Support for Disabled People
I understand that disabled people and their families can encounter many hidden costs, from specialised equipment to travel expenditure.
You may be aware of the Government’s publication of the National Disability Strategy, which focuses on the issues that disabled people say affect them the most across all aspects and phases of life, including education, housing and transport.
I am also delighted to see the publication of the Health and Disability Green Paper and I look forward to reading the Government's response to the attached consultation in due course.
The Green Paper considers how to improve the DWP’s current services so they are better and easier to use, explore how extra support can help people navigate the system as well as what can be done to better support disabled people into employment. Spending in this area increased by almost 5 per cent in 2020 from £19 billion to £20 billion.
I welcome the new £500 million Household Support Fund for vulnerable households who need some extra support over the coming months with the cost of essentials. The new Fund has been available to councils in England since October with councils able to distribute funding within local areas to directly help those who need it most.
To help with travel costs, many councils also offer free or discounted fares and I am encouraged by updates to the Access to Work programme which enable people to access a blended offer that provides support both at home and at someone’s normal place of work.
It is vital that our welfare system supports those who need it and would emphasise that £55 billion is spent per year on benefits to support disabled people and those with health conditions. I know my colleagues across government continue to monitor research and campaigning from a wide variety of sources as they consider the future of welfare and disability policy.
The Child Disability Addition under Universal Credit (UC)
The UC disabled child addition (DCA) is intended to provide extra support to low-income families with a disabled child.
To clarify, there are two rates of monthly DCA payments a parent with a disabled or severely disabled child is entitled to under UC. Children who receive Disability Living Allowance (DLA) care component at the middle or lower rate, the DLA mobility component at either rate of those rates, Personal Independence Payment (PIP) at the standard daily living rate, or PIP at the standard or enhanced mobility rate will receive £128.89. Children who receive DLA or PIP at the highest rate, or are certified blind will receive £402.41.
A child or young person in receipt of DLA or PIP will be eligible for support of up to £152.15 a week, on top of their family’s Universal Credit entitlement.
Tax-Free Childcare helps around 2 million families with the cost of childcare. Everyone who earns at least £120 per week on average, but does not exceed £100,000 per annum, can apply for the scheme. Working parents are able to apply via an online childcare account, and access up to £2,000 per child, or £4,000 for disabled children. Temporary changes have been made to the eligibility criteria during coronavirus, and more information can be found at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/check-if-you-can-get-tax-free-childcare-and-30-hours-free-childcare-during-coronavirus-covid-19.
The Government is committed to building back fairer by delivering the National Disability Strategy ensuring we improve the everyday lives of disabled people and their families across jobs, housing, transport, education, shopping, culture, justice, public services, and data and evidence.
I hope this assures constituents that there is wide range of support in place for parents of children with disabilities.
Public Sector Pensions
With the cost of providing public sector pensions increasing, reforms were introduced in 2015 to ensure that public service pensions remain affordable and sustainable in the long term, and that the burden on the working population remains proportionate. As part of these reforms, most public sector workers were moved to new pension schemes, while transitional provisions were introduced to allow older public sector workers to remain members of the previous schemes.
The Court of Appeal ruled in December 2018 that these transitional provisions amount to unlawful discrimination and the Government’s attempt to appeal this decision through the Supreme Court has not been successful. As part of the court process, the Government ran a consultation to gather views on how best to rectify the discrimination identified in the policy of transitional protection.
Following consideration of consultation responses, I welcome that the Government will implement the deferred choice underpin (DCU). The DCU will give eligible scheme members a choice at the point their pension becomes payable, whether they wish to receive benefits from their legacy scheme or benefits equivalent to those that would have been available under their reformed schemes in relation to their service between 1 April 2015 and 31 March 2022.
The Government is bringing forward the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill, to provide requisite powers to deliver these changes to public service pension schemes.
While employees will be compensated in a way that satisfies the Court of Appeal’s judgment, I know the Government remains committed to delivering public sector pensions which are fair to both workers and taxpayers.
Second Jobs for MPs
While Members of Parliament have duties and responsibilities to represent their constituents both in the constituency and in Westminster, they have long been allowed to have a second job. I believe that in some circumstances, having a second job can broaden Members' perspectives and experience which can contribute to their expertise. It is important to note that Members must register individual payments of more than £100 which they receive for any employment outside the House. They must also register individual payments of £100 or less once they have received a total of over £300 in payments of whatever size from the same source in a calendar year.
An MP’s primary job is and must be to serve their constituents and represent their interests in Parliament. They should be visible in their constituencies and available to help their constituents with constituency matters. If they do not fulfil this role, they will rightly be judged on that by their constituents at the next election.
In light of recent events, I am glad that the Prime Minister proposed that recommendations 1 and 10 of the Committee on Standards in Public Life's 2018 report on MPs' outside interests be implemented. These recommendations state that "any outside activity undertaken by an MP... should be within reasonable limits and should not prevent them from fully carrying out their range of duties". And, further, that "MPs should not accept any paid work to provide services as a Parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant" paid or unpaid.
