Members on both sides of the House frustrated at the Government’s bloody-mindedness. I will not cite facts and figures or offer Ministers examples, because they have heard them all before, but I will just give them a warning. The women affected by the pension changes—the WASPI women—as well as their families and, increasingly, the general public are getting more angry and they are getting better organised. They are not going away, and we are not going to stop talking about the issue. Those of us who object to this situation, who I would even go so far as to say are offended by this Government’s inaction, will stand up week on week in debate after debate to put forward the argument for the WASPI women until they get the justice they deserve.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) (Con)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

The Work and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member, worked on this issue at length earlier this year, and the SNP-commissioned report by Landman Economics draws upon much of our work—indeed, copies much of it. I certainly hope that the SNP did not pay too much for its report.

It is clear that there was a gross inequality in the old system, which had been untouched for some 70 years. It was very much a “kick it down the road” subject that few wished to touch, but we as Conservatives did touch it, because it needed touching. That said, I have not only taken the WASPI women’s concerns on board, but actually done something about it. I wanted to hear directly from local constituents about their own experiences, and to that end I held a Thanet WASPI forum on Saturday 21 May. It attracted not only local constituents but others who had heard about it from across Kent. In all, 100 women came.

I have also encouraged WASPI women to come to my surgeries and met campaigners, as have many right hon. and hon. Members from the across the House, outside Parliament. I have written to, and discussed the issue with, current and former Pensions Ministers and Secretaries of State, and I have presented a WASPI petition to the House. Few could have done more to understand the issue, to listen to the problem and to try and get a solution. I have tried to come up with a single solution, but therein is the problem: WASPI does not speak with one voice. The reason is that no one solution fits all the problems.

Oral Answers to Questions

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Monday 21st November 2016

(5 years ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Diana Johnson Portrait Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
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4. Whether his Department plans to take steps to introduce new transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. (907334)

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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5. Whether his Department plans to take steps to introduce new transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. (907335)

Tracy Brabin Portrait Tracy Brabin (Batley and Spen) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

11. Whether his Department plans to take steps to introduce new transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. (907341)

--- Later in debate ---
Richard Harrington Portrait Richard Harrington
- Hansard - - Excerpts

As the hon. Lady has mentioned, Labour proposed using pension credit as a transition mechanism for helping these women. This was discussed extensively during our debates on the Pensions Act 2011 as it went through Parliament, and it was decided that £1.1 billion would instead be used as transitional relief.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

It is quite obvious from the Minister’s response that he is fed up with these questions, but I will keep asking them so long as I have women, such as my constituent Gillian Purcell, coming to me and saying, “I’m 60. I’ve worked all my life, but my body is telling me I can’t do it any more without a pension”. When will the Government do the honourable thing and start looking after the WASPI women?

Richard Harrington Portrait Richard Harrington
- Hansard - - Excerpts

The cost of reversing the changes varies depending on whom one asks. The different political groups have come up with different amounts, varying between £7 billion and £30 billion, and that is quite apart from the substantial practical problems, such as risk of legal challenge, deliverability and all the problems associated with such options.

Oral Answers to Questions

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Monday 17th October 2016

(5 years, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Damian Green Portrait Damian Green
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Universal credit, which is now being paid to more than 300,000 people, has already shown that people will get into work and progress in work faster and that they are more likely to seek work. If the Opposition accept, as I think they do, that work is the best route out of poverty, they will welcome universal credit because, when it is paid to more parents it helps children in those families to be in households where there is work. That will be the best way to get them out of poverty.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
- Hansard -

4. Whether his Department plans to take steps to introduce transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. (906580)

Gill Furniss Portrait Gill Furniss (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

14. Whether his Department plans to take steps to introduce transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. (906590)

--- Later in debate ---
Richard Harrington Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Pensions (Richard Harrington)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

Transitional arrangements are already in place. We committed £1 billion to lessen the impact of the state pension age changes on those who were affected, so that no one would experience a change of more than 18 months. In fact, 81% of women’s state pension ages will increase by no more than 12 months, compared with the previous timetable.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

Last week, I and more than 100 cross- party colleagues presented petitions in support of the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign. Will the Minister acknowledge that those women have been subject to a grave injustice and that now is the time for the Government to introduce appropriate transitional payments for the women most affected by the pension changes?

Richard Harrington Portrait Richard Harrington
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I can only reiterate to the hon. Lady what has been said many times before. The Government made transitional arrangements that came to more than £1 billion. [Interruption.] She is chuntering at me from a sedentary position. I could not hear, but will try to imagine what she was saying. The Government have made the transitional arrangements, and no further moves will be made to assist those women, all of whom will benefit in time from the significant increase in the new state pension.

Disability Employment Gap

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Wednesday 8th June 2016

(5 years, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Heidi Allen Portrait Heidi Allen (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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I think most Members would accept that Governments of all colours have not done enough to support disabled people into work. This debate centres on whether the commitment made by this Government to halve the disability employment gap is progressing quickly enough, and in the right way. Looking simplistically at the numbers, which many Members have touched on today, there are now 365,000 more disabled people in work than two years ago, and more than 3.3 million in work in total, so we have made a good start. But we would all agree that it is not enough, and guess what? We believe that we should be working on this together. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) has just left the Chamber, because I was so disappointed in his tone; I know he can do better.

We have accepted that we need to do things differently, so a Green Paper and a fresh new approach are exactly what we need. But we cannot rush that. I am disappointed not to have seen the Green Paper yet, and the disability charities I have spoken to are also eager to see it, but we need to decide whether tweaking existing systems and policies to meet a deadline is better than taking our time and getting it right. I do not think that it is. After all, any changes we make will affect the most vulnerable in society. I know that the new Secretary of State is determined to get this right, and disability charities have conveyed that sense to me too.

Although speed must not be our only goal, we must, I am afraid, keep in the back of our minds a deadline we have created for ourselves. I am sorry to say that the decision to cut the ESA work-related activity group before the White Paper had emerged was wrong; I regret the Government’s decision. It would give an incredible boost to the disabled community if they were to commit to freezing that decision just until the White Paper is agreed. If we can, we should. It should be a positive, ambitious and anticipated document. It is not enough for a Government simply to provide the financial and healthcare support for everyday living; we need to do everything we can to unleash the untapped potential skills and hopes of people with disabilities.

When I spoke to a gifted IT graduate with learning difficulties, she did not want to be protected from society; she wanted to be out there helping to build it, so why on earth could she not find a job? As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, I have seen how the existing Work programme has simply not worked for disabled people. It is hugely successful for those closest to the jobs market, but not for those with physical or mental health issues. As our jobcentres evolve to support universal credit, so our work coaches will need to perform comprehensive triaging right from the beginning and provide a dedicated path of support from day one. People must not be allowed to sit on the merry-go-round of the system for two years before anything positive happens to them.

We need to make much better use of small third-party providers, such as the Papworth Trust in my constituency, which is one of the most highly regarded disability charities yet is running mainstream Work programme services because the payment method for specialist work choice provision is commercially unviable. That is ridiculous. Specialists know how to support disabled people and to identify what they can do, whereas much of the current pathway to employment focuses on what they cannot do.

The White Paper needs to look at the whole world of a disabled person, so if the Secretary of State does not mind, I am going to add a few things to his list. Do they have good accessible housing? What about the social care to support them at home and to help them get up and get out the door? It is not just about the employment services. We have to understand what they need. It is not enough just to treat the benefit application processes; the entire journey through ESA and PIP needs looking at again, and that should be coupled with a cross-departmental assessment of everything a disabled person needs to fulfil their potential.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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Does the hon. Lady agree then that placing medical professionals in doctors surgeries is counterproductive, as people are likely not to seek medical care for fear of being reported to the Department for whatever illness they have got?

Heidi Allen Portrait Heidi Allen
- Hansard - - Excerpts

Forgive me—I am honestly not seeking an extra minute—but I genuinely do not understand the question. Did the hon. Lady mean medical professionals in jobcentres?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

No, doctors surgeries.

Heidi Allen Portrait Heidi Allen
- Hansard - - Excerpts

Perhaps we can have a conversation later, because I do not understand the question. I am sorry.

Departments need to work together—hell might freeze over—and perhaps share budgets. Having the right housing, for example, is the absolute beginning of a disabled person’s journey to work. If the fund available to deliver the Work and Health programme is significantly less than those for its predecessors, the Work programme and Work Choice, we will need to be smarter about how we spend it. Let us target young disabled people before they leave school. I heard the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) talk about his nephew. It is absolutely wrong. We should be getting in there and grasping people’s potential before they come to feel they cannot achieve. That is so wrong.

What about people who have only just gone on to ESA and disabled people who are in work? As we have heard, it is considerably more difficult for disabled people who have been out of the workplace for a long time to get back in. We need to get in there while their self-esteem is still high. I was once out of work for more than a year. It is flipping hard, and it is significantly harder for a disabled person. Access to work must also mean access to work experience and job interviews. You do not put fuel in a car when you have reached your destination; you need fuel for the journey to get there. And as we have discussed, people need to know about it too.

Would it not be great if we could design the process around the person, rather than pushing individuals with differing complex needs through a process just because the process was there first? We need to stop pushing square pegs through round holes; only then will we achieve our ambition of halving the disability employment gap. If the Secretary of State continues to demonstrate a willingness to make that happen, he and the Government will have my support.

Universal Credit (Children)

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Tuesday 10th May 2016

(5 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to hold this debate in the main Chamber. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), whose erudite and considered opening speech was a great contribution to the debate. The hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) talked about the broader context, and I will be only too pleased to do the same in a moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) spoke powerfully about the plight of lone working parents, who are particularly affected by cuts to the work allowance. I certainly agreed with the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who is no longer in his place, on the idea of ensuring that we visit Jobcentre Plus offices to see universal credit in action, something which I did recently with my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, but it is equally important to be in contact with local citizens advice bureaux and to visit food banks to see what is happening on the ground.

We heard a useful contribution from the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), who pointed out very well the new approach promised by the new Secretary of State of looking at people, not statistics. I look forward to the Minister telling us how she has changed her approach under her new boss, as I am sure everybody does. We also heard useful contributions from the hon. Members for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford); my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees); the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin); my hon. Friends the Members for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty); the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier); and my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck).

This debate comes at a key time—a key moment of test for the new Secretary of State—because the outlook is bleak. The Institute for Fiscal Studies expects absolute child poverty to increase from 15.1% in 2015-16 to 18.3% in 2020-21. The Resolution Foundation believes that 200,000 more children, predominantly from working households, will fall into poverty this year. Gingerbread powerfully makes the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton made about cuts to the work allowance hitting single parents particularly hard. There is a set of damning statistics on this, which the Children’s Society has set out. A working single parent can lose up to £2,628 a year. What was the Government’s response to that? What did they say could be done about that? They told the Social Security Advisory Committee that parents could work three to four additional hours a week on the national living wage.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
- Hansard -

Does my hon. Friend agree that to expect hard-working families to work an extra 200 hours a year just to make up for the cruel cuts in universal credit is an outright insult?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds
- Hansard - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. The hon. Member for North Devon wanted the broader context to be taken into account, so let us take into account the national living wage as well. A single parent who is already working full time on the national living wage of £7.20 an hour will have to work 46 extra days a year, which is more than two additional working months. How on earth can that be put forward as a reasonable proposition by anybody? It obviously is not reasonable.

