Social Security

– in the House of Commons at 4:16 pm on 31 January 2024.

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Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 4:16, 31 January 2024

I beg to move,

That the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2024, which was laid before this House on 15 January, be approved.

The draft order will increase relevant state pension rates by 8.5%, in line with the growth in average earnings in the year to July 2023. It will also increase most other benefit rates by 6.7%, in line with the rise in the consumer prices index in the year to September 2023. Subject to parliamentary approval, the changes will take effect from 8 April and will apply for the tax year 2024-25. [Interruption.]

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. May I ask those not participating in the debate to leave quietly? It is difficult to hear the Minister.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Minister, I have just been asked to clarify that you are moving motion 3 on social security.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

For the information of the House, this order covers state pensions. Motion 4 covers the guaranteed minimum pension, which is a sub-element of the pensions issue. As I will explain, the different elements—

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can I clarify whether we are taking motion 3 on social security and motion 4 in one debate, or will we scrutinise the orders separately? It would be helpful for the House to have clarity on exactly what is happening.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

We are debating motion 3 on social security. We will then debate motion 4 on pensions.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Indeed, a few days ago I was asking those questions about whether to take the motions separately or together. They are being taken separately.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I am very relieved that we are getting a proper uprating this year, but the current headline rate of benefits is the lowest it has been in real terms for 40 years. Why have Ministers set benefits at a level so much lower in real terms than was chosen by Margaret Thatcher, Peter Lilley, John Major or Norman Fowler? Why is it so much lower?

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

There is always a lively debate about the adequacy of the overall benefits system. I think Beveridge had the debate under the Labour Government in 1945 on how to understand the concept of adequacy within the benefit system. What we are doing is ensuring that the purchasing power of benefits is maintained and that we are adhering to the triple lock. The right hon. Gentleman’s intervention allows me to restate, I think for the fifth time, the Government’s commitment to the triple lock, meaning that the basic and state pension will be uprated by the highest of growth in earnings or in prices, or by 2.5%.

This year that will mean an 8.5% rise from 2024-25, taking the basic state pension from £156.20 to £169.50 a week, and the full rate of the new state pension from £203.85 to £221.20 a week. Additional state pensions, such as the state earnings-related pension schemes and protected payments of the new state pension, will rise by 6.7%. The Government are committed to supporting pensioners on the lowest incomes, and accordingly the safety net provided by the pension credit standard minimum guarantee will increase by 8.5%. For single pensioners it will increase by £201.05 to £218.15, and for couples it will increase from £306.85 to £332.95 per week.

When it comes to support for those in the labour market, such as universal credit and the means-tested benefits it replaces, there is always a need to take into account work incentives as well as financial support for those in low-paid work, who are looking for work or who are unable to work. The Government announced a range of employment and conditionality measures at the autumn statement to maintain and improve work incentives. However, in striking a balance it is also right to increase the rate of those benefits by 6.7%, in line with the increase in CPI in the year to September 2023. That 6.7% increase means that universal credit will retain its purchasing power in the broader context of the Prime Minister’s delivered commitment to halving the rate of inflation.

The Government remain mindful of work incentives in the benefit system, and accordingly this order also increases the universal credit work allowance by 6.7%. They will increase from £379 to £404 per month for those also receiving support with housing costs, and from £631 to £673 per month for those not receiving support with housing costs. That 6.7% increase will also apply to the rates for contributory jobseeker’s allowance, contributory employment and support allowance, additional needs disability benefits such as the personal independence payment, carer’s allowance and statutory payments such as statutory maternity pay, statutory paternity pay and statutory sick pay.

The draft order, if Parliament approves it, commits the Government to increased expenditure of £19 billion in 2024-25. We believe it is right to make such a commitment because it maintains the triple lock, which benefits both pensioners already in receipt of the basic and new state pensions and younger people who are building up future entitlements as a foundation for private saving. It raises the level of the safety net in pension credit beyond the increase in prices and is part of a package of support for those in the labour market, which protects the value of benefits at a time of high, if falling, inflation while maintaining and increasing work incentives.

