Benefits: Reductions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:50 pm on 1st November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 4:50 pm, 1st November 2018

It sounds as if the noble Lord is being a bit defensive about the results of the work, but I will move on.

There was a theme in the debate: that all this is doable not just by the DWP, and that is correct. We need to work with local government colleagues much more; indeed, there was a very good Local Government Association briefing on this. The noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, talked about the need to put more effort into mental health; we need the Department of Health to assist with that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, spoke about housing, which is absolutely critical. We are handing huge amounts of money to private landlords at the moment, and that is destined to get worse. A recent Centre for Social Justice report suggests that we will be paying £75 billion by 2050 if we go on at current rates. That is clearly impossible. There is a welcome understanding across the House that the DWP needs to use its important influence within government to get more cross-departmental support for the development of these policies. It may seem that there is enough to do at the moment, but that is important.

I keep saying that the arguments across the House leave us talking past one another. Members of the Government, perhaps understandably, say that reasonable people should be able to work their way through the complications of applying for benefits and so on. But universal credit has some real complexities, an example being digital access. “Digital by default” is a real problem for many families. It will lessen as the system develops, because more people will be educated at school to use technology, but people are frightened. A couple of noble Lords mentioned fear; the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, for example, mentioned the real fear that people have when making applications.

The Government are saying that for people like me, should I need to apply for universal credit, it is a breeze. I know it is because I have been to the centres and listened to applications being made. The system works, and there are other advantages too. Indeed, in theory, in future nobody should miss out on benefits because take-up is accounted for under universal credit. It can be massively beneficial for people like me; but for those with big household debts, two or three credit cards that they do not know how to pay off, a disability, a lack of digital skills or family problems, it can be very difficult.

The Government need to fix this, and I guess the best vehicle for doing so is universal support. I welcome the extra £1 billion that is coming in. We will talk about that in more detail when we get the managed migration regulations, because that is where this sits. It would be helpful to get an idea of when the regulations will be coming, together with the SSAC report to which the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, rightly referred.

If people on the Government side are trying to defend the situation and are frightened that universal credit will be swept away, the one thing they can do is ask for more support, because it works. They got more money from the Chancellor—I did not expect that package. It was down to Conservative Members of Parliament saying, “We need to do something about this”. They now need to go back and say, “We need more put into universal support” to help the 10% to 15% of households who will really struggle to find a way through the difficulties, in addition to the sanctions that they face. There are things we need to do to guarantee the future of universal credit as a successor to the legacy benefits that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has rightly raised in his Motion.

Between now and next November’s comprehensive spending review, we need to put more support into universal credit so that it can be guaranteed to work. If I were to get the assurance of extra resources, I would become a stout defender—subject to dealing with the behavioural issues that still need to be fixed. I would be much more encouraged to defend the architecture of universal credit if it had a more effective system of universal support attached to it.

The noble Lord, Lord Livermore, was absolutely correct to mention the real mistake that was made. The decision to put money into tax allowance increases as opposed to unfreezing benefits was unconscionable. It was a political choice and, at this stage in the game, when we face uncertainty over Europe and everything else, flatly wrong. It was a big mistake. It was a choice that the Government made and they will be held to account for it, and rightly so.

Finally, I was encouraged by reference in the Red Book to providing better access to affordable credit. A lot of the families that I am talking about, and continue to be concerned about, are at the mercy of loan sharks day in, day out. Using assets from dormant bank accounts can help to deal with that. It is not a huge amount of money but if it works, it could be extended. I hope the Government will take that forward, because it would be a very positive move.

This has been a very good debate. Such a debate should be held annually, but we need not just to “take note” of things; we need to get them fixed.