Oral Answers to Questions

Mel Stride Excerpts
Monday 5th February 2024

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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19. What steps his Department is taking to help people save for the future.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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Automatic enrolment has succeeded in transforming pension savings, with more than 11 million employees being automatically enrolled in a workplace pension since 2012 and an additional £29 billion in real terms saved into marketplace pensions in 2022 compared with 2012.

Flick Drummond Portrait Mrs Drummond
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I was very pleased when the Government brought in auto-enrolment for pensions in 2012, as making sure that everyone saves for a pension should prevent pension poverty. What is the rate of take-up of these pensions and what provisions are the Government putting in place to help those on low wages build up a pension pot to help provide a decent income in retirement?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The increase in take-up since 2012 has been extraordinary, particularly among women, for whom the rate was 40% in 2012 and is now 86% and in line with men. My hon. Friend will know about the 2017 review that we conducted on auto-enrolment. As and when we bring in those changes, that will mean 3 million more people auto-enrolled with £2 billion of additional savings each year.

Craig Tracey Portrait Craig Tracey
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I am chair of the insurance and financial services all-party parliamentary group, and financial inclusion has been one of our key areas of focus, particularly following the pandemic which showed that anybody has the potential to quickly become vulnerable. What are the Government doing to increase the financial resilience of our constituents and make them best placed to cope should such an unforeseen event happen again?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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May I first recognise the fantastic work my hon. Friend does on financial resilience? The Government have, through very difficult times, come forward with £104 billion of cost of living payments between 2022 and 2025. I would point my hon. Friend to one particular scheme: the help to save scheme encourages low-income households to save and we have recently extended that by 18 months, until April 2025.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call James Sunderland. Not here. I call the Chair of the Select Committee.

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
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I agree with the Secretary of State about the cross-party success of auto-enrolment, which has doubled the proportion of eligible employees saving for retirement, but we know that the current regular auto-enrolment contribution of 8% of earnings is not enough to deliver the standard of living in retirement that most people hope for. Does the Secretary of State recognise that that minimum level of contribution will need to be increased?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The contribution rates of the employer and employee are a very important matter, and we keep both under review.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call Jim Shannon. Always here.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

When I was 16, my mother took me to Danske bank—or Northern bank as it was then—and opened an account for me. When I was 18, my mother phoned up the pension man in Ballywalter and told him I needed a pension. My mother has been a big guide in my life. What would the Secretary of State say to encourage the young people of today to take their mother’s advice on opening bank and pension accounts and planning for the future?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I think the response to that is, always take your mother’s advice. I always did—and look where it got me. At the age of 16, I would have thought the hon. Gentleman would have been saving into a piggy bank, putting his little pennies in a porcelain pig. I direct him to the gov.uk website, where there is a plethora of information for young people and those of all ages about saving and what the Government are doing to assist.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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The good news is that Mrs Shannon is still giving him advice. I call the shadow Minister.

Gill Furniss Portrait Gill Furniss (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab)
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One of the simplest ways to get people saving for the future is by ensuring that they are enrolled in a pension scheme, but all too many are currently excluded from auto-enrolment, particularly women, who are twice as likely to miss out. The Government have known about this problem for years. They first proposed widening the criteria in 2017. Last year, thanks to a private Member’s Bill, the Minister was given the power to do just that, but still we have seen no update on when this will be implemented. Can the Secretary of State shed light on when these vital changes will take place?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The hon. Lady draws attention to savings for women. I have already stated that 40% of women invested in workplace pensions back in 2012, and that has skyrocketed to 86% today. There are now 2.3 million employers providing pensions through the auto-enrolment route, and there is £29 billion more in workplace pensions in 2024 than was the case in 2012. The hon. Lady refers, I think, to the 2017 review, which I have already referred to. That is currently under review.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
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2. What steps his Department is taking to help people with long-term sickness into work.

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Peter Grant Portrait Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP)
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4. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of levels of benefits.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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Welfare is there to help those who need assistance, including many of the most vulnerable, which is why we increased most benefits by 6.7% for 2024-25. That was on top of an increase of 10.1%, including the benefit cap, in 2023-24.