The draft order maintains the purchasing power of benefits to help with additional costs arising from disability. It also provides protection against inflation for people who are currently unable to participate in the labour market, such as full-time carers, who provide such an essential service to those they care for. On that basis, I commend this order to the House.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 4:23, 31 January 2024

I thank the Minister for clarifying the way we are taking these orders today. We welcome the social security uprating, because we want to see social security keep pace with prices, particularly at a time of spiking inflation and economic instability. However, it is worth pointing out that before 2010, uprating in the manner we are doing it today was the norm for both Labour and Conservative Governments, but the past decade and a half has seen a change, and a variable approach to uprating from this Government. The debate about uprating has become almost farcical. Year by year there is speculation—I presume from some part of Government—that the uprating that was standard year in, year out under previous Governments may or may not happen.

That speculation does not come out of thin air. It causes immense amounts of distress and worry for people. It is almost as though there has to be a campaign for the status quo, which is not acceptable. I wonder why we are in what seems to be a policy roundabout where every time we have this debate about uprating, only for the Government to do it. That is a problematic way to do what is a normal function of social security: to keep pace with the cost of living.

We have to be honest about the reality of the situation we face. We have had universal credit for a decade or more, and I have been in this House long enough to have heard promise after promise that it would radically improve people’s work incentives, and that people’s position in life would be made much better by universal credit reforms. The DWP has many talented civil servants, who I am sure have worked hard to try to make the customer service elements function better, but we have to look at reality: 400,000 more children are now in poverty than when Labour left office in 2010. That is not acceptable to me.

Most people in poverty today are in work, so the idea that we hear again and again in this Chamber, that the best route out of poverty is work, is simply not true. Two thirds of children in poverty live in a house where someone goes out to work. I would like the Government to recognise that fact. We have had a decade and a half of so-called reform, and all we have done is get back to the situation where children are growing up dealing with the stress of not having enough money in the family home to give them a proper childhood. That is not acceptable. We see the consequences of a decade and a half of Tory rule all around us, whether the food bank parcels in the school office, the nurses who do a 12-hour shift but cannot make ends meet or, in the worst case, the man curled up in a sleeping bag in Westminster tube station as we leave this House. We see the consequences of Conservative Government all around us.

Labour has a plan to get people a better life, able to make ends meet and with a good start for their children. We will ensure that there is a breakfast club in every primary school. We will help people have access to cheaper energy and an insulated home, to deal with the spike in costs that people have faced in recent years. We will reform universal credit, jobcentres and employment support to ensure that people get a better job with better pay, to help them live their life properly and save money for the Treasury. We will have a child poverty strategy that will overhaul universal credit.

On social security, I simply say this: we need an end to the uprating roundabout. We are simply asking for consistency of approach so that, as in previous decades under Governments of all kinds, we have the proper uprating of social security without the constant speculation from wherever it is in the Conservative Government that, somehow, ordinary working people must pay the price of the Government’s economic chaos. That is not fair. Let us end the chaos and have proper, normal uprating in the usual way.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley 4:29, 31 January 2024

I welcome the rises in benefits and the state pension. It would have been unthinkable not to raise benefits by inflation and equally unthinkable not to increase the state pension in line with the triple lock. The Government have done the right thing—these are the right decisions—and I will happily support these orders in the unlikely event of a Division.

I agree with the shadow Minister, Alison McGovern, that this is not the most exciting piece of parliamentary theatre, even though we are spending tens of billions through these orders. The House is empty, these instruments go through on the nod, we cannot amend them, and the whole process creates a load of uncertainty for people who have to live on these benefits. I agree that, if we are going to find the money to put these benefits up—quite rightly by the two highest amounts in my 14 years in this place and probably going back a lot further—let us just change the process and have a default increase by CPI and in line with the triple lock so that we do not have to go through all this uncertainty. In what scenario now are we not going to increase benefits and the state pension by CPI or the triple lock?

If any future Government want to do something different, they could just bring in a Bill, as George Osborne did in the early years of the coalition. The House would be required to give its assent to that change, but we would not have to go through the uncertainty and the annual campaign to get to where we all think we are going to get to anyway, which does not help anybody. It would spare the Minister this afternoon’s excitement and the confusion of what is in which of these orders, which he might appreciate. I will leave that one for the Minister and see whether he is remotely tempted by it.

