[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair] — In-work Poverty

– in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 28 January 2016.

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Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East 1:30, 28 January 2016

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered in-work poverty.

It is a pleasure to serve under your excellent chairmanship, Mr Turner. This Government are failing to make work pay, and their cuts to in-work support risk increasing the number of working families in poverty even further. Over the previous Parliament, average real wages fell by more than £1,000 a year. Furthermore, 2010 to 2020 will be the worst decade for pay growth in almost a century and the third worst since 1860.

Cuts to universal credit that begin in April will make 2.6 million working families £1,600 a year worse off by 2020, making it almost impossible for families to work their way out of poverty. The Government’s advice to working families set to be hit by those cuts is to work an additional 200 hours a year to recoup the losses. That is neither fair nor practical for millions of low-paid families who are already working full time. I am delighted to have secured this debate, so that we in the Opposition can bring forward the reality of those in our constituencies who are experiencing high levels of in-work poverty and to call on the Government to scrap their cuts to universal credit before the cuts take hold in April.

We know from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission that 1.5 million children are in poverty because their working parents do not earn enough to secure a basic standard of living. Four out of 10 children in working poor households live in families where parents might be expected to enter work or work more hours. Owing to high levels of in-work poverty, the commission has warned that the cuts to universal credit will—in its words, not mine—

“make many working families significantly worse off.”

The commission has recommended that the Government reverse their cuts to universal credit, saying:

“These changes would have resulted in millions of families in low-paid work who are ‘doing the right thing’ and working as much as society expects them to, seeing their annual income fall by thousands of pounds on 1 April 2016.”

Despite the fears, the cuts to universal credit are still going ahead. It will be very difficult for many affected families to increase their hours of work and hourly pay to avoid big cuts to their incomes.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour, Neath

Does my hon. Friend know that 167,400 working families in Wales will be impacted by these cuts and that 134,600 of them are families with children?

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

I do, and not only Wales is affected; this affects every constituency in the country.

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

Would it surprise my hon. Friend to hear that, under universal credit plans, some 116,000 disabled people who are in work—and therefore doing the right thing, according to the Government’s narrative—will be £40 a week worse off under the Government’s proposal?

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

That is a shocking indictment of the low consideration the Government have for people in need. For example, a lone parent working full time on the minimum wage who receives no support for their housing costs will experience a reduction of £2,600 a year—that is £50 a week. Nobody can afford to lose £50 a week.

The combined effect of income tax, national insurance and the universal credit taper will mean that universal credit claimants who pay income tax will keep only 24% of any increase in their earnings. They will have to increase their earnings by £210 a week—or, to put it in percentage terms, 72%—to make up the income loss they will face as a result of the reduction in support.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She has given some figures about single parents, and this shows the full extent of the policy: for a single parent—say, a mother with one or more children—the work allowance of universal credit will be halved from this April, going from £8,808 to £4,764. In cash terms, that is a loss of £2,628 a year. Does that not show the stark reality of this policy?

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I agree. That is a reality people face every day, and it can only get worse.

The short-term effect for current claimants of universal credit is that they face huge losses to income come April 2016. There are currently 155,000 recipients of universal credit, and the number is increasing every week, with an aim of there being 500,000 recipients by April this year.

During Work and Pensions questions recently, the Secretary of State claimed that the flexible support fund will act as transitional protection for current claimants and said that

“those who are on universal credit at present will be fully supported through the flexible support fund, which will provide all the resources necessary to ensure that their situation remains exactly the same as it is today.”—[Hansard, 7 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 688.]

However, that existing fund is used for a different purpose. Its budget last year was £69 million, but the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates cuts to working families of £100 million next year, rising every year until they reach £3.2 billion in 2020.

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

I apologise for not thanking my hon. Friend for securing the debate in my previous intervention or saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. The Secretary of State was referring to the number of people currently receiving universal credit who will be protected by some measure, but is that not a little disingenuous given that the Government are about 1,000 years behind schedule on delivering universal credit? They had expected some 2 million people to be on it by now. Should the Government not be a bit more embarrassed about mentioning the small number who are already receiving universal credit?

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

I agree entirely, and I will touch on that later in my speech.

