Social Security Support for Children — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 23 November 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Anum Qaisar Anum Qaisar Scottish National Party, Airdrie and Shotts 9:30, 23 November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered social security support for children.

This is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have successfully secured, and I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am also delighted to see my friend, Jim Shannon, next to me; it would not be a Westminster Hall debate if he was not here.

I am here to be the voice of the voiceless. This is a debate on social security support for children. The Tory Government came into power at Westminster in 2010, and at that point the use of food banks across all four nations was negligible. The Trussell Trust had around 35 food banks at that point, but in 2022 it estimates that it has around 1,400. That is an increase of almost 4,000%.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

In the last six months, 320,000 people have had to use a food bank in the Trussell Trust network for the first time. Research found that one in five referrals was for working households. Does the hon. Member share my concern that the lack of support for working families is pushing the burden away from the Government and on to charities?

Photo of Anum Qaisar Anum Qaisar Scottish National Party, Airdrie and Shotts

It is as if the hon. Member has seen my speech; I will come to that point later.

Of course, it is not only the Trussell Trust; there are a number of independent and locally run food poverty groups. In my constituency, for example, we have Paul’s Parcels, which serves Shotts and the surrounding villages. We are living in food bank Britain, where almost 1 million children receive some sort of help from food banks. The Food Foundation also found that around 4 million children have experienced food insecurity in the past month. Some people will argue that there has been an increase in food bank use due to wider awareness, but I would argue that consecutive Conservative Governments are the reason for that increase. It is their financial mismanagement of the economy, and now austerity 2.0, as set out in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, that are pushing people further and further into poverty.

We face the reality that there are more food banks than McDonald’s in the UK. The richest MP in the House of Commons double-jobs as the Prime Minister. Rather than extending a lifeline to the average punter in the street, the Government are handing out bankers’ bonuses. Who benefits and, crucially, who are the losers? Many groups are victims of the financial mismanagement of the three Prime Ministers and four Chancellors just this year. My concern is for children and young people. They are largely voiceless and are rarely actively involved in the decision-making process.

In Scotland, we have a completely different approach to target help for children. It starts from the basic notion of referring to benefits as social security. In 2021, the SNP Scottish Government introduced the Scottish child payment, which is a groundbreaking piece of policy. Since then, the payment has doubled in value to £20, and on 14 November 2022 it automatically increased to £25 per week for those already in receipt of it. Based on March 2022 modelling, that increased payment is estimated to lift 50,000 children out of poverty and reduce relative child poverty by 5 percentage points.

That is a phenomenal piece of legislation, and I am so proud of it. Many Members here might argue, “Anum, you’re biased; you’re an SNP MP, and that’s the SNP Scottish Government.” However, that is not just my belief. Chris Birt, associate director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said:

“The full rollout of the Scottish Child Payment is a watershed moment for tackling poverty in Scotland, and the rest of the UK should take notice.”

Will the UK Government do so? In fact, would the Minister care to intervene and announce that they are following the Scottish Government’s lead? No, he is furiously writing away. When he replies, I hope he will announce that the Scottish child payment is being implemented across the UK.

That is where the issue lies: the SNP Scottish Government consider social security as an investment in people that is key to their national mission to tackle child poverty. We do that with the limited economic levers that the Scottish Parliament holds.

The Scottish Government have implemented a number of other policies. I will go through them and ask whether the UK Government will commit to follow suit. The Scottish Government are offering free school lunches in term time to all 281,865 pupils in primary 1 to 5 and in additional support needs schools. That saves families an average of £400 per child per year. That will be extended to primary 6 and 7 during the Parliament. Will the UK Government follow suit?

The Scottish Government are massively expanding the provision of fully funded high-quality early learning in childcare. They are providing 1,140 hours per year for eligible children aged two, three and four. In fact, if eligible families were to purchase the funded childcare provided by the Scottish Government, it would cost them about £5,000 per eligible child per year. Again, will the UK Government follow suit?

The Scottish Government have increased the school clothing grant to at least £128 for every eligible primary school pupil and £150 for every eligible secondary school pupil from the start of the 2021-22 academic year. Again, will the UK Government follow suit?

The Scottish Government are bringing forward those policies with the limited economic levers that they hold.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I declare an interest as a massive fan of my hon. Friend’s constituency—if not the Shotts part, then certainly the Airdrie part. I commend her for securing the debate, and I want to back up the point she is making. Although the Scottish Government are doing a huge amount of incredibly ambitious things to tackle the scourge of child poverty, 85% of welfare spending remains under the control of this institution. Does she, like me, believe that it is absolutely abhorrent that, under the devolution settlement, the Scottish Government have to use their devolved budget, which would normally be used on things such as trying to reduce class sizes, to try to plug the gaps in an inadequate state support system that is the result of a Conservative Government—something that people in Scotland have not voted for since the 1950s?

Photo of Anum Qaisar Anum Qaisar Scottish National Party, Airdrie and Shotts

My hon. Friend’s point is incredibly valid. The Scottish Government hold limited economic levers, but they often have to use their budget to mitigate Tory austerity.

In debating topics such as social security for children, it is essential to reaffirm that a societal approach must be considered when formulating policy. Social security for children is about so much more than targeted support. We must consider what support is in place for parents. This week, I had the pleasure of meeting Lauren from Pregnant Then Screwed, which has revealed some harrowing statistics. Out of 1,630 women it interviewed who had had an abortion in the past five years, 60.5% said that the cost of childcare influenced their decision, and 17.4% said that childcare costs were the main reason for their decision. A separate survey found that 48% of pregnant mothers have to cut their maternity leave short due to financial hardship. Those are not simply statistics; that is the reality for many women.

In Scotland, childcare and policies relating to children are seen as lifelong investments for society. It has been said before that an investment in our children is an investment in our future, and I wholeheartedly stand by that. It is crucial that the UK Government take a societal approach to social security for children. The wider economic implications of child poverty are significant, with a 2021 study estimating the cost of child poverty in the UK at £38 billion a year.

There is a cost to not addressing child poverty, and I am not just talking about the direct financial implications. We face the harsh reality of children who are upset and anxious as a result of their parents worrying about household finances. That is not the type of society that I wish to live in.

In Scotland, different policies have been introduced. For example, before a baby is born, the Scottish Government provide expectant families with a baby box. Baby boxes include essentials for bringing up a child, such as clothing and digital thermometers. That not only provides essentials at a time that can, in any case, be physically, emotionally and financially challenging; it sends a clear message to families that the state cares about them. Some 93% of Scots who are eligible have taken up the scheme. Ireland has a pilot scheme, and the baby box has been hailed internationally. The UK Government would do well to mirror that approach, and if the Minister cannot commit today to introducing the baby box, I hope he will take the information on board and give it serious consideration.