With the crazy process we currently have, we have come to the right answer, but I still do not really believe that we are in a sensible position. We have to use September’s inflation for an April increase in benefits, and we have to have an uprating order quite a while after the Chancellor has announced it in the Budget. The Work and Pensions Committee recommended that the Government bring these orders before the House earlier than February, so I commend the Government—we are still in January. I suppose that is positive progress, although I do not quite know why we could not have done this in November, to get that certainty.

I hope, as the years go by, one year we will get some good news, and the Minister will say, “We have so many people on universal credit who we know we can uprate far more quickly, but actually we can use a much later inflation number because the amount of manual processing we have to do for the old benefits is much less of a work demand than it used to be.” We could then move to using December’s inflation figure to bring the benefit increase much nearer the actual cost of living and avoid the horrible situation we have currently where we are effectively six months behind, and, in the meantime, there has been a huge spike and people cannot afford to pay their bills. Perhaps the Minister could update the House on whether we are any nearer the prospect of a slightly more sensible process where we are not using out-of-date information to give people a rise in benefits that is already six months old, which exposes a load of risk in that situation.

There is also a lot of noise about the triple lock being unsustainable and suggestions that we will have to get rid of it because we cannot afford to give pensioners that level of increase. I cannot think of any justification for ever giving people who are reliant on a state pension and who have no possibility of going back to work an increase of less than inflation; it would be an intolerable situation to put people in. I think we have established over many long and painful years that giving pensioners less than earnings is not a very attractive position. We had that for a while, before the coalition Government quite rightly reversed it as one of the first things we did when we came to power 14 years ago.

I do not know why we have to have speculation around the idea of taking away the link to inflation or earnings—it is utterly impossible. I suppose we all wish that the 2.5% was a relevant consideration for us, but it looks like it might be a few years before we have to worry about that part of the triple lock kicking in. The problem is that the rise in earnings and the rise of inflation have got out of step and are in two different financial years. We are therefore effectively giving that increase twice, because we give it on inflation in year one, and then, when pay rises catch up in year two, we end up giving it again, and we have accidentally given a much higher amount over a period than either inflation or earnings. If that is what risks the long-term future of the triple lock, does the Minister think that a rolling two-year or three-year average would fix that? If that is the price of making the triple lock safe in the long term, I would pay it. I would not choose it, but if that stops the uncertainty over the whole thing being affordable, it would be better. Perhaps the Minister could help us with a better process for future years.

I fully support these orders and I will happily vote for them in the unlikely event that we get to a vote.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice) 4:34, 31 January 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Nigel Mills, a fellow member of the Work and Pensions Committee.

I stand here with a somewhat renewed sense of frustration following the release of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s “UK Poverty 2024” report, which I will refer to throughout the course of my contribution. I find myself again speaking in this Parliament against a backdrop of a truly dire situation characterised by destitution. I wonder what more can be said or done to make the British Government realise the true extent of the hardship they have inflicted on people across these islands. The SNP will not oppose the orders for 2024-25, but to keep it plain and simple: the damage has already been done. No amount of uprating will address the long-term consequences of entrenched destitution inflicted on households as a result of the British Government, who, I would argue, have been asleep at the wheel now for 14 years.

Although the Government’s announcement to uprate social security benefits means that shortfalls should not increase any further this year, the orders still fail to undo any of the cumulative impact of years of cuts to social security that households across these islands have endured. While the British Government have been asleep at the wheel, people across the country have been kept awake at night due to the sheer amount of stress and anxiety, wondering how they will feed themselves and their families, and how they can afford—they often cannot afford them—the essentials. We are faced with an horrendous picture, but that is the stark reality of living with this Westminster Government. Young children, school children, pensioners, young adults, those in and out of work—no one is left unscathed when they have the misfortune of interacting with the UK’s social security system.

As the Minister comes back to the Dispatch Box, I am sure full of civil service-inspired lines that do not meet the reality outside Whitehall, we are faced with a cold hard truth from which we cannot escape: people are suffering, and will only continue to suffer as long as this Government refuse to fix the known policy issues, on which I am sure my hon. Friend Chris Stephens will elaborate.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration)

We are debating what is supposed to be an adequate payment for social security. The Government’s case is completely weakened, is it not, by the ridiculous system of loans and reductions? My hon. Friend’s constituents in Glasgow East and mine in Glasgow South West are, on average, having their universal credit payments deducted by £60 a month because of this ridiculous system.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is an assiduous questioner of the Government through Work and Pensions questions on the issue of debt and deductions. He is right to cite the figures in Glasgow, which are well known—local citizens advice bureaux all over our constituencies refer to them—but of course, we are not the only Members whose constituents are impacted by the debt and deductions policy of this Government, which is often found wanting. If the Minister could touch on debt and deductions when he sums up, that would be helpful.

