Amendment 9

Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 10:30 pm on 26 October 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Baroness Stroud:

Moved by Baroness Stroud

9: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—“The universal credit uplift (1) Within the period of one month beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, Ministers of the Crown must make arrangements to move a motion for resolution as set out in subsection (2) to be debated, and voted on, by both Houses of Parliament.(2) The resolution is to decide whether it is desirable to reinstate the £20 uplift into Universal Credit as per the modification of the standard allowance of universal credit under the Social Security (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations 2020 (S.I. 2020/371).”

Photo of Baroness Stroud Baroness Stroud Conservative

My Lords, I should like to open with one preliminary point, which is to say that, in moving this amendment, as I do, I intend no disrespect to the clerks, for whom I have the greatest of admirations. This morning, I wrote to them to tell them that I wanted to put on record how much I respect and honour the work they do, and that any action I would take today would in no way undermine that. In fact, I could not have got here without their support and advice. Moving an inadmissible amendment is not a straightforward process. Several weeks ago, I was not even aware there was such a thing as an inadmissible amendment. However, there is a serious, genuine difference of opinion which I believe should be exposed to the view of this self-regulating House.

Accordingly, I rise to move the amendment tabled in my name and the names of my noble friend Lord Freud, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Boycott, whom I thank for their support. It is with a heavy heart that I have tabled this amendment to the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill. I do not take lightly the idea of disagreeing so fervently with my Conservative Government or of stretching parliamentary convention in an elastic way, as my noble friend Lady Evans, the Leader of the House, so delicately put it. But the removal of the £20 uplift is a grave misstep and risks undermining the levelling-up agenda, leaving behind society’s most vulnerable people and putting at risk the stability of many homes up and down the country as we enter an unpredictable winter. If this House stands for anything, it is to check and challenge the work of the Government, and this is all I am seeking to do here today.

So let us look carefully at the effect of this amendment and at what has been said about it. The amendment states:

“Within the period of one month beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, Ministers of the Crown must make arrangements to move a motion for resolution as set out in subsection (2) to be debated, and voted on, by both Houses of Parliament.”

The resolution is to decide whether it is desirable to reinstate the £20 uplift in universal credit, as per the modification of the standard allowance of universal credit under the Social Security (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations 2020. The amendment, if accepted in this place and then in the other place, would require the Government to bring forward a vote on the desirability of the reinstating of the uplift in universal credit.

Two concerns have been levelled at the amendment that I will take a moment to address. The first is on the basis of scope and the impact on admissibility, and the second on the basis that it asks the House to decide how the House of Commons should conduct its business. Let us look at these in turn.

It has been said that the amendment is inadmissible. Chapter 8 of the Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords states:

“The Legislation Office advises on whether an amendment is admissible and it is expected that this advice will be taken. If a member insists on tabling an amendment which the Legislation Office has advised is inadmissible, that Office writes to the Leader of the House, copying the advice to the other Leaders, the Chief Whips and the Convenor.”

That happened according to due process, and the clerks were good enough to show me exactly what both letters would look like. The Companion continues:

The Leader of the House draws the House’s attention to the advice when the amendment is called, and asks the House to endorse the advice of the Legislation Office.”

That too duly happened. The reason for this is as stated by the Companion, that

“the admissibility of an amendment can ultimately be decided only by the House itself, there being no authority that can in advance rule an amendment out of order.”

The process through which an inadmissible amendment becomes an admissible amendment is through the decision of this House. We as Members of the House have to decide.

It will be no surprise to anyone who knows me well that this is not an issue on which I have taken action lightly. I am not a natural rebel. I have spent a lot of time looking at the previous occasion on which an inadmissible amendment became an admissible amendment, which was in 2013 when Lord Hart moved an amendment on the boundaries Bill. It is the reason why we still have 650 MPs.

I have looked carefully at the arguments that were made then. Speeches made by two ennobled former Speakers of the House of Commons helped me understand this more clearly. The first was by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, who said this at the time when Lord Hart moved an inadmissible amendment that became admissible:

“If there was any success in the Speakership of the Commons during my period of office, much of it was due to the advice and support that I received from the clerks. I have to admit that there were a couple of occasions when I overruled that advice, one of which was against convention. But I did so because I thought that it was right to provide an opportunity for debate on a contentious issue which was of public interest and of concern. The roof did not fall in.

We have no such arbitrator with authority to make a decision in your Lordships’ House but we are often reminded that we are a self-regulating House. While, of course, we must examine the advice of the Public Bill Office and the clerk, there can be no authority that can in advance rule an amendment out of order. The bottom line is that the admissibility or otherwise of an amendment ultimately can be determined only by the House itself. When I spoke last year, I suggested that the Government allow this House to determine the issue for itself and I am delighted that we have the opportunity of so doing today.”—[Official Report, 14/1/13; col. 510.]

So, first, the sky did not fall in and, secondly, the admissibility or otherwise of an amendment can be determined ultimately only by the House itself. That is what I am seeking to do today.

The second speech was by Lord Martin of Springburn, who said:

“My Lords, I, too, received advice from the clerks of the House and I valued it. At the end of the day, although I did not ignore that advice, there were occasions when I said, ‘I will go in another direction’. In effect, I did not accept 100% of what the clerks had said.”—[Official Report, 14/1/13; col. 514.]

The amendment before noble Lords, which asks that the Commons thinks again about protections for some of our most vulnerable people, does exactly what this House should do: asks the Commons to think again. We have the authority to make that decision ourselves.

It has also been said that the amendment asks the House to decide how the House of Commons should conduct its business, what it should debate, when and how. With all due respect, this is a misunderstanding of the amendment. In effect, the amendment asks the Commons to consider whether it wants to be asked to think again. If this amendment is passed, it has to go to the other place for agreement. The other place can choose not to accept it; we are not forcing legislation on the other place. The House of Lords cannot force legislation on the House of Commons. The House of Commons must agree to this and may choose not to.

