[Relevant documents: Fourth Report of the Work and Pensions Committee, Universal Credit and childcare costs, HC 127; Second Report of the Work and Pensions Committee, The Cost of Living, HC 129; Fourth Report of the Work and Pensions Committee of Session 2019-21, The temporary increase in Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit, HC 1193; and Third Report of the Work and Pensions Committee of Session 2019-21, Universal Credit: the wait for a first payment, HC 204.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with
(1) further resources, not exceeding £88,727,809,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 1383 of Session 2022–23,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £571,264,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £89,293,628,000, be granted to His Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Guy Opperman.)
I call the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee to open the debate.
I am very grateful to have been granted today’s debate about DWP spending.
I will focus in particular on universal credit, whose roll-out started 10 years ago in 2013. The DWP is forecast to have, by some considerable margin, the highest expenditure of any Government Department, at £279.3 billion in this financial year, followed by the Department of Health and Social Care, at £201 billion. DWP spending is the largest by a considerable distance.
Of course, the DWP forecast is uncertain. Almost all its funding counts as annually managed expenditure; it is hard to forecast demand-led spending. DWP’s admin spending—departmental expenditure limits—is 27% lower in real terms this year than in 2010-11. Universal credit spending is forecast to be £50.8 billion this financial year, which is £8.8 billion higher than forecast in these estimates last year, reflecting the recent much-needed uprating and a higher case load. In February, 4.5 million households were receiving universal credit payments.
A key argument in the business case for universal credit was the prospect of reducing fraud and error. Nearly a quarter of the £34 billion net present value gain expected over 10 years from introducing universal credit was due to come from lower fraud and error. In fact, fraud and error have been much worse than they were for legacy benefits. The Department’s statistics show that the universal credit overpayment rate decreased, but from an astronomical 14.7% in May 2021 to 12.8% last year. I know that the Department is setting out to address that problem, and that it has obtained resources from the Treasury to do so. Underpayments were at their highest-ever recorded rate last year, at 1.6%. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us about plans for tackling those problems.
An additional reason that it is so important to get decisions right at the moment is that universal credit is a passport to cost of living support payments. There was a strong case for merging the various benefits into universal credit, and the success of the system in getting urgently needed support out effectively during the pandemic was very important and very impressive. However, there are some big problems—above all, the problem of the five-week wait between applying for the benefit and receiving the first payment. With legacy benefits, the first payment would usually arrive a week and a half or so after applying. With universal credit, having spent hundreds of millions of pounds on what we were always assured was agile technology, the same thing now takes five weeks. That is a fundamental and unnecessary flaw; the security is absent from social security.
In January 2021, the Government rejected the Select Committee’s recommendations to eliminate the wait and instead pay all first-time claimants of universal credit a starter payment equivalent to three weeks of the standard allowance, just to tide people over. The Government response pointed out that claimants can access advances, but of course, those are loans. Repayments reduce the already low monthly awards, and repaying advances is a major driver of the explosive growth in food bank demand that we have seen. Our colleagues in the other place, those on the Lords Economic Affairs Committee—with its Conservative Chair—succinctly highlighted the consequences of the five-week wait in July last year:
“the five-week wait for the first payment…drives many people into rent arrears, reliance on foodbanks and debt.”
As such, I ask the Minister once again whether the Government will reconsider our recommendations, or whether we have to wait for a different Government for that fundamental flaw to be addressed.
I am very pleased to say that one area in which the Government have listened to the Committee is reimbursement of childcare costs for people claiming universal credit. I warmly welcome the lifting of the cap and up-front payments for childcare announced in the Budget, and I hope that our future reports will have comparable levels of success. Those changes will support people to be in work in future.
Last week, the Child Poverty Action Group published a fascinating report called “You reap what you code”, highlighting areas where the universal credit computer system does not deliver what it should. It gave the example that legislation and guidance allow some groups to submit a universal credit claim up to a month in advance, but the system does not allow that, nor is there an adequate workaround outside the digital system. As such, some care leavers and prisoners expecting release can miss out on an entitlement that they are due. For all its success in the pandemic—I am unstinting in my recognition of that success—the rigidity of the digital system is a problem. Can the Minister tell us whether a fix is planned for that problem of early claims, which the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted last week?
Does the level of benefits meet need in the way it is supposed to? Do benefits represent value for the taxpayer? The Committee is conducting an important inquiry into benefit levels in the UK, and will report in the first half of next year. Benefit levels are very low. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust told the Committee that
“the basic rate of Universal Credit—its standard allowance (or equivalents in previous systems)—is now at its lowest level in real terms in almost 40 years (CPI-adjusted) and its lowest ever level as a proportion of average earnings.”
They estimate from pretty careful research that a single adult needs £120 per week to cover essentials: food, utilities, vital household items and travel. That is excluding rent and council tax. Universal credit’s standard allowance is £85 per week for a single adult over 25. That is a shortfall of at least £35 per week, and deductions—for advance payments, for example—often pull actual support well below the headline rate.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust call for an essentials guarantee. They make the point—which has been suggested this week in the press—that we might get a below-inflation uprating of benefits next year, making those problems even worse. I would be grateful if the Minister gave an assurance on that front, because that would be very bad news indeed.
Does the Chair of the Select Committee agree that the Government need to resist the temptation to try to plug the gaps with one-off payments? They should actually look at the wider, more structural problems that they have with the social security system, rather than just try to plug gaps when the system is falling apart at the seams.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I very much value his contribution to the work of the Select Committee. He is quite right, and I hope that we will be able to look at some of those structural issues over the course of the inquiry.
If universal credit did meet basic needs, other demands—including on food banks—would decrease. When the £20 a week uplift to universal credit was introduced, there was a significant drop in food bank use; when that uplift was removed, food bank use went straight back up again. Universal credit was intended to make work pay, but how can it achieve that aim if people do not have the means to pay a bus fare, for example? In evidence to the Committee, the Trussell Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Public Law Project all highlighted not being able to buy public transport tickets as a significant barrier to work. As far as we can tell, the Government have made no assessment at all of whether benefit levels are adequate. If I am wrong about that, I would very much welcome the Minister telling us, but there is certainly no evidence of such an assessment ever having been made. I hope the Department will look very carefully at the findings of our report when they are published in due course.
One other point was highlighted in a briefing for this debate prepared by the charity Barnardo’s. That charity describes the two-child limit as the single biggest policy driver of child poverty in the UK, and says that ending it would be the most cost-effective way of reducing child poverty, lifting a quarter of a million children out of poverty and easing the poverty of a further 850,000 children. The cost of doing so would be £1.3 billion per year. I must say that I am puzzled about the justification for the two-child limit: it presumably reflects a belief that parents should not have more than two children, but as far as I understand it, that is not the Government’s view. Indeed, Government Members are understandably starting to worry about our falling birth rate, so why do we refuse to provide support for children beyond the first two? Is it not time to just scrap that limit, which does not seem to make any sense?
