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Social Security (Payments on Account of Benefit) Regulations 2013 — Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 13th February 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Labour 10:15 pm, 13th February 2013

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations and explaining how they would work; and my noble friend Lady Lister for her characteristically incisive questions. For this one moment only, I am glad that I am standing here and not sitting in the Minister's seat. As has been explained, these regulations come in two parts. I will first look briefly at the payments on account. The Minister has explained the circumstances in which these will operate and my noble friend Lady Lister has already tried to tease out the reason why the Government have gone for this strict test of being available only to those in financial need. It is even slightly stricter than that. They will be available only for those in financial need as a result of having applied for a benefit, but not yet received a payment, when it seems likely that they will do; or when an award of benefit has been made, but the date on which it would be paid has not yet been reached.

That last one is likely to be of particular interest to millions of people who will find themselves being moved from weekly or fortnightly to monthly payments. Recent research commissioned by DWP, Work and the Welfare System: a survey of benefits and tax credits recipients, by Tu and Ginnis in 2012, found that 42% of potential universal credit claimants said they would find it harder to budget with monthly payments; 80% of these said that they were likely to run out of money before the end of the month. As I understand it, they will not all be entitled to budgeting advances, only those who find themselves in this stiff test of financial need, as a result of the circumstances I have described.

I would be grateful if the Minister would explain what he understands as being a "serious risk". Would running out of food or cooking facilities constitute that, as my noble friend Lady Lister mentioned? Food banks already see significant numbers of people turning up because their benefit payments have been delayed. I suggest that this is likely to become much more significant in future with the move to monthly payments. Even if the test is the same as now, will the Minister concede that there may be a different set of needs resulting from a change in the circumstances because all these people are moving into monthly payments? Has he considered that aspect of it?

Regulations 11 to 15 cover budgeting advances. My noble friend Lady Lister has gone through the reduction in the maximum amount available, so I do not need to revisit that but I will be interested to hear the Minister's answer. I would be interested, though, in the following information, if the Minister can provide it. His department has inquired about what has been happening with regard to the replacement for the Social Fund in different parts of the country. How many of those schemes will offer cash to claimants? What has his department found out about that? That will be important since they will replace a system whereby claimants can access cash at the moment. What research has the department done to establish the alternatives to which claimants are likely to turn? Since many claimants will not be able to access mainstream credit, it must be feared that they will turn at best to expensive legal credit, home credit or retailer financing, or at worst to illegal loan sharks.

I would be grateful if the Minister could explain again why he thinks it is important that claimants should be able to have only one loan at a time, even when it is a very small loan. A family may have borrowed £150 to buy a bed for a child but then a disaster strikes: for example, their washing machine breaks down, there is a flood or the bicycle which the mum is going to use to get to a job interview is stolen. They then need a significantly larger loan. What is the rationale for their not being allowed to take out more than one loan even if the total of the loans is well below the ceiling?

Will the Minister address the interaction between the new low ceiling, the fact that the adviser will be required to establish that the claimant can afford to repay the loan and the fact that the maximum period over which it can be borrowed has been reduced from two years to one year? Therefore, somebody taking out the maximum loan will have to contend with a tighter borrowing period and will have to prove that he or she can afford to repay it. Is there not a danger that that will make it even harder to get the loan in the first place?

These regulations may seem minor and technical but we will see millions of people face changes in their payment patterns because the decisions the Government have taken-in the face of widespread dismay and advice to the contrary-to move to a single payment, including amounts for rent, children as well as work, and to pay it monthly in arrears, are likely to be the cause of significant difficulty for a great many claimants. The least they deserve is a generous, open, accessible system of payments on account to ease the regulations' passage.