Social Security (Additional Payments) (No. 2) Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:29 pm on 6th March 2023.
Amendment proposed: 2, page 2, line 27, at end insert “or—
(ii) the person would have been entitled to a payment of at least 1p in respect of that period if the person had not been subject to a benefit sanction.”—(David Linden.)
This amendment is intended to ensure that, in respect of universal credit, payments under this Bill are not denied to a person who is subject to a benefit sanction.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Bill legislates for two key elements of the substantial package of further support that the Chancellor announced in November. It builds on our £37 billion package to help with the cost of living last year, demonstrating our continued commitment to the most vulnerable during these challenging times. This hugely important legislation lays the foundations for cost of living payments to millions of households. It underpins the Government’s commitment to supporting people across the country who we know face increased financial pressures over the next year. We have legislated to uprate benefits and pensions by 10.1%, have extended the household support fund and are supporting people with energy costs.
I am delighted by the spirit in which the Bill has been received, for which I thank Members across the House. Frankly, I do not agree with David Linden about sanctions and conditionality, but I appreciate his arguments; I can promise him that we always look at individual circumstances and are fully focused on positive engagement with our claimants and on always being fair to the taxpayer. Despite the spirit in which Wendy Chamberlain pressed her amendments in Committee, it simply was not possible to deliver what she asked, so I think we are absolutely right to have moved forward in a different way this evening.
I thank Ms Buck for raising issues around larger families. She feels that perhaps there could be a better solution. I can say honestly that we looked very strongly at whether there were any better solutions, but unfortunately we could not find them. I take her point, however, and fully appreciate the points about the flat rate with respect to larger families.
Let me reiterate that these payments are being made through the DWP’s ad hoc payments system, which does have some limitations. For instance, it can only make one type of payment of a single value at a time. However, for the families whom the hon. Lady describes who need additional help, we are extending the household support fund in England throughout 2023-24, while the devolved Administrations will receive Barnett consequentials to spend at their discretion, with the benefit of their local knowledge. I know that Opposition Members feel strongly about that. I ask all Members to look at the benefits calculator on gov.uk and at the Help for Households website, which can help all their constituents.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out the Government’s priority, which is to see inflation halved this year. It is, of course, good news that we have already seen small decreases, with greater decreases forecast for later this year. However, we have recognised the need to act to support people now, which is why, through this Bill alone, we are providing additional support of up to £1,050 for low-income and vulnerable households across the UK. Last year we delivered, successfully and at an unparalleled pace, tens of millions of payments to people throughout the country. We were able to achieve that because we deliberately kept the eligibility criteria for the payments as simple as possible, avoiding the complexity that could lead to delays and unacceptable levels of fraud or, indeed, error. These are the key principles that have guided our approach to the Bill.
I thank all Members for their contributions to, and engagement with, today’s debate and the Second Reading debate last month. I am grateful to Opposition Members who do not agree with the finer detail of the Bill for supporting the overall package that the Government have presented to Parliament. We have looked at all the feedback about how people can best be supported through difficult times. I am grateful, in particular, to the Chair of the Select Committee, Sir Stephen Timms, for his measured interventions and his scrutiny of the Bill. I pay tribute to my policy officials—the Bill team—for making all these key payments possible, and for all the other work that they have done.
Let me end by underlining the point made earlier by my hon. Friend Paul Bristow, who is not currently in the Chamber. The Bill will enable the Government to start making additional payments soon to millions of families throughout the country to help them to become better off, and I commend it to the House.
On behalf of the Official Opposition, I thank the Clerks and the Bill team for their support. While it is always a delight to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, I think I speak on behalf of the whole House in saying how delightful it was to see the Chairman of Ways and Means back in her rightful place. She chaired our deliberations with typical skill and good humour.
I was pleased that the Minister attempted to answer questions from Members on both sides of the House with courtesy, but I am afraid that some of her answers did not clarify the points put to her. The fault was not particularly in her or in the briefing that she was given; it was because of the way in which the Bill is structured. The Bill has problems because, as has been mentioned, it does not deal with the fluctuation of universal credit payments month by month. The Bill has problems for those who happen to be sanctioned when the payments are made. The Bill has problems for those who are self-employed. The Bill does not take into account larger families either, because this is a flat payment.
We will not be dividing the House, because we understand that our constituents are in desperate need of help and we recognise that the Government are spending about £11 billion on this cost of living payment, but of course we still do not know whether the Chancellor will maintain the energy price freeze at £2,500 or whether our constituents will be faced with average bills of £3,000 from April. Our constituents are losing the extra support that they have been receiving with their monthly bills as well.
The reason that the Government have had to spend £11 billion is that there is less resilience in our constituencies and our constituents are facing greater hardship than ever before. There is despair in the faces of many people that Ministers do not often meet and in communities they seldom visit, because for 13 years we have had Conservative Ministers telling us that they were going to balance the books by cutting more deeply and more brutally into social security. That is why, today, child poverty is up, pensioner poverty is up and in-work poverty is up. This Bill is welcome as far as it goes, but there are fundamental problems with the social security system. Our safety net is ever more threadbare and there is ever more desperate need and hardship in our communities. We will not divide the House this evening, but so much more needs to be done to give our constituents a better chance.
In rising to conclude this Bill, I also want pay tribute to the Clerk of Legislation and to Linda Nagy and Nansi Morgan from my own team for their help with the amendments. My position on the Bill remains that it is welcome but could have gone further. I say to the Minister—whom I genuinely respect; we have robust debates in this place, but they are just that—that the reality is that last year 6,600 people who should have had a cost of living payment did not get one because they were sanctioned. All that the amendment was trying to do was to ensure that the law had a safety net, which is the very purpose of social security, and it is regrettable that the Government voted against that tonight. I hope that, when the Minister and I are jousting about this in a year’s time, we will not look back and see an even higher figure of households that have been sanctioned. As much as the Minister and I can have robust debates, we should never lose sight of the fact that the legislation that we pass in this place, imperfect though it is, impacts some of the most vulnerable people in our constituencies, and I fear that the Government will come to regret rather hastily rejecting amendment 2 tonight, because those people will be at the Minister’s surgeries on a Friday morning, as I am sure they will be at mine. On that basis we will let the Bill go off, and look forward to the progress that it will make for those that it does include.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.