As you may be aware, changes to the Code of Conduct are a matter for Parliament itself and, as such, I am encouraged that the House of Commons voted in favour of these recommendations. These changes will be brought forward by 31 January 2022 through cross-party work, including that being done by the House’s Committee on Standards. The Government believes that these changes will command the confidence of parliamentarians and the public.
More broadly, I welcome that the Government will be looking to work on a cross-party basis to achieve improvements in our system for future cases handled by the Standards Committee. The Government has been clear that this should not be based on a single case or applied retrospectively.
Deaths Related to the Benefits System
This is of course a highly emotive issue, and it is important to remember that behind the numbers each individual death is a tragedy for that person’s family and loved ones. However, it would be wrong to draw broad conclusions about benefit assessments or sanctions based on individual cases, which are complex and varied.
I have spoken with colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) who assure me that, in the rare case that there is an allegation that DWP’s actions may have contributed to a person’s death, they take it very seriously. There is a wide-ranging, independent, and transparent system for investigating such cases, including through the Coroners, the Independent Case Examiner, and the Parliamentary Health Service Ombudsman. For instance, where engaged, a Coroner has responsibility for concluding the cause of a person’s death.
Internally, where DWP is made aware of a death and there is a suggestion or allegation that its actions or omissions may have negatively contributed to the customer’s circumstances, it will conduct an Internal Process Review to scrutinise departmental processes and, if appropriate, identify recommendations for changes. In recent years the Department has broadened the range of circumstances in which a review can be carried out to increase learning from such cases.
You may also be aware that DWP set up the Serious Case Panel in 2019 to consider and learn from systemic themes and broad issues arising from serious cases. The Panel tracks recommendations to ensure they are implemented, in order to reduce the incidence of such cases in future. The minutes from each meeting are made available shortly after each panel sitting via the gov.uk website, alongside the Panel’s Terms of Reference.
Wealth Tax – EDM 420
Please note that I do not sign any Early Day Motions (EDMs). These have no chance of becoming law, and according to the House of Commons Library, cost £271 each to publish. I do not feel that this is a good use of taxpayer’s money, nor do I feel that this is an effective way to raise an issue in Parliament.
I continue to raise my constituents’ concerns with ministers privately and in Parliament to ensure that North Devon is represented in the most appropriate way. I also feel that EDMs have also been superseded by e-petitions, which can be signed by everyone, and have much more success in raising awareness of different issues.
The UK does not have a comprehensive, single wealth tax, but it does have several taxes on assets and wealth. These taxes operate across many different economic activities, including the acquisition, holding, transfer and disposal of assets, and income derived from assets. The UK’s taxes on wealth are broadly equivalent to those of other G7 countries.
The UK’s progressive income tax system means the top 1% of income taxpayers are projected to have paid over 29% of all Income Tax, and top 5% are projected to have paid over 50%, in 2019-20.
As a former teacher myself, I understand that teachers have a huge impact on children’s futures and I want all our children to be taught by the brightest and the best. I am aware that over the course of the pandemic teachers and educational staff have faced many challenges and played an incredible role in ensuring that children have continued to receive a fantastic education.
I am aware the 31st report of the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) was published on the pay award for teachers and is now in place as of September 2021. As set out in the 2020 Spending Review, there will be a pause to headline pay rises for the majority of public sector workforces in 2021-22 to ensure fairness between public and private sector wage growth. I believe that this approach will help protect public sector jobs and investment in public services, with those earning less than £24,000 receiving a £250 increase.
The Department for Education has confirmed the intention to accept the recommendations from the STRB in full. This includes a pay award of £250 for all teachers earning less than £24,000, or the recommended equivalent value for teachers in London pay areas, and the introduction of advisory pay points on the unqualified teacher pay range, as was the case for teachers on the main pay range and upper pay range last year.
As a result of the Government’s three-year investment package announced at the 2019 spending round, this pay award will be affordable within school budgets. The funding for core schools was increased by £2.2 billion for the 2021-22 financial year and it will be increased by a further £2.4 billion in 2022-23.
I am aware that a consultation has taken place on the Government’s response to these recommendations and on a revised school teachers’ pay and conditions document and pay order, which lasted for eight weeks. The outcome of the consultation will be published in due course.
This pause in public sector pay rises will ensure that we can get the public finances back on a sustainable path following the Covid-19 pandemic. I would like to take this opportunity to thank teachers again for their remarkable commitment throughout the recent difficult times.
Triple Lock on the State Pension
As I am sure you are aware, the pensions triple lock ensures that the state pension increases by the higher of 2.5%, earnings, or inflation – as long as earnings rise. Last year earnings fell. While I am very pleased that the Government acted fast to get millions onto furlough that covered 80% of their wages, this means that average earnings fell, and so under the Social Security Administration Act 1992, pensions were legally prevented from being raised without new legislation. Acting in the interests of this country’s pensioners, I voted for the Government’s new legislation that, for one year only, allowed us to bypass the constraints of the 1992 Act and raise pensions regardless. Last year we kept our triple lock, and pensions were raised by 2.5%, that figure being higher than inflation.