When transitional protection is introduced for current tax credit recipients, the Government will bring in regulations to put that protection into law. Opposition Members are calling for the same guarantees—full transitional protection—to be put on a legal footing for current universal credit claimants. The medium-term effects of the cuts to universal credit will effectively create a postcode lottery or, as my hon. Friend Owen Smith, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, quite accurately described it, an “IDS lottery”. I doubt, however, whether those ticket holders will have a magic washing machine and end up as big winners. New and existing claimants of tax credits will receive far greater support than new and existing claimants of universal credit.

The longer-term effect by 2020 will be massively reduced support for working families. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that by 2020, due to the £3.2 billion cut to the work allowance having been fully phased in, 2.6 million working families will be an average of £1,600 a year worse off. The Resolution Foundation found that when these cuts fully take effect by 2020, low and middle-income working families will lose an average of £1,000 a year, rising to £1,300 a year for those with children.

This is a political choice by this Government—a deliberate act to drastically reduce support for working families, at a time when the Government are cutting inheritance tax for homes worth more than £1 million. The contradictions in that comparison are frightening, to say the least. How can it be right to offer enhanced protection for those with wealth and catastrophic consequences for those who currently eke out a living on low pay? It cannot be right to reduce in-work support.

In my constituency office, we act as an agent for both the Trussell Trust food bank and the local Eastside food bank in Bonymaen, Swansea. We receive donations but also give out parcels in emergencies. Some 85% of the parcels given out are to families who are in work but struggling to make ends meet.

Further examples of the impact on working families from a detailed analysis by the Library show that a single parent of two children with gross earnings of £18,000 a year will experience a net reduction in their income of £2,601 next year, as a result of measures announced in the summer Budget that are still due to take effect in April 2016. For example, a single parent of one child who is earning the living wage will only increase their income by £40 for working an additional 12 hours. That compares with an increase of £92 for an additional 12 hours before the cuts to the work allowance were introduced.

It is time for the Secretary of State to stop playing cat and mouse with the real people of this country. The lack of Government Members here today indicates that they have bought into the Government’s rhetoric that in-work poverty is a myth and that they support the Government’s propaganda that it is of no real concern. However, the reality is that ordinary working people are continually playing catch-up, and all the Government want to do for them is to watch them run around chasing their own tails. It is immoral, irresponsible and reprehensible.

I am very proud to represent real people who are paying the cost of this Government’s arrogance, and I will fight to ensure that their voice gets heard. We are led to believe that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has threated to resign if his masterplan is not followed through. If cuts to universal credit really were an issue to resign over, he would be long gone, and if he was, many thousands of decent, hard-working people across the UK would be celebrating both his resignation and the moral victory.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Labour, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney 1:41, 28 January 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Turner, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on securing this important debate.

It is hard to justify why so many people live in poverty in a country as wealthy as the UK. I believe that one of the key explanations is that the welfare state, designed to protect us all against risks such as unemployment, illness and old age, simply fails to provide an adequate income for families and others when they are unable to support themselves fully.

It is truly shocking that in 2016, in-work poverty is growing. In some areas, the number of working households in poverty is greater than the number of non-working households. Major factors appear to be low pay and part-time work, and zero-hours contracts are also a major contributory factor.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour, Neath

It was remiss of me not to say in my earlier intervention what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although responsibility for tackling in-work poverty in Wales is a devolved issue, the levers for tackling it lie mainly with the UK Government? He mentioned zero-hours contracts, but I add to that the minimum wage, welfare benefits and, of course, the tax system.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Labour, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

I could not agree more. Both the Welsh Government and local government have tried to mitigate those circumstances, but the major levers lie here at Westminster.

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

May I add a London voice? Specific costs include much higher accommodation costs for many in London, which contribute to in-work poverty. However, the last Government hit something like 30,000 working people in Southwark with reductions in support and left 700 people in work using the local food bank, according to figures from Pecan, which is part of the Trussell Trust network.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Labour, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and the situation he describes is replicated in many areas across the UK.

Can it be right in 21st-century Britain that many people are working hard and cannot afford to live above the poverty line? As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East outlined, 85% of people receiving support from the food bank in her constituency are working people. In my constituency, many working families rely on food banks to be able to put food on the table. That is clearly not acceptable.

