[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of changes to welfare benefits.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. Since this debate was scheduled, I have been inundated with offers of briefings from so many social charities that I could speak for the entire 90 minutes, although colleagues will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to do that. Several national charities have provided so much compelling evidence that this debate needed to be heard. I pay tribute to Barnado’s, Gingerbread, Crisis and The Trussell Trust, and we will all have names of local hard-working groups that are swamped with requests for help from those in difficult times. In my case, they are the Eastside food bank in Bonymaen and the Jesus Cares organisation, which deliver monthly food parcels to my office, allowing me to offer practical support to families in great need.
The changes to the welfare system have featured heavily on this Government’s agenda. Ministers repeatedly tell us that the reforms will tackle benefit dependency and incentivise people to work, but it is clear from the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of the summer Budget that, taken in the round, the measures are regressive. Even taking into account the new national living wage and the increased personal tax allowance, many families will be worse off.
As the Resolution Foundation made clear last week, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric on tackling poverty and disadvantage is in stark contrast with the reality: 200,000 more working households could be in poverty by 2020. What is too often missing from this debate is full consideration of the impact that cuts to benefits can have on children. We must remember that children are never responsible for their parents’ decisions or any misfortune. They must not be punished. I therefore want to concentrate on some of the aspects of the Government’s proposals and the impact that they will have on the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable children and young people.
The Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which is currently in Committee, contains several measures that will have a significant impact on some of our most vulnerable families. The Government’s impact assessment shows that an additional 224,000 children will be affected by the change in the household benefit cap. Of course, the Government’s response is that people affected will simply choose to move into work and therefore avoid the cut in income. As hon. Members will know from their own constituencies, however, the situation is rarely that simple.
In 2014, a judicial review examined the impact of the benefit cap on two single parents. In the Supreme Court ruling, three of the five judges found that the benefit cap did not comply with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Statements from the judges included that the benefit cap deprived children of the “basic necessities of life” and made them
“suffer from a situation which is none of their making”.
The judgment suggests that the policy is incompatible with the UNCRC and underlines the need for future assessment of the impact of the benefit cap on children’s wellbeing. The Secretary of State will be able to change the benefit cap levels without full parliamentary scrutiny. It is important that the wellbeing of children, particularly very young children, is taken into account. The UNCRC provides a framework for this scrutiny and the Children’s Commissioners hold the expertise about the convention. An impact assessment into the wellbeing of children by the Children’s Commissioners would provide the Secretary of State with the evidence to make an informed decision on future benefit changes.
In my experience, if families are relying on benefits, it is usually because they face significant barriers to work, not simply because they do not see the point in getting a job. Some lack skills or confidence. Others may have mental health problems or health issues. Young parents may be struggling to care for their children. Whatever the reason, the best solution is not a punitive one. This is not just about the cap. Depending on inflation, the four-year freeze in working age benefits could have a significant impact for those on low incomes. There are also the cuts to tax credits. That is a debate for another day, but it is important to register that over 4 million families, accounting for 7.5 million children, will see a difference between getting by on a tight budget and not getting by at all as a result of the changes to tax credits.
As I said, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the summer Budget is regressive. Poor families will get poorer and many on the edge could be driven into poverty. Barnardo’s has calculated that for some of the most vulnerable families, the cuts will mean a significant drop in income. I cannot see how that is right or fair, or how it is in line with stated Government policy. The Government tell us that work is the way out of poverty. Indeed it could be and should be, but we cannot ignore the fact that poverty also affects families where one or more adults works.
A Barnardo’s case study tells of a dad who asked staff for some nappies. When the project worker attended the house to see how things were going, she discovered only biscuits and crisps in the cupboard. The parents were missing meals in order to feed the children, and they had not asked for help because they were too proud. That family provides a window into the reality of life for so many people. The mother works at a call centre and dad looks after their three small children, one of whom is not yet in school. Their house was deemed too big, but no smaller one was available, so they were hit with the under-occupancy subsidy—the nice phrase for the bedroom tax. They are working people, but their income just does not cover the basics. Reluctantly, they eventually asked Barnardo’s for help and were pointed in the direction of a food bank.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated that working single parents will be hit hardest by the changes in benefits. Under the current benefit cap, single parent households are disproportionately affected, particularly those with younger children. Since the introduction of the benefit cap, 63% of affected people were single parent households, of which 70% had a child aged under five. In May 2015, 76% of capped single parent households had a youngest child under five and 34% had a child under two.
According to Barnardo’s, a lone parent working full time on the national living wage for 37 hours a week with two young children could lose £1,200 a year from April 2016. For many single parents hit by the benefit cap, it will not be possible to reduce expenditure through budgeting or moving to cheaper accommodation. Gingerbread tells of a single parent with two primary aged children who phoned its helpline in June 2015. She is expecting a baby in October and was told that, when the baby is born, she will be subject to the benefit cap, causing a shortfall of £32 a week in her housing benefit. I urge the Government to consider how we can justify reducing support to such families. We must think again.
What about larger families with more than two children? Children in larger families are already 1.4 times more likely to be living in poverty. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill will limit support through both tax credits and the Government’s new system of universal credit, so that families receive help for only the first two children. As the Government’s impact assessment makes clear, the policy will disproportionately affect black and ethnic minority families, who are more likely to live in poverty and to have larger families.
We also need to consider the less obvious implications of the policy. What if a family with two children decides to adopt a third? What if a family with one child decides to adopt two siblings? We know that sibling groups often have to wait a long time for a new home. There is already a shortage of families able to take them. Given such difficulties, will the Minister not agree that such scenarios were not considered when the policies were drafted?
What about the withdrawal of housing support for 18 to 21-year-olds? In the summer Budget, the Government announced that from April 2017 unemployed 18 to 21-year-olds making a new claim for universal credit will not be entitled to support for their housing. Crisis has serious concerns that the removal of young people’s access to support for their housing costs will lead only to a further increase in youth homelessness.
For many young people, housing benefit is all that stands between them and homelessness. That includes care leavers and those who have experienced violence or abuse in the family household. Some might be unable to live with their parents because of a relationship breakdown, but are unable to prove that—for example, if a parent remarries or they have been kicked out for announcing that they are gay. All such scenarios for why young people need to leave home must be considered.
Young people who have already found themselves homeless might have been supported into accommodation funded by housing benefit. Between 2010 and 2014, Crisis helped to create 8,128 tenancies in the private rented sector for people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness. It is vital that young people should be able to maintain such forms of accommodation and that those at risk of homelessness should be able to continue to access them.
An example from Crisis is that of Ryan, who was in care as a young child and adopted at four. He never had a good relationship with his adoptive parents and as soon as he turned 16, in the middle of his GCSE examinations, they asked him to leave. Ryan spent the next four years living in a series of hostels, bed and breakfasts and temporary flats, with periods of homelessness. During that time his housing costs, when appropriate, were covered by housing benefit. He managed a college catering course, but found it too difficult when homeless.