Process, scope and convention aside, why do I believe so strongly that this issue should be of interest to this House? The reality is that the removal of the £20 uplift should have been a decision that came to this House for scrutiny. The uprating levels of universal credit claimants, as we are seeing now in the uprating of pensions, should not have been done through a sunset clause on a statutory instrument. The fact that £20 per week—for a single person, this is about 34% of their standard allowance—could be removed from a claimant without scrutiny by this House is extraordinary.

When George Osborne sought to remove £12 billion from the welfare budget, it took a major Act of Parliament to achieve it. Yet £6 billion has been removed without a single vote on the issue through a sunset clause on a statutory instrument. It has been done with no impact assessment and without a vote in either place. All this amendment seeks to do is give an opportunity for the Commons to express its view on the desirability of further consideration. It does not, as has been stated, reinstate the £20 uplift, but gives the Commons an opportunity to vote for a vote to express the desirability of doing so.

This is a matter of huge public interest. In a recent poll undertaken by iPolitics, only 3% of the British public said that the cut should come in this year—a staggeringly low number. This is particularly in light of the twin instability caused by the rising cost of living and the global pandemic from which we are just emerging.

Let us take a moment to look at the arguments that have been put forward for dismantling the uplift and consider why it is so important that this House has the opportunity to ask the Executive to think again. I have had a number of conversations with Members of this House who have said that the £20 uplift was for a crisis moment only. We need to be honest here. The reality is that many of our low-income families are in crisis, with the welfare state at its lowest ever value since its creation: having been founded at 20% of the median wage, it is now at a value of 12%. At the same time, we have rising inflation, rising energy prices and an increase in national insurance. Let us not delude ourselves that the crisis is over. We have an opportunity to think again and to do something about this in this Bill.

I am listening intently to the Budget announcements and the narrative that the Government are going to protect hard-working families by raising the national minimum wage to £10 per hour by the end of this Parliament. However, anyone who tracks Treasury forecasting will know that there is nothing new here. These are just the forecasts that were already baked in. In fact, I believe the actual figure is £10.33 per hour by the end of this Parliament.

If you really want to protect hard-working families on low incomes and not drive wage inflation, this would have been an argument for increasing the work allowance or lowering the taper rate. The work allowance always makes it pay to take work and the taper rate always rewards progression in work. To be honest, if you wanted to strengthen the work incentives, you would have put the £20 into the work allowance and lowered the taper rate from 63% to 60%.

The most important aspect of the removal of the £20 uplift, which would have been visible had there been an impact assessment, is the poverty impacts of taking this action. They are stark. The removal will impact 840,000 people, of whom 290,000 are children, and 450,000 people who are in a family including a disabled person, either a disabled adult or child. Granted, a proportion of these will take the 1 million available jobs and many will take advantage of any upskilling that is available, building this high-wage, high-skilled economy.

However, my real concern remains for those to whom we say, “The welfare state is your safety net”: those with disabilities and those with children under the age of two, with whom we have a social contract. We say to them, “You are valued by our society and we want to support you.” This group has just lost £20 per week, they are not expected to work, and they are about to experience rising inflation and high energy bills in the midst of a pretty dark winter. If we do nothing else, we should be asking the Government to think again and restore the £20 uplift for this group of people.

I do not do this lightly, but I believe that it is our responsibility to shine a spotlight on action that damages people and to ask the Government to think again. We all know what the Companion tells us, but in the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, we are often reminded that we are a self-regulating House. While of course we must examine the advice of the Public Bill Office and the clerk, no authority can in advance rule an amendment out of order. The bottom line is that the admissibility or otherwise of an amendment ultimately can be determined only by the House itself.

If this House stands for anything, it is to check and challenge the work of the Government. This amendment is in the public interest; we have the scope to admit it, and that is all I seek to do today. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Conservative 10:45, 26 October 2021

My Lords, it is with the greatest possible reluctance that I have felt compelled to join my noble friend and former colleague Lady Stroud in putting down this amendment, which is considered inadmissible by the clerks of the House.

My noble friend Lady Stroud has discussed the issue of scope. I will focus purely on why the level of universal credit payments is so important and has been such a long-running sore that it is essential that it go through some sort of democratic process. In a word, this issue is important enough that the House may wish, on this occasion, to overturn its convention of keeping within scope. This amendment simply seeks a vote in Parliament on whether the £20 a week uplift to the standard allowance of universal credit, which lapsed this month, should be reinstated.

My argument is a simple one. After a decade of cuts initiated by the Chancellor in 2010, the standard allowance of universal credit is now simply too low to expect people to live on it. According to a Commons Library briefing in April last year, the combination of 1% increases and freezes over many years has reduced the real level of allowances by 9%. That is before a plethora of other measures: cuts to housing support, benefit caps, waiting days—thankfully, later reversed—and the two-child limit. The Chancellor targeted no less than £30 billion of annual cuts from the working-age welfare budget. Within the department we fought those cuts, but we were powerless to stop them. That is the history, and it left the level of universal credit so low that it was patently inadequate for the millions of people who flowed on to it as the pandemic struck last year. In the words of the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, we needed to “strengthen the safety net.”

The picture is worse than a simple look at the inflation-adjusted figures suggests. The standard allowance has slipped by significantly more relative to earnings over the last decade, and the relative earnings measure is a better reflection of how much the pressure on poverty has developed. We have been here before, when the Thatcher Government decided to uprate pensions by inflation rather than earnings—and look where that brought us.

What has changed that allows the strengthened safety net to be removed? Nothing has changed—in fact, the reverse. Inflation is taking off. It is already above 3%, with the Bank of England’s chief economist warning of 5% by early next year, and the goods on which the poorest people spend disproportionately—energy, food, transport—are in the firing line. My noble friend Lady Stroud has spelled out the impact on poverty of removing the £20 uplift, putting 840,000 people into poverty, and with inflation at these levels, the impact will undoubtedly be worse. This amendment is not about the removal of a temporary uplift. It is about putting universal credit on a realistic footing.

