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Welfare Cap

Volume 618: debated on Monday 12 December 2016

I beg to move,

That pursuant to the Charter for Budget Responsibility: Autumn 2015 update, which was approved by this House on 14 October 2015, under Section 1 of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011, this House agrees that the breach of the Welfare Cap in 2019-20 and 2020-21, due to higher forecast inflation and spend on disability benefits, is justified and that no further debate will be required in relation to this specific breach.

Today’s motion is about Government accountability for welfare spending before the House and, indeed, before the public. This debate is about the welfare cap. I hope right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that our welfare system is about more than just the numbers. We have a set of principles to build a welfare system that works for everyone. We need to look beyond just benefits, and to work with employers, health professionals and the voluntary sector. We need to ensure the system supports people to get into work, to stay in work and to progress in work. We must also offer care for the minority of people who cannot work, whether through sickness, disability or personal circumstances.

We introduced the welfare cap in 2013 to strengthen control of welfare spending and improve parliamentary accountability for that level of spending. The welfare cap is an important part of our fiscal framework, and it plays a crucial role in delivering our commitment to a sustainable and affordable welfare system. Our welfare reforms are creating a system that makes sure that work always pays and that is fair to those who receive welfare but also to those who pay for it.

The independent Office for Budget Responsibility assessed performance against the welfare cap at autumn statement, and it is now forecast that the current cap will not be met in each year until 2020-21. A similar debate was held in the House on 16 December 2015 on the breach of the welfare cap in the years 2017-18 and 2018-19, resulting from the decision not to pursue the tax credits measure proposed at summer Budget 2015. The House agreed that the breach of the cap in the earlier years of the forecast period was justified and that no further debate would be required on that specific matter. Therefore, the motion we are putting before the House today seeks agreement on the justification of the breach of the cap in the later years of the forecast period—2019-20 and 2020-21.

I would now like to outline the reasons why the cap is forecast not to be met in those years. This is due to increased forecast inflation and spend on disability benefits, partly due to the decision not to pursue the personal independence payment measure proposed at Budget 2016. As with our decision not to pursue the tax credits measure, the Government have once more listened and responded to public concerns, and we have decided not to pursue the changes to the personal independence payment. Higher forecast inflation is another factor contributing to the cap not being met in 2019-20 and 2020-21. In view of the uncertainty facing the economy, inflation is now forecast to be higher than when the cap was set at summer Budget 2015.

I would like to reassure the House that the latest forecasts do not mean that welfare spending is out of control. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced at autumn statement, we will deliver the welfare savings we have already announced and legislated for. I would also like to repeat that the Government have no plans for further welfare savings in this Parliament.

The Government believe that work is the best route out of poverty. That is why we want a welfare system that helps people who can work to get back into work, but that also supports those in most need. Our welfare reforms are working. Employment has risen by 2.8 million since 2010, and is now at a record high of 74.5%. Unemployment is at an 11-year low. Universal credit is revolutionising the welfare system, enshrining the principle that working more always pays more. Through the benefit cap, we are restoring fairness to the system, while ensuring there is a clear incentive to work.

There are now over 1 million fewer people on out-of-work benefits. Some 3.5 million disabled people are now in employment, and in the last three years, the number of disabled people in work has increased by nearly 600,000. We also want a welfare system that is a strong safety net for those who need it—

Could the Minister confirm whether it is still the Government’s commitment to halve the disability employment gap by 2020?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work at her recent Select Committee appearance. She has made the point repeatedly that we are determined to reduce the disability employment gap, and we are working incredibly hard to do that, but we acknowledge that more needs to be done.

The welfare cap plays an important role in ensuring that the welfare bill is sustainable and affordable. We introduced the cap to allow us to bring welfare spending under control, and we have done so. The system we inherited was unaffordable and unsustainable. Under Labour, welfare spending increased by almost 60% in real terms. The number of households where no member had ever worked nearly doubled, and unemployment went up by 457,000.

As part of our continuous commitment to a sustainable welfare system, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced at autumn statement the introduction of a new welfare cap, alongside a new fiscal framework. The Government are firmly committed to returning the public finances to balance as soon as is practicable. Given the uncertainty we face, it is important to allow for enough flexibility to support the economy. That is why we are changing the fiscal framework, and why we are introducing a new welfare cap as part of that.