Peter Grant Portrait Peter Grant
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That is all very well, but the rate of inflation for low-paid families has been significantly higher than the headline rate of inflation for some time. That means that those families who were struggling badly last year are struggling even worse this year. Citizens Advice has shown that families on low incomes have less disposable income this year than they had last year. Does the Secretary of State accept that it is time to introduce an essentials guarantee so that nobody on universal credit or another income-based benefit can ever be allowed to fall below a level where they cannot afford the basic essentials of life?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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As the hon. Gentleman will know, we keep all benefits under review. I point him to various things that we have done to ensure that we look after those lower-income families, including increasing the national living wage by about 10% in both of the last two years; the increase in the local housing allowance to the 30th percentile announced at the last fiscal event, which will be worth about £800 a year for about 1.6 million people; and, of course, the tax cuts that the Chancellor was able to bring forward, which for an average earner are worth £450 a year.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
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Rather than deal with the known policy failures within the benefits system, the Government seem to be more focused on penalising people through, for example, the two-child cap. Last week, the Labour party joined the Conservatives in prioritising lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses rather than the two-child cap on working women. Does the Secretary of State take comfort in the fact that his cruel legacy will be protected by the Labour party?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I am not going to get involved in the crossfire between the Scottish National party and the Labour party, other than to say—[Interruption.]

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I do not need a continuing argument and disagreement. I am sure that when the questions come to an end, you can speak outside.

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. The two-child cap is there for good reason: so that families in those circumstances are taking the same kind of decisions that others—the taxpayers funding benefits—have to take.

Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab)
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5. What steps he is taking to help reduce child poverty.

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Antony Higginbotham Portrait Antony Higginbotham (Burnley) (Con)
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21. What steps his Department is taking to reduce labour inactivity.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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There are, of course, significant costs related to an increase in long-term sickness and illness rates in work. That is why we have our £2.5 billion back to work plan, to help 600,000 disabled people and people with health conditions start and stay in work. That approach, along with others, has seen economic inactivity reduce by 330,000 since its peak during the pandemic.

Andrew Western Portrait Andrew Western
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NHS waiting lists are currently at 7.8 million, with more than 177,000 people on waiting lists in my own NHS trust area. When it is this difficult to access medical treatment, it is no surprise that we have a record 2.8 million people out of work due to ill health. Does the Minister accept that this Government’s failure on the NHS is stymying economic growth, denying people the dignity of work and costing taxpayers billions of pounds?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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On NHS waiting lists, there has been progress, in that the two-year waiting lists have almost been entirely dispensed with and those of 18 months have been very substantially reduced. Our Department recognises that work is part of the solution to improving people’s health, which is why we are putting forward the WorkWell service, bringing together medical input and work coach input; fit note reform to help at an earlier stage of the journey; and the reforms to the work coach assessment. All those things are moving towards getting more people into work, which is good for their health.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell
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In Barrow and Furness, an estimated 4,000 people who could be contributing to the labour market are not doing so. I am incredibly grateful to my right hon. Friend and his team, in the Barrow jobcentre and centrally, who, alongside Team Barrow, have worked with local employers and skills providers to help get those people back into our incredibly tight labour market. Will he pass my thanks on to those teams? May I also encourage him to visit to see their good work?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting all the good work that has gone on in his constituency. I believe he opened a jobcentre only as recently as 30 January in his constituency. He is a doughty campaigner for and supporter of employment in his patch. He asks whether I will visit his constituency. I would certainly like to consider that, but my hon. Friend the Employment Minister might also visit, because she just said she was particularly keen to do so.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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There we are.

Antony Higginbotham Portrait Antony Higginbotham
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Burnley and Padiham has so much going for it—with the rest of Lancashire, our area is the manufacturing powerhouse of the United Kingdom—but still has stubborn levels of economic inactivity among people who could be contributing to economic growth and having financial security, which we all want them to have. What more can we do to help those people? In particular, can my right hon. Friend do more to join up with other Departments so that areas such as Burnley, which might have structural problems, get more intensive support?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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My hon. Friend asks what approach we can take to resolve the issues that he has raised. We have announced a doubling of universal support, a scheme with which he will be familiar; WorkWell, to which I just referred, bringing together medical support and work coaches; and reform of the fit note system so that we get involved earlier in the journey that many people experience when they fall out of the workforce into longer-term sickness and disability benefits. Overall, the evidence is clear: economic inactivity is down by 268,000 on the year, and by more than a third of a million since its peak during the pandemic—a 52% reduction.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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12. What estimate he has made of the number of jobs provided by businesses in Witham constituency.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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The Office for National Statistics estimates that 36,000 jobs were provided by employers in Witham in 2022.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
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As it is Apprenticeship Week, will the Secretary of State join me in thanking businesses in Witham for everything that they are doing to employ youngsters and put them on that apprenticeship pathway? Those businesses, however, are crying out for a labour market strategy that will help them to harness the skills and the upskilling that they need in certain sectors. Would the Secretary of State be prepared to advance that, and push it, across other Departments?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the extraordinary work that she does locally to promote apprenticeships. I believe she was involved in a jobs fair on 24 January, hosted by Reed, which was highly successful. The employment rate in her constituency is 81%, well above the national average, which I put down almost entirely to the work that she is doing. She asked how we would proceed. We already have swaps, bootcamps and returnerships, but I am indeed looking at specific areas of the labour market, particularly in the context of migration changes, where we may be able to do more on a strategic basis.