The Government were warned about the problems they face today as a result of cuts to universal credit. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report released just before Christmas, on 17 December, said that the “immediate priority” had to be ensuring that the cuts to the work allowance planned for this April did not go ahead, but the Government simply did not listen. The problem that they are getting to is that their approach is starting to deny the very purposes that universal credit was set up for. The Resolution Foundation states:

“But it is also much changed as a result of the increasingly tight financial restraints placed on it over recent years. These have involved more than just a reduction in the money available under UC, they have also altered the very structure of the policy—changing the composition of winners and losers and fundamentally damaging its ability to deliver against its purported aims.”

Perhaps that explains why the Government are so terrified of publishing an up-to-date impact assessment. Perhaps it explains why they are so terrified of telling us the figures as to what they expect will happen to child poverty over this Parliament.

Personal Independence Payments

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Wednesday 13th April 2016

(5 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Work and Pensions
Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
- Hansard - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady can shake her head, but that is why only 16% of claimants on DLA received it at the highest rate, yet the figure for PIP is 22%.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
- Hansard -

Does the Minister appreciate that my constituent Linda Isaac, who is currently receiving chemotherapy for bowel cancer, who has waited for 19 weeks only to be denied PIP and another nine weeks for a mandatory reconsideration, will not appreciate the modern “dynamic” PIP system that he is talking about?

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I understand that point. It is difficult to comment on an individual case, and I am happy to look at such cases after the debate. The hon. Lady and I have worked together carefully on a number of cases, and I am happy to extend that invitation again.

Oral Answers to Questions

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Monday 14th March 2016

(5 years, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
John Bercow Portrait Mr Speaker
- Hansard - - Excerpts

We may or may not get to question 21. Patience may be rewarded. We shall see.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
- Hansard -

Last Friday we heard that an additional £1.2 billion is to be cut from the PIP budget. That translates into £2,000 a year less for more than 60,000 claimants. What method or madness led the Minister to think that cutting support could help PIP claimants into work or to achieve independent living?

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
- Hansard - - Excerpts

We are continuing to make improvements for claimants across the assessment process for PIP. At the end of this Parliament, we will continue to see increased numbers going through the system and benefiting from PIP.

Transitional State Pension Arrangements for Women

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Wednesday 24th February 2016

(5 years, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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I have given way many times and I am afraid that we are now getting to a stage at which MPs are simply repeating points that have already been raised. I am mindful that many hon. Members wish to speak. Nobody can accuse me of not being generous in giving way, but I wish to make progress.

The changes that were made, and the transitional arrangements made in 2011, benefited a quarter of a million women who would have otherwise have had a delay of up to two years. For more than 80% of those affected, the increase in the time period will be no more than 12 months. The House voted for this amendment to the Bill and a concession was called for. A concession was considered by the Government, proposed by the Government and accepted and voted for by this House. The Government promised to consider transitional arrangements in 2011 when the legislation was going through, and that is exactly what the Government delivered—a reduction in the time period from two years to 18 months at a cost of £1.1 billion. That shows that the Government were listening to the concerns of Members and responded to them at the time.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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Exactly how much of that money went to the women concerned?

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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The hon. Lady needs to appreciate that the concept of dealing with pensions and money is that the concession was made—

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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I know the answer. How much?

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
- Hansard - - Excerpts

That concession was made by the taxpayer—[Interruption.] It was made by the taxpayer, and the total cost was £1.1 billion—

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
- Hansard - - Excerpts

As I have said, and I am sorry that the hon. Lady has not got the message yet, and that she does not appreciate that the time was shortened by six months—[Interruption.]

--- Later in debate ---
Nic Dakin Portrait Nic Dakin
- Hansard - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend has it spot on. Communication, as the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) said, is one of the issues at the heart of the matter. What happened in 2011 compounded what had happened previously, and the situation is totally unfair.

The debate has been quite good since we got to the Back-Bench speeches, although my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) did a good job of kicking things off. I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who drew attention to my hon. Friend’s six suggestions and said that they were a good starting point. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said that there was a deal to be done, and I think he is right. The hon. Members for Salisbury (John Glen) and for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) encouraged Ministers to find a way to put right the injustices.

The women we are talking about are not asking for the world. They are not even asking for the things that some people have suggested that they are asking for. They are simply asking for a reasonable settlement and a reasonable deal, which is what they deserve.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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Women of a certain age, of whom I am one, from right across the United Kingdom are very angry about the position they find themselves in. If they were born in March 1953, like Jill in the Jack and Jill twins scenario, they will be absolutely livid, because Jack will get £155 a week under the single-tier state pension, while Jill will get £131, because she was born a woman. Where is the justice in Jack getting £20,000 more over 20 years than his sister Jill? That is just ridiculous.

We all know women who do not have access to a private pension and who find themselves being forced to look for work or—if they take the advice of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who is no longer in his place—they can sign on for JSA. It is a slap in the face for every woman who has dedicated themselves to being the backbone of this country. The absence of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—my eyes tell me he is loitering outside the Chamber, but he is obviously unwilling to come in to defend his Government’s policies—is an absolute insult to these women.

I am aware of a 60-year-old woman who has had to find employment as a bus escort for a special needs school. That involves physically manoeuvring youngsters from the vehicle into the building. It is hard, heavy and demanding work. How do I know that? Because I did that job in my thirties; I could not do it now.

The changes to women’s pensions are categorically unfair and unjust. Everyone in the Chamber, and indeed everyone across the country, will have heard about the WASPI campaign. We have heard all the analogies about a sting in the tail and a buzz in the air, but did any of us really think that in three short months we would have debated this issue so many times? That is the power of this lobby. It has proved time and again that it is fighting on a platform that resonates right across this country.

Everyone will know at least one woman affected by this injustice. Such women are only asking for fairness. They have been betrayed, they have been discriminated against and they have been seen as a soft option by this Government. They were seen as the one group that could be pushed to one side to rush through the transition to equal retirement ages. The Government thought they would save money, but in reality they have lost credibility and respect, and they have been exposed by this wonderful group of strong women as petty, arrogant and, quite frankly, ridiculous.

Julie Cooper Portrait Julie Cooper (Burnley) (Lab)
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I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I thank the women of the WASPI campaign for their tireless efforts in persisting in bringing this issue to the Government’s attention. I want to speak for the women in my constituency of Burnley, and for the thousands of women who will be affected. There has been much talk about the financial impact of the change and what the cost will be, but let us not forget that these women are taxpayers who have worked hard and paid in. They are asking not for a benefit, but for a right to which they are entitled.

I want to talk about the impact on people. I have talked to women in my constituency who are physically struggling every day to cope with their physical jobs. One lady I spoke to during my surgery at the weekend was in tears as she told me about her many years of working in an engineering foundry. She is staggering on towards her retirement age. She is in bed at 7.30 every night, having been barely able to make it to the bus station to get the bus home. She has spent long years working on the minimum wage, and the only light at the end of the tunnel was retirement at the age of 60. She thought that she might just be able to stagger on until then. However, not only have the goalposts been moved, but there just has not been any communication with her. Let us not get into the blame game of arguing about whose fault it was or was not that she did not know, but the fact is that she did not know.

There has been a lot of talk about what happened in 2011 and in 1995. I was not a Member of Parliament then. I would say that we are where we are. Let us tackle the problem we have in front of us now. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made sensible suggestions about sitting down together with the WASPI women, around the table, on a cross-party basis and without scoring political points, to work out a solution to this terrible mess.

Under-occupancy Penalty

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Tuesday 23rd February 2016

(5 years, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Work and Pensions
Corri Wilson Portrait Corri Wilson
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I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. People find themselves in a vicious circle and can never see the end. That is the problem. In other words, we are putting people through absolute misery for nothing.

As we have heard, the Government tell us that discretionary housing payments are available to tackle the shortfall, but Shelter says that that provision is already overstretched. With such extensive reforms to welfare, a shortage of affordable housing and drastically rising rents in the private sector, the reality is that there is only so much that discretionary housing payments can cover. They are a mere sticking plaster and will not solve the problem. Even the House of Lords has deemed the welfare reforms a step too far, causing the Government embarrassment. Worse still, the UK is, shamefully, the first country ever to be investigated by the UN in relation to the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. The UN is currently looking at our welfare policies for the disabled.

Before the Scottish Government invested millions of pounds to alleviate the bedroom tax in Scotland, many people in my constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock were a thrown into turmoil by the policy, with some tenants receiving eviction letters that caused unnecessary anxiety and worry. We should not be spending our already diminishing budget on mitigating Westminster austerity policies. That money should be spent elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government will ensure that housing continues to be a priority by building affordable housing, creating jobs and boosting our economy. I am pleased that the Scottish Government have committed to abolishing the bedroom tax as soon as they have the powers to do so. I ask the Tory Government to think again and to put the needs of people back at the centre of their welfare policy.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), a fellow Welshwoman, on securing this debate.

This is a contentious issue of great concern to many people in my consistency. The bedroom tax is discriminatory and punishing. I want to share two short stories. The first is of Megan Wheatland from Bonymaen in my constituency, whose husband passed away in January 2013. He was of pensionable age and Megan was not; therefore, she was liable for the bedroom tax on the three-bedroom house she shares with her teenage daughter. Megan pays £11.85 a week for a small box room. Because of this, she is unable to pay for the extracurricular activities her daughter would like to take part in. She worries greatly that her daughter is missing out on all the other things that her teenage friends do. It really is an issue for Megan.

Then there is Sarah, a single mother with two children. She suffers from severe depression and has an arched spine. She struggles to engage socially and has suicidal thoughts. Because of this, her two children have been taken into care. Now Sarah is paying the under-occupancy penalty for a house that she should be sharing with her two children. It is an absolutely appalling situation.

We have heard about DHP, but it only kicks in after tenants have taken steps to downsize or—God forbid—take in a lodger. Some people who take in a lodger lose out on other benefits, because the rent on that room is classed as extra income. I am worried that taking in a lodger when there are children in the house is potentially dangerous, because it means that people are effectively taking a stranger into their home.

