This week, a number of ‘estimates days’ debates took place in Parliament. These debates take place each year to discuss the level of public spending by government departments.
Huw participated in the estimates day debate on spending by the Department of Work and Pensions. He praised the department’s record of getting more people into work but spoke of the need to go further in helping those with terminal illnesses who face delays in receiving disability benefits. “I am very proud of the Government for what they have done in putting people into work and in targeting support,” he said, “but we still have individual policy areas that we need to fix and on which we should do better. We must never rest on our laurels.”
Watch the full speech below:
I spent a happy year sitting behind Ministers PPS-ing at the DWP. I was really passionate about working there, because it is a Department that can really make a difference; it has a huge spend and a vast range of levers to really help people and make a difference. Alternatively, if things go wrong, we see where people are hindered.
In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) referred to a number of Conservative Members elected in 2017 to seats that might previously have been described as the Labour heartlands. I want to add North East Derbyshire, a seat we won in 2017, to the list. I stood for that seat in 2010 against Natascha Engel—a former occupant of the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and an excellent MP. I spent two and a half years there. I remember how toxic the benefits culture there had become: an issue that set neighbour against neighbour.
People were concerned that they were working hard while they saw other people who they thought were not putting in the shifts. At times, that was unpleasant and unfair: it is very difficult to tell who is capable of work and who is not, and neighbours are not necessarily able to make the distinction. But I was troubled by the situation and by the statistics showing that, in 2010, 1.4 million people had been on long-term benefits for nine years and 2.6 million had been on them for five years. Clearly, that was a difficulty.
The big challenge for any Government elected in 2010, whether Labour or Conservative, was to work out how to get people capable of work off benefits and give them the tools, access and ability to step into work, thus reducing the benefits bill and focusing funds on those who really could not work. It was about helping and empowering those who could work to get into and rise up the jobs market.
I think my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar is right about electoral success. Fast forward to now, and we see that the approach has gone down incredibly well with voters—not only those who saw people on benefits who perhaps should not have been, but those people themselves, who wanted the help and were given the encouragement.
We have seen people moving into work, and that has been a huge success. From listening to Opposition Members, one would think that the benefits system was completely rosy. As I have said, not only were too many people on benefits—trapped on benefits—but if we look at the tax credits system and the attacks on universal credit, we can see that universal credit has been rolled out in a slow, progressive manner, and we have changed it as we have gone along, while tax credits, which were rolled out in one big bang, were overpaid by over £7 billion, and over £2 billion had to be clawed back from those who were actually the poorest. I do not want to take too many lectures on how to introduce a successful benefits system, because we have seen how things have failed before. What has most impressed me about the Department is that it has learned from the failings over the years and has tried to do things better.
I am absolutely passionate about universal credit, because I have spent time with my jobcentre and seen the enthusiasm that the work coaches have for it. When we go into a jobcentre now it is not like going into some cold, austere office where people are too scared to go in and get any help. It feels almost like a recruitment centre to help people. There are help points and people who are passionate about helping people into work.
I am really proud of this Government’s record. I believe that every Government should be judged on what they have done in helping people into work. As I have said before, on every occasion the Labour party has left office, it has done so with unemployment higher than when it entered, which has got to be considered a failure. The Conservative party has been able to secure 3.6 million extra jobs. We have also increased the living wage, taken people out of tax and incentivised them. We have tried to focus on people who need help the most. It is said that all these jobs are low-paid, but 70% of them are highly skilled. It is said that wages are not going up, but for the 15th month in succession wages are going up by more than inflation. The proportion of jobs that are low-paid stands at its lowest level for 20 years as a result of the national living wage. Yes, there is more to do, but let us not knock the record that we have delivered.
I am going to make one suggestion, and I am echoing a point made by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who talked about the Motor Neurone Disease Association. He and I played football against that organisation, and I found it the most extraordinary moment. It was incredibly touching to play alongside them, and I then met that team. The organisation makes the very good point, which is also made by the Marie Curie cancer organisation, that it cannot be right that we have to test those with terminal illnesses for their disability benefit. They are reliant on a doctor saying that they will die within six months, but GPs are not comfortable saying that. The challenge for us as a Government is really to listen, and to look at how much such a change would cost. We know those people are going to be able to claim benefits in the main, so it is only a delay while they have to wait. However, they do not have time to wait, and I would like our Government to look at that. It is not just about those in that period of six months, but also those who have managed to survive their terminal illness three years and then have to be retested.
While I am very proud of the Government for what they have done in putting people into work and in targeting support, with almost an extra 1 million disabled people in work as well—we have record levels—we still have individual policy areas that we need to fix and on which we should do better. We must never rest on our laurels.