Covid-19: Household Debt — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:36 pm on 8th July 2021.

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Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury) 2:36 pm, 8th July 2021

Thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue and Paul Maynard for tabling this debate. I also welcome the contributions from all the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield said at the start, any consideration of the pandemic’s impact on household finances and debt has to take into account not just the overall effects that we are hearing about, but the impact on particular income groups. In this case more than many others, averages and overall outcomes can conceal very different outcomes for different groups of people. For those on secure incomes who have continued to be paid their full salary—or most of it through furlough—long periods of lockdown and the inability to spend on travel, tourism and so on during the pandemic have resulted in rising levels of savings. We hear some big numbers from the Bank of England—up to £200 billion in the course of the pandemic. That of course has led to a big increase in bank deposits, not only in this country but in most developed countries.

However, behind the overall figures lies a tale of two cities—or perhaps this week, we should say “a game of two halves”. The biggest increases in savings have come for those who were better off in the first place and for retirees. Those on low incomes and the unemployed have seen savings decrease, and that is if they had any savings at all in the first place. For many people on low incomes who had nothing to spend on holidays or restaurants in the first place, the cost of essentials has gone up over the past year. Families have been spending more time at home. That has seen heating bills rise. There have been increased food bills from children spending long periods off school. And there have been other extra costs.

This morning’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that the proportion of low-income households in arrears with their bills rose from 15% to 22% in the early months of the pandemic. Among the self-employed, the rise was even more stark. The proportion of the self-employed falling behind on household bills rose from just 2%, at the start of the pandemic, to 13%. There was also a rise in this figure among some ethnic minority-led households, where often there is just one income earner.

The charity StepChange, which we have heard a lot about today, reports that 11 million people have built up debts of £25 billion during the pandemic and that 4.3 million are now behind on things such as council tax, rent and fuel. It reports a 40% increase in the number of people facing severe debt problems, and that half a million private renters are now in arrears—that is twice as many as before the first national lockdown—at a time when the ban on evictions has just come to an end. Combined, those effects have led to the campaigning organisation Generation Rent to fear that thousands of tenants could face eviction just as the country tries to emerge from the pandemic. The number of renters on universal credit has already doubled during the pandemic.

There has quite rightly been a focus on universal credit today. I acknowledge that the Government’s support has helped household incomes during the pandemic. The furlough scheme, grants for small businesses and the £20 a week uplift have all made a big difference until now, but as even the Prime Minister confirmed earlier this week, although restrictions will be lifted in the coming weeks, we cannot say the pandemic is over.

That is why six former Conservative Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions have taken the step of writing to their own Chancellor to say that the £20 a week universal credit uplift should not be withdrawn in September. Their letter says:

“A failure to act would mean not grasping this opportunity to invest in a future with more work and less poverty and would damage living standards, health and opportunities for some of the families that need our support most as we emerge from the pandemic.”

That is what the Chancellor’s own former colleagues are saying. Going ahead with this cut would mean a loss of £1,000 a year in income for 6 million of the lowest income households in the country.

On the radio this morning the Chancellor tried to justify the cut by referring to incentives to work. Leaving aside the callous implication that poverty has to be increased to persuade people to work, we have to remember that two in five universal credit claimants are already in work, and the proportion of in-work households dependent on universal credit is expected to rise over the course of this Parliament. It is a myth to portray universal credit as just an out-of-work benefit. It supports many people who are in work, too.

The regional impact of the proposed £20 a week cut is deeply uneven. In the region I represent in the west midlands, the cut is expected to hit one third of households. Similar proportions of households will be affected in Yorkshire and the north-east. How can the Government talk about levelling up when they are about to proceed with a cut in income that will hit the poorest hardest and will hit the north and the midlands hardest? Equality is not just about a few new buildings or a few pots for capital spending; it is about incomes and opportunities, too. It is not just about bricks and mortar; it is about families who are struggling to pay the bills.

Although some of the Government’s interventions have made a big difference overall, for some people the past year has meant debt increases and a big strain on household budgets. It would be grossly complacent of the Government or anyone else to look just at the overall figures and averages. The Government must get underneath these figures and consider the impact on those who have the lowest incomes. In particular, the Government should reconsider the cut of £20 a week that they plan to make for the 6 million poorest households in the country in just a few months’ time.

This issue, perhaps more than any other, points to the need to come out of this pandemic in a better position than when we went into it. We need to tackle inequalities, which, although not created by the experience of the last 18 months, have certainly been exposed by it. We have to be more ambitious than just trying to recreate what went before. If build back better means anything, it means tackling some of those problems and building something that really is better for the future. That is what we have to do, starting with household debt.