This year we are faced with a statistical anomaly. As working people came off furlough they returned to 100% of their wages, an 8.8% increase in wages, but just from employees coming off furlough, not wage inflation. As a result of this the Triple Lock has again been reviewed this year and amended to be a Double Lock which ensures the State Pension will rise by the higher of 2.5% or inflation, which is expected to be the highest of the two.
Amending the Triple Lock has not been a decision that has taken lightly, and I have met with the Secretary of State with the Pensions Minister this week and had confirmation that this is a one year amendment to a Double Lock given the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, as last year’s amendment to ensure a rise, despite a fall in earnings was also just for the one year. I recognise retaining the Triple Lock was a manifesto commitment, yet no manifesto included a global pandemic, and the now £407bn that has been spent protecting jobs, livelihoods and rolling out the vaccine.
Universal Credit £20 Uplift
The £20 uplift to Universal Credit was a temporary measure brought in during the pandemic, and has provided an unprecedented lifeline during the extended period of the pandemic. This support adds up to between £6-9billion per year, and were it to remain, this would need to be paid for by an additional tax rise for hard working families across the UK.
This is not to say that I do not understand, and have great sympathy with the individual cases that will find the readjustment of family budgets by £86 per month difficult. I sit on the Work and Pensions’ Select Committee and hear much evidence from across the country on the situation. But there are many people under the Universal Credit umbrella who are looking for work, and certainly here in North Devon, there are an abundance of job vacancies, and we know that the best route out of poverty is through work. I recognise that 38% of those on Universal Credit are already in work, even if part time, and I have met with Ministers in Westminster and am assured that the Skills for Life and other programmes coming forward will help those in jobs, get better jobs, or be able to work for more hours if currently part time.
I personally hope we will find a way to help those families that need the additional support and who for whatever reason are unable to work at this time. Our Barnstaple Job Centre Plus, that covers North Devon do a fantastic job helping people into work, and I urge those families concerned about this change in benefits to contact their work coach to ensure they are claiming everything that they are entitled to, but that is now targeted support that is needed for families with specific needs.
As this IFS report shows https://ifs.org.uk/publications/15528, many of the new claimants to Universal Credit since the onset of the pandemic are single people without children, indeed 63% of the increase in the Universal Credit caseload has been from single people without children who therefore have a lower entitlement. This will mean that the withdrawal of the temporary uplift, as a percentage of their income, will be larger, but given the number of job vacancies that we have I am sure the earnings can be made up via the workplace.
The Universal Credit system has stood up incredibly well during the pandemic and has provided the lifeline needed for millions. It is important to note that the opposition would replace Universal Credit, yet have no plan what they would replace it with.
I commit to continue to work with Ministers and the Select Committee at Westminster to highlight how better targeted support can reach those in our community who need it. I will continue to call on government to develop a poverty strategy to provide appropriate targeted support which I believe is a combination of help with childcare costs, debt management and particularly an issue around the cost of housing in many parts of the country, which outweigh any income rises.
I believe that the passion, commitment, and specialist knowledge of our NHS staff is part of what makes our NHS so special. Frontline NHS workers have played a vital and unique role throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and I know we are all grateful for their dedication. It is right that they receive a pay rise, despite the wider public sector pay pause, in recognition of their extraordinary contribution.
That is why I warmly welcome the Government’s acceptance of the independent pay review bodies’ recommendation to give a 3% rise to NHS staff. This real-term increase will benefit 1 million of our NHS staff, including nurses, paramedics, consultants, dentists, salaried GPs and porters. For the average nurse, this will mean an additional £1,000 a year, while many porters and cleaners will receive around £540. I firmly support the decision to provide this pay uplift in recognition of the NHS’ extraordinary work and the impact of the pandemic.
It is absolutely vital that we back our NHS and support it in efforts to tackle both the Covid-19 pandemic and the backlog of other health problems that have built up. The historic long-term settlement for the NHS will see NHS funding increase by £33.9 billion by 2023/24 and, in recognition of the unprecedented pressure from the pandemic, a further £3 billion of additional funding is being provided in 2021/22 to support recovery from the impact of Covid-19.
I share the Government’s commitment to making the NHS the best place to work for all staff and welcome continued investment in recruitment and retention. There are currently almost 1.2 million staff working in NHS trusts, an increase of over 45,300 compared with a year ago. This includes over 4,000 more doctors and almost 9,000 more nurses, meaning the Government is on track to deliver on the commitment to recruit 50,000 more nurses by 2024.
I can assure you that I will continue to play my part in ensuring that we support all those in our health service who are working tirelessly to care for patients.
Flexible working patterns can be mutually beneficial to the employer and the employee, helping attract and retain a workforce, increasing productivity and reducing costs.
The Government guidance still states that where an employee can work from home they should continue to do so. If they cannot work from home, for example those working in construction or manufacturing, they can go to their workplace. The Government keeps this public health guidance under constant review, taking into account the latest scientific and medical advice.
Separate to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, legally, at present, all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service with their employer have the right to request flexible working. The Government will be consulting in the longer term on making flexible working the default unless employers have good reasons not to, as committed to in 2019 Conservative Party election manifesto, which covers a range of working arrangements around the time, place and hours of work, including part-time working, flexi-time, or compressed hours, not just working from home. I understand this consultation will be published later this year, with legislation to follow when Parliamentary time allows. I am sure you will agree this is a welcome step and demonstrates the Government’s desire to deliver on our manifesto commitment to protect and enhance workers’ rights.