Restoring the £20 is not cheap. My noble friend the Minister told us at Second Reading that the department’s central estimate was that it would cost £6 billion per year. I do not believe that it would be so much, since 40% of the 5.9 million people receiving universal credit are working, and many of that 2.3 million will be moving further along the taper. Nevertheless, it is a substantial sum. If it is to be paid to the poorest there will have to be cuts elsewhere to afford it, which would bring with it some hard choices. However, I am not wedded to the blanket approach of the uplift, which was bizarrely targeted. It was worth 34% to singles under 25 and only 17% for couples over 25, for example. Adjusting various rates, and perhaps the taper itself, means that there is scope to maintain the benefits of the uplift for considerably less than £6 billion.

The point about universal credit is that it is seriously efficient at directing scarce funds to the poorest people—if applied by people who understand how it works. I felt genuinely sorry for my noble friend the Minister the other week when she had to defend the removal of the uplift by citing a wretched Treasury fig leaf of £500 million, to be distributed by local authorities. How are the councils meant to know who to give it to? That £500 million would be a good start to boost universal credit’s standard allowances. I read that a further £500 million is likely to be made available to support young families in tomorrow’s Budget; another bafflingly poorly targeted use of funds. I repeat that if the Chancellor wants to help the poorest, he will get the biggest bang for his buck by funnelling the funds through universal credit.

I spent 10 years of my life working to transform our welfare system. I am utterly convinced that if you want to make long-term sustainable savings, you must take a structural approach: get the taper to a level at which people are incentivised to work, for instance; help them to earn more by making skills training available; tie together the resources needed by those with multiple problems. You will not do it by making crude cuts, as George Osborne found. He cut the basic benefits and found that the levels of PIP soared. That was not a coincidence.

My concern is that this Government simply do not understand how universal credit works. If they did, they would nurture it, not trash it in the name of a past austerity inherited from a previous Chancellor; not take out £500 million and give it to local authorities to distribute; nor even provide the same crude cash boost of £20 both to couples and to singles in the pandemic. Through this amendment, we want to give MPs a chance to decide on the future of universal credit. It would give them the opportunity to show what is meant by “levelling up”. It is right that there should be a democratic process to decide something so momentous.

My noble friend Lady Stroud and I are not planning to push the amendment to a vote at this stage. We will wait to see whether the Chancellor has some measures up his sleeve tomorrow to protect universal credit recipients. If he has not, my noble friend and I will be returning to the issue on Report.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Non-affiliated 11:00, 26 October 2021

My Lords, it is always a privilege to speak in your Lordships’ House, even at 11 o’clock at night. I am a great admirer of my noble friend Lady Stroud, and I am even a great admirer of my noble friend Lord Freud. I should say for the Hansard writers that I am saying that with a smile—he knows that I have a great fondness for him. They are both hugely knowledgeable and great experts in policy in this area, and I know that they have given a huge amount of practical support to people in need in lots of different contexts. They are recognised for that, and rightly so. It therefore gives me no pleasure to disagree with them today, but I do, on both the substance and the practical application of their amendment.

I start, briefly, with the substance. As my noble friend Lord Freud just said, we do not know what the Chancellor will be announcing tomorrow. I know that we have seen quite a bit trailed over the past few days in the media, but we do not know the sum total of what he will announce to alleviate pressure on families faced with rising energy costs and increases in the cost of living. If he is able to do anything with regard to universal credit, I would much rather he changed the taper rate, so that working more hours is clearly advantageous when the temporary £20 uplift comes to an end. I do not support the temporary uplift becoming permanent for various reasons.

But that is irrelevant, because it is not relevant to this Bill. With the best will in the world, it is not a question for us to answer, at least not in this context. That brings me to the practice which my noble friends are applying in order to force this issue into play. My noble friend the Leader has already set out the constitutional and conventional reasons why this approach is outside our standard procedures, and I will not repeat them, but I very much endorse all that she said, and I certainly accept the advice of the clerks. I should add that I am not one of her predecessors who ever had to face the situation she is facing today, but I have been in the Chamber in the past when a similar situation occurred, and I have had my own encounters with this House on matters to do with social security and so on, so this is not an unfamiliar situation.

Having said all that, I want to add a couple of points which I urge my noble friends Lady Stroud and Lord Freud to consider between now and Report Even though I know that they are both hugely principled, and are pursuing their cause with great sincerity, not everyone looking at what is being attempted will see it in that way. I think my noble friends are suggesting that we break our rules because Mr Speaker did not break his own when this Bill was in the other place and he was considering amendments proposed by Members of the Commons.

I am not familiar with all the detail of the goings-on in the other place, but I am aware that this Mr Speaker made a commitment when he was elected that he would be impartial and uphold the rules and conventions of the Commons. This was welcomed by that House and the Government, because it came after a very turbulent period of rules and conventions being ignored by his predecessor as Mr Speaker and by many Members of that House.

Since then, not only does the other place have a new Speaker but there has been a general election, the result of which is many new and re-elected MPs who now have the greater confidence of their electorate. The Prime Minister and the Government overlook this fact and act too often as though they are still facing the same disruptive and obstructive House of Commons pre-2019. I urge him and his ministerial team to reconsider their approach when they are engaging with the House of Commons in particular.

Even though there has been all that change down the other end of the corridor since December 2019, the House of Lords is still the same. We have not faced the electorate; we have not changed. Irrespective of what the Government think about this House, or what some noble Lords think about the Government, we have a responsibility to maintain public confidence in Parliament. Some people outside Parliament might agree with my noble friends on what they are proposing in terms of the substance on universal credit; some of them might agree with me, but what would probably unite all of them is the view that the House of Lords has no place in dictating to the House of Commons—that they elected—what its MPs should do and when.