We know that parents are having to make unimaginable financial decisions—to return to work early or to leave their jobs altogether if they cannot afford the cost of childcare. We know, too, that the cost of child poverty can disproportionately impact women. Typically, women assume the main role as caregiver and are the first to give up their jobs when childcare becomes unaffordable. The Scottish Government are massively expanding the provision of fully funded, high-quality early learning and childcare, providing 1,140 hours a year for eligible children aged two, three and four. In Scotland, we have we have taken a different path—one that puts children and families first, with lifeline policies providing help to those who need it most.

Over the past 12 years, the Tories have systematically dismantled the social security system. It is clear that the Tory-run system is not designed to help those in need. Rather, it pushes a poverty-inducing austerity agenda. I have described what the Scottish Government are doing to reduce the harmful impact of Tory austerity-driven Government, but the reality is that 85% of social security expenditure remains reserved to Westminster, so the change that is desperately needed must start here.

We are at a point at which meaningful and tangible policy can be implemented to make a difference to millions of children and families, and it is an active policy decision not to make those changes. That is costing all of society financially and socially. The limitations imposed on social security by the Tory Government are sickening. The freezing of the benefit cap since 2016 has disproportionately impacted lone-parent families, the majority of whom are women, as well as larger families and ethnic minority families. Official Department for Work and Pensions statistics have shown that more than 100,000 households have had their benefits capped since May 2022. Of that number, 87% are households that include children.

There is much that we could do to help families that are struggling. The Tory Government could start by looking at social security as an investment in society and future generations, rather than something that needs to be cut and limited. There are many clear ways to do that. First, the Minister could commit to removing the abhorrent two-child limit on universal credit and legacy benefits, as well as ending the benefit cap, which would lift 300,000 children out of poverty. My SNP colleagues and I have been campaigning tirelessly to eradicate that regressive measure, and we will continue to push for it to be removed.

The Government could do more than simply remove the cap. Following the Chancellor’s recent fiscal statement, the Child Poverty Action Group has reported that, even with the uprating of benefits in line with inflation, families will be worse off in 2023-24 than they were after universal credit was cut last year. That weak attempt to reverse 12 years of austerity will have a marginal impact on children, as the entire UK Government’s social security system is in desperate need of an overhaul.

Other fundamental issues with universal credit impact children. Policies such as a five-week wait for first payments, the bedroom tax and the cruel sanctions regime all push families on universal credit towards destitution. If we reversed the policies introduced by the Tory Government since 2015, we would lift 30,000 children in Scotland out of poverty by 2024.

It is not the job of food banks and charities to uphold a crumbling social security system. I am honoured to represent the constituency of Airdrie and Shotts, which has dedicated community organisations. Since my election last year, I have worked tirelessly and closely with many organisations to support them in delivering an essential lifeline to constituents who face destitution as a result of Tory-made austerity.

The cost of living crisis is disproportionately impacting children, with families having to cut back on both essential and luxury items. In this festive period I am working alongside four constituency-based organisations: Paul’s Parcels, Diamonds in the Community, Airdrie food bank and Airdrie community school uniform bank. We are asking people to donate advent calendars for the four organisations to deliver across the constituency. A simple item such as an advent calendar is unaffordable. Sadly, many children will not enjoy the typical Christmas festivities, because their parents or carers cannot afford simple luxuries.

In my contribution I have outlined a number of asks, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I imagine that there will not be much in the way of concessions, but I hope he will sincerely take on board the approach of the SNP Scottish Government and consider following suit.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead 9:47, 23 November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate Ms Qaisar on securing this important debate.

At this time of year it is natural for people’s minds to turn towards Christmas. I am sure that the Minister, like many of us, is looking forward to a well-earned break, the company of family and friends, and all the comforts and trappings of the season. But I must warn him that, for the more than one in five children in my constituency who live in poverty, the coming festive season holds none of the joy that he surely takes for granted. Indeed, for many of the children that I represent, 25 December threatens to be a day like any other—plagued by cold, hunger and fear.

Our multimillionaire Prime Minister has at least had the sense to look beyond the walls of his country mansion and acknowledge the crisis facing millions of ordinary people this winter. Addressing the Cabinet yesterday, he is reported to have said that we are entering

“a challenging period for the country, caused by the aftershocks of the global pandemic and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.”

But he is deluding himself if he believes that he can ignore the central role that the Conservative party has played in making this crisis. Even before the pandemic began, nearly 4 million British children were growing up in poverty, 75% of whom live in a household with at least one working parent. While the fallout of Putin’s war is hitting all of Europe’s major economies hard, none is being forced to grapple with the depth of deprivation we now see in the UK. That is a distinctly British ailment.

A quarter of a century ago, a Labour Government set out on a moral crusade to end poverty. They recognised that spending formative years in poverty is the single most important determinant of life chances in everything from educational outcomes to life expectancy. That is why, when Labour was in power, we lifted 1 million children out of poverty, which is an historic achievement. However, today we bear witness to scenes of destitution and misery that we thought were a thing of the past. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has recently said that he is now seeing more children going hungry than at any time in his 40 years in public life.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Many of the support measures announced in last week’s Budget were temporary, but long-term support is required if we are going to provide all children with the best start in life. Does the hon. Member agree that the Government need to review this urgently?

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead

The hon. Member makes a good point. We hope that the Government will take cognisance of what we are saying today.

What the former Prime Minister has said is a stark indictment of 12 years of Tory failures. When the Minister launches his inevitable feeble defence of the Government’s record in a few moments’ time, he will undoubtedly point to the measures contained in last week’s Budget. It is true that after weeks of equivocation, the Chancellor has at last bowed to pressure and agreed to an uplift in the benefit cap and benefit payments, but for the thousands of young people in my constituency for whom poverty has become a fact of life, it is nowhere near enough. After 12 years of real-terms cuts to benefits and punitive sanctions, the idea that they should be in any way grateful to the Chancellor for the limited action he has taken is an insult.

The Child Poverty Action Group has estimated that while benefits will be 14% higher in the next fiscal year, prices will be 21% higher for the poorest families in towns such as mine, and although a lifting of the benefit cap is long overdue it fails to even begin to undo the damage that has been wrought as a result of it being frozen in 2016. In fact, in communities such as Birkenhead, it would need to increase by a further £942 a month just to erase what has been lost since 2013, but still the Chancellor has the temerity to patronise hard-working families by saying that the best way out of poverty is through work. I want the Minister to know that most of the struggling families that I meet work harder and longer hours than either of us; the reason they are claiming benefits at all is the scourge of poverty pay.