Ministers have also consulted on proposals for large employers, with over 250 employees, to publish their parental leave and pay and flexible working policies, and to advertise jobs as open to flexible working. I understand that they are now considering the next steps.
The current arrangements provide that all employees meeting the service requirement have the legal right to request flexible working, not just parents and carers, by making a statutory application. Options for a request include working from home, job sharing, working part time or full time over fewer days, flexi-time, annualised working hours, staggered hours compared with colleagues and progressing through a phased retirement.
Once an application has been made the employer has three months to decide, or longer if by agreement with the employee. Agreement with the request will lead to a change in the employee’s contract, whereas in the event of refusal the employer must write to the employee setting out a legitimate business reason for the refusal. In the event of a dispute the employee may have recourse to an employment tribunal.
Finally, more broadly, I have also been reassured that ministers are working with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development to commission the Flexible Working Taskforce to put together non-binding advice for employers around some of the work being done in the workplace and some outside of it, as many employers would typically already be doing. The Taskforce can help to take forward the best of what has been learned through the pandemic and help support workers and employers to adapt to new ways of working.
I am committed to ensuring that older people receive the support they are entitled to, so they can enjoy dignity and security in their retirement. That is why I am glad the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) engages with people who may be eligible for benefits at pivotal moments in their lives, such as when they claim State Pension or report a change in their circumstances.
Speaking with colleagues at the DWP, they assure me that they use a wide range of channels to communicate information about benefits to potential customers, including gov.uk, leaflets and telephone. DWP staff in Pension Centres and Jobcentres, including visiting officers, are able to provide help and advice about entitlement to benefits, as are Local Authority staff who administer Housing Benefit. People can also use the Pension Credit calculator (https://www.gov.uk/pension-credit-calculator) to check if they are likely to be eligible and get an estimate of what they may receive. People wishing to claim Pension Credit can call 0800 99 1234 or can claim online.
In February 2020, the DWP launched a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of Pension Credit. The aim of the campaign was to encourage those over State Pension age to check whether they are eligible. It made clear that having savings, a pension or owning a home are not automatic barriers to receiving Pension Credit, as well as explaining that even a small award of Pension Credit can provide access to a range of other benefits such as help with rent, council tax reduction schemes and heating costs.
I am also aware that letters to 11 million pensioners about increases in the State Pension now include an accompanying leaflet with specific information about Pension Credit. As a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, I keep a close eye on these matters.
Fairness for the Frontline
I fully support the Government's announcement last year of a pay rise of 2.8% for doctors and dentists, backdated to April 2020, in line with the recommendations of the Review Body on Doctors’ and Dentists’ Remuneration. This pay rise is an important acknowledgment of the commitment and hard work of staff throughout this difficult time, and I am assured that the Government is working to deliver as much as it can in NHS pay rises.
Protecting Retail Workers from Abuse
This is an issue that I take incredibly seriously, and I am deeply concerned by cases of violence on the high street, particularly in retail premises. Those who work on the high street should be able to go about their work without fear of abuse and intimidation. Quite simply, retailers should not see abuse as part of the job.
It was a positive step forward when ministers announced a call for evidence to provide a greater understanding of the scale of the issue. In response to the call for evidence, the Government has recognised that there are issues that need to be dealt with, and I am encouraged by the Government's robust response. This includes working with the National Retail Crime Steering Group (NRCSG) on a best practice guide to support staff in reporting these crimes, strengthening and making full use of existing laws, and improving data sharing between businesses and the police.
I do appreciate the strength of feeling behind the calls for the Government to legislate in this area through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. However, I do not believe such a change is necessary. It is already the case that the Sentencing Council has set out guidelines in which it specifically refers to people such as retail workers in an important public service position, which means that the courts should be increasing sentences and finding aggravating factors where shop workers have been the victims of crime.
More broadly, I understand that police demand is changing and becoming increasingly complex and it is the first priority of government to protect the public. As such, the Government has a key responsibility to ensure Police and Crime Commissioners have the necessary funding to keep communities safe.
The clear commitment made by the Prime Minister to put more officers back on our streets is an important step forward. Boris Johnson made it clear in his first speech on the steps of Downing Street that making our streets safer is a key priority. You may be pleased to know that nearly 9,000 police officers have been recruited since the Government launched its 20,000 new officers by March 2023 recruitment drive.
I recognise that the violence and abuse that shop workers can face can have a significant impact, not only physically but mentally and emotionally, and we must ensure that all the action being taken enable shop workers to feel safer.
I would like to first be clear that NHS pay has not yet been finalised and we are at the beginning of the process, not the end. The NHS is one of the world’s largest employers and any pay change will have a significant financial impact, and I know that the matter has been of great focus and negotiation for my Ministerial colleagues.
