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Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:41 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Opposition Senior Whip (Lords) 4:41 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that introduction to the Bill and I look forward to the debate, especially to the four maiden speakers.

In his speech to the last Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister talked of the need to tackle social problems, including entrenched poverty, in our country. Why? He said this:

“So when the new mum looks at her new-born baby—the most precious thing she’s ever seen—and she vows to provide for it, she knows she actually can”.

This Bill makes a mockery of that pledge. It is a sustained assault on low-income families. It will increase poverty, penalise working households and push more families out of their homes and into temporary accommodation, homelessness or on to housing benefit, and the evidence base for it is poor. So often, I am sorry to say, this Government’s cuts to social security end up being counterproductive, adding more to the benefit bill by undermining work incentives or raising spending elsewhere.

A good example is the proposal to cut social sector rents by 1% a year. This sounds great, but, as the IFS points out, it does little for the 93% of tenants who will lose housing benefit pound-for-pound as their rents falls. As the IFS points out:

“The policy largely represents a transfer from social landlords … to the exchequer, rather than to social tenants”.

As the OBR has pointed out, it will mean fewer social sector properties being built. Social landlords risk having their credit ratings downgraded, planned investments are being cancelled and if specified or all supported housing becomes unviable, costs are simply transferred to the NHS and local government.

As the Minister mentioned, the Bill abolishes the scheme that gives help to some people on benefits to pay the interest on their mortgages so that they do not lose their homes and end up on housing benefit. In future, they will be offered a nine-month wait then the option of a loan secured by a charge on the property. Almost half of recipients are of pensionable age, despite the Government’s pledge to protect pensioner benefits. We will seek, as the Bill goes through, to retain support for low-income pensioners, who may never be able to pay off a loan.

The Bill also takes £30 a week, one-third of their employment and support allowance, from the 500,000 sick and disabled people in the work-related activity group. The impact assessment reassures us that if they worked for just five hours a week at the new higher minimum wage rate, they could recoup the money, but these are people an independent assessor has decided are unfit for work. They include people with learning difficulties, mental health issues, Parkinson’s disease or MS. Only 5% of that group will get back to work within a year. We can see no justification for making people poorer to incentivise them back to work they have been deemed unfit to do. How can the Minister justify this, especially in the light of the manifesto commitment not to cut disability benefits?

The other measures in the Bill all hit low-income families with children. Child poverty has already risen by 400,000 since 2010 and is predicted to rise by another 300,000 by 2020. Two-thirds of poor children will have a parent in work. Those figures could explain why the Bill decides to remove the requirement to measure child poverty or to do anything to reduce it. It abandons the internationally recognised benchmark for poverty because the Government have decided poverty is no longer about money. The Bill expunges the word “poverty” from the legislation. We all accept that deprivation is multifaceted. By all means measure other things as well, but the idea that poverty is not really about money is risible. I fear that what is really happening is that the Government are trying to hide the trail of devastation their reforms are leaving in their wake.

Successive government welfare reforms are hitting the same groups of people, yet Ministers consistently refuse to do a cumulative impact assessment, and now they will not even count child poverty. This will not do. The first rule of power surely means that if you will the ends, you must will the means and you must know and take responsibility for the consequences of your decisions. I hope this House will see fit to challenge that proposal as the Bill goes through.

Then there is the benefit cap. When the Government introduced it, their whole argument was that it was set at the level of average earnings. We had a long debate in this House on whether the test was fair. I remember marching into the Lobby behind the much-missed Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, who proposed an amendment to remove child benefit from the cap on the grounds that people would get child benefit as well. We voted for it. Now Ministers have ditched the entire standard and simply plucked figures out of the air. They have simply decided that they are going to cut the cap by £3,000 for families in London and by £6,000 for families elsewhere. In future, Ministers can change the cap at whim by regulation without reference to any external benchmark and with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. The evidence is nowhere near as strong as even the impact assessment has suggested. Housing providers are worried that rent arrears will rise, as will evictions and homelessness. We have heard that £800 million has already been set aside for discretionary housing provision to deal with it. In Committee, we will want to see a great deal more evidence about the cost-benefit analysis of this policy, as well as about the impact on families.

The Minister mentioned that DWP is changing conditionality in universal credit. At the moment, parents are expected to work when their youngest child turns five. The Bill will mean that parents on universal credit will be expected to work when their youngest turns three. They will have to do work-related activity when their youngest is two and when the youngest reaches one, they will be out doing work preparation interviews. If the Government are going to push mothers of very young children and babies into work preparation activity, they need to be a lot more convincing about the availability and affordability of suitable childcare than they have been in this House in recent months when the Childcare Bill was going through.

