Social Security

Part of Rail Update – in the House of Commons at 6:36 pm on 5th February 2018.

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Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston 6:36 pm, 5th February 2018

While I too am pleased that a number of benefits have been uprated in the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2018, overall I am disappointed in it for the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams and Neil Gray. In too many cases, in failing to offer any uprating at all of certain benefits it serves to embed meanness in our social security system, particularly against the backdrop of rising prices that we have heard about.

We see a number of specific instances in this order where the Government simply say the benefit rate “remains unchanged”—or, in other words, is frozen—despite the rise in prices. We see that, for example, for income support, for jobseeker’s allowance and—I was shocked to see—for the bereavement support grant. We also know from my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth that the consequence of the freeze and other cuts will be a very significant rise in the number of children growing up in poverty.

The consequence will be huge hardship for families. We have already seen food bank use rise tenfold over the last decade, and it will increase further. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported that the lowest income households are already struggling with personal debt and paying the bills; their situation will simply worsen as a result of these frozen benefits.

I have to say that the decision to impose this freeze for a period of four years is, frankly, wicked. In a civilised society, our social security system is here to meet need, and there is no way the Government can assure this House that it will do so if prices continue to rise over that period while benefits remain frozen.

Contrary to what the Government appear to believe, meanness—a lack of generosity in the system—does not improve its legitimacy. Conversely, one thing that does improve the legitimacy of the system is recognising contribution, so it is depressing that the order misses the opportunity to improve a number of the contributory benefits that it covers. We are in the ridiculous situation where some contributory benefits are being reduced pound for pound from the equivalent means-tested benefit. While this is not a new problem, it is exacerbated by the introduction of universal credit. For example, income-based jobseeker’s allowance in universal credit is not taxable, but contributory-based JSA is deducted from universal credit pound for pound, and it is then taxed into the bargain, leaving the claimant worse off than a claimant who has not contributed. We see a similar situation with widowed parents allowance, which is based on the deceased partner’s contribution record. Because universal credit brings together a number of benefits in one single payment, deductions of contributory benefits can be taken not just from the equivalent income-based component of universal credit but from other help in universal credit such as payments towards housing costs or towards the cost of raising children.

As I say, this problem is not new, but in some respects it is being made worse, and I hope that the House will uniformly agree that to penalise people who have made a contribution in this way is not actually moral. Disregarding at least a proportion of contributory benefit for the purpose of calculating means-tested entitlement would be a powerful recognition that people should be rewarded, not penalised, for making a contribution. That is important for building confidence in the social security system . It is also a matter of simple justice. I find these orders disappointing at best, and in some respects downright cruel, perverse and unethical. I urge the Minister to make good on these defects, and to do so as a matter of urgency.