The Government will introduce the cut to housing benefit for young people through regulation rather than in primary legislation. Perhaps Ministers anticipated resistance to removing support from vulnerable young people. Whatever the reason, it is outrageous to introduce such a change without giving hon. Members the opportunity to debate it.
The hon. Lady is making an important point, but she should remember that vulnerable young people will be exempted from the changes.
I thank the Minister and look forward to seeing the exemptions, because so far it has not been made clear to us what they will be. This debate is a good time for us to be told about them. I also hope that the Minister will commit to publishing the regulations in time for a full debate in the House when the Bill is on Report.
My final point is about the sanctions regime. The increase in conditionality is significant, primarily because it will mean that parents with three or four-year-old children will be subject to financial sanctions—in other words, a loss in their weekly income. Any sanctions on claimants in my constituency, where nearly 10,000 are dependent on out-of-work benefits, will be catastrophic for their families. Barnado’s, Gingerbread, the Trussell Trust, Crisis and in fact all the charities and organisations tasked with helping those most affected by sanctions would describe the regime as unnecessarily punitive and not fit for purpose.
The Select Committee on Work and Pensions and other organisations have already repeatedly called for a broad independent review of conditionality and sanctions. It is imperative that such a review should take place before sanctions are extended to families with three and four-year-old children. We know that sanctions can be hugely disproportionate—a single mother missing an interview because her child became ill on the way to school, or a father delayed because he is on the phone to a school and misses an appointment by 10 minutes. Those are examples of everyday occurrences that will result in sanctions for people dependent on benefit. The resulting loss of benefits for weeks on end will leave families struggling to feed their children and to heat their homes. Barnardo’s has reported that parents using its services because of sanctions are being driven to food banks or further into debt.
I hope that, as a result of what I have said and what others will say, the Minister takes a message back to his Department and says that the voices of those affected by such cruel, punishing and crippling benefit changes need to be heard.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her excellent speech, which has covered so many matters, but I want to ask about a couple more. Does she share the concerns expressed by organisations such as Parkinson’s UK about, first, the appropriateness of progressive disease sufferers being placed in the work- related group and, secondly, how under the Government’s Bill employment and support allowance payments will be cut to the level of jobseeker’s allowance? There are serious concerns about people such as sufferers of Parkinson’s in that regard.
I agree. No such section of society will not be affected by such heinous cuts. No section is safe from what is about to happen.
Voices need to be heard and what they are saying needs to be considered, with appropriate action taken. The damage that the cuts are having on the lives of vulnerable families is devastating. I urge the Minister to look into the eyes of a child suffering the effect of the Government’s policy and to reassure them that it is in their best interest. Removing “child poverty” from the narrative does not remove the problem. The Minister should look to his conscience, have a heart and take action now to stop any further damage to young lives.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Pritchard. It is interesting that those in the Chamber are from the Opposition Benches, although the Minister is present as well. I am pleased to see him and I look forward to his contribution. We are concerned about tax credits and such issues, but whatever we say is not meant against him—it is not a personal attack. I want to put that on the record.
I am in the Chamber because I am concerned about the impact of changes to welfare benefit—tax credits, specifically. Recently we have heard a lot about that in the news and the Leader of the Opposition asked about the issue during Prime Minister’s questions today. The news has been full of stories about tax credits so I want to touch on them; they are vital to people in my Northern Ireland constituency where, as of April 2015, 6,500 were in receipt of tax credits. Of that number, 4,500 were in work and 2,000 were not.
Such figures speak for themselves. The majority of people receiving tax credits are in hard-working families on low incomes, and they need some extra help to get by. What worries me, however, are—I will say this with respect to the Prime Minister’s reply today; he mentioned the increase in those who will be tax exempt—those in the £10,000 to £11,000 bracket. If tax credits are taken from them, they will feel the pain more than anyone.
Of the 4,500 in work and in receipt of tax credits in my constituency, 2,500 received both working tax credit and child tax credit, 1,300 received child tax credit alone and only 700 received working tax credit alone. As a clear result—this, too, was mentioned by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) in her introduction—the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that the number of children living in poverty increased over the past three years from 2.3 million to 2.5 million: 200,000 more children in poverty, which is massively worrying. The IFS also estimates that the reductions in tax credits will see that figure rise to 2.8 million. Think about that number of children in poverty for one minute—up from 2.3 million to 2.8 million, 500,000 more in child poverty.
Only last month, I spoke about the importance of eradicating child poverty; it now seems like an ever-intensifying and uphill battle, in particular for those struggling to make ends meet. We must also bear in mind that two thirds of children living in poverty in the UK are from working families, which makes the situation much harder, especially given that the cuts could reduce working family incomes by an average of £1,400 per year—someone today mentioned that the figure could be £1,800. Certainly there will be a large reduction in the income of such families.
I have said it before and I need to say it again: the financial changes will make a huge difference to everyday folk on the street. The number of people coming into my office to get food bank vouchers has increased so much in the past year and indicates the trend. I have always felt that food banks contribute greatly to our society, bringing people together to contribute and to help those less able to look after themselves. By that very nature, food banks are positive—I want to put that on the record—but the fact that so many people are using them is another case entirely.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. Unfortunately, that is probably the norm in my constituency as well. We are not seeing anything different anywhere else in the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
We cannot be completely in shock about the cuts, given that such benefits make up nearly 40% of welfare spending, just shy of £30 billion. To put that into perspective, that is a lot more than the £2.5 billion that the Government spend on jobseeker’s allowance. It has been estimated that the cuts will save the country £5.37 billion a year by 2019. Given the huge hole in the budget we need to try to fill, that will certainly be a start, but I must ask the Minister: are we punishing hard workers on low wages to do that? I fear that we are.
The Government and we as a nation pride ourselves on helping those who help themselves, but we must bear in mind the reality for many: although they work extremely hard, they simply do not earn enough to make ends meet. That is the sad reality and this vulnerable group in society will be hit extremely hard—unbearably hard, in many cases.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 3 million families will be £1,000 a year worse off following the new cuts. Those are the figures, so it is hard to equate that with saying, “Actually, things are going to be better,” when all those who know tell us that clearly they will not. It has been claimed that families will be £20 a week better off because of the rise in the minimum wage and the cut in income tax. However, the IFS says it is “arithmetically impossible” for families not to be hit by the cuts. The Prime Minister has already conceded that different families will be affected in different ways. Unfortunately, it seems that, for the majority, the figures will be working against them.
The hon. Gentleman has referred several times to the Institute for Fiscal Studies and its observations on the overall impact. It has not given a regionalised profile of the impact, but it would do so if asked. My party has proposed at the Stormont House talks for it to be asked to provide exactly those projections on the situation in Northern Ireland. Given that he is so committed to quoting the IFS, will he encourage his party leadership for once to support that request, so that, when we discuss welfare reform, we can know what we are talking about? It is not enough for him to say that he opposes welfare reform here when his party colleagues vote for it in the Assembly on the basis that “a big boy made me do it.”