So let us see what the Chancellor has to say tomorrow, but whatever action he takes, I really hope that my noble friends, whom I am fond of as well as have huge respect for, will not return on Report with a similar amendment to this. Because however well-intentioned and noble their cause, we have no legitimacy engaging in this matter at this time and in this way.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

I will be very brief, given the hour. As I said, I am chair of Feeding Britain, and I would like to briefly report from the front line, so to speak, on the effect of the stopping of the £20. I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, that this needs to be put before the other House so that there can be a vote on it.

Our experience at Feeding Britain has suggested that the £20 increase in universal credit was responsible for a drop in the number of people needing to use food banks this year—it was 17% lower than before the pandemic. Of course, we also had the school meals campaign by Marcus Rashford and various other people but, since then, in the three weeks since the increase was removed, our social supermarkets, which are affordable food projects, have started to show signs of distress.

Some of those who used to shop monthly for low-cost food, and for whom membership represented a nice insurance policy, are now there every week, if not more. Some who used to use a debit card are now using credit cards. Some of those who used to rely only on our option of low-cost food now also want help with gas and electricity. Some cannot even afford their membership fees, which are as little as £3. They are instead going without the food or having to use food banks. People are really clinging by their fingertips to avoid that nightmare scenario.

I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, that we need skills and ways to help people try to avoid the traps that they are in, which is what our social supermarkets do. Being poor is not only an expensive thing to do in this country; it is also very hard work as you spend your life drifting from one office to another trying to find someone who can help you sort out your problems with rent, food, schools et cetera. I am very glad that this House is bringing this amendment forward, because if we do not do it, who will?

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, for tabling this amendment. Like the noble Lord, Lord Freud —I must be careful I do not get into a habit of agreeing with him—I will focus on the substance of the issue, although I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, that this is not about dictating to the House of Commons, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, said.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, I am disappointed that apparently no attempt was made to assess the impact of what constitutes an unprecedented overnight cut in universal credit claimants’ income, despite the Financial Times reporting that an official had told it that the impact would be “catastrophic” in terms of poverty, homelessness and, as we have already heard, food bank use.

The lack of a formal impact assessment has been criticised by the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Olivier de Schutter. He told the Government that as a signatory of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, they must adequately justify what he defined as a retrogressive measure by carrying out such an assessment. Indeed, he warned that it was prima facie doubtful whether the removal of the £20 uplift is a measure that conforms to international human rights laws and standards. What was the Government’s reply to him?

Olivier de Schutter clearly did not see the original temporary nature of the uplift—repeatedly cited in justification—as a conclusive argument for withdrawing it now. The other main argument deployed by Ministers has been that the priority is to get people into reasonably paid work, as if that and maintaining the uplift are somehow alternatives between which we have to choose. Given that we know that hardship can undermine job-seeking efforts, what attention has been paid to the likely impact on job seeking of increasing hardship at the stroke of a computer key? What thought has been given to the impact on the significant minority who cannot be expected to seek work or work longer hours because of caring responsibilities or lack of fitness for work?

The Government have also tried to bolster their case by pointing to the £500 million household support fund referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Freud. But a discretionary fund of this kind is totally inappropriate for meeting the kind of regular needs that the UC standard allowance is supposed to meet. It offers no security or certitude to claimants in the way that a regular payment does. Not all local authorities are well placed to administer the money, especially if they are one of the significant minority which does not even run a welfare assistance scheme. I took part in a workshop last week where one participant said that her local authority had begged her food bank to administer a previous pot of money released by the Government to it because otherwise the local authority would have to return it for lack of administrative capacity.

A further sticking plaster is more money for family hubs, which could well find themselves picking up the pieces of families buckling under the strain of the loss of the £20. If, as rumoured, the Chancellor announces a cut in the taper rate tomorrow, again while welcome, it will do nothing to target the necessary help on those worst hit. Similarly, while the proposed increase in the national living wage is welcome, as both the IFS and the Resolution Foundation have made clear, it does not compensate for the loss of the uplift, not least because many of those earning the living wage are not in households in receipt of UC.

The very fact that the Chancellor was moved to introduce the uplift—which was welcome as far as it went—was tacit recognition, as we have heard, that UC rates are too low, a point made in the Commons by former Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb. Just how low is in part attributable to a decade of cuts and freezes, which took well over £30 billion a year out of the social security system, as the noble Lord, Lord Freud, has said.

As Mr Crabb pointed out, the cut raises a more fundamental question about the adequacy of the benefits we expect our fellow members of society to live on—an issue also raised by two committees of this House. While the narrow scope of the Bill does not enable us to have the more fundamental debate about benefit adequacy that I had hoped for, the amendment at least opens up the possibility of a serious vote in both Houses on the desirability of reinstating the uplift—a question that cannot be divorced from the underlying question of the adequacy of UC to meet needs.

Such a vote is needed because, although presented as somehow inevitable, the decision to withdraw the uplift was a political choice. The fact that it was originally intended to be temporary is neither here nor there, as the UN rapporteur made clear. Temporary often becomes permanent—and so it should when the overwhelming evidence shows that, be it from the perspective of food insecurity, as we have heard, debt or general hardship, the UC standard allowance is simply, to quote Stephen Crabb,

“too low to provide anything like a decent, respectable level of income replacement”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/9/21; col. 1004.],

Although inevitably so far largely anecdotal, it is clear that claimants are extremely anxious as the money disappears out of their accounts; not all of them were even aware that it would do so. An increase in fear and anxiety is how a pastor in Burnley described it to the journalist John Harris. Therefore, I hope that this amendment will be deemed admissible by this House.

Photo of Baroness Fookes Baroness Fookes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 11:15, 26 October 2021

My Lords, I find myself in a strange position tonight. I have made no secret of the fact that I believe it is a great error of judgment to end the uplift of universal credit or, at the very least, not to have brought it down by degrees. That said, I cannot agree with this method of trying to deal with the situation.