Then there is the benefit freeze. Previously, the retail prices index was used to uprate benefits. Then the Government came along and decided that CPI was the measure—the only thing that would do—so they changed it to CPI. Then in 2013, they decided it would be reduced to just 1%, as a temporary measure, rather than CPI. Now it will be 0%, whatever happens to inflation during this Parliament. If inflation carries on flatlining, the Government may not get the savings they have been hoping for. There is a real process issue here. This is undermining the long-standing convention by which Ministers are meant to make an assessment annually of what poor households need to live on, come to the House and propose an alternative, and take responsibility for what should happen to benefits. This is moving away from that, which is deeply regrettable.

Finally, there is the proposal the Minister outlined to change universal credit and tax credits to abolish the family premium for all families with children and to limit the amount paid per child to the first two children in a household. This means that 3.7 million households will lose money. The two-child limit will cut payments by up to £2,780 per child per year, affecting 640,000 families by 2021 and 150,000 families with disabled children.

The Government repeatedly stress that the aim of their welfare reforms is to get people into work but child tax credit and universal credit are paid to working families as well as those who are out of work. If the aim is not to get families into work, what is it? The impact assessment said that,

“people may respond to the incentives that this policy provides and may have fewer children”.

I should like to ask the Minister some questions. First, is the objective that people in low-paid work should have fewer children, or is it just to give them less money? What does the Minister expect to happen in the 16% of pregnancies in the UK that are unplanned? What assessment has he made of the impact on adoption and kinship care, especially of sibling groups? Will there not be a disincentive to remarry if a stepfamily would then have more than two children in the household? The equality impact assessment is silent on religion and belief; can the Minister tell the House what work his department has done in assessing whether this policy will be likely to affect people of some religions more than those of others or of none. We are also told in the impact assessment that the Government will exempt women who have a third child as a result of rape. I wonder if the Minister has really thought through the implications of a woman having to prove to the Department for Work and Pensions that her pregnancy was the result of rape.

Even if the Minister could answer all those questions robustly, this policy spectacularly fails the Government’s own family test. There are reasons the state has traditionally helped with the cost of raising children. First, it is to avoid British children growing up in poverty, since child poverty is significantly higher in larger families. The real losers of this policy will be children born into larger families, especially as younger siblings, through no choice of their own. Secondly, it is because children are good for society. Maybe if I use the language of economics the Minister will work with me on this. In economic terms, children are a public as well as a private good. Parents bear the bulk of the costs of raising their children but we all contribute through our taxes because we want to see the next generation thrive and, being practical, as our population ages, we need to ensure that there are enough people around of working age to pay for our pensions, our health service and our social care. Most of all, it is because children are not a luxury. We give child tax credit to families to ensure they can afford to raise their children healthily.

Let us be clear: this is not about the small number of people with lots of children who are not in work. They would be caught be the benefit cap anyway. Shelter pointed out that the benefit cap would kick in for a couple with two children renting a house not in Mayfair but in Leeds or Plymouth. It is not about them. It is about a family with three children who, despite working very hard, are struggling to make ends meet. It is about the mum I met who never thought she would need state help until her husband disappeared and left her with three children. It is about all those people who had children confident they could provide for them, until something happened—perhaps a parent died or became sick or disabled and could not work; perhaps they had their hours cut or got made redundant. These are all things our welfare state is meant to protect us against. When the Minister says it affects only people making new claims, anybody making a fresh claim for universal credit next year will get no help for their third child already in existence.

When Mr Cameron spoke about that mum looking down at her new baby and knowing she could provide for it, the reason she knows that is that she lives in a country that offers the safety net of the welfare state alongside the National Health Service and state education. Our welfare state was never about workers helping workless or rich helping poor. It is about pooling risk across our life cycles and across our population. There are times, such as when children are young, when it is hard to make ends meet even if you are working. The best laid plans can go also astray. Anyone can get cancer, lose their job, lose their spouse or have a disabled child. We will all get old—we hope—and draw a pension. When things go well we pay in, and when things go badly we take out. The Government’s reforms undermine that. They change the way our welfare state works, by undermining work incentives, breaking the link between need and support and refusing to protect the next generation from growing up in poverty. If the Bill goes through unchanged, when that mum described by the Prime Minister looks down at her newborn baby, especially if it is her third child, she can no longer know that she can provide for it because that safety net will have a child-sized hole in it.