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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:00 pm on 23rd January 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Opposition Whip (Lords) 10:00 pm, 23rd January 2012

My Lords, I am looking forward to the Minister's reply. Otherwise we will worry about the sleeping patterns of the noble Lord. These amendments, as has been clearly set out, seek to mitigate the risk of paying the entirety of universal credit to one person and, in particular, to provide protection for women who are more likely to be the main carer in a couple and less likely to have the power in the relationship to determine how money is managed.

The Government's proposals suggest that universal credit payments would not, other than exceptionally, be split between a couple. Instead, they would be paid, as we have heard, entirely into one bank account. The DWP briefing note states that,

"the Government wishes to place responsibility for household budgeting with the household. It is not Government's role to dictate how a household spends their money".

But these amendments are not about how households spend their money but how they receive it. They are about allowing households to decide to whom the money should be paid. This principle is long established in social security policy. Households receiving child benefit can nominate a main carer and those receiving working tax credit can receive child tax credit in the bank account of the main carer and working tax credit in the bank account of the other partner.

Concerns about the shift in policy from this have been voiced by a wide range of organisations, all of which have presented strong arguments in favour of ensuring that the part of universal credit intended for children is paid to the person who has the main care of them. As has already been spelt out, we know that benefits labelled as intended for children are more likely to be used for that purpose. This amendment would enable the Government to identify the parts of the credit intended to help with the costs of children.

Research for HMRC shows that child tax credit is commonly identified as money for children and more often spent accordingly. Again, as has been said, we know that money within the household is frequently unequally distributed, particularly in low-income families. An Oxfam study of black and minority ethnic women in low-income couples revealed cases where,

"women had so little access to money that their husbands were effectively in control of key aspects of their lives".

Benefits for children are sometimes the sole source of independent income for vulnerable women.

As the Women's Budget Group points out,

"putting benefits together is key to the design of UC; paying it into one account is not".

There can already be exceptions. Sometimes, for example, there will be rent for certain categories of recipients. Support for mortgage interest may be paid to lenders and, as the Women's Budget Group, states,

"a sanctioned claimant could lose their UC, and the remainder ... paid to their partner".

The DWP briefing acknowledges:

"There may, however, be exceptional cases that require alternative arrangements: to ensure safeguards. The Government intends to retain powers to split payments between members of a couple in joint claim cases".

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, will be able to sleep easy in his bed because it seems clear to me that the technology will exist to enable the Minister, if he so desires, to accept either or both of these amendments; that is, either paying the child elements of universal credit to the main carer or, in line with the Government's assertion that they wish to enable choice, allowing families to choose to split their payments.

Resistance to these amendments would suggest that administrative simplicity is seen as more important than either ensuring that women have an independent income or encouraging money which is intended for children to reach them. I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept the argument for these changes.