If disabled people have to move to smaller properties to avoid paying the bedroom tax, there is the inevitable cost of making adaptations. Surely supporting those who pay the bedroom tax—or, better still, scrapping it—would be a better use of public funds. It is estimated that 10% of disabled people renting properties live in homes specifically adapted to their needs. The cost of adapting a smaller property—or, potentially, a larger property—to suit the personal requirements of the new tenants surely outweighs any income gain from charging for the extra room in the first place. Of course, people can always move to the private sector. In Swansea, an above average number of homes were built between 1919 and 1944, but 15% of those old houses contain category 1 hazards, meaning that they have failed basic health and safety standards.

The Government do not hold data on how many disabled people are affected by the bedroom tax, so I contacted my local authority. I knew the number would be high, but I was shocked by just how high it is. In Swansea, the bedroom tax is paid on a total of 2,467 homes, of which 1,138 are in my constituency. Of the total number, 1,129 people paying bedroom tax are in receipt of at least one of the following benefits: attendance allowance, disability living allowance, personal independence payments or severe disability living allowance. That means that in Swansea a staggering 45.7% of the people paying the bedroom tax are considered to be disabled. The DWP’s evaluation of the removal of the spare room subsidy, which it published in December 2015, estimated that 75% of claimants have either a long-term illness or a disability, and they are living in homes to which the bedroom tax applies.

Historically, social housing policy in Wales has focused on creating sustainable communities and enabling families to become established, so there is a shortfall of one and two-bedroom homes. The Welsh Government’s pattern book for new social housing development requires landlords to build lifetime homes, so social landlords generally see one-bedroom homes as an inflexible and ineffective housing solution. The bedroom tax contravenes the principle of a lifetime home. Those in social housing at the start of their tenancy will have very different commitments and requirements from those they will have further down the road. The bedroom tax therefore creates a transient housing pattern, forcing continual relocation to suit housing needs. That is in direct contradiction to the concept of lifetime homes. The effect will be to damage communities, as they lose the momentum to develop as communities. If a resident is short term, they will not be there long enough to engage with the community and get active in social groups.

I go back to my original point: the bedroom tax is discriminatory and punishing. It financially punishes those forced to pay it and it discriminates—

Jo Stevens Portrait Jo Stevens
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On the point about the bedroom tax financially punishing people, does my hon. Friend think that it causes people to go to payday lenders such as Wonga and take out loans with extortionate interest rates to survive?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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I certainly do. I have casework involving people who have taken out payday loans from Wonga and other organisations and have been unable to repay them without not paying their bedroom tax. It is a Catch-22.

The bedroom tax financially punishes those forced to pay it. It discriminates against communities and individuals, and makes them unable to gel and enjoy stable, sustainable and adequate housing in a community where they can nurture and mutually support each other, and be part of a productive citizenship and community enterprise.

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing this debate.

The spare room subsidy, or the bedroom tax as it is more commonly known, is causing stress and hardship across the country. It is the most unfair and pernicious tax since Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax. We are here to debate the regional impact of the tax, so I will outline some of the issues it is causing in my consistency and in the south Wales valleys more generally.

The principle of providing larger properties for families and smaller properties for single people and couples is understandable. People often decide for themselves to move to a smaller property when their children leave home or their circumstances change, but that is a choice. Unfortunately, there are not many one and two-bedroom properties in many communities in my constituency, so people affected by the bedroom tax must decide either to stay in their property—thereby incurring a financial penalty that places great strain on their ability to manage—or move to a smaller property in a village or community some miles away.

Before being elected to this place, I was cabinet member for housing at Caerphilly Council, which covers a third of my constituency. In that role, I met a number of people who wished to remain in the homes they had lived in for many years. They did not want to move to a smaller property miles from their family and friends. Unfortunately, the strain of paying the bedroom tax in addition to their utility costs and household bills meant that they often had little money left to put food on the table.

Transitional State Pension Arrangements for Women

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Monday 1st February 2016

(5 years, 10 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Work and Pensions
Helen Jones Portrait Helen Jones
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I need to make some progress, because lots of people want to speak in this debate and I do not want to take up too much time.

Let us remember that, way back, the Turner commission said that people should be given at least 15 years’ notice of changes to the state pension age. The Pensions Act 2014—we wait ages for a Pensions Act and then they are like buses; a load come along together—set up periodic reviews that aimed to give people at least 10 years’ notice. One could argue that, in principle, the 1995 Act gave that kind of notice, but lots of people did not know about it. There was no requirement under the Act to inform individual women who might be affected. Indeed, apparently what happened was that the Department produced a leaflet. That is very nice, but if people are going to request the leaflet, they must know about the changes coming forward. I certainly did not know that it existed, and I do not think anyone else did. There was an advertising campaign about preparing for retirement, but it was aimed at both men and women. It was not aimed specifically at those whose state pension age was changing. There were a few inserts and adverts in papers and magazines.

For most people, those things were background noise as they were getting on with their lives. No one wrote to the individual women who would be affected. It was not until 2009 that the Government started to do that, but that process was stopped in 2011 as we debated yet another Pensions Act to introduce more changes. That gross dereliction of duty on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions cannot be defended.

After the Pensions Act 2011 was enacted, the Government again began to write to people. They finished the process in 2013, but that meant that some women, if they were notified, received only between three and four years’ notice of changes to their pensions, which was not nearly enough time to make proper provision. In fact, some did not receive notification at all, as we have heard, because their letter were sent to their old address. Some received the wrong state pension forecast and they were not corrected.

Before she became Minister for Pensions, Baroness Altmann said that

“until recently, many of these women were expecting to receive their state pension at age 60, since they were unaware of the changes made in 1995”.

Indeed, the former Pensions Minister said the same thing. In 2015, when he gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, he said that it was clear that there was a cohort of women who did not know about the changes and that

“there is no question about that.”

The rapid changes introduced by the 2011 Act have resulted in huge inequalities, because small differences between people’s date of birth may mean a big difference to the dates when they reach their pension age. Women born in the 1950s are particularly affected, and I am grateful to those women who have written to me with specific examples of what is happening. I shall quote some of them because I stress to the Government that this is not an academic exercise. Real people are on the receiving end of the changes and many of them are suffering.

One lady wrote to me pointing out that her husband was born in January 1954, meaning that he can retire at the age of 65 years and two months. She was born in August that year, but cannot retire until she is 65 years and 11 months. She said, “Whatever that is, it is not equality,” and it is not.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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Will my hon. Friend give way?

Helen Jones Portrait Helen Jones
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I will give way, but then I want to make some progress.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. If, in March 1953, Mrs Jones gave birth to twins, Jack would get £155 a week under the single-tier state pension, but Jill would get £131, because she was born a woman. Where is the justice in Jack getting £20,000 more over 20 years than his sister, Jill? That is ludicrous.

Helen Jones Portrait Helen Jones
- Hansard - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is right. The system is riddled with inequalities.

Many women have received wrong information. One lady who contacted me wrote:

“I have a pension calculation from the DWP telling me that I retire at 60 and this would not be reviewed until 2020”—

someone obviously keeps her paperwork carefully. She went on to say:

“I have had no notification or correspondence from the DWP informing me of these changes and have…just found out by applying for a State pension forecast…To be told at the age of 58 that you will not get any pension until you are 66 does not give enough time to plan or budget”—

she is right.

Many women have been caught out by the changes in the number of years’ contributions to national insurance required before receiving a full pension. One lady said:

“I was made redundant after 30 years and I contacted the NI people to ask about my contribution record…I was told because I had paid a full 30 years I didn’t need to pay anymore”.

She then found out that she

“was no longer getting a full pension but approximately £35 a week less because guess what I haven’t paid enough NI contributions in the last 7 years! I WAS TOLD I DIDN’T NEED TO!”

In any private pension scheme, that would be called mis-selling, but we see the same from the Government.

Another lady highlighted the fact that many of this cohort of women took time out to look after their children or to act as carers, meaning that they did not build up enough occupational pension. In some cases, women were not allowed to join occupational pension schemes at all and some were working before the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force. She said:

“I am also penalised here because when I did return to work after my children were older I did not accrue enough to have a reasonable work pension…It is totally demeaning that I have to rely once again on my husband who is 67 this year and worked from the age of 18.”

That is not equality.

Another lady, who is also a carer, said:

“I will be 62 next month and found out that I will not be getting my state pension until I am 65 and some months. I made Choices in my mid fifties and gave up work to look after my husband expecting to only wait 5 years or so to get my pension but it came as a shock to find out that I wasn’t”.

People have made decisions based on information they were given at the time in good faith, but they then found that decisions had been overturned.

Criminal Legal Aid

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Friday 29th January 2016

(5 years, 10 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will be grateful that he managed to slip in that last bit concerning his court. As I have told him previously, no firm decisions have been taken on that issue. On other matters, I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman pays such detailed attention to what is happening in the MOJ.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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I welcome the Justice Secretary’s move to scrap the two-tier system. He said HM Treasury has given him a settlement that allows him greater flexibility in the allocation of funds for legal aid. Will he give us more detail about the settlement and whether it will extend further than what he has already said?

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I refer the hon. Lady to the Chancellor’s autumn statement. He said he would be allowing £700 million-plus for the courts reform programme and there would be £1.3 billion for reforming the Prison Service. We in the MOJ are also consolidating our estates programme generally in terms of the offices and space we use. If the hon. Lady reads the statement, she will also be aware that my Department will be making 50% administration cuts by 2019-20.

In-work Poverty

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Thursday 28th January 2016

(5 years, 10 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Work and Pensions
Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered in-work poverty.

It is a pleasure to serve under your excellent chairmanship, Mr Turner. This Government are failing to make work pay, and their cuts to in-work support risk increasing the number of working families in poverty even further. Over the previous Parliament, average real wages fell by more than £1,000 a year. Furthermore, 2010 to 2020 will be the worst decade for pay growth in almost a century and the third worst since 1860.

Cuts to universal credit that begin in April will make 2.6 million working families £1,600 a year worse off by 2020, making it almost impossible for families to work their way out of poverty. The Government’s advice to working families set to be hit by those cuts is to work an additional 200 hours a year to recoup the losses. That is neither fair nor practical for millions of low-paid families who are already working full time. I am delighted to have secured this debate, so that we in the Opposition can bring forward the reality of those in our constituencies who are experiencing high levels of in-work poverty and to call on the Government to scrap their cuts to universal credit before the cuts take hold in April.

We know from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission that 1.5 million children are in poverty because their working parents do not earn enough to secure a basic standard of living. Four out of 10 children in working poor households live in families where parents might be expected to enter work or work more hours. Owing to high levels of in-work poverty, the commission has warned that the cuts to universal credit will—in its words, not mine—

“make many working families significantly worse off.”

The commission has recommended that the Government reverse their cuts to universal credit, saying:

“These changes would have resulted in millions of families in low-paid work who are ‘doing the right thing’ and working as much as society expects them to, seeing their annual income fall by thousands of pounds on 1 April 2016.”