Last week, the Chancellor spoke of the need to treat the vulnerable with compassion, but a truly compassionate Government would recognise that the benefit cap, the two-child limit and the pernicious sanctions are just not working. They are trapping millions of our most vulnerable citizens—our young people—in poverty. Things cannot go on like this. For 12 long years, this Government have pursued a policy of slashing benefits, squeezing families, and inflicting punitive sanctions that drive people past the point of desperation. The result is that the hard-won progress we made in tackling child poverty between 1997 and 2010 has been almost entirely undone. That is a public policy failure almost without precedent. An entire generation of young people who have known only poverty and misery under a Tory Government is about to come of age; we cannot allow more to follow.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:53, 23 November 2022

As always, it is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate, Sir Christopher. I thank Ms Qaisar for securing it, and congratulate her on her first Westminster Hall debate—I am convinced that it will not be her last, and we look forward to her future contributions.

I was very impressed by the hon. Lady’s contribution today, which laid out the strategy of the Scottish Government and the work they have done outside this place for their own people. One cannot fail to be impressed by the clear commitment that the Scottish Government have to supporting children. The summary that the hon. Lady gave was illuminating and helpful; it is a guide for us in other regions across the United Kingdom to take note of, as I often do. I am a great believer in noting things that are done well in one region and taking them on board in my own region, and if we do something well, I like to share that. I know the Minister is of the same opinion.

I am very pleased to see the Minister in his place, as he knows—I have said so to my colleagues this morning. I always look forward to his contributions and his answers; I think he understands the points that we are trying to put forward, and hopefully from that understanding will come the answers that we seek. I am sure the Minister will tell us what has been done for children and social security across the United Kingdom. I want to replicate the contribution of the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts from a Northern Ireland perspective; many of the things that she mentioned are happening in my constituency as well, as I will illustrate.

The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts is right that the cost of living crisis is having a knock-on effect on children’s development. With the rising cost of electricity, oil, foodstuffs and school items such as uniforms and school meals, parents are struggling to make ends meet each month. That is greatly impacting parents and children. Social security services across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have a role to play in ensuring that children are given the best start in life. It is great to be able to discuss those matters.

We all recognise that families are struggling. I do; I see it in my office every day. I find it distressing to see a family in need, or to see a mother distressed over her children and how to make ends meet. For me, the question is how we help. I know that that is also how the Minister will respond: how can we help? What can we do?

Society is often marked, and should be marked, by its attitude to those in need. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts referred to being a “voice of the voiceless”. That is what I want to be as well: a voice for the voiceless—for those who do not have the opportunity to come to Westminster but expect their MP to come for them. I am happy to do that.

Increasing numbers of families are truly struggling through this winter. In my office, I have seen large numbers of families seeking assistance from food banks. I am always encouraged—I say this respectfully—that the first food bank in Northern Ireland was in Newtownards, in my constituency of Strangford: the Thriving Life Church food bank. We do between 20 and 25 referrals to the food bank every week, so we get a fair perspective on who is coming to the office.

The manager of the food bank tells me that he foresees that this winter will be the hardest ever, and that is after 10 or 12 years of the food bank being in my constituency. It is not just the working class—I use that terminology to describe, rather than anything else—who come to the food bank. The working class will probably always be there, but the manager tells me that he now sees the middle class coming. I see that all the time. I see those who are squeezed by their mortgages and car repayments, who are living on a fine budget. They do not live in luxury, but they have a standard of living that they wish to have. They are being impacted, and I see that more than ever.

Almost all the families who come to my office have young children of school age. People want to do the best for their children. That is what a father and mum do, and it is what we have done all our lives. Reports have shown that Northern Ireland has the worst poverty rates, including for child poverty, in the United Kingdom. One in four children—24%, or around 95,000—are growing up in poverty in Northern Ireland. A massive two thirds of that group are growing up in families where parents are working. Some 12% are in absolute poverty, which means exactly that: absolute. People face situations that they never thought they would face. They need help from food banks, churches and their families: mums and dads, grannies and grandas, and probably uncles and aunts will step in to help out as well.

That highlights how dire the situation is. Belfast, Londonderry and Strabane are among the places with the highest volumes of child poverty in Northern Ireland at over 26%. The average for Northern Ireland is 17%, so in those areas it is even worse. Social security plays a crucial part in assisting people in Northern Ireland, especially families. Child maintenance is proven to help children’s wellbeing and the quality of family relationships. The parent who is not responsible for day-to-day care—the paying parent—pays child maintenance to the parent or the person who does: the receiving parent. Single parenting is a major factor in explaining why families are suffering. Looking after children as a single parent can be quite a challenge when one’s income has not increased along with inflation.

In addition, universal credit is a widely used benefit that assists in living costs for those on low incomes. One of the girls in my office deals with nothing but benefit issues, because of the magnitude of the issue. That is a five-day week on universal credit, employment and support allowance, personal independence payments, disability living allowance, income support and even housing benefit.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I know, having visited the hon. Gentleman in his constituency office in Newtownards last Easter, just how hard the staff in his office work. Does he agree with me that, even though we are in a crisis moment, now is quite a good time for a fundamental root-and-branch review of the social security system? Universal credit sometimes gets a bad rap. The concept in itself is not necessarily bad, but we need to look at how we can reform it to make it work. Churches do the right thing in terms of scripture—they look after our children and feed people—but that is not necessarily the role of churches. We should do a fundamental review of the social security system to ensure that churches can get on with their work rather than having to fill the void that has been created by the state.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

As always, the hon. Gentleman brings knowledge to these debates, which is helpful. That is a knowledge that he has gained through practical and physical work on the ground. That can probably be said of everyone present, in fairness, but it is an illustration of that work. What do I think about the universal credit system? It was designed, by its very nature, to help. From what the lady in my office who deals with benefits issues tells me, I often find we have to advise that it might be better for people to stay on what they have at the moment. They should not necessarily transfer to universal credit because that, in theory, could disadvantage them.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there is a need to look at universal credit, and I think that the answer is yes, with respect. It should not be a disadvantage to go on to universal credit. It should not hurt people’s benefits. We must remember that the benefits are there for a purpose: they are there to help the person because they have a disablement. They may have care or mobility issues—serious issues. To make the change and lose out financially just does not make sense. I, the hon. Gentleman and probably all Members in the Chamber would be happy to give illustrations of that.