Rob Roberts Portrait Mr Rob Roberts (Delyn) (Ind)
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14. What recent assessment he has made of the potential cost of restoring parity in the level of state pension received by UK citizens living overseas.

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Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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Autistic people have a huge amount to offer in the workforce, which is why we set up the Buckland review in April 2023, led by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), to look at the barriers to autistic people gaining employment and to ensure that we have a more inclusive workforce for them.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman
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May I push the Minister on what progress has been made by the Buckland review? Will he also remind jobcentres up and down the country that people on the autism spectrum have great talents and often need only slight workplace modifications of simple things such as lighting or noise levels? This could open up a source of real talent for our country.

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Small changes can often make a big difference, not just for autistic people but for the businesses they go on to serve and work in. He will have to be a little more patient about the Buckland review report coming out, but it will not be long. I also point him to the Access to Work and Disability Confident approaches, which both do exactly what he suggests.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
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22. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of the number of people who are not eligible for statutory sick pay because they are paid less than the lower earnings limit on levels of inequality in Stoke-on-Trent North constituency.

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Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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The Department has been busy supporting the most vulnerable, with the third instalment of the £900 cost of living payments starting to reach the bank accounts of 8 million low-income households tomorrow. We are also on the verge of publishing our disability action plan. We have seen economic inactivity decrease by 330,000 since its peak during the pandemic.

I have made it a priority for my Department to engage across Parliament. As Secretary of State, I appeared before the Work and Pensions Committee in December. The pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), appeared before the Committee on 10 January; the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), appeared before the Committee on 31 January; and I believe the Minister for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), and Viscount Younger, our Lords Minister, will appear before it next month. There will be a statement on the disability action plan this afternoon.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes
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Lambeth Council and Southwark Council have worked hard over the past few years to deliver targeted cost of living support through the household support fund. Many local people continue to face serious hardship as a consequence of this Government’s political decisions, but local authorities do not know what, if any, funding they will receive after 31 March. When does the Secretary of State expect to confirm the future of the household support fund, so that local authorities can plan ahead?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I am pleased that the hon. Lady recognises the importance and value of our various interventions. Ten million payments have been made through the HSF since its inception, and £1 billion has been put into the fund in the last year. She will know that her question is a matter for the Chancellor, and the matter will quite possibly—I really do not know—be dealt with at a future fiscal event. There is no news on that at this stage.

Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con)
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T3. Anglesey has an active autism parents’ group, and brilliant coaches like Ryan Gibbs—he runs a “fighting for Autism” class—who work hard to support autistic children and each other. For parents such as Shelly Rankin Jones and young autistic people such as Becca Pierce, can the Minister update the House on the Buckland review of autism employment?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I thank my hon. Friend for her question, because autism is an issue of great importance to the House and to her personally. I know about the work that she is doing with Ryan Gibbs, Becca Pierce and Shelly Rankin Jones. She will know that the Buckland review was instigated in April 2023 and will conclude relatively shortly, with a report being published online. I look forward to visiting her disability jobs fair in Holyhead at the end of this week.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Secretary of State.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I remind Front Benchers that this is topical questions, which are meant to be short and punchy, and they should stick to the rules. Do we understand each other?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The hon. Lady refers to the latest weighted numbers just released by the Office for National Statistics, which show that unemployment as a percentage is lower than originally forecast. She cannot get away from the fact that there are 330,000 fewer people in economic inactivity since the peak. As a result of our work capability assessment reforms, the Office for Budget Responsibility has scored us as having 371,000 fewer people on long-term sickness benefits than would otherwise have been the case.

Liz Kendall Portrait Liz Kendall
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The former health Minister Lord Bethell says that he is “gobsmacked” by the figures, and that

“the economic hit will be hard”.

