I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. This debate marks two years since the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Act, which received Royal Assent on 16 March 2016. It brought in several key changes: the four-year benefit freeze, a further reduction in the benefit cap, a cut to the family element of tax credits and the introduction of the two-child limit, and removal of the work-related activity group component from employment and support allowance. It also saw changes in the work allowance within universal credit, leading to a 63% taper, and further housing benefit cuts. Those cuts had hit people in the private rented sector previously, but were now brought in to hit the social rented sector.
The problem is that we cannot look at the 2016 Act in isolation, because it comes on top of the cuts in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and, in fact, Budget changes going right back to 2010. We have seen eight years of relentless attacks on the most vulnerable in our society. Two groups particularly hit were the disabled and children. In 2008 incapacity benefit was changed to employment and support allowance; and, as the National Audit Office has highlighted today, 70,000 people were underpaid because their right to income-related employment and support allowance was not recognised. The Government are undertaking to pay back all that money by next year, but people have spent nine years without money that they were owed. Interestingly, the Government will pay back only to October 2014 and not any earlier arrears. That is a bit funny, because when we have to pay the Government, somehow there is never a statute of limitations.
In 2013 there was the move from disability living allowance to personal independent payments. Those are meant to cover the additional costs relating specifically to disability; they are not meant to be work related. They are also meant to allow someone with a disability to study or work and achieve the best that they can.
Both employment and support allowance and personal independence payment require a fair assessment of someone’s disability, or indeed ability. Instead, people got work capability assessments. Those are really the key problem for people who are disabled. The process was outsourced initially to Atos and is now outsourced also to Capita. The Government aspire to depend predominantly on face-to-face assessments. A key issue is the gradual reduction in sourcing other evidence, despite the claimant assuming that the Department for Work and Pensions will source other evidence regarding their underlying condition.
I can accept that we would want to look at someone’s capability and not pigeonhole them, but knowing what underlying condition they have can tell us whether that is something that will change, improve or never improve. There have been repeated assessments of people with chronic conditions and deteriorating conditions, congenital abnormalities and permanent injuries, such as amputations or spinal injuries. People with terminal diseases have been recalled for repeated assessments.
There is a particular problem regarding the assessment of people with mental illness or learning disability. I am sure that every MP will have had cases in which there has been poor recognition of how a mental illness affects someone’s abilities. I had to raise in this place the case of a constituent who had complex post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the Gulf war—to the point where he struggled ever to leave the house. He was on DLA at the highest rate. He was moved over to PIP at the highest rate and then called for reassessment, at which point he was moved to the lower rate. He appealed, which of course many people do because of the high rate of change of assessment when people appeal. That shows how poor the original assessments were.
However, following my constituent’s appeal, all his points were taken away, and what my caseworker heard back when inquiring was, “PIP is really for people who can’t carry out the basic tasks of daily life. People with mental illness can of course wash themselves, cook, clean and shop.” Well, that is said by someone who has never seen profound depression, which looks like the batteries have simply been taken out of someone. That issue appears again and again in all our casework inboxes. The other conditions we are talking about are those that wax and wane. Someone may attend for assessment on a good day and they are often bullied into saying what they can achieve on their best day. That is not a realistic assessment of what their life is like.
As Scotland takes over some of the benefits, we are aiming to treat people with greater dignity. We will ensure that we have sourced the medical information and try to ensure that the assessor is equipped with the clinical skills to assess the person they are viewing, because that process has become really traumatic for people who are suffering from disability.
Under PIP, more than half of people have lost some or all of their benefits, particularly the mobility element. Many of us have been involved in trying to hold on to mobility cars for some of our constituents. We have seen the distance that people need to be able to walk reduced to 20 metres. Frankly, that is the distance from the car park into the supermarket; it is not a distance that would allow someone to walk to their nearest bus stop, or to walk from the bus stop at the other end to wherever they are trying to go. Then people’s unpaid carers lose carer’s allowance. That means that the impact on a disabled family can be huge.
Is my hon. Friend aware of a recent report commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission called “The cumulative impact of tax and welfare reforms”? It showed that, overall, the changes to taxes, benefits, tax credits and universal credit meant that households with at least one disabled adult and one disabled child would lose more than £6,500 a year, which is more than 13% of their annual income.
I am, and I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The problem with all the changes, going right back to 2010, is that there never was a proper cumulative impact assessment to look at what changes on top of changes have done and what happens to people who are in more than one group. We know that lone parents are impacted by changes, but what if a lone parent is also disabled?
Does the hon. Lady agree that all the changes in the welfare legislation should be seen in the broader context of other policies, such as the rise in the national living wage, which is lifting some of the lowest paid people in this country out of poverty?
I will come to that point later in my speech, if the hon. Lady is happy to wait.
In addition, carers are now subject to conditionality and treated as jobseekers, regardless of what their caring commitments are. That means that they may be open to sanctions. In 2013 we had the infamous bedroom tax, which thankfully in Scotland we have been mitigating, but which has impacted on people with disability, who will lose 14% of their housing benefit if they are deemed to have a spare room. Many disabled people require additional space, whether that is for complex equipment or because they need to sleep separately from their partner, or because they routinely or occasionally require someone to stay over when they are not well.
With the Welfare Reform and Work Act we also saw the removal of the work-related activity group component from employment and support allowance. We spoke out against that repeatedly. Taking £30 a week away from someone who has been defined by DWP assessors as not fit to work will most certainly not get them back into work. That impacts particularly on people recovering from major illness. As a cancer surgeon, I have seen for myself the impact on people who have gone through a year of intense surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy and the time it takes to get back to work. We are talking about extra heating, because they are at home. In England, we are talking about prescription charges and car parking charges at hospitals, both of which, thankfully, patients in Scotland do not have to pay. Is it any wonder that this Government have been criticised by the United Nations for breaking the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities? It has been a relentless attack.
The stress has increased the mental health issues suffered by people with disability. A survey has shown that over 40% have at some time considered suicide. What kind of society are we, if we are not willing to look after those who are vulnerable? We can judge a society by how it looks after its most vulnerable. As these disability benefits come to Scotland, it is our aim to use a human rights approach and ensure that dignity is at the centre of how we treat people.
Carers should also be supported and valued. They save the state millions of pounds by providing virtually free care. In Scotland, one of the first Acts that will come in next year will increase the carer’s allowance to at least the level of jobseeker’s allowance. It is little enough, but it is at least a declaration of intent. It is envisaged that employment support allowance is to support those who, due to their disability, are simply unable to work. PIP is meant to allow those with disability to reach their full potential. We should not be sticking people in their houses, because we take away their mobility, and then saying, “We are trying to get them into work.” People with disability who are working have extra costs, and that is the whole point of PIP, so the Government should put their money where their mouth is.
We also know that child poverty is rising and is expected to rise further. We have seen it climb by about 5%. The poorest areas in the UK now have child poverty rates of around 50%. How can that be right, when we know the impact that will have on children? But while we talk often about child poverty, we should recognise that it is actually family poverty, and that children cannot be separated from the experience of their family. Their income has been hollowed out since 2010. We saw the benefit cap in 2013 set for families at £26,000 a year. That affected about 20,000 families. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 cut that to £23,000 in London and to £20,000 elsewhere in the UK. That affected 88,000 families, who lost either £3,000 or £6,000 from their income.