I am happy to reply to the IFS question. I have no difficulty with this. My politics are well known in this House. I am left of centre; I am interested in the person who needs help. That is my politics; that is where I come from and who I am. For me it is no bother whatever to ask the IFS to give those figures and I will make it my business to do so. I am as committed to opposing these austerity measures as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). However, my party has a realistic outlook and keeps that in mind.
How can I stand in this House today and not be an advocate for those in need in my own constituency? I am aware that there are those who take advantage and play the system, but I am also aware that a great number do not. It is for those people that I stand here today.
Cuts to tax credits are not the only problem that people on benefits face. There are a great many others that I have mentioned before. In my office I have a number of members of staff specifically trained to help people fill in forms for the disability living allowance, which is soon to change to the personal independence payment. I see those people every day and I am aware of their difficulties. They have benefits for a good reason. There are people who need extra financial help to pay for carers or more bedding and other resources while they cater for the day-to-day needs of their family, which they need help to do as well. It is not a matter of living it up and not working; it is a matter of just living. Sometimes it is a matter of being ill and needing help. We have a responsibility to these people and I thought that was what being part of the United Kingdom meant. That is what I thought it was to be British.
I am conscious that I need to allow time for others to speak, but in concluding I want to mention the tragic case of Michael O’Sullivan—we all know it. He killed himself after being found fit for work by the Government’s disability assessors. That case has briefly cast a welcome spotlight—if I can say that—on the utter disgrace that is the work capability assessment in relation to people with mental health problems. Despite providing reports from three doctors, including his GP, stating that he had long-term depression and agoraphobia and was unable to work, Michael O’Sullivan was taken off employment and support allowance and placed on jobseeker’s allowance. At the inquest last year, it was found that he killed himself as a direct result of that decision. According to the coroner, Mary Hassell,
“the intense anxiety which triggered his suicide was caused by his recent assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions as being fit for work and his view of the likely consequences of that”.
That cannot be allowed to happen again.
I fear that cuts that affect the people who are most in need could cause real difficulties for an even larger number of people. With that in mind, although I respect the Minister’s position, I have to put on record my honest, sincere issues and concerns with tax credits on behalf of my people in Strangford, who also share those concerns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I give my apologies because, as you know, I have to leave before the end of the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. I would talk about tax credits, child poverty and working families, but I am aware that a lot of people want to speak. We have already heard powerful speeches and I am sure that we will hear more. I will therefore focus on what is a constant issue at my constituency surgeries.
The Government’s new proposals build on existing failures that will further punish those in need of our help. In Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, an ever-rising number of constituents get in touch with me about their personal independence payment claims. There is the gentleman who has just had a second stroke but been deemed fit to work, and the young man with severe disabilities whose benefits were removed because the very action of his carrying a letter handed to him by his carer from the assessment room was evidence enough for an Atos assessor to make a judgment on his reading abilities.
Four out of 10 decisions made by Atos are later overturned. The stress people are put through in those assessments is incredible. There is a woman who, having worked all her life, now holding down two jobs, faces eviction because her husband took ill but was deemed fit for work, despite his being housebound. They can no longer make their rent; they are currently three months in arrears and shortly they will be knocking on Highland Council’s door as homeless, leaving their private rental and joining the 10,000 people waiting on the Highland housing register.
Day in, day out I see the pain and suffering my constituents are put through just to get an Atos appointment, for the lack of a home visit is the first hurdle for many disabled people. I have listened time and again to people describe the process in the assessment room. They use words such as degrading, inhuman and disgraceful, which are repeated often. Each and every one of them faces a catalogue of questions when the primary aim seems to be to find a hook to remove or reduce their benefit entitlement.
Minister, why is it that 30 minutes in an assessment room counts for more than months and years of medical records, or indeed the medical advice of those who are treating people on a daily basis? Why is it that I constantly find myself astonished that those people have been even asked to make their way to attend an interview, given their severe medical conditions?
I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman will not be here for my response. The process takes more than an hour, and it is nothing to do with whether an individual is fit for work. PIP is different from ESA and the assessor is not making a decision on whether someone should get a benefit. Their job is to help the individual complete the forms to present the strongest possible case to the DWP staff. I feel that he is mixing up two benefits.
I encourage the Minister to come and speak to people in my surgeries who have had to go through this, because I do not recognise the procedure he describes and neither do my constituents.
Indeed, even those who have degenerative illnesses are asked to attend assessment and reassessment. By the very nature of their illness, those people are not getting better. Why on earth does anyone find it acceptable to keep reminding them of that while subjecting them to punishing assessments? Why is my office dealing on a daily basis with constituents who, because—often aided and struggling—they can walk 50 metres, are cut off from mobility support?
Under the old DLA system, 71% of people were given lifetime awards, but the conditions of one in three people changed significantly within a 12-month period. Without a reassessment, huge numbers of people were on a lower benefit than they were entitled to, which is why, under DLA, only 16% of people got the highest rate of benefits. Under the personal independence payment, that figure is 20%. It is right to make sure that people get the appropriate amount of support.
I thank the Minister for that intervention, but again I have to say that he must get out there and speak to people in our constituencies, because their experiences are not reflected in his remarks.
I will conclude, because I am conscious that other people should speak in the debate. The effects of benefit changes are wide-ranging and widespread. I urge the Government to reconsider those punishing changes. We have also heard about the changes to tax credits and the vulnerability of the working families who will be affected. A great number of people in my constituency will be pushed into further poverty because of those changes in the coming months. I urge the Government not to use vulnerable people and the disabled as scapegoats for what is, essentially, a failed austerity agenda.
I will be uncharacteristically brief because of the large number of people here from whom we will hear valuable contributions. The shame of the Government Back Benchers is eloquently displayed by their total absence. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on a splendid speech and on raising this subject.
I want to make one point, on the question of equality in society. In the orgy of self-congratulation at the Tory party conference last week, we heard a remarkable speech by the Prime Minister. Rhetoric has rarely been so far removed from reality. He talked about getting rid of inequality. We know the overwhelming importance of equality to achieving wellbeing in society. A splendid book, “The Spirit Level”, examined 23 countries to discover which are the happiest and have the highest sense of wellbeing. It was not the richest countries but those with the smallest gap between the rich and the poor—that led to satisfaction in society. The happiest countries on that basis are the Nordic countries and Japan; the two saddest countries in the world are the USA and the United Kingdom.
Part of that is a result of what has been happening. Of all my time in politics I would regard the golden age as the time in the late 1970s when, at the end of a period of Labour government, the measure of pay difference was striking. In 1980, the salaries of the chief executives of the main companies in the land were 25 times that of their average worker; now, they are 135 times that of the average worker. Then, if someone was unemployed their benefit was 21% of the average wage; now, it is 11%.
We have seen various cuts. The Thatcher Government downgraded pensions by downgrading the state earnings-related pension scheme and then encouraging the sale of 6 million personal pensions that were a fraud and a cheat, to get people out of the solidity, assurance and certainty of national schemes. We have gone backwards in our social security legislation and are seeing all these attempts to downgrade the standing of the welfare state. After the health service, the welfare state is the one great achievement of politics in the last century, yet now we are attacking that edifice with a wrecking ball. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East said, every change is assisting the richest in society and disadvantaging the poor.