Sometimes our advice has to be that what is available is not necessarily the best thing to go on to. That is the issue, unfortunately. I know that universal credit is there for a purpose, but it may not suit everybody. In addition, it is a widely popular benefit to assist with living costs for those on low incomes. The issue with universal credit is that it is a combination of many benefits and often families will receive less money. That is making it increasingly hard to cope with the rise in the cost of living. The Government, through the autumn statement, indicated that they wish to give people in the benefits system more opportunities to work. I welcome that, but that will not work in every case. It cannot work in every case because people have disability issues that mean they cannot work. In theory, it may help people, as they can gain universal credit and have a job at the same time. There are opportunities, but it does not suit all.

The rise in the cost of living is also having a detrimental impact on people’s mental health. Any parent’s main priorities for their children are good health, housing and education. There has also been an increase in free school meals and uniform grant applications as parents are struggling to cope with the cost of school payments. This year has been horrendous. I have seen more and more people apply for the grants for free school meals and for uniform. A total of 97,000 children in Northern Ireland are on free school meals. There are consistent delays in processing the claims. The Minister is always keen to assist, so I ask, please, for some urgency when the applications are being processed. Let me give him an example. In September, one of my constituents applied for a school uniform grant. Eight weeks later—about two weeks ago—that money eventually came through. Again, at the time that it was needed, it was not there. It was not that it was not coming; that was not the issue. The issue is the processing of it.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I hesitate to interrupt esteemed colleagues in their speeches, because clearly I will try to address as many points as I can in closing. However, as always with any local constituency issue raised by colleagues from any political party, I ask the hon. Gentleman please to write me directly and I will look into it. Although that particular case may have taken eight weeks and the milk has spilt on that delay, I will look into it to try to see what I can do to ensure that the matters are processed an awful lot more quickly. We all accept that such delays are not acceptable.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The Minister has just demonstrated what I said earlier—he is a Minister who wants to help. I appreciate that, and I will take that opportunity. I think we all will. As he said, the milk is spilt and time has moved on, and the lady has got the payment, but she had to cover the full cost of uniform payments and free school meals herself for two months. The point is the pressure that is put on.

I know the Minister is always there, and I thank him for his intervention. He is keen to reach out and always does; he has done so in my constituency. I appreciate that. Could some discussions take place with the Northern Ireland Assembly Minister to get a feel for the situation back home? That could be used to develop a policy that would be helpful for us all.

There must be elements of dignity and fairness in social security support for children. Universal credit will rise by 10.1% in April 2023. I welcome that the Government have shown a willingness to support people. We thank them for the support, not just for children but also for senior citizens. My constituency has an ageing population and we also need to help them.

That help for everyone is welcomed, including those in my constituency of Strangford, but the reality is that people are struggling now. There are ways to tackle that, with more and better jobs and a benefits system that enables people to gain extra work. I think the Government said that in the autumn statement, which the Chancellor delivered last week, but I would like to see how that will work; we need more information, because we advise people.

Whenever we advise someone on benefits, we have to do that in a way that is to their advantage. It cannot be done without knowledge of the subject matter, because that could be detrimental. I am always conscious of that, and we have a very simple policy to always advise the pros and cons. The final decision is up to the applicant, but we have to advise them if there is a negative impact and they have to understand that.

The rise in the cost of living is having an impact on everyone, but some are more vulnerable than others. As the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts said, we are a voice for the voiceless—those vulnerable people, those parents and children in need. We must do better to help them through this time.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 10:07, 23 November 2022

I thank you, Sir Christopher, for chairing the debate today. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Qaisar on bringing forward the debate and I thank all hon. Members for taking part.

My hon. Friend made some points about individual organisations in her constituency. I absolutely agree that we should thank those organisations for all the hard work they do, because they are absolutely necessary, but we can do that at the same time as saying they should absolutely not be necessary. It was good to hear about Paul’s Parcels and the work that my colleague is doing to support those organisations and the eradication of poverty in her constituency. I hope that all hon. Members are doing what they can in their constituencies, as well as putting pressure on the UK Government to try and ensure a sufficiency of social security.

Social security is about security; it is about having a secure situation where people can have positive mental health—Jim Shannon talked about people’s mental health—rather than spending every moment worrying about whether they are going to be able to feed their children tomorrow, next week or next month, and whether they will be able to afford food. We need the social security system to work and provide the safety net that it is supposed to. After a decade of Tory Government, it continues to fail and it is not getting better.

I have less optimism now for the futures of my constituents than I have ever had at any point in this job and in my previous job as a city councillor. In about 15 years in an elected role, I have never seen the levels of hardship that I see coming through the door in my constituency office, on the news and in our communities. This has not happened before.

The problem is that there is no light at the end of the tunnel right now, no matter what the Government have announced in terms of inflationary upgrades, for example. As Margaret Ferrier mentioned, that is a temporary measure; it is not permanent and does not provide the level of structural reform people need to afford to live. What could be more important than ensuring that kids are fed and warm? There is nothing more important.

Our Scottish Government are now into their second child poverty action plan. We had “Every child, every chance”, which ran from 2018 to 2022; we now have “Best start, bright futures” from ’22 to ’26. These plans are about putting tackling child poverty at the heart of the decision-making processes of the Scottish Government. I do not think it is too much to ask that the UK Government replicate that, and say that they care about eradicating child poverty, and therefore will have a strategy to do that and make it a central aim of their plans.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

More fundamental to that, though, would be if the UK Government could even start measuring child poverty, which is part of the issue. Yes, it would be great if they had a strategy to deal with it—that would be absolutely fantastic—but does my hon. Friend agree that it is alarming that the Government do not even measure child poverty? They do not realise the scale of it, other than by measuring it anecdotally, as I am sure the Minister does in his Hexham constituency when people come through the doors at his surgery on a Friday morning.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I agree. The fact that the Government are unwilling to even measure child poverty shows the lack of importance they give to this issue. If they cared as much about it as they should, they should be willing to explain, “This is what the current situation is. This is the measurement. This is how bad it is. This is how many people are suffering and how many children are in poverty in the UK in 2022”—in the UK in 2022! How can we be saying this? The UK Government need to stand up, hold up their hands and say, “This is the current situation and this is how we are going to improve it.”

I want to set out a few specific asks, some of which have been made already. As my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts mentioned, 87% of those affected by the benefit cap are families with children. The benefit cap would need to increase by £942 to reverse the loss since 2013. Despite the fact that the Government are looking to increase it, this is only the fourth time that social security payments have risen with inflation in 10 years. If we in Scotland can find an extra £25 a week in order to provide the Scottish child payment, the UK Government, with their far vaster budget and flexibility in dealing with their fiscal situation, can surely afford to do the same. They can afford it, but they choose not to match the payments we are making in Scotland.

