Welfare Reform Bill — Report (5th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 23rd January 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 9:45 pm, 23rd January 2012

My Lords, the amendment would ensure that within universal credit the elements of benefit awarded for children or young persons, and any child carer element, will be paid to the parent or person who is the primary carer of those children. The amendment is supported by Oxfam, Women's Aid, the Children's Society and Platform 51, whose experience makes clear that for millions of people living in poverty the way in which benefits and tax credits are paid is vital in enabling them to keep food on the table for their children day by day.

Recent government research shows that benefits that are labelled as being intended for children are much more likely to be used for that purpose. A study by Hall and Pettigrew for HM Revenue and Customs showed that child tax credit, for example, is commonly identified as money for children and is spent accordingly. A recent study of winter fuel allowance by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, published in 2010, also found,

"robust evidence of a behavioural effect", of the labelling of that benefit. A study for Save the Children, HelpAge International and the Institute of Development Studies, published in 2005, points to the value of targeting and delivery mechanisms.

Labelling is currently absent from the new system of universal credit. The amendment would rectify that apparently small but profoundly important fault in the system. I and many other noble Lords on all sides of the House have made clear that we support many of the principles behind universal credit. The amendment neither challenges those principles nor would increase the cost of the system, other than marginally, to cover the administrative costs of making two payments to some households or to those with children. I understand that all the amendment would require is a change to a few lines of code in the current IT system to mirror what already happens with child tax credit. It will be much cheaper to do that now, while the IT infrastructure is being constructed, than to leave it until much later to be dealt with under regulations.

Without the amendment, the universal credit system would deter couples from forming long-term, stable relationships, which I think the Minister would accept is an important point. For many single parents considering whether to form a joint family with a potential new partner by living together or getting married, the prospect of the entire benefit for the whole newly formed family being paid into one account will be a strong disincentive to forming a single unit, but the formation of such families holds out the best hope for those benefit claimants coping well with their children, becoming self-sufficient and coming off dependence on the taxpayer.

Another concern is that, once money reaches the household, it is often unequally distributed, particularly in low-income households, as the DWP and Ministers have acknowledged and as the research shows very clearly. Emergency powers in the Bill enable payments to be shifted in the event of abuse. That will not be a sufficient protection. Abuse is often hard to prove; it is often hidden within families and hard for the state to identify. In view of the pervasiveness of the financial vulnerability of primary carers, the aim of the system must surely be to prevent abuse, where it can, to protect children.

The Minister's budgeting products, including jam-jar accounts provided by the financial services industry, might help with different problems, but they will not resolve the problems addressed by the amendment. We are trying here to deal with common family problems where the primary carer repeatedly finds themselves without money to feed the children. As the DWP knows from its research, many parents suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction and gambling addiction, and far greater numbers suffer from unhappy and often abusive relationships. In all those situations, the risks of the primary carer not receiving the money with which to feed and clothe the children are real. Those primary carers will continue to receive child benefit, but for them to receive the child elements of universal credit as well would go a long way to reducing their vulnerability in violent or otherwise abusive marriages.

The Children's Commissioner has expressed concern about the new single lump-sum payment arrangements. The amendment is not about the sex of the primary carer. A growing number of fathers take responsibility for children's welfare if a mother is the one who is abusive, mentally ill or otherwise unable to take the primary carer responsibilities. I make the point that this is not about men versus women or women versus men.

The Government argue that putting universal credit into a joint account could guarantee access to both partners. That is not the answer. Of course, not all couples have joint accounts, especially those who might not have been together very long. In fact, joint savings, investments and debts are decreasing. Often, couples will have individual accounts and will have to opt for one or other for the payment of universal credit. That is our concern. In many cases, a joint account does not guarantee equal access to money for both partners anyway. Often one partner dominates the joint account, and there might be only one chequebook.

It is difficult to imagine that the Minister would disagree with the proposition that the payment of benefits for children to their main carer would be the best way to ensure that the money is spent on the children. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm his view on that matter. Further, does the Minister agree that for new couples where one or both partners has at least one child and one partner would have responsibility for housing costs-which is likely to be the case if the couple get together-the payment of the whole universal credit to one bank account is likely to be a disincentive to the partners to come together?

Again, I endorse the Government's objective to simplify the benefit system and I realise that this is a tiny fly in the ointment of that simplification process. I hope that the Minister will recognise, however, that the costs and benefits of this amendment would come down very solidly on the side of our proposed small change to the Bill, and I hope that in view of that the Minister will be willing to table his own amendment-no doubt this one would not be perfect-on this apparently small but fundamentally important matter. I beg to move.