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Universal Credit

Volume 551: debated on Thursday 18 October 2012

1. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effects on women of the introduction of universal credit. (123197)

I have had many conversations with the Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, and others, regarding universal credit. Universal credit is designed to encourage people to work, and benefit women who find the existing system a barrier to work. It will help lone parents, who are mostly women, work a small number of hours through increased earnings disregards, and provide child care for the first time for those working under 16 hours.

I welcome the Minister for Women and Equalities, and her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) to their new positions. [Interruption.] And—how could I forget?—my neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson).

Does the Minister accept that work needs to pay for all women, so how will she ensure that, when universal credit is introduced next year, 1 million lone parents do not lose out—as Gingerbread has suggested—on the equivalent of two-thirds of the unintended increase in the tax allowance, taking home only £70 for every £1,000 increase in the allowance, compared with £200?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, one of the best ways we can support lone parents to get out of poverty is to help them into work. That is exactly what universal credit is trying to do—to ensure that lone parents can stay close to the labour market and, for the first time, get child care support if they work under 16 hours a week.

I congratulate the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Minister for Women and Equalities, on her double promotion. I hope that she and her new team will enjoy the work on women and equalities.

Despite the many good intentions behind universal credit, the detail could prove worrying, particularly in cases of domestic violence. Ditching the principle that payments go to the main carer and having just a single payment to the household could make things harder in cases of financial coercion. In addition, the way that housing payments are delivered could make it difficult for refuges, which fear that they could lose around 60% of their funding. It looks as though the detail of universal credit has been designed without any consideration for those vulnerable women. Will the Minister remedy that and ensure that the Government Equalities Office looks urgently at the matter, and will she discuss the issue with her colleagues to ensure that the regulations are right?

The right hon. Lady is right to say that the detail on universal credit is vital, and she will be reassured that we have already looked at the issue in detail. We have worked with women’s aid organisations to ensure that refuges have special treatment in that respect, and we have retained powers to ensure, if absolutely necessary, that payments can be split between men and women if domestic violence is in play.