There is the issue of the sufficiency of social security. One in four people on social security skipped meals this summer. That was in the summer—before the additional price cap increase on electricity and gas; before the upcoming winter months when people will need to put their heating on; before people had to buy school uniforms for their children when school started again in August or September. That situation is set only to get worse, and the promise of a temporary increase in universal credit will not fix it. There is currently no way out of this. We have no certainty that there is not going to be a cost of living crisis next year. Certainly none of my constituents has that level of certainty.

Let me turn to the issue of debt repayment deductions that are made from universal credit and other benefits. We have a situation where the UK Government can take 25% off the standard allowance to reclaim debts. Sometimes, those debts are caused by overpayments that are no fault of the person, but entirely the fault of poor decision making in the DWP or job centres. To be fair, that does not happen all the time; I am just saying that sometimes it is an issue.

If the UK Government have done an assessment of social security payments and believe them to be sufficient—that people can afford to live on them—how can they justify putting in place a benefit cap or taking 25% off the standard allowance? They are saying, “This is what we believe is sufficient for people to live on, but we are just going to take a quarter of it away.” It does not make any sense. People already cannot afford to live on the social security payments they are receiving. When the amount people are getting each month is reduced because of those reductions or the benefit cap, it is even less sufficient. Again, the conditionality and sanctions in place reduce that basic minimum level of payment that people should be entitled to.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. There have been occasions where overpayments have been made to my constituents. The money has to be paid back, and they understand that. Reducing payments by 25% is very unfair. In the past, my staff and I have managed to negotiate a reduction of 10%. That option is more manageable and should be given to the person at an early stage. Does the hon. Lady feel that is the right way forward?

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am glad that the hon. Member has managed that on behalf of his constituents. That is actually not the preferred route that I would take. I would prefer to look at whether people can afford payments rather than coming up with an arbitrary percentage, which is the UK Government’s preferred choice. I would look at affordability. How much are their outgoings and incomings? Can they afford to make the debt repayments? That is what we do, and when organisations like StepChange are managing debt, they look at whether people can afford it.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

In my time working for Glasgow Credit Union before I was a politician, one of the things we regularly had to do when determining whether someone was eligible to borrow loans was calculate their debt ratio. Although that is required by the Financial Conduct Authority and imposed on things like credit unions, part of the problem is that the DWP does not routinely look at people’s income and expenditure. Does the hon. Member agree that the Minister should look at a debt ratio when making these decisions?

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I absolutely agree. That is the way this should be taken forward, rather than setting an arbitrary percentage—whether it is 25%, 10% or whatever level. It should be done on the basis of affordability, and a debt ratio would be the preferred method; it would make sense.

One thing that I do not think has been mentioned yet is those people with no recourse to public funds. They are not in receipt of social security payments or the vast majority of payments that are available to others. We are seeing the most drastic and extreme levels of poverty experienced by some of those families, particularly refugee and asylum-seeking families. We are seeing children and families who literally cannot afford any food, and I just cannot believe that the UK Government are unwilling to make any change to the system of no recourse to public funds, because what people are going through is horrendous.

The UK Government stand up and say, “Oh well, it’s fine. They can just go home to whatever country they came from.” Generally, people who are here having made an asylum or human rights claim are here because it is worse in the country they came from and because their children are in danger if they go back. In fact, no recourse to public funds sometimes applies to people who are stateless—they have no country to go back to. It is a horrendous situation, and the UK Government need to fix it.

Photo of Anum Qaisar Anum Qaisar Scottish National Party, Airdrie and Shotts

My hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution. On that specific point, I recently visited Manston and saw harrowing scenes of a tent full of families with young children. Those kids should have been playing in nursery; they should have been in a safe area. Instead, they were with dozens of other children in one tent. Does my hon. Friend agree that the wider issue at play is that the UK Government are spending their time othering communities? They are pitting communities against one another—whether they are refugees, working class, gay, lesbian or trans—when in actual fact we should all be uniting and campaigning to get that lot of Conservatives out.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I absolutely agree; I could not have put it better. No matter where they were born, the colour of their skin, their religion, their sexuality or gender identity, those children and families deserve a basic level of human dignity and fairness. That point about dignity, fairness and respect was made earlier. The UK is, in all our names, failing to provide that. It is choosing to make a differentiation between those people who are in slightly different communities and to treat them differently, and it is therefore trying to make that okay.

In Scotland, we are putting wellbeing at the heart of what we do. We are one of the founding members of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. We are not choosing to levy austerity on the most vulnerable people in our society; we are choosing to provide respect, dignity and fairness. We are choosing to provide as much as we possibly can within our limited budgets. Our five family payments, including the Scottish child payment, can be worth over £10,000 by the time a first child turns six, and £9,700 for subsequent children. That compares to £1,800 for an eligible family’s first child in England and Wales, and under £1,300 for subsequent children. The difference is £8,200, and it highlights the Scottish Government’s major support in the early years for low-income families.

This is an incredibly important debate. We need a social security safety net that works. I would rather our social security system accidently pay the few people who are not eligible—who do not meet the criteria—than miss any one child who should be receiving those security payments and that Government support. The ideological choice that I and the SNP would make is to put dignity, fairness and respect at the heart of the decision-making process. We need to make sure that children are not in poverty, and that our guiding mission and our choices go towards eradicating child poverty.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 10:23, 23 November 2022

It is a pleasure to respond for the Opposition under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate Ms Qaisar on securing this debate. We have heard a small number of contributions, but powerful ones, in which people have reflected not just on the strategic issues of poverty but on the impact of hardship on their constituents. Everybody has said that we are going into a hard winter; for millions, it will be the hardest winter in my 30 years in politics. I commend my hon. Friend Mick Whitley for making the point that we are going into the festive season, which many look forward to, but this year people will dread it because of the hardship that they face.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Even with the energy cap announced by the Government, all families will be spending a significant amount on their energy bills. It will be a cold and grim Christmas for many. Does the shadow Minister agree that support for families—and therefore for children—needs to be reviewed as a whole, not just single benefits?

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I will come to that later, but it is obvious that we need to look at the system as a whole. Indeed, we have to look at the issue of hardship and poverty not just in terms of the social security system, although that is the subject of today’s debate and money is crucial, and lies at the heart of tackling poverty; I have never had any doubt about that. We also know that the conditions in which people live and the conditions in which children are brought up reflect poverty in a wider sense.