In 2011 we saw the local housing allowance brought in to cut what was paid for those living in the private sector. It reduced housing allowance from the median in their area to 30%. But in 2016 that was frozen and in a third of areas it does not even come close to 30%. In London, housing benefit for those in the private rental sector will cover only 16% of their housing costs, meaning that they fall about £1,000 a month short. That is significant for anybody’s wallet, but for those at the lower end of income earnings it is a severe hit. That has led to over 4.5 million people in the private rented sector struggling as rents have soared.
In 2016 the Government cut the family premium that was allowed with a new claim or a new birth, leading to a loss of £907. The bedroom tax also affects families, particularly in situations of separation or divorce, because the parent with minor caring responsibilities is not recognised. For example, a man—most likely—now living on his own in a small flat is not allowed a bedroom that would enable his children to stay over when he has them for the weekend. What does it say about us that we are not trying to strengthen families, but actually trying to undermine them?
Tax credits, which had such a big impact on child poverty, have faced attrition since 2011, when the first thing to go was the baby element, removing over £500. The 2012 changes saw families over £700 worse off. We all remember the haggling in the Chamber about changes to tax credits and the Chancellor stepped back from doing it after the Lords objected, but that was because he knew that those tax credit changes were simply hidden within universal credit and that, therefore, eventually they would hit everyone. The Government have removed the family element for the first child, again over £500, and now tax credits are claimable for only the first two children. The third child in a family loses out £2,780 a year. That has a huge impact on such families.
Universal credit has also reduced the work allowance. That means that it will often not be worth the while of the partner in a family—the second earner—going out to work, because they would lose so much and, particularly when childcare is taken into account, could end up worse off than if they did not take the extra work. The Government always talk about making work pay, but they do not always follow through.
The policy from the 2016 Act that has had the biggest and widest net, dragging more people into poverty, is the benefit freeze. Again, that comes on top of a 1% cap that was in place from 2013. The holding down of all working-age benefits has been in place for a number of years.
We are already looking to raise more money to mitigate some of the cuts from here but, frankly, with our budget dropping over 8% between 2010 and 2020, it is simply not possible for a Government to mitigate everything that comes from here. This place has to take responsibility. We are already spending £450 million on mitigating changes that came from here. So all the hon. Gentleman is asking is that the Scottish Government should keep sending their budget back to Westminster.
If the benefits freeze was to be unfrozen in Scotland, people in Scotland would be receiving additional benefits that people in the rest of Britain would not receive. Consequently, it would seem fair if that came out of Scottish tax take. The Scottish Parliament has the ability to raise taxes, but the hon. Lady is declining to do so. Why is that?
That is what I am saying; we are already mitigating £450 million in benefit cuts from this place. We are not here to talk only about Scotland; we are actually talking about the suffering right across the UK. Some hon. Members in this place like to imply that Scottish National party MPs do not care about people in the rest of the UK, but I have friends and family here, as many of us do. The source of the benefit freeze is the Department for Work and Pensions—this place—and it has to be fixed at source.
I commend my hon. Friend for her meticulous and erudite speech. Does she agree that the benefit freeze, even by its own measure, is going beyond what was predicted? That is suggested by the DWP’s own figures and the figures that the SNP has obtained from the House of Commons Library, which suggest that the increase in inflation means that £3 billion extra will be saved by the DWP from the benefit freeze.
Yes. That is exactly what I will move on to. Obviously, the former Chancellor, George Osborne, justified the benefit freeze because at the time inflation was 0.3%, but inflation now, due to Brexit and the fall in the value of the pound, is officially 3%, as measured last September. By 2020, low-income families will be over £830 worse off, just due to the benefit freeze. If we look at the cumulative cuts, an average family will be £1,300 worse off. But if we drill down into families that have three or more children, that builds up and becomes eye-watering.
The hon. Lady is being extremely generous in giving way. I want to ask about the principle behind what she is saying. I was not an MP when the benefit freeze was introduced, but I believe the logic was that at that point benefit spending was rising much faster than average earning. Does she think it is right that spending on benefits should go up faster than the average earnings of people in the country? Does she think that should be the case, and is she advocating for that to continue now?
I am advocating that inflation is now ten times what it was when the policy was brought in, and that therefore this policy should be re-thought. It was never imagined to have such a punitive impact. As my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) said, the return to the Treasury has been much greater than planned, so the Government could easily afford to unfreeze benefits. That measure is having a particular impact on the poorest.
Like the point raised by the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), the Government and the Conservative party claim all the time that they are helping the poorest through other actions. The number one thing that is always quoted is the national living wage: not the real living wage, which is 95p an hour higher, but the pretendy living wage. The Office for Budget Responsibility, however, points out that this does not offset the benefit cuts. The increased earnings owing to the national living wage will be £4 billion a year by 2020. The benefit cuts are three times that: they will be between £12 billion and £13 billion a year. I am sorry, but the Government and the Conservative party cannot hide behind that claim. They are still taking £8 billion from the poorest families.
The other thing that is always quoted is the raising of the personal tax allowance. That obviously has a bigger impact if someone pays tax, but only £1 out of £6 spent by the Treasury on raising the personal tax allowance will end up being for people in the lower half of the income distribution curve. Unfreezing benefits would be much more targeted—even excluding child benefit from that and focusing on all the other benefits would have the biggest impact on helping poor families.
Other benefit cuts have specifically impacted on children and families with children. The health in pregnancy and Sure Start maternity grants were both cut, even though we know the importance of the first 1,001 days after conception. That is about the health and nutrition of the mother and the early years of the child. We know that the impact of poverty affects children life-long; it reduces their educational attainment and tends to limit their job prospects. They are much more likely to end up on benefits in the future. It also affects their health. They have higher rates of physical and mental health issues than those in affluent families. They are at greater risk of addiction, of ending up in the criminal justice system, of committing suicide and of being in a road traffic accident or a house fire.
All that costs money. Mitigating in later life the issues that come from child poverty is estimated to cost the Treasury almost £6.5 billion a year. If there is no change in direction from the Government, we expect 200,000 more children to be growing up in poverty by 2020. I suggest to the Minister and the Government that they do not spend £6.5 billion mitigating suffering in later life, but invest in early years now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow her speech, which raised some very important issues. As Members of Parliament, we all want to ensure that the welfare system operates correctly. I am a strong believer in what the Government are doing on welfare and find myself, once again, in a debate about welfare reform. I am glad to be here, because one of the Government’s most important jobs is looking after those who are unable to look after themselves. I am proud of what this Government have done during the time I have been in Parliament, and of the record since the 2010 coalition Government and the Conservative Government that followed.
The hon. Lady talks about how proud she is of this Government’s actions, but by the time this debate concludes, at 11 o’ clock, St Stephen’s church café in Redditch will open as a food bank. Does she not understand that there is a clear correlation between this Government’s actions on welfare reform and the food banks in her constituency?
I visited the food bank and have spoken to the people there, but time does not permit me to talk in depth about those issues. I have an ongoing dialogue with both the people who run the food bank and the people who use it. I understand very well what is happening in my constituency of Redditch and, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for moving on, I will speak about some of my experiences with universal credit and the jobcentre there.