Years of below-inflation wage increases, particularly in the public sector, have taken their toll on people’s incomes. In-work benefits such as tax credits are meant to support families against the worst effects of in-work poverty. The current proposals to change universal credit will clearly make matters worse for millions of working families. In Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney alone, about 10,000 working families are likely to be adversely affected by the Government’s universal credit proposals by 2020.

Jobs must be a clear and critical part of any programme to end poverty. Access to jobs, and the quality of those jobs, must be addressed if families are to be able to work their way out of poverty. Low pay is a major factor in in-work poverty and is unfortunately a routine feature of much of the work available to poorer families. The national minimum wage sets a floor for pay levels, but one report shows that a couple with two children would need to work 58 hours a week at the minimum wage to lift themselves out of poverty.

As a county councillor prior to being elected to this place last May, I was proud to be associated with the introduction of the living wage at Caerphilly county borough council, one of a growing number of Labour councils in Wales that pay the living wage. I am proud of the many former colleagues in local government across the UK who are championing the true living wage, as promoted by the Living Wage Foundation, not the gimmick national living wage that the Chancellor has announced.

The low-paid sector is characterised by jobs that often do not provide steady employment. Moving in and out of work on a regular basis is common for lone parents and generates grave financial uncertainty for many families. Limits on the number of hours worked and zero-hours contracts mean that many people might work full-time one week, part-time the next and have no work the following week. Even if they have reliable employment, many find it hard to work enough hours, given their caring commitments and other barriers to employment.

Such situations can also compound problems with in-work benefit entitlements, such as housing benefit. The process for benefit assessment cannot be done efficiently, leaving households falling into rent arrears while things are readjusted and threatening the security of their tenure. Often, due to barriers to employment, people do not have the opportunity to increase their hours and therefore their income. As a result, many low-paid jobs are nothing more than poverty traps.

It is not just a lack of income that causes hardship in poorer families. Evidence shows that they also pay higher prices than others for many essential goods and services. Low-income families are often unable to take advantage of the cheaper prices that are routinely offered to customers paying by methods such as direct debit. The situation has been exacerbated by rising utility bills. With fuel prices coming down, the Government should bring more pressure to bear on utility firms to ensure that they do more to pass savings on to customers.

Finally, many people who are in work discover that their jobs are so low paid or insecure that they are unable to provide an income sufficient to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. The Government appear reluctant to reconfigure the tax system so that the richest households pay more of the burden.

Policy changes such as the changes to inheritance tax, the reduction in the 50p income tax rate to 45p, the retention of the bedroom tax and the changes to universal credit mean that poorer families will continue to pay more than their fair share of tax.

To make a positive impact on tackling in-work poverty, the Government have to take action on the issues raised during this afternoon’s debate. Unfortunately, we are seeing very little evidence that they are serious about tackling in-work poverty. In fact, some of the Government’s proposals risk making matters worse. Will the Minister outline what the Government are doing to tackle urgently the unacceptable scale of in-work poverty facing people across our country?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle 1:48, 28 January 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on securing this important debate.

Like my hon. Friend Gerald Jones, I want to address these issues, first of all, based on the experience of people in my constituency. I represent the city of Derry—or Londonderry—which has very high unemployment. The constituency of Foyle ranks No. 1 for unemployment of all the constituencies in the House of Commons. As well as having very high long-term unemployment and very high youth unemployment, it also has a lot of underpaid employment. It is a border city, with all the challenges that that brings for our regional economy, and obviously it has suffered the impact of conflict. Every day, families and working people there contend with the same economic challenges that hon. Members throughout the House have mentioned, in an economy that has structural weaknesses. It is clear that for people in my constituency, the problem is not lack of work ethic but a lack of work. Much of the Government’s agenda and purpose, in the welfare reforms and other measures they have introduced in the last Parliament and this one, seems to be fixated on work ethic rather than availability of work.