Only this week, we have been discussing in particular the terrible tragedy of Awaab Ishak, who died in a cold and mouldy flat. That coroner’s report should be mandatory reading for anybody with an interest in poverty, because the issue of growing up in a damp and cold home is an issue of poverty. If people are not able to heat their homes or access half-decent accommodation in which to live, that is a matter of poverty, as is not being able to secure food and not being able to go to school in a uniform—not being properly clothed, shod and so forth.

I do not think that this is a theme that has particularly emerged in this debate, but all of these issues of poverty cost money—they cost the state billions and billions of pounds. Bad housing alone, which is a condition of poverty, costs the national health service at least £1.4 billion.

The issue of mental health has been referred to. Poverty drives poor mental health; worry and anxiety about money is known to do that. It costs the national health service millions and millions of pounds to respond to it. It also feeds into educational underachievement and impacts on our criminal justice system. We could go right across the issue of state spending, at a local level and a national level, and we would see that money is poured into the costs of poverty. Therefore, when we consider how much we spend on social security, we also need to consider what we will save in the medium and longer term.

The debate is timely, because this time last week we were waiting anxiously to see whether the Government would do the right thing in the middle of a cost of living crisis—something that would, only a few years ago, have gone without saying—which is to uprate social security benefits in line with inflation. As much as we all welcome what happened last week, because we were all very anxious to know what the Government were going to do about uprating, we should not allow the Government to normalise the idea that simply maintaining the real-terms value of social security benefits is an optional extra. If routine uprating of benefits with inflation is evidence of a turn towards compassionate Conservatism, I fear that the bar for compassion has been set very low indeed.

We have been through 12 years in which the Government, as a matter of policy, have repeatedly and permanently reduced the value of social security for working-age adults and children—and, yes, it is a permanent reduction, because the impact of below-inflation uprating in one year does not wash away if benefits are uprated from a reduced baseline the following year. The period of austerity for social security did not end with George Osborne’s four-year benefit freeze in 2019 and it did not end last week.

Let us take child benefit alone. It has been uprated this week—again, that is welcome—but it has lost 30% of its real-terms value since 2010. All the Government did last week, welcome though it is, was to decide not to erode the social minimum even further than they already have, and that is before we consider the many ways in which Governments since 2010 have sought to reduce payments even below the social minimum.

The social security infrastructure around children who live in families—whatever shape those families come in—is tough and has been getting tougher. We have heard about debt and deductions for debt repayments being built into the universal credit system through the five-week wait for the first payment. On top of that, we have benefit caps, the bedroom tax and the two-child limit, and crucially, let us not forget, we have a system of support for housing costs that has been frozen since 2020 and remained frozen in the autumn statement. The failure to uprate the local housing allowance with inflation undoes a great deal of the good that the uprating of social security payments elsewhere achieves, because people live in homes and they have to pay for those homes.

Let me give an indication of how far entitlements can fall below what might be expected to be the social minimum. There are 325,000 households in the private rented sector alone that face a shortfall between their rent and their universal credit housing support and also have a deduction for an advance payment or an overpayment. The median rent shortfall that they have to make up is £100 a month and the median deduction is £65 a month. We congratulate ourselves on the rate of payment of social security, but hundreds of thousands of people are trying to survive on less than even that minimum.

We have a permanently reduced baseline for the social minimum and a policy-driven multiplication of ways in which families can receive even less, and the Government expect to be praised for deciding not to drive down the minimum even further. They like to point to international factors beyond their control as drivers of the cost of living crisis, but they come on top of 12 years in which the social security system for working-age adults and children has been undermined not by the Ukraine war, not by the pandemic, not by international energy prices, but by domestic policy choices.

It suits the Government to pretend that social security policy affects only a minority of families. In fact, the family resources survey shows that, as of 2019-20, nearly 40%—four in 10—of all children in the UK were in families receiving universal credit or one of its legacy equivalents. The great majority—almost three quarters, at 72%—were in working families, and that is just at one point in time. The share of children whose families receive those benefits at some point during their childhood is now higher again.

It is, then, unrealistic to see universal credit and legacy benefits simply as a safety net for the most vulnerable. Of course, that is one of the purposes they serve, and they can serve it considerably less well now than they did before the Government embarked on permanently reducing the value of the safety net. They are also one of the instruments by which our society redistributes resources to families with dependent children, as any modern society needs to do under any economic circumstances.

It is only through social security that we can provide support on a basis that fully takes account of need by basing payment on family size and composition. That basic principle represents yet another way in which Governments since 2010 have broken with the approach of all modern UK Governments since the social security system was established in 1946. As the Child Poverty Action Group points out, the two-child limit already affects 1.3 million children, and cuts income by up to £2,935 a year.

Of course, it is welcome that flat-rate payments are addressing the energy crisis, but by definition they do not take account of family size and circumstances, so they are not a substitute for an adequate social security system. When YouGov surveyed universal credit claimants for the Trussell Trust this summer, it found that was exactly what was happening. Despite the survey being conducted in mid-August, almost 70% of people surveyed who had received a cost of living payment said that they had already had to spend all the £326 they received from the Government in mid to late July, and 64% had had to use the money to buy food.

We have entered into a cost of living crisis with a weakened social minimum, a system that seems designed to leave hundreds of thousands of families with even less than the minimum, and the principle of matching support to needs in shreds. However welcome the uprating was last year—sighs of relief were heard right across the country—families in their millions are dreading this winter because they will have to choose between feeding their children or heating their homes. It is well past time for the Government to recognise the damage that has been done since 2010 and set it right on a sustainable and permanent basis.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 10:33, 23 November 2022

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

I congratulate Ms Qaisar on her first ever Westminster Hall debate. I confess that it is my first ever Westminster Hall debate in my new role, which I have been doing for just over three weeks. I have not had an opportunity to congratulate her on winning her by-election; it was a worthy win. I send my best wishes to her predecessor, with whom I did huge amounts of work when I was in the pensions brief at the Department for Work and Pensions for five years. I was battle-scarred after five years of working at the DWP. I had a brief sabbatical in the summer when I returned to the Back Benches before the Prime Minister asked me to take on this role. By my count, I have approximately 20 issues to respond to; I will do my best over the next 15 to 20 minutes.

Although the debate was introduced by a Scottish Member of Parliament, it is about social security support throughout the country, and it is timely, given the context of the illegal invasion by Mr Putin of Ukraine, the consequences of the aftershocks of covid, the rise in energy prices, the inflationary impacts that are clearly happening, and last week’s autumn statement. Although the autumn statement, which I am sure we will discuss, tried to address many of the issues that have been raised today, it would be naive not to accept and acknowledge that all countries in the western world are attempting to deal with difficulties in respect of the war in Ukraine, the energy price hikes, the fact that we are effectively in an energy war, the consequential impacts on national income, and the impacts of inflation.