The Minister would do well to listen to his words. Yesterday, the Education Secretary said that the Government cannot guarantee that their promises will be met on childcare, which parents need in order to work. Today, their Prime Minister admitted that he has failed on NHS waiting lists, which the long-term sick need dealt with if they are to get back to work. Why does the Secretary of State not do the decent thing and admit that he has failed too, and adopt Labour’s plan to cut waits, roll out breakfast clubs, overhaul jobcentres and get Britain working again?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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We are getting Britain working, unlike the Opposition, under whose last Administration unemployment increased, youth unemployment went up by 40%, some 25% more women were unemployed and 1 million people or thereabouts were stuck on long-term benefits for almost a decade. That was a disgrace.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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T4. Sizewell C will provide an enormous number of job opportunities in Suffolk. Will my right hon. Friend outline the work that the Department for Work and Pensions is doing to ensure that local people have every opportunity to work on the project and acquire the necessary skills?

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James Davies Portrait Dr James Davies (Vale of Clwyd) (Con)
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T7. People with disabilities often take on voluntary roles, as there can be societal barriers to gaining employment. My constituent Philippa has a son with Down’s syndrome who volunteers, providing much-valued music workshops for local children. How can the Minister ensure that the work of people with disabilities is properly recognised in the workplace?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I congratulate Philippa’s son on the very good work that he does. We have disability employment advisers in our jobcentres. I am visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency later this week; I know that he has been involved in the Denbighshire project, including the We Mind the Gap programme for young people, and I will be interested to discuss that and other matters.

Peter Grant Portrait Peter Grant  (Glenrothes)  (SNP)
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T2.     Fife Gingerbread, based in my constituency, contacted me to point out that most of the provisions in the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act 2023, which was unanimously agreed by the House and received Royal Assent at the end of June last year, have still not been brought into force. That means that far too many vulnerable people who want to make a claim through the Child Maintenance Service find that abusive ex-partners use it to control their behaviour. Why is it taking so long to put in place the measures in the Act?

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
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I wish to place on record my thanks to the Secretary of State for helping to guide my private Member’s Bill through Parliament. It lowers the pension auto-enrolment age from 22 to 18, and abolishes the lower earnings threshold. Briefly, has the Secretary of State received reassurances from the Chancellor that the necessary forms will be implemented in the spring Budget?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Those matters are under active consideration.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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T6. Given that the Secretary of State has just said that the continuation of the household support fund after the end of March is up to the Chancellor, and given that, last week, we had the support of all parties in Westminster Hall for the continuation of this vital fund, will he assure the House that the subject is a top priority in his negotiations with the Chancellor?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The specifics of my negotiations with the Treasury remain between me and the Treasury. As I have said, the any of those decisions on the HSF are matters for the Treasury.

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi (Dudley North)  (Con)
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T9. In 2005, the DWP failed to make a reasonable decision about targeting information at the women affected by state pension age changes. The ombudsman ruled that there was maladministration. These women, in Dudley and around the country, deserve more than just an apology. Does the Minister accept these findings, and if not, will he explain why not?

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Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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T10. In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State mentioned the assessment period for cost of living payments, but people on four-weekly pay schedules miss out on support because they fall foul of the assessment period rules for universal credit. What assessment have the Government made of the number of people missing out, and what remedy do they have?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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Cost of living payments can be affected by when people are paid, and therefore by whether they are on universal credit and qualify at precisely that point. I do not have the figure to hand that the hon. Lady requests, but I will of course get back to her with it.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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This morning’s report by the Academy of Medical Sciences revealed that our appalling child health and infant mortality rates are worse than those of 60% of similar countries and is the key driver of child poverty. What assessment has the Secretary of State undertaken to make on the impact that stopping the household support fund in April will have on relative child poverty and, subsequently, infant mortality?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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As the hon. Lady will know, the number of those in child poverty has decreased by 400,000 since 2010. We do not yet have a decision on the household support fund, to which she refers, but I point her to the very significant uplift in the local housing allowance, which will give 1.6 million people £800 a year more on average, thereby taking many of them out of poverty.

Alistair Strathern Portrait Alistair Strathern (Mid Bedfordshire) (Lab)
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From unanswered emails to unreturned calls, it has been heartbreaking to hear from so many vulnerable constituents who are in a state of limbo and distress, and trying to chase up personal independence payments. When will Ministers ensure that people can get the support that they need in a timely and straightforward manner?

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Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
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Will the Secretary of State point out to the Chancellor that many councils have used the household support fund to pay £3 per day per child during the school holidays to families entitled to free school meals, and that if the fund closes at the end of March, those families will be straight into hardship in the Easter school holidays?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his representation, and indeed would be grateful for any others that he is minded to make to me as we conduct our ongoing review on where we go with the household support fund.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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When will the Minister wake up to the fact that working as an apprentice in engineering is a fabulous career choice, and well paid? Will she come up to Huddersfield to look at Cummins, whose apprentice system is first rate?