That is why I have found myself in opposition to so many of the Government’s reforms and why, along with so many others—I was glad to see that they included Conservatives MPs—I challenged the Government’s proposals on tax credits. They would have hurt people who are in work but coping with marginal incomes given their family, work-related and other living costs. Those changes have been parked, but there has not been a complete U-turn. There has been merely a J-turn, which has gone part of the way. The Government intend to apply the same logic to universal credit, we are just not getting the early implementation of the plan for those still on tax credits. That plan will clearly increase working poverty. We have seen in the various figures that have been quoted—I will not rehearse all the figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others—that there will be a real impact on the family income of people in work.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour, Neath

As the hon. Gentleman knows, new claims for legacy benefits will cease by June 2018 and migration to universal credit will be completed by 2021. As the Department for Work and Pensions says it cannot estimate the number of people who will be on universal credit by the time the roll-out is complete, does he agree that it is difficult for us to deal with the problem in our constituencies?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. That is part of the conundrum that we have. On one hand, DWP tried to offer all sorts of assurances that the change had been platformed and well modelled and would be sound. On the other hand, we know that, to date, many of its assurances and plans have come to little. On other things, it says it does not have a basis for some of its contentions. We get into a circular argument, so we cannot accept its assurances or try to persuade others about them.

Let us be clear. The changes being made are not just those to work allowances, which are part of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. The hon. Member for Neath referred to when DWP plans to roll the changes out. I will not go into all the administrative and political differences in welfare reform in Northern Ireland, but implementation there has been different so far. The decision has effectively been made to give Westminster direct rule powers on welfare reform, including on the provisions in the Bill. That will obviously have a long-term effect. Although the direct rule powers applying to Westminster include a sunset clause for the end of this year, the legislation passed under those powers will have an impact on my constituents for many long years.

On the impact of working poverty, we need to consider not just the changes to universal credit and how they will affect people who have made the transition to work and meet all the Government’s oft-quoted tests—being hard-working families, not being workshy and so on—but the fact that people will be subjected to invidious treatment in the levels of support they are allowed.

Let us consider the Government’s plans for universal credit and, in the longer term, tax credits—for example, how the two-child rule will affect working families. Let us compare that rule with what was passed in the last Parliament in a blaze of glory. The Minister was one of those who took the Childcare Payments Act 2014 through the last Parliament. The Government boasted that under Bill, parents would be able to claim up to £2,000 a child in childcare support, on the basis that it would be up to 20% of costs of up to £10,000. Let us think about what income bracket parents would need to be in if they were spending £10,000 a child on childcare and claiming up to 20% of that as childcare allowance.

That allowance was going to be bankable. People were going to have discretion to do what they wanted with it, but under universal credit they must claim the childcare element after the event and show the actual cost. They must spend the money before they get it back. That is not so for those who are better off and claiming childcare allowances, and of course they are not subject to a two-child rule. The plan is for one law for the working rich and one law for the working poor. That is why we must speak up about working poverty.

Those policy contradictions are not the only ones we need to raise with the Government. We all have a responsibility to think through the other implications for people working in our constituencies. There will be future liabilities from pension contribution changes, and student loan payments will have to be made through people’s income. The changes in the Housing and Planning Bill will have an impact on who is eligible to remain in social housing. There will be a cliff edge for families, who will face additional housing costs if they remain in employment with a certain income. All those issues will bite on family budgets and make a material difference to the worth of people’s earnings. We should address working poverty much more holistically and not on the basis of some of the more pretentious and specious claims that the Government make.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip 1:58, 28 January 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I thank Carolyn Harris for securing the debate. I congratulate her on her passion, her facts and her real commitment to her constituents. It is sometimes refreshing to hear how it really is on the ground in the constituencies and how real people who work hard will suffer more and more because of the Government’s actions.

I commend the contributions of the hon. Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan). The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney mentioned the problem of zero-hours contracts. “Making work pay” or “Work is the best route out of poverty” are great catchphrases, but people do not have a route out of poverty if they are working on zero-hours contracts and do not know from one week to another whether they will be earning or how much they will earn.

The hon. Member for Foyle gave us, as usual, some wonderful quotes. For example, he said that it is not a lack of work ethic that prevents people from working; it is a lack of work. That is true of many places across the country. He also said that there now seems to be one law for the working poor and another for the working rich. That will lead to even more social division across the United Kingdom.

Hon. Members may well be aware that last week the independent adviser on poverty and inequality, Naomi Eisenstadt, reported to the First Minister of Scotland on tackling poverty and she recommended that we build on living wage accreditation, which has been touched on in the debate. The new national living wage that the Conservative party is touting is not actually a new living wage. It is simply a small increase based on the national minimum wage; it is not much higher. It does not involve looking at actual household expenses and relating it to them. In Scotland, the Government have done a lot of work on trying to increase people’s income—maximise their income—and trying to support people in work. One thing that they have done is in the area of procurement. They have ensured that no firm can now get a contract in Scotland that does not pay the national living wage. It is £8.25 in Scotland and should be much higher.