The new cap sets a target for welfare spending in 2021-22, with a pathway for welfare spending in all the years before that. The new cap is set in line with the latest autumn statement forecast. The scope of the new cap remains unchanged. The Office for Budget Responsibility will continue to assess performance against the new cap, and if the cap is assessed as breached, Ministers will still need to hold a debate and justify the breach in the House, or to propose steps to bring spending within the level of the cap.

The House will have the opportunity in due course to debate and agree the new fiscal framework, including the new welfare cap, which was put forward by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor at autumn statement. I commend the motion to the House.

It is always a pleasure to be here when you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.

As Members will probably gather, I take a slightly different view from the Minister, and I will go on to the details in a moment. However, as the Minister acknowledged, this is the second year the Government have been forced to come to the House to explain their failure not just in breaching their own social security cap but on the economy.

As a quick point of clarification, the Government spent £130 billion more between 2010 and 2015 than the previous Labour Government spent between 2005 and 2010. So this Government have spent more. That is absolutely—[Interruption.] It is very interesting that Government Members should take that approach, but I will go on. It turns out that the long-term economic plan is really nothing more than a slogan, and that probably “long-term economic failure” would have been slightly more apt.

Order. We cannot have sedentary interventions from the Whips’ Bench. [Interruption.] We just cannot, even when there is nobody else here.

That is fine, Madam Deputy Speaker —I have no problem with answering the hon. Gentleman. He said, “More jobs”, but 80% of the increase in employment is in self-employment, and half—[Interruption.] These are the facts. Half of those in self-employment are earning less than the living wage.

As we saw in the autumn statement, growth is down, borrowing is up—again—inflation is on the rise, deficit targets are hopelessly missed, and productivity is flatlining. The Office for National Statistics has described this as “unprecedented”, with the worst levels of productivity since the second world war. Of course, productivity is the driver of wage growth, so we are seeing stagnant wage growth as well as precarious levels of employment.

The Government have failed on every single one of their fiscal targets, so much so that at the autumn statement they had to define a new set. They promised us an economy based on high wages and lower social security spending where work always pays, but in over six years they have done nothing to deliver the high-skill, high-wage, productive economy that this country desperately needs to compete in the global market. As a result of their failures, the Government have once again breached their own welfare cap—not just last year, not just this year, but every year for a full five-year term. For the remaining years of this Parliament, the Government will miss their cap by £5 billion, £6 billion, £7 billion and £8 billion respectively—a record of the complete and utter failure of their economic strategy.

Instead of reforming the social security system to reflect the reality of today’s flexible labour market, the Government have sought to cover up their economic incompetence and take it out on the working poor, the sick and the disabled, raining down austerity on the most vulnerable in our society. We have had six wasted years while the poorest have picked up the bill, with a full four years of failure yet to come. This is a far cry from the former Chancellor’s proclamation in 2014 that

“The welfare cap marks an important moment in the development of the British welfare state”


“ensures that never again can the costs spiral out of control”.—[Official Report, 26 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 374-381.]

All the evidence is to the contrary. This debate is further testament to the Government’s complete failure to manage the economy or—and this is the most important point—to tackle any of the drivers of social security spending. It is incredible to watch the Government as they bound aimlessly from one broken promise to the next. Whatever their favourite slogan—“We’re all in it together”, “Fighting against burning injustices”, or “A Britain for everyone”—it is clear that gimmicks and grandstanding are all the Government are capable of.

In the motion, the Government claim that they could not meet their own rules due to spending on social security support for disabled people and higher than expected inflation. As ever, they are pointing the finger of blame at the most vulnerable rather than apologising for their own economic mismanagement. Let us examine the facts in a bit more detail. At the autumn statement, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that the Government will spend £120.5 billion in 2019-20 and £123.2 billion in 2020-21 on social security considered within the cap. Of this, the OBR estimates that changes in forecasts for CPI—consumer prices index—inflation will increase spending to 2021 by £0.8 billion in total. At less than a percentage point of total spending inside the cap, this can hardly be said to be the major driver of the Government’s failure to keep their promises. The Government have lost control of the economy, if they ever had control of it in the first place, and failed to tackle the key drivers of social security spending other than pensions—low-paid work and high housing costs.