In a Westminster Hall debate I held three weeks ago on the cost of living crisis, I compared the UK’s social security system, which used to be hailed as a safety net for those who needed it, to something that now resembles nothing more than a frayed rope, unable to bear the weight of the individuals who rely on it as a lifeline. After reading the new report and statistics produced by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, I have never been more assured in my assessment of the state of the social security policies enforced by this Westminster Government.

The JRF report outlines that more than one in five people in the UK were in poverty in 2021-22. That is 14.4 million people, 4.2 million of whom were children and 2.1 million were pensioners. Just as the statistics from Save the Children and Age Scotland show—I will outline them shortly—the JRF report has to be a wake-up call for this Government, and indeed the Government who may follow, if we are to make any tangible change to the broken system that lies before us. In its report, the graph that illustrates the percentage of people in poverty is broken down into the following categories: in poverty, but not in deep poverty; in deep poverty, but not in very deep poverty; and, in very deep poverty. I must be honest: I find it completely surreal that we have reached a point at which statistical analysis has to be broken down into such categories to illustrate the situation that people are having to endure. It is utterly shameful that such categories even have to exist in one of the richest countries on the planet.

I understand that to Members who are present today I seem frustrated, but that is because I am. The statistics in this report are not just numbers; they are the very reality of people in the communities that I represent, such as Parkhead and Shettleston, and those, such as Mosspark or Cardonald, that are represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West. They are truly harrowing findings.

I want to say something about universal credit, which was also raised by Alison McGovern. This policy is failing the very people whom it is, in theory, supposed to support: rather than supporting them, it drives destitution and food bank usage. It has been reported that 68% of people referred to a Trussell Trust food bank in Scotland who are in receipt of universal credit have money automatically deducted from their payments to repay debts, such as a DWP advance—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West. Moreover, food banks in the Trussell Trust network distributed about 3 million emergency food parcels across the UK in 2022-23, more than 1 million of which were for children.

The Government also refuse to scrap abhorrent policies such as the two-child cap and the associated rape clause. The DWP’s own figures show that in April last year, 1.5 million children were affected by the two-child limit—and I say that in the context of those 1 million children who were in receipt of food parcels. This is in addition to data from Save the Children, which found that 60% of households affected by the two-child cap included at least one adult in paid employment. No doubt the Minister will stand up and say that the two-child cap is about making sure that people get into work, but the fact is that it has an impact on people who are already in work. Punitive sanctions, deductions, the two-child limit and the five-week wait are all defining characteristics that are inherent in this British Government's social security system—policies that have caused, and continue to cause, hardship to so many.

Although I could stand here and generate endless amounts of research and statistics for the Minister, my plea is simple. Social security does not have to be done this way: we do not have to continue down this road of sanctions, deductions, rape clauses and five-week waits. It is an undeniable fact that the Scottish Government cannot make any tangible change to these policies while 85% of welfare expenditure and income-related benefits remains reserved to the Government here in Westminster. For every step forward that the Scottish Government try to make, Westminster drags us back two.

The Scottish Government desperately need the opportunity to create a system, one designed to tackle poverty actively and empower those who interact with the system, without one hand being tied behind their back. When we have had the power to do so, we have introduced game-changing policies, such as the Scottish child payment. Analysis shows that the Scottish child payment could lift up to 50,000 children out of relative poverty in 2023-24, which is because the Scottish Government choose to prioritise that. Child poverty rates in Scotland sit at 24%, which is still far too high, but they should be seen in the context of the 31% rate in England and the 28% rate in Wales. That is likely to be due, at least in part, to the Scottish child payment.

Fundamentally, it is a political choice to lift children out of poverty. If this Westminster Government are unwilling to make that choice, I simply ask them to hand over the reins of power to the Scottish Government, who are more than willing, and certainly ready, to implement a system that will allow people to thrive rather than being punished for their circumstances. Until that happens, the Scottish Government are left fighting an uphill battle against a Westminster social security system that is broken beyond repair. Again, I am left wondering how different things might be if Scotland were able to take all the legislative and fiscal responsibility for these issues through the normal powers of independence.