Perhaps I should explain that I spent many years in the House of Commons as a member of what was then called the Speaker’s panel of chairmen and as a Deputy Speaker there, as well as being a Deputy Speaker in this House, so I became very conscious of amendments and whether they were in or out of scope. It is important that those rules are observed, for the very good reason that, if you start to break them, anything can be added to any Bill and you can soon get into a real muddle. It does not always work in people’s favour, either.

I am very conscious of the fact that I believe that this amendment is outside the scope. We have certainly been advised so by the Legislation Office, but it was a conclusion that I came to on my own after many years’ experience of looking at amendments and seeing whether they were or were not admissible or out of scope. It is important to look at the Long Title of the Bill as the well as the short one; it is not a very long title, because it is not a very long Bill, but it makes provision

“relating to the up-rating of certain social security benefits”.

They are listed in this short Bill, and they do not cover universal credit.

For that reason, although I share many of the doubts and worries about universal credit—my noble friend Lord Freud made a most powerful case—my point is that this is not the way to deal with the situation. As we are a self-regulating House, if it comes to the point, I shall do my little bit of self-regulation and vote against any such amendment.

Photo of Lord Davies of Brixton Lord Davies of Brixton Labour

My Lords, I am as keen to get home as anybody, and I was looking forward to leaving, but I would not have missed this for the world. It has been the most gripping sitting that we have had.

I have a question for the Leader of the House. I cannot add anything to the substance of the debate, and I very much agree with what has been said about universal credit, but I am concerned about what the noble Baroness said about what counts as being in scope. What was said appeared to discount the significance of the Long Title; we were told that we could amend only in terms of what was already in the Bill. Potentially, that seems extremely restrictive; in future, we could be told that something is not provided for in the Bill so we cannot introduce an amendment on that subject. In her role as speaking on behalf of the House, and not as a Minister, can I ask the Leader of the House whether it is the case that nothing has been said that is intended to restrict, now or in future, what amendments can be laid, and whether the Long Title has an important role in determining the scope of a Bill?

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, it is very late and I have not participated in the Bill before, so I shall be extremely brief. My interest is not so much in the matter we are debating; I understand that people feel very strongly about it, on both sides, but I have no particular dog in that fight. My intervention comes because I am chairman of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House. As is well known, we produce a report every week where we try to provide a commentary on the instruments that are coming up through the process so that your Lordships have some guide—some thoughts, some suggestions—about areas that might usefully be probed as we undertake our primary role, which is of scrutiny and the ability to hold the Government to account.

I have read my noble friend the Leader’s letter with great care and I recognise and accept the seriousness of the points she makes and has spoken about this evening; that we are a self-regulating House and how this amendment, if I may summarise what she is saying, is pushing the envelope too far. I introduce to the House the concept of Isaac Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I think Newton’s third law of motion may explain some of the background to the issues that we are debating so strongly tonight.

The SLSC, along with many other Members of your Lordships’ House, is increasingly concerned about the use—some might say misuse or misapplication—of secondary legislation, which, as all Members of your Lordships’ House know, and the Government very conveniently find, has a very much lower level of scrutiny. So, in summary, while my noble friend may be pushing the envelope, I think the Government have been pushing the envelope in recent months and years a great deal. What do I mean? I shall give just two examples which I think are of particular relevance to our debate this evening.

Permanent changes to our laws, which probably should be introduced by primary legislation, are being rushed through in regulations, and sometimes being rushed through under the excuse that they are needed for the pandemic. Planning regulations have nothing to do with what we are discussing today but are something that may change our high streets, perhaps for ever. They have nothing to do with the pandemic, yet are now law because of regulations made under a pandemic regulation. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, made a point about impact assessments. Regulations with sunset clauses have no impact assessments because they are going to last for less a year, and then—surprise, surprise—they are extended, they go over the year, but still no impact assessment is produced; or impact assessments are introduced long after the debate in your Lordships’ House, when regulations are in place, and are of no real value, therefore, in influencing the way the House decides.

Last week, we looked at the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021: these concern critical issues about road safety and no impact assessment has yet been provided. If debate and scrutiny are stifled, as they are by not providing this information, the Government must expect Members of your Lordships’ House to try to find ways to get round the point, and that is what brings us to the issue we are facing tonight. The system for scrutiny has not provided a way for a proper extent of looking at and considering issues which mean so much to people on both sides of the argument that we have been discussing for the last couple of hours.

I will not go on but will conclude by saying that while of course I understand my noble friend the Leader’s concerns and worries, I say to her gently that I think there is a view in your Lordships’ House, and outside in academia, within the Hansard Society and elsewhere, that the Government, the Executive, have made a grab for power at the expense of Parliament, the legislature, and that these actions have led to the equal and opposite reaction that we are debating tonight.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, has made an important contribution in your Lordships’ House, albeit at this late hour. This is a terrifically important debate; it is about our role as a House that scrutinises and about the democratic deficit the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, referred to earlier. I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for coming to the Cross-Bench Peers meeting last week and setting out the arguments about scope, but also about the Bill in general.

I think there has been, across the House, outside and inside the Chamber tonight, a really important discussion about our role as parliamentarians, and what our job is in these kinds of circumstances. Ultimately, despite my incredible affection, as she knows, for the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes—I am sorry we disagree on this occasion; I have enormous respect for her, and we have spent much of our lives in both of these Houses defending democratic values—I do not think the argument is about whether or not the amendment that has been tabled tonight is in scope. It is about the position and rights of this House to reach a decision on this issue. I agree with the noble Baroness that, looking at the Title of the Bill, she is right to come to the conclusion that she has, but taking the argument that the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, had put, that was advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, in her remarks tonight, it demonstrates that in some circumstances we can reach a different conclusion.