The Government submitted evidence to the independent NHS pay review about what it considered was affordable. The unions have asked for 12% pay increases, and I believe that they know this is unaffordable and inappropriate in the financial circumstances. The Independent Pay Review Bodies will make recommendations in late Spring, when they will be considered by the Government, and I anticipate that the recommendation will come back somewhere in between the Union and the Government recommendations. While I appreciate that this is not precise, I cannot pre-empt what the Independent Pay Review bodies will decide.
I believe that the passion, commitment and specialist knowledge of our NHS staff is part of what makes our NHS exceptional. It has been a difficult year for us all, and I share my constituents’ strong feelings, good will and gratitude to those NHS workers who have worked bravely and tirelessly throughout the pandemic. I know that many of my MP colleagues and government Ministers share this gratitude and recognise the sacrifice, commitment and dedication of our NHS workers over the past year. While I believe it is important to honour this, the Covid-19 pandemic has had real consequences on public finances which cannot be ignored.
I have been assured that what the Government has tried to do with its recommendation for a 1% pay rise for NHS staff is to give NHS staff as much as it can at the present time. It is important to see this in the broader context: all but the lowest paid workers across the public sector have had their pay frozen for 2021/22. In addition, we should not forget that over 1 million NHS staff also continue to benefit from multi-year pay deals agreed with trade unions, including a pay rise of over 12% for newly qualified nurses, with the average nurse pay now £34,000 per year, and that junior doctors' pay has been increased by 8.2%.
I welcome the investment that the Government has already made in the NHS workforce, including £513m in professional development and increased recruitment, £30m on staff mental health support including wellbeing hubs and occupational health support, and the new bursary programme giving at least £5,000 each year to new nursing, midwifery, and Allied Health professional students. The Government has also led the way to ensure that we have all taken actions to protect the NHS through the national guidance and restrictions in the last 12 months.
The Government has already committed to a pay rise for NHS staff during 2021/22, in spite of the pay freeze in the wider public sector. While at this stage I am not aware whether a decision has been made about the date from which the pay rise will apply, I will of course continue to monitor this issue closely.
Those on the front line in the NHS and in care homes have made an invaluable contribution to the fight against Covid-19, and I have great admiration for those in these vital professions. While I understand that a one-off bonus has not been offered in England, I know that my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care are aware of the strong feeling about this matter.
Fire and Rehire
I am aware that there have been reports of several businesses and industry sectors considering making large numbers of staff redundant. I appreciate that many businesses have been significantly affected by the Covid-19 outbreak, including those operating in the hospitality, leisure, entertainment, culture, travel, retail and transport sectors, and I sympathise with anyone who is facing redundancy during the pandemic. Redundancy is never an easy process to go through, and it is important that those who have been made redundant are aware of their rights.
The Private Members’ Bill, introduced by Gavin Newlands MP, seeks to prevent businesses from adopting ‘fire and rehire’ tactics. Although I appreciate the strength of feeling which a small number of constituents have, I do not support the Bill, as ultimately terms and conditions of employment are a matter for employers and employees. Companies should behave responsibly, and employers threatening to fire and rehire as a negotiating tactic is completely unacceptable, but there is already recourse for those who feel they have been treated unfairly. If an employee feels they have been dismissed unfairly, they should first check their rights: https://www.gov.uk/redundancy-your-rights, before they consider taking their case to an employment tribunal.
While employers and employees must be given the flexibility to arrange the terms and conditions of employment, I expect all employers to treat their workers fairly and in the spirit of partnership. I strongly condemn the use of ‘fire and rehire’ as a negotiating tactic.
I would like to reassure you that I have, nonetheless, spoken to my ministerial colleagues to make sure they are aware of the concerns of employees. During this difficult time, it is only right that employers should act responsibly and therefore only use the Job Retention Scheme to protect jobs. I understand that the Government is urging employers not to use the Job Retention Scheme irresponsibly and thereby to make someone redundant on less favourable terms than they would otherwise have received.
I welcome that, to better understand the issues in relation to fire and rehire, the Government is working with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). As part of this, there have been a number of roundtables and discussions with businesses, employee representatives and other bodies to discuss the issues in more detail. This helped to build an evidence base which ACAS has presented to the Government. I understand that officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are considering the options and next steps, and ministers will publish a report in due course. It is important that the Government continues to stand behind workers and to stop unscrupulous practices where they occur.
Each individual employee will face different circumstances, but there are a significant number of rules and processes that employers have to follow, and I would urge anyone facing redundancy to visit the Coronavirus page on this website. Information specifically relating to redundancy can be found here: https://www.selainesaxby.org.uk/redundancy-advice
With the Government's broader vision for adult skills in mind, wanting to reduce complexity in the adult skills landscape and recognising the need to work closely with a wide range of key stakeholders and experts, the National Retraining Scheme is being integrated into the National Skills Fund.
The National Retraining Scheme will no longer continue as a separate programme, but rather its work and learning will be rolled into the development of the National Skills Fund. This will be reflected in wider communications around the National Skills Fund and the broader offer for adult skills. It will include the conclusion of the trials of the Get Help to Retrain service, a digital platform that helped adults identify their existing skills as well as new training options.
I regret any loss of jobs in the UK as a result of redundancy, and I very much appreciate the efforts of BT staff to keep communication lines open during a period where many people have relied on them to work or learn from home.