Whether it is the British Government’s cruel sanctions regime or their refusal to fix known policy failures that only push people further into hardship, we are seeing what will sadly be one of the defining legacies of this Tory Government. As a result, poverty no longer just exists within our society. It is deepening, it is ingrained, and it is causing insurmountable pain to people right across these islands. As we are faced with the reality of more food parcels than ever being delivered through the Trussell Trust networks and shockingly high levels of child poverty, the only conclusion I can draw is that these are all signs of a Government, and indeed a Union, that the people in Scotland must escape if they are to have any hope of a fair and prosperous future.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 4:45, 31 January 2024

I start by welcoming the uprating order, including the uprating of the local housing allowance, which has been frozen for over 10 years now. That is a significant move forward, but as my hon. Friend Alison McGovern said, we need to recognise the context in which this apparently positive uprating is being brought in. We need to look at what has happened since 2010, particularly the various cuts and freezes to working-age support over the past 14 years.

I was going through some figures just before the debate started, and I noted that between 2010 and 2012, the uprating was about 1.5%; between 2012 and 2016, it was 1% a year, and between 2016 and 2020 it was zero. Of course, the average annual CPI increase for each of those years was about 3%. That is the context. There has been a steady and consistent erosion in the value of social security, and this has affected universal credit, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, income support, housing benefit, child tax credits, working tax credits and child benefits.

The Resolution Foundation estimated at the time that this was the equivalent of a cut of over £20 billion a year. That is £20 billion a year taken out of the support for working-age people. What is not well understood is that these are predominantly people in low-paid work; yes, a small proportion of people are on unemployment support or in long-term unemployment, but they are a tiny fraction of the population. This is predominantly support for people in low-paid work.

David Linden, a fellow member of the Select Committee, mentioned the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s “UK Poverty 2024” report. I invite people to read it, and if they cannot read the whole document, they should read the summary. It is absolutely shocking. The headlines are that levels of relative poverty now are equivalent to those we had before the pandemic. The Government prefer to talk about absolute poverty because that is to their advantage, but in terms of relative poverty, we are back to where we were before the pandemic. So that everyone understands, what happened during the pandemic—who was affected, where was affected—reflected that poverty; those inequalities drove who was going to get ill. They drove what happened during the pandemic, and now we are back there, not having learned very much.

There are 14.5 million people living in relative poverty, of whom 6 million are in deep poverty. Deep poverty describes people who are living on less than 40% of median income. My fellow Select Committee member mentioned another level below that: very deep poverty. That is even worse poverty. The average income of somebody in very deep poverty is 59% below what we recognise as the relative poverty level. How on earth can we think that is acceptable in this country? We heard last year about the increase in destitution, which is another category altogether. There is deep poverty, very deep poverty and—the worst of the worst—destitution. The number of people in destitution has doubled, meaning there are 3.8 million people who cannot afford to meet their basic physical needs to stay warm, dry and clean, and to feed themselves.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South talked about the children in the families who are affected. For every 1% increase in child poverty, 5.8 extra children out of 100,000 live births—I apologise for the fractions—will not reach their first birthday. That is the consequence of poverty. For those who survive, poverty affects every aspect of their development, including how their brains are wired, how they will develop and their attainment at school. It is a disgrace that we have such levels of poverty in this country.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

We have this debate every year and it becomes increasingly distressing. For me, one of the most distressing statistics this year is the European comparison of growth rates: the height of children in this country is now falling behind the height of children in Europe. What does that mean? That is not a cosmetic issue, but one that concerns the health of the child and their ability to flourish.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point, which I will come on to.

We have talked about children, but disabled people are another cohort who have been punished over the last 14 years. Again, that is disgraceful—I apologise for repeating the same phrases, but I cannot think of adequate vocabulary to express my rage about what is happening in different terms. Ethnic minority communities are also disproportionately affected.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (AI and Intellectual Property)

My hon. Friend is making a deeply important speech. Does she agree that it is also important to consider the effect poor-quality housing has on all the groups she mentions, in particular the combination of poverty and poor-quality housing, which leads to actions such as parents turning heating down?

