Social Security (Contributions) (Rates, Limits and Thresholds Amendments and National Insurance Funds Payments) Regulations 2018 - Motions to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 6th March 2018.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 6:45 pm, 6th March 2018

My Lords, I am genuinely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. We have had a thoughtful debate, with no specific objections —on the contrary, with welcome for the measures in the regulations before us. However, noble Lords have pegged on to that some broader issues which deserve a response, and I will do my best to address them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo, and I have been debating these matters for over 20 years. Sometimes she has been the Minister and I have been in opposition, and sometimes the roles have been reversed. However, it is good to see that dialogue being maintained in this House, in the same cordial way that it was in the other place.

It may be helpful if I first put in the broader context the reasons for the freeze on certain benefits, because that is the backdrop, then address specifically the points that fall within that of the impact on child poverty, and then address some of the issues that have been raised during the debate.

First, I quite understand the points noble Lords made about the impact of the freeze of in-work benefits on families now that inflation is higher than it was, although I note that it is predicted to fall back to 2% next year, having peaked at 3% in the final quarter of last year. However, just to put that decision in context, spending on welfare had trebled in real terms between 1980 and 2014, and had contributed to a record level of debt: 83.7% of GDP in 2015-16. This was unsustainable. Also, in 2013, the UK had the highest spending on the family out of all OECD countries as a percentage of GDP. That is the backdrop.

Secondly, between 2008 and 2015, average earnings went up by 12%, whereas most working-age benefits, such as JSA, increased by 21%, and child tax credit rose by 33%. A four-year freeze helped to reverse that trend and reinforce the incentives to work.

Thirdly—this has not been mentioned during the debate—the Government have taken steps elsewhere to help the incomes of those in work by raising the national living wage to £7.83 per hour and by making progress on the manifesto commitment to raise the personal allowance to £12,500. Put in that overall context, and with the exemptions we are debating today, the policy is defensible.

I will address some of the issues raised during our debate. Real household disposable income grew at its fastest rate in 2015 to reach its highest-ever level. On the specific issues around child poverty, the noble Baroness quoted the Resolution Foundation; other reports by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Child Poverty Action Group focused on the issues raised by the noble Baroness. Since 2010, there are 200,000 fewer children in absolute poverty, before housing costs, and 608,000 fewer children living in workless households, which is a record low. We are committed to taking action to help the most disadvantaged, with a focus on tackling the root causes of poverty in workless households. As the noble Baroness anticipated, it is indeed our view that work remains the best route out of poverty. In 2015-16, 9% of children were in households where all adults were working with relative low income before household costs, compared with 48% in workless households. Since 2010, there are over 3 million more people in work and 954,000 fewer workless households. Therefore we are taking action to ensure that work always pays.

The noble Baroness asked whether we could publish an assessment of the benefits freeze. I understand that it is quite difficult to isolate its impact but, when the freeze was announced, an impact assessment was published, and the Treasury publishes a wider distribution analysis at the Budget.

It seemed to me that some of the strategic issues that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, raised could be dealt with by the Select Committee in the other place that he chaired so ably. In another place one could have Opposition day debates on the more strategic issues, but I take his point, which was raised by others in the debate, that there might be value in a broader debate about social security. I am more than happy to raise that issue with the business managers to see whether that might take place.

We do not consult on the specific measures. They are routine and everybody expects them. I am not sure that it would be a tremendously valuable exercise to consult on the rather narrow annual uprating each year.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said that the whole range of benefits is subject to the freeze. However, I am sure that he knows that pensioner benefits and benefits for the additional costs of disability and care are exempt from the freeze and continue to be uprated as part of our commitment to protect the most vulnerable.

He mentioned the quinquennial GAD report, which estimates that the NIF will run out of money in the 2030s. Looking to the foreseeable future—to 2024-25—we expect the fund to have a surplus. However, in the long run he is right: life expectancy and other demographic trends will continue to pose a challenge for the public finances. He mentioned my noble friend Lord Willetts, who came up with his own solutions to how those challenges might be responded to. Again, that is the sort of issue that might be raised in the broader debate that he would like to get under way.

We are committed to the triple lock for the duration of this Parliament. It has been an invaluable element in addressing the issue of pensioners living in low-income households. That peaked in the late 1980s at over 40% but the proportion of pensioners living in low-income households is now down to 16%.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, complained that he had been robbed by the first-class speeches from those on the Opposition Benches. He asked whether there was an element of discretion in the measures before us. The Explanatory Memorandum says that Section 41 of the Tax Credits Act 2002 requires a review of certain monetary amounts in each tax year to determine whether they have retained their value in relation to prices. Therefore, we have to do that. We discovered that they have not retained their value, so the Government have taken the action that they have. In one year, we did not uprate because inflation at the time was negative. It is government policy to uprate in line with the regulations before us, and I suspect that if we did not, we would be before the courts.

I have tried to answer all the points raised and commend the regulations to the House.

Motions agreed.

House adjourned at 7.03 pm.