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

Does the hon. Lady share our concern that this Government are even trying to scrap the measures of in-work poverty, and are the Scottish Government committed to keeping them?

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip

The Scottish Government would actually like to have more powers over all this area, but unfortunately the Smith commission agreement or recommendations have not given the Scottish Government that amount of power. However, within what they are allowed to do, they are maximising, as far as they can, the wages that people get and the amount of work that they are able to get.

Another recommendation and another thing that the Scottish Government have been trying to do is to look at more family-friendly policies. A lot of in-work poverty affects women even more than it affects men. One recommendation and one thing that the Scottish Government will try to move forward is more free childcare to allow women to go to work. It is all very well being able to work, but what if people cannot afford the childcare? Again, that affects family incomes, and more and more children are being affected by that.

Scotland has the second highest proportion of employees paid the living wage—about 80%. The highest proportion is in the south-east of England, where it is 81.6%, but that is a function of the fact that there are many jobs in this part of the United Kingdom and employers have to compete in paying people. If there is high unemployment, there is no competition to raise wages. That has to be addressed.

Opposition Members really do believe that work is a good route out of poverty—indeed, it is the best route out of poverty—but we cannot ensure that that is the case unless we support people, and this Government are attacking the lowest-paid people in our communities, the poorest in our communities and the ones who have to work the hardest.

The hon. Member for Swansea East referred to the Minister saying that, because of the cuts that are going to happen and the reduction in the work allowance, people will just have to work longer. That is, in this day and age, an absolutely scandalous thing to say. We totally refute it, because making people work more and more will only make them ill and less able in the long term to provide for their families.

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

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again; she is being generous about allowing interventions. Another group of working people may not be able to take on additional hours as a result of ill health or impairment. I do not know whether she is aware of the case of Denise Haddon, which was covered in the Daily Mirror. As a direct result of this Government’s introduction of personal independence payments, thousands of disabled people who are already trying to work and are supported through Motability vehicles will have them withdrawn and may not be able to continue in work.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Fortunately, I do not always get to read the Daily Mirror; it is not top of my reading list, as people can imagine. However, I am aware, as a constituency MP, of people who are losing PIP or who are being transferred to universal credit and who are suffering real hardship. There is a constant stream of constituents into my office, and I am obviously trying to help them, but it is hard when Government Members are absolutely determined to come down hard on the working poor by cutting some of the benefits that those people rely on to support their families.

This debate has shown that, again, there are real issues that Opposition Members are very keen that the Government should change track on. Whether they will listen I doubt, but it is very important for our constituents that the Government understand the real damage that they are doing to families, especially children and women, with this move. To ask a family to lose £1,300 to £1,600 a year when they are already on minimum wage and have no hope of getting more money is nothing short of disgraceful. It is totally abhorrent, and I hope that the Government will think again about introducing the cuts that they are proposing in April this year.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I should apologise for not telling Members that the monitor was not working. However, you have about 10 minutes each.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 2:06, 28 January 2016

I again reiterate my pleasure at serving under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on securing the debate.

For the second time this week, I appear opposite this Minister in this Chamber. I am starting to get very worried about her and David Rutley, because they must be becoming extremely lonely. This is the second time this week that they have appeared in this Chamber without one Tory MP coming along to support them. Not one came for the child poverty debate on Tuesday or has come for this debate today. “Now why is that?”, I ask myself. I cannot believe for a moment that it is anything personal towards them. Nor can I believe that the Tory Whips Office has become so incompetent that it cannot even encourage hon. Members to attend a debate such as this. The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s leadership bid is already so long gone that I cannot believe that he has got them round to the Treasury to glad-hand them. It cannot be that, so why exactly is it?

I can only draw the conclusion that both child poverty and in-work poverty simply are not high enough on the Tory agenda for their MPs to come along here this week. That is the only explanation, and perhaps we should not be too surprised about it, given what the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said—he does speak occasionally. Indeed, he was in the main Chamber this morning. He came to watch one of his Ministers, as he usually does. I think that he is trying to live up to the reputation of being the quiet man that he got when he was Tory party leader, because he does not say very much, although perhaps in some cases less is more. But he actually said, at the Tory party conference back on 6 October 2015, that he thought that tax credits were a “bribe”. That is how the Secretary of State sees support for people in work, so perhaps it should not surprise us that no Tory MPs are here to support the Minister and the hon. Gentleman.