Those circumstances, as the Leader of the House has told us, ought to be extraordinarily rare. Therefore, I do not say that I came to a short, sharp decision on this issue. Indeed, my mind is still open and I have been listening carefully. I recognise it takes some courage to persist in the face of procedural questions of custom and practice, especially in a House such as this. The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, has given decades of commitment, along with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, to these issues. They have done this with extraordinary conviction, knowledge, courtesy and passion.

I will say a word about precedent and this issue of scope. I have also occasionally found myself in disagreement with the clerks and have, on the whole, of course, accepted their decisions. There are three questions, though, that might tilt the balance for me, and which I think apply in this case.

The first is, of course, the position of the elected House. Until I stood down from the House of Commons, I had the privilege of serving there, following my election as long ago as 1979. Within my recollection, there were a number of occasions where, on all sides, we were relieved when Members of your Lordships’ House sent back an amendment that gave us the opportunity to think again. Indeed, as recently as in the last 12 months, your Lordships persisted with an amendment to the Trade Bill on the question of genocide. At the end of a protracted process of ping-pong, an accommodation of sorts was reached between both Houses. Several senior Conservative Members, including a former party leader, expressed their thanks to your Lordships that we had given them, in another place, a chance to think seriously about an issue that had not been debated at any stage of that Bill’s progress in the House of Commons.

Secondly, what would tip me in favour of the noble Baroness’s amendment today is the support that she has received from an illustrious former Minister who dealt with these matters: the noble Lord, Lord Freud. The noble Lord will remember that I harried him when he was a Minister on an issue that went to ping-pong. It was about mesothelioma, which for personal reasons I know he felt deeply about. He defended the Government’s position, as he was right to do. We went to ping-pong and ultimately an accommodation was reached, and it went further than that: the noble Lord then introduced an entire Bill on mesothelioma. It is part of his extraordinary legacy from his time as a Minister. He is a man I enormously admire. I note too that six former DWP Secretaries of State since 2010 have said that the £20 uplift investment should remain.

Thirdly, there is the little issue of manifestos. Commitments made in government manifestos are very much in scope when we come to consider legislation. The Government’s current policy regarding uprating is entirely at variance with that commitment. It is not a trivial issue; it is something on which our colleagues in the elected House have the right to deliberate. This amendment would give the opportunity to do that in the House of Commons.

What of the substantive argument about the universal credit £20 uplift? Sir William Beveridge, who was a Member of both Houses, said it was our duty to provide a safety net—a phrase that was used by the noble Baroness earlier on—against the “giant evils”. Today, there are cuts and sears in that safety net that we must repair.

Finally, at Second Reading, the noble Baroness set out her formidable objections to the removal of the £20 uplift, but also her serious concerns about the democratic deficit. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, talked about public confidence and thought that if we took this decision it might erode public confidence. I think it will have precisely the opposite effect, and this is not something I argue for lightly. I certainly think we need to give it a great deal more thought.

This is not just about whether an amendment is in scope. It is about whether democracy is in scope. We should keep an open mind. I was glad to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Freud, that those who tabled the amendment will not press it to a vote this evening. We want to see what will happen tomorrow in the Statement that will be made in another place. We will then wait with anticipation to see what happens on Report. Despite the lateness of the hour, I congratulate the noble Baroness on bringing this amendment to us this evening and initiating this extraordinarily important debate.

Photo of Lord Shinkwin Lord Shinkwin Conservative 11:30, 26 October 2021

My Lords, I remember being in the Chamber just under five years ago when your Lordships’ House was united in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Freud on the occasion of his final speech as Minister for Welfare Reform. Hansard cols. 1697 to 1720 of 21 December 2016 paid testament to the esteem in which my noble friend is held. I join other noble Lords in thanking him and my noble friend Lady Stroud for their courage and tenacity both in their previous, pivotal positions in driving welfare reform and also for tabling what I regard as a crucial amendment, which we are considering this evening. So the question that I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister would answer is: if we listened to my noble friend Lord Freud when he was a Minister, why should we not listen to him today? What has changed?

I shall briefly address this from the perspective of a disabled person. Disabled people have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic. Perhaps the biggest change since has been the recent significant and growing increase in the cost of living, to which other noble Lords have alluded. For those disabled people in particular who cannot work, the calamitous impact of the removal of the universal credit uplift, just as their need for support is growing, could hardly have been worse timed. For them, the impact of Covid—for which the uplift was introduced—not only endures but has increased considerably. It is completely fatuous to pretend otherwise.

Of course, I do not blame the Government for increases in the cost of living. It is not the Government’s fault that heating bills have risen by 12% and are expected to continue rising as we head into winter. Nor is it their fault that petrol now costs £1.43 per litre—an all-time high—and that prices at the pump are also predicted to increase further. But that does not mean that the Government can deny their responsibility to mitigate the real hardship faced by those disabled people who are unable to work and need the universal credit uplift now more than ever.

As a Conservative, I of course support efforts to bring the deficit under control but, as a disabled person, I suggest that that Conservative principle needs to go hand in hand with pragmatism. In conclusion, only MPs can fully appreciate the implications of ignoring the universal credit uplift crisis, for the simple reason that it is their severely disabled constituents and their families who are being hardest hit. They deserve the opportunity to vote to protect their most vulnerable constituents. As we have heard, this amendment would simply give them the chance to choose whether they want to take that opportunity. I urge the Government to think again and thereby make this amendment unnecessary. That is in the Government’s gift.

Photo of Lord Crisp Lord Crisp Crossbench

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, for bringing this amendment to the House, together with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and other noble Lords. They have done it in entirely the appropriate way, in recognition that there is a Budget tomorrow and other opportunities to take this whole debate forward. I have been very struck by the arguments on both sides and how well they were balanced and expressed. But I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, that the rules may not be quite as clear cut as they appear to be, that people will bend, expand or do something with the envelope as they see fit, and that this area needs much more discussion. I particularly agree with him on the planning laws, for example.

