Clause 18 - Consequential amendments

Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 15th October 2015.

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Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 12:15 pm, 15th October 2015

I beg to move amendment 137, in clause 18, page 17, line 40, leave out “repealed.” and insert “amended as follows—

(a) insert at the end of subsection 1—

‘(1AA) In addition to the conditions set out in subsection 1 a “relevant beneficiary” must be an individual in receipt of pension credit (see section 1 of the State Pension Credit Act 2002).’”

To maintain Support for Mortgage Interest as a benefit for anyone in receipt of State Pension Credit and replace it with a loan only for those in receipt of income-based benefits for people of working age.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 138, in clause 18, page 17, line 41, leave out subsections (2) and (3).

This amendment is consequential to amendment 137.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I do not know whether you were in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, Mr Owen, but many of us were. We heard the Prime Minister say the Government were “very proud” to have kept all their promises to pensioners, but their actions in this Bill show that that is simply not right. The Opposition will make it perfectly clear to pensioners that the Government are going back on their promises to them.

Through the amendment, we want to exempt pensioners from the provisions in the clause. If there is a rationale for the policy, I have yet to work out what it is. On Tuesday, the Minister said—he has said this again today—that

“we believe it is wrong that taxpayers who are unable to afford to buy a home of their own are subsidising claimants who own their own homes.”––[Official Report, Welfare Reform and Work Public Bill Committee, 13 October 2015; c. 356.]

That is a very odd statement in the light of what the Government are doing generally. It is quite startling, because obviously the Minister has forgotten about the Government’s plan to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants. That policy, which the Government say is about supporting home ownership, comes with a price tag of £11.6 billion. That is almost equivalent to the savings that the Government say that they need to make in the welfare budget. Compared with that, SMI is absolute peanuts.

The last time the Government looked at the issue, which was in 2011, as we heard, the then Welfare Reform Minister said in a press release that the existing system was “not sustainable”. That is the justification for the measure and why we are going through it—the Government say that SMI is not affordable. At the time, the Government said, spending on SMI was about £400 million. Now it is £265 million a year. In three years’ time the cost will be £250 million. So far from being unsustainable, the cost is going down. If the Government’s definition of “unsustainable” is spending going down, as projected, we need to have a new dictionary.

In fact, the cost-effectiveness of SMI is one of its most distinguishing features. To quote my new favourite organisation, the Council of Mortgage Lenders, of which the Minister is also a fan, as we have heard, it is important that the Government should

“recognise the relative cost-effectiveness of SMI in preventing repossessions.”

The Government’s impact assessment for the Bill, which was the subject of some back and forth during Tuesday’s sitting, helpfully notes that the average weekly payment to working-age SMI claimants is £38 a week. For pensioners who receive the benefit, it is only £20 a week—so it is £20 a week to keep the roof over the head of a pensioner.

To put that into context, the DWP’s most recent figures show that the average weekly housing benefit payment is £95 a week. If there is even the slightest increase in the number of repossessions as a result of the changes that the Government are proposing, and homeless families have to go into privately rented housing and therefore need to claim housing benefit, we are clearly talking about false economies, because they will be moving into somewhere more expensive. Housing benefit is an average of £95 a week, but SMI for pensioners is £20 a week. That speaks for itself and shows the benefit of making social policy on the basis of evidence rather than rhetoric.

Part of my problem in understanding the Government’s intention is that the proposal seems to fit poorly with the values that they claim to hold. We have recently been through an election campaign—as the Minister was telling us—in which the Government repeatedly claimed that welfare reform would protect the most vulnerable. It was not always clear exactly what they meant by that, but what seemed never to be in doubt was that pensioners would be included, and it was certainly hoped that disabled people would be as well.

As the Government are well aware, the overwhelming majority of those who receive SMI are the very same people whom the Government had promised to protect. Almost half of those who receive SMI are pensioners, and about 40% are disabled. Only 15% are claiming JSA, which is a clear reflection of the fact that, in the majority of cases, the people who rely on SMI support will have fallen on hard times because of increasing age or disability and are therefore unlikely to return to work. A disproportionate number of them are single women.