There was another remarkable report last week about a fringe meeting at the Tory conference run by a group called the TaxPayers Alliance, more accurately known as the tax dodgers alliance. A man called Alex Wild urged the Government, For goodness’ sake, cut pensioners’ benefits soon. Do it straightaway—you must do it early enough, because lots of them will be dead by the next election, and a lot of them will be gaga, so they will have forgotten whether it was Labour or the Tories who cut their benefits. That degree of cynicism was shocking even from the Tory party. It is shocking that such things are thought, let alone said, and I hope we will get assurances from the Minister that there will be no more cynical attempts to cut benefits.
The Prime Minister’s entire speech last week was a wonderful illustration of the fantasy of politics; that it is not about the reality but the way it is painted and presented—that it is the spin that matters. The country is beginning to see through that with our new politics, with what has happened today and what happened as a result of that speech last week. The public want reality. They want the truth—they do not want to hear hugely elaborate and exaggerated accounts about benefits that are just not happening.
Our society is growing more and more unequal by the year, and that means more and more unhappiness. We should ask the Government to make sure that they bridge that gap. As T.S. Eliot said:
“Between the idea
And the reality…
Falls the shadow.”
An immense shadow obscures the truth of what is happening in society. We are growing into a more unequal and unhappier nation.
Thank you Mr Pritchard; everyone mixes us up.
My concern about the changes is for two particular groups. As most people know, I am a breast cancer surgeon. I am anxious about people who may be recovering from illnesses, or have illnesses that are hidden, such as illnesses that affect mental health, or that may wax and wane, such as multiple sclerosis. Those people are very difficult to assess. Some—such as, we hope, cancer patients—may return to work. I met one today at a disability into employment conference. She has gone back to work early despite clearly not being ready—she has come through very aggressive breast cancer treatment —because she has no alternative. We are dealing with people who are losing £30 a week in the work-related activity group. Those people will be pushed to go back to work or they will lose money. It is wrong that a society cannot support people who are facing life-threatening illness, or progressive, varying or debilitating illness.
The other big group I am concerned about is children. We all know the song about how children are our future. That is absolutely true. If we do not invest in the children of the future, we will reap the whirlwind when the time comes. Over the years, lots of Governments have talked about eradicating poverty. This Government think they can simply expunge it by changing the names of things. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission is now just the Social Mobility Commission. The Child Poverty Act 2010 will disappear. Of all the things not to measure, we are now not going to measure income. Of course, other measures contribute, but to imply that lack of money is irrelevant is completely wrong.
The groups cross over. Women with breast cancer have children; so do disabled people. Children will be affected by changes for every single other group. We know that at the moment the NHS is in difficulty because we face an ageing population. The issue is not the age—my mum is 81 and as fit as a flea—but the fact that we are not living well. We are collecting illnesses from the age of 50 onwards. We doctors have got pretty good at getting people to survive things, so that they reach an age where they have four major illnesses. We know that a lot of this is contributed to by people’s start in life and their level of poverty. Health is massively impacted by wealth inequality and poverty. If the NHS is struggling now, what on earth will it be like in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time?
This is not a matter of the workless lying at home with the blinds shut. Two thirds of the children who are now in poverty have a working parent, and we are expecting 1 million extra children to be in poverty. They will face poorer life chances, poorer education, lower chances of getting a job and a lot of more of these debilitating illnesses that we will be trying to ameliorate through the NHS. They will also have a dramatically shorter life expectancy. For us to make decisions in this place that create generations like that in the future is absolutely unforgivable. The changes are very cynical, and we should be looking at them from the point of view of how they will affect children. If we do not give children a better start in life, we will be having even harder discussions in 20 or 30 years’ time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate.
We have heard a number of concerns about the impact of the Government’s reforms to the welfare system. I want to focus on one particular aspect. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill will introduce new conditionality for parents with a three or four-year-old child who are claiming jobseeker’s allowance. In the future, once a child reaches three, both their parents will be expected to look for and prepare for work. That measure should be considered in the context of the Government’s promise to increase the free childcare entitlement for working parents of three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week in England.
As often happens, the devil of this policy is in the detail. Let us start with England. Thirty hours of free childcare will come into force in September 2016. The increased conditionality for parents will come into force under clause 15 of the Bill in April 2016. That is six months in which parents with very young children will be expected to work, but will not be entitled to the free childcare they need.
Members will know that a legal entitlement is not at all the same as full implementation on the ground. Serious doubts have been raised about whether there is capacity in the sector to provide that extra childcare and whether it would be adequately funded. A recent analysis by the Pre-school Learning Alliance showed that the current average hourly cost of childcare per child is £4.53, with the Government contributing just £3.88. When increased to 30 hours, that means that nurseries would operate at an annual loss of £661 per child. That is surely not sustainable.
It is far from clear whether parents in England after September 2016 will have the benefit of the new entitlement, and I challenge the Minister to respond to this: what consideration has been given to the impact of this policy across the UK? I am not as familiar with the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but I know that the Welsh Government currently support 10 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds, and there is additional support in “flying start” areas. The Welsh Government want to expand availability once the financial consequentials of the plans for England are known, but that is against the backdrop of a significant cut—around £1.3 billion, or 10%—to the Welsh budget by the UK Tory Government.
That brings me on to the serious problem of access to childcare, especially in rural and semi-rural areas, including parts of my own constituency. It is clear that availability of appropriate, accessible childcare that meets the needs of parents and children must be in place before the increased conditionality is introduced.
Lack of childcare is not the only problem with the policy. Conditionality can be extremely difficult for vulnerable parents, as we have heard. Care leavers, young parents, those with addictions and others often lack the skills and confidence they need to fulfil work-related activity requirements. Many need support to return to work, which is not always available. We know that jobcentres often lack the capacity and expertise to provide that support and to enable vulnerable parents to transition successfully into work
Barnardo’s has raised concerns that many jobcentres lack the basic facilities needed, especially for parents with young children, including bathrooms, and that staff can sometimes be unwelcoming when claimants bring their children to appointments. That is especially challenging for single parents with young children. It goes without saying that when increased requirements come into force for parents of three and four-year-olds, it will become even more important for jobcentres to address those issues. Given those difficulties, will the Minister commit to taking action to ensure that jobcentres adapt to meet the needs of parents and their children before the conditionality extension comes into force?
Another concern I have been made aware of is about the online system, which is now being used more and more. The system apparently frequently freezes, causing horrendous frustration, and the early indications are that the helpline is struggling to cope. Will the Minister look into that?
I will end on the sanctions regime. I agree with the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, specifically about the punitive and regressive impact that the sanctions regime will have on families with three and four-year-old children. We know that sanctions can be hugely disproportionate, and we have heard some horrendous examples of how bad they can be. We also know that the loss of benefits for weeks on end can leave families struggling to feed their children and heat their homes. Members will be aware that parents are being driven to food banks and into debt. For many families in my constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, that is a reality. I urge the Government to take action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for obtaining the debate and congratulate her on the powerful and moving speech she delivered.
