My Lords, we currently provide people below state pension age with over £95 billion a year in welfare support. The benefit freeze is part of a package of welfare reforms that is designed to ensure that the system remains sustainable and to incentivise claimants into work. These reforms are working, and we have not had a lower unemployment rate since the 1970s. The changes we have made to the benefits system allow us to target the support we provide to those who need it most.
I take it from that reply that the Government have not done an assessment. However, independent assessments of the four-year freeze indicate losses of over £800 a year for many two-child families in or out of work, and significantly worse poverty—especially child poverty—inequality and homelessness. My question to the Minister is simple. Do the Government care about the harmful impact of this policy on people who already have so little—yes or no?
My Lords, we do care, and that is why we are incentivising people into work. All our research shows that workless families are most likely to drive children into poverty. In terms of our reforms, we introduced 15 hours of free childcare for working families. From September this year, we have doubled that from 15 to 30 hours a week in England, worth on average up to £5,000 a child. Since April 2016, the universal credit childcare element has covered up to 85% of eligible childcare costs compared with 70% with working tax credits.
My Lords, these benefit freezes are not reforms; they are simply a cut. Benefits used to rise in line with inflation every year until the Government decided that in future they would not. They have been frozen in cash terms, so all that happens is that people have the same amount of money to pay for food and rent in 2020 as they did in 2015 while inflation goes up. That simply cannot be right. These are people who are too sick to work, who have small children or who are in work but cannot earn enough to pay for the running costs of their household. Therefore, I ask the Minister again: do the Government care about the poorest in our society? If they do, what are they going to do about it, because fine words butter no parsnips?
My Lords, as I have said to noble Lords opposite, we do care, but we are absolutely clear that work is the best way to get children, in particular, out of poverty. That is why we want to incentivise work, which is the best route, but we need to focus on making sure that people see their wages rise and take home more of their pay packet once they are in work. Our reforms include increasing the national living wage for workers aged 25 and over, cutting income tax for over 30 million people and extending free childcare for working parents.
My Lords, the Government never anticipated that inflation would be double what it was when they originally introduced this freeze on working-age benefits. If they are prepared to look again at public sector pay, why will they not look at working-age benefits?
I think I said that we are already spending over £95 billion on benefits for people of working age, but we have to ensure that that is fair also to the taxpayer and that it encourages people into work. Before we brought in the Welfare Reform and Work Act, the inflation rate, for example, for most working-age out-of-work benefits, such as jobseeker’s allowance, went up by 21% between 2008 and 2015, while earnings rose by 12%. We want to incentivise work, which we know is the best route out of poverty.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that incentivising people back into work and supporting the poorest in our society, including children, are not mutually exclusive? Will she comment on the ways of doing the second alongside the first? Will she also set out the Government’s plans to remedy the current situation, in which the poorest of the poor are falling further behind?
I absolutely understand where the right reverend Prelate is coming from, but I want to make it clear that we are doing all we can to help those most in need and, for example, maintaining payments for people with additional needs. That is why we will be spending a further £2.5 billion this year to support pensioners and carers and to maintain the value of payments to people faced with the extra costs of disability needs. In addition, we are giving extra support to lone parents and children.
My Lords, can the Minister comment on the intergenerational difference? Many pensioners pay 40p in the pound in tax and get significant rises because of the triple lock, whereas some of the poorest families who have been referred to recently are having their income reduced in relation to inflation?
My Lords, it is true that the state pension and benefits for pensioners are exempt from the benefit freeze, but this is because they are generally for people who have permanently left the labour market, meaning they have less ability to increase their income. We are committed to the triple lock for the remainder of this Parliament, but pensioner poverty continues to stand at one of the lowest rates since comparable records began—and we want to keep it that way.