The Government are responding to the challenges we face, and in last week’s autumn statement we showed a clear commitment to helping families and the most vulnerable. That includes a further £26 billion of cost of living support, on top of the £37 billion set out in spring last year by the then Chancellor. I will try to address the relevant points in a variety of ways. I have been in this role for only approximately three and a half weeks, but I have had the opportunity to go to jobcentres and meet DWP staff at locations ranging from Canvey Island and Birmingham to Hackney earlier this week.

I have previously visited a variety of jobcentres from Banff to Belfast, from Hastings to Amlwch in north Wales, and from Redcar to Blackpool, and I put on the record my desire to return to some of those locations. David Linden has headed off, but I well remember visiting Shettleston and the Tollcross advice centre in his patch in 2019, and I deeply enjoyed the famous visit to the constituency of Jim Shannon. It is not a good thing to advertise the fact that I have been ambushed by a cake, but when I walked into his constituency office his staff literally ambushed me with a lemon drizzle. Obviously, that did not endear me to the previous Prime Minister bar one, my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson, but I hope to be back in Northern Ireland soon and I take on board the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I will endeavour to look into the matter when he gets back to me on it.

As the Minister for Employment I cover this brief and others, although not all the matters that have been raised today, and it is certainly my intention to try to visit all parts of the UK shortly. I hope to visit Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland within the next three or four months, depending on parliamentary diaries, negotiations with my good lady wife and various other things, as well as visiting a variety of locations up and down the country, to enable me better to understand the issues that have been raised.

In respect of support for children, the fundamental starting point should surely be the fact that the UK supports children and families throughout the country through child benefit. We need to begin with an assessment of that. It has continued under successive Governments, and as of August 2021 there were 8 million families claiming child benefit and 12 million children in receipt of child benefit. In Scotland alone, 532,000 families and 878,000 children were in receipt of child benefit.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I have a lot to try to address. Let me make a little progress, then I will give way.

Child benefit is available to anyone responsible for bringing up a child aged 16 or under, or 20 if they are in approved education or training. From April 2023, the weekly rate will increase by 10.1%, from £21.80 to £24 for the eldest or only child and from £14.45 to £15.90 for every other child. The UK child benefit bill for 2022-23 is almost £12 billion, and obviously there are other benefits with respect to claiming child benefit, such as national insurance credits, which protect future entitlement to the state pension and can be transferred to grandparents who provide childcare. Claiming also enables children to get their national insurance number automatically at 16.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

The Minister knows that I have a lot of time for him because he sat through proceedings in the Chamber on my private Member’s Bill when he was pensions Minister. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, last year a couple working full-time on the minimum wage and a lone parent working full-time on the median wage were able to reach a minimum standard of living. That is not the case today, although the report was published before the autumn statement. What reassurance can the Minister offer lone parents for whom the cost of raising a child is already higher than it is for couples?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Lady and I spent nearly six months campaigning to ensure that there was a serious and legitimate change to women’s pensions entitlements in certain private sector pensions. I thank her for her work on the private Member’s Bill that she brought forward and that is now in law, having been signed by Her Majesty the Queen. I welcome the fact that she worked on a cross-party basis to ensure that happened. I will try to address the child poverty issue that was raised by several colleagues. I want to deal with it in a variety of ways. I will then segue on to the in-work progression point—namely, people who are working but also suffering from poverty.

Let me start with the background. The fundamental point is that the Government are committed to a sustainable, long-term approach to tackle child poverty in supporting low-income families. We spent £242 billion through the welfare system in the United Kingdom in 2022-23, including £108 billion on people of working age. We have made permanent changes to universal credit worth £1,000 a year on average to 1.7 million claimants, and have given the lowest earners a pay rise by increasing the national living wage by 6.6% to £9.50 from April 2022. From 1 April 2023, the national living wage will increase by 9.7% to £10.42 an hour for workers aged 23 and over. That is the largest ever cash increase to the national living wage. It represents an increase of more than £1,600 to the annual earnings of full-time workers on the national living wage, and is expected to benefit more than 2 million low-paid workers.

I will address the poverty statistics. The latest statistics show that poverty fell for nearly all measures in 2020-21 compared with 2019-20. In 2021 there were 1.2 million fewer people in absolute poverty, before housing costs, than in 2009-10, including 200,000 fewer children. We will come to workless households in a second, but since 2010 there are nearly 1 million fewer workless households in the United Kingdom. The number of children growing up in homes where no one works has fallen by 590,000 since 2010—

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

May I just finish? I will also come to the point made by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts. That number has fallen by 590,000 since 2010, and 1.7 million more children are living in a home where at least one person is working. I give way first to the shadow Minister.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

On the issue of absolute poverty, in a previous debate I raised the fact that the absolute poverty figures for larger families—those affected by the two-child limit—have been worsening, rather than improving, as the Minister claims. Will he go away, have a look at that, and inform himself about it when thinking about where to go next on policy?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Obviously, being three and a half weeks into the job I am looking forward to learning a great deal. I have merely recited the statistics on people in absolute poverty before housing costs. I will go away and think about the matter. I will give way to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts in a moment; I just want to make a little progress because I have not made much thus far.

I want to address the issue of work and emerging out of poverty. The Government believe, as did previous Governments under the Blair and Brown Administrations, that work is the best and most sustainable way to lift children out of poverty. That is in terms of the parents, I hasten to add. We hope there is then progression in work, which I will come to in detail. Clear evidence exists about the importance of parental employment, particularly when it is full time. The latest data on in-work poverty shows that in 2019-20 children in households where adults were in work were about six times less likely to be in absolute poverty than children in a household where no one was working. I have talked about statistics compared with 2010. Clearly, one job for the Department for Work and Pensions is to address the million-plus vacancies that affect us all in constituencies up and down the country. We certainly want to do that to help to support people to gain the skills that they need to find a job and improve their earnings.

I will try to address in-work progression, which was specifically raised by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts. There is clearly much that jobcentre work coaches are doing up and down the country. Members can go into their local jobcentre and meet and talk with them, and I urge colleagues to do so. I advocate a particular policy, which is called in-work progression. It started in April 2022 and was piloted in South Yorkshire. It was originally a voluntary offer, but it is now being fully rolled out, and approximately 2.1 million low-paid benefit claimants will be eligible for support to progress into higher-paid work. This support for people looking to progress in their current role or move into a new role—which we hope will pay them a greater amount of money, as they progress through the UC thresholds—is provided by work coaches, and focuses on removing barriers to progression and providing advice.