Another reason for higher DWP expenditure this year is the continuation of cost of living support. Expenditure is forecast to increase by just over £2 billion this year, due to higher payments—£900 in this financial year, compared with £650 last year—and higher take-up. Those payments have been crucial, but they do not fully meet need, particularly the £150 disability support payment. Last month, Maddy Rose of Mencap told the Select Committee that the payment is “clearly not commensurate” with the extra costs that those eligible incur, and we have heard other strong evidence to the Committee along those lines. Helen Barnard of the Trussell Trust told us last month that the cost of living payment
“has certainly helped the families that have got it, but of course, it is a flat payment. It is not calibrated for the number of people you are trying to feed, so it has clearly gone less far if you are a family with children than if you are a single person or a couple.”
That is one of the reasons why the Trussell Trust data shows a faster rise in food bank demand among families with children than among families without.
The lump sum nature of the payment is problematic. Citizens Advice, speaking for many, told the Committee that increments to universal credit would be better than one-off payments. Our colleagues on the Treasury Committee called on the Government last December to provide monthly payments over a six-month period to give more households support at the time of their greatest need and reduce the severity of the disincentives to work. The Government rejected that proposal, essentially due to the limitations of the IT system, but as we know from the pandemic, monthly universal credit can be increased overnight.
The need to meet a specific qualifying period for each payment window has led to what evidence to the Committee has described as
“a cliff edge where receiving a nil UC award one month—maybe due to a sanction or a higher salary due to backpay or a bonus—caused recipients to become ineligible for the entire cost of living support payment in that qualification period.”
I am looking forward to discussing cost of living support further with the Minister responsible for social mobility, youth and progression—the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mims Davies—at the Committee tomorrow morning.
A very important aim in achieving effective spending is transparency over how the money is being spent and what is being achieved. The Department has had a very poor record in recent years, so I warmly welcome signs of a new commitment to transparency since the appointment of the new Secretary of State. Keeping things hidden, which has been the Department’s practice, has the short-term advantage for Ministers of avoiding having to answer sometimes awkward questions, but over the medium and long term, people depending on the Department form the impression that it is conspiring against them. The result is terrible mistrust, causing the Department very serious problems over time—for example, the very serious lack of confidence in the DWP among disabled people at the moment. It does not have to be like that, but changing things requires deliberate effort on the Department’s behalf.
None of the recently introduced employment support initiatives had regular performance reporting on introduction. I warmly welcome the Minister’s announcement of six-monthly performance reports for the restart scheme. That is one of the signs of welcome change in the Department’s approach, but it should be the norm and part of the arrangements built in at the outset, not something that has to be dragged from the Department kicking and screaming subsequently. Greater openness could deliver a wholly different relationship between the Department and the people depending on its services, with the Department seen to be working with those it serves, rather than conspiring against them.
An interesting suggestion in the Child Poverty Action Group report I mentioned earlier, “You reap what you code”, is that the source code for the universal credit computer system should be published. There would no doubt be some security concerns about doing that, but could not a small team—with experts from disability groups, Citizens Advice and software experts—be charged with reviewing that software and proposing improvements, perhaps in an annual report, a little bit along the lines of what the Social Security Advisory Committee does at the moment?
Let me briefly say a word about a different aspect of the Committee’s work. We have been worried by the cuts to the funding of the Health and Safety Executive, and one result has been drastically fewer inspections of workplace asbestos. We published a report on this last year, and called in particular for two things—a target to remove all workplace asbestos within 40 years together with a plan to deliver it, and a central digital register of all workplace asbestos and of its condition. The Government rejected those recommendations, although I do welcome the agreement of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Mid Sussex, to meet a group of us, together with three industry groups and the Health and Safety Executive, to discuss further the idea for a register. That meeting will take place later this month.
I very warmly welcome the launch of the campaign by The Sunday Times at the weekend drawing attention to the continuing scale of the tragedy being inflicted by asbestos even now, a quarter of a century after its use was banned. It is still the biggest source of workplace-related deaths. The Sunday Times campaign headlines in particular our two recommendations, and I do hope that Ministers will now recognise the need to act. I welcome the fact that The Sunday Times will be running this campaign on a consistent basis.
I again thank the Backbench Business Committee for recommending today’s debate. I would be very interested to hear from the Minister specifically how Ministers are assessing whether the different cost of living support payments meet needs and whether they are reaching the right people, and also how and when Ministers will decide whether payments along these lines will be needed next year. I look forward to the debate we are about to have.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Sir Stephen Timms. This is an opportunity for us to scrutinise the spending of the DWP as a whole, and I think it is important to reflect, as the Chair did, on the amounts of money that we are talking about. Spending on pensioner benefits equates to £134.8 billion and spending on universal credit and equivalent benefits equates to £82.8 billion, and that is before we look at disability and carer benefits, housing benefit, incapacity benefits and the one-off cost of living payments.
We are talking about a significant amount of money, but we are not just talking about it in the whole or in the round. I am sure that all of us here, as constituency MPs, know that casework associated with the DWP takes up a significant proportion of our casework teams’ time. Frankly, that is usually because of errors in the system. We know that every constituent’s circumstances are unique, but the themes are the same and the consequences for people’s day-to-day lives and living circumstances can be significant. I will highlight a survey carried out by the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality—campaign that reports that nearly one in three women who have been impacted by changes to the state pension have fallen into debt in the last six months. That is people’s day-to-day lives. Given the amount of money spent on the DWP, I think we all, on a cross-party basis, would want the money that is spent to be used effectively and efficiently. I want to use my time this afternoon to highlight some of the inefficiencies in the system and seek updates from the Minister on points that I hope he will address in his concluding remarks.
On the state pension, it is important that we recognise that those who are most reliant on the state pension are those who are least able to work for longer. I want to highlight the current LEAP—legal entitlement and administrative practices—correction exercise for underpayments of the state pension, and to ask the Minister to confirm whether the Government are still on track to complete those corrections by the end of 2024. In February 2023, they had paid out only £200 million of the target of £1.5 billion.
I also want to highlight the uptake of pension credit. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has advised that there is a policy proposal on the table looking at combining the housing allowance and pension credit systems. It believes that that would increase uptake of pension credit, which I know the Pensions Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Laura Trott—has been working very hard to do. If that is the case, why is it potentially being pushed back to 2028?
Home responsibilities protection errors were discovered last year and mentioned in the DWP’s annual report. When people had accrued HRP under the old state pension, there were errors in converting it to national insurance credits in the move to the new system, and that left people with incomplete records and underpayments. When I say people, it is generally women. We are still waiting for the report to set out the scale of the problem now and how the DWP plans to fix it. I would be grateful if the Minister mentioned when that correction exercise will start. I urge that it starts in parallel with the current correction exercise rather than being delayed until after the current exercise is finished. Again, a lot of these issues tend to be for women. It feels to me that the way systems are set up sometimes means that they do not recognise the situation of women who have been in the workplace, the decisions they make for family and other reasons, and their caring responsibilities.
