Since the start of the pandemic, the Government’s priority has been to protect lives and people’s livelihoods. In March, the Government announced that we were extending the temporary £20-a-week increase in universal credit for a further six months. It is right that the Government should now shift our focus to supporting people back into work, and we have a comprehensive plan for jobs to help us to achieve this.
This Tory Government chose to cut the lifeline of the £20 universal credit uplift in October, at the worst possible time, clashing with the withdrawal of the furlough scheme which the Office for Budget Responsibility warned will lead to UK unemployment levels peaking, hitting young people particularly hard. Will the Minister apologise to those whom his Government have pushed into further poverty and ask the Chancellor to do the decent thing and keep £20 uplift and extend it to legacy benefits?
The Government have always been clear that the £20 increase was a temporary measure to support households affected by the economic shock of covid-19. I am pleased to say that there have been significant positive developments in the public health situation since the increase was first announced, including the hugely successful vaccine roll-out. I have to repeat that it is therefore right that the Government should now shift focus to supporting people back into work and to progress in work, and we have a comprehensive plan via our £30 billion plan for jobs that will help us achieve this.
The Trussell Trust reports that hunger in the United Kingdom is not about access to food, but about low incomes from the social security safety net, revealing that 95% of people referred to food banks in early 2020 were living in destitution, with just £248 a month on average to survive on after housing costs. Does the Minister recognise that removing the £20 uplift to universal credit later this year will only push more families into hardship and deprivation across the United Kingdom?
No one in this House wants to see anyone in this country reliant on a food bank, and the Secretary of State and I are working across Government to identify and tackle the root causes of food insecurity and poverty. In the meantime, we continue to spend over £100 billion a year on benefits for working-age people, and during the pandemic we have pumped an additional £7.4 billion into our welfare system to support those facing the most financial disruption. But I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is right that we now shift our focus to supporting people back into work, because all evidence suggests that work is the best route out of poverty, and we have a comprehensive plan to do this via our £30 billion plan for jobs.
Since 2010 poverty has risen significantly in all parts of the UK, so much so that, despite having a job, one in eight workers are living in poverty under this Conservative Government. Given that the Government are adamant that they will make this cut to universal credit, which will affect people in work, should we understand that despite the Prime Minister’s levelling-up agenda, in-work poverty will continue to rise?
We take this issue incredibly seriously, which is why we have the In-Work Progression Commission, which is due to report back soon, and why we spend over £100 billion a year supporting people of working age through the benefit system and put an £7.4 billion into the welfare system over the course of the pandemic to support those facing the most financial disruption. But I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he knows that the best route out of poverty is work. All the evidence suggests that that is the case; that is why all the efforts of this Government will be about, yes, ensuring that we have a strong, robust welfare safety net but also that the focus is on jobs, jobs, jobs—and through our £30 billion plan for jobs we will achieve that.
I say to the Minister that work is the best route out of poverty but it has not been working for the last 11 years, and the evidence is there for all to see.
Many disabled people are worse off on universal credit than under the old legacy systems. Ministers know this because they were forced to introduce transitional protections and, when speaking in this Chamber, always urge people to use a benefits calculator when applying in case moving to universal credit would cost them money. Keeping the universal credit uplift would go some of the way, although not all the way, towards mitigating this unfairness, so if the universal credit cut goes ahead what is the Government’s proposed solution for these disabled people—or is this yet another area where the Government actually plan to level down?
The opposite is in fact the case. Many of those with a disability will be better off on universal credit, and it is important, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, that they go on a benefits calculator—one of the independent benefits calculators on gov.uk—and check their eligibility. Labour Members—and the hon. Gentleman is no exception —regularly come to this House and ask for many billions of pounds more to be spent on benefits after the pandemic. Let us be clear: that is exactly what the hon. Gentleman is asking for when he refers to the universal credit uplift. I have to say that we fundamentally disagree with Labour’s approach. It is an approach that under the last Labour Government left a generation trapped on benefits and in poverty, incentivised not to work, and left children growing up in workless households, and we know what that meant for their life chances. Work is the best route out of poverty, and that is why we have put jobs and supporting people into work at the heart of everything we do. The difference could not be clearer: Labour’s focus is on billions of pounds more on benefits and the Government’s focus is on jobs, jobs, jobs.
It is not just the SNP, the Work and Pensions Committee and a range of stakeholders who are urging the UK Government to make the £20 uplift permanent, but 100 Conservative MPs in the Tory Reform Group and the one nation caucus. Is the Minister really saying that he disagrees with 100 of his own MPs who say it would be wrong to slash £1,000 a year from household budgets just as we are coming out of the teeth of this pandemic?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome him to his place. Throughout this pandemic, this Government have consistently stepped up to support the lowest-paid, poorest and most vulnerable in our society. During the pandemic, the focus has rightly been on ensuring that people facing the most financial disruption got the support that they needed as quickly as possible, but all evidence suggests that work is the best route out of poverty. We had a jobs miracle before the pandemic, and with the help of our £30 billion plan for jobs, the support of business and creating the right environment, we will do so again. That is exactly why we shift our focus to supporting people back into work and to progress in work. We are doing that with the extra 13,500 work coaches in our jobcentres up and down the country and our £30 billion comprehensive plan for jobs.