Jobcentres will be supported by a network of 37 progression champions, who will spearhead the scheme. The champions will work with key partners, including local government, employers and skills providers, to identify and develop local progression opportunities. They will also work with partners to address local barriers that limit progression, such as childcare and transport. This is being rolled out in South Yorkshire and Cheshire, and eight further districts will go live next week on 29 November, with champions to be in place beforehand—the recruitment is complete for those districts. Fourteen more districts will go live by 22 February 2023 and the remaining 13 districts will be rolled out by 22 March 2023. Across Scotland—to address the key point raised by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts on in-work progression and support for people who are trying to make more money as they are on UC—that will be rolled out by March 2023, with six district champions.

Photo of Anum Qaisar Anum Qaisar Scottish National Party, Airdrie and Shotts

When I met representatives from Pregnant Then Screwed this week, they told me of their concerns about the plight of women. We have women who want to work and are more than qualified to work, but the cost of childcare is holding them back. I mentioned this earlier, and I hope the Minister will answer this specific point: will the UK Government follow the suit of the Scottish Government and introduce childcare for children so that women can get back to work?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Lady has obviously pre-read my speech and the comments that I will make, because my fifth point was going to be about childcare. There are a variety of points, which I will address in their totality; I will then try to deal with the specifics, particularly for those on universal credit.

It is patently obvious that for some parents childcare costs present challenges—at the very least—to entering employment. As the father of a 15-and-a-half-week-old child, I can testify to the bitter experience of that. The Government’s 30 hours of free childcare offer entitles all parents of three to four-year-olds in England to 570 hours of free childcare per year, with many children also entitled to the additional 15 hours of free childcare for 38 weeks per year. In addition to helping parents to manage childcare costs and working patterns, free childcare supports children’s development.

I will deal in particular with universal credit and childcare, in respect of which there is a massive role for Members of Parliament. Bluntly, those on universal credit are entitled to a massive amount of childcare, but the take-up of that offer is not good.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

They are entitled to 85% of childcare costs—that is absolutely true—but is the Minister aware that the caps set in 2005 have not been uprated, despite the fact that childcare costs have since increased dramatically? Will he take a look at those numbers?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho, and I have had a preliminary meeting. The country wants to try to assist parents who want to go back to work. There is a real desire to address childcare on a long-term basis to ensure that parents who wish to can go back to work.

There are many discussions about all aspects of how we reform, improve and expand childcare in this country. The bit that I control is the ability of somebody on universal credit to access and take childcare. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts and I will go and look at that, but the blunt truth is that the take-up is low. That is the first problem. I am genuinely of the view that there is not sufficient knowledge that individuals on universal credit can claim 85% of their registered childcare costs each month, regardless of the number of hours they work. That is a significant increase on the previous 70% of costs that could be claimed back on legacy benefits.

Parents can claim up to a maximum of £646.35 per month for one child and £1,108.04 per month for two or more children. For families with two or more children, that could be worth over £13,000 a year. I take the hon. Lady’s point on board and will go away and look at that, but that is still £13,000 of subsidised childcare paid for by the state in circumstances. That support is also available to all lone parents and couples who satisfy both the childcare cost and the work conditions to qualify for help with childcare costs.

I am conscious that there is an issue with prepayment of childcare. Various support funds are used up and down the country. In my three-and-a-half week journey of understanding this issue, there seems to be patchy take-up, but I urge all local areas and individual job centres that are assisting parents in this process to ensure that the various support funds available can be provided. It is not a grant, but it is a provision to pay for the childcare deposit. That is definitely happening up and down the country and we should try to encourage and nurture that on an ongoing basis.

I am conscious of time and the desire to deal with a large number of other matters. The autumn statement saw £26 billion in total, as part of further support in 2023-24, to provide around 8 million households on means-tested benefits such as universal credit with payments of up to £900 to help their income stretch further. That is on top of the £37 billion of cost of living support for households in 2022-23. In addition, there are benefits increases in line with September inflation of 10.1%, worth £11 billion, to working-age households and disabled people. There is also the triple lock and support for pensioners.

We will continue to provide support to all households through the energy price guarantee, which caps the price paid for each unit of energy, saving the average UK household £500 next year. For those who require extra support, we are providing an additional £1 billion to help with the cost of household essentials next year, bringing total funding for this support to £2.5 billion since October 2021. In England, that includes an extension to the household support fund backed by £842 million for the 2023-24 financial year. Devolved Administrations will receive £158 million through the Barnett formula. I could go into detail about support for free school meals across England and about the Healthy Start scheme.

I will briefly touch on the funding and powers in Scotland. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts highlighted the extension to the Scottish child payment. The Scotland Act 2016 devolved significant social security and employment support powers to the Scottish Parliament, worth around £3 billion, as well as providing additional powers to create new benefits in areas of devolved responsibility, top up reserved benefits and provide discretionary payments. The UK Government provided the Scottish Government with a record £41 billion per year Barnett-based settlement at the 2021 spending review. That is the largest settlement since devolution. That record settlement provides the Scottish Government with around 25% more funding per person than equivalent UK Government spending in other parts of the UK.

In respect of various other matters, I will endeavour to write to colleagues. To conclude, I welcome today’s debate. I will attempt to work with colleagues on an ongoing basis. It is my job to ensure that there is ongoing support for children through the social security budget that operates throughout the United Kingdom. I commend the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts on her first Westminster Hall debate.

Photo of Anum Qaisar Anum Qaisar Scottish National Party, Airdrie and Shotts 10:54, 23 November 2022

I thank the Minister for his response; he should expect letters from me following up some of the points that I made. As I stated in my opening remarks, I wish to be the voice of the voiceless, which is why I applied for this debate to discuss social security for children. I was pleased to hear Back-Bench contributions from SNP, Democratic Unionist party, Labour and independent MPs, and I thank all Members present for attending. We heard incredibly powerful contributions, although I was saddened that no Back Bencher from the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats attended or contributed.

I did not find the debate adversarial; in fact, there was cross-party support, especially on this side of the Chamber, for collectively joining forces to eradicate child poverty and implement meaningful social security for children. Again, I call on the UK Government to follow the lead of the Scottish Government in increasing childcare hours and offering the baby box and the Scottish child payment. As I have said, the Scottish Government have introduced numerous policies; they hold only limited economic powers, yet they spend their time and money mitigating Tory austerity. Poverty is a political choice, and Scotland wants no part in it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered social security support for children.