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Universal Credit

Volume 808: debated on Tuesday 1 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on families of not maintaining the £1,000 uplift of Universal Credit.

My Lords, the Government have introduced a raft of temporary measures to support those hardest hit, including the furlough scheme, the Self-employment Income Support Scheme and the £20 UC uplift. With the uplift confirmed until the end of March 2021, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out last week why it is right that we wait for more clarity on the national economic and social picture before he decides on the best way to support low- income families from 1 April. I stress to the House that discussions are very much ongoing with Her Majesty’s Treasury.

If those who lost their jobs last April could not be expected to live on £73 a week, will the Minister explain why it is enough for people losing their jobs next April? There is overwhelming support for the £20 uplift for the poorest families in the country. Why are the Government changing the rules in the middle of a pandemic and a recession? How will they address children going hungry?

I understand the noble Baroness’s concern over those hardest hit by the pandemic, especially their income, but it is not right to say that we are changing course. All we are confirming at the moment, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out last week, is that we wait for more clarity on the national economic and social picture before making the decision on the best way to support low-income families.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has stressed that this is under current review, because if these payments are not maintained at a time when we can see what is happening in many low-paid jobs—even today in retail in particular —the evidence is that half a million more people will go into deep poverty and more than that will be brought into poverty. There is some urgency though, because people need to know where they stand as they see debts building up and struggle to take themselves through Christmas, so I hope that Ministers will take an early decision on this and not wait till the last minute.

I note the point about the timing of any decision, but that is with my friend in the other place, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Government are redoubling and trebling our efforts for those people who have found themselves in difficulty, including the people from Debenhams and Arcadia who are concerned for their futures, to get people back to work. We are completely focused on it. We have doubled the number of work coaches; we have Kickstart; we have the youth offer; we have sector-based work academies; and the Jobcentre Plus staff, the work coaches and the employment teams are engaging with employers to make sure that we have every vacancy we can get and we get people back to work as quickly as we can.

My Lords, we should keep at the forefront of our thinking that universal credit was designed not to trap people in benefits dependency but to give them every help and incentive to get back into work. This has perhaps never been more important, both for individual morale and to enable economic recovery. What is the DWP doing to support people to get back into employment and enable the economy to recover from the financial impact of Covid?

I thank my noble friend for reminding us about the principles of universal credit and, at the same time, of the difficult circumstances that people find themselves in. I stress again that we are providing help through dedicated work coaches and engagement with employers. We are supporting people back into work in a whole host of ways, not least the 250,000 green jobs that we want to create. We do not want to trap people on benefits; we want to help them.

My Lords, I declare my interest as the chair of Feeding Britain. We estimate that if this £20-a-week lifeline is pulled, up to 700,000 people will be pushed into poverty, including 300,000 kids. The NHS is creaking at the seams, but so is the food bank system that has become so endemic in our country. If the Government are taking this money away, what plan do they have to ensure that hungry kids get enough to eat?

At the risk of repeating myself, I say that we are waiting for the Chancellor to assess the situation before making a decision about how best to support low-income families. As for what we are doing for children, there are free school meal vouchers and we are providing £16 million for food charities to get food to those who are struggling and 4.5 million food boxes for vulnerable people. We are expanding free school meals, establishing a new £1 billion fund to create more high-quality, affordable childcare and putting £35 million into the national school breakfast programme. We are not taking our foot off the accelerator on any support we give.

My Lords, I watched the BBC news report from Burnley last night and I am not ashamed to say that I cried through it. It showed children so hungry that they were ripping open bags of donated food before they hit the floor. There was a vicar sobbing at the level of need around him. People are desperate, so I ask the Minister: has the DWP modelled the impact of cutting £1,000 from the incomes of 6 million families in the middle of a pandemic and a recession, when unemployment is still rising? Will she join me in meeting people who are providing food on the front line to poor communities, so that we can both hear what they really need from their Government?

First, I affirm that, as always, I am very happy to meet people, as the noble Baroness suggested. The Chancellor has said that, once we have a better understanding of the impact of the £20 uplift on the social and economic situation, he will make his assessment and decide what to do.

My Lords, given that people with disabilities have had a particularly tough time during the pandemic, can my noble friend say whether any additional support is given to that group?

I can confirm that the DWP continues to support vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities, through a series of safeguards and easements aimed at simplifying and improving their interaction with the benefits system. For ESA claimants, we have launched the New Style ESA online portal, which allows the majority of people who need to claim to do so online. Everyone infected with Covid-19 or required to self-isolate in line with government guidelines will be treated as having limited capability for work in ESA, without the requirement for fit notes or a work capability assessment.

My Lords, will the Minister consider the plight of families thrown into unemployment because of the pandemic who are subject to the cap? My understanding is that these families have not benefited from the £20 uplift to universal credit. They have very little—perhaps a few pounds a week—once they have paid their rent. Would it not be fair to raise the level of the cap by £20 a week to try to help these desperately needy families?

The Government believe that the benefit cap restores fairness between those receiving out-of-work benefits and taxpayers in employment. The noble Baroness raises an important issue that we should continue to consider, but we ought also to consider that the benefit cap statistics that have come out and show an increase in the number of people impacted are unacceptable, but also not surprising when we have a 600% increase in the number of those who have gone on to universal credit. We have also increased the local housing allowance rates.

Sitting suspended.