I want to mention the missing national insurance credits for people who received universal credit. The Minister confirmed to me in a letter in March that the automatic system for updating the records did not work because the format of the UC data sent to His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs did not work with its systems, so that was suspended. This has meant that NI records are being manually updated, with errors being made as a result. I think this ties in with the Chair of the Select Committee’s comments about IT and the problems that legacy systems sometimes have. We all remember that the £20 uplift in universal credit was never seen by those on legacy benefits, and the initial reason given for that was that the IT systems could not cope, and that was never addressed. Does the Minister think that all those corrections to NI records will be made by the end of 2023-24, and may we have an update on the number of pensioners who are still missing out on their full entitlement?
If we want work to work, and to work effectively, we must acknowledge that we need to do more on pensions. For me, a startling statistic is the fact that most people are not in work a year before their pension age. For a variety of reasons people are not working, and they are therefore waiting for their state pension. Recent DWP reporting puts the gender pension gap for private pensions at a staggering 35%. Do the Government have an estimate of the gender pay gap if they include people who have no private pension entitlement at all? I suspect that if they have not been included, the gap will be somewhat larger. Will the Government make it a departmental statutory objective to close the gender pension gap?
That brings us back to women, because that changing portfolio of careers that women potentially experience will increasingly be the case for many people. I think about my own background before I came to this place. Increasingly, people do not stay in one organisation for 30-plus years and then draw down their pension from that organisation; they instead do a variety of different jobs in different places. As a result, the pension dashboard that was introduced by the Pension Schemes Act 2021 becomes even more critical so that people can keep track. Again, I would be grateful for an update from the Minister on that roll-out.
Let me return to benefits and the insufficiency of income. A number of us were present at the statement on the disability cost of living payment, and there was a general acknowledgement, certainly on this side of the House, that insufficiency of income is at the root of that. DWP data shows that in 2021 one in six people were in relative poverty, and one in five after accounting for housing costs, while 13% were in absolute poverty and 17% after housing costs. The Resolution Foundation estimates that that figure will rise in 2023-24 to 18.4% after housing costs.
Keeping people in poverty has negative outcomes. When people are financially insecure, they are more likely to have health or mental health problems, and more likely to struggle to get into work—it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I echo the comments of the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee on the uprating of benefits. The previous uprating, which was welcomed, was simply to keep up with inflation. If the problem is insufficiency of income, not committing to do that going forward just makes the problem worse.
I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on ending the need for food banks, and our “Cash or food?” inquiry deals specifically with how we better support people and ensure a decrease in the use of food banks. In my constituency—indeed, this is something the Scottish Affairs Committee is looking at—the rural poverty premium is real. The Chair of the Committee mentioned transport costs, and going from East Neuk in my constituency to the jobcentre in Levan costs £9 on the bus. When talking about the small amounts of money that constitute universal credit, we can quickly see where that money goes, and that is before someone potentially has to go shopping in premium local shops as opposed to Aldi and Lidl. Money goes very quickly.
The hon. Lady made a good point about benefits and the key role that they play in creating a wealthy society. She may or may not know that there is an interesting TED talk called “Where in the world is it easiest to get rich?” The answer is: in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, where they have identified that one of the key aspects of creating a wealthy society is a good benefits system that enables workers to go around with some security, and society and children to have security as well. If we want to have millionaires and billionaires, we need a very good benefits system.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. Absolutely; I think we all look to the Scandinavian countries to see how they promote quality of life and support individuals, and we must think about how we can better support that. Indeed, the public generally tend to support that. They are comfortable potentially paying more in tax to have better services, and that debate must continue to be had.
I am pleased that my carer’s leave private Member’s Bill is now the Carer’s Leave Act 2023, and it will for the first time give employment rights to unpaid carers. One of the huge challenges when I was engaging with unpaid carers in my constituency—I have said this in the Chamber before—was the number of people who had left work because of their caring responsibilities, and therefore they would not benefit from provisions in the Act. Sadly, it is a fact that too many unpaid carers and the people they care for are living in poverty.
Carers UK estimates that unpaid carers are providing care worth £162 billion a year, and when we contrast that with the costs of the Department through the estimates debate, we can see the comparators. Without unpaid carers, our economy would be severely strained. Some 45% of unpaid carers are estimated to be unable to afford their monthly expenses, and two thirds of those who receive carer’s allowance or the universal credit carer element say that they cannot meet their monthly expenses. The level of carer’s allowance needs to be increased urgently—I have called for that before, and I will continue to do so.
We must also think about how we taper carer’s allowance. Caring never stops, and we should not have people falling off a cliff edge in relation to hours worked. Frankly, that is a disincentive for people going into work, because if they have the choice between working or caring for their loved one, they will choose their loved one every time. For young carers, I am not just concerned about their education; I am also concerned that we will never get them into the workplace if we do not provide them with the support to get there.
I am conscious that some unpaid carers decide to step out of the workplace for some time and then their caring responsibilities end, potentially through the loss of a loved one. What are we doing to support unpaid carers, who might have been out of the workplace for some time, to get back into work? There are similarities with issues such as parental leave and other decisions, and we should be looking at that body of people, who frankly are some of the best multitaskers I know, given their skillsets, and how we can help them into work.
Finally—this is an issue that other Members will be hugely aware of—child benefit thresholds are becoming an increasing problem, particularly given some of our frozen levels of income tax. It is a ticking timebomb. Families do not apply for child benefit if they know that they will not be entitled to it, but because those levels have never changed, that is increasingly an issue for stay-at-home parents—again, those are usually women; there’s a theme—who then miss out on accruing national insurance credits for the state pension. They do not realise that if they do not apply for child benefit payment, even to be told that they do not apply, they cannot pick up the national insurance credits, and that can be a real issue. Will the Minister consider reviewing the scheme for accruing credits for stay-at-home parents, or at the very least doing an awareness-raising campaign, as has been done for pension credits and other things? This is a good opportunity, whether a Member has an interest via the Committee, or otherwise, but as a constituency MP I want, and my casework team want, the DWP to be working as effectively as possible, so that those who need help get it, and those who can get into work are supported to do so.
It is a pleasure to follow Wendy Chamberlain. I find myself resonating with her comments on carers and the lack of support that exists in so many different ways, but particularly through the social security system, and the billions—multiple billions—that are provided in equivalent support to this country that we sadly do not adequately recognise.