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

That is a very good point. The Department for Work and Pensions has the largest spending across Government. The state pension accounts for the largest part of the Department’s spending, followed by universal credit, but third on the list is housing benefit and the support provided through the housing element of universal credit. Given that the Government are investing a large amount of taxpayers’ money in housing, one would think there was some way to safeguard its quality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South made important points about the escalation in the use of food banks. As I have said before, we did not have a food bank in Oldham before 2010; we now have several to meet the need. We are aware of the impact of poverty on the labour market, which I know is of interest to the Minister. We need a healthy labour market to be able to provide the growth we all want to see across the country, but, again, all the evidence suggests that will not happen for the reasons set out by my right hon. Friend John McDonnell.

This is becoming an increasingly unhealthy country. Our healthy life expectancy is declining and our life expectancy is declining, and that has been happening since 2017. At the time, Professor Sir Michael Marmot warned what the consequences would be, and he was right. In the report that he produced at the beginning of the year—I asked the Prime Minister a question about this just last week—he said that

“if everyone had the good health of the least deprived 10% of the population there would have been 1 million fewer deaths in England in the period 2012 to 2019. Of these, 148,000 can be linked to austerity”— directly linked to austerity.

In 2020, the first year of the covid pandemic, there were a further 28,000 deaths” that could have been prevented. Those are the consequences of the poverty and inequality that we have in this country.

The Select Committee is undertaking an inquiry into the adequacy of social security support. With that in mind, I once more commend the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust, which have put together some interesting recommendations on the essentials guarantee. They suggest that what we provide should be based on need rather than on some quite subjective view of what the level of support should be. I hope the Work and Pensions Committee can support some aspect of that. Finally, I will just mention that £120 per week for a single person, instead of the £70 currently, would be a good step in the right direction. Thank you for your latitude, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 4:56, 31 January 2024

Given the number of us in the Chamber, I do not think that this will be an afternoon of high drama. I, like others, do not intend to divide the House on the motion before us.

The Government made their decision on uprating last year. Pensioners around the country let out a collective sigh of relief that the triple lock had been kept. No one here today will vote down either this or the next statutory instrument. Clearly, we on the Opposition Benches would like the measures to go further, but we know that the harm from torpedoing them would be catastrophic, because it would prevent the proposed increases from taking place. None the less, as Nigel Mills said, there are different ways of doing this, and given that we have this opportunity to speak today, I will do so to allow the Minister to get a feel for the mood of the House—how we feel the Government are performing in this area, and, more importantly in an election year, how our constituents feel that they are performing.

It is quite clear that the outcomes of Government policy are hard to swallow. What we are seeing is women dying as they fight for compensation because of the Government’s maladministration of their state pensions, and that is clearly not acceptable. We see pensioners going hungry and risking illness because they cannot afford to either eat or stay warm, and that is not acceptable. I raised a number of these issues relating to pensioner poverty in my recent Adjournment debate, and I look forward to meeting the Minister, as was promised, to discuss some of them. As Members have already said, we know that one in three children are living in poverty, and that is not acceptable.

Madam Deputy Speaker, the report card is in, and it is a fail. Record numbers of families are relying on emergency food parcels. In April to September last year, 320,000 people turned to a food bank for the first time. Debbie Abrahams mentioned the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s essentials guarantee. I find it interesting that we are here debating how much the uprating to benefits is, but we never seem to debate what is the correct amount in the first place that can allow people to live in dignity and obtain their essentials. Perhaps if people had that certainty, they would be better placed to improve their health and often their employment opportunities.

Incidentally, the Trussell Trust is on the estate today—indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker, I think I saw you at the meeting—and I hope the Minister has had the time to visit its staff in the Churchill Room to hear directly from them. The Minister and I have worked together on the all-party parliamentary group on ending the need for food banks and our inquiry report into cash or food. There today I learned my own statistics for North East Fife. I have one main Trussell Trust food bank, in Cupar, which until recently was ably run by Joe Preece—he has just stepped down after a number of years in charge. Those statistics showed me that there has been a 25% increase in the use of the Cupar food bank since 2018. That is before covid; the Government give lots of reasons about people experiencing pressures due to the cost of living but we all know in this place that food bank use was increasing long before covid came along.