Furthermore, the Government’s claim that increased disability spending will cause a breach of the cap at the end of the Parliament is just another attempt to point the finger at sick and disabled people. I admit—I am pleased about this—that there has been no language from Ministers around the “shirkers and scroungers” narrative that we have seen in recent years. That is a very welcome move. However, I am not clear whether this extends to press releases from Conservative Campaign Headquarters or to some of the coverage in less responsible sections of the media. We must be careful of our language in this respect. Even if derogatory terms such as “shirker” and “scrounger” are not used, what is implied by “incentivising” people who have been found not fit for work? Is the implication that they are at home avoiding work—that it is their choice to stay at home instead of being in productive work? That is offensive to very many people.

Instead of blaming everyone else for their mess, the Government should start taking responsibility. It is not just Labour Members who are making these points. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has described the approach of the past six years as a “grave and systematic violation” of disabled people’s rights. We have heard similar comments from our own Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Government’s Social Security Advisory Committee, and, indeed, Government Back Benchers. All have raised concerns about the lack of evidence in many of the Government’s social security policies, particularly regarding their punitive effects. I am pleased that the Minister said that the Government had taken the view that because of the implications that changes to tax credits would have for the working poor, they had decided not to proceed with them, but what about work allowances around universal credit? We are talking about the same people. The taper rate will make a difference of a couple of hundred pounds a year instead of the net effect of over £2,000 a year.

I want to explore some of the real reasons the Government have totally failed to meet their promises. They have failed because they have not tackled the drivers of social security spending. Rather than creating a strong economy with high wages, progression in the labour market, affordable housing and accessible childcare, they have starved the economy of much-needed investment, leaving us all worse off after six wasted years of austerity. This is not just our analysis; in every regard, the evidence speaks for itself. On housing, under this Government we are projected to spend more than £20 billion a year, every year, on housing benefit, which, after pensions, is the second largest spending area of social security spending. This amounts to more than £100 billion spent over the course of this Parliament, with nearly half going straight into the pockets of private landlords.

All the while, the Government’s own figures show that the number of affordable homes being built has slumped to a 24-year low. Indeed, research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that we need to be building 80,000 affordable homes a year to meet demand and keep the current spend on housing benefit stable. This year, we have managed to build just 30,000. Instead of focusing on reducing the housing benefit bill by building affordable homes, the Government have chosen to force the sale of the remainder of our socially rented stock, worsening the housing crisis and driving up housing benefit spend. This is one of the key reasons they have breached their own cap.

On top of this, there is the squeeze on in-work support for people in low-paid jobs. We will spend over £50 billion on tax credits in the two years covered in this motion. Why? Because the Government have failed to ensure that wages keep up with the cost of living, leaving many working people relying on top-ups to get by. Real wages are now set to remain lower in 2021 than they were in 2008, yet the Tories still turn their backs on working people by trying to cut the amount of tax credit support available under their failed austerity plans.

Likewise, under universal credit the Government have weakened incentives to work by cutting billions—about £10 billion over the life of this Parliament—from the programme’s work allowance under their austerity plans. Their meagre reduction in the taper rate does not touch the average cut of £2,000 a year, as I have just mentioned, which will affect 2.5 million working people. If the Chancellor was serious about reducing the social security spend, he would follow Labour’s lead and implement a real living wage calculated on the basis of what people need. That would ensure that people get a fair and proper wage for a working day, while reducing the expenditure of the state.

Our Chancellor is apparently not capable of making such an obvious decision, despite the fact that the Living Wage Commission has shown that the Government’s national living wage falls well short of providing a decent standard of living. The Chancellor used his autumn statement to chop 1w0p an hour off the previously promised wage increase, at a cost of about £200 a year to the average worker. That is all in the context of flatlining pay, which leads to the average wage being £1,000 lower in 2020 than was predicted at the last Budget. How can we ever expect to reduce social security expenditure when the Government will not act on wages?

High wages alone will not clear up the mess, however. We also need to act on progression in the labour market if we are to tackle the drivers affecting social security spending. The JRF has shown that four out of five low-paid workers are still low paid 10 years later. There is no automatic progression to higher pay. That is further proof of the deep structural problems we face in our labour market.

Finally, we should turn our attention to the disability employment gap, which the Government claimed they would halve by 2020. I am grateful for the intervention from the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on that point. The gap narrowed from the end of last year, but it is now back up to the level it was just before the general election last year. Perhaps the Government’s plan to force people into work before they are ready by cutting the employment and support allowance can be added to the mounting examples of the Government’s flawed strategy.