I want to make one substantive point which I do not think has been made yet, about the effect of this cut on health. I spent a lot of time recently in some of the poorer communities in the country working on health. In doing so, I have recognised, as we all have, the fragility of some people’s lives and the balances they need to strike to make things work. This may well knock many people on into poverty, as the noble Baroness has said. It will have an impact on physical and mental health and on other public services, and it will be damaging in the long term for society, not just for the people involved.

We have already heard one great paradox: how costly it is to be poor, and how you pay more. There is another great paradox, which is that quite a lot of cost-saving measures end up costing other budgets rather more.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I rise to make three brief points. I wish first to join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, who has shown real bravery and great leadership this evening in moving these amendments from the Government Benches, and to the noble Lord, Lord Freud, for doing likewise. I commend the others who have supported them.

My second point is constitutional and builds on what the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said. Noble Lords may know from history that there has been a real shift in attitudes towards innovation. In the Middle Ages, innovation was a slur, a way of attacking people, whereas in the modern world we think of it as being a wonderful thing. The Government like to celebrate innovations. We have seen lots of innovations in our constitution from the Government, but they do not seem to like what they see as other people’s innovations— even though the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, clearly set out a number of precedents to show that what she and others are doing here is not an innovation at all.

I want to go back a considerable number of hours to the Environment Bill. Noble Lords who have covered both Bills may have seen the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, a Cross-Bencher and hereditary Peer, lead a very cross-party charge, to the point where the Government eventually reversed their position—crucially, after there had been a huge public outcry about water treatment and water companies dumping sewage into our rivers and oceans.

This is a weird situation arising from our dysfunctional constitution and centuries of historical accident; but it was the House of Lords that enabled the people to speak and express their views in a way that eventually changed the minds of MPs. Were your Lordships’ House to go forward from this point and enable these debates, I have no doubt that the people of this country, the voters, would speak loudly and clearly through social media, letters and phone calls to their MPs about their very strong views on the £20 universal credit uplift. Your Lordships’ House could have the opportunity to make that happen. That, I would argue, would be intensely democratic.

My third point is very brief. The Minister, sitting beside the Leader of the House, knows that the circumstances of universal credit, its inadequacy, low wages, insecure employment and zero-hours contracts have given me many opportunities to plague her by talking about a universal basic income. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and many others have made hugely powerful points about the dreadful human impacts of the cut to universal credit, but I ask your Lordships to consider whether you believe in the human right to life. The right to life implies access to food, shelter, heating in winter and the basics of security, and that is what this amendment is about. We are talking about basic universal human rights, and that surely has to be a matter for your Lordships’ House.

Photo of Lord Porter of Spalding Lord Porter of Spalding Conservative

My Lords, I have not spoken in this House for close on two years—18 months at least—through Covid. I was not intending to speak today because of the Environment Bill coming through and the things that I personally disagree with that were in it, which none of us has covered.

I have listened to my noble friends on this side in bringing forward this amendment. I understand the argument that this is the wrong place to bring through a technical argument that is in the wrong place, but, surely, we have all said that taking money away from our poorest people at this point in time and in where our communities are going is the wrong thing to do. We all know that the £20 uplift was a temporary arrangement to get our poorest people through Covid. As a country, we have not got through Covid; we are in the worst part of Covid’s impacts on our community. So I am hopeful that tomorrow the Chancellor, because he cares about our people in our country, will bring in some measures that alleviate the worst impacts of Covid on our poorest people.

But we cannot overturn all of those rules and regulations that all of you clever people understand about how this place is supposed to work. We cannot break the rules to introduce an amendment that cannot be bolted on, or else we will turn every piece of legislation into a Christmas tree. I will be the worst person in this House for doing this. Every time that you bring something through that I do not like the look of, I will put another bauble on it. That is what we are risking tonight.

I am pleased that my noble friends, who passionately care about this issue, have said that they will not press this to a Division. We must be ready to give a voice to the people outside of this Chamber, if the Government do not understand the seriousness of that return to a previous set of benefits. I will not call it a cut because it is not one; it was a temporary bringing in of alleviation for a problem. The problem has not gone away, and we must try to convince the Government that they need to slowly reduce that alleviation or, at least, re-evaluate what universal credit is supposed to be about. It is supposed to be about making sure that everyone has a decent standard of living and that, if they can work, they go to work and work harder to get more money: “If you can’t work, don’t go to work; we will look after you. But if you don’t want to go to work, we won’t look after you.” That surely has to be part of that conversation. The benefit bill should be for those who need us most. They are our friends, neighbours and families; we should look after them.

I do not see that 11.45 pm is the right time to speak much longer, even though it is the first time that I have spoken for a long time. I am sorry.

Photo of Baroness Janke Baroness Janke Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 11:45, 26 October 2021

My Lords, I too will be brief. We have heard from other Members of this House on the impact of the cut to the £20 uplift in universal credit, and the effect it has on people’s lives, particularly children and, as the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin raised, the disabled. We know that this is causing major misery and despair to many people in this country, among them the most vulnerable.

I too respect the rule of law; the rules of engagement are important. As the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the noble Lord, Lord Porter, have said, if you want to be effective, the rules are important. However, when I first came into this House—I am not a very long-standing Member—there was an occasion when the House took a stand on tax credits. We have no powers, as we know, but we took a powerful stand. Certainly, it upset the then Government, and those tax credit cuts did not go ahead. What I learned from that is that, while I have great respect for the rules of this House, its procedures and its conventions, sometimes there are exceptional circumstances which sometimes demand exceptional action. That is what I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and her supporters are taking forward at the moment.

I too hope that the Chancellor will put something in his Statement tomorrow—we will, of course, wait to hear it—but I pay tribute to the courage of Members of this House who have put their money where their mouth is. They have put themselves on the line. They believe it is so important to ask the other place to think again that they are prepared to risk a lot in order to do so. We in this House should back them.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, for introducing Amendment 9 and speaking so passionately on its content. We tried everything to get an amendment on universal credit into scope, so I am not surprised that, despite all her ingenuity and application, the noble Baroness was unable to get anything past the clerks. I have some sympathy for the efforts that must have gone into that; the nearest I could get was Amendment 6 in my name on mixed-age couples—“close but no cigar” is, I think, the technical term for it.