Child poverty costs the Government £39 billion each year through immediate additional public services and the delayed costs associated with the higher risk of unemployment in adults who grew up in poverty. That £39 billion per year is a huge amount of what is to some extent avoidable spending, and I find it hard to believe that we could find a voter who thought that letting a child live in poverty was acceptable if we could avoid it. Even if we could find that voter, I am pretty sure they would be horrified by the amount it is costing them, the taxpayer, to effectively do nothing. So I put it to the Minister and the Government that they are shooting themselves in the foot by uprating benefits with inflation while keeping the two-child limit and freezing the benefit cap. The Minister might say in his closing remarks that the cap was increased last year but that is disingenuous because it had been frozen since 2016, when it was actually lowered. Last year’s uprating was vital but totally insufficient in ending poverty.

When I was elected in December 2019 some 41,000 families across the UK were subject to the benefit cap and now there are over 75,000. The drop in numbers from the uprating last April will quickly vanish if the cap is frozen for another seven years. Indeed, these are the two policies which, if changed, would be the most effective and efficient means of lifting hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. I do not know for how long the Minister will be in his current position—we do not know when the general election will be this year and the change that might bring—but what a legacy it would be to take hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. I hope he agrees with me on that.

It would not be a DWP debate for me without raising the issue of unpaid carers and in particular carer’s allowance. Following this uprating, carer’s allowance will be £81.90 each week, claimable by the 1.3 million carers who do 35 hours of unpaid care each week—full-time work. That is just £15.75 per week more than when I was elected four years ago—for each hour of cooking, cleaning, bathing, appointments, admin and worrying, an extra 45p. So yes I am bringing it up again.

I am looking forward to meeting the Chief Treasury to the Secretary next month to discuss carer’s allowance, particularly the much-needed reforms of it, because I believe that carer’s allowance creates barriers to work. Almost half of carers receiving carer’s allowance report that they are struggling to make ends meet, and if they are struggling, the people they are caring for are struggling too.

I am going to end with a local gripe. Yesterday I received a letter from the DWP north-east Scotland service leader. This followed from the Department’s written statement six days ago about starting the next phase of the transition to universal credit. The letter was dated seven days ago and it told me that the move to universal credit expansion into North East Fife had been moved forward, to nine days ago—two days before the letter was written, three before the announcement was made by the Government, and over a week before I was actually told. MPs rely on timely communications to be able to do our job, to scrutinise Government activity and to support our constituents. I very much hope that that was a one-off error but I raise it here in the hope that future errors can be prevented.

These orders are a technical necessity, but when we look past that—when we look past the different ways of calculating inflation and the actuarial arguments—what we are talking about is what kind of society we want to live in. During covid many found out for the first time about the inadequacies of our social security system and for those remaining on it, it remains deeply inadequate.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North 5:03, 31 January 2024

I cannot better what Debbie Abrahams said about poverty in this country and we should reflect on that if we are passing social security uprating orders because the levels of poverty are an utter disgrace. One has only to spend a short time in a food bank anywhere across the country to realise the desperation of many people who are prepared to queue, often for a very long time, just to get a few packets of pasta to keep their family together for another week. The numbers accessing food banks are going up all the time. People are increasingly going to community centres to try to get food that has been donated by others. The level of poverty is huge.

I will bring two specific areas to the House’s attention. Wendy Chamberlain just talked about the first: the two-child benefit policy, which limits universal credit to claimants’ first two children. Like all Members, I have many constituents who are part of large families. The Somali community, the Haredi Jewish community, the Congolese community, the Bengali community and a number of others often have quite large families. Is there anything morally right in saying that the third, fourth, fifth or sixth child in a family is less valuable than the first or second? Can anyone justify that? I do not believe that they can, yet the policy persists.

The cost of changing the policy would be £1.3 billion. That might sound like a lot. It does not sound very much compared with overall Government expenditure, nor compared with the benefits that it would bring in lifting a lot of children and families out of poverty. At the moment, around 1.3 million children are affected. They come from around 400,000 households. [Interruption.] Is David Linden trying to intervene?

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice)

No, I was just enjoying the right hon. Member’s speech.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

The hon. Member was looking with interest. I am grateful to him for that, and for what he said.

