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House of Lords Hansard
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10 March 2020
Volume 802

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Office for National Statistics’ release Average household income, UK: financial year ending 2019, published on 5 March, and in particular the finding that disposable household income has fallen for the poorest 20 per cent of the population.

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My Lords, the Government are giving serious consideration to this important report, as they do to all reports on these key issues. We acknowledge that we need to keep monitoring low incomes; indeed, that is why the DWP will publish the annual households below average income statistics on 26 March. The report referred to by the noble Baroness has a relatively small cohort; the DWP report will have a much larger one and it will be interesting to compare the two. Please understand that we realise that people are struggling, and it is our mission to help them.

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My Lords, despite increases in the minimum wage and personal tax allowance, which have a limited impact on poverty—in or out of work—the Office for National Statistics report shows that, over two years, there has been a 7% fall in the real incomes of the poorest fifth of people due to the benefits freeze, spelling an intensification of poverty and hardship, especially for women and children. The House appreciates the Minister’s sympathy but how can the Government she represents, who are supposedly committed to levelling up, justify their continued refusal to make good at least some of the loss due to that freeze in the face of this damning new evidence of the results of their policy choices?

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My Lords, we had an intensive debate on this issue last week, which I appreciated, when considering the uprating benefits order. I have given and will continue to give all noble Lords the opportunity to raise their concerns with the Government. I appreciate the warms words the noble Baroness uses to refer to me. I am doing everything I can, as are others, but I am afraid that I do not yet have the currency or the pay grade to answer the question in the way the noble Baroness wants.

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Does my noble friend agree that one of the heaviest downward pressures on disposable income for the poorest families is the ever-rising cost for households of energy bills? Does she agree that, at a time when primary energy prices are falling around the world and energy is getting cheaper, here in the United Kingdom we seem nevertheless to have the highest energy costs in Europe and the bills keep going up and up, causing particular pressure for single-parent families? Can she assure us that all efforts will be made to mitigate this harsh pressure on such families?

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My noble friend makes a very important point. I understand all too well that energy costs are an issue for single parents: my niece is a single parent, and the amount she pays for electric on a key is out of kilter with other methods. My noble friend’s point about energy costs is well made. I will go back to the department—they are going to love me when I get back—and then write to him to answer the specifics of his question, placing a copy in the Library.

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My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the number of universal credit claimants who commit suicide every year, and of course these are the poorest people in our society. What steps will the Government take to improve the administration of universal credit and reduce the huge stress levels involved in trying to make a claim in the way required at the moment?

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Suicide is a terrible thing in any circumstances. We have all been reminded recently of its impact on various groups in our society. I can tell the noble Baroness and the whole House that the administration of universal credit is reviewed on a daily basis. We have a terrific director, Neil Couling, who looks after the system, and I know for a fact that he is trying to do everything he can to simplify the process without losing the administrative needs within it.

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My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that automatic sanctions cause huge stress not only to unemployed people but to working families who are on benefits? What assurances can she give that work coaches will be given sufficient flexibility to take into account the often appalling and tragic circumstances that lead to this action, and will she reassure those families that they will be listened to?

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I can assure the noble Baroness and the House that our work coaches receive regular training and development in respect of sanctions, and that sanctions are a last resort. Recent changes have been made to the length of sanctions and they will be used only when absolutely necessary.

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My Lords, some of the people who are suffering the most are pensioners relying on the basic pension. If the coronavirus outbreak gets worse and more and more people are confined to their homes, they will have to rely on the television for information as well as for entertainment, and yet free TV licences are due to be withdrawn on 1 June. Will the Minister go back to her department with all seriousness and compassion and see whether, at the very least, the withdrawal of free TV licences can be postponed?

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I can assure the noble Lord that everything I do at this Dispatch Box is done with sincerity and compassion. The point he has raised about television licences is outside my brief, but I will find somebody to talk to about it.