I also pay tribute to the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms, for all that he does in the plethora of different inquiries that the Committee has held over the past few years. I am particularly pleased about the work that we are doing on the adequacy, or inadequacy, of the social security system, and the important things that will reveal when it is published early next year.
This debate is about DWP spending. Associated with that is what it means for the priorities of the Department and, in particular, the Government’s priorities for social security as a whole. I will focus my remarks on the fall in support for working-age adults. We need to recognise that particular group and the impact that fall is having on so many different families across the country.
We have had two major welfare reform Acts, in 2012 and 2016. I will refer to the latter in a moment, but the cumulative impact of those up to the pandemic was the equivalent of a 17% reduction in working-age support, which in cash terms is about £33 billion. That was only slightly offset by the temporary increase in universal credit during the pandemic. Although I welcome the uprating last year, and I support what my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham said about that, it does not at all make up for the last 10 or 11 years of significant cuts. That has had an impact on relative poverty across the UK.
Just under one in three children in the UK are growing up in poverty, and in my constituency the figure is nearly one in two. We also know that just under two thirds of children growing up in poverty live in families where at least one adult is working. The implications of these cuts for those children are not insignificant. We now have the highest ever level of in-work poverty. What on earth does that say about this country? It is shocking.
Many people who know me will know how strongly I feel about the impact of these cuts on disabled people. One in three disabled people are living in poverty, which is twice the rate for non-disabled people. It is totally unacceptable. These are the most vulnerable people in our society, and we are failing to recognise their needs and support them.
I know that the Minister will come back and say, “Actually, poverty has reduced.” The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reflected that in its annual report, which came out at the beginning of the year. Yes, poverty levels have gone down, but that reflected the fact that during the pandemic we saw reductions in overall incomes, and with relative poverty that is the position. Importantly, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that it was also about different choices that the Government made at the time. As much as we are talking about now, we must recognise that that £20 a week of additional support made a difference to those poverty levels. Poverty is not inevitable; it is about political choices. Again, I hope we can reflect on that.
When I speak to my constituents in Oldham East and Saddleworth, and indeed people across the country, they tell me that they feel our current system no longer provides the safety net that it was set up to provide in the post-war settlement with the British people, and they are right; it is inadequate. Following on from their first-hand experience during the pandemic, polling shows that two thirds of Britons think that universal credit is too low.
Not only has the adequacy of the UK’s social security system diminished over time—in terms of average weekly incomes, it is approximately half of what was provided after world war two—but it is also lower than most of our European neighbours, with data from 2018 showing that our social security spending as a percentage of GDP was below EU27 and OECD averages.
We must never forget that the post-war Labour Government created the NHS and the welfare state. As we mark the remarkable achievement of our NHS with its 75th anniversary tomorrow, we must reflect on the principles of universality and access for all, which I would like to see reflected in our social security system, too. Like our NHS, our social security system should be there for all of us in our time of need, whether that is a result of illness or disability, of being unable to work anymore because we have reached retirement age, or for any other reason. It should provide basic financial support and should be valued for the safety net it provides. That is not the case now, and that is why I am advocating for a new social contract that defines the future of our social security system. A good starting point would be the essentials guarantee that my right hon. Friend talked about. That has been proposed by the Trussell Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, but a wide coalition of charities have advocated for it. They found that 90% of low-income households on universal credit are going without essentials such as food, electricity and clothes.
That inadequacy is the main driver of food bank need, with almost 1.3 million food parcels distributed between April and September 2022. That is just unacceptable in the fifth richest country in the world. An essentials guarantee would ensure that the universal credit standard allowance met a level that provided basic security for a family’s need. The charities calculated that at £120 a week for a single person and £200 a week for a couple. The guarantee would bring us in line with our European neighbours and provide a safety net in the same vein as our NHS. It would also reduce the poverty that too many are experiencing and which has a lifelong impact on children.
Some Members will know that I chair the all-party parliamentary group on health in all policies and have done so for a number of years. In 2020, just before the pandemic, we commissioned a review of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 to analyse the impacts it was having on children and disabled people. Anybody watching or listening is welcome to have a look at that on my website. One of the biggest and most worrying figures that we found was that:
“Each 1% increase in child poverty was significantly associated with an extra 5.8 infant deaths per 100 000 live births…about a third of the increases in infant mortality between 2014 and 2017 can be attributed to rising child poverty”.
That was published in one of the peer-reviewed medical journals. Understanding the impact that that has had on so many families is devastating. It is yet further evidence that far more needs to be done to provide an essentials guarantee.
The flipside of that is that we have one of the highest tax burdens in 40 years, but I was heartened to see members of Patriotic Millionaires—they are all multi-millionaires—come out and say, “We recognise the impact that not having a wealth tax on us is having on the fabric of our society. We do not want our children growing up in a society where there is not the fairness that we grew up with in our country.” It has come up with the proposal of a wealth tax that would fund the essentials guarantee. For me, that group espouses what we as a nation can be.
In contrast—this takes me back to what other hon. Members have said—there has been a rather nasty element in the media. When we look at DWP spending, we must remember that half of it, rightly, goes on the state pension; that is the biggest slice of the spending. The next biggest is on housing benefit. We need to recognise that. Nobody would criticise DWP spending on our pensioners. I urge responsible journalists to recognise that we should not criticise social security spending on people who are disabled or not able to work because of illness. We must be better than that.
As I conclude, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I did promise that I would be very brief, I repeat that poverty—
Order. For clarification, I am not putting the hon. Lady under any pressure. As far as I am concerned, she has all the time in the world.
Well, that is an offer that I definitely will refuse this time. As I said, poverty and inequality are not inevitable—they are political choices—and I believe that, like our NHS, our social security system should be there for all of us in our time of need.
May I start, as others have, by sending my thanks to the Chair of our Select Committee, Sir Stephen Timms, for securing today’s debate and for setting the scene so well? The debate takes place against the backdrop of an ongoing Westminster-made cost of living crisis that affects the livelihoods and lives of people across Scotland and these islands. The harsh, yet inescapable reality is that people in Scotland can no longer afford to pay the price for the economic mismanagement of a Westminster Government they did not elect. Indeed, we have not voted by majority for the Conservatives since 1955.
In May, CPI was still at 8.7%. Prices are still soaring and the cost of living under Westminster control is still far too high for many families who were already struggling to get by after 13 long, brutal years of Tory cuts, Brexit and economic mismanagement. We know that inflation disproportionately impacts lower-income groups such as single parents, who spend a relatively high proportion of their income on food and fuel. Indeed, new Trussell Trust research shows that families are going hungry as a result of the Westminster-made cost of living crisis, with one in seven people in the UK facing hunger in the last year due to a lack of money. Ministers often tell us that the reasons for food bank usage are complex. It is not complex—it is because people do not have enough money.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s latest cost of living tracker found that 5.7 million low-income households are having to cut down or skip meals because they do not have enough money for food, while the number going without items such as food, heating and basic toiletries has remained at about 7 million for more than a year—all of that in the sixth largest economy in the world.