I am pleased we have this opportunity today, particularly in the light of the wholly inadequate time we had to debate the changes to tax credits before the vote on the statutory instrument to push through the changes on 15 September. In the week of that vote, there was damning evidence in a briefing paper from the House of Commons Library on the effect of the changes on millions of people. It is important that we analyse the impact of these proposals.
A single-earner couple with two children, working a 35-hour week on the minimum wage, will see their tax credit award fall by £1,853 in 2016-17, while the impact of the new so-called national living wage will only modestly offset the impact of a fall in tax credit income, with net income falling by a huge £1,525. Let us reflect on that and the massive impact it will have on families in the UK. We know that the end result will be to push families with children into poverty.
It is disappointing to look round this room and see the Government Benches empty. We heard from the Tory conference that some Tory MPs have apparently voiced concerns about the changes, but where are they today? The Government need to listen to voices on the Opposition Benches and to those on their own Benches who seem to be questioning this as well. It is not too late to pause, reflect and change tack on the damaging changes that have been pushed through.
The attack on the working poor and low-income families with children flies in the face of the Government’s own rationale of making work pay. The Government argue that work is the best route out of poverty, yet it is estimated that 60% of children in poverty in Scotland come from working families. These changes will only make that worse. I say to Government Members: go back and look at the impact of these changes.
We cannot hit the pockets of so many hard-working families. The money must be found within the Treasury to ameliorate this. I ask all Conservative Members to think about the impact that these changes will have, to reflect on the details published by the House of Commons Library and to find a solution. We cannot and should not be hitting working families in the way that these measures will. We must question the moral compass of a Government who want to increase inheritance tax thresholds while the poorest in society are squeezed to such an extent. We hear from the Government that they want to help strivers. It is those in work who are badly hit by the changes to tax credits.
Perhaps we should ask what the logic of the changes is from an economic point of view. We are told it is about getting the deficit down. The reality, though, is that taking cash out of the pockets of the poorest means taking cash out of the economy and depressing economic activity. People on low incomes tend to spend what money they have. The changes do not fix the deficit; they leave us in a cycle of low growth. That is plain common sense. We can ask the philosophical question of whether there should be an effective support to employers who pay low wages, to excuse them from paying wages that offer dignity for all those in work. I would argue that we all want to get to a situation where work pays to the extent that all those in work have a decent standard of living.
The SNP fully supports the desire to make work pay, through a living wage—a real living wage, not the Tory construct. That must go hand in hand with an environment that encourages productivity, but we know that that has not been happening for the past eight years. Productivity has been flatlining and the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast only a limited increase in productivity for the next four years. We can get to a high-wage economy only if we have investment in skills and innovation, and through business investment. We do not have those, so we need the safety net that tax credits provide. Let us have a broad debate about what we need to do to drive investment into the economy and drive up productivity. That debate is not happening.
That is why the Government now need to reconsider what they have voted through. Let us come back to the example of the family losing £1,525 of their income next year. What will the Government say to such families, who will face difficult choices? Family budgets are already tight. Something has to give. We can imagine what will happen if someone who is living hand to mouth has an unexpected problem. Perhaps over the winter their central heating boiler will need to be fixed or the fridge will need to be replaced. When income is cut by more than £1,500, those things become difficult choices. That is why the Government need to re-examine the issue. I appeal to them to listen to the many voices raising legitimate concerns.
The Government talk of being a one nation Government, but if that is their desire, it cannot be squared with the rise in inequality, which these measures will accelerate. The Prime Minister said at the Tory conference that he wants an all-out war on poverty. Well, actions speak louder than rhetoric. The Government must change course and show that they can act in the national interest. If they want an all-out war on poverty, they must not cut support to those working families who depend on it and who want a decent standard of living.
A report published by the Resolution Foundation on 7 October estimated that the tax and benefits changes will push a further 200,000 children into poverty in 2016. I ask the Government whether that is a price worth paying. We cannot accept that that can be right, and it will not just be those 200,000 falling into poverty next year. This will increase to 600,000 by 2020. Perhaps it is little wonder that the Government want to redefine poverty. The numbers being pushed into poverty are frightening. It is not a price that a civilised society can afford to pay.
I am grateful that we are having this debate today, but it must not end here. I wrote to the Leader of the House on 21 September and asked, given the limited time we had on 15 September, for a full day’s debate to enable us to reflect properly on what the House of Commons Library has put before us. I appeal to the Government to listen and have the moral courage to change tack.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate.
In the political to-ing and fro-ing that surrounds the decisions taken in this place, the consequences for innocent children are all too often shunted down the list of priorities. I agree with the numerous calls from children’s charities for us to start to put children at the centre of our decision-making process.
Shortly after the Chancellor announced his Budget, I held a child poverty summit in my constituency. Participants included the deputy Children’s Commissioner for Wales, children’s charities, council officers and local groups that deal with vulnerable children. The overwhelming message that they wanted to convey was that child poverty was a growing issue, particularly in households where it had never previously been an issue—in-work households. Those are families whose incomes previously stretched to cover the mortgage and bills and to put food on the table, and still left enough to live comfortably. However, after years of pay freezes, increasing costs for fuel and food and the erosion of welfare support, those families were just one unexpected bill away from not being able to cover their costs. Many are too proud to ask for help, but we know they are suffering.
I feel that Dickensian conditions are creeping into society. One example given to me at the round table was of children being sent to school in dirty uniforms because their parents could not afford to put the washing machine on. Clothes-swap initiatives sprang up to provide them with clean clothes. In a different example, children in receipt of free school meals were going hungry during school holidays when they did not have those meals. Surely that should not be happening in one of the richest countries in the world. In my constituency 3,910 children are living in poverty and 2,407 of those are in in-work poverty. The Government’s latest round of attacks on working families announced by the Chancellor in July will adversely affect 9,400 children in Aberavon.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions recently defended his policy to restrict universal credit to two children as
“bringing home to parents the reality that children cost money”.
I am sure we all thank him for those words of profound wisdom, but we are not engaged in a teaching exercise; we are talking about children’s lives. Questions remain about how the system will detect, for example, fathers who have multiple children with multiple women. If each mother claims for her children, more than two of the father’s children could be in receipt of universal credit.
There are huge loopholes in the law, not just massive ethical and moral questions. I wonder what is happening to the party currently occupying the Government Benches, which claims to be a socially liberal party, in the old tradition of the term. The two-children policy might perhaps be described as government just large enough to fit into people’s bedrooms. There is nothing wrong with making work pay, but it should not be at the expense of children. If the state abandons children when they are in need, what incentive does that give them to contribute to society later in life?
I want to close with a quotation from the recent Conservative party conference:
“We must ensure that…we protect the hardest working and lowest paid.
Shop workers, cleaners, the people who get up in the small hours or work through the night because they have dreams for what their families can achieve”.
That was said by the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), otherwise known as the Mayor of London. I wonder whether it was simply part of some complex leadership bid. It may or may not have been; the fact is that I think many of my hon. Friends would agree with those comments.
