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House of Commons Hansard
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29 March 2018
Volume 638
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2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of universal credit on women. [904679]

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It is essential that women have opportunities to enter employment and to progress in work, and universal credit is designed to give them the assistance and tools to do so. Colleagues across the Government regularly discuss the impact of policies on women, and indeed on all groups.

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We know from the Women’s Budget Group that the cuts baked into universal credit—the two-child cap, the cuts to the work allowance and the benefits freeze—are having an even more detrimental impact on women than on men, so when will we see an urgent review of the gendered impact of the social security changes?

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The hon. Gentleman is mistaken in seeing welfare reform work in isolation from all the other assistance that has been offered to the low-paid, and in particular to women. Other measures, such as shared parental leave, the right to request flexible working, the 30 hours of free childcare and indeed the 85% of childcare funded through universal credit—or 600 hours of free childcare in Scotland—alongside the national living wage, which has given the lowest-paid their highest pay rise for 20 years, and the fact that we are taking millions out of tax by raising the personal allowance, offering training and assistance, and reducing the gender pay gap all point towards and have created the highest employment levels for women, at 70.9%, that this great and glorious country has ever seen.

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Is there evidence that the existence of in-work benefits disproportionately depresses female wages?

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My right hon. Friend often emerges from the forest to ask difficult and challenging questions, as he has now done to me for the second time this week. I am not aware that there is such evidence, but I am happy to go away and research it, and I will write to him if there is any.

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I ask the Minister to place a copy of his reply in the Library, because we will all be greatly interested in it.

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The Government claim that their universal credit alternative payment regime allows partners to apply for split payments in exceptional circumstances. However, few women are aware of this option, and 85% of domestic abuse survivors who contacted Women’s Aid have said that applying for split payments would anger their partners. Does the Minister agree with me that this should be mandatory, with payments split from day one?

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We are obviously very sensitive to the issue of domestic abuse, which is completely unacceptable in any circumstances. Work coaches in jobcentres are specifically trained to identify situations in which domestic abuse may be occurring and to offer options and assistance to people subjected to it, including alternative payments. We do not currently see the need for default split payments, because the current benefits system does not operate in that way, and a number of benefits are paid into joint accounts. However, we are aware that the SNP Government are working on an alternative, and we are happy to work with them on that in Scotland and to see how it goes.

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I will, if I may, push the Minister slightly more on that. We know that many women are prevented from accessing money because they are in abusive and controlling relationships. Given that, did the Government not give any consideration to the consequences for these women when they made the decision to put universal credit into a single bank account?

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We very obviously did consider that, which is why we created the alternative payment method. The current benefits system does not operate on a split payment basis, and we have not yet seen any evidence, in areas where universal credit has been rolled out, that the current system is exacerbating the situation. We firmly believe in our policy on domestic violence and abuse—the Government have made a significant commitment to that—and legislation on a comprehensive plan will come out later this year. We are not convinced that the benefits system is the way to solve domestic abuse, albeit we need to identify, in particular, women who are subjected to it and signpost them to the right kind of assistance, accommodating them in the system if we can. We do not think that doing this on a default basis is the correct approach at the moment.