I will focus my remarks on universal credit because it is a key plank of the Government’s reforms. Since my election, I have made it a priority to understand what services exist for my constituents who face challenges, whether those are unemployment, poverty or physical and mental health problems. As a constituency MP, I understand very well what is going on. There are areas of deprivation in Redditch, as there are in every constituency up and down the country. It is up to the Government to ensure that the help is on the ground, where it is needed.
It is important to revisit the principles behind the drive to reform the system that we inherited from the last Labour Government. In that system, people had little or no incentive to get back into work. When they did, they found themselves worse off and liable to lose money if they took on more hours or a better paid job. How could that be right?
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire talked about tax credits. It is my understanding from DWP statistics that tax credit spending ballooned from £1.1 billion at its introduction to £30 billion a year by 2015. I do not think it is right to spend such a rapidly escalating amount of GDP on benefits. That indicates there is something fundamentally wrong at the heart of the system.
There is widespread public support for the principle that welfare should be not a life sentence, but a lifeline as someone transitions through difficult circumstances or the loss of a job. The old welfare system had become labyrinthine in its complexity, with a number of different benefits adding to the confusion over what someone was entitled to. It was not a system that gave people a ladder to a better life, but rather one that trapped them in worklessness and poverty.
I do not agree with that, because the evidence does not bear it out. Universal credit is an agile system that is designed not only to get people who are out of work into work, but to support them as they look for better-paying jobs. I will come to that in my speech.
I accept that reforming welfare is difficult, as the hon. Lady said. There can be no MP in this House who has not come across heart-breaking cases where the system has failed. Those are wrong, and we all stand up for our constituents, but they are not evidence of a failing system—rather, they are the inevitable consequences of a large and challenging public sector reform process. Since I have been in this House, I have seen Ministers listen to problems and make changes to fix the system. Recently, we have seen adjustments reflecting concerns raised on both sides of the House, which are welcome. We hear much criticism from the Opposition, both the SNP and the Labour party, on this. It is extremely easy to criticise from the Opposition Benches, but no real constructive alternative is offered.
I have made it my priority to visit the jobcentre and speak to local people on the ground in Redditch. These are just a few of the experiences that I have heard. My local jobcentre manager has worked there for 30 years. She described the system as “working very well” for her clients. She said that it is “the best system” she has seen in her 30 years as a jobcentre manager and that it helps people “who really need help”.
The first example is a customer who was seen by a work coach when universal credit first went live. The customer had a very difficult personal background. She was totally disengaged when she saw the work coach and she was quite difficult to work with. The work coach encouraged the customer to gain upskilling in maths and English. With the work coach’s help, she found work. The customer is now working in a role where she wants to help others to find work. She even shares knowledge of vacancies with her former work coach to encourage other people to find work.
Another example is a customer who had been on and off benefits since 2012 and was working with a work coach. This customer struggles to make eye contact and lacks confidence. Over time, the work coach established a rapport and helped him to gain confidence. They referred him to work experience with a local retail outlet. When he attended, the work coach asked if there had been any changes. The customer looked them in the eye and said, with a smile on his face, “Would that include the fact that I’ve got a job?” The coach said that they are “delighted” and “so glad” that they referred him to the retailer in the first place, and:
“Seeing the customer smiling about his success really made my day.”
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Many. I can write to the hon. Gentleman with the precise numbers, if he would like me to.
I will touch on another example. A qualified hairdresser had been a carer and was a single parent to her disabled children. She found it difficult to find work to fit around her responsibilities. Her work coach suggested that she consider self-employment and she was referred to the new enterprise allowance in February 2016. She commenced self-employment, hairdressing in care homes, from April 2016.
By April 2017, she had expanded her business by 200% and was nominated for entrepreneur of the year by learndirect. At the ceremony on 4 July, she won the award. She was delighted and said it was all down to the initial push and referral from her work coach, followed by support.
After the meeting, she sent an email to the work coach, which said:
“Thank you for meeting with me yesterday, I felt very positive after our appointment. This is the first time I have ever been out of work and in this situation so was dreading the whole ‘Job Centre’ scenario. I don’t know what people complain about, so far everyone I have encountered has been really helpful and proactive.”
Is it not time that we had more such stories in the media, instead of the negativity we are always hearing from this place?
At the heart of the system are the work coaches, who offer tailored, individualised support to help people. Last week, I was privileged to open Redditch Nightstop, a centre for young people living in family-supported housing, where I did indeed meet claimants of the system, which the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) asked about.
I talked in depth with the local jobcentre manager. Her feedback was that she was able to join up the local courses offered by Redditch Nightstop with some of her clients, who would otherwise struggle to cope with basic life skills. That type of system is a positive step forward that enables people on the ground, who know the local sources of support, to access them and to gain confidence. Universal credit works with those clients, not against them.
I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will keep my remarks about older workers brief. I have often spoken in Parliament about the discrimination faced by older workers in our society. I am an older worker myself, but age should not be a barrier to entering a new career or occupation, retraining or upskilling, provided that it is a positive choice.
In addition, because skills shortages affect many businesses now that we have virtually full employment—thanks to the work of this Government—many businesses are realising that youth is not everything when it comes to employing staff. B&Q has long been a champion of that policy, and it has reaped many accolades in the process, but other household names are now championing it too.
The Government have introduced many measures, including the fuller working lives strategy, to provide real support for the objective of achieving human potential at any age. The strategy states that ageist stereotypes should be challenged and older people should be allowed to contribute, as many want to. I believe, as do the Government, that work is not just an economic proposition. It allows people to have a purpose in life, to improve their mental health and wellbeing, and to retain their independence and autonomy.
To support that with practical measures, the Department has expanded the older claimant champion network in all 34 Jobcentre Plus districts. The champions work collaboratively with more than 11,000 work coaches and employer-facing staff to raise the profile of older workers, highlight the benefits of employing older jobseekers and share best practice. Recent research indicates that older claimants found that support useful. Further analysis of the provision for older claimants is ongoing. When the Minister sums up, will he tell us when the Department will publish the impact assessment, which was promised for spring 2018?
Anne Willmot was recently appointed as Business in the Community’s “Age” campaign director. She speaks of the challenges that an older population faces. Ageism is rife; a 50-year-old is 4.2 times less likely to be invited to interview than a 28-year-old. We need to support those with health issues and caring responsibilities to prevent them from leaving their jobs, and to deal with the discrimination and bias in recruitment that have made it so hard for the over-50s to secure employment.
I welcome any update from the Minister about what more the Government can do on that issue. Taken together, those policies, and many others, will help to achieve the aims of a welfare system that works for everybody, at all stages of life.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on securing this important and timely debate. I have come to the debate to offer my views from a practical, not an ideological, point of view. I pride myself on being a constituency MP. When I go to my surgeries in Parkhead, Baillieston, Easterhouse or Cranhill, people do not tell me how wonderful the system is. When I go to the jobcentres that are left in my constituency, because the UK—
I am also a constituency MP and I take my casework very seriously. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it is not the nature of casework that people come and tell us when things are working? People come and tell us when things are not working. Naturally, we see an unrepresentative portion of the population.