Why have the Government not acted to improve the retention of disabled people in their current jobs? The Resolution Foundation has shown that doing so could reduce the number of people transitioning from employment to health-related inactivity, which was 350,000 in 2015. Keeping disabled people in their jobs would surely be a better strategy to bring down social security spending than slashing support for those who are further away from the labour market. But no; sadly, the Government have not been able to see that far, and their record on supporting retention is very poor.

This is an important issue. The Office for Budget Responsibility has said that the Government will breach their target in each year of its forecast. Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that that means that the welfare cap is not working, because the Government cannot look after those who are genuinely ill and in need of benefits? An example of that is Concentrix, where lots of people were put on benefits and then taken off benefits. The number of such people, when it comes to the cap, is very difficult to forecast, and the Government need to forecast that better.

That is an interesting question, and I would have to look at the figures. I have tried to show that the high cost of housing is a real issue, as is low-paid work. There are a number of factors, but those are the key drivers. The Government really should have been more careful in their impact assessment when they set out their policy in the first place.

To conclude, this breach of the Government’s self-imposed welfare cap every year for five years is further proof of their utter failure on the economy. They have refused to act on the fundamental areas that are driving the cost of social security spending, and they have made bankrupt attempts to meet their targets on the back of the most vulnerable. Only Labour has an economic strategy that will bring the costs of social security down without fraying the safety net that we all rely on. Now is the time to invest in the housing we need, offer a decent wage for a working day and support people to find a job, keep a job and progress in their chosen work. We will transform our social security system to ensure that, like the NHS, it is there for all of us in our time of need, as part of our plan to create a stronger, fairer economic settlement for all in our country.

It is a pleasure to contribute to this important debate. I pay tribute to the Minister, who showed that she had a genuinely deep understanding of the issues. She already has a record of being very willing to engage, particularly with charitable groups, which have a wealth of experience. We, as a Government, would do well to listen to them and allow them to help to shape future policies.

The debate is important because it focuses our minds. We have set a clear marker, and we have to justify any deviation from our original plans. It was interesting to listen to the last speech. The shadow Minister said that the Government have spent something like £130 billion more, but she then criticised us for not spending sufficient money in basically every area. The two things did not quite marry up. It is right to focus our minds, because under the previous Labour Government welfare was simply left to drift. The number of workless households doubled and an extra 470,000 people were abandoned to unemployment. Those are not just statistics; they represent real people who were in desperate need of the right support.

Through our strong economic growth—I am not sure what the shadow Minister was referring to, because it is still the strongest of any major developed economy—we have seen record employment. That is not just a south-east phenomenon; it has happened in every region of the country. I know that hon. Members are all desperate to know the situation in my constituency: 8,100 more people are in work since the general election, and that is even larger than the number of people who go to the county ground to watch the mighty Swindon Town. Unemployment is at an 11-year low.

We have introduced the national living wage, directly benefiting 2.75 million of our lowest earners. The income tax threshold rises year on year, taking 3.2 million people out of paying any income tax at all. While wages have grown, on average, about 2% this year, the wages of the lowest earners have risen by an average of 6%. That is in addition to the welcome extension of free childcare, which has created more opportunities for people to work.

The recent Green Paper announcement gives us a real opportunity to build on the progress that is being made, particularly if we look at the 590,000 more disabled people in work in the last three years. Now, 48% of disabled people are expected to be in work—up from 44% when we first came into office. We still have much further to go, but charitable groups and people who work in this area are encouraged by the fact that we are going in the right direction. The key thing is to deliver tailored individual support, because for those who are still looking for work, there are challenges. It is not as simple as learning how to create a CV and taking part in interview training. We are right to look at delivering more tailored support, to make further progress in delivering more people into work and thus reducing welfare spending.

We are right to identify that we have to do joined-up work with health. Many people who are now looking for work will also have to navigate health challenges, and they need support from the beginning. We are, rightly, introducing the small employer offer to engage proactively with employers on providing opportunities. People who play by the rules and work with the support on offer need the opportunity to go into work at the end of the process.

The announcement on disability apprentices and the increase in funding for Access to Work and universal credit, which has universal support across all parts of the House, reinforce the point that work should always pay and recognise a welfare system that is fair to those who receive it and to those who pay for it. Crucially, we are removing the 16-hour cliff-edge rule and providing, on average, 13% more time for the claimant to look. Most importantly, for me, for the first time ever a claimant has a named contact who can help them to navigate the process of not just looking for work, but dealing with all the different forms of benefit and the extra support they will need.

