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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Committee Corner – Work and Pensions Committee chair Stephen Timms on his in-tray

Benefits are at a historically low level, Stephen Timms has said.

4 min read

Amid a cost of living crisis and stretched public services, the next 12 months will be busy for Parliament’s select committees. Labour chairs set out their priorities – next up, Stephen Timms

The Work and Pensions Select Committee has a full programme ahead. We shall publish the third of our three reports on the impact of George Osborne’s 2015 pension freedom reforms, as well as reports on childcare costs for parents in receipt of Universal Credit and on health assessments for benefits.

A new inquiry will assess the child maintenance system and how effectively it supports families living in poverty. We shall also be inquiring into the government’s Plan for Jobs. The former prime minister claimed 12 times in the House of Commons between November 2021 and July 2022 that employment was higher than before the pandemic. This was untrue – as he accepted when pressed on it at the Liaison Committee in March – but he carried on saying it anyway.

There has been a sharp fall in the number of self-employed people, and a significant number of over-50s did not return to work after the pandemic. They are not claiming benefit, so the unemployment claimant count remains very low, but they aren’t working either. Employers are finding it very hard to fill vacancies.

Withholding information no doubt spares ministers from awkward questions, but it fuels suspicion, and makes people think the department can’t be trusted.

The government set a target for its Way to Work initiative that by June Jobcentres should support 500,000 unemployed people into work in six months. It has announced that it has met the target. However, official statistics show that, in every six-month period for 20 years, at least 700,000 unemployed people moved into work. We shall be taking a careful look at the impact of Way to Work and the rest of the Plan for Jobs.

We want to know whether the Shared Prosperity Fund is an adequate replacement for the European Social Fund; whether Jobcentre work coaches could be more effective; and whether employment support should be provided to people who do not claim benefits – like older people who have dropped out – and, if so, how.

The claimant count is historically low, but youth unemployment is much higher. And unemployment among black young men is twice as high as among white young men. Employment among disabled people is much lower than the overall rate. What more can be done, when employers are crying out for staff, to bring into employment people who have been unable to work in the past, and how can Jobcentres make sure jobseekers are well-equipped for the vacancies available? Which international examples can we learn from?

We will continue to assess the impact of the cost of living crisis. Benefits are at a historically low level. They were increased in April by only three per cent, but inflation is now running at four times that, and still rising. In July, we called for deductions from benefits – to repay things like historic tax credit overpayments and Universal Credit advances – to be paused until inflation eases, to help hard-pressed families through the very difficult months ahead. We pointed out the need to raise the overall benefit cap – not increased since it was introduced almost a decade ago – in time for next April’s uprating. And we called for an evidence-based strategy to increase Pension Credit take-up, to support older people during the crisis.

The Department of Work and Pensions has become very reluctant to publish evidence. In a letter to the Secretary of State in June, I listed seven major reports that the Department had committed to publish. In her reply in July, the secretary of state at the time didn’t commit to publishing any of them. Withholding this information no doubt spares ministers from awkward questions, but it fuels suspicion, and makes people think the department can’t be trusted – an increasingly widely held view, unfortunately.

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