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Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:42 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 10:42 pm, 17th November 2015

The HPI measures are still there. We will have all the measures that we normally have.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis, Lady Sherlock and Lady Lister, were concerned about the impact of this on the Budget. Our reforms are designed to incentivise work and ensure that it always pays, and then to allow people to keep more of what they earn. The new life- chance measures will drive continued action on work and education, which will make the biggest differences to disadvantaged children now and in the future.

Numerous noble Lords argued that we should keep income-based measures and measure in-work poverty, as the noble Baroness has just reinforced. The existing statutory framework set around the four income-related targets is unfit for purpose. The framework does not drive the right action, so instead we will focus on the root causes such as worklessness and educational failure. The income measures led Governments to spending their finite resources on action that did not produce the best results for our children, and that is the reason for our new approach. As I just said, though, and in response to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, we will still be publishing all the income measures and the HPI report. I remind him that no other country in the world uses those measures as a target as opposed to a measure.

I am flattered by the vigorous quoting by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, from that small piece of work. I should point out that when I say there were some remarkable changes, there were no remarkable changes in the number of NEETs, which went up through the longest boom in history, nor in the amount of worklessness or social housing, which plateaued whether one was at the top or the bottom of the cycle, and I recommended a major effort to pull the disabled back into the labour market and into society. Of course some of the figures that I was so pleased with then fell straight off a cliff when we had a rather remarkable recession—probably the worst recession that this country has had since the 1920s. However, we took £60 billion out of the welfare bill over the last coalition Government, and up until the time for when we have the latest data, the relative measure of people in poverty had declined in that period by 800,000 people. So it is wise not to use people’s forecasts of income but what has actually happened.

I turn to the benefit cap. It is not fair for someone on benefits to receive more than many people in work; reducing the benefit cap to £23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere better aligns the level with the circumstances of hard-working families across the country. On the question raised by a number of noble lords—the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock, Lady Hollis, Lady Lister and Lady Warwick—about whether the level was too low, we originally set the cap at £26,000 but we want to balance the key aims of strengthening work incentives and promoting fairness between those in work and those in receipt of out-of-work benefits.

Any changes to the cap level will require the passage of regulations. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, who was concerned about this, that the regulations which lower the level of the cap will follow the affirmative parliamentary process. In response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, carer’s allowance is included in the cap. The Government fully acknowledge and value the very important role that carers provide to society but 94% of households in receipt of carer’s allowance will have a benefit income above the new cap level. They are, anyway, exempt from the cap.

The benefits freeze is a vital part of the Government’s welfare reforms, providing £3.5 billion of savings by 2019-20—without any cash losers—which would otherwise need to be found elsewhere. The noble Lord, Lord Low, asked about the impact of the freeze on the disabled. We have exempted the benefits which contribute to the additional cost of disability and care from the working-age benefit freeze. The noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis and Lady Bakewell, raised the issue of the two-child limit. Families on benefits should make the same financial decisions as those families supporting themselves solely through work. Families on lower incomes will continue to receive child benefit for all children in the household, including a higher rate paid for the eldest qualifying child or young person. The noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Manzoor, both raised questions about involuntary two-child families. The Government will look at the important issues around exemption through secondary legislation and will provide more detail in due course. The situation with kinship carers is similar.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, raised the point of the impact on disabled children. Parents of disabled children will continue to receive the disabled child element and severely disabled child element in child tax credit and, in UC, the additional amount of the child element in respect of all disabled children, regardless of the total number of children in the household. The noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, asked for assurance that the architecture of UC will not be lost. I appreciate her support on that and give credit to the Liberal Democrats, who were utterly supportive of universal credit and our efforts to bring it into reality under the previous Government. I am delighted to see that they maintain that level of support.

I turn now to the clauses which remove the work-related activity component in ESA, and its equivalent in universal credit, for new claimants from April 2017. The noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock, Lady Manzoor, Lady Doocey, Lady Browning, Lady Meacher, Lady Howe and Lady Gale, asked for evidence that the WRAG component is a disincentive. A report by the OECD in 2005 argued that:

“Financial incentives to work can be improved by either cutting welfare benefit levels, or introducing in-work benefits while leaving benefit levels unchanged”.

On the other hand, employment support provides an opportunity to begin talking to ESA claimants about their ability to work. A positive relationship with a work coach, combined with evidence-based methods for goal-setting and striving, offers a promising way towards moving ESA claimants back into work. We will be increasing the practical support with new funding. The noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock, Lady Manzoor, Lady Doocey, Lady Browning, Lady Meacher and Lady Gale, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, argued that these claimants have been found unfit for work. The ESA claimants in the work-related activity group have been found to have limited capability for work. This is very different from being unfit for any work and, although they are not required to look for work, ESA explicitly recognises that claimants may be able to undertake some work via the permitted work rules. This change, combined with the new funding, is about providing the right incentives and support to encourage more people to move closer to the labour market.

The noble Lord, Lord Patel, made a point about those with cancer. The vast majority of those with cancer claiming ESA are actually in the support group, a point that he himself made. This includes anyone who is preparing for, receiving or recovering from chemotherapy or radiotherapy that will significantly limit their ability to work. Only a small proportion of individuals whose initial diagnosis is cancer will be placed in a work-related activity group.

On mental health conditions, raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Manzoor and Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Layard, it was clearly acknowledged that returning to work can improve mental health, which is why we are committed to ensuring that as many people with mental health conditions as possible receive effective support to return to and remain in work. We will actually be investing £43 million over the next three years in trialling ways to provide specialist support for people with common health conditions to get back into the workplace.

On conditionality for parents, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, we believe that more can be done to support parents with young children to prepare and look for work. Where childcare is not available, requirements will be tailored around caring responsibilities.

On the clauses to turn support for mortgage interest into a loan, the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, raised issues around pensioners. Pensioners will have access to the same level of support for mortgage interest payments as the current system provides. This will be provided via a loan, but that will not have to be repaid until the individual’s property has been sold—which often, in the case of pensioners, will be on their death, so the people who actually pay are the inheritors; that is not something the party opposite would have a huge problem with, I would have thought.

A large number of noble Lords talked about social housing rents. The answer to the noble Lord, Lord Smith, is that the Government were elected with a mandate to put welfare spending on a sustainable footing to reduce the deficit. We are confident that housing associations and local authorities will be able to find and make efficiencies to accommodate the new settlement.

On specialist supported accommodation, which a large number of noble Lords brought up, we are proposing that there will be some exceptions from the rent reductions. We have set out some of those in the Bill and we will be setting out further exceptions in regulations. Our intention is to align exceptions with the equivalent provisions of the rent standard. At present these include specialised supported accommodation, residential care homes and nursing homes, and intermediate rent and private finance initiative housing.

We will work with the sector to ensure that the most vulnerable people are not adversely affected—indeed, I am planning to meet with St Mungo’s.

Regrettably, I cannot deal with all the questions and must draw to a close. I thank all noble Lords again for their contributions. Welfare reform is about much more than simply money. Our reforms seek to change the state of the nation, break the cycle of dependency, create the right kinds of incentives, have a fair welfare system, provide the best possible start in life for children, and bring lasting change that directly affects attitudes and behaviours. This Bill is a real opportunity to make a difference to the lives of some of the poorest, the neediest and the most vulnerable people in our society. It is an important and necessary piece of legislation. I commend this Bill to the House and ask for it to be given a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.