I hope that as a result of this debate the Minister will seriously examine the poverty created by the two-child policy, and that all parties in this House will recognise that we ill serve the community if we deliberately discriminate against children in large families. Children living in poverty are less likely to achieve their full potential in school, and the jobs and careers that they want. As a result, we all lose. We all lose out on their talents because we disregarded their needs when they were at their most desperate. I hope that the Minister will recognise that.

Secondly, the uprating order includes an increase in housing benefit in line with the rate of inflation that is applicable. The problem is that in constituencies such as mine, where a third of the population live in the private rented sector, housing benefit never quite catches up with the increase in rents imposed by private sector landlords. It is not just a London problem; it exists in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle—all over the country. Yes, local housing allowance is being increased in line with a perception of what the affordable rent level is within the community, but it never quite catches up.

A friend of mine was helping somebody to find a flat locally. They spent days trawling through agents, and all the other places one goes to try to find a flat. They found fewer than half a dozen flats available to rent within the local housing allowance. In lots of inner urban areas, having neither rent controls nor a sufficient level of housing benefit or local housing allowance effectively leads to an expulsion of the poorest from those communities. We need to come back to that and introduce private sector rent controls, and we need a local housing allowance that is realistic and meets people’s housing costs. Otherwise, it is often the poorest and largest families who get shifted from one private rented sector flat to another, thus damaging those children’s education and life chances.

If we are to live in a society where we are proud of our welfare state, the welfare state has to work for the poorest in our community. At the moment, frankly, it does not.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:09, 31 January 2024

I thank everyone who has participated in this debate. I am very disappointed in David Linden, who seems to think that I do not write my own material. He should know that my private office staff are sitting in trepidation, as I write across every speech they give me in blue and red ink. They never know what will emerge from my mouth. I can assure him that it is all my own work, and he can criticise it all the more for that reason.

I am also disappointed that people think this order is just a technical necessity. I do not call £19 billion of Government spending a technical necessity. It is one of the largest amounts of extra spending in which the Government engage in any particular year, and it will make a considerable difference to the lives of people across the country.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

No, I certainly do not, but I would want to think that those of us in this Chamber did not dismiss the order as a technical measure.

My hon. Friend Nigel Mills repeated a point that I think he made this time last year—I also made this point when I was sitting in the far corner of the Chamber as a Back Bencher—on the timely application of these measures and whether we ought to make them more promptly after inflation is measured. As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, he will know that this issue is often discussed, with the discussion often revolving around the robustness of universal credit’s IT system compared with the IT systems for legacy benefits. I am told the hopefully promising news that state pension benefits, in particular, will be moving to a more modern IT platform by 2025, followed by disability benefits, contributory benefits and carer’s allowance, so there is a pathway towards getting all our benefits on to modern IT systems that are more agile in responding to economic situations. I hear his point, and work is under way.

The hon. Members for Glasgow East and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) both talked about the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and I am a great admirer of its work. As a Back Bencher, I sat on many Zoom meetings and Teams meetings to listen to its briefings. Wendy Chamberlain and I have discussed the essentials guarantee many times, so I take a personal interest in what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says. Since the period covered by its report, the Government have provided over £104 billion of extra support to help households with the high cost of living. Although I understand that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation will stick to the broad themes of its argument, we need to recognise that Government support has moved on.

I do not want to pre-empt the meeting of the hon. Member for North East Fife with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, which I hope will bring better news than I am able to deliver from the Dispatch Box. I have heard about her letter. My favourite episode of “Fawlty Towers” is “Communication Problems”, which is a comic classic, and the tale she tells is such an example. I am sure my officials have made a note, and we will hopefully follow up with a clarifying letter.

Finally, I turn to Jeremy Corbyn. Not being the Minister in charge of local housing allowance, I am a little cautious about giving him a more definitive answer at this stage—[Interruption.] Nothing annoys me more than when other Ministers intrude on my brief without telling me, so it is a courtesy to them, nothing more.

The draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order will increase the state pension by 8.5%, in line with the rise in average earnings, and it will increase most other benefit rates by 6.7%, in line with the rise in consumer prices. These changes commit the Government to increased expenditure of £19 billion in 2024-25. They maintain the triple lock, protect pensioners on the lowest incomes and support those in the labour market, while maintaining work incentives and protecting the value of benefits for those who cannot work and who have additional disability needs.

I commend this statutory instrument to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2024, which was laid before this House on 15 January, be approved.