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Poverty in the United Kingdom

Volume 794: debated on Monday 17 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, published on 16 November, following his visit to the United Kingdom.

The Government will consider the special rapporteur’s interim findings carefully. Although they disagree with his conclusions, the Government note that the report welcomes the simplification of the benefits system through universal credit and the recent Budget announcements to help tackle in-work poverty. Compared with 2010, income equality has fallen, the number of children in workless households is at a record low and 1 million fewer people are in absolute poverty, including 300,000 children.

The rapporteur held up a shaming mirror to poverty in our country, reinforced today by teachers’ warning of the increasingly devastating impact on their pupils. The Government’s response demonstrated their state of denial and indifference towards the impact of their policies that he criticised. Instead of constantly hiding behind cherry-picked statistics, as they have done today, why do they not listen and learn, go out and talk to people in poverty, as the rapporteur did, and end their social security and other policies that, in his words, are inflicting great and unnecessary misery?

My Lords, I am disappointed that the noble Baroness thinks that the Government are not listening. Only last week, she heard directly from front-line staff at the Department for Work and Pensions—I am grateful to her for coming to the department—about the vital work they do 24/7 to ensure that claimants receive the right support. In turn, I listened to the special rapporteur on Radio 4 say that people receive no funds for between five and 12 weeks when they enrol on to universal credit. That is just plain wrong and, frankly, undermines the credibility of this report.

My Lords, will the Government supply us with a plan for how they are going to rescue that wonderful thing, which is that work gives social mobility and social opportunity, at a time when it is obvious that in-work poverty is increasing at a greater rate than out-of-work poverty?

My Lords, I greatly support what the noble Lord has always said—we believe in giving people a hand up, rather than a handout, which is about empowering people and giving them the right support. Each universal credit claimant has a caseworker and a work coach who gives them the right support in their family or personal surroundings and then, through little steps at a time, helps and encourages them into work to support them, their family and their children. They are empowered, given confidence and lifted out of poverty.

My Lords, I had the pleasure—if you can call it that—of attending the APPG at which the special rapporteur met with many Members of Parliament. I was shocked, particularly by his statement that the Government do not listen. I visited a jobcentre and got a slightly different impression. Can the Minister give some examples of cases where the Government have listened?

My Lords, the great thing about the universal credit system is that it is being built in-house at the Department for Work and Pensions. It is more agile, and constant changes and improvements can be made, based on what we are learning from our work coaches and caseworkers. We have made hundreds of changes to the system already. We are talking to 80 stakeholders who will work—not just talk— with us to co-design the system for managed migration. We will spend seven months with those 80 stakeholders before we even begin to manage-migrate people on to universal credit. We know that the outcomes for these people will be better and will empower their lives.

There is so much in this report that one could ask about, but on page 17 it gives a devastating indictment of government policy:

“In-work poverty is increasingly common and almost 60% of those in poverty … are in families where someone works”.

But that is not the worst of it. It continues:

“There are 2.8 million people living in poverty in families where all adults in the household work”.

How can this be and what are the Government going to do about it?

Let me give the noble Lord an example: a couple with three children have to work only 24 hours per week between them—say, 12 hours each—to be in receipt of benefits equivalent to a salary of £35,000 per year plus housing support. Does the noble Lord think that is unfair?

My Lords, I was delighted to hear that it is fairly simple to change the structure of universal credit. How quickly will the Government ensure that split payments are available for people who are potentially in a situation of financial abuse?

My Lords, we do not need to change the system. Split payments are already available to those in need of them and who ask for them. We are talking to different stakeholders. The noble Baroness might have heard that only a few days ago, I spoke to Refuge and Women’s Aid about how this might work and whether split payments are the panacea—we do not believe they are—in supporting people who are suffering from domestic abuse. We are looking at a number of other ways that we can better support people, rather than just focusing on split payments.