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Social Security

Part of Rail Update – in the House of Commons at 6:07 pm on 5th February 2018.

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Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 6:07 pm, 5th February 2018

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. There are many different aspects to the Government’s still inadequate response on how they will fix universal credit. She has highlighted one, and we heard earlier in oral questions about the debacle of free school meals and how more children will be deprived of free school meals.

What is the Minister’s assessment of the impact of the social security uprating cap on poverty levels? Does he accept the Child Poverty Action Group’s analysis that 1 million more children will be pushed into poverty as a direct result of the cuts to universal credit? Does he accept the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on the cumulative impact on disabled people, which estimates that a disabled adult will have lost on average £2,500 a year since 2010?

Despite announcing a small amount of additional investment in the autumn Budget to prop up universal credit, in reality, the Chancellor has only reintroduced £1 for every £10 cut by his predecessor. Why are the Government choosing not to uprate social security payments in a way that reflects the economic reality for those in most need? I remind hon. Members that the Child Poverty Action Group estimates that cuts to universal credit will force 1 million additional children into poverty by 2020. The social security system should prevent people from getting into debt and poverty, not make things worse.

By continuing the freeze on social security payments not included in this order, the Government are subjecting 10.5 million households to an average cut of £450 a year up to 2020. The order was a chance for the Government to recognise the desperate reality for many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society, but they have failed to do so. As charities across the sector have been asking, will the Minister ensure the end of the freeze on other social security payments in next month’s Budget statement?

The order allows for discretionary upratings to be made by the Minister where he deems it necessary and appropriate. I want to be clear that we welcome the Minister’s decision to include a 3% uprating to the work allowance element of universal credit in the list of discretionary upratings in these measures, but the reality of people’s lives demands more. This again raises questions about the consistency of the Government’s argument to uprate some social security payments and not others. If he believes that the work allowance element of universal credit should be uprated, as the Opposition do, will he explain why tax credits are not also being uprated by the same amount? Why the disparity?

The Government cut the work allowance element of universal credit in 2015, yet subsequently have recognised the need to uprate it through the discretionary element in the order—although not to a level that reflects the reality of the rising costs of living and previous cuts. Is that an admission that they were wrong to cut work allowances in 2015?

Moving on to the pensions element of this uprating, I welcome the uprating of the state pension via the triple lock. I am glad to see that has survived, given the Government’s indifference to it last year, but I want to put on the record concerns about the public’s levels of understanding of the new single-tier pension and the paucity of information the Government have made available. As we know, there are both winners and losers as a result of the Government’s changes and most new pensioners will not receive the full single-tier pension. Before its introduction, it was estimated that only around 22% of women and half of men reaching state pension age would be entitled to the full single-tier pension. Will the Minister update the House on that?

In addition to the numerous social security payments subject to the Government’s benefits freeze and not uprated in this order, there are some very significant further omissions. Although the state pension is being uprated, people who have frozen pensions are excluded from the uprating and will not see an increase in their state pension in line with inflation. Pensioners living abroad face very different circumstances depending on whether their country of residence has a reciprocal agreement with the UK for the uprating of state pensions. Pensioners in countries without this arrangement see their pensions frozen at their initial retirement level, which means that the value of their pension falls in real terms every single year.

More than half a million people currently have their pensions frozen, mostly in Commonwealth countries such as India, Australia, Canada, parts of the Caribbean and New Zealand, and in countries with strong family and historical links to the UK such as Pakistan and parts of Africa. The Opposition believe that their pensions should be protected in the same way that the pensions of other UK citizens living abroad are in the future, yet the Government are choosing to withhold the pension uprating in this order from 550,000 recipients living outside the UK. This is a chance for the Government to make an historic change to our pension system and support our policy to end future arbitrary discrimination against some British pensioners living overseas by uprating in line with inflation from this point. Will the Minister look again at that issue and take action to address that inequality?

Not only have the Government failed to support pensioners living abroad; they have failed to address the current injustice faced by many millions of women born in the 1950s. It is important that the Government not only recognise the real injustice that women born in the 1950s have been dealt as a result of Government changes to pensions policy, but take action to remedy this injustice.