Despite the fears, the cuts to universal credit are still going ahead. It will be very difficult for many affected families to increase their hours of work and hourly pay to avoid big cuts to their incomes.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab)
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Does my hon. Friend know that 167,400 working families in Wales will be impacted by these cuts and that 134,600 of them are families with children?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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I do, and not only Wales is affected; this affects every constituency in the country.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

Would it surprise my hon. Friend to hear that, under universal credit plans, some 116,000 disabled people who are in work—and therefore doing the right thing, according to the Government’s narrative—will be £40 a week worse off under the Government’s proposal?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

That is a shocking indictment of the low consideration the Government have for people in need. For example, a lone parent working full time on the minimum wage who receives no support for their housing costs will experience a reduction of £2,600 a year—that is £50 a week. Nobody can afford to lose £50 a week.

The combined effect of income tax, national insurance and the universal credit taper will mean that universal credit claimants who pay income tax will keep only 24% of any increase in their earnings. They will have to increase their earnings by £210 a week—or, to put it in percentage terms, 72%—to make up the income loss they will face as a result of the reduction in support.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She has given some figures about single parents, and this shows the full extent of the policy: for a single parent—say, a mother with one or more children—the work allowance of universal credit will be halved from this April, going from £8,808 to £4,764. In cash terms, that is a loss of £2,628 a year. Does that not show the stark reality of this policy?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I agree. That is a reality people face every day, and it can only get worse.

The short-term effect for current claimants of universal credit is that they face huge losses to income come April 2016. There are currently 155,000 recipients of universal credit, and the number is increasing every week, with an aim of there being 500,000 recipients by April this year.

During Work and Pensions questions recently, the Secretary of State claimed that the flexible support fund will act as transitional protection for current claimants and said that

“those who are on universal credit at present will be fully supported through the flexible support fund, which will provide all the resources necessary to ensure that their situation remains exactly the same as it is today.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 688.]

However, that existing fund is used for a different purpose. Its budget last year was £69 million, but the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates cuts to working families of £100 million next year, rising every year until they reach £3.2 billion in 2020.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I apologise for not thanking my hon. Friend for securing the debate in my previous intervention or saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. The Secretary of State was referring to the number of people currently receiving universal credit who will be protected by some measure, but is that not a little disingenuous given that the Government are about 1,000 years behind schedule on delivering universal credit? They had expected some 2 million people to be on it by now. Should the Government not be a bit more embarrassed about mentioning the small number who are already receiving universal credit?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

I agree entirely, and I will touch on that later in my speech.

When transitional protection is introduced for current tax credit recipients, the Government will bring in regulations to put that protection into law. Opposition Members are calling for the same guarantees—full transitional protection—to be put on a legal footing for current universal credit claimants. The medium-term effects of the cuts to universal credit will effectively create a postcode lottery or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, quite accurately described it, an “IDS lottery”. I doubt, however, whether those ticket holders will have a magic washing machine and end up as big winners. New and existing claimants of tax credits will receive far greater support than new and existing claimants of universal credit.

The longer-term effect by 2020 will be massively reduced support for working families. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that by 2020, due to the £3.2 billion cut to the work allowance having been fully phased in, 2.6 million working families will be an average of £1,600 a year worse off. The Resolution Foundation found that when these cuts fully take effect by 2020, low and middle-income working families will lose an average of £1,000 a year, rising to £1,300 a year for those with children.

This is a political choice by this Government—a deliberate act to reduce drastically support for working families, at a time when the Government are cutting inheritance tax for homes worth more than £1 million. The contradictions in that comparison are frightening, to say the least. How can it be right to offer enhanced protection for those with wealth and catastrophic consequences for those who currently eke out a living on low pay? It cannot be right to reduce in-work support.

In my constituency office, we act as an agent for both the Trussell Trust food bank and the local Eastside food bank in Bonymaen, Swansea. We receive donations but also give out parcels in emergencies. Some 85% of the parcels given out are to families who are in work but struggling to make ends meet.

Further examples of the impact on working families from a detailed analysis by the Library show that a single parent of two children with gross earnings of £18,000 a year will experience a net reduction in their income of £2,601 next year, as a result of measures announced in the summer Budget that are still due to take effect in April 2016. For example, a single parent of one child who is earning the living wage will only increase their income by £40 for working an additional 12 hours. That compares with an increase of £92 for an additional 12 hours before the cuts to the work allowance were introduced.

It is time for the Secretary of State to stop playing cat and mouse with the real people of this country. The lack of Government Members here today indicates that they have bought into the Government’s rhetoric that in-work poverty is a myth and that they support the Government’s propaganda that it is of no real concern. However, the reality is that ordinary working people are continually playing catch-up, and all the Government want to do for them is to watch them run around chasing their own tails. It is immoral, irresponsible and reprehensible.

I am very proud to represent real people who are paying the cost of this Government’s arrogance, and I will fight to ensure that their voice gets heard. We are led to believe that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has threated to resign if his masterplan is not followed through. If cuts to universal credit really were an issue to resign over, he would be long gone, and if he was, many thousands of decent, hard-working people across the UK would be celebrating both his resignation and the moral victory.

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Turner, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate.

It is hard to justify why so many people live in poverty in a country as wealthy as the UK. I believe that one of the key explanations is that the welfare state, designed to protect us all against risks such as unemployment, illness and old age, simply fails to provide an adequate income for families and others when they are unable to support themselves fully.

It is truly shocking that in 2016, in-work poverty is growing. In some areas, the number of working households in poverty is greater than the number of non-working households. Major factors appear to be low pay and part-time work, and zero-hours contracts are also a major contributory factor.

--- Later in debate ---
Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
- Hansard - - Excerpts

On the contrary. Average weekly earnings have grown consistently in the past year—

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

Will the Minister give way?

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
- Hansard - - Excerpts

Let me finish my sentence and I will. Wages have been growing faster than inflation for 14 consecutive months and, as much as the Labour party has been utterly disparaging about the introduction of the national living wage, which says a great deal about its attitude to pay increases, we know for a fact that when the national living wage is introduced later this year, we will see an enormous—

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

Will the Minister give way?

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones
- Hansard - - Excerpts

It is a long sentence.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I will give way in a moment. I have been very respectful by listening to and not intervening in the contributions of Opposition Members. More people will benefit when the national living wage is introduced in April.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

I feel suitably chastised. The Minister gave a list of job increases but she left off Tata Steel, where there have just been 750 job losses very close to my constituency.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
- Hansard - - Excerpts

Tata is not a particular case study for Wales or the United Kingdom. I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that the steel industry faces huge challenges around the world. In China, people are also losing their jobs because of what has happened in the steel industry. Jobcentre Plus and the Department for Work and Pensions have been there from the outset to support people who have lost their jobs in the steel industry by helping their families at this very difficult time and supporting them to find work. The marketplace is challenging, but the hon. Lady is the Member of Parliament for a Welsh constituency and she has a duty to acknowledge the support that is being given—the work that Jobcentre Plus staff in her constituency are providing—to individuals and families who have lost their jobs.

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Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
- Hansard - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman is taking the noble Lord’s suggestion out of context. There was quite a substantial discussion about universal credit including a gross representation of the roll-out—the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) said, in jest, that it would be “a thousand years”. All hon. Members know, because they have heard it from me previously, that universal credit is now in three quarters of all jobcentres and will be in all jobcentres by April 2016, so the roll-out will take a few more months and certainly not a thousand years as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

I come back to the principle of the reforms. Universal credit transforms the welfare system and has been designed to ensure that people are supported in work. It is a subject of many discussions I have had with the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark in previous debates. Yes, there is a financial safety net and support through universal credit but, importantly, the universal credit system is designed to support people to progress in work. Jobcentres deliver support, providing a single point of contact with much more personalised support, advice and guidance from a dedicated work coach.

The concept of the work coach is working. I have sat in on many interviews when I go to see our colleagues—particularly work coaches—working in jobcentres and helping people to develop in their roles, especially people who are moving from part-time to full-time work or who are seeking to work more hours depending on personal circumstances. Work coaches help them to develop the right kind of skills and confidence to secure employment. Surely hon. Members cannot disagree with the fundamentals of supporting people into work, giving them confidence, and helping them to develop new skills, should that be the appropriate route for them.

I am proud of way in which we work with other aspects of the state when we look into co-locating our services with housing associations, further education colleges and local authorities. We have 30 fully co-located sites, where we can join up and bring public services together to ensure that we have the right kind of service delivery for individuals.

I am conscious of time as I can see the clock ticking, but I want to emphasise that the Government are fundamentally focused on providing in-work support through stronger local partnerships in constituencies to ensure that we support individuals on universal credit or benefits, help them to get back into work, and secure better employment outcomes and better futures for them in the long run.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

Thank you for your excellent chairmanship, Mr Turner. I sincerely thank all Opposition colleagues for attending this debate on a day when they could be at the coalface addressing the problems caused by this Government’s policies. I thank the Minister for her response, and I would have liked to thank her for her warm words, but “condescending” and “passionless” are probably better descriptions. I leave here no wiser than I was coming in, except now I know that there is a total lack of understanding and passion for what is really happening in the UK in 2016. I urge the Government to rethink.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered in-work poverty.

State Pension Age (Women)

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Thursday 7th January 2016

(5 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

Order. There will be a five-minute limit from now on.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
- Hansard -

Half a million women, including more than 3,500 in my constituency, are asking the Government why they have to wait up to six years longer for their state pension. During their working lives, they paid national insurance contributions expecting to get their pension at the age of 60, an age fixed in 1940 and five years below that for men.

In 1995, the Conservative Government set out a timetable to equalise the pension age for men and women at 65. They fixed a start date 15 years ahead—April 2010—and phased in the changes slowly, so that only from April 2020 would women born in April 1955 or later not get their state pension at 65. The pending changes were largely ignored except for a small section in the financial section of a broadsheet. The women affected, who were then aged 45, were not warned by the Department of Social Security.

Peter Dowd Portrait Peter Dowd
- Hansard - - Excerpts

One of my constituents, Angela Pugh, has sent me valuable information, and I thank her and WASPI. She outlined one woman’s experience. She said that the job market is not ready to accept older women and that many are forced to accept zero-hours contracts, temporary contracts or low-paid contracts that offer no financial security. Does my hon. Friend agree that those women—the backbone of this country—have been betrayed by the Conservatives?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

I most certainly agree with my hon. Friend.

In 1995, 2020 seemed a long time away. In 2007, the Labour Government decided to increase the retirement age for both men and women to 66, but included a caveat that no changes would be made until 2024. In 2011, the coalition Government unsurprisingly reneged on that caveat and set a new timetable that was tough on women and broke a pledge that there would be no change until after 2020.

Fiona Mactaggart Portrait Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

Does my hon. Friend accept that that is not the only way in which older women have been discriminated against? The raising of the tax threshold disadvantages older women much more than it disadvantages any other group, and the pay gap for older women is bigger than for any other group. Do we not need to hear the voice of older women more clearly in politics, as it is obviously being completely ignored by the Government?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend and consider myself to be in that age group—I am an older woman in politics.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

Thank you.

