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Universal Credit (Reducing Poverty)

Volume 678: debated on Monday 29 June 2020

What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of universal credit on reducing poverty. (903884)

There are now over 200,000 fewer people in absolute poverty compared with 2010, and universal credit is a fundamental part of this Government’s strategy to support people. As a result of the covid-19 pandemic, we have increased the UC standard allowance by around £1,000. An estimated 2.5 million households on UC will benefit from that straightaway, as well as new claimants who will become unemployed or those whose earnings or work hours decrease because of the outbreak.

I would like to begin by saying that my party’s thoughts are with the victims of the terrible knife attack in Glasgow, and we want to thank the emergency services for their incredible bravery.

According to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, the DWP last published a full impact assessment of universal credit in 2012, and no formal impact assessment has ever been produced on advance payments. How can we have any idea of the effectiveness or otherwise of universal credit unless assessments are available for scrutiny?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I would like to echo his comments; we are certainly thinking of the people of Glasgow at this incredibly difficult time.

We keep all policy under review, but I think Members across the House recognise yet another attack on universal credit and the system. We know that the legacy benefit system simply would not have coped with the unprecedented demand we have seen during covid-19. Universal credit has done a superb job. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reflects on the role that universal credit has played in ensuring that over 3.2 million people have got the support they need as quickly as possible, he will take a different view about its success.

The Social Mobility Commission has highlighted that, in the last seven years, there has been “little or no action” by the UK Government on a third of its recommendations, including on ensuring that child poverty is not exacerbated by universal credit. Indeed, its damning report criticised DWP for failing to provide a detailed assessment of how benefit changes are tied to these poverty rates. On that basis, how can the Minister possibly know whether universal credit is increasing or decreasing poverty?

The statistics show that full-time work substantially reduces the chances of poverty. The absolute rate of poverty for a child where both parents work full time is 4% compared with 44% where one or more parents are in part-time work. We are supporting people into full-time work wherever possible, for example, through our childcare offer, and universal credit, where work always pays, is a fundamental part of that offer.

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that, despite the DWP’s temporary increase to universal credit, out-of-work households with children are, on average, £2,900 a year worse off than they would have been without cuts since 2011. Does the Minister understand that, far from doing a superb job, as he says, universal credit is leaving some families in serious difficulty and poverty, and will he commit to looking at the IFS findings?

Our focus today is rightly on what the Government can do to support people financially through these unprecedented times. However, our broader ambition remains to build an economy that ensures that everyone, no matter their background, has opportunities to enter and progress in work where possible, while being supported by the welfare system in their time of need. I just gently remind the hon. Gentleman that, in this financial year, we have spent more than £120 billion on benefits for working-age people.

I welcomed the Minister’s confirmation last week of no appeal in the universal credit court case that the Department lost, but has he yet grasped the full scale of the problem that that issue has raised? He said in the House last week that, at most, 1,500 people were affected and suggested that 85,000 was a figure that had come from the Opposition. I wonder whether he has now had the chance to see that that 85,000 figure comes from the decision of Lady Justice Rose in the Court of Appeal last week. Did he also see that Lord Justice Underhill said:

“It is not simply a matter of uneven cash-flow…affected claimants will receive substantially lower payments”.

I answered an urgent question on this matter on Thursday for some 45 minutes, as the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I confirmed that we would not be appealing the decision of the court. As I made clear to him, I am now considering options to address the issue and will keep the House updated on progress. The 85,000 figure, which he references, from the judgment, came, in my understanding, from the Opposition. It is referenced in the judgment, but it came from the Opposition and we do not recognise those figures.

My hon. Friends have highlighted the range of expert reports out over the past couple of weeks showing that the DWP has no idea how universal credit impacts child poverty. It has done precious little to address it and could have made it worse through systematic cuts, leaving families and children worse off since 2011. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children say that families need an extra £20 a week in the child element of universal credit and child tax credits. Will the Minister ask the Chancellor to make that happen?

As I just said, in 2020-21, we will spend more than £120 billion on benefits for working-age people. We spend more on family benefits than any other country in the G7 at 3.5% of GDP. The measure that the hon. Gentleman raises would alone add another several billion to that bill. We will continue to reform the welfare system so that it encourages work while supporting those who need help. It is an approach that is based on the clear evidence that work offers families the best opportunity to get out of poverty.

I note that the Minister did not answer my question. There is growing pressure on the UK Government to act here. The former DWP Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), has called on the Minister and his colleagues to accept the recommendations of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children and to uprate legacy benefits, too. Poverty Alliance’s report today shows that UC is pulling people into poverty rather than acting as a lifeline, so will he agree to convene a cross-party meeting, including the former Secretary of State and a Treasury Minister, to look at ways to make that recommendation happen?

For a start, the hon. Gentleman knows that that is well above my pay grade, but I gently remind him that universal credit will be over £2 billion a year more generous when fully rolled out compared with the legacy benefits system that it replaces. He also fails to recognise the £6.5 billion to £7 billion that this Government have put in place to support people through covid-19. As the Chancellor has said, we will do “whatever it takes”, and this Government are doing that: we are supporting people and this Department is getting that support to those who need it quickly.