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Increased Living Costs: Benefit Claimants

Volume 705: debated on Monday 13 December 2021

4. What steps her Department is taking to support benefit claimants in meeting increased living costs. (904702)

6. What steps her Department is taking to support benefit claimants in meeting increased living costs. (904705)

7. What steps her Department is taking to support benefit claimants in meeting increased living costs. (904706)

23. What steps her Department is taking to support benefit claimants in meeting increased living costs. (904722)

The Government are taking action to make work pay for low-income households. As was announced at the Budget, we are reducing the universal credit taper rate and increasing the work allowance so that working people can keep more of their earnings. We have introduced a £500-million household support fund so that local authorities can help those on the lowest incomes with their food and utility costs.

About 12,000 households in Luton South are claiming universal credit, and one in 10 people say that they could not afford a £5 per month increase in their cost of living. Does the Minister accept that his Government’s failure to tackle increasing rents and energy costs will impact the poorest in society more and push more of my constituents into poverty?

I think the hon. Member will welcome the fact that the vast majority of the nearly 6,000 claimants in work will gain from the reduction in the taper rate and the increase in work allowances in the Budget, which is terrific. For those who are vulnerable, £1.8 million has been made available to local authorities to help them through the household support fund.

A single father who is unable to work on health grounds told the Select Committee in September that removing the £20 a week uplift would force him to skip meals so that his children did not have to. Christians Against Poverty, which supports him, says that he now cannot afford the absolute basics: food, heating and bus fares to take his children to school. He certainly cannot afford to buy his children Christmas presents. With prices rising so fast, is not the social security safety net just too low?

As I just set out to the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), we have introduced the household support fund. In Newham, £3.3 million is available to help people exactly like the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent with the challenges they are facing this winter.

In effect, the new household support scheme, about which we have heard quite a bit today, replaces the £20 universal credit uplift with £1.60. Can the Minister tell me how that will help families through this harsh winter, especially as increasing numbers of people will have to self-isolate? It certainly will not do much for the more than 16% of families in Blackburn who live in fuel poverty—households that are now faced with even higher fuel prices in the winter cost crunch. Will he reconsider the rate of the universal credit standard allowance and ensure that it rises in line with the cost of living?

I can reassure the hon. Member that steps are in place to help people through various stages of the employment journey. For those who are in work, there is the universal credit taper and work allowance. For those who are out of work, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), has said, there is the plan for jobs, which is making a big difference in people’s lives. For those who are vulnerable and need extra help, there is the household support fund, and in Blackburn and Darwen that comes to £1.6 million over this winter.

Everyone in the food sector knows that costs are rising dramatically and that margins are being eroded. We are already seeing price rises in the shops. The Food and Drink Federation thinks that it is £3 a week for households. Out of the £5 that has already been mentioned, does the Minister understand just what pressure that puts on vulnerable households? What will the Government do to protect them when those price rises bite?

It is really important that we get more people into work, and there are 1.3 million vacancies. We need to help those who are unemployed into work, which will be the biggest, most sustainable way that we can get them on to their own two feet. As I have said, we have the household support fund, and in Cambridgeshire that comes to £3.6 million, which will help the people whom the hon. Member is talking about.

With housing costs a major driver of poverty, the Government have decided yet again to freeze the local housing allowance, hitting millions of renters. As the Minister well knows, neither discretionary payments nor the winter hardship fund will do anything like meet the shortfall in that gap. Meanwhile, rents are anything but frozen and more than half of all renters have a shortfall between their rents and the help available. Will the Minister tell us when the Government decided not to link the support for housing costs to actual real world rents, and what assessment have they made of the impact of that on household incomes?

As the hon. Member will remember, we increased the local housing allowance rates to the 30th percentile of local rents in April 2020. That is a boost of £1 billion in support and an average gain of £600 for each person in private rented accommodation who needed housing support. We have also maintained that at cash levels, which will be a real help, and there are also discretionary housing payments for those who need them as well.

To help pensioners with rising household bills, will the Government do more to promote pension credit? In the Kettering constituency, almost 18,000 retired people claim the state pension, but fewer than 2,000 claim pension credit, yet this can help with council tax bills, heating costs and so on. Across the country, 1 million pensioners are not claiming the pension credit to which they are entitled, so can the Government do more to increase the uptake of that benefit?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner on these matters, but we also have a doughty Pensions Minister who is working incredibly hard to increase the take-up. I also highlight to him that, as I am sure he knows, winter fuel payments and cold weather payments are also available to help pensioners on low incomes over the winter period.