Half a million women had their pension postponed further in 2011. One of the women affected is Lin Phillips, who was born in May 1954. I think she is in the Gallery. She will be nearly 65 and eight months when she gets her pension in January 2020, nearly six years after she originally expected it in May last year when she was 60. Only in 2011 when she read about the new plans did she realise that her state pension age had already been increased to 64. She was shocked to discover that it would be pushed a further 18 months into the future to age 65 and a half.

Altogether, half a million women face an extra delay of more than a year, and 300,000 face an extra wait of 18 months. That delay will cost them in excess of £12,000 each in lost state pension. That money is very difficult to replace. Few will have company pensions, because many firms excluded women and part-timers from their schemes. About half the women aged between 55 and 64 are not in work. Many of them—as we have heard, they are the backbone of this country—are caring for children and elderly relatives. The idea of their finding a part-time job in the current situation, or even a low-paid job, is ludicrous.

The changes to women’s pensions are categorically unfair and unjust. Lin, along with other affected women, started to campaign to push the Government into a compromise agreement for those most affected, possibly in the form of a transitional payment. My understanding is that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions promised to look at that in 2011 but—surprise, surprise!—he never did. The WASPI campaign is the inspiration behind the debate. Those women have made us sit up and think.

Each of us will be able to tell of constituents who are affected by this gross injustice. Each of us will know of women who have worked and paid their contributions or who have spent the majority of their adult life bringing up the children of this nation. Each will have a different set of circumstances, but they will all say that, had they been written to in 1995 and told of the changes, they would have made appropriate arrangements.

WASPI accepts that the pension age must rise as people live longer but argue—most on the Opposition Benches would agree—that it is not fair to women who were not personally informed either in 1995 or in 2011. The Minister should beware: WASPI has a sting in its tail. Given the power of its argument and its ability to attract the attention of many in the House, its demand for fairness is a compelling one. It has a simple message and only asks for fairness.

I would say this to the Minister: do not underestimate the power of that lobby. Those women have managed to mobilise and get more than 107,000 signatures on a petition, which is far in excess of what is needed for a debate in the Chamber. In four days, they managed to raise funds through crowdfunding to engage the services of a barrister. From my contact with them, I can tell the Minister that they want justice, and that the buzz in the air from the WASPI campaign will not rest until they get it.

Marie Rimmer Portrait Marie Rimmer (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) on securing the debate. I also congratulate members of WASPI—many of the women are in the Gallery today—on its magnificent campaign. Had they not had that campaign, I fear that the problem would have gone unnoticed and certainly would not have been addressed.

The Pensions Act 1995 increased the state pension age for women from 60 to 65 over the period April 2010 to April 2020. It was not a short-notice change—the notice was 15 years. In a debate in October 2013, the Minister, Steve Webb, accepted that some women did not know about the change at the time, but went on to say:

“Although it was all over the papers at the time, these women were a long way from pension age and probably turned the page when they saw the word ‘pension’”.—[Official Report, 8 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 54WH.]

What a way for a Government to expect people to find out!

The coalition Government legislated in the Pensions Act 2011 to accelerate the increase in the state pension age, which became 65 in November 2018. They intended to equalise the state pension age at 66 by April 2020, but that was amended. During that debate, the then shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), expressed concerns. Largely because of that, the date was amended and we got a reprieve of six months. The Government seem to believe that that is some compensation.

I will not say much about the impact, because hon. Members who have read about it will know. Anne Keen, one of my constituents and a leading WASPI campaigner, is in the Gallery today.

Universal Credit Work Allowance

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Wednesday 6th January 2016

(5 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I will come on to those specific people—[Interruption.] In the overall numbers, it is the vast majority—[Interruption.] I am going to make some progress.

We have to see the bigger picture. A lot of the analysis that has gone on is static. Even the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which I know a lot of hon. Members will refer to, acknowledges that it is a static analysis. Universal credit is not a stand-alone measure. It is part of our wider, dynamic package of reforms to support families in work and to make sure work pays. We are raising the personal allowance to £11,000 for the next tax year, saving the typical taxpayer over £900 a year, and we have pledged to raise it to £12,500 by the end of this Parliament. The national living wage will come into effect from April. That will directly benefit 2.75 million people and it is forecast to reach over £9 an hour by 2020. That might upset Opposition Members who campaigned for £8 an hour, but we felt that that did not go far enough.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
- Hansard -

The House of Commons Library has given me some figures; I wonder whether the Minister will say that they are wrong. They show that a single parent working full time on the minimum wage will be nearly £3,000 a year worse off than they would have been on tax credits. I would appreciate some clarification on this from the Minister.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I worked closely with her on our commitment to halving the disability employment gap, and I have a lot of respect for the work she does. In this case, the person—again, presuming it is a static analysis and that they are already in—will be cash protected as they are transferred to universal credit, so they will not be cash worse-off.

We have rising wages and near zero inflation. We have had 13 months—[Interruption.] We have strong economic growth, delivering record jobs and creating opportunities for people to get into work and to increase their hours. We have simplified the benefits system, reducing the potential for claimants to miss out on money to which they are entitled and, crucially, allowing them the time to focus on actually finding work, rather than on navigating the complex, chaotic system. We have already seen from the independent investigation that we are talking about 50% more time. We also have work coaches to support people in work, which is vital.

Access to Justice: Wales

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Tuesday 15th December 2015

(5 years, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Work and Pensions
Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
- Hansard -

I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to justice in Wales.

It is a pleasure to serve under your excellent chairmanship, Mrs Moon. Access to justice is not a special privilege, but a fundamental right. No one should be denied access to justice because of who they are, where they live or how much they earn. Everyone is equal before the law. The two-nation system is something on which the Secretary of State for Justice and I would possibly agree. When he was appointed, he said:

“There are two nations in our justice system at present. On the one hand, the wealthy, international class...And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives.”

What he did not say was that his policies, and those of his Government, have created much of the injustice that we see today. Cuts to legal aid, tribunal fees and court charges have all put a price on justice, and ordinary people across Wales have suffered as a consequence.

The cuts to legal aid implemented by the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition have had a dramatic effect on access to justice in Wales. The number of cases granted funding has dropped by two thirds. Solicitors in my constituency say that cases have “decreased significantly”, and the number of debt cases supported by legal aid fell from 81,000 to just 2,500 over a one-year period. Every one of those cases involves real people, who are being denied the help that they need when they are at their most vulnerable. It is the most vulnerable people in Wales who are being hurt by the changes.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

Earlier this year, the Select Committee on Justice and the Public Accounts Committee criticised the Government’s civil legal aid changes, saying that they limited access to justice for some of those who need legal aid the most and that, in some cases, they resulted in cases becoming more difficult and therefore costing the taxpayer more. Does my hon. Friend agree that that very much echoes the cases that we see, week on week, in our constituencies?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

It certainly does. I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will come on to discuss that further. When we put a price on justice, those with the means to pay sky-high legal fees will be fine, but people who are in debt, women experiencing domestic violence and parents seeking custody of their children will not be. Ten law centres have already closed in England and Wales, and many more are unable to cope. We are talking not about legal aid lawyers supposedly raking in millions of pounds in fees, but about centres, staffed by volunteers, that can no longer offer fundamental support to those who need it most. Solicitors’ firms in my constituency have told me of the obstacles facing their clients:

“The evidential requirements are stringent. There are occasionally cost implications for clients in seeking evidence to support their application for public funding which is difficult for them if they are on benefits.”

They say that

“everything the Legal Aid Agency is doing is making it harder for both clients and lawyers to get legal aid.”

The cuts have removed legal aid from nearly all family law cases and led to a sharp increase in the number of litigants in person. In the first quarter of this year, 76% of private family cases involved at least one party who was not represented. The Personal Support Unit, which has an office at Cardiff Crown court and which offers advice to litigants in person, has seen the number of people accessing its services more than double from 20,000 in 2013-14 to an estimated 50,000 this year. The idea that someone who has had their children taken away from them and who may be fighting allegations of domestic abuse is able to defend himself or herself as well as a lawyer could is ridiculous, but that is the reality of the two-nation justice system.

Ian C. Lucas Portrait Ian C. Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the important subject of litigants in person. I have spoken to court staff and judges who are deeply concerned about the impossible position that they are placed in when they have to make a decision on cases involving, but at the same time end up giving advice to, litigants in person who are desperately unable to cope with the complexities of the legal system in which they have to operate.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

My hon. Friend refers to the reality that the two-nation justice system has created. Cuts to legal aid are having a significant impact on advice services for those experiencing housing, debt and welfare problems. A report commissioned by the Welsh Government shortly after the first changes were introduced found that cuts had “severely affected advice services” and resulted in

“specialist welfare benefits advice being significantly reduced by Legal Aid funding.”

The Welsh Government have done what they can to mitigate those cuts, investing an extra £1 million a year to support front-line advice services, in addition to the top-up of £2.2 million a year to Citizens Advice Cymru to help it to provide a specialist advice service for those who need it. The reality is that thousands of people in need of support will still lose out because of the Ministry of Justice cuts. In Wales, the number of free, face-to-face welfare law advice sessions provided by the not-for-profit sector is estimated to have fallen from nearly 20,000 to barely 3,000 in just one year.

Last month, in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the Government snuck in an increase in the small claims court limit, which means that the majority of people injured in road accidents, regardless of how severely they were injured, will lose their access to legal representation. Whether for people injured in accidents, families facing debt proceedings or those of limited means who want legal advice before a court hearing, the Government’s changes have had a profound effect on access to justice in Wales.

Few people are more in need of support than women who are experiencing domestic abuse. I am talking about women who have suffered years and years of physical and sexual violence, who turn to the family court to seek help for themselves and their children. Women who may need legal aid to divorce an abusive partner, or even to apply for a child arrangements order to protect their child from an abuser, now have to convince the Government that they have been abused before they can get any help. Worse, the narrow set of criteria proposed by the Government means that many women are unable to prove that they have been abused.

Charities such as Women’s Aid expressed serious concerns about the evidence criteria before the law was changed. Women’s Aid now says that 54% of women who access services as survivors of domestic violence would not meet the evidence criteria initially proposed. The cuts were railroaded through, however, and in one year the same charities found that 43% of women who had experienced domestic violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence required to access family law legal aid. The Government have let those women down and, more importantly, let their children down.

In the light of that, it came as no surprise when the Justice Committee concluded last year that the reforms had failed three of the Government’s four tests. The reforms have not discouraged unnecessary litigation or targeted help at those who need it the most. On the Government’s claim that the changes were necessary to cut costs, the Committee said that the Ministry of Justice

“has failed to prove that it has delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer because it has no idea at all of the knock-on costs of the legal aid changes to the public purse”.