As well as being a constituency MP who does surgeries, I spend two hours every week door-knocking in my constituency. I do not regularly find people opening their door and saying to me, “This welfare system is absolutely fandabbydozy.”
This week marks two years since the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 implemented some of the most punitive cuts from this Government. Some of those were a fresh round of cuts, and some built on the cuts made in the Welfare Reform Act 2012. This debate allows us the opportunity to shine a bright light on the damage caused by those punitive welfare reforms, which have had a direct impact on some of the most vulnerable people in my constituency. I will address two policy areas in my remarks: first, the punitive benefit freeze, which leaves people out in the cold, quite literally, while the cost of living soars, and secondly, the medieval two-child policy and abhorrent rape clause.
Figures commissioned by the SNP and put together by the Library show that, based on the spring statement 2018, between 2018-19 and 2020-21, the benefit freeze will save an additional £3 billion compared with what was forecast for those years in the summer Budget 2015. In November 2017, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that the benefit freeze means that between 2010 and 2020, a couple with two kids will be £832 a year worse off. It has also said:
“The freeze is the single biggest policy driver behind rising poverty by the end of the Parliament.”
The impact of the poverty premium means that people on low incomes face higher costs as a proportion of their income than those on higher incomes, due to the nature of products and services. People on low incomes often cannot pay for goods or services by fixed direct debit, but for many things, such as mobile phone bills, energy bills and bank cards, companies only offer discounts based on people signing up for a direct debit.
Economic shocks such as the breakdown of a car or a washing machine are far more significant for people on a low income. I know that from direct experience, having spent two years working at Glasgow Credit Union. One of the most heart-breaking things about being in that job was people coming to me for loans to pay for a washing machine that had broken down or for school uniforms.
Sadly, that is the reality we are now in. I am disappointed that that lived experience did not come into the previous speech. We see it week in, week out when we do our constituency surgeries. With all those factors, the benefit freeze is an additional financial burden on disadvantaged people. The Government must urgently restore the real value of benefits by scrapping the freeze.
The second issue I will raise is the Government’s medieval two-child policy that would frankly make China blush. The idea that in 2018, we are saying to families, “Two children in your family—that’s it. The state won’t pay for any more than that,” sends a strong signal from this place. [Interruption.] If the Minister is unhappy with that, I am more than happy to take an intervention—absolutely not.
Absolutely. The Government have often spoken about their family test for policy. I do not think that turning round to a family and saying that they can have only two children is appropriate, given that family test.
The Women’s Budget Group has said the cut to child tax credits will disproportionately hit black, Asian and minority ethnic women, who tend to have larger families. The idea that we put victims through the trauma of having to prove to the Department that their child was born as a result of rape sends a strong signal from the other side of the House. It is not something we would do in Scotland.
That is precisely the point, because this legislation, which has been on the statute book for two years, genuinely has an impact on the “just about managing” families that the Prime Minister spoke about when she took office. It is not too late for the Government to think again and implement a social security system that delivers social justice, fairness and, above all, dignity for the most vulnerable in our society.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on securing this debate on a very important subject. Although I disagree with her on several points, I fully respect the tone in which she delivered her remarks.
Something that has not yet been spoken about today is the context in which many of the welfare reforms since 2010 were introduced. In 2010, as we all remember, we faced a broken economy and a broken welfare system. We had a deficit that was spiralling out of control. There was a very real threat to public finances and a danger that if Britain did not control its spending, the international bond markets would take action against us, further undermining our ability to pay for our essential public services. That was acknowledged across the House at the time and still holds true.
At the same time, but for entirely different reasons, the welfare system that we inherited was not fit for purpose. Over many years, through no grand design, it had grown into a system of great complexity that was confusing for users and expensive to administer. It had to be reformed. Peculiar, perverse disincentives had arisen, not because anyone had wished for them but because different benefits clashed at different points in the system. The most obvious and regularly cited example is that people were disincentivised from taking more than 16 hours of work, but many people were also disincentivised from moving into the initial stages of work at all. Unfortunately, the system often trapped people out of work or in low wages. That was completely unacceptable, because we all know the importance of work.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously still attempting to use the banking crash to justify the cuts to welfare? That is what they are: reform would be one thing, but these are cuts to social security. Are the bankers seriously still to blame for the projected 7% rise in child poverty over the next few years?
As the hon. Gentleman will have heard from my opening remarks, there are two issues at play. The first was the broken economy. As I have said, if the Government had not taken action to dramatically reduce public spending—[Interruption.] Our deficit has been cut. The hon. Gentleman suggests from a sedentary position that that was in 2008 and the situation is different now. Our deficit has been much reduced by the actions of this Government and the coalition Government over the past eight years, but it has not yet been fully eliminated.
Once the deficit is fully eliminated, we will be able to do the most important thing, which is to start to reduce debt as a proportion of GDP. That is essential, because at the moment we are spending more on servicing our debt than on defence, on education or on our police forces. None of us wants that. Effectively, we have created a new “Department of Debt” that sits in Whitehall and gobbles up money. I want to see the budget for that Department cut year by year, but only the steps that this Government are taking will achieve that.
Let me return to my point about the broken welfare system. Regardless of what happened in 2008, it was essential that the welfare system be reformed to encourage more people to take more work and benefit from all the associate factors surrounding it. We all know that there is great dignity in work and that it provides pride, purpose and a great example to children. It is what we want for ourselves and for our constituents.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he recognise that well over half a million fewer children are living in workless households now than in 2010? Children are five times more likely to be in a low-income household if they are in a workless household than if they are in a household in which all adults work. There is a knock-on effect for the next generation.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for stealing my thunder and taking away my next paragraph. Yes, I am fully aware of that fact and she is right to emphasise it. One of the great things that has happened since 2010, which must be acknowledged in a balanced debate on the subject, is that we have achieved record employment in this country. Unemployment has fallen substantially—in all constituencies, I believe—but it is unfortunate that so far my hon. Friend has been the only hon. Member to welcome that in this debate.
It is right to talk about the full package. Yes, there have been cuts and freezes to welfare payments but, as my hon. Friend mentioned, they must be seen alongside increases to the national living wage, increases to the tax threshold, a new offer on childcare and the creation of universal credit, which enables people to progress in work without the disincentives that existed before. Alongside all that, the most important thing that has happened is that far fewer people are in out-of-work benefits. When we talk about assessments that people may have lost money under the welfare changes, we must always acknowledge that this is a dynamic system. The whole point is that people move into work and progress in work so that they earn more money. I fear that that has not been acknowledged in this debate.
The Welfare Reform and Work Act introduced several changes, as hon. Members have already mentioned, but they must be seen in the context of fairness. The welfare cap limited the amount of money that some families receive, because it was deemed by Parliament that it was unfair for families out of work to receive more than families in work. It was not just a parliamentary majority of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who agreed with that; regular polling has found that 77% of the population do, too.
