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Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:25 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 4:25 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill will ensure that the welfare system is put on a sustainable footing, while continuing to support the most vulnerable. It will ensure that work always pays and it will restore fairness in the system.

It is important to remember that this Bill forms part of a broad package of reforms, which includes the introduction of the national living wage, increases to the personal tax allowance and an enhanced childcare offer. Our welfare reforms are focused on transforming lives by supporting people to find and keep work. There is a focus on employment, fairness and affordability, while supporting the most vulnerable.

We have already made some key achievements over the last Parliament: 2 million more jobs have been created; there are 2.3 million apprenticeships; the number of workless households has reached a record low, down nearly 700,000 since 2010; and there are 800,000 fewer people with relative low income. Perhaps most importantly, these achievements came during a Parliament in which welfare spending increased by the lowest rate since the creation of the modern welfare state. But we still have work to do.

We will continue to bear down on the deficit and debt, achieving a surplus by the end of the Parliament. We spend £3 billion on government debt interest payments alone every month: that is £33 billion a year or £1,230 per household. Every pound we spend on paying off the debt is a pound we are paying to others, such as overseas investment funds, rather than spending on public services such as schools and hospitals. We need to end the cycle of borrowing, which is burdening our children with an ever-increasing debt. Eliminating the deficit and paying off our debts is the moral and most effective thing a responsible Government can do for people on low incomes who rely on those services.

This is a Bill for working Britain, underpinned by three key principles: first, that work is the best route out of poverty, and being in work should always pay more than being on benefits; secondly, that spending on welfare has to be put on a more sustainable footing, but in a way that protects the most vulnerable; thirdly, that people on benefits should face the same choices as those in work and not on benefits.

In the past, we have seen that just throwing money at the problem is not the solution—it is much more complex than that. That is why we are bringing in changes to help support people back into work and drive real change in their lives, both now and in the future.

Everyone deserves to have the dignity of a job and the pride that comes with earning your own pay packet. We want to support everyone in society who can and wants to work, and that is why we are committed to progressing towards full employment.

We also need to make sure that today’s young people start off on the right track, with the skills and experience required to open up employment opportunities in the future. That is why we are committed to delivering three million more apprenticeships during the course of this Parliament. The measures in this Bill will help to drive these commitments by requiring us to report on each measure every year.

The £26,000 cap we established in 2013 has reintroduced fairness into the system. Most importantly, it has driven meaningful change in people’s lives. The cap has helped get people back into work. Capped households are over 40% more likely to go to work than similar uncapped households. More than 18,000 previously capped households have now moved into work.

The changes to the benefit cap in this Bill are underlined by three basic principles of fairness. First, the cap should be set at a level that ensures it continues to be fair and to provide the right incentives for people to move into work. Secondly, this measure ensures that the cap better reflects the circumstances of working families around the UK. We know that around four in 10 households outside London earn less than £20,000, with the same proportion of households in London earning less than £23,000. Thirdly, welfare spending needs to be put on a sustainable footing.

Let me be clear: we will continue to provide protection and support for the most vulnerable. That is why exemptions will still apply, including those households entitled to DLA, PIP or Armed Forces PIP, industrial injuries benefit, the ESA support group component, and the limited capability for work-related activity component in UC; those moving into work who are entitled to working tax credit; and war widows and widowers. We have provided considerable additional support through discretionary housing payments for those claimants who need temporary financial assistance to adjust to the reforms. This additional funding will continue, and we are making £800 million available for discretionary housing payments over the next five years.

For too long now, this country has been dependent on unsustainable borrowing, with government debt repayments currently costing each household more than £1,200 every year. We simply cannot continue this way. It is not fair to keep borrowing and burdening future generations with even more debt. That is why we are committed to achieving a surplus by the end of the Parliament. During recent years, since the financial crisis began in 2008, benefits have been increasing at a greater rate than average earnings. Between 2008 and 2015, the minimum wage increased by 17%, whereas the main rates of most benefits, such as jobseeker’s allowance, have increased by 21%, and the individual element of child tax credits has increased by 33%.

The Bill will freeze working-age benefits for the next four years, helping to bring welfare spending under control. As part of our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable, benefits reflecting the additional costs of disability are excluded from the freeze. This includes PIP, DLA and the support group component of ESA. Pensioner benefits and statutory payments will also be excluded from the freeze.

During the last decade, growing evidence has shown that work can keep people healthy, as well as helping to promote recovery if someone falls ill. We are committed to ensuring that everyone who is able to has the opportunity to take advantage of the financial, social and health benefits which employment brings. However, perverse incentives in the benefits system and the lack of appropriate support can mean that some miss out. The work-related activity group component of ESA was never designed to help towards the additional costs of disability.