The average interest rate for a two-year fixed-term mortgage has risen to 6%. The Resolution Foundation has said that average annual mortgage repayments are set to rise by £2,900 for those renewing next year. In short, that is the eye-watering Westminster mortgage premium that Scots are paying for the pleasure of a Tory Government they did not elect.
What is more, analysis by the consumer group Which? shows that the prices of popular family meals have risen by 27% in the last year. The Irish and French Governments have reached agreements with major supermarket retailers to reduce food prices, while the Tory Government are sitting on their hands. It is those low-income families I represent in Parkhead, Shettleston and Baillieston who are paying the price for the sheer intransigence of Conservative Ministers here in London. Even at this late hour in the cost of living crisis, I urge the British Government to use all the powers at their disposal to tackle that crisis on the scale that is required. That does mean that they will have to be bold and radical, and the same is true of the pro-Brexit Labour party.
I turn specifically to universal credit, which is obviously the main focus of the debate. In short, the British Government’s continual refusal to fix the extensive and known-about problems with universal credit is unacceptable, and it is without doubt subjecting some of the most vulnerable people in our communities to additional and unnecessary hardship. With the three main parties in this place now agreeing on the principles of universal credit, there is an opportunity, so we should put our heads together to look at what we can do to fix it.
I will start with the level of universal credit. JRF research shows that support has eroded over decades and that the basic rate of universal credit is now at its lowest level as a proportion of average earnings. Indeed, the JRF’s latest cost of living tracker warns that about nine in 10 low-income households on UC have gone without at least one essential for the third survey in over a year.
For most people referred to food banks in the Trussell Trust network, the design and delivery of the social security system are major contributors to their inability to afford the essentials. The majority of people—indeed, some 89%—referred to food banks in the Trussell Trust network receive a means-tested benefit such as universal credit, but that did not provide them with enough to cover the cost of the essentials. As the right hon. Member for East Ham said, JRF and the Trussell Trust are together calling on Ministers to implement that essentials guarantee to ensure that, at a minimum, the basic rate of universal credit covers life’s essentials and that support can never be pulled below that level.
Is not another problem the insane part of the system where people pay back money because of advances and the level of deductions—more than £60 a month is being deducted from my hon. Friend’s constituents’ and my constituents’ universal credit? That envelops that cycle of poverty.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that point on the record. He was my predecessor on the Select Committee and follows this work well. I will come to debt and deductions, because that is one of the big issues raised in the evidence that the Select Committee receives, certainly by the stakeholders that we meet. He is spot-on to draw attention to the £60 from each of our constituents that is paid back to the Government when it could be spent in our local economies.
New CPAG research finds that the digital aspects of universal credit routinely lead to wrong amounts being awarded to claimants—often those who are most vulnerable—and to breaches of rule of law principles. That is why I have repeatedly called on the Government to reverse their cuts to universal credit and working tax credits. Let us not forget that this was the biggest overnight cut to welfare in 70 years, inflicting hardship on people who were already struggling. To have done that as we came out of the teeth of the pandemic was particularly cruel.
Rather than offering one-off payments to shore up struggling families’ incomes, the DWP should reverse the damaging policies that are impacting on the most vulnerable people. It should reinstate the UC uplift at £25 per week and, of course, extend it to legacy benefits. Let us not forget the 2.5 million disabled people, so ably advocated for by Debbie Abrahams, who were cruelly left behind without that uplift during the pandemic. The Government also need to remove the benefit cap and the two-child limit with its associated rape clause. They also need to halt the punitive sanctions regime so that all households are lifted out of poverty now and in future.
I turn to the benefit cap. As the Poverty Alliance points out, the cap’s design means that those who require the highest level of support from the benefit system are the most likely to be affected. That is simply unjust. Based on the latest departmental figures, 114,000 UK households have had their benefit capped and 86% of those are families with children. The benefit cap disproportionately impacts lone-parent families, the majority of whom are women—a point made by Wendy Chamberlain —as well as larger and ethnic minority families.
The same is true of the two-child limit. Thousands of families with children will be pushed into poverty because Ministers on the Treasury Bench refuse to scrap the two-child limit on child tax credits and universal credit. A new London School of Economics study found that the policy’s impoverishment of larger low-income households has helped few parents get a job. Instead, its main function has been to push families further into poverty and to damage their mental health.
I wonder why Ministers are so furled to the two-child limit. The vast majority of them are actually quite embarrassed by it, and that is before we get to the associated rape clause, or as the Government like to call it, the “non-consensual sex exemption”. When this Government go around lecturing people about the values of global Britain, I am pretty sure they do not tell folk that the state will only support the first two children in the family, but if someone can prove that their child was born as a result of rape, that is okay.
The Parliamentary Private Secretary is shaking his head at that, but probably because he is so embarrassed.
The five-week wait for a first payment is needlessly pushing people into hardship. The issue could easily be fixed by implementing the Scottish National party’s proposal to turn advance payment loans into non-repayable grants after the claimant has been deemed eligible. The Trussell Trust, which I referenced earlier, has consistently shown that the five-week wait for universal credit is a key driver in the need for food banks, both during those five weeks and after the payments have started.
I want to draw attention to the young parent penalty in UC, which Ministers must end. It denies single parents under the age of 25 the same level of social security as those above that age, and it pushes those affected into real poverty. Let us not forget that when under-25s go into Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons or whatever supermarket, they do not get a discount on their shopping because they are under 25. I find that Ministers have an obsession with that.
The hon. Gentleman has campaigned on this issue, as have I. Does he agree that the response I received from the previous Secretary of State on this point—that under-25s were treated differently because they tended to still be at home with their parents—is a pretty spurious argument and excuse from the Department?
That is right. It was not unusual for the previous Secretary of State to say things which, after some scrutiny, might not make sense. The hon. Lady is right. For Ministers to hide behind the housing crisis—caused by this Tory Government—as some kind of justification for ensuring that people under 25 get less support does not stand up to scrutiny. That point was hammered home to me on Friday, when I was in Drumchapel visiting the Christians Against Poverty debt centre, to meet staff and volunteers there, to whom I pay enormous tribute for their sterling work.
According to One Parent Families Scotland, as a result of the young parent penalty, young couple parents are around £100 worse off per month than single parents, and around £65 worse off a month than over-25s. That research found that 55% of children with a mum under 25 are in relative poverty, and 49% are in absolute poverty. Let us never forget that those statistics are the result of the structural inequality put in place by intransigent Ministers. Although I certainly welcome the change whereby people on UC will now be able to claim childcare support upfront, I am afraid that does not change the fundamental issue that the amount of UC that people receive is simply not enough. Families will still be required to make up the 15% shortfall in their overall childcare costs under UC rules.
