My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Bassam for raising this important and timely issue for debate. I joined this House too late to actually know Patricia, but her work was well known outside this House and very much appreciated.
The debate is particularly timely for me because universal credit was rolled out in my own local area of Partick in Glasgow just yesterday: yes, frighteningly on Halloween. After the horror stories about how the introduction has gone elsewhere—it was not scaremongering—many people have been dreading this moment. Thanks to devolution in Scotland, there have been some mitigations. For example, claimants can choose to have their benefit paid twice a month, rather than monthly, and they can opt to have their housing element paid directly to their landlord. Will the Minister consider the benefits of adopting similar policies? However, as universal credit is a reserved issue, most of the problems identified can affect people in Scotland as much as anywhere else.
Many parents are aware than the transfer can be chaotic. The Resolution Foundation reports that 20% of new claims are not being paid on time or in full. I am sure that the Minister would agree that the financial impact of mistakes during the transfer should be borne by the Government rather than the individuals affected by it. Most analysis has shown that, overall, universal credit is less generous than the benefits it replaces. There is a consensus that the impact on children’s health and well-being, educational attainment and life chances is considerable.
I very much appreciated the briefing papers from the House of Lords Library and the Children’s Commissioner. Both those pieces of independent research paint a dismal picture of the impact this process has had; as we know, the cuts in benefits experienced by many families are not confined to those on universal credit but have been felt across the whole benefit system. In fact, it feels as though there has been a tidal wave of attacks on family life. As has been mentioned, these include the bedroom tax; the reduction and removal of the family element for in-work benefits; the pernicious two-child limit with its special circumstances clause, which is commonly called the rape clause; and the sanctions system, which has had such a damaging impact on claimants’ morale and self-esteem, often leaving them at the lowest ebb in their lives and sometimes even suicidal.
The Child Poverty Action Group has pointed out that this week’s Budget was a missed opportunity. It stated:
“This should have been the Budget to bring families in from the cold”.
As my noble friend Lord Bassam said, child benefit has lost 23% of its real value since 2010. The CPAG states:
“If there is substance to the claim that austerity is ending, ending the freeze and allowing family benefits to rise again with rents and inflation must be a priority”.
The result of these ongoing cuts is that we live in a society where poverty rates among children are higher than in any other group. Unfortunately, some politicians focus so much on the bottom line that they can forget that these are real families and real children. In justifying the two-child limit recently, a Member of the Scottish Parliament said:
“It is fair that people on benefits cannot have as many children as they like”,
while those in work “have to make decisions” on this. It must have slipped her mind that most people on benefits are in work, but regardless I do not believe that even the most hard-hearted would justify pushing a family into poverty because a couple who thought they were financially secure enough to have a third child found that their circumstances had changed, or believe that someone with an unplanned pregnancy should have to choose between an abortion or hardship for their family, or that a woman who had been raped or is in an abusive relationship should have to justify herself to the DWP. I am sure that noble Lords agree that we forget the reality of people’s lives at our peril.