The changes have not delivered value for money. Instead, they have forced vulnerable people to represent themselves in court and taken vital support away from abuse survivors.

The Government are charging ahead with changes to criminal legal aid, and we will face the same problems. From next year, the number of contracts issued to solicitors’ firms for criminal legal aid will fall from 1,600 to just over 500. Solicitors’ firms in parts of Wales, especially in rural areas, have warned that there simply will not be enough firms left to do all the work.

Mark Williams Portrait Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She will be aware that in the area that the Ministry of Justice names Dyfed Powys 2, which consists of all of Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and all of Powys—the Opposition Members present will be aware of the geography of the terrain—it is suggested that only four solicitors’ practices will offer the reduced legal aid. Does she agree that that is the worst kind of access to justice imaginable?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

I would go as far as to say that it is almost zero access to justice.

The tendering process has been shown to be a complete shambles—the implementation date has slipped from January to April of next year and possibly into 2017. The president of the Law Society of England and Wales has spoken of a

“serious risk of a knock-on effect on access to justice for clients.”

That warning comes just weeks after the Government were forced to drop their criminal courts charges, which led to some 50 magistrates resigning from the profession in protest. In the words of the Justice Committee, the changes were

“having effects which are inimical to the interests of justice”,

including the creation of “perverse incentives” for innocent defendants to plead guilty. I am glad that the Government have finally realised that the court charges were not fit for purpose, but it was not before countless people potentially changed their pleas because they could not afford to say that they were not guilty.

David Hanson Portrait Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

Before my hon. Friend leaves the point of criminal courts charges, I am a member of the Justice Committee and we have just agreed that it was right to change the system. However, of the £5 million that was levied, only around £300,000 has been raised, leaving a debt on a large number of people who should not have had that charge imposed on them in the first place. Through my hon. Friend, I ask the Minister to tell us what will happen to those who have been levied the charge and who have not yet paid.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

It is clear that, alongside access to justice, the Government’s reforms to the criminal courts system have risked another fundamental British principle—the right to a fair trial. One of the most basic attributes that we expect of any justice system is that it is fair. Those who have committed crimes must be punished quickly and effectively, but everyone has the right for their case to be heard and nobody should have to decide how to plead based on whether they can afford to pay the fees—not least because victims of crime deserve better.

Will the Minister agree to an urgent review into how legal aid costs are affecting access to justice in Wales? As court charges—one of the flagship policies—have now been dumped, what confidence does he have that the other changes are not having a similar perverse effect on justice and the right to a fair trial?

Members across the Chamber have serious concerns about the proposal of the Ministry of Justice to close 11 courts and tribunals in Wales. In large parts of the country, it is already hard enough for those attending trials to reach their nearest court in the allotted time, and the decision to close those courts will make that harder still.

The Law Society has found that many people will find it impossible to get to their nearest court within an hour when travelling by public transport. If the Government go ahead with their plan to close, for example, two courts in Carmarthen, just 32% of people taking public transport to my constituency of Swansea for family law cases would be able to get there within 60 minutes. For criminal cases, the figure is 31%. Across Wales, in areas where there is limited or infrequent public transport, it is a very real possibility that defendants and witnesses could end up on the same bus to the court hearing. Members can imagine the distress and legal complications that that will cause.

Wayne David Portrait Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite ridiculous that, at the last Justice questions, the Minister suggested that people could access justice by telephone?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

I think I referred to it as sentencing by text, if I am not mistaken. It is an absolutely absurd idea.

Huw Irranca-Davies Portrait Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

The Minister did indeed say that mobile phones would be the way forward for my constituents. We are facing closures in Pontypridd and Bridgend, which are difficult enough to get to at the moment. To tell those constituents to come down the valley and change transport to get to Cardiff will add another impediment to access to justice. Through my hon. Friend, I would say that the Minister really needs to think this through again and to think about the geography of Wales. We are not flatlands with a huge transport hub; we are valleys. I know that your constituency is affected by the issue as well, Mrs Moon.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard -

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The Law Society has expressed “grave concerns” that the proposal to close courts—I agree with this point—could “erode access to justice”. Its worries are shared by many people across the region.

Whether it is closing courts, slashing legal aid or any other reforms that I have not had an opportunity to address—such as employment tribunal fees, changes to judicial review or the plan to scrap the Human Rights Act—Government policies are having a severe impact on access to justice in Wales. It is the responsibility of any Government to ensure that our justice system does not become the preserve of the wealthy and unresponsive to the needs of those who need to use it most. It is vital that the justice system is accessible when we need it and accessible to all. I seriously fear that after another five years of this Government, neither of those opportunities will be open for Wales.

Madeleine Moon Portrait Mrs Madeleine Moon (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - Excerpts

Order. I have before me only two names of Members who have asked to speak. At 5.20 pm, I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen for the Labour party and the Scottish National party, who will have five minutes each, and then the Minister, who will have 10 minutes. I will first call Albert Owen, and if other Members wish to speak, they will have to rely on the generosity of the hon. Gentleman and the next Member to be called if they are to get in before 5.20 pm.

Court Charges (Access to Justice)

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Tuesday 17th November 2015

(6 years ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Work and Pensions
Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
- Hansard - - Excerpts

We have some 20,000 magistrates. At any given point, there are always some who are resigning. It is regrettable that some have felt it necessary to resign on that basis, but I will say that magistrates do hugely beneficial work. It is an important role in society and they give up valuable time of their own to do a good service. Of course, it would be wrong for me to comment on individual circumstances, but it is regrettable that some have felt it necessary to resign on that basis.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
- Hansard -

Does the Minister not agree that the fact that only a fraction of the imposed costs has been recovered indicates that those charged with repayment are unable to repay, and that this therefore makes the whole court charge untenable?

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
- Hansard - - Excerpts

It is not yet known how much has been recovered, because those statistics will be forthcoming in the December quarterly statistics. Just to explain, they were not in the September quarterly publication because, although initial data from the first three months of operation—the change having taken place in April—were included in the regular September quarterly statistics, it was not possible to provide separate figures on the charge in time for that publication which met the data quality standards required for published management information. Detailed figures will, however, be published on 17 December.

I note the comments made about the effects on the offender’s plea decision and the issue of access to justice. The Government are committed to ensuring a fair and effective criminal justice system that is accessible to all, and we are assured in the knowledge that the coalition Government carefully considered the compatibility of the criminal courts charge provisions with the European convention on human rights, on article 6 “access to the court” grounds. Article 6 of the European convention on human rights has an implicit right of access to the courts, and the charge does not interfere with that right in any way. In particular, it should be remembered that the charge is imposed at the end of proceedings. Defendants facing trial are not required to pay the criminal courts charge and the charge is not a condition of an offender being able to access the courts. A person will be subject to the charge only if convicted following a court hearing that will have taken into consideration all the available evidence. Therefore, those who are innocent and should be found not guilty by the courts will not be required to pay the charge.

We should also remember that our justice system already creates a number of incentives for those who enter early guilty pleas to ensure that the wheels of justice run more smoothly. For example, if defendants who are guilty enter a guilty plea as early as possible, the courts recognise the benefit to victims, witnesses and the criminal justice system as a whole by means of a reduction in sentence. I recognise, however, the need to ensure that any incentives are proportionate and I note the concerns expressed about the matter.

Welfare Benefit Changes

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Wednesday 14th October 2015

(6 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Work and Pensions
Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
- Hansard -

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of changes to welfare benefits.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. Since this debate was scheduled, I have been inundated with offers of briefings from so many social charities that I could speak for the entire 90 minutes, although colleagues will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to do that. Several national charities have provided so much compelling evidence that this debate needed to be heard. I pay tribute to Barnado’s, Gingerbread, Crisis and The Trussell Trust, and we will all have names of local hard-working groups that are swamped with requests for help from those in difficult times. In my case, they are the Eastside food bank in Bonymaen and the Jesus Cares organisation, which deliver monthly food parcels to my office, allowing me to offer practical support to families in great need.

The changes to the welfare system have featured heavily on this Government’s agenda. Ministers repeatedly tell us that the reforms will tackle benefit dependency and incentivise people to work, but it is clear from the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of the summer Budget that, taken in the round, the measures are regressive. Even taking into account the new national living wage and the increased personal tax allowance, many families will be worse off.

As the Resolution Foundation made clear last week, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric on tackling poverty and disadvantage is in stark contrast with the reality: 200,000 more working households could be in poverty by 2020. What is too often missing from this debate is full consideration of the impact that cuts to benefits can have on children. We must remember that children are never responsible for their parents’ decisions or any misfortune. They must not be punished. I therefore want to concentrate on some of the aspects of the Government’s proposals and the impact that they will have on the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable children and young people.

The Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which is currently in Committee, contains several measures that will have a significant impact on some of our most vulnerable families. The Government’s impact assessment shows that an additional 224,000 children will be affected by the change in the household benefit cap. Of course, the Government’s response is that people affected will simply choose to move into work and therefore avoid the cut in income. As hon. Members will know from their own constituencies, however, the situation is rarely that simple.

In 2014, a judicial review examined the impact of the benefit cap on two single parents. In the Supreme Court ruling, three of the five judges found that the benefit cap did not comply with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Statements from the judges included that the benefit cap deprived children of the “basic necessities of life” and made them

“suffer from a situation which is none of their making”.

The judgment suggests that the policy is incompatible with the UNCRC and underlines the need for future assessment of the impact of the benefit cap on children’s wellbeing. The Secretary of State will be able to change the benefit cap levels without full parliamentary scrutiny. It is important that the wellbeing of children, particularly very young children, is taken into account. The UNCRC provides a framework for this scrutiny and the Children’s Commissioners hold the expertise about the convention. An impact assessment into the wellbeing of children by the Children’s Commissioners would provide the Secretary of State with the evidence to make an informed decision on future benefit changes.

In my experience, if families are relying on benefits, it is usually because they face significant barriers to work, not simply because they do not see the point in getting a job. Some lack skills or confidence. Others may have mental health problems or health issues. Young parents may be struggling to care for their children. Whatever the reason, the best solution is not a punitive one. This is not just about the cap. Depending on inflation, the four-year freeze in working age benefits could have a significant impact for those on low incomes. There are also the cuts to tax credits. That is a debate for another day, but it is important to register that over 4 million families, accounting for 7.5 million children, will see a difference between getting by on a tight budget and not getting by at all as a result of the changes to tax credits.

As I said, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the summer Budget is regressive. Poor families will get poorer and many on the edge could be driven into poverty. Barnardo’s has calculated that for some of the most vulnerable families, the cuts will mean a significant drop in income. I cannot see how that is right or fair, or how it is in line with stated Government policy. The Government tell us that work is the way out of poverty. Indeed it could be and should be, but we cannot ignore the fact that poverty also affects families where one or more adults works.