I have been assured that my ministerial colleagues regularly engage with BT about a range of topics, including their UK workforce, at both the official and ministerial levels. Ultimately, BT is a private company and decisions about structure and employment are a matter for BT’s Board. I am encouraged that BT's approach is to minimise redundancies through natural attrition and to provide opportunities to re-skill and redeploy workers whenever possible.
Ministers are committed to boosting job creation, and the 'Plan for Jobs' announced during the Summer Economic Update makes up to £30 billion available with a clear goal to create, protect, and support jobs, and to spur the UK's recovery following Covid-19. The plan includes three main points: supporting people to find the jobs that are out there, creating new jobs through investing in our infrastructure and housing, and protecting jobs by revitalising the hard-hit sectors upon which many jobs depend.
Ministerial Maternity Act
I appreciate the great strength of feeling on this issue, on both sides. The Government accepted an amendment in the House of Lords to Bill to call pregnant women 'mothers' and not 'people'. The overriding purpose of the Act is to ensure that ministers are able to benefit from maternity leave, on the same terms that Civil Servants and the Armed Forces are able to do.
Since 2007, when changes were introduced by the then-Labour Government, successive governments have sought to avoid gender-specific pronouns when drafting legislation. This has been to ensure that we do not assume only someone of a particular sex is able to do a particular job.
Notwithstanding, Ministers listened to the concerns and agreed that the amended wording was legally acceptable. I understand that different people have different concerns about the wording, and it is clear that however the wording is set, there are some who will feel it is wrong. However, I believe that the overarching focus should be that Ministers will benefit from maternity leave if they are entitled, regardless of how they identify or what gender specific wording is used.
The Government has put forward a clear commitment to supporting people through this challenging time, with unprecedented packages of support being rolled out for businesses and individuals alike. I welcome that additional support is being provided through the welfare system, representing an injection of around £9.3 billion.
As I understand it from discussions with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Government has delivered a suite of measures that can be quickly and effectively operationalised to benefit those facing the most financial disruption during the pandemic. It is important to remember that new claimants will generally be receiving Universal Credit (UC), and claimants on legacy benefits can make a claim for UC if they believe that they will be better off. There are special arrangements for those in receipt of the Severe Disability Premium, who are now able to make a claim to UC. However, claimants should check their eligibility before applying to Universal Credit, as legacy benefits will end when they submit their claim and they will not be able to return to them in the future.
It is important to add that those on legacy benefits may have benefitted from other support such as mortgage holidays and the income protection schemes. The increase in Local Housing Allowance rates benefits both Universal Credit claimants and legacy claimants in receipt of housing support. This significant investment cost almost £1 billion and ensures that more than 1 million households will see an increase, on average, of £600 per year. In addition to the extra support provided through UC and Working Tax Credit, the legacy benefits were increased by 1.7% in April 2020 following the announcement to end the benefit freeze.
When someone is facing the end of their life is it vital they get the support they need quickly. That is why the Special Rules for Terminal Illness (SRTI) provide simple and fast access to benefits for people with a terminal illness or limited life expectancy. The SRTI allow claimants who are unlikely to live longer than 6 months to claim under a fast-tracked process without the requirement for waiting periods or a face-to-face assessment and in most cases, to receive the highest rate of award.
The following benefits allow claims to be made under the SRTI; Personal Independence Payment, Employment and Support Allowance, Universal Credit, Disability Living Allowance and Attendance Allowance. A claim made under the SRTI is generally supported by a short form, completed by a hospital consultant, GP or specialist nurse.
I know supporting those nearing the end of their lives is a priority for the Government and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has conducted a wide ranging evaluation which considered the views of claimants and clinicians on how it supports those nearing the end of their lives. The evaluation covered three areas. Firstly, hearing directly from claimants and charities about their first-hand experiences. Secondly, considering international evidence to find out what works in other nations and the support they provide. Finally, reviewing current DWP performance to better understand how Special Rules for Terminal Illness process operates and performs.
Having spoken with colleagues at the DWP I understand that key themes arising from the evaluation include the desire to change the 6 month rule, the need to improve consistency with other services and the importance of raising awareness of the support that is available. I know that my colleagues at DWP and across government are committed to ensuring those nearing the end of their lives get the vital support they need and I will continue to follow this important matter closely.
Now that we have left the EU and taken back full control of our laws, the Government has been clear that there will be no reduction in workers’ rights. The Working Time Directive has been transposed into UK law through the Working Time Regulations 1998, and under the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 these and other Regulations have been retained.
The regulations provide that, subject to certain exceptions where the nature of the work makes it impractical, employees cannot work more than 48 hours a week averaged, normally, over a period of 17 weeks. It is possible for employees to opt out of this provision voluntarily and in writing, either indefinitely or for a specified period. Employers can request that an employee opts out but cannot terminate their employment or treat them unfairly if they decline.
Ultimately, the UK has one of the best records on workers’ rights in the world, going further than the EU in many areas, and I am determined to build on this progress.
Scope Campaign for Disabled
It troubles me that so many people with disabilities feel forgotten during this crisis. As well as addressing this, we must ensure rights are not diminished, and look for opportunities to change things for the better, for good.