It is clear that the current system is failing claimants. Some 61% of WRAG claimants want to work but only 1% leave the benefit each month. People on ESA receive nearly £30 a week more than those on JSA, but receive far less support to move closer to the labour market and, when they are ready, into work. For new claims, the Bill will end this disparity between what people receive. Current claimants will not be affected, and new funding rising to £100 million a year in 2020-21 will be provided to help new claimants with limited capability for work to move closer to employment. A similar change will be made to the limited capability for work element of universal credit, ensuring that we provide the same level of support under the new system as we do through the current one. We are committed to ensuring that everyone who is able to has the opportunity to take advantage of the financial, social and health benefits which employment brings.

The Bill will also enable the Government to recover the expenses they incur for administrating benefit diversions to the Motability scheme. This is a purely administrative change which will not affect Motability’s users. The change involves less than £1 million a year and has the support of Motability, and I am sure that noble Lords would not wish such a minor issue to occupy too much of the Chamber’s time.

We also want to support parents claiming universal credit to get into and stay in work after having a child. We found out just last month that the number of children living in workless households is at a record low, down by 480,000 since 2010. That is really good progress and we want to build on it. The Government are introducing a far-reaching childcare offer. With universal credit, people will get up to 85% of their childcare costs paid from April 2016, up from 70% under the previous system. Working parents of three and four year-olds will receive an additional 15 hours of free childcare a week, while tax-free childcare will benefit up to 1.8 million working families. In line with that, we think that parents claiming universal credit should be required to look for work when their youngest child turns three, and to prepare for work when the youngest child turns two. In addition, the Bill will create a statutory duty to report on our progress supporting troubled families with multiple, highly complex problems. This will include how we have supported them to move closer to work.

We are also making provision to tackle social rents, which have increased by 20% since 2010. The Bill will reduce rents in social housing in England by 1% a year for four years from April 2016, protecting taxpayers from the rising costs of subsidising rents through housing benefit and protecting tenants from rising housing costs. This will reduce average rents for households in the social housing sector by around 12% by 2020 compared with current forecasts. It will also mean that people who are not on housing benefit and not subject to “pay to stay” will be better off by around £12 per week by 2019-20.

The Bill reforms the way support for mortgage interest will be paid in the future. The current system of providing benefit payments towards the cost of mortgage interest payments will be replaced by a system of interest-bearing loans which are secured against the claimant’s property. Loans will not be repayable until the home is sold. This change will ensure that claimants receive the same level of protection from repossession that they enjoy now, while providing a better and fairer deal for the taxpayer.

We are ensuring that people on benefits face the same choices as those in work and not on benefits. Families in work have to make careful choices about what lifestyle the money they earn can support, and what their income can provide for. People who receive child tax credit should make the same financial choices about having children as those who are supporting themselves through work. Therefore, from April 2017, the Bill will limit the child element of child tax credit to the first two children. A two-child limit will also apply in universal credit in relation to third or subsequent new children in the household, and to completely new claims. Again, we are ensuring that this change is fair, so it will not affect existing claimants at the point of change.

Finally, I turn to how we will tackle the root causes of child poverty and improve children’s life chances. We want to see substantial and sustained improvements in the life chances of our children. The past approach, enshrined in the Child Poverty Act, has focused on dealing with the symptoms of child poverty rather than addressing the root causes. It has incentivised Governments to move families a pound above the poverty line, not to help them transform their lives.

Evidence tells us that worklessness and educational attainment are the factors that have the biggest impact on child poverty and children’s life chances. We want legislation to focus government action where it can have the biggest impact. The Bill will provide a statutory basis for much-needed reform to drive real change to improve children’s life chances and tackle the root causes of child poverty.

The Bill will remove the existing measures and targets in the Child Poverty Act and introduce a new duty on the Secretary of State to report on worklessness and educational attainment. Alongside these statutory measures, we will develop indicators to measure progress against other root causes of child poverty, including family breakdown, addiction and problem debt. Our new approach will drive action which will make the biggest difference to the most disadvantaged children, both now and in the future.

This Bill is an important legislative step. It will ensure that the right support and incentives are in place, so that people are always better off in work rather than trapped on welfare, and it will protect the most vulnerable members of our society. We acknowledge that these are difficult decisions to make, but we think they are the right decisions. They are decisions that put work first, drive sustainable welfare spending and allow us to continue to protect the vulnerable and those most in need. I beg to move.

Annotations

Andy Robertson-Fox
Posted on 19 Nov 2015 11:17 am (Report this annotation)

Lord Freud said that "That there is a focus on ........supporting the most vulnerable." and that "pensioner benefits and statutory payments will be excluded from the freeze" It is sad to note that the state retirement pension, although not a benefit but an entitlement, of over 550,000 UK pensioners living overseas has not been excluded from the freeze. Thus the 93 year old former WWII airman now living in Australia is still expected to survive on the same income as his full pension was in 1987....just £39.50 per week....if he is not one of the most vulnerable who needs to be focused upon and properly supported, then pray, who is?