A Barnardo’s case study tells of a dad who asked staff for some nappies. When the project worker attended the house to see how things were going, she discovered only biscuits and crisps in the cupboard. The parents were missing meals in order to feed the children, and they had not asked for help because they were too proud. That family provides a window into the reality of life for so many people. The mother works at a call centre and dad looks after their three small children, one of whom is not yet in school. Their house was deemed too big, but no smaller one was available, so they were hit with the under-occupancy subsidy—the nice phrase for the bedroom tax. They are working people, but their income just does not cover the basics. Reluctantly, they eventually asked Barnardo’s for help and were pointed in the direction of a food bank.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated that working single parents will be hit hardest by the changes in benefits. Under the current benefit cap, single parent households are disproportionately affected, particularly those with younger children. Since the introduction of the benefit cap, 63% of affected people were single parent households, of which 70% had a child aged under five. In May 2015, 76% of capped single parent households had a youngest child under five and 34% had a child under two.

According to Barnardo’s, a lone parent working full time on the national living wage for 37 hours a week with two young children could lose £1,200 a year from April 2016. For many single parents hit by the benefit cap, it will not be possible to reduce expenditure through budgeting or moving to cheaper accommodation. Gingerbread tells of a single parent with two primary aged children who phoned its helpline in June 2015. She is expecting a baby in October and was told that, when the baby is born, she will be subject to the benefit cap, causing a shortfall of £32 a week in her housing benefit. I urge the Government to consider how we can justify reducing support to such families. We must think again.

What about larger families with more than two children? Children in larger families are already 1.4 times more likely to be living in poverty. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill will limit support through both tax credits and the Government’s new system of universal credit, so that families receive help for only the first two children. As the Government’s impact assessment makes clear, the policy will disproportionately affect black and ethnic minority families, who are more likely to live in poverty and to have larger families.

We also need to consider the less obvious implications of the policy. What if a family with two children decides to adopt a third? What if a family with one child decides to adopt two siblings? We know that sibling groups often have to wait a long time for a new home. There is already a shortage of families able to take them. Given such difficulties, will the Minister not agree that such scenarios were not considered when the policies were drafted?

What about the withdrawal of housing support for 18 to 21-year-olds? In the summer Budget, the Government announced that from April 2017 unemployed 18 to 21-year-olds making a new claim for universal credit will not be entitled to support for their housing. Crisis has serious concerns that the removal of young people’s access to support for their housing costs will lead only to a further increase in youth homelessness.

For many young people, housing benefit is all that stands between them and homelessness. That includes care leavers and those who have experienced violence or abuse in the family household. Some might be unable to live with their parents because of a relationship breakdown, but are unable to prove that—for example, if a parent remarries or they have been kicked out for announcing that they are gay. All such scenarios for why young people need to leave home must be considered.

Young people who have already found themselves homeless might have been supported into accommodation funded by housing benefit. Between 2010 and 2014, Crisis helped to create 8,128 tenancies in the private rented sector for people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness. It is vital that young people should be able to maintain such forms of accommodation and that those at risk of homelessness should be able to continue to access them.

An example from Crisis is that of Ryan, who was in care as a young child and adopted at four. He never had a good relationship with his adoptive parents and as soon as he turned 16, in the middle of his GCSE examinations, they asked him to leave. Ryan spent the next four years living in a series of hostels, bed and breakfasts and temporary flats, with periods of homelessness. During that time his housing costs, when appropriate, were covered by housing benefit. He managed a college catering course, but found it too difficult when homeless.

The Government will introduce the cut to housing benefit for young people through regulation rather than in primary legislation. Perhaps Ministers anticipated resistance to removing support from vulnerable young people. Whatever the reason, it is outrageous to introduce such a change without giving hon. Members the opportunity to debate it.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People (Justin Tomlinson)
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The hon. Lady is making an important point, but she should remember that vulnerable young people will be exempted from the changes.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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I thank the Minister and look forward to seeing the exemptions, because so far it has not been made clear to us what they will be. This debate is a good time for us to be told about them. I also hope that the Minister will commit to publishing the regulations in time for a full debate in the House when the Bill is on Report.

My final point is about the sanctions regime. The increase in conditionality is significant, primarily because it will mean that parents with three or four-year-old children will be subject to financial sanctions—in other words, a loss in their weekly income. Any sanctions on claimants in my constituency, where nearly 10,000 are dependent on out-of-work benefits, will be catastrophic for their families. Barnado’s, Gingerbread, the Trussell Trust, Crisis and in fact all the charities and organisations tasked with helping those most affected by sanctions would describe the regime as unnecessarily punitive and not fit for purpose.

The Select Committee on Work and Pensions and other organisations have already repeatedly called for a broad independent review of conditionality and sanctions. It is imperative that such a review should take place before sanctions are extended to families with three and four-year-old children. We know that sanctions can be hugely disproportionate—a single mother missing an interview because her child became ill on the way to school, or a father delayed because he is on the phone to a school and misses an appointment by 10 minutes. Those are examples of everyday occurrences that will result in sanctions for people dependent on benefit. The resulting loss of benefits for weeks on end will leave families struggling to feed their children and to heat their homes. Barnardo’s has reported that parents using its services because of sanctions are being driven to food banks or further into debt.

I hope that, as a result of what I have said and what others will say, the Minister takes a message back to his Department and says that the voices of those affected by such cruel, punishing and crippling benefit changes need to be heard.

Mark Williams Portrait Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD)
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I congratulate the hon. Lady on her excellent speech, which has covered so many matters, but I want to ask about a couple more. Does she share the concerns expressed by organisations such as Parkinson’s UK about, first, the appropriateness of progressive disease sufferers being placed in the work- related group and, secondly, how under the Government’s Bill employment and support allowance payments will be cut to the level of jobseeker’s allowance? There are serious concerns about people such as sufferers of Parkinson’s in that regard.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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I agree. No such section of society will not be affected by such heinous cuts. No section is safe from what is about to happen.

Voices need to be heard and what they are saying needs to be considered, with appropriate action taken. The damage that the cuts are having on the lives of vulnerable families is devastating. I urge the Minister to look into the eyes of a child suffering the effect of the Government’s policy and to reassure them that it is in their best interest. Removing “child poverty” from the narrative does not remove the problem. The Minister should look to his conscience, have a heart and take action now to stop any further damage to young lives.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Pritchard. It is interesting that those in the Chamber are from the Opposition Benches, although the Minister is present as well. I am pleased to see him and I look forward to his contribution. We are concerned about tax credits and such issues, but whatever we say is not meant against him—it is not a personal attack. I want to put that on the record.

I am in the Chamber because I am concerned about the impact of changes to welfare benefit—tax credits, specifically. Recently we have heard a lot about that in the news and the Leader of the Opposition asked about the issue during Prime Minister’s questions today. The news has been full of stories about tax credits so I want to touch on them; they are vital to people in my Northern Ireland constituency where, as of April 2015, 6,500 were in receipt of tax credits. Of that number, 4,500 were in work and 2,000 were not.

Such figures speak for themselves. The majority of people receiving tax credits are in hard-working families on low incomes, and they need some extra help to get by. What worries me, however, are—I will say this with respect to the Prime Minister’s reply today; he mentioned the increase in those who will be tax exempt—those in the £10,000 to £11,000 bracket. If tax credits are taken from them, they will feel the pain more than anyone.

Of the 4,500 in work and in receipt of tax credits in my constituency, 2,500 received both working tax credit and child tax credit, 1,300 received child tax credit alone and only 700 received working tax credit alone. As a clear result—this, too, was mentioned by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) in her introduction—the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that the number of children living in poverty increased over the past three years from 2.3 million to 2.5 million: 200,000 more children in poverty, which is massively worrying. The IFS also estimates that the reductions in tax credits will see that figure rise to 2.8 million. Think about that number of children in poverty for one minute—up from 2.3 million to 2.8 million, 500,000 more in child poverty.

Only last month, I spoke about the importance of eradicating child poverty; it now seems like an ever-intensifying and uphill battle, in particular for those struggling to make ends meet. We must also bear in mind that two thirds of children living in poverty in the UK are from working families, which makes the situation much harder, especially given that the cuts could reduce working family incomes by an average of £1,400 per year—someone today mentioned that the figure could be £1,800. Certainly there will be a large reduction in the income of such families.

I have said it before and I need to say it again: the financial changes will make a huge difference to everyday folk on the street. The number of people coming into my office to get food bank vouchers has increased so much in the past year and indicates the trend. I have always felt that food banks contribute greatly to our society, bringing people together to contribute and to help those less able to look after themselves. By that very nature, food banks are positive—I want to put that on the record—but the fact that so many people are using them is another case entirely.

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Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
- Hansard - - Excerpts

That is exactly the point I am coming on to. We have to be more flexible. In terms of mental health conditions, we know that one in five people going for ESA will have a mental health condition as their primary concern. That increases to just below 50% on a menu of conditions. A mental health condition is one of many types of condition that fluctuate, which has to be recognised. That is why the principles of universal credit will make a considerable difference.

This is not just about support to get people into work, although that is incredibly important; it is also about keeping people in work. For example, 300,000 people a year with a mental health condition drop out of work. I know from having employed someone with a mental health condition that it is a lot easier to keep someone in work than for them to drop out, navigate the benefits system, rebuild their confidence and get back into work. We are doing a huge amount of work. There are lots of pilots and lots of lessons that we are learning. Rightly—this goes across the political divide—we all recognise the significance of mental health conditions and other fluctuating conditions. Life is not simple and the system has to recognise that.

That brings me to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones). I am delighted to say that his local football team finally got promoted the other season, which stops his team knocking mine out in the play-offs every year. I have had too many long journeys that have ended in great disappointment. He, too, rightly highlighted the need for flexibility. With universal credit, we will be encouraging the coaches. We will be making the coaches build a flexible relationship with the claimant, recognising that each person is an individual and has different challenges and, crucially, different opportunities.

We have talked about childcare. Obviously, there was our announcement about going from 15 hours to 30 hours. Crucially, this is a devolved issue. We will keep a very close eye on what the devolved Assemblies are doing to see whether there are lessons to be learned and, as ever, we will seek to share best practice. Capacity is a key issue. I recognise that. Between 2009 and 2012, we created 230,000 places—an increase of 12%. We have announced £2 million of start-up grants to encourage more childcare provision. We are simplifying the regulatory framework. That is something we look at.

I thought that it was a fair point about the jobcentre environment. I have done many tours of jobcentres and I think that is something we need to look at. Again, we are doing pilots on how we can change the environment and the services that are offered—joined-up services. Those were fair points on jobcentres. I think we would all recognise that there is work to be done there.