I am delighted to draw attention to a new report by Policy in Practice, “Low Income Londoners and Welfare Reform”, which has examined the effect of the welfare cap on 600,000 low-income people in London. It shows that there has been a positive impact on employment outcomes for those families and no measurable impact on homelessness in comparison with a control group of similar households. The welfare cap is working in London, and the most serious piece of analysis so far conducted upholds that. It is a good example of how adjusting the welfare system carefully can create work incentives to help people to make positive choices to improve their lives and those of their families.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire mentioned the four-year benefit freeze. I acknowledge that inflation is now higher than it was when the freeze was set. I also acknowledge that it is now falling. As my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) pointed out, the value of benefits increased by 21% between 2008 and the 2016 Act, while the value of wages increased by only 11%. The freeze is therefore not quite as stark a corrective as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire makes out.
On the two-child limit in universal credit, it is only right that we have a welfare system in which people who are out of work have to make similar decisions to people in work. However, it is extremely important that people in the welfare system understand the potential consequences. I have become concerned that there may be people who are thinking of having a third child but are not aware that they will not be entitled to further benefits under universal credit. The system cannot work as intended if people are not aware of how it works.
The hon. Member seems to have a basic misunderstanding of the impact of this measure. Does he not appreciate that many people start planning their families from a very different perspective from where they end up? We cannot continue to punish people who have fallen on hard times, as he is suggesting should happen.
I think the word “punish” is entirely wrong in this context. I think we have to say that if people are aware of the consequences of their actions—that there are benefits available for certain decisions they make but not for others—they can make their own decisions. It is up to the state to decide where the balance of benefit lies.
Order. I am conscious of time. At least two other Members wish to speak. They will not be able to speak if there are any more interventions and if the hon. Gentleman does not conclude his remarks soon. I intend to start calling the Front-Bench spokespeople at 10.30 am.
No, but they will have additional support to get back into work and they will have the benefit of universal credit to progress in work when they do.
I will go back very quickly to the Scottish perspective, because something that is obviously completely unacceptable in the position of the Scottish National party is that they want to fix the problem but they do not want to do it themselves. I find that very peculiar from a party that seeks independence, because of course if Scotland was independent the only way that it could get rid of the freeze would be by paying for it out of Scottish coffers, which would require an increase in tax, and that is something they have declined to do.
I was very surprised when I questioned Jeane Freeman, the Scottish Minister for Social Security, about this issue in a Select Committee. She failed to answer the challenge, just as SNP Members have done today. The SNP can raise taxes now to pay for this, but it chooses not to. It has therefore decided not to prioritise this policy.
Obviously there are always steps we can take to improve the welfare system. Universal credit, which is coming online, will help people to overcome major barriers to employment. It will help people overcome addiction or mental health problems and move back into work. On disability, we have an admirable aim to halve the disability employment gap, and I believe that assistive technology will help us do that. I would like to see us increase work incentives by adjusting the taper as and when the budget allows.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I want to allow time for my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) to speak, so I will be extraordinarily brief. I hope that, following this very good debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) has secured, we will get the answers to some questions.
One question that I would like the Minister to answer today relates to something that would cost virtually nothing to implement. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire for raising the issue when she said that we judge society on how it treats its most vulnerable. She raised the issue of people who are terminally ill having to go for reassessments. Will the Minister say today that the Government will deal with that and remove that requirement? It is unnecessary and cruel.
Two years on from the introduction of the 2016 Act, the UK Government must end their obsession with their punitive policies in the name of austerity. The backdrop for people in their own houses is absolutely horrendous, in terms of their struggling on benefits. The average household has lost £7.74 per week because of higher prices for goods. These are real things—bread, milk, cheese. Meat prices are up 3.9%; vegetable prices are up 5.7%; and coffee, tea and cocoa prices are up 8.5%. When someone has very little money, these things have a dramatic impact on their household budget.
The continued freeze of benefits, in the context of sky-high consumer prices index figures at 3%, is trapping thousands of families and children in poverty, and all they have to look forward to at the moment, in terms of this benefit cap, is that financial noose tightening year after year.
I came to Westminster Hall today to speak about the effects on my constituency, where since 2013 we have seen the roll-out of universal credit and the direct impact on people. However, I also wanted to speak about Scotland. I find it absolutely bizarre that none of those Scots Tory MPs or Scots Labour MPs who were so exercised on the issue of the welfare situation in Scotland is here today. Where are they? They are nowhere to be seen. Once again, it is going to be left to the Scottish National party to fight the corner for people in Scotland.
Government Members have said that things are not happening in Scotland. If I had the time—I will have to sit down at the end of this sentence—I would read the list that I have prepared of actions that the Scottish Government are putting in place today, through Jeane Freeman, our Minister.
Thank you very much for fitting me in, Mr Gapes. I have pulled myself out of my sickbed to be here today, partly because the Minister who is here today is one who I have not yet challenged on the two-child limit and the rape clause; he deserves a fair go on those things as well, as a new Minister.
Earlier, Members mentioned the sort of false premise that people on benefits should face the same choices as those supporting themselves through work. However, that completely fails to recognise that 70% of families on tax credits are working and that the cuts that have been made are making them poorer and putting them into poverty, even though they are in work. They just cannot earn enough to make ends meet, and that is absolutely despicable. They are trapped and they cannot do anything about it, and it is driving children into poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that 10% more children will go into poverty as a result of the two-child limit alone, which is absolutely despicable.
Through my own constituency work, I have found that the two-child limit has also had an adverse impact on the uptake of Healthy Start, because that entitlement is claimed through the child tax credit system and third children are not getting it. Food is literally being taken out of the mouths of children because of this Government’s incompetent policy.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission report that was published last week has evidenced properly that the two-child limit is having a disproportionate effect on those from ethnic minorities, which the Government have failed to acknowledge all the way down the line with this measure. Three quarters of Pakistani families are losing out as a result of the changes and the two-child limit. Bangladeshi families will lose out by around £2,150, and Pakistani families will lose out by £1,900. That is absolutely unacceptable.
I will talk today particularly about the rape clause, because it is an issue that I have been campaigning on since 2015. We all know that the Government are embarrassed by this policy, because they have refused scrutiny of it on every single occasion. They were forced into having a consultation on it. People submitted their responses to the consultation, stating how unacceptable the policy is, and because the Government knew that and knew that they could not avoid it, they snuck out the results on the day of Trump’s inauguration, because they knew that the eyes of the world would be elsewhere. They are thoroughly embarrassed by this policy and they have not accounted for it. They have ducked scrutiny of it on every single occasion.
The Government have also failed to acknowledge the particular situation for women in Northern Ireland, because if women in Northern Ireland make a claim under the non-consensual sex exemption—or the rape clause, as I prefer to call it, because that is what it is—they face being criminalised under the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 if they even make a claim. That is evidenced in the form they have to fill in, which states:
“Please be aware, that in Northern Ireland, if the third party knows or believes that a relevant offence (such as rape) has been committed, the third party”—
the person who verifies the claim—
“will normally have a duty to inform the police of any information that is likely to secure, or to be of material assistance in securing, the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of someone for that offence”.
No woman in Northern Ireland wants to put herself through that; it is absolutely appalling and the Government have failed on every occasion to account for it.
It is unacceptable that women have to fill in a form that states:
“I believe the non-consensual conception exception applies to my child”,
and that they have to fill in their child’s name on a form to say that that child was born as the result of rape. The Minister should be thoroughly embarrassed about this.
