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Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:54 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Manzoor Baroness Manzoor Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 4:54 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, the Liberal Democrats’ approach to this Bill is based on two simple principles. First, the benefits system should encourage people into work whenever they are able and it really should pay to be in work. Secondly, the £12 billion of welfare cuts the Government announced in the Budget are unnecessary to deal with the deficit. They are a political choice based on the Government’s wider political agenda to achieve a budget surplus by 2020, rather than the pragmatic need to eliminate the structural deficit by 2017-18.

While we are not averse to finding savings from the welfare budget, we do not believe that savings of the scale set out by the Government are needed. Cuts of the scale proposed will harm the principles of making sure that work pays and will remove much-needed support to the most vulnerable in society. This cannot be defendable on the grounds of savings alone. Having a job is not just about earning an income. It is also strongly linked to building dignity, self-esteem and improving health outcomes. The social security system must be able to help people avoid the benefits trap and to make work pay by ensuring that there is a more gradual withdrawal of benefits when someone enters work.

There is also a third principle that guides our view of this Bill: Lib Dems remain committed to the framework of universal credit, a project that has the capacity to fundamentally improve the structure and goals of our welfare system. We recognise the hard work and commitment that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, has given to universal credit and we are clear that he deserves significant recognition for this. However, I hope that the Chancellor will not seek to undermine the universal credit framework in the comprehensive spending review to dig himself out of the hole that he has created on tax credits—or, indeed, to introduce new horrors.

Although the Government assert that a central goal of the Bill is to strengthen work initiatives and to encourage households to move out of poverty through employment, many components of this Bill will weaken work initiatives, further negatively impact the most vulnerable, drag more people into poverty and may hinder the United Kingdom’s economic recovery.

There is a fundamental problem with the Bill, in that the worthy aim set out in the first clause—that of achieving full employment—risks being undermined by the subsequent clauses. We are proud that our work in government helped turn the tide on unemployment to the point where more people are now in employment than ever before. But that means that, to take the next step, we need to focus on supporting the hardest to help. That means looking at how we improve the work programme, how we support the disabled and how we provide high-quality training in skills needed by the labour market. Sadly, the Bill does nothing to address these issues. It is not a Bill about work.

The Lib Dem’s biggest concern is around Clauses 13 and 14, which would effectively reduce the amount of money given to claimants in the work-related activity group—WRAG—of the employment and support allowance. It is worth noting that more than 50% of the people in the WRAG have a mental health and behavioural disorder as their primary condition. I cannot see how cutting the amount of money going to people in this group, especially those that the Government’s own work capability assessment has deemed vulnerable, can possibly help achieve the Government’s own target of halving the disability employment gap. Indeed, we are concerned that it will instead push these people further from the job market and it risks aggravating conditions such as depression or eating disorders.

The changes are also likely to increase appeals and intensify high levels of stress. They may have the perverse effect of pushing people from the WRAG into the support group, rather than into the labour market. The Government would be better focusing on providing people with the support that they need to get better and with specialist disability employment advice via the jobcentres to make the transition into work, rather than placing the emphasis on the stick. In its review of the links between disability, long-term conditions and poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found no evidence that disability employment rates are improved by reducing benefits.

With reference to the proposed benefit cap, while we agree on the need for a cap, we do not see the logic in reducing it to £20,000. Nor do we see the logic behind breaking the link between average earnings and the cap. The real concern here is that the requirement to find affordable housing may force families away from areas where there are high levels of work opportunities, such as London, to places of high unemployment. This would undermine the ultimate aim of getting people off benefits. Will the Minister say whether the Government intend to undertake a distribution analysis of the levels of housing benefit the average person hit by the benefit cap would receive and where they may be able to secure suitable housing?

The Bill also introduces a two-child limit on receipt of the child element of tax credits for children born after 5 April 2017, and the child element of universal credit for families making a new claim, whether or not the child is born before April 2017. The Government estimate, based on the current profile of tax credit claimants, that by 2020-21 640,000 families will lose support as a direct result of this limit.

While it is right that people should take responsibility for the number of children they have, there are a number of cases where exemptions should be made. These are: families fleeing domestic violence; stepfamilies; bereaved families; kinship carers, who, according to the Children's Society, support an estimated 200,000 children across the UK; cases of rape; multiple pregnancies; and where the third or subsequent child is disabled. I would be grateful if the Minister gave an assurance to make exemptions and to review the two-child limit in all such cases.

It is also of concern that the Bill repeals the income targets and associated duties to eradicate child poverty that are set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010. Without question, worklessness and lack of access to employment are key drivers of child poverty. However, while work can be a key route out of poverty, it is by no means a guaranteed one. As the End Child Poverty coalition has shown, the latest government statistics show that

62% of children in poverty now live in working families. This affects 2.4 million children. The changes that the Government plan to make to the support for low-income families is only likely to make this situation worse. Will the Minister look at maintaining income-related measures of poverty among the life chances measures?

We have a significant concern about the decision to reduce social housing rents over four years. This represents, as the Minister has said, an overall reduction of 12% compared to current forecasts. While this may indeed help to reduce the housing benefit bill, and the costs for people living in social housing, we are concerned about the impact it will have on the ability of housing associations to borrow in order to build more homes or to ensure that improvements are made to current social housing stock.

The Government have already decided to keep housing costs for specified accommodation—such as that offered by St Mungo's Broadway, which provides specialist services and housing for the most vulnerable—out of universal credit and benefit calculations. This is very welcome, but by introducing a rent-reduction measure the Government will undo these steps and a vital safety net may be cut. Will the Minister give an assurance that the Bill will be amended to exempt specified accommodation?

Finally, there are a number of areas which are not in the Bill but we believe will further undermine the principle that work should pay and people who are able to work should be supported back into work. In particular we are concerned about the appalling cuts to tax credits, which even Conservative MPs are now in open revolt over; the cuts to housing benefit for those under 21, which will make it harder for young people to move to areas of high employment in pursuit of career opportunities; and the deepening cuts to further education colleges, which make it harder to ensure that young people get the skills they need to become employable. These are all areas in which further work is needed by the Government if they are to be truly on the side of all working people. This Bill is not a Bill for work.

Before I sit down, I wish my noble friend Lady Thomas a speedy recovery from a knee operation after a fall last week. I hope that she will be well enough to join us for the remainder of this Bill.