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

Is my hon. Friend aware that in Bermondsey and Old Southwark 6,100 working families were claiming the tax credits that the Secretary of State apparently referred to as a “bribe”? I hope that the Minister will give some reassurance that those families will not be adversely affected by the introduction of universal credit.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I, too, hope that that reassurance will be given this afternoon.

In contrast to the absence of any contribution from Conservative Members, we have heard passionate contributions from the Opposition. My hon. Friend the

Member for Swansea East spoke with her usual verve and passion both on the issue and for her constituents. What a telling statistic it is that wage growth this decade is the third worst since 1860, when Palmerston was Prime Minister. That is an incredible and shocking statistic.

My hon. Friend Christina Rees made several very good interventions, and her passion for Wales, in particular, shone through in what she said. Similarly, my hon. Friend Neil Coyle put his finger on several crucial points, including the delays to universal credit. To be clear about this, I will quote from a press release of 1 November 2011 from the Secretary of State. What did he say? He said:

“Over one million people will be claiming Universal Credit by April 2014”.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Indeed, he would have been better off saying it quietly, because in November 2015, the actual figure was 155,568. He should be sanctioning himself, on the basis of such a performance. It shows an absolutely dreadful level of incompetence.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Gerald Jones, who drew on his experience as a county borough councillor, and set out well the measures that Labour councils in Wales are implementing to try to deal with wage levels. My hon. Friend Mark Durkan spoke, as he always does, with great authority on the matter. His point about the availability of work, and his quote about there being one rule for the working rich and one for the working poor, really resonated in the context of the debate. I congratulate Marion Fellows on her speech, which was delivered with great passion.

Let us remind ourselves of what the Chancellor—his must be the longest leadership bid in recorded history—said on the “Today” programme on 8 October 2012:

“It is unfair that people listening to this programme going out to work see the neighbour next door with the blinds down because they are on benefits.”

I fundamentally disagree with that statement. The person behind the blinds could be disabled or vulnerable. Dare I say it, they might even have just worked a night shift, although that is something that seems to be lost on the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Chancellor has been trying to draw a division between those who work and those who do not. He is not the only one who has a problem with the language that has been used in the debate. In September, the Secretary of State said, in answer to Richard Graham, that

“the most important point is that we are looking to get that up to the level of normal, non-disabled people who are back in work.”—[Hansard, 7 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 6.]

Normal, non-disabled people—what kind of language is that? What does that say to somebody who is disabled? I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity this afternoon to distance herself from such shocking remarks.

Even if we accepted that distinction between those who work and those who do not, the Secretary of State is now in such a mess that he is on the wrong side of his own dividing line. It is all very well to say that work is the route out of poverty, and of course we want to see more people in work, but the kind of poverty that we are talking about affects people who have jobs, and who go out to work. As the smoke lifts from the Chancellor’s U-turn on tax credit cuts, it has become clear that he is simply going to make the same £12 billion of cuts to universal credit. No one can tell me that when the Tories were going around during the election campaign and talking about their £12 billion of welfare cuts, people such as cleaners seriously thought that they would be affected.

Let me give another couple of examples. I gave the statistics for single parents to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour, Neath

Does my hon. Friend recognise that lone parents are already twice as likely as two-parent families to be in poverty? Single parents are worse hit in the combined reforms; as a share of income, they lose seven times more than two-parent families. By 2021, single parents will lose £1,300 a year, on average, even after taking into account wage increases and tax concessions.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Single parents could be forgiven for thinking that the Government have a tin ear, as far as their needs are concerned. Let me give the example of a couple who live and work together, one or both of whom have limited capacity to work, because they are disabled. Work allowance will be cut from £7,700 to £4,700 this April, which will mean a loss of income of £3,000 a year. Single individuals will essentially lose everything, with a reduction of £1,332 and a net loss to income of £865. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East has mentioned the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission; its latest report was published as part of the glut of data that the Government put out just before Christmas, on 17 December. I quote from the commission:

“The immediate priority must be taking action to ensure that the introduction of Universal Credit does not make families with children who ‘do the right thing’ (in terms of working as much as society expects them to) worse off than they would be under the current system. That means reversing the cuts to Universal Credit work allowances enacted through the Universal Credit (Work Allowance) Amendment Regulations 2015 before they are implemented in April 2016.”