Again, it is important to look at the evidence, and the evidence is that a disproportionate number of the people who are getting the very small sums of money that keep the roof over their head are single women. I do not know this, but I will make a leap and say that I presume we are talking about poor widows—women who have fallen on hard times and whose partners have died. The Government are taking £20 a week away from poor widows, and that might well result in those women losing their homes. Perhaps those women took their mortgage into retirement after their husband died, or perhaps they had to leave a well-paid job after developing long-term health problems. As we have heard, 40% of them are people with disabilities.

Whoever those people are, however, they are taxpayers. They have spent their entire life working and paying income tax and national insurance. They paid stamp duty when they bought their home, and they might be subject to inheritance tax when they die, although recent announcements suggest that that is less likely to be the case in future. People who receive SMI will have paid into the system and are entitled to expect that there will be a safety net for them when they need it. The Government’s proposal sets a disturbing precedent by turning a benefit to which those people will have contributed into a loan that could be clawed back at some future point. Adding insult to injury, they will be charged for the privilege.

The Prime Minister said yesterday:

“We are very proud to have kept all our promises to pensioners”.—[Official Report, 14 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 314.]

That is not right. I cannot imagine what he means by that. The other point that my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth made is important. The Government have also failed to keep their promises in relation to social care and to what Dilnot called catastrophic costs, and have refused to give assistance to people who will need long-term care. People need to have a home to be able to sell it to pay for their social care.

The Government’s rhetoric again flies in all sorts of different directions. We hear high-flown talk from the Chancellor of the Exchequer about how important it is for people to be able to pass their savings and their  money on to the next generation, and to be able, when they die, to hand over to the next generation without being clobbered by inheritance tax. There really does seem to be one rule for the rich and another for the poor. Widows who need £20 a week will have that taken away from them. They will be expected to take out a loan in order to pay off the interest, and will be charged to do so. It is cruel.

Amendment 138, which is consequential to amendment 137, provides that SMI will continue to be paid to low-income pensioners as a non-refundable benefit.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

My hon. Friend is making a really solid point about the Government’s rhetoric. It is typical of the Government to create a false divide between taxpayers and those in receipt of benefits, as we have discussed in Committee previously. The Government seem to assume that the two do not overlap at all. As my hon. Friend has already pointed out, those who have put into the system for many years will find that the system is not there to support them, and we will now be charging them to draw down what they have contributed over the years. It is typical of a Government who are out of touch with ordinary working people.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I could not agree more, and I thank my hon. Friend. I would go even further: I think that the welfare state and the principles on which we built it are one of the things we should be proud of about being British, and that is being fundamentally undermined by nasty little clauses such as this one. The Government should be ashamed. The Opposition will certainly fight it.

As I have said, amendment 138 is consequential to amendment 137, which will provide for SMI to continue to be paid to low-income pensioners as a non-refundable benefit. If the Government wish to go ahead and convert the benefit into a loan for working-age people, that is an idea that we can debate separately, because that is a different matter, but for pensioners who are unable to work there should be different considerations. If someone is coming to the end of their life and is not expected to work any more—that is what being a pensioner is—or if they are disabled, circumstances ought to be different. If someone is of working age and on jobseeker’s allowance, there might be a different argument—I have yet to be persuaded, but I appreciate that they might be a different group. However, as we have heard, most of the people affected by this nasty little clause will be pensioners.

If pensioners are to consider the Government’s promises worth the paper they are written on, Ministers should go back to the drawing board and rethink this cruel and unnecessary proposal. It is unnecessary because, in the great scheme of £12 billion, how much money are the Government really saving? It is an amount of money that is going down and down, and it is a fraction of a percentage point of the money that is to be saved.