Having read the Scope report in detail, I learnt of much worthwhile work. As well as ensuring those who feel forgotten are aware of this work, we must look for gaps and further opportunities. I am aware that my ministerial colleagues are also aware of the report.
Regarding welfare, the Government acted quickly to suspend all face-to-face assessments for health and disability related benefits while also extending award periods, giving people peace of mind that their benefit payments would continue. I am encouraged that ministers are protecting the health of individuals claiming these benefits, many of whom are likely to be at greater risk of severe Covid-19 symptoms due to their pre-existing health conditions.
My view is that measures in the Coronavirus Act are temporary and proportionate to the threat we face. It is important that they will only be used when strictly necessary and will only be in place for as long as required to respond to the public health emergency. Local authorities are still expected to do as much as they can to comply with their duties to meet needs during this period, and the legislation does not remove the duty of care towards an individual's risk of serious neglect or harm. The legislation must not be used as cover for negating basic duties.
Trades Union Congress Petition on Key Workers
“The Government is committed to supporting the lowest paid workers for their hard work and valuable contribution to the economy. The introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) has delivered the fastest pay rise for the lowest earners in 20 years.
I am glad that the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, pledged to raise the NLW further, to two-thirds of median earnings. This is expected to be £10.50 by 2024, making the UK the first major economy in the world to set such an ambition. This rise in the National Living Wage will be especially important for those whose incomes have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. I also look forward to seeing the recommendations for 2021’s minimum wage rates from the independent Low Pay Commission in the Autumn.
While not suitable for everyone, I believe that zero-hour contracts have a part to play in a modern, flexible labour market because, for a small proportion of the workforce, that may be the kind of contract that is right for them. Two-thirds of workers on these contracts do not want more hours.
However, it is important to make sure that those benefitting from the flexibility of these contracts are not exploited by unscrupulous employers and I welcome that action has been taken in this regard. In 2015, the Government legislated to ban exploitative zero hours arrangements meaning it is now illegal for employers to include exclusivity clauses in these contracts.”
IR35 (Off payroll working rules)
The fair tax treatment of individuals working across the labour market is a well-established principle of the UK tax system. The off-payroll working rules are designed to ensure that where two people are working in the same way, but one is directly employed and one is working through a company, broadly the same amount of tax is paid. Without these rules there is nothing to prevent employers moving employees off-payroll simply to avoid paying employment taxes.
However, the cost of non-compliance with these rules is set to reach £1.3 billion per year by 2023/24 if not addressed. This is an unsustainable cost that is borne by taxpayers up and down the country. This reform will improve compliance by moving responsibility for determining whether the rules apply from a contractor’s limited company to their client. This is not a new tax but a transfer of responsibilities within the existing rules.
This reform has been in place in the public sector since 2017. Unless this reform is also introduced in the private sector, a disparity of treatment will continue, potentially leading to recruitment and retention difficulties in the public sector and unfairness for contractors working for public sector clients.
Pregnancy & Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill:
I sympathise with anyone who have been made redundant or who is currently facing redundancy, particularly during this already challenging time. The Government is doing all it can to save as many jobs as possible but regrettably, it is not possible to save every job.
The Pregnancy & Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Private Members’ Bill, which failed to complete its passage in the previous Parliament, was re-introduced on 8 July 2020 by Mrs Maria Miller MP. I understand that the Bill seeks to further protect employees from being made redundant as a result of being pregnant or on maternity leave. I understand that its Second Reading is scheduled to be on 16 October and I look forward to hearing more on this important issue.
There are some circumstances in which an employee who is pregnant or on maternity could legally be made redundant, and these include if the businesses closes down either temporarily or permanently, if the business moves and the employee cannot get to the new premises, or if fewer employees are required for existing work.
However, the law is very clear, if an employee is made redundant because she is pregnant or on maternity leave, this is unfair dismissal and also pregnancy/maternity discrimination. If this is the case, an employee should check their rights online (https://www.gov.uk/redundancy-your-rights) and if necessary take their case forward to an employment tribunal.
Impact of Coronavirus on Disabled People
It troubles me that so many people with disabilities feel forgotten during this crisis. As well as addressing this, we must ensure rights are not eroded and also look for opportunities to improve things for good. I have brought Scope’s report to the attention of my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Government Equalities Office. As well as ensuring those who feel forgotten are aware of this, we must look for gaps and further opportunities.
Local authorities are providing support to those people on the National Shielding List in the form of essential grocery supplies and social contact. People who are shielding are also entitled to priority supermarket delivery slots and medicine delivery. The list is maintained by the National Shielding Service. If you are not on the list and think you should be, there are details on the gov.uk website advising you how to register (either online or by phone). You can also register via your local council website. This information is available at https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus-extremely-vulnerable and on the NHS website here: https://digital.nhs.uk/coronavirus/shielded-patient-list.
Regarding welfare, the Government acted quickly to suspend all face-to-face assessments for health and disability-related benefits while also extending award periods, giving people peace of mind that their benefit payments would continue. I am encouraged that Ministers are protecting the health of individuals claiming these benefits, many of whom are likely to be at greater risk of severe coronavirus symptoms due to their pre-existing health conditions.