An issue that continues to come up in evidence at the Select Committee is that far too many households face destitution because of DWP rules that push them into debt through sanctions and reductions—a point made eloquently by my hon. Friend Chris Stephens. Aberlour Children’s Charity produced a report that states that half of families with children in Scotland who receive universal credit are having their incomes reduced by the DWP to cover debts to public bodies. I hope the Select Committee will be able to drill into that a bit more. It is increasingly a problem, and I am sure I am not the only MP who sees people raising it regularly at advice surgeries.
It is well established and on record that the SNP completely opposes the widespread use of sanctions, as there is clear evidence that they do not work. Indeed, evidence from the Department’s report admits that sanctions have a minimal effect on moving people into work. Instead, people who are sanctioned end up earning less than those who have not been sanctioned, or simply become economically inactive.
The hon. Gentleman is making such important remarks. Does he agree that the impact of sanctions is detrimental to people’s mental health? We are facing a mental health crisis. If we want to support people getting into work, we need to make sure that they are not struggling on the breadline.
The hon. Lady is spot on. Sometimes, Ministers overlook when they take those decisions—yes, they might be driven by focus groups and such things—that the state bears the cost. If somebody hits a period of mental ill health or is made homeless, the health service or the local authority will pick up the pieces. It is not without cost for the state. I would like Ministers to have the wider picture as they pursue sanctions, because the research shows that they do not work.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous. Does he agree that the issue of poverty is so concerning for small children because it impacts on the development of the brain and how well they will be able to learn? If a child has a good five years at the start of their life, that will see them through life. So many children in desperate poverty who do not know whether they will get enough food are also in receipt of the anxiety their parents are in, as they battle those stressful situations.
I am proud that the Scottish Government invest in things such as the best start grant, the baby box and free school meals, to ensure that young people get the best possible start in life. My local authority in Glasgow is spending millions of pounds on holiday hunger programmes, to ensure that children who receive free school meals during school term time are still being fed. It is a damning indictment on the state that we have to spend money from local authority budgets feeding children because their parents do not have enough money. That is the situation we are in, in the fifth richest economy in the world.
Remarkably, as I am sure we will hear when the Minister responds to the debate, Ministers are still forcing more people into the sanctions regime, which further demonstrates the fundamental issue with the British Government’s attitude to those on low incomes: preventing vulnerable families from receiving the social security they are entitled to and, most importantly, when they need it the most.
Before I draw my remarks to a close, I want to turn to the local housing allowance. The freeze of LHA rates for three consecutive years is placing additional and needless pressure on tenants and housing associations, and is likely to increase poverty and inequality. That is why Ministers should protect household incomes and support renters by restoring LHA rates to the 30th percentile as a minimum. The SNP has long called for the British Government to fix those fundamental flaws in our social security system but, as is so often the case, it falls on deaf ears each and every time, to the extent that every time I take part in one of these debates, it feels like groundhog day.
The blunt truth is that the Scottish Government cannot change those policies while 85% of welfare expenditure and income replacement benefits remain reserved to this institution here in London. That includes universal credit. By all means, I am happy to take part in debates and make suggestions about how we repair the social security system, but it is difficult to conclude anything other than Westminster—whether the Tories or the pro-Brexit Labour party—has zero appetite to genuinely step in and sew up a system that is failing some of the most vulnerable people in society. For that reason, the only way genuinely to bring about that compassionate, fair and dignified social security system in Scotland is with the full powers of independence. Frankly, that cannot come soon enough.
This has been a good, important and timely debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms, the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, on bringing the debate to the Floor of the House. He rightly opened it by placing in context the size of the Department and its central place at the heart of economic policy, and discussed the work of his Committee, which has been substantial, on looking into some of the Department’s very significant flaws. Given the economic situation the country now faces, the work of the Committee has never been more important. As he mentioned, it has published very important and significant reviews, and some of the recommendations have been adopted by the Government, so I applaud him for securing the debate. My hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams, in her usual way, explained the manner in which poverty harms people not just in their financial life but in every single aspect of their life. The Government would do well to listen to her.
I want to make some brief remarks—with an emphasis on brief—as many good points have already been made and I will not be repeating them all. I want to get to the heart of the points that have been discussed, in particular on universal credit. I have been in this House long enough to remember the country before universal credit, so I am able to compare and contrast the system we had before with the one we have now. I offer this reflection based on that experience.
On its introduction, universal credit was claimed to be a kind of cure-all which would release everyone from the so-called trap of poverty. I did not think that that was going to be true when it was introduced and I do not think it is true now. The Department for Work and Pensions, in its spending and policy choices, has to be far more than just universal credit and social security, important though they are. As much as the pensions side of the Department is a huge part of its spending and very important, it must also be the department for dignity: the dignity of work and the dignity of well-functioning, decent social protection. Those two areas of policy must work hand in hand to ensure that the ups and downs of life do not upend life chances when unfortunate things happen. We should be using good work and social protection to help people to move on and move up in life. The Chair of the Select Committee and other Members have provided a good survey of what is happening in the Department at the moment. I would argue that on both work and social protection it is failing.
On work, to put it simply, we have fewer people in work now than before the pandemic. That cannot be a success. We have businesses crying out for staff, yet, unlike in other countries, our employment rate has not recovered from the pandemic. That is a huge failure. Pay, the money in people’s pockets, has been stagnant for the past decade. We think about the promises made about universal credit and all the Department does, so what questions has the Minister asked about that? What research has he commissioned to get underneath why pay is so stagnant? We have had reviews of in-work progression. The Government have claimed that they want to tackle our productivity crisis. What research and evidence has the DWP actually published to show, despite the claims made about universal credit supporting people to escape the so-called poverty trap that Conservative Members felt previous Governments had created, why we have had such stagnant levels of pay?
It is arguable that the Department’s policy choices might have exacerbated the labour market crisis, so I ask the Minister again: what policies does he have now, today, to help people escape low-paid work? For all the Government have talked about the possibilities of universal credit, why has it delivered so very little in terms of the money in people’s pockets and their chances of getting on? Has universal credit really delivered all that was promised? On all those areas—work incentives, the chances families have to do better, pay progression and supporting employers to get the skilled staff they need—I look at all the Department does and I have many questions about the disappearance of that promised success.
We have had a series of failed employment schemes. Kickstart failed to deliver what it was said it would deliver. We heard from Members about restart and the work and health programme, and all we do not know about what they are doing. Looking at the labour market and everything that the Bank of England has said about the consequences for our economy of the state of the labour market, does the Minister really believe that the DWP is helping, or is it a hindrance? I would love to hear him talk about published evidence that the Department’s policies are actually helping.