I understand that these issues are complex and sensitive. I have learned a lot today, in fact, about what happens in practice. Having listened to both the Leader and the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, I now understand that, in effect, the House will decide the admissibility of an amendment only at the point at which it decides whether or not to accept or vote for it. So basically, we will not find out tonight at all. Given that, I will take the opportunity to talk yet again about universal credit; I have been banging on about it for quite a long time. I will do so briefly.

I have been talking about this £20 for a boringly long time. I cannot tell noble Lords how happy I am to have such an illustrious array of support coming in behind the issue—what a delight that is. It has been very interesting to listen to some of the contributions, which I passionately agree with. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, for pointing out the impact of this cut on health, to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for pointing out the impact on food, people’s poverty, and the quality of their lifestyles, and to the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for pointing out the impact on disabled people.

I still believe that it is not just bad but one of the most shocking decisions to remove £20 a week from universal credit at the point at which we are dealing with the effects of a pandemic which, as the noble Lord, Lord Porter, pointed out, has decimated communities, and is still having that effect. People have lost jobs and hours. We are in a cost-of-living crisis. To proceed at this point with what the Economist called

“the biggest single cut to social security since the foundation of the modern welfare state”,

frankly, beggars belief.

I warn the Minister that, the next time she tries to defend this cut by pointing to the £500 million discretionary fund, I am going to get up and quote the noble Lord, Lord Freud, at her. I may even look at a combination of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and my noble friend Lady Lister—if I am honest, not an alliance I have seen a lot of in the past, but I shall be quoting them at her together. Frankly, at that point, she should just put up her hands and give up; if the two of them are agreed, she may be on to a loser.

The other defence that will be used—indeed, it is already starting to be—is about what is happening with the rise in the national living wage. Obviously, it is good that the Government have accepted the Low Pay Commission recommendation and that the minimum national living wage will rise, but this simply does not make up for the universal credit cut, for three basic reasons.

First, there are well over 5 million adults on universal credit, but only 2 million people get the national living wage and many of those do not get universal credit. Secondly, it is not enough. The Resolution Foundation has done the sums and a full-time worker on universal credit who gets the national living wage would see their pre-tax pay rise by just over £1,000 as a result of this increase. However, their take-home pay would go up by only £265 because of the UC taper, because they pay more tax and will be paying more national insurance come April. Losing £1,040 and gaining £265 is not a win. That is in cash terms. In fact, most of that increase will have to go to cover the cost of inflation in any case.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, may be right and the Chancellor may be doing something in the Budget. None of us knows what is going to happen. Maybe he will knock a couple of percentage points off the taper rate. I really hope he cuts the taper rate but that will not be enough to make up for the damage that this cut has wrought.

The third point is that improvements in the living wage and the taper rate help only those in work. Just 38% of adults in families on universal credit are employed. What happens to the rest? What about the sick and disabled people who are not able to work? What about those with caring responsibilities? How are they meant to feed their kids and heat their home? What happens to them? Let us not forget the hit to local economies when families who have to spend every penny they get suddenly have £1,000 less to spend a year in local shops and businesses because it has been taken away from them.

That is enough for one day. We have had a very interesting debate. I shall read Hansard with care. Perhaps the Chancellor will take the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin. Perhaps the best favour he could do for the Leader of the House and the Minister is to take this problem away from them by acting tomorrow. We look forward to seeing that. I hope the Minister can give us some hints.

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, we will have to wait until the Chancellor gets up to speak to find out what he has to say in his Statement. I thank my noble friends Lady Stroud and Lord Freud, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Boycott, for their amendment. My noble friends Lady Stroud and Lord Freud were, of course, prominent architects of universal credit and noble Lords will, I am sure, join me in appreciating their depth of knowledge and strength of feeling on the issue. I know from all that has been said that others in this House share many of their concerns. I will not take time to repeat them now.

I must inform your Lordships that this amendment, if passed, would challenge the broader constitutional balance between the two Houses of Parliament. I am sure it is not the intention of noble Lords to open such a Pandora’s box, but I would be failing in my duty to your Lordships’ House if I did not clearly spell out the unintended effects.

Since the other place has already approved the Bill, I urge your Lordships not to risk its effects being negated by ping-pong between the Houses that takes us beyond the hard deadline for reprogramming the relevant DWP IT systems. This amendment deals with matters of public expenditure which are the province of the elected Chamber. It also effectively asks this House to decide how that Chamber should conduct its business, what it should debate, what it should choose to vote on and when that should be done—in this case, within one month of Royal Assent.

Taking into account all the constitutional points I have raised, I invite my noble friend to withdraw her amendment and, if she feels unable to do so, I strongly urge noble Lords not to vote in its favour.

Photo of Baroness Stroud Baroness Stroud Conservative

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions this evening, particularly at this late hour. Who would have thought that such a gentle amendment on an issue so close the public’s heart could have generated quite so much debate?

I have listened carefully to the words of the Leader of the House and I commit myself to keep listening. It has been really helpful to have everybody’s feedback tonight. It is, however, as we all know, the eve of the Budget and I am still hopeful that inside No. 11 there may be ears to hear what we are saying tonight. It would cause me great sadness to divide the House on an issue on which we should all be so firmly united—the protection of the poorest in our society—and to do so under such contentious circumstances.

I will step back and beg leave to withdraw this amendment. But the care of the most vulnerable in our society is the rightful concern of this House. For if we stand for anything, it is to check and challenge the work of the Government, and that is all I am seeking to do today. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 9 withdrawn.

Clause 2: Extent, commencement and short title

Amendment 10 not moved.

Clause 2 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.

House adjourned at 11.56 pm.