Crucially, when a claimant goes into work, the named contact will continue to provide support. Until now, we, as a society, would help people to get into work and wish them all the best, and that would be our last contact with them unless they came back to look for work again. Now we realise that those people, many of whom are taking their first step into work, may need support. They may lack confidence. If they attend work regularly and engage in the right way, their named coach can help them to try to increase their hours, increase their responsibility and earn more money in work.

One of the things I would like to see in my constituency and across the whole of the United Kingdom is incentives for small and medium-sized businesses, which, because they are small, find it difficult to support disabled people in gaining employment. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that small and medium-sized businesses have so far not been encouraged to do just that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that very important point. Large employers, with their well-resourced HR and highly educated personnel teams, are very good at making such changes—they are often small changes—to take full advantage of the disabled people who are looking to work and have the great skills and abilities needed to fill the existing skills gaps. Small and medium-sized businesses often do not have the necessary confidence and skills, and may not even be aware of the talent that is available.

The small employer pilot is so important because it is about going around industrial parks, business parks and shops to ask, “Where are your skills gaps? We will match them to the people who are looking for work.” We have had some really encouraging results from the pilots. I had a Disability Confident event in my constituency, and the Shaw Trust managed to place a further 22 people. We got small and medium-sized employers who had never thought about doing this to come forward and say, “These are our skills gaps. Please help find people for us.”

The hon. Gentleman rightly makes the point that the rate of employment among disabled people has risen, but the overall employment rate has risen as well, so the disability employment gap has not been reduced. Why has there not been any progress on that issue?

The right hon. Gentleman has been very diligent on this issue, and he is determined to be proactive in supporting disabled people to have such an opportunity. The reality is that the growing economy is benefiting everyone, but perversely, the last time we had a recession, the disability gap actually shrank because non-disabled people came out of work at a quicker rate than the disabled people. If we had a recession, we would not celebrate the closing of the gap if people were also coming out of work.

Greater minds than mine will now have to decide what way to go. For what it is worth, I think the only thing that matters is that, as quickly as possible, more disabled people should have an opportunity for work year on year. We should be looking at ways to do that. When we came to office, the then Prime Minister said that we wanted to halve the disability employment gap, which meant employing about 1 million more disabled people. We should be trying to get to that target as quickly as possible, by looking at it annually. Stakeholders and charities are keen that we can demonstrate on an annual basis that we are making real, tangible progress. So far, with 590,000 more disabled people in work in the past three years, progress has been good, but there is still much more that needs to be done.

The final area I want to mention is disability benefits. As a Government, we now spend £3 billion more a year, which is welcome. That recognises the fact that under the old system of disability living allowance, only 16.5% of claimants accessed the highest rate of benefit, while under PIP, the figure is about 22.5%, because the system recognises hidden impairments better, particularly mental health ones. It is right that we are getting support to the most vulnerable people in society as quickly as we can.

However, I have an ask. Everybody in Parliament recognises that we have a growing challenge with mental health conditions in this country. Whether in relation to people in work, people trying to get into work or people in their everyday lives, about one in four people will have a mental health condition at some point. I suspect whoever was in government would, like our Government, look to committing additional funding to support people with mental health conditions. One of the challenges is that no one has quite resolved the best way to direct and provide such support. There are lots of different pilots, but we have a real opportunity in that the one way in which we are identifying people with mental health conditions is through the PIP benefit. However, we do not do anything with that information: we do not signpost people who have gone through the system and been identified as having a mental health condition to the traditional support offered by the NHS, local charities, support groups and so on. I am not looking to get people off PIP.

I am sorry that I came in late and missed the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. To be quite frank with him, it is not so easy for people with mental health disabilities to get benefits. I now have a number of cases of people with mental health and other disabilities who have had their benefits stopped without any notice and without a by-your-leave.

The overall picture is that about 20% of those with a mental health condition accessed the highest rate of benefit under DLA, but the figure is now in the region of 80% under PIP. The system is better, although there is still work to be done. We have fantastic organisations, such as Mind, that regularly engage with Ministers and provide proactive suggestions about how to make further improvements.

My point is that when we identify such people, we should then signpost them to the additional support that is available. Through our own casework, we know that people who have experienced a mental health condition often do not know where to turn. There is no guidebook to tell them where to go. If we identify somebody with a mental health condition, we have a duty to do our very best to work with organisations such as Mind to signpost them to the help available, so that they can once again share the same opportunities that all of us take for granted.