Finally on work, one major challenge for our economy is the imbalanced labour market. Businesses in many towns across the country are crying out for staff, yet we have an unemployment challenge. Some towns and cities have areas where unemployment is twice the national average. How can that be right in a country that has such a need for staff? Does the Minister really believe that his Department’s spending and policy choices are helping? Work should be the way that all of us achieve our hopes and ambitions. I just wish the Department was able to live up to those ambitions.
As many people have said, social security should be the backstop that puts a floor beneath families, yet at almost every step over the past decade the Conservative Government have made that harder. At every turn, the political turbulence they have created has had an economic cost for our country as a whole, and for families up and down the country. The inflation we now face makes life harder for everybody, but not equally. If we look at the money families must now find to put food on the table and pay their bills, we know that the choices made by the Tories have made life harder for those who were already finding it tough. Their failings on energy have made life much harder, in particular for people with disabilities who pay significant extra costs. It is a well-evidenced phenomenon that people who face illness or disability have significant challenges with the rising cost of energy. The Conservative Government have never taken their needs into account enough. I agree with comments made by both my colleagues on the Select Committee that the relationship between the Department and people with disabilities is not nearly good enough to achieve what we would wish for them.
The evidence of failure is all around us, whether it is the open doors of food banks or the closed doors of businesses who have been unable to survive this crisis of inflation and staff shortages. On the housing crisis, I would bet anything—I am not a betting woman, but I would none the less bet anything—that almost every Member has seen a rise in their housing case load. Even those with a relatively low case load have seen it rise in relation to the recent housing crisis.
One fact above all shines out of the Department’s accounts: rising ill health, which is having economic consequences for all of us and disastrous consequences for people who are trying to earn money to keep their family housed and fed. Over the past decade or more, the Tories have been not just not up to the challenge; they have actively made it worse.
It is an honour once again to present the case on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions in an estimates day debate. I have lost track of the number of times I have done this, but I have certainly done so on numerous occasions during my seven years at the Department.
It is, first of all, my privilege to thank all DWP staff—whom I regard as a massive help and not a hindrance, as some may have suggested—for the fantastic work that they do up and down the country.
The Government have never paid more for the pensions that we support in this country, we have never paid more for the benefit support that we provide in this country, we have never paid more for the housing support that we provide in this country, and we have never paid more for the disabled in this country. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the national health service, let me also put on record my thanks to the NHS. I have had my life saved twice by the NHS, once after I collapsed in Central Lobby in 2011. I got into politics because of my attempts to save my local hospital, and I am proud to have visited Hexham General Hospital this week to see the amazing new maternity suite that has recently been opened.
Much has been said today about a variety of issues, but I want to try to put the debate in context. The Government clearly understand the pressures that households are facing. We are all familiar with the root causes of our higher costs, including the global factors: the illegal war in Ukraine brought about by Vladimir Putin, the aftermath and consequences of the pandemic, and the furlough scheme and the other support that we set out in great detail and the country provided at a time of difficulty. We are committed to delivering on our priority of halving inflation, which will help to ease those pressures for everyone and raise living standards.
Alongside that work, we continue to implement a significant package of cost of living measures to support the most vulnerable during 2023-24. We have increased benefits and state pensions by 10.1%, and raised the benefit cap by the same amount so that more people feel the benefit of uprating. For low-paid workers, we have increased the national living wage by 9.7% to £10.42 an hour; that represents an increase of more than £1,600 in the gross annual earnings of a full-time worker on the national living wage. That increase, and the increases that we made in the national minimum wage in April, have given a pay rise to about 2.9 million workers. To help parents, we are delivering a significant expansion of childcare support, including a 47% increase in the maximum amount of universal credit childcare payments. As I said in the House last week, that is a dramatic increase. In addition, where there are gaps in provision, notwithstanding the above cost of living payments, the £842 million extension of our household support fund into 2023-24 means that councils across England can continue to help families with grocery bills and other essentials.
Some universal credit claimants can apply to have the housing elements of their universal credit paid directly to the landlord. However, a report by the Child Poverty Action Group on the discovery phase of managed migration identified delays or errors in the setting up of direct payments and poor communication between the DWP, landlords and claimants, leading to people falling into arrears. That is clearly a serious state of affairs for anyone to find themselves in. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are going to do about it?
In 2022-23, the Government are projected to have spent £30 billion to support renters. That is 1.4% of GDP. Members may have criticised that sum, but they should be aware that it represents the highest spending on household rental support in any country in the OECD. The next highest is 0.9% of GDP. That figure is clearly higher than the figure that obtained when we came to office. Moreover, there are 2 million more homes than there were then, and more homes are meeting decent homes standards. I could go on.
Employment now stands at 30 million. It is up 23,000 on the month and 73,000 on the quarter, and vacancies are down again—35,000 down on the month in May and 79,000 down on the quarter. Today I met representatives of UKHospitality and a host of hospitality providers at the Department to discuss some of the long-term vacancy issues that they wished to raise. I believe we can continue to work with jobcentres throughout the country to try and address that, and to increase the overall employment rate, which was up by 0.1% on the month and 0.2% on the quarter, with unemployment down by 0.1 percentage points on the month as of May. Economic inactivity is down by 0.4 percentage points on the quarter and down by 781,000 since the 2010 general election. It is clear that the pandemic had impacts, and the progress in certain areas is not as quick as one would like, but we have made huge efforts to turn that around, and all the indications from all the labour market statistics released by the Office for National Statistics in May are that the trends are in the right direction.
No, I will not. I have already given way to the hon. Lady.
Let me say something about cost of living payments. We are building on, and extending, the one-off cash payments that we provided in 2022-23, when we made more than £30 million worth of cost of living payments, including the £150 disability payment to 6 million people, £650 for more than 8 million households on means-tested benefits, and an additional £300 on top of the winter fuel payment for more than 8 million pensioner households. That put hundreds of pounds directly and quickly into the pockets of millions of people.
Criticism was made of universal credit as a principle. The first—and simple—point that I would make, which I think was acknowledged by the Chair of the Select Committee, is that the legacy system would in no way have been able to provide the degree of support that universal credit provided during covid, and it would in no way be able to provide an ongoing degree of cost of living support. Universal credit, as we see, provides a massive amount of support on an ongoing basis, which is targeted to help those most impacted by rising prices throughout this financial year.
I am grateful to the Minister. When does he expect to make a decision on whether the cost of living payments will continue for a further year? When, this year, is that decision likely to be made?
Because the right hon. Gentleman and I have worked together for many years—and I emphasise “together”—he will know that I have been a humble junior functionary at the Department for Work and Pensions for a very long time, never to rise any higher. Let me also say to Wendy Chamberlain that I have had the privilege of serving under three female Secretaries of State before the present Secretary of State. I think I am now on my seventh Secretary of State.
