Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour 6:15 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, the wind-up speech on Third Reading of this Bill by the Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, Priti Patel, in the other place on 27 October was remarkable. Much of it was echoed today by the noble Lord, Lord Freud. I believe that almost all her assertions were false, apart from the fact that she supported the Bill. Priti Patel said that welfare spending was out of control; she said it was “unaffordable” and that we needed to make cuts which were “fair to taxpayers”.

That is false. Tax credits did not rise from £1 billion to £30 billion, as was parroted down the other end, but they built on the almost £5 billion base we inherited from the admirable family credit of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. Some 50% more lone parents entered work with the help of tax credits, and the income support bill fell from £15.7 billion to £2.9 billion between 1996-97 and 2012-13 as women transferred from out-of-work benefits to in-work benefits—tax credits. Add the fact that more than two-thirds of the jobs created between 2008 and 2013 were for people in self-employment with a median income of £10,000, who needed tax credits to survive, and that broadly explains the cash rise. Have we been told that at any point? Oh no, my Lords.

None the less, is the welfare bill unaffordable? No, my Lords, false again. The Office for Budget Responsibility report, Welfare trends, of October 2014, shows that welfare benefits, including pensions, as a share of national income —GDP—which is surely the true test, were 12% in 1983-84 and 12% in 1993-94, and are 12% now. They have not raced away, but have been broadly steady, fluctuating only a little in times of recession. Have Ministers told us that either? Oh no, my Lords.

The Minister in the other place says that we must be “fair to taxpayers”. This assumes that there are two tribes—benefit recipients and taxpayers. We heard something about this today. Professor Sir John Hills’ research shows that even the poorest pay for half the benefits they get back through their national insurance and taxes, especially indirect taxes. The mirror-opposite is true: most of us get back most of what we pay in over our lifetime. As my noble friend Lady Sherlock said, social security smooths out and supports us. This happens if we have children, through child benefit; if we experience a broken marriage, unemployment or under-employment, disability, caring responsibilities, bereavement or old age. Speaking personally, while paying taxes every year, I have also received benefits to help smooth five of those seven life-changing circumstances. That will be true for many of us here. Indeed, over the course of 18 years, half the population has needed and received a means-tested benefit. There are not two tribes of taxpayers and benefit takers. It is a fact that almost all of us are both, often at the same time, one with another. Shame on those who deliberately inflame social hatreds with such malevolent fictions.

The Minister in the other place also claimed that she was part of the “one nation Government”. Equally, the Prime Minister has talked about “compassionate Conservatism”. Really, then why are we loading these expenditure cuts on the backs of the poor? Why push the poor into debt to help the Government out of it? Compassionate Conservatism? We have heard about ESA. Disabled people want to work, but DWP work programmes have failed, so now the Government are going to press them into work by cutting their benefit by £20 a week to JSA levels. Most of them will not work because they cannot. Instead, they will appeal, as nearly 40% of them do now, and more than half will win those appeals. They will move further away from work into the long-term support group of ESA instead.

Compassionate Conservatism? Let us take the benefits cap. Half the 120,000 affected families, larger families living in the private rented sector, will lose more than £50 a week. The Government cut local housing allowance because a couple of years ago the noble Lord, Lord Freud, believed, against all the evidence, that this would bring down private sector rents. He was wrong; it has not and it will not. Only an increase in the building of new social and affordable rented homes will check rents. Instead, with its 1% cut, the Bill does exactly the opposite. You could not make it up. It will remove around 19,000 prospective local authority homes and probably even more housing association homes from potential construction. Norwich, Milton Keynes and Cambridge are cities with high housing demand, but they will cut back their supply. From next April, a capped family of four will not get enough housing benefit to pay for any private rented home in London. I am told that a capped family of five will not be able to pay for a three-bedroom housing association property anywhere in the country. One nation? There is not even one city as the poor are moved on and out, destabilising the very family life that Mr Duncan Smith calls for.

Finally, in the name of compassionate Conservatism, let us take children. The Prime Minister and the Chief Whip told the country during the election that child tax credits would not be cut, but in fact they will be. In addition, the Government will remove funding of £3,325 from the family element for the third child and more, even if that child is disabled—from Catholic, Jewish and BME children; from families who have offered kinship care; from one in seven families. We do not refuse the third child his school place or her hospital visit because every child matters—except to the DWP. We do not even deny better-off families child benefit for the third child. Most European countries actually increase support for larger families because they care about child poverty, but not this Government. Suffer the little children in larger families—and they will indeed suffer, to our shame.

The Minister, Priti Patel, went on to say:

“This Government are committed to working to eliminate child poverty and to improving life chances”.—[Hansard, Commons, 27/10/15; col. 305.]

That is impossible. Every measure in this Bill will increase, not eliminate, child poverty. No doubt that is why the Government will no longer count the numbers; it is too awkward. Instead, we get “life chances”, allegedly determined by worklessness and educational attainment, along with addiction and other issues thrown in. This is grotesque.

Worklessness? Some two-thirds of children in workless families are not in poverty, while two-thirds of children in poverty are in working families. The research is unambiguous. Life chances are determined by income, not, as the Secretary of State seems to believe, the other way around. In the 19th century there was a belief that if you could only remoralise the poor, there would be fewer of them, or possibly none of them. A few sentences later in the same debate, the Commons Minister insists that the Government,

“are absolutely committed to protecting the most vulnerable in society”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 27/10/15; col. 306.]

Unless, of course, they are disabled and in a WRAG, or vulnerable children.

That brings me to the Government’s final claim: that they are the workers’ party. It is a pity, then, that working families on tax credits and UC will be poorer in the future. MPs swagger down at the other end, telling them to work longer and harder, but for what? After tax, national insurance, and HB and council tax tapers, low-income families on tax credits will lose 96p in the pound for every extra hour they work. They will keep 4p. Even with UC, which I support, the same family will keep just 19p in the pound. Does 4p in the pound per hour really make work pay? Would any lone parent, mother or indeed any of us trade an hour caring for our children to earn 4p an hour? I would not. Or does the DWP propose to sanction her into it? As the Spectator said, these are battles of choice by the Government, not battles of necessity. They do not need to do it. Please spare us unctuous phrases like, “difficult decisions” and “hard choices”. For whom, exactly? They are not for Government Ministers. The hard choices and harder lives will fall on the working poor, on disabled people in WRAG and on children as people struggle to avoid debt, arrears and eviction, as their health deteriorates and their families break up. That is the offer in this Bill from a self-professed one-nation Government. We can surely do better than this.