Does my hon. Friend agree that abject failure is the only way of describing the Government’s welfare reform programme, which puts headlines ahead of the impact on children, the disabled and other vulnerable people whom society should protect?
I absolutely agree; as hon. Members have said, the issue must be about the bigger picture and the sort of society we want to build—not tomorrow’s headlines in the Daily Mail.
The Conservative party claims to be a one nation party and the party of the workers. That is high-flying rhetoric, but the reality is a story of division, attacking the most vulnerable in society while inheritance tax for the richest 60,000 is cut. The gap between the Government’s one nation rhetoric and the divisive reality of their policies is fast becoming a chasm. I urge the Minister to reconsider those policies and to close the gap.
I thank you for calling me a second time, Mr Pritchard. I am pleased to take part in this afternoon’s wide-ranging debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on bringing the issues forward so eloquently. The debate has, however, presented a sorry picture of the impact of the Government’s welfare reforms across the UK. Above all, it has brought home the point that austerity is not working; the Government are simply attacking low-income families, disabled people and those with long-term health conditions, while giving tax breaks to the very wealthiest.
We have heard today that children will be among those most severely impacted by the changes to tax credits in the new Welfare Reform and Work Bill, currently undergoing legislative scrutiny, but it is important to understand that the new measures are only the latest in a long line of assaults on the most disadvantaged people in our society.
Research on the cumulative impact of the reforms that have already been enacted, published by Sheffield Hallam University in February this year, calculated that by 2018 incomes in Scotland will have been reduced by £1.5 billion a year, or £440 for every adult of working age. According to the House of Commons Library, the current round of reforms in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill will take an estimated further £900 million a year from the lowest income households, and the heaviest losses will be sustained by families with children. As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said so powerfully, child poverty has long-term consequences. It cannot be fixed some years later with a magic bullet; it has a long-term impact on people’s life chances and life expectancy.
In Scotland, almost 200,000 families and 346,000 children are going to lose out because of changes to tax credits. The Resolution Foundation has pointed out that the vast majority of those children live in working families, and it expects that across the UK the changes to tax credits alone are going to push 200,000 more children into poverty by 2016, rising to 300,000 by 2020. Far from making work pay, the changes to tax credits for people already on low wages are going to entrench in-work poverty, not address it.
It is important to remember that the welfare reforms that have been implemented are having a hugely detrimental impact on thousands of people already hit by earlier reforms. We are seeing some of those effects much more clearly than we have until now—certainly more than we did at the time of their implementation.
Arguably, the most distressing symptom of the failure of welfare reform is the explosion of food bank use right across these islands. In Scotland, food bank use rose by two thirds last year alone. The Trussell Trust distributed 36,000 food parcels to children in Scotland, and that represents only some of the food banks operating in our communities. I do not think that is a sufficient or acceptable safety net for children in 21st-century Scotland —frankly, I do not know how Ministers sleep at night. It is very telling that not a single Back-Bench Tory MP is here today to defend the Government’s record. That is shameful.
The two biggest drivers for the unprecedented growth in food bank use are the changes in support for disabled people and those with long-term health problems, and, connected to that, the changes to the conditionality regime. For years now, serious concerns have repeatedly been raised about the work capability assessment for employment and support allowance. It has been an utter shambles.
According to the DWP’s own recent statistical analysis, over half of appealed fit-for-work ESA decisions are overturned. That is an unsustainable and unacceptable level of poor decision making. Moreover, it has led to protracted and costly appeal and tribunal proceedings—processes that place enormous stress on and cause real hardship to sick and disabled people and those who care for them. In some cases, they have exacerbated people’s health conditions.
The story with personal independence payments is similar, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) pointed out. A number of my constituents waited nearly a year for a PIP assessment, and so far, 20% of mandatory reconsiderations of PIP have resulted in a different decision being made. Under the previous contractor, Atos, the Government spent around £60 million a year on around 600,000 appeals against Atos decisions. A new contractor is now in place, but unless the Government actually change what they ask these companies to assess, and how, it is hard to see how Maximus is going to do any better than its predecessor.
A key problem has been that the complex medical histories of some claimants have not been consistently sought or considered adequately in a process that has been focused on functionality.
Given that the hon. Lady is on this point, I should briefly highlight that when there was a movement from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment, there were instructions out that the Government expected 20% fewer people to be on PIP.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Those people still have those conditions to live with, in many cases, and their condition has not got any better. It is just that it has become more difficult for them to deal with their condition. The problem has been particularly acute for people with fluctuating conditions and mental health problems—illnesses that are perhaps not immediately visible. The Multiple Sclerosis Society has pointed out that 39% of its members who were surveyed said that their ESA assessments had not taken account of additional evidence.
I have raised this issue with Ministers many times, particularly in relation to mental health. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly raised the tragic case of Michael O’Sullivan, following a ruling by the coroner concluding that a decision made in relation to his ESA was a major factor in his death. This man committed suicide after having been found fit for work by the Government’s assessors in 2013, but sadly this is not an isolated case.
Some time ago, I raised the case of a woman known as Ms DE, whose suicide in 2011 was the subject of an investigation by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland. Ms DE took her own life after scoring zero points in a work capability assessment made in the absence of an ESA50 form and without any additional information from her clinicians. The only information her assessor had about her condition was a single word, “depression”, which in her case masked a long and very complicated psychiatric history. Both her general practitioner and her consultant psychiatrist considered her unfit for work at the time of her death, even though she had worked for most of her adult life and wanted to go back to work. The distress caused by her benefits assessment may have played a role in her suicide. The investigation concluded that there was “no other known trigger” for the events that took place.
Those two cases have been properly investigated and fully documented, but they are unlikely to be isolated. I have had to learn to deal with constituents coming to me expressing suicidal feelings because of their experiences in the assessment process, and I am certainly not qualified to give them the kind of support that they clearly need. As an MP, all I can really do is point them in the direction of the appropriate services and try to help them to work their way through state bureaucracy. However, just at a human level, I do not think anyone can fail to be moved or to understand that we have a fundamental problem in this process. It is not treating people with the basic dignity that they require.
The shortcomings of the assessment system are leading directly to the problems experienced with the new sanctions regime. There has been considerable evidence for some time now that, for example, those with mental health conditions are being disproportionately sanctioned. Again, that chimes with the anecdotal evidence that I am sure many MPs here today will have seen at first hand—of very unwell people simply falling through the social safety net.
Recent figures published by the DWP on the sanctions regime show that in nearly 50% of reviewed cases, decisions are being reversed. We see a system that is not working efficiently, and again, we see horrendous social consequences for people who are ill and, in some cases, really very vulnerable. Once again, taking better account of individuals’ medical histories and getting the decisions right in the first place would prevent the stress, hardship and anxiety of sick and vulnerable people falling foul of the sanctions regime and finding themselves stigmatised, vilified and castigated simply for being unwell.