These matters are monumentally above my pay grade, and, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, having done my job and many other jobs in the Government, they will be decided by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister at some stage over the course of the coming year. [Interruption.] I have much to be modest about, to be honest. As I have said, these matters are above my pay grade and beyond my knowledge, but they will be considered. There will be an autumn statement in November, which will be the obvious time for decisions to be telegraphed, if not made.
The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of points, and I will try to answer some of them in the time that I have. He mentioned prison leavers. The Department recognises the need for prisoners and carers to be able to make advance claims for universal credit, and there is a working process in place to support that. I have met the prisons Minister, my right hon. Friend Damian Hinds, who will welcome any questions that will follow during the justice debate, and the social mobility Minister, my hon. Friend Mims Davies, who looks after most aspects of matters relating to prisoners, on several occasions to try to drive forward universal credit take-up. However, it requires the individual to desire to do that, and that is clearly complicated and not easy. It is a work in progress, but it is very much something that we are aware of.
I know that the social mobility Minister is giving evidence to the Select Committee tomorrow, so I will not address in too much detail the issues the right hon. Member for East Ham raised on the Health and Safety Executive, which is one of the few briefs I have not held in the last few years. He rightly raised the issue of transparency, and I would respectfully say that I agree with him. The present Secretary of State has transformed the position in that regard. The right hon. Gentleman knows my strong view that, save where we have to provide data on a monthly basis under labour market statistics, we should have six-monthly provision of the vast plethora of data, linked to the two fiscal events of the year, but that is a work in progress. The Department is definitely reviewing all aspects of those things.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the flexible support fund and particular issues about people taking buses to work. I want to take issue with that, because there is absolutely no doubt that a jobcentre can use the flexible support fund to support bus or other transport fares for agreed work-related activity. If it is for a work-related activity, that support can be provided as it is in other contexts—childcare being the one of which he will be particularly aware. I would certainly very much hope that the individual jobcentre that he referred to would be aware of that.
On fraud and error, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that huge amounts of effort are being made by the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, who takes control of that particular part of the portfolio, and by the Secretary of State in a multitude of different ways. We have a large number of extra staff who have been brought in to address fraud and error. According to the latest national statistics, it has fallen to 3.6% from 4%, and overpayments from fraud are down to 2.7% compared with 3% in 2021-22. Universal credit losses have fallen by nearly 2% over a similar period. Bluntly, we are trying to crack down on those who are exploiting the benefit system, and we want to make it very clear that we are coming after those people. We want to ensure that the maximum amount of support goes to the people who need it.
The targeted support includes support for people on means-tested benefits such as universal credit, with up to three cost of living payments totalling up to £900. We have delivered the first £301 payment to 8.3 million households in support worth £2.5 billion. The two further payments of £300 and £299 will be made in the autumn and next spring. To help with additional costs, we have paid the disability cost of living payment to 6 million people as well as paying the winter fuel support payment. A huge amount is being done in jobcentres, whether that is through the in-work progression offer, the support of extra work coaches, the over-50s support, the administrative earnings threshold support or the 37 new district progression leads who are working with key partners, including local government, employers and skilled providers, to identify and develop local opportunities and to overcome barriers that limit progression.
The hon. Member for North East Fife raised a number of pension matters. Clearly, I continue to defend the actions of the Labour Government and the coalition Government on the rise in state pension age. She referred to both the LEAP exercise and what has happened at HMRC, and they are both works in progress. I do not believe there is any fundamental change to that of which she has been previously advised. On pension credit, she will be aware that there has been an increase in excess of, I think, 170% in applications. There is a slight backlog, but that is coming down dramatically. On the gender pensions gap, she will be aware of the changes to the new state pension, which are massively advantageous to women, and of the fact that successive Governments—starting with the Labour Government and the Turner commission, and then the coalition—have brought in automatic enrolment specifically to address that particular issue.
The hon. Lady raised a final point about those who change jobs in later life. I cannot overstate the importance of the project for which I have been pressing for only five and a half years now, which is the mid-life MOT. I am delighted to say it is now being rolled out across the country, whether that is online, in jobcentres up and down the country or, more particularly, in the three private sector bodies that are trialling particular processes. If she is not yet acquainted with that, I would strongly urge her to become so, particularly because in her area of Scotland in North East Fife there are, I know, providers that are offering that process. I can provide her with the details. Aviva and others are doing very good stuff there.
I am conscious that I have been speaking for some time, but the practical reality is that we believe we are removing the barriers that prevent people from working. We believe that we are reducing the number of people who are economically inactive, with a fifth consecutive month when inactivity has declined. I accept that there is more to do, and I am determined to leave no stone unturned in taking the decisive action needed across Government to see that downward trend continue.
In conclusion, I believe that we are tackling inflation to help manage the cost of living. We are providing extra support. The economic trends, as shown by the labour market statistics, are heading in the right direction and, with the Government’s ongoing significant package of cost of living support, that is worth over £94 billion in excess of the rises to state pension and benefits. We are protecting those most in need from the worst impact of rising prices by putting more pounds in people’s pockets, and I commend these estimates to the House.
Let me reiterate my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for enabling us to hold the debate, and I would like to thank everyone who has taken part in the debate as well. Wendy Chamberlain spoke in the debate last year as well, I am pleased to say, and I want to pick up one point she made about the gender pensions gap. I join her in welcoming the fact that the Pensions Minister has now come forward with a definition of that, so that we know what we are talking about. But I also agree with her that we need a target to reduce it, and I hope that we will see that in due course as well.
I thank my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams for all her work on the Committee and her very committed work on behalf of disabled people. This afternoon, she spoke about the scourge of disability poverty and some of the things that we need to do to tackle that.
I am grateful to David Linden for combining his work on the Committee with his Front-Bench role. He makes a very valuable contribution to the work of the Committee. Let me endorse his tribute to the work of the organisation Christians Against Poverty, which is very valuable. It is doing a very impressive job all over the country.
I am grateful to the Minister for suggesting that we will perhaps hear about the plans for further cost of living payments in the autumn statement. I think they will be needed. My hon. Friend Alison McGovern was absolutely right to make the point from the Opposition Front Bench that in many respects the security has been removed from social security. That is a lamentable feature of the last few years. The level of benefits is much too low and it has not been properly uprated. I want to renew my appeal. We did have a proper uprating this year, thankfully, but we need that again next year. We are talking about a historically low level of benefits. That is the major reason why food bank demand is still rising. If we do not have a full uprating next year, it will rise further.
I am glad the Minister has confirmed that the Department is reviewing arrangements for transparency. I am grateful to him for that and the confirmation he has given of the direction of travel and the work in progress. I am also interested to hear about the staff being recruited to tackle fraud and error. The Committee would be very interested to follow progress on that and perhaps to table some questions about how many staff there are.
I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to have this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to everyone who has contributed to it.
Question deferred until tomorrow at Seven o’clock (