The commission is asking the Government to do that, and it is precisely what they should do.

What is the Government’s answer to the claim that they are attacking working people? At least the Ministers in the team are not shy about coming forward with the odd suggestion of what people should do to help themselves. We have heard the one about working more hours. I am not entirely sure how single parents are meant to do that, but perhaps the Government will explain that to us in due course. My particular favourite was the suggestion made by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mr Vara, in the House on 6 January 2016. When he was asked about mitigating the effects of the social security changes, he said that we should not forget

“the fact that every time we fill up our tank with petrol there is a saving of £10 because of the freezing of the fuel duty.”—[Hansard, 6 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 342.]

In the 1980s, the unemployed were told to get on their bikes, but in 2016 the advice is to fill your car. If that is the best that the Government can offer the working people of this country, it shows the position they have reached.

The Government are in the worst of all worlds. Universal credit is the Secretary of State’s passion. The policy is his baby. He allegedly fights the Chancellor around the Cabinet table so that he can keep it going, although we might draw the conclusion that he is not doing so very effectively. We will have to wait until, I think, 2021 to see the full effects. The Secretary of State seems to be going for some kind of record for how long it takes to implement change at the DWP. The Government are in the worst of all worlds, because they lack both compassion and confidence.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions) 2:16, 28 January 2016

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner? I thank all Members for their interesting and lively contributions. As Nick Thomas-Symonds has said, this is our second debate on the topic this week. I will not respond to all his comments, because I have heard him make some of them before, especially those about my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Chancellor. I recall commenting—not in the debate two days ago, but possibly two weeks ago—on some of the language that has been used when it comes to supporting work, supporting those who are in work and reforming our welfare system so that it supports people into work.

I recognise that this debate is about in-work poverty, although it has been quite broad. In the last five years, we have seen the movement of more than 2 million people into work and an employment rate of 74%, which is the highest since records began. Many of the generalised assumptions that have been raised in the debate are simply wrong, particularly given what we inherited in 2010. That movement of people into work came after the previous Labour Government had presided over the longest and deepest post-war recession, which wiped out nearly 6% of our economy. That did much to hurt people, who were put into poverty and saw their earnings decline, and it had a devastating impact on the country’s economy and resulted in the loss of jobs.

Three hon. Members from Wales spoke in the debate. If I recall correctly, the Office for National Statistics on employment, which were published last week, show that over the last year the number of people in work in Wales rose by 48,000, bringing the employment level up to 1.4 million—close to its highest ever level—with a rapidly growing employment rate. We have also seen an increase in the number of jobs in Swansea, Cardiff and Newport, and across Wales. New jobs were announced last week in Wales by major employers including BT, Admiral and General Dynamics.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Will the Minister simply confirm that wage growth this decade is predicted to be the lowest since the 1920s? Does that not say everything about the wasted Tory decade?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

On the contrary. Average weekly earnings have grown consistently in the past year—

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Let me finish my sentence and I will. Wages have been growing faster than inflation for 14 consecutive months and, as much as the Labour party has been utterly disparaging about the introduction of the national living wage, which says a great deal about its attitude to pay increases, we know for a fact that when the national living wage is introduced later this year, we will see an enormous—

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I will give way in a moment. I have been very respectful by listening to and not intervening in the contributions of Opposition Members. More people will benefit when the national living wage is introduced in April.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

I feel suitably chastised. The Minister gave a list of job increases but she left off Tata Steel, where there have just been 750 job losses very close to my constituency.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Tata is not a particular case study for Wales or the United Kingdom. I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that the steel industry faces huge challenges around the world. In China, people are also losing their jobs because of what has happened in the steel industry. Jobcentre Plus and the Department for Work and Pensions have been there from the outset to support people who have lost their jobs in the steel industry by helping their families at this very difficult time and supporting them to find work. The marketplace is challenging, but the hon. Lady is the Member of Parliament for a Welsh constituency and she has a duty to acknowledge the support that is being given—the work that Jobcentre Plus staff in her constituency are providing—to individuals and families who have lost their jobs.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour, Neath

Surely the increase in jobs in Wales is down to the excellent policies of the Welsh Labour Government and schemes such as Jobs Growth Wales with EU investment.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

If it were not for the fact that this Government picked up the shambolic legacy of the Labour Government in 2010, rebalanced the economy and, importantly, created the right environment for the creation of new jobs, those new jobs in Wales would not exist today. We have supported lower corporation taxes and lower taxes for businesses to come to the UK to make the UK a much more competitive place.