My view is that measures in the Coronavirus Act are temporary and proportionate to the threat we face. It is important that they will only be used when strictly necessary and will only be in place for as long as required to respond to the public health emergency. Local authorities will still be expected to do as much as they can to comply with their duties to meet needs during this period, and the legislation does not remove the duty of care towards an individual's risk of serious neglect or harm. The legislation must not be used as cover for negating basic duties.
I am incredibly grateful for the commitment and selflessness of key and public sector workers who have kept people safe and ensured vital services could continue over the last few months. Last year, a number of those working in the public sector received above inflation pay rises. This included most members of the armed forces who received a 2.9 per cent increase, teachers and school staff who received a 2.75 per cent rise and police officers at 2.5 per cent. This was the biggest public sector pay rise for six years.
Following constructive negotiations between NHS employers and trade unions, a new deal will see a 6.5 per cent pay rise over three years for one million NHS nurses, midwifes and other Agenda for Change workers. Those on the lowest salaries in the NHS will see some of the largest proportionate pay rises: the lowest NHS starting salary will increase year on year from £15,404 to £18,005 in 2020/2021. Many nurses and healthcare assistants will enjoy pay increases of at least 25 per cent.
I understand the argument for increasing public sector pay in recognition of public servants’ efforts, and I want to make it clear that there are no plans to freeze public sector pay, contrary to some media reports. Public sector pay is kept under constant review, and I will impress upon the Chancellor the need for the efforts of workers to be properly recognised.
Diabetes in the Workplace
Protecting lives remains the main priority for the Government. Safety will always come first and that is why approximately 2.5 million have been asked to shield themselves, as they are most at risk of needing hospital treatment if they were to contract Covid-19. Clinically vulnerable people have been asked to follow the rules on social distancing particularly stringently.
If someone is shielding, which can be for various reasons including age or medical condition, their employer is expected to make every effort to enable them to work from home. If they are unable to work from home, they should discuss their options with their employer. It could be that an employer may be able to offer different types of leave, different working patterns or perhaps a different role.
There are several support schemes available to businesses who are struggling during this crisis, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-employment Income Support Scheme. These schemes are designed to support both employers and employees and to protect jobs.
It is important to state that employees have protection against unfair dismissal and, if they believe they have been unfairly dismissed, which could possibly be on the grounds of discrimination, they should contact the Employment Tribunal. Further details can be found online at: https://www.gov.uk/employment-tribunals.
While businesses can only re-open in accordance with Covid-19 Secure guidelines, which does include a risk assessment, if someone has been advised to shield then they should continue to follow this medical advice.
Face-to face Benefits Assessments
“I want to see as straightforward and sensitive an assessment process as possible. As a member of the DWP Select Committee, my role is to scrutinise processes such as face-to-face assessment, so I can assure you that this is something of which I am aware and which I will continue to follow closely.
I recognise that individuals with mental health conditions face particular challenges in the application and assessment process for benefits. Special provisions are in place to support people with a mental health condition in making a claim. For example, individuals may bring a relative, carer or friend to the assessment. I also understand that all health professionals carrying out disability assessments receive specific training in assessing mental health conditions.
The pauses to face-to-face assessments were brought in to safeguard the public and staff, and in recognition of the need for DWP staff to focus on the processing of new claims. I have been reassured by my colleagues in DWP that they are currently reviewing these measures in light of the latest public health advice and will confirm next steps as soon as possible.”
Thank you for contacting me about British Airways and COVID-19, and I do appreciate that this must be an uncertain and worrying time for British Airways staff and their families.
I would encourage airlines to make full use of the unprecedented support made available by the Government to assist with wages and financing. Support is on offer through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (which has now been extended until the end of October), the Time to Pay scheme, the Bank of England's Covid Corporate Financing Facility and other schemes.
The Government has also taken action to help airlines specifically in dealing with the financial pressures they are currently facing. For example, the UK voted in favour of giving airlines the ability to defer payment of charges for European air navigation services for February-May 2020, for 14 months. Given that in February alone the UK's ten largest airlines would have been expected to pay a total of £47.2 million for flights in European airspace, this deferral should go some way to help airlines manage their current financial burdens.
I know that the Government is also in regular contact with airlines, including British Airways. Rest assured that I am monitoring the situation very closely and listening to the views of those here in our constituency. I will convey the concerns fed back to me to my Ministerial colleagues.
State Pension Overseas
The UK State Pension is payable worldwide and is uprated abroad where there is a legal requirement to do so. In some countries, however, there is no agreement with the UK for securing the social security rights of people moving between the two countries. As a result, pensioners who move to these countries still receive the State Pension but do not have their payments uprated as they would be for UK residents. The Department for Work and Pensions endeavours to make this clear to those thinking of moving abroad and publishes guidance on its website.
It has been and remains the policy of successive governments not to enter into new agreements with countries or territories where this would include up-rating pensions in order to contain the long-term cost of the UK social security system.
I appreciate that this response will be disappointing, but it represents the continuation of well-established policy.