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Universal Credit

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 7 December 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to the proposal from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust for an ‘Essentials Guarantee’ in Universal Credit.

My Lords, the department has taken note of the report and recommendations. We are aware of the continuing pressures people on lower incomes face. We will spend £276 billion through the welfare system in 2023-24 in Great Britain. From April 2024, benefits will increase by 6.7% and the national living wage will increase by 9.8% to £11.44. We are investing £1.2 billion in restoring local housing allowance rates, which ensure that 1.6 million low-income private renters gain, on average, £800 per year.

My Lords, I remind the Minister that, of the 6.2 million people on universal credit, 38% are in full-time work. Has he read the latest report from Barnardo’s on bed poverty, published only in September? The research showed that, due to the lack of an essentials guarantee, 900,000 children share a bed or sleep on the floor. Can he imagine the anxiety and tiredness that this creates? There is a lack of an essentials guarantee, which could be monitored by an independent body. It is not just a question of upping the benefits; there ought to be some serious effort put into this.

Yes, absolutely. The noble Lord’s points chime with what I said earlier about the fact that we understand the pressures that some people are experiencing. The Government have demonstrated their commitment to supporting the most vulnerable by providing one of the largest support packages in Europe. Taken together, the Government are providing total support of £104 billion from 2022 to 2025 to help households. I am aware of the Barnardo’s report. What we are doing for the household support fund includes funding to enable local authorities to help people with the cost of essentials in houses, including food, energy and furniture.

My Lords, has my noble friend had the opportunity to read the report of the Economic Affairs Committee on universal credit, which pointed out the injustice of people who moved on to universal credit and who received overpayments under the previous system, through no fault of their own, having their universal credit reduced? Surely at a time of such pressures, the Treasury should write off the sum and acknowledge it was a mistake made by government, for which people who are under very stressed circumstances should not be paying?

I take note of the point raised by my noble friend. I am not able to comment directly on that, but I will take his points back to the Treasury.

My Lords, will the Minister give due consideration, along with his ministerial colleagues in government, for the need to reform the social security system to ensure that poverty, particularly food poverty and child poverty, is put at the centre of any new policy, to ensure that there is an elimination over the next number of years?

Indeed, the noble Baroness is right that poverty is incredibly important. Absolute poverty is the Government’s preferred measure, as the poverty line is fixed in real terms. There is some debate over how one defines poverty; we are very alert to that, particularly in the field of child poverty. We take it very seriously, and although there is not time to go through all the measures we are taking, it is very important that as many children as possible—all children—are taken out of poverty.

My Lords, thinking of the effects of poverty, the Mental Health Foundation has recommended that all front-line workers, including those who work in essential services and government, should be given training and support to know how to respond effectively to the mental health effects of financial stress and strain. Will the Minister agree that this training and support is both vital and necessary?

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. Across government, we are putting a lot of work into tackling mental health, particularly post pandemic. We have a sustainable long-term approach to tackling poverty and, as I said earlier, supporting people on lower incomes. Perhaps I can say to the right reverend Prelate that, in 2021-22, there were 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty after housing costs than in 2009-10, including 400,000 fewer children.

My Lords, one group ignored by the Government in the Autumn Statement is unpaid carers. The Chancellor’s speech in the other place failed to mention the estimated 10.6 million people providing care, while the statement document itself mentions them only in relation to technical changes. In recent research by Carers UK, 60% of all carers said that they were worried about the impact of caring on their finances, while over a third of carers receiving carer’s allowance say they are struggling to afford the cost of food. Will the Minister look at reforming the rate of carer’s allowance and taking further steps to prevent eligibility restrictions acting as a barrier to employment?

Indeed, the noble Lord raised an important point about carers, who play a vital role in our country. We are very alert to this; I will certainly take the point he raised back to the Treasury, but I am unable to comment on whether we can or cannot do it. In terms of carers, we have strong evidence that some carers would also like to take on some work if it is appropriate, so there is much work going on with job coaches, to encourage them to speak to carers to see whether it is possible for them to combine work as well as their caring responsibilities, if it is appropriate.

My Lords, the Minister says that the Government are concerned about poverty, and he describes the things the Government have done, but we have to look at the results, because I am afraid that the Government do not get to mark their own homework. If the Minister does not like the Barnardo’s study cited by my noble friend, does he like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation finding that last year a million children experienced destitution? What about UNICEF, which found recently that the world’s worst rise in child poverty between 2012 and 2019 was in the UK—the worst of the 39 richest countries in the world? Is the Minister proud of that?

I am certainly not proud of that, but, as I say, there are a number of reports that have come out, and some that have come out recently. I can only repeat again that we are aware of the pressures involved; some families find it difficult even with where they can find the next meal. We are very aware of and alert to that; I think the noble Baroness will know that we are particularly busy in looking at what more can be done to help those in absolute poverty. She will know from the Autumn Statement the measures we have taken forward, and I can only repeat again that we are very alert to this.

My Lords, food inflation remains stubbornly high, at slightly over 10%, although thankfully it is 9 percentage points down from its peak in March this year. On this vital household metric, there is significant risk that prices will stay unaffordably high. What measures will the Government take to encourage the price of essential food items to come down from current levels in retail, local shops and supermarkets?

My noble friend raises another pressure, which we are also aware of. First, tackling inflation is the Government’s number one priority, and that is coming down. The Government monitor consumer food prices using the consumer prices index, as my noble friend will know, and in October 2023 CPI food price inflation reported by the ONS was 10.1%, down from 12.1% in September 2023. I reassure him that, through regular engagement, Defra will continue to work with food retailers and producers to explore the range of measures they can take to ensure the availability of affordable food.

As the Minister has just said, and the House agrees, the price of food is very high. Could the Minister explain to the House—or maybe help me—why we have a very good system called Healthy Start, which provides a supplementary bit of money to pregnant mums and kids under four, yet 40% of the people who are eligible for this are not registered, because the system is really complicated? NGOs such as the one I chair, Feeding Britain, have been campaigning for a long time for automatic registration. The money is there; it is not drastically expensive. Could the Minister agree to look into this very simple process that would help a lot of people?

Again, I will certainly take that point back. The Healthy Start scheme is an important point of the Government’s programme. Through healthy food schemes, the Government provide a nutritional safety net to those families who need it most. In terms of the uptake, the latest Healthy Start uptake figures were published, as the noble Baroness may be aware, on 31 October. The uptake for the NHS Healthy Start scheme was 70%.