We have heard voices from around the UK in the debate, including the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). A record number of jobs have been created in Scotland and wages in Scotland are going up as a result.

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

The Minister seems to have the utmost confidence in the economic growth, which does not appear to have been shared in the latest survey of business leaders. Is their nervousness about the current state of the economy perhaps to do with the fact that the Chancellor seems set to take over from the lame duck Prime Minister?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

No—I have served with the hon. Gentleman on a Bill Committee in which he has made some valuable contributions. This is not about individuals. We live in a global world. Look at what is happening with the international economy right now. Stock markets around the world, including the UK, have faced a challenging start to the year. Business is right to be sensitive to global factors. I come back to the point that the UK has a highly competitive economy thanks to many difficult decisions undertaken by the Government in the previous Parliament, and we continue to make difficult decisions in this Parliament.

All the contributions this afternoon are valid. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw mentioned that individual constituents come to her on a weekly basis. If she would like to share with me her casework examples regarding universal credit, I would be happy to take them up. When it comes to stability, we have made choices. None of the opposition parties has presented solutions to the House this afternoon. Hon. Members said that universal credit should not exist and that they want to scrap it, but they have no alternatives for welfare reform or changes to the welfare system. As we heard in earlier debates today, to govern is to choose. Our choice is to reform welfare and to ensure that we support people into work.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The Minister is generous in giving way. Will she clarify something on the Government’s welfare reform? Lord Freud said that the move from tax credits to universal credit will happen in the event that someone re-partners and in the event that there is a new member in the household. Is the modern-day Tory party really providing disincentives to marriage and having children?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman is taking the noble Lord’s suggestion out of context. There was quite a substantial discussion about universal credit including a gross representation of the roll-out—Neil Coyle said, in jest, that it would be “a thousand years”. All hon. Members know, because they have heard it from me previously, that universal credit is now in three quarters of all jobcentres and will be in all jobcentres by April 2016, so it is a few more months and certainly not a thousand years as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

I come back to the principle of the reforms. Universal credit transforms the welfare system and has been designed to ensure that people are supported in work. It is a subject of many discussions I have had with the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark in previous debates. Yes, there is a financial safety net and support through universal credit but, importantly, the universal credit system is designed to support people to progress in work. Jobcentres deliver support, providing a single point of contact with much more personalised support, advice and guidance from a dedicated work coach.

The concept of the work coach is working. I have sat in on many interviews when I go to see our colleagues—particularly work coaches—working in jobcentres and helping people to develop in their roles, especially people who are moving from part-time to full-time work or who are seeking to work more hours depending on personal circumstances. Work coaches help them to develop the right kind of skills and confidence to secure employment. Surely hon. Members cannot disagree with the fundamentals of supporting people into work, giving them confidence, and helping them to develop new skills, should that be the appropriate route for them.

I am proud of way in which we work with other aspects of the state when we look into co-locating our services with housing associations, further education colleges and local authorities. We have 30 fully co-located sites, where we can join up and bring public services together to ensure that we have the right kind of service delivery for individuals.

I am conscious of time as I can see the clock ticking, but I want to emphasise that the Government are fundamentally focused on providing in-work support through stronger local partnerships in constituencies to ensure that we support individuals on universal credit or benefits, help them to get back into work, and secure better employment outcomes and better futures for them in the long run.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East 2:29, 28 January 2016

Thank you for your excellent chairmanship, Mr Turner. I sincerely thank all Opposition colleagues for attending this debate on a day when they could be at the coalface addressing the problems caused by this Government’s policies. I thank the Minister for her response, and I would have liked to thank her for her warm words, but “condescending” and “passionless” are probably better descriptions. I leave here no wiser than I was coming in, except now I know that there is a total lack of understanding and passion for what is really happening in the UK in 2016. I urge the Government to rethink.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered in-work poverty.

Sitting suspended.