We need a root-and-branch review of the sanctions regime. In the last Parliament, the cross-party Work and Pensions Committee recognised that, as have countless external bodies representing those living with health problems. Will the Minister today please just bite the bullet, go back to the drawing board on the sanctions regime and recognise the links to the inadequacies in the assessment process?
I have already talked about the Government Benches; when I look around the Chamber, I am also struck by the number of Members who have spoken from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland this afternoon. I think that reflects the differential impact that welfare reform is having on the devolved Administrations. I also think it probably reflects a very different political ethos, but we will leave that for another day.
The Scottish Government have tried to protect those most affected by welfare reforms, providing over £300 million to mitigate the worst excesses of the changes; notably, that has mitigated the bedroom tax, maintained council tax benefit for half a million people and established the welfare fund. However, what we really need are economic powers and the powers over social security fully in the hands of our Parliament so that we can tackle the causes, not just the symptoms, of poverty and disadvantage.
I am sorry that so far the Government have voted against any moves to devolve really meaningful powers, betraying the promises made just over a year ago, but I hope that when we do have chance very shortly to debate these matters again, the Government will take the opportunity to accept some amendments that have been proposed, if only to reverse the damage that is going to be done to poor households through changes to tax credits.
The Government’s welfare reforms have bitten very deep already into the incomes of very poor people. It is important to remember that this Parliament has a responsibility to all its citizens—not just the rich people and those old enough to vote. We have to make sure that we do not abandon those people, because we have a responsibility to them, and we need a fairer social security system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
The dynamics of this debate have said a great deal. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) spoke with huge passion and absolutely from the heart. We could hear the voice of Swansea in what she was saying, and it was important to hear an authentic voice explaining the real effects of these changes to social security and what they mean to real communities and real people. We are not talking rhetoric; we are not talking learned lines that are copied down throughout the Conservative party. We are talking about what happens to people in their homes and communities—people who, as has been pointed out, feel demeaned by what has happened to them. It is difficult for people to discuss it and, as my hon. Friend said, she wanted this to be an opportunity for the voices of victims of the benefit changes to be heard. I congratulate all hon. Members who have had the opportunity to be heard and who have spoken authentically on behalf of their communities.
We heard the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) saying that we are punishing workers on the lowest wages and that that is unbearable for many families. We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), and the voice from Birmingham said that the people who are using our food banks are in work. We heard from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who said we need regionalised figures to explain the impact of the changes on our communities. Then we heard from the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), who gave many examples of people who had been assessed as being fit for work, including a man who had had a second stroke. He discussed those constituents’ pain and suffering and how degrading Atos assessments have been—they are degrading, inhuman and disgraceful. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on that, because he spoke not only for people in Inverness, but for those across the country who have been assessed by Atos and feel the same.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. The Government’s study identified that more than 330,000 children from low-income families in England will be hit by the benefits cap and that a couple with two children will be priced out of being able to rent a two-bedroom property in almost all areas of the south of England and across much of the midlands too. Does my hon. Friend agree that this state of affairs will have a potentially devastating effect on the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, who may be forced out of their homes and away from their communities, and that it is likely to have a particularly severe impact on single parents, who rely strongly on the local communities around them for support in bringing up their children?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Many communities, particularly in inner London, have already been affected by the first benefit cap. We have already seen young children ripped out of primary schools and moved out of London, as families try desperately to find somewhere they will be able to afford under the benefit cap.
Introducing a benefit cap makes a profound change to the way we pay benefits. The social security system used to be, and had always been, a safety net available to everyone, but introducing a benefit cap disconnects need from the amount that we are prepared to pay. Larger families, which are in most need, will be affected most. It is not their fault that they live in inner London or that they cannot live in public rented housing because there is not enough affordable public rented housing so they must live in the private sector. The Government have introduced an arbitrary, politically motivated cap that will have a devastating effect on communities.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as the impact on working people on low wages and the poor, another surprising aspect of Government policy is its total disregard for those with long-term, progressive, degenerative conditions such as muscular dystrophy?
I fully understand, Mr Pritchard. Given the number of people who have not been able to speak in this debate, I made the decision that I would encourage them to intervene. There is a huge amount I would like to say, but I am reflecting many hon. Members here today who want to speak.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) about increasing inequality and attempts to downgrade the welfare state, which is being attacking like a wrecking ball—I thought that was an important way of putting it. We then heard from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) about the difficulty of assessing people with variable conditions, and it is perhaps even worse for those with degenerative conditions.
Two thirds of children in poverty have a parent in work. That is an important point; indeed, it should be written on the shaving mirrors and make-up mirrors of every Tory MP. If we are seeing an economic miracle, why is that happening? The Government and their Back Benchers should be thinking about that.
We heard from the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) about parents of three and four-year-olds and the expected gap between the time when childcare is supposed to be delivered and the time when they will be expected to go to work. It is obviously nonsense, and the amount of money the Government have provided for that childcare is also clearly nonsense. The Childcare Bill has only four pages and says little more than the Conservative party manifesto. There is no delivery mechanism for this wonderful childcare they claim they will provide, so we wait to see whether it happens.
We heard from the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) about the tax credit cut. The obvious question is: why is that happening when the inheritance tax threshold is being increased and from a Prime Minister who says we have an all-out war on poverty? Ha, ha, ha. In what way does that work exactly? My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) talked very movingly about working people who used to be able to pay their mortgage and their bills generally, but who now, after years of a pay freeze, are only one meal away from disaster. He also talked about the increasingly Dickensian conditions. We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) about how the Conservatives’ policy seems to be based entirely on rhetoric, not evidence.
The best social policy comes from looking at what is happening, how it will work and what its effect will be. The fact that we do not have an equality impact assessment for the Welfare Reform and Work Bill says it all. We know those who will be affected most: it will be women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Why is there not an equality impact assessment to help to spell that out? If the Government want to make proper social policy, why do they not base it on evidence? What a shame it is that we hear all these voices—it is like alarm bells going off across the country—saying, “Do not do this. Do not introduce these welfare changes. You are increasing child poverty. You are increasing poverty in this country. Stop, think, pause,” and yet there is no one in the Chamber from the Conservative party, with the honourable exceptions of the Minister and his Parliamentary Private Secretary.
Where are all the others? Is it that those who are against the Bill dare not speak out, but just want to whisper behind their hands or give unattributable briefings? Where are those who really believe that what the Government are doing is correct? Where are the troops loyally coming out and saying what a great thing this is? It is not a great thing. The Government are ashamed of themselves, but they continue to keep going, hiding behind rhetoric and their friends in the right-wing media, when those who are voices for real people in this country know that what the Government are doing is devastating this country.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). I recognise that this is an incredibly important debate and that hon. Members have made constructive, thought-provoking speeches, often with personal stories, so I will not give a pre-written speech, but will try to address as many of the points as possible. I am the Minister for Disabled People and if the points raised relate to other Departments, I will do my best to cover them.
I pay tribute to the shadow Minister. It was helpful of her to encourage interventions, allowing everybody here to contribute, bar the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). That was a real shame, because he is one of the Opposition’s most effective and measured Members of Parliament and has helped to shape Government policies in the past with well argued points. It is a shame that he did not have the opportunity to contribute.