Many of the points in the speech by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) were from the tax credits debate. That is not really today’s debate. There will be an opportunity for that next week, but those important points have now been placed on the record. I say to all the people concerned that we cannot look at this issue in isolation. The introduction of the national living wage will help 2.7 million people. The ripple effect will filter through to 6 million people in total. The changes to the personal income tax threshold have made a significant difference to our lowest earners, taking 3.2 million of them out of paying any income tax at all. I particularly welcome the measure whereby that will lock in with inflation once we hit £12,500, so we will not start to see the creep of people being dragged back into paying income tax. I very much welcome that and of course the increased numbers in work. We support the principle that work is the best route out of poverty.

The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) made some interesting points. I gently remind him, in relation to the quote that he used, that those were the very people who elected us to form this Government.

I understood the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. I have made an offer before to meet to discuss those, because I know that she has a real desire to see an improvement in this area. I felt sometimes that there was a bit of confusion between the ESA system and the personal independence system; on some of the points, I felt that. I think it would be worth our having that meeting to discuss the issues in detail. I will say that there has been a complete transformation in the service that a claimant would expect through personal independent payment from when it was initially rolled out. There were well documented problems. I have done Westminster Hall debates on that before. We are now down to 11 weeks—median—end to end, and five weeks for an assessment. That is well within where we would expect to be, but it is a journey. We continue to meet organisations that help with the training and with improving the claimant’s experience.

Crucially on mental health, under DLA a disservice was done to people with mental health conditions. Under personal independence payment, all impairments are treated equally and the system is geared up to recognise them. That is part of the reason why we are now seeing 20% of claimants getting the maximum benefit, compared with just 16% under DLA. Rightly, the assessment has to be about dignity. The assessors are there to help people with their claims. I am happy to meet to discuss that further.

On ESA, let us remember that, on the WRAG group, only 1% of people are coming off that benefit. That shows that the current system has needed to be reformed. I welcome the extra £60 million that we will be spending on providing specialist support, rising to £100 million by 2020. That leaves me with just 20 seconds. I am sorry that I have not been able to touch my formal speech.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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I welcome the Conservatives who have now joined us. We have been here since half-past 2; it would have been nice to see them earlier. I thank the Minister for his kind words, but I feel that I am leaving this room no wiser than I was when I came into it. The lack of his colleagues throughout the debate and the rhetoric in his answers have done nothing but confirm to me that this Government just do not care.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the effect of changes to welfare benefits.

Welfare Reform and Work Bill

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Monday 20th July 2015

(6 years, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Mr Duncan Smith
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I do agree with my hon. Friend, which is why I want to get to the Bill. This backdrop of rising employment, falling deficit, increased productivity and higher wages brings me to the Bill before the House today. This is a Bill for working Britain, and it is underpinned by three key principles: first, work is the best route out of poverty, and being in work should always pay more than being on benefits; secondly, spending on welfare should be sustainable and fair to the taxpayer while protecting the most vulnerable; and, thirdly, people on benefit should face the same choices as those in work and those not on benefits. I wish to talk about each of those principles in turn.

My focus in government—and the focus of the Government —has been to ensure that it pays more to work than to be on benefits. This Bill builds on that principle. First, it extends the important principles of the benefit cap. The £26,000 cap we introduced in 2013 has been a huge success—

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Mr Duncan Smith
- Hansard - - Excerpts

One moment, please. The cap has been a huge success in getting people back to work and reintroducing fairness to the welfare system. Capped households are more than 40% more likely to go into work after a year than similar uncapped households. It is right to keep the level of the cap under review to ensure that it continues to be fair and that it provides the right incentives for people to move into work.

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Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Mr Duncan Smith
- Hansard - - Excerpts

No, I will give way to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) in a second, but I wish to make a bit of progress.

We know that around four in 10 households outside London earn less than £20,000, and the same proportion of households in London earn less than £23,000. To ensure that the cap better reflects the circumstances of hard-working families, the Bill lowers the current cap to £20,000 for households outside Greater London, and the Greater London cap will be set at £23,000. The exemptions will continue to apply to the most vulnerable, which includes people on disability living allowance and personal independence payment, those in an employment and support allowance support group and those moving into work who are entitled to working tax credits.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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What assessment has been made of the effect of his welfare reforms on children?

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Mr Duncan Smith
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I am sorry, but I did not quite hear the hon. Lady. Will she repeat what she said?

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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The right hon. Gentleman must listen carefully. What assessment has he made of the effect of his welfare reforms on the children of this country?

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Mr Duncan Smith
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The impact assessments are in the Library and the Vote Office. Full assessments have been made.

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Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con)
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When viewed alongside the recent Budget, this important Bill shows a clear determination among Conservative Members and the Government to recalibrate Britain and our society in a way that is to be welcomed for the reasons that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have given.

I support the Bill wholeheartedly, but many Members will be looking for further detail and clarity as it progresses. In particular, I draw Ministers’ attention to carers and the need to ensure that local authorities have enough money to deliver the troubled families programme, which I welcome. Additional thinking also needs to be given to the condition regarding a woman having to prove rape. That is an enormously sensitive issue on which further work and clarity are needed.

Government Members have sat and listened to this debate in amazement. In the speeches of Opposition Members, Ministers have resembled the four horsemen of the apocalypse, riding through the town, with the firstborn having to be sold and vital organs having to be cut out to pay the bills. It has been a debate riven by ideology; not the ideology of the Government, who have approached the Bill as a pragmatic and one nation Government, but the ideology of the left—both the separatists and the Labour party—which believes that welfare is and should be a lifestyle choice. I do not know which planet some Opposition Members are living on if they do not believe that certain people in society have made a choice. Under the system that has been allowed to emerge under Governments of both colours, welfare has ceased to be a safety net and has become a way of life. Let us return to the welfare system that Beveridge envisaged: a helping hand up, and a safety net below which no fellow citizen should fall.

Some may want to wade through vomit, like the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), but I suggest that the hon. Gentleman is wading through the primeval swamp, for the Labour party is clearly in disarray. No Labour leadership contender was prepared to put his or her name to either the Opposition or the rebel reasoned amendment.

I listened with great attention to the Scottish nationalists this afternoon, because, according to the press, they can no longer say their Rs. Well, they could certainly say their Rs today, but I am afraid that, when it comes to welfare reform and economic management, they do not know their Rs from their elbow.

The Bill will reward work, incentivise our fellow citizens, and, most importantly, deliver fairness to hard-working families and the taxpayers who have to pay the bill. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has worked hard on this Bill, and it deserves the full support of the House.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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It is hard to see how the changes contained in the Bill will not result in hardship for the most vulnerable families. We know that the cuts in tax credits will have a serious impact on working families earning low wages, and that neither the increased minimum wage nor the higher personal allowance will plug the gap. We also know that there will be less support for families with more than two children, which will push even more larger families into poverty.

As usual, however, the devil is in the detail. Behind the headline reduction in the household benefit cap to £20,000 outside London is something else that the Government are doing. Proposed new subsection (4) in clause 8 will allow the Secretary of State to change the cap at any time, without consulting Parliament. It grants the Secretary of State significant powers, and provides for no scrutiny whatever. In effect, it means that the Government could continue to lower the cap time and again, rendering more and more families unable to make ends meet, and forcing more and more children into poverty. I urge the Government to reconsider their decision, and—as was suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms)—to amend the Bill so that Parliament will be able to play a role in scrutinising, debating and voting on any further changes to the cap.

Given that the Bill will make many more families significantly worse off, it is not surprising that the Government no longer want to measure how many children are living in income poverty. The headline measure in the Child Poverty Act 2010, which was passed with cross-party support, is 60% of median income. That measure is internationally recognised and allows for monitoring and transparency. However, the Government want to scrap it and replace it with a measure of workless households and educational attainment. Given that 65% of children in poverty live in a household where at least one adult works, I believe that changing the definition of child poverty is an attempt to avoid scrutiny of in-work poverty. Let us be clear about what that means. Clause 4 will repeal the Child Poverty Act in all but name, but deleting the term “child poverty” from the statute book will not make the problem go away. Changing the definition does not mean that parents working on zero-hours contracts and receiving the minimum wage will not have to rely on food banks to feed their children.

The Bill sends the message that child poverty does not matter, and that as long as parents are in work, we need not worry about whether they can afford to feed and clothe their children. For that reason alone, I will vote against the Bill.

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con)
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This Bill, in combination with the summer Budget, asks us to make three choices. It asks us to think about what sort of society we want to live in, the place of welfare in that society and whether welfare should be a way of life. It asks us to think about the relationship between the state, employers and labour. It also asks us about our tolerance for people being better off on welfare than in work. I know where I stand on those three issues, but I have heard that some on the Opposition Benches are wavering.

On the first of those questions—what sort of society we want to live in and the place of welfare in that society —I am pretty sure we have a consensus that welfare should be a safety net and should be a hand up rather than just a handout, but that means that a benefit such as child tax credits, which nine out of 10 families are receiving, simply cannot be right. Either a benefit should be universal, as with the NHS, or it should help those in trouble, but this one is at present stuck somewhere in between. It is absolutely right that we should move towards tax credits being for far fewer families—five out of 10 families in due course—but arguably we should go further, because in future people’s incomes should cover their cost of living. That is the direction we are going in with the living wage going up towards £9 an hour in 2020.

On the second question—the relationship between the state, business and labour—right now we have a high employment society, but we have a problem of low pay topped up by the state combined with low productivity. We need to move to a situation in which people have a decent wage and businesses keep more of their earnings through there being lower tax, with those earnings being reinvested in the workforce. We will then have a workforce that receive higher pay and that are worth more to their employers, who invest more in their workforce. That is a much better economy to have, with people being better paid and more productive.

The third question—our tolerance of people being better off on welfare than in work—was, I am sure, a real sticking point for all of us on the doorsteps. We got a very clear message from the voters at the election that it is not right for people to be better off on welfare than in work. It is a huge source of resentment when people see they are paying taxes that support somebody in a lifestyle they cannot afford. A couple might stop at having one or two children when they would like to have more but they realise they cannot afford it.

Welfare Reform (People with Disabilities)

Carolyn Harris Excerpts
Tuesday 30th June 2015

(6 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Work and Pensions
Natalie McGarry Portrait Natalie McGarry
- Hansard - - Excerpts

The Scottish Government have repeatedly called for a halt to the PIP roll-out, which has been an extremely messy, damaging and stressful process for claimants. Last week, I tabled a question to ask the Minister what review was being done of those with mental ill health who had been denied PIP on the basis of tests with a physical aspect. The answer was that the Government are not currently reviewing the matter, which is no comfort to constituents of mine who have come to me in abject despair having been denied PIP and become embroiled in the messy, uncertain and lengthy appeals process.

Disabled people are already at risk of being in lower-income households, and the UK Government’s cuts are making things worse. Currently, half of all people living in households with a disabled adult are in the bottom 40% in terms of income.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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Will the hon. Lady give way?

Roger Gale Portrait Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair)
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Order. I am terribly sorry, but the Minister must have the time to reply to the debate.