I have cross-party support against this policy, as well as support from the Scottish Government, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nurses, and a whole wheen of women’s groups, charities and trade unions. The Government still have time to do something about this policy. It has gone to judicial review. If the judicial review finds in favour of the people who have brought it, will the Government accept that? Will the Government not appeal it, because I think they are embarrassed and they should do something about it?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on securing this debate and her magnificent speech, which set out perfectly the issues before us. I also thank Emily Cunningham from the SNP research office. She has helped to drive this week of campaigning on the pernicious Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. I also thank our press office, led by Catriona Matheson, which has helped to highlight our campaign.
This is rather pertinent to some of the issues being discussed this morning, but today is World Down Syndrome Day. They are out of sight, but I am wearing colourful odd socks to help celebrate difference, and I hope others are, too.
I remember well the great frustration and anger—some of that has been brought back to me by some Conservative contributions today—I felt when speaking at the various stages of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. I remember the anger I felt when we put across the evidence from the expert charities and those arguments were ignored. I remember the meticulousness with which the former Member for Banff and Buchan, Dr Eilidh Whiteford, dismantled the Government’s basis for introducing the Bill and the erudite way she evidenced what the impact would be.
We warned then that the four-year freeze to social security would mean a rise in child poverty, but we were ignored; the Government marched on. We warned then that cutting disability employment support would hurt those who need the support most, but we were ignored; the Government marched on. We warned then that introducing a two-child limit to tax credits would push low-income families on the edge into poverty, but we were ignored; the Government marched on. We warned that lowering the benefit cap would arbitrarily hit low-income families, women and children the hardest, but we were ignored; the Government marched on. Sadly, on all those areas the Government knew what was coming. It was not just the SNP telling them; all the expert charities lobbied hard against the Bill, but they were ignored, too.
Two years on, we can start to see the impact of the arbitrary, austerity-driven cuts to the DWP that have forced arbitrary austerity-driven cuts to social security. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire covered that well. She also gave a very good, if sad and desperate, history lesson on the cuts from 2010. In addition to the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, cuts have hammered the incomes of the sick, the disabled and those living on low incomes. She also gave constituency examples of people who have been affected by this Government’s policies and said there was no cumulative impact assessment of the Government’s cuts to various elements of social security.
The hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) did not have time to talk about the correlation between this Tory Government’s cuts and increased food bank use, including at St Stephen’s church in her constituency—that was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden)—but I do. The Trussell Trust has highlighted a clear correlation between cuts or delays to benefits, low incomes and those using its food banks. Mary Anne MacLeod’s report, “Making the Connections: A study of emergency food aid in Scotland”, made the very same connections. I encourage the hon. Member for Redditch to read those reports before coming to another debate like this.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East made another good speech based on his lived experience and what he sees in his constituency. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) said he appreciated the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire, but did not agree with much of it. My hon. Friend quoted many facts, so the hon. Gentleman can disagree on policy,
“But facts are chiels that winna ding”.
The facts show clearly how low-income families, children, women, the sick and disabled are paying the price of this Government’s cuts. At the end of his speech, he made a number of inaccurate statements not only about the social security system we are building in Scotland, but his Government’s policies. The UK Government sadly no longer wish to halve the disability employment gap. That policy was removed in the manifesto he stood on.
I am looking to the Minister to intervene, but he is looking down at his notes sheepishly. As of the Conservative party’s last manifesto, it is clearly no longer an aspiration to halve the disability gap; it merely wishes to reduce it. Rather embarrassingly for the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, that commitment was removed at the time of the last election.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) focused on universal credit, as he has done so diligently for years. He also called out the empty Tory and Labour Benches. That is most stark when compared with the debate last night, when Scots Tories and Scots Labour MPs teamed up to try—they failed—to attack the Scottish Government’s policies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) has been a diligent and award-winning campaigner on the two-child policy and the rape clause. Perhaps this Minister will be the one who finally listens on that pernicious policy.
We know that in Scotland things could have been much worse had it not been for the Scottish Government’s intervention and early action. We have already stopped anyone paying the bedroom tax, and we have ensured the continuation of council tax benefit, which has been stopped by the UK Government in England. The Social Security (Scotland) Bill has just completed its Committee stage. With that, we have seen some of the actions we will take to help build a new and fairer social security system with the limited powers at our disposal in Scotland. We will develop a new benefit to overcome the removal by this Government of housing benefit for most 18 to 21-year-olds. We will make assessments fairer, with no private companies involved and a reduced need for face-to-face assessments. We will set up an independent scrutiny body to ensure that this Scottish Government and future Scottish Governments adhere to human rights and scrutinise social security actions.
More will come out on what we have planned in the areas we control, but it will be a stark departure from the UK Government’s approach to social security. Sadly we cannot clear up all the mess that the UK Government have left for Scotland, and that is why we want social security devolved to Holyrood in its entirety. Until that happens we will keep fighting from Westminster for fairness for people across the UK who need that safety net.
This has been a perfectly timed debate brought to the Chamber by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire. It has highlighted the desperate need for the Government to revisit their punitive and indiscriminate social security cuts. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 led to international condemnation of the UK Government, led by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which highlighted grave and systematic violations of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. The Government have lost court battles on their social security cuts, and just today the National Audit Office said that the DWP has underpaid an estimated 70,000 people on employment and support allowance by an average of £5,000 a person. That is yet more evidence of how this Government are letting people with disabilities and long-term health conditions down. It is time they acted. It is time they helped low-income families. It is time they properly supported people with disabilities. It is time they looked again at the Welfare Reform and Work Act. If the Prime Minister is still serious about tackling burning injustices, this is the place to start.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on her measured and comprehensive speech and her focus on the devastating impact of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 on sick and disabled people and the importance of the work done by carers.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) made some extraordinary claims about the track record of the SNP in Scotland, which voted against Labour’s measure that would have lifted thousands of children out of poverty in Scotland.
I will not give way, because I am short of time. I refer the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and others to the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) that showed clearly and in detail how Labour has led the fight for a social security system that supports people in their time of need.
Where is he?
The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 is having a profound impact on the lives of many of the most vulnerable in our society—the disabled, single parents, pensioners and children growing up in poverty—through a range of policies, accompanied by severe reductions in social security introduced in the 2015 Budget and what we are seeing with the roll-out of universal credit. There is the cut to employment and support allowance for disabled people, which is falling by £30 a week to the same level as JSA, leaving them with just more than £70 a week. There is the abolition of the family element of child tax credit and the equivalent in universal credit, which is worth up to £540 a year for new claimants.
We have a cut in the level of the benefit cap; the four-year benefits freeze; the abolition of targets to tackle child poverty, which Labour had introduced; the two-child limit on new claims for child tax credit and the child element of universal credit; the change in support for mortgage interest from a benefit to a loan that will be particularly hard on pensioners and disabled people; and the cuts to work allowances in universal credit in the summer Budget of 2015, which we call on the Government to reverse. So we see that the claims that the Act rewards hard work and is fair to working households simply do not bear scrutiny.
No, I am going to make some progress.
In-work poverty has risen to record levels: 8 million people, including 2.7 million children, are in poverty, despite being in a working family, and 67% of working-age adults and children in poverty in the UK are in working households. Many people are stuck in a low pay, no pay cycle, where they may pass from employed to unemployed and back again several times in the course of a year.