I have a soft spot for Swansea East because, as the Minister for Disabled People, I celebrate, recognise and champion the fact that Swansea is the first city to be fully disability confident. It is a credit and an honour that the hon. Member for Swansea East represents such a wonderful town. One of my first media activities was to praise it, so she can be very proud of Swansea East. Leading on from that, she raised a point about barriers to work. I recognise that issue in my role as Minister for Disabled People. We have a commitment to halve the disability employment gap. In the last 12 months alone, 226,000 more disabled people have got into work, but halving the gap will require about another million, so there is still a huge way to go. We will be doing a huge amount of work through Disability Confident and our Access to Work scheme, through which we are now close to record numbers of people being helped.
The hon. Lady raised a point about sanctions. That has come up in a number of debates that I have spoken in, and the shadow Minister from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), raised the point as well. The use of sanctions has fallen by 30% in the last 12 months. The Oakley review did recognise that that was an important part of the mix; it should not be something in isolation. This is about the claimant and the work coach coming together with a contract and both sides working to give that individual the best opportunity. The use of sanctions is an important issue. I recognise some of the personal stories raised, and we shall continue to look at that, but it is an important part of the mix.
The hon. Member for Swansea East also highlighted Parkinson’s UK. The issue was raised in a previous debate. I have since met Parkinson’s UK, and we have made significant changes to some of the practices in the personal independence payment based on its expertise and advice. I am very grateful that it was able to contribute to that. I thought that the hon. Lady’s speech was important. She highlighted the need for the voice of the vulnerable, and certainly the opportunity was taken with a very powerful speech.
I am going to be tight on time. Let us see whether I can get through these pieces of paper first and then hon. Members can feel free to intervene.
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) raised the concern that the TaxPayers Alliance was now setting policy. Fear not: it has not taken over the leadership of our party, so do not panic.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who for the second day in a row has been detained elsewhere when I have responded to his points—hopefully he will read this—raised the point about food banks. A number of other hon. Members also talked about that. We have argued in the past that we have made them more accessible. One thing we do know is that the proportion of people reporting difficulties affecting food is down in the UK from 9.8% in 2007 to 8.1% in 2012. This is an incredibly important issue. I recognise that concerns have been raised about even people in work sometimes having had to access such facilities. We will continue to look at the issue, but we know that the number of those reporting difficulties with accessing food is falling—something that we would all welcome.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) talked about fluctuating health conditions. I stress that, in the proposed changes to ESA, the support group will not change—I just want to make that clear—but we have to recognise that people have fluctuating health conditions, particularly in terms of mental health.
That is exactly the point I am coming on to. We have to be more flexible. In terms of mental health conditions, we know that one in five people going for ESA will have a mental health condition as their primary concern. That increases to just below 50% on a menu of conditions. A mental health condition is one of many types of condition that fluctuate, which has to be recognised. That is why the principles of universal credit will make a considerable difference.
This is not just about support to get people into work, although that is incredibly important; it is also about keeping people in work. For example, 300,000 people a year with a mental health condition drop out of work. I know from having employed someone with a mental health condition that it is a lot easier to keep someone in work than for them to drop out, navigate the benefits system, rebuild their confidence and get back into work. We are doing a huge amount of work. There are lots of pilots and lots of lessons that we are learning. Rightly—this goes across the political divide—we all recognise the significance of mental health conditions and other fluctuating conditions. Life is not simple and the system has to recognise that.
That brings me to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones). I am delighted to say that his local football team finally got promoted the other season, which stops his team knocking mine out in the play-offs every year. I have had too many long journeys that have ended in great disappointment. He, too, rightly highlighted the need for flexibility. With universal credit, we will be encouraging the coaches. We will be making the coaches build a flexible relationship with the claimant, recognising that each person is an individual and has different challenges and, crucially, different opportunities.
We have talked about childcare. Obviously, there was our announcement about going from 15 hours to 30 hours. Crucially, this is a devolved issue. We will keep a very close eye on what the devolved Assemblies are doing to see whether there are lessons to be learned and, as ever, we will seek to share best practice. Capacity is a key issue. I recognise that. Between 2009 and 2012, we created 230,000 places—an increase of 12%. We have announced £2 million of start-up grants to encourage more childcare provision. We are simplifying the regulatory framework. That is something we look at.
I thought that it was a fair point about the jobcentre environment. I have done many tours of jobcentres and I think that is something we need to look at. Again, we are doing pilots on how we can change the environment and the services that are offered—joined-up services. Those were fair points on jobcentres. I think we would all recognise that there is work to be done there.
Many of the points in the speech by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) were from the tax credits debate. That is not really today’s debate. There will be an opportunity for that next week, but those important points have now been placed on the record. I say to all the people concerned that we cannot look at this issue in isolation. The introduction of the national living wage will help 2.7 million people. The ripple effect will filter through to 6 million people in total. The changes to the personal income tax threshold have made a significant difference to our lowest earners, taking 3.2 million of them out of paying any income tax at all. I particularly welcome the measure whereby that will lock in with inflation once we hit £12,500, so we will not start to see the creep of people being dragged back into paying income tax. I very much welcome that and of course the increased numbers in work. We support the principle that work is the best route out of poverty.
The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) made some interesting points. I gently remind him, in relation to the quote that he used, that those were the very people who elected us to form this Government.
I understood the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. I have made an offer before to meet to discuss those, because I know that she has a real desire to see an improvement in this area. I felt sometimes that there was a bit of confusion between the ESA system and the personal independence system; on some of the points, I felt that. I think it would be worth our having that meeting to discuss the issues in detail. I will say that there has been a complete transformation in the service that a claimant would expect through personal independent payment from when it was initially rolled out. There were well documented problems. I have done Westminster Hall debates on that before. We are now down to 11 weeks—median—end to end, and five weeks for an assessment. That is well within where we would expect to be, but it is a journey. We continue to meet organisations that help with the training and with improving the claimant’s experience.
Crucially on mental health, under DLA a disservice was done to people with mental health conditions. Under personal independence payment, all impairments are treated equally and the system is geared up to recognise them. That is part of the reason why we are now seeing 20% of claimants getting the maximum benefit, compared with just 16% under DLA. Rightly, the assessment has to be about dignity. The assessors are there to help people with their claims. I am happy to meet to discuss that further.
On ESA, let us remember that, on the WRAG group, only 1% of people are coming off that benefit. That shows that the current system has needed to be reformed. I welcome the extra £60 million that we will be spending on providing specialist support, rising to £100 million by 2020. That leaves me with just 20 seconds. I am sorry that I have not been able to touch my formal speech.
I welcome the Conservatives who have now joined us. We have been here since half-past 2; it would have been nice to see them earlier. I thank the Minister for his kind words, but I feel that I am leaving this room no wiser than I was when I came into it. The lack of his colleagues throughout the debate and the rhetoric in his answers have done nothing but confirm to me that this Government just do not care.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of changes to welfare benefits.