This is an important debate. It is right that we are increasing spending on the most vulnerable people in society. We are rightly helping to give people an opportunity to get into work. The statistics are showing that real people are benefiting from our strong economic growth. I urge the Government to keep pressing forward with the positive action we are taking.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). He has been a loyal supporter of the Government from the Back Benches during the past few months, and it sounds very much as though he is putting in a job application to the Prime Minister as much as to anyone else—[Interruption.] Well, you never know.

Another breach of the cap calls into question what its actual point was in the first place. As a means to reduce welfare spending, it continues to be inflexible and unworkable. When we look at the motion and words of the Minister from the Dispatch Box, we see a mea culpa. The Government are admitting that the cap has in effect gone for the next four years. The Minister will not have to continue to come back to the Dispatch Box to say that it is not working, because we have now given them a blank cheque for the next three or four years, which I guess we should welcome.

We should really be talking about the fundamentals of the economic circumstances that got us into this situation in the first place. We need not the soundbites we used to hear about the long-term economic plan, but a real plan to make sure that we are boosting investment in productivity in this country. The challenge in delivering that has just got a little bit harder as a consequence of Brexit, which I suspect is really why we are having this debate today. It was always going to be about circumstances, and Brexit—the fall in the value of the pound, the declining confidence in future growth—has had the impact of bringing the Government to the Dispatch Box with the display we have seen this evening.

On social security, the Chancellor missed his opportunity to be the reformer he claims to be for “just about managing” families. He should instead have focused on addressing the underlying root causes of poverty by working to address unemployment and employment support. We acknowledge that the Government have now had to abandon their own targets on the welfare cap, and the projected increases in resources are welcome, after they had used the cap for so long as a source for cuts.

The welfare cap is a reprehensive and regressive measure that places the burden of the UK Government’s failed economic strategy on the shoulders of the most disadvantaged in society. We should remind ourselves that the welfare cap was a flagship policy for the Government in the last Parliament, but it ended up as a tool to find more cuts that the Treasury has used and abused to squeeze resources from the Department for Work and Pensions.

The new Chancellor will again have to breach the target set for him, but we ask him to acknowledge that the sheer fact this Government cannot even stick to their own targets proves that the inflexibility of the welfare cap makes it unworkable. The fact that they will breach the cap again and again illustrates a desire not to provide guidance about forgoing the cap for the next four years, but to abandon for good the policy of having a cap. An arbitrary cap in these times of uncertainty is neither useful nor adequate, as the Government’s previous breaches have shown.

The best way to reduce and manage welfare spending is to restore the economy to a healthy state, not to hit the most disadvantaged with the bill. The cap will not address the underlying structural problems that are keeping people reliant on social security, including low pay and wider labour market inequality. The fact that people in well-paid jobs cannot afford to pay rent, because of high housing costs, should at least provoke the Government to listen to the point that reliance on welfare is more than what they perceive as a culture of dependency. We keep coming back to the issue of housing and housing costs, but the only way to address that is to make sure we address the issue of supply in the housing market, which the Government have singularly failed to do.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said of the welfare cap target:

“The Conservative government already has the unimpressive record of meeting nought-out-of three of its fiscal targets.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said in March 2014:

“The government’s newly-announced welfare cap will disproportionately target benefits claimed by the least well off”.

The IFS green budget, from February 2016, said that

“in practice, the welfare cap has proved much less binding. Spending is already forecast to exceed the cap that was set in July 2015 for each of the next three fiscal years. In other words, even though the welfare cap has only been in operation for less than two years (since the March 2014 Budget), it has already been broken by the Chancellor. It is therefore not clear whether it remains a real constraint on the government’s actions.”

The IFS was right then and is right today. What is the point of the welfare cap as a principle if it is breached time and again? It is, in effect, no constraint on what the Government are doing, or at least on what they should be doing. It is unworkable and meaningless. It was simply a sop to show that the Government were talking tough, and pays no regard to changing circumstances. It is intellectually, morally and ethically daft.