A study of in-work poverty published by researchers at Cardiff University found that
“those in working poverty are three times more likely to become workless than people living in non-poor working households.”
It also found that not everyone who finds work progresses to better paid employment. The reports states that
“one quarter of those families where somebody finds work, exit worklessness only to enter in-work poverty. Lone parents are over-represented in this group, as are families with three or more children.”'.
I recommend the report to the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean).
The cumulative impact assessment by the Equality and Human Rights Commission published last week, which several Members have rightly referenced, states that the measure that has the most impact on households on low income is the four-year benefits freeze introduced in April 2016. When the benefits freeze began in April 2016, inflation was 0.3%. Despite a fall in inflation last month, it is still at 2.7%, and food prices went up by well over 3% in February compared with the year before. So it is little wonder that the chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority has warned of increasing household debt built up simply by trying to cover basic household bills.
The Resolution Foundation estimates that by 2019 a lone parent in work with one child will lose £420 a year as a direct result of the freeze alone, and a couple with a single earner and two children will lose £570 a year. If the Chancellor was justified in his claims in his spring statement for improvements in the public finances, will the Government abandon the benefits freeze that is pushing households into poverty?
Housing benefit was first cut in 2011 and is also one of the benefits now frozen by the Act, but private sector rents have continued to rise rapidly. Between 2011 and 2018, private rents in the UK increased by more than 15%—and by more than 12% even if London is excluded. The Act also severely cut the levels of the benefit cap so that it is now hitting the whole of the country, and the cap in practice operates through a cut in housing benefit. The benefit cap is supposedly designed to incentivise work by exempting people who start claiming working tax credits. However, 45,000 households that had their housing benefit capped in November 2017 were single-parent families, and 35,000—
No, I am really short of time.
Thirty-five thousand of the single-parent capped households had at least one child aged under five, including 15,000 with a child aged under two.
The Act also requires the main carer of a child to look for work once their youngest child turns three, rather than five as previously. Many parents of very young children would actually like to work, but it can be almost impossible for them to find affordable childcare or work that fits around caring for young children. That brings me to one of the most contentious parts of the Act: the abolition of the targets to tackle child poverty set by the previous Labour Government in the Child Poverty Act 2010.
The previous Labour Government lifted 1.1 million children out of poverty through a cross-Government strategy that included Sure Start centres and year-on- year increases in social security, which went hand in hand with employment support targeted at specific groups such as lone parents. There was no thought that people should be left trapped on welfare, as the then Work and Pensions Secretary termed it when the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was being debated.
Labour’s policies achieved results. Between 1997 and 2010, the employment rate for lone parents with dependent children in the UK increased from 45% to 57%. That cross-Government approach has long since been discarded by the Government. The Child Poverty Unit set up to oversee it has been dismantled, and renaming the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission “the Social Mobility Commission” in the Act, thus excluding child poverty, says much about the purpose of that Act.
All four members of the board of the Social Mobility Commission stood down in December in protest at the lack of progress in creating a fairer Britain, including Baroness Shephard, deputy chair of the commission and a former Conservative Education Secretary under John Major. Will the Minister tell us his Department’s assessment of what contribution the Act has made to social mobility?
In February, the End Child Poverty coalition published new figures that showed that more than 50% of children in some constituencies are growing up in poverty and that 4 million children are in poverty after housing costs are taken into account. The Government claim their figures show that child poverty is actually decreasing, but they do not have up-to-date figures. The End Child Poverty coalition figures compiled by Loughborough University are for 2017-18, yet the Government’s official figures, to be published tomorrow, will cover only the year before, 2016-17. That time lag is important because, although the benefits freeze came into effect in April 2016, other parts of the Act that are likely to lead to an increase in child poverty, such as the two-child policy, were introduced only in April 2017, and so we have yet to see the full impact of them.
The main provider of food banks in the UK, the Trussell Trust, has highlighted that food bank referrals have risen by 30% in areas after the full service has been introduced. The EHRC report published last week estimated that 1.5 million children will be living in poverty by 2021-22 as a result of tax and benefit changes, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicted in November that the proportion of children growing up in poverty is expected to rise from 30% in 2015-16 to 37% in 2021-2022. It really is time the Government listened to the informed opinion that is available out there.
The two-child limit on new claims for child tax credit and the child element in universal credit is one of the most controversial and, to my mind, one of the most offensive parts of the Act. The idea behind it seems to be that people claiming social security should have to think twice before having larger families, but in the real world unplanned pregnancies happen to people, and people might be unexpectedly made redundant having planned a larger family. Moreover, we should value children and not see them as a burden.
Faith communities are especially concerned about the two-child policy because, for many people of faith, reproduction, use of contraception and family size are determined by beliefs. The policy would originally have also covered children born as a result of rape. The Government were forced to back down, but the exemption still requires a woman to disclose sexual violence, which we know many women understandably find extremely difficult because of, for example, the trauma that they have experienced, a need to protect themselves and perhaps their children, and a fear of the perpetrator.
Someone claiming the exemption must also not be living with the person responsible for the sexual violence. Again, we know that women can be at severe risk at the point when they leave an abusive relationship. It should be the woman who has suffered abuse who decides when that should be. She should not be pushed into doing so at the wrong time by the DWP. The Government have not told us how many people have been affected by the two-child policy or how many have claimed exemptions, even though the policy has been in operation for almost a year now. Will the Government publish those figures and abolish the rape clause, which requires women who want to claim the exemption to prove that they have been a victim of sexual violence? Will the Government abandon the disgraceful policy that treats one child as though they were somehow worth less than another?
In a little over a fortnight, support for mortgage interest will be turned from a benefit into a loan. The Government have left it so late to contact people claiming SMI that at the beginning of March more than half of claimants—53,500 out of 110,000—had still not received a follow-up phone call to the initial letter sent out by the DWP. The delay echoes the fiasco of the pension changes affecting women born in the 1950s, where again people were not given enough time to prepare. Forty-one per cent. of people claiming SMI are pensioners. Turning it into a loan risks pushing them into poverty.
Even the impact assessments for each part of the Act are out of date. Civil society organisations such as the IFS, the Resolution Foundation and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have done the hard work and the evidence is damning. If the Government do not like the figures that other organisations publish, they should make sure they publish their own and that they are up to date. The Act uses language such as fairness to working households, a sustainable welfare system and life chances, but it is punitive, not progressive. The groups hit time and again by the Act are those most at risk of poverty: lone parents, larger families and disabled people.
It is a great pleasure to be in your capable hands this morning, Mr Gapes. I thank the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) for securing the debate, and all Members who have participated this morning and continue to take an interest in the issues of welfare reform and work.
When the Welfare Reform and Work Act was first debated, in the summer of 2015, Ministers spoke of three principles that underpinned the legislation: first, work is the best route out of poverty, enabling people to take control of their lives and achieve their full potential; secondly, spending on welfare should be sustainable and fair to the taxpayer, while protecting the most vulnerable; and thirdly, people who receive benefits should face the same life choices as those who do not get the same support from the state. We remain committed to those three principles. Indeed, in the two years that have passed since the legislation became law, we have been putting them into practice.