The measure is a mistake. I hope that the Minister is listening—we are trying to help and the Government are making a profound mistake. I will press amendment 137 to a vote. If Conservative Members really believe that they cannot bring themselves to find, from a £120 billion welfare budget, £20 a week to help poor widows not lose their homes, the public have a right to know where the Government stand.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 12:30 pm, 15th October 2015

We have heard a lengthy and passionate speech, the bottom line of which is, “Can we make an exception for pensioners?” As I have said before, we are talking about pensioners who have an asset, probably the biggest and most valuable asset that they have—the biggest asset that most people have is their home. That asset will appreciate in value. There is an element of fairness involved in the measure, as well as ensuring that we make some savings, and it will save £250 million.

I come back to the fundamental point: we are talking about individuals who have an asset that is being subsidised by the taxpayer. Many of those taxpayers do not have such an asset of their own. It is important to recognise that the proposed system is almost the same as the existing system, save that the benefit is converted into a loan that is payable on sale of the valuable asset or, to the extent that there is nothing left in the equity, the Government will write off the balance. All the care, attention and other benefits that pensioners receive will continue.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I hear what the Minister is saying, but his difficulty is that it flies in the face of what the Government are doing for people who are being helped to buy their housing association homes, a measure that will cost £11.6 billion. People—taxpayers—who do not own their own homes are contributing to the £11.6 billion pot that will help housing association tenants to buy. SMI is chickenfeed compared with the amount of money that the Government are using to subsidise that.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

If £250 million is chickenfeed, to quote what the hon. Lady said, I am afraid that people reading our proceedings in Hansard will take a deep breath and say, “This is what those people think of £0.25 billion.” The consequence of several such chickenfeed decisions is the mess that the country is in now.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Given what the Minister has said about the economic competence of the Government before last, will he remind us of the savings projected for employment and support allowance and housing benefit in the previous Parliament and whether they were met?

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I do not have those figures to hand, but I am happy to obtain them and write to the hon. Gentleman. He is seeking to make a name for himself. On Tuesday he sought to do so by calling other Members names. Today he seeks to be clever by asking questions, which are important, but which he knows will get a written answer.

The amendment will not make a difference. This is all about fairness.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I want to push the Minister again. The context of the clause is so important given that the Government have reneged on their commitment to cap social care costs. There has been no assessment of that. During the summer, the Government said that they would not be pushing forward with the Dilnot figures—actually, slightly different figures from the Dilnot ones—and the cap on care costs of £70,000-odd. That is not going to happen. We can add all that together, but it does not seem to have been considered at all by the Government.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

It has been considered. There will be a minimal overlap between the DWP loans and the Department of Health deferred payment arrangements for social care. Those people expected to avail themselves of a deferred social care payment are likely to be mortgage-free or to have income levels above the benefit threshold and so would not qualify for SMI loans. [ Interruption. ] We will have to agree to disagree. Simply, the bottom line is that the measure is about fairness—fairness for taxpayers. We have to recognise that pensioners have an asset that appreciates, although they are not expected to make any repayment until that asset is sold.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The answers we have heard are profoundly disappointing, and they will be disappointing to the most vulnerable pensioners throughout the country who have paid into a system and who deserve better from the Government.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister is making a mockery of the Government’s supposed commitment to protect the disabled and pensioners, which is what they claimed? The Government seem to be relying on a low number of people being affected by the measure to hide their false pretence.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

That is absolutely right. Of course, for people who are affected, it will not matter whether the number is a low one—their life will be profoundly affected by the changes made in the Bill. A relatively small amount of money is involved. I appreciate that huge numbers of people will not be affected, but that does not change the principle, the justice or the unfairness to the individual concerned. We will not withdraw the amendment and will press it to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 11.

Division number 46 Decision Time — Clause 18 - Consequential amendments

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 11 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment made: 128, in clause 18, page 17, line 40, at end insert—

‘( ) In section 3A of the State Pension Credit Act 2002 (housing credit), in subsection (5)(a), omit the words from “(and,” to “payments)”.”—(Guy Opperman.)

This amendment adds a consequential amendment of section 3A(5)(a) of the State Pension Credit Act 2002, which is about the meaning of “payments in respect of accommodation”. It removes a reference to mortgage payments.

Question put, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 9.

Division number 47 Decision Time — Clause 18 - Consequential amendments

Aye: 11 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 18, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.