Many of the measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Act that hon. Members across the Chamber have highlighted this morning form part of a package of policies through which we have been increasing incentives and support for people to find work, stay in work, build a career and progress.
Not at the moment.
With the national living wage we have been helping people to earn more. From April 2018 the Government will raise the national living wage by 4.4% to £7.83 an hour. At that point, the annual earnings of a full-time minimum wage worker will have increased by more than £2,000 a year since we introduced the national living wage in April 2016. Since April 2015, the lowest paid have seen their wages grow by almost 7% above inflation.
With increases to the income tax personal allowance, we have been helping people to keep more of what they earn. Next month we will raise the personal allowance in line with inflation to £11,850. A typical basic rate taxpayer will pay £1,075 less income tax in 2018-19 than they did in 2010-11. Compared with 2015-16, there are now 1.2 million people who, as a result of our changes to the personal allowance, will no longer have to pay any income tax at all.
I am not going to give way, because I want to address some of the specific questions, and give the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire a chance to respond.
With universal credit, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) touched on during the debate, we are providing claimants with a simpler system that ensures that work always pays. It offers families more generous childcare, and gives parents access to tailored support from personal work coaches to find, and then progress in, work. Three separate research studies have shown that universal credit is having a positive impact on employment outcomes. Compared with jobseeker’s allowance, our evidence shows that people on universal credit are 4% more likely to be in work after six months, put more effort into finding work, apply for more jobs, and do more to increase their hours and earnings. Universal credit is being introduced in a careful and co-ordinated way, allowing us to make improvements along the way. We are listening to the concerns of our stakeholders and making changes where necessary.
The topic for today’s debate invited us all to reflect on what impact this Government’s policies are having. As the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire rose to give her opening speech, the Office for National Statistics published its latest release on the state of the labour market in the UK. That release presents a striking picture, with 32.25 million people in employment as of this morning—a record high. The employment rate for women stands at 70.9%, which is also a record high. Unemployment is down to the joint lowest level since 1975, and 876,000 vacancies are open to people in search of employment, which is also close to a record high.[Official Report, 28 March 2018, Vol. 638, c. 4MC.]
The figures are particular significant when it comes to children—many hon. Members have spoken about children today. The evidence is clear: children living in households where no one is in work are five times more likely to be in poverty than those where all adults work. The chances of a child being in poverty where one parent works full-time and the other part-time is one in 20.
In 2014-15, 75% of children in families where no one is in work failed to reach the expected standard at GCSE compared with 39% for all working families, and 52% for low-income working families. We are supporting parents to find and stay in work with record spending on childcare, which will reach £6 billion in 2019-20. In England, working parents of three and four-year-olds can now get 30 hours of free childcare a week, saving those using the full 30 hours around £5,000 per year in total.
We are making good progress. Nationally, there are now about 880,000 fewer households where no one is in work, and around 600,000 fewer children living in such households compared with 2010. The number of children living in absolute poverty on a before-housing-costs basis is down 200,000 since 2010, and the UK is now the highest spending of all OECD countries as a percentage of GDP on family benefits, standing at 3.5% against an average across the OECD of 2%.
I have lots to get through. I want the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire to reply, and the Scottish National party has had a lot to say today.
The hon. Lady majored fairly heavily on disability benefits in her speech. We are committed to ensuring that more of the money goes to the people who need it most. We have continued to increase benefits for people with disabilities and health conditions, and we will spend £800 million extra in 2018-19 to do that once again. For people in the employment and support allowance support group, that means £720 more per year than in 2010. For recipients of the monthly rate of disability living allowance, paid to the most disabled children, it is more than £1,200 a year more.
At the same time, we are determined to break down the barriers to employment faced by disabled people. The hon. Lady spoke about the removal of the work-related activity component under ESA. The old system, as we all remember, was failing to help disabled people and those with health conditions into work. Only one in 100 ESA work-related activity group claimants leave the benefit each month. We believe that disabled people and people with health conditions deserve better than that.
We believe that the changes, working in tandem with a £330 million support package over the next four years, will provide the right incentives and support to help new claimants with limited capability for work. Taken as a whole, our policies to help people with disabilities to find employment have been making good progress. More than half a million more disabled people are now in work than four years ago, and on a before-housing-costs basis the absolute poverty rate among people living in a family where somebody is disabled is now down to a record low.
On the underpayment of ESA, the hon. Lady asked about paying back further than 2014. We are actually legally restricted from recalculating payments back beyond 2014. Statute governs that position, which we are not allowed to exceed. The hon. Lady also raised the success rate of personal independence payment claimants who go through the appeals process. It is worth remembering that the vast majority of PIP decisions do not go to appeal. Some 2.9 million PIP claims were decided on between April 2013 and September 2017, of which only 8% of initial PIP decisions were appealed against, and only 4% were overturned at appeal. A decision being overturned does not necessarily mean that the original decision was incorrect; often it is because the claimant has provided more cogent oral evidence or other new evidence that has allowed a more accurate assessment.
In a forensic speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) dissected the case against welfare reform very ably. In particular, he pointed towards the benefits cap, which a number of Members have criticised. Of course, the numbers show that the benefits cap has been extraordinarily successful as an incentive to get into work. Over the last couple of years, tens of thousands of people have come out from under the benefits cap, because of course it does not apply once someone moves into work. The amount at which they are capped has dropped significantly too.
My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch asked about older claimants and when an impact assessment was likely to be approved. I am informed that we will publish the evaluation of the two Jobcentre Plus interventions for older claimants in the spring of 2018—I assume before the summer recess. Those will look at the impacts of sector-based work, academy and work experience interventions.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) raised the issue of reassessments for those who are terminally ill. He will know that in both PIP and ESA we have a fast-track process for any claimants who have fewer than six months to live. In ESA we introduced a severe conditions criteria last autumn, which means that people with the most severe degenerative conditions will not need to be reassessed. It is more complex in the case of disease, but if those individuals qualify for the highest level of ESA under the support group, and there is no possibility of improvement, they do not need to return for reassessment. I am more than happy to keep that under review and have another look at it in future.
Finally, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) raised the rape clause, which is an issue on which she has campaigned. Obviously, it is a very difficult and sensitive issue, which we are more than happy to keep under review. As she knows, a third-party model has been put in place, but if particular issues are being experienced by women accessing that model, I am more than happy to look at it again. As she also knows, there are particular circumstances in Northern Ireland. My undertaking to her this morning is that I am happy to meet her, if she wishes to discuss it with me, to try to find a way through this issue.
It has been an interesting debate, although it has put the House into two polar opposite groups: those who thought that welfare reform was required, and those who did not. One of the things that I have found most disheartening about such debates since I was appointed to my job is the implicit defence by those who are opposed to welfare reform of an old benefits system that was frankly fraudulent. It was trapping people in poverty, and insisting that it was trying to help them when, in fact, it was holding them back.
We believe in treating everybody with dignity, and giving them the power to take control of their lives and find their own way forward, for them and their families, in work. We believe in giving them all the tools that we can to do that, whether they are disabled, single parents, families, or older people who wish to access work. The way to a dignified future for everybody is to give them control, not to make them vassals of a welfare state.