The £1 billion allocation to benefits in the autumn statement is a drop in the ocean, with billions of savings still to come from cuts to social security benefits over the next few years. Changing the taper rates will not, on its own, mitigate the impact of those cuts on low-income families. Instead, the Government should reverse cuts to the work allowance in full, so that working parents in low-paid jobs—people whom we, as a House, should want to support—do not lose out. Changing that taper rate—the rate at which support is withdrawn from low-income working households under universal credit—will be less effective at targeting support towards low earners with children than simply reversing the cuts to the work allowance would be.

The Scottish National party has consistently argued against the reductions in the work allowance and helped to force a Tory U-turn on tax credit cuts last year. Although the UK Government kicked the cut to the work allowance down the line, it will come back to bite next April, hitting “just about managing” families on low and middle incomes. The maximum gain from the 2% reduction in the taper is only around £500, which will fall short of what low and middle-income families need to manage when the maximum losses from the work allowance cuts are around £2,800. That is the reality of what is happening under this Government.

Torsten Bell, director of the Resolution Foundation, has said:

“When it comes to boosting ‘just managing’ family budgets, all roads lead to universal credit. The most effective way to support families would be by reversing the £3bn cut to work allowances announced by the last chancellor”.

He added that a modest reduction in the taper rate would

“leave a bittersweet taste among just about managing families.”

Analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research suggested the partial U-turn would cost £700 million a year by 2020-21, compared with the £3 billion a year taken out of work allowances previously announced. Now that the welfare cap has gone, why do the Government not reassess these challenges, and make sure that they support the families that so desperately need that support?

With losses for families on universal credit, the repugnant rape clause—let us not forget that—and cuts for the sick and the disabled still to come down the line, it is clear the Tories have not abandoned their obsession with austerity. For all their rhetoric on the JAMs, they are still unwilling to deliver. Although it is welcome that there are to be no more welfare spending cuts, the sheer fact that the Tories are ploughing ahead with the pre-planned cuts next year, hitting low and middle-income families, shows that there are real-time cuts for families across the UK in this Parliament.

In a report to the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee, researchers from Sheffield Hallam University showed that by 2020-21 Scotland can expect to lose just over £1 billion a year as a result of the latest welfare reforms introduced by the UK Government. That is £1 billion of cuts that have yet to hit ordinary working people in Scotland, delivered by this Westminster Government—happy Christmas. Sheffield Hallam University also estimates that the pre-2015 reforms are already costing claimants in Scotland just over £1.1 billion a year. That brings the cumulative loss expected from all the post-2010 welfare reforms up to more than £2 billion a year. We will not grow the economy by taking cash out of the pockets of the poorest. We will fix the economy, the debt and the deficit by putting in place measures that will grow the economy. This obsession with punishing the poor must stop.

The UK Government are saving a whopping £30 million in 2017-18, rising to £450 million in 2020-21, from the cuts to the employment and support allowance work-related activity group and the component in universal credit, according to figures published by the Treasury in the summer Budget 2015 and updated in March 2016. Already we have seen Tory Back Benchers rise again and again to vote with us on the Opposition Benches against those regressive policies. Even if the Government will not listen to those of us on the Opposition Benches, it is high time they listened to their own Members. Analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research suggested the partial U-turn on the universal credit taper rate would cost £700 million. Why will the Government not do the right thing by the people affected?

Any move to increase the national living wage, as the Government call it, is to be welcomed, but the UK Government are still dragging their feet; they lack the ambition to really tackle low pay. The UK Government’s national living wage is not a living wage; it is simply a further tier of the national minimum wage. The real living wage is calculated according to the basic cost of living and therefore takes account of the adequacy of household incomes for achieving an acceptable minimum living standard.

Why will the Government not accept that definition and recognise that that should be the bare minimum for those who are working hard in our society? The UK Government’s decision to set an arbitrary rate for their national living wage fundamentally challenges the value of having an organisation providing independent advice on wage levels across the UK. I therefore ask the Minister: will the Government start to accept that impartially provided advice?

The Scottish National party supports the payment and promotion of the real living wage and, in Scotland, continues to set the bar on fair work. Leading the way, on Monday 31 October, the First Minister welcomed the new living wage rate of £8.45 per hour, which will benefit thousands of staff in Scotland, and urged more Scottish organisations to sign up as accredited living wage employers. That rise of 20p will benefit thousands of employees at living wage accredited organisations in Scotland.

The best way to reduce and manage welfare spending is to restore the economy to a healthy state, not to hit the most disadvantaged with the bill. Austerity is a choice, not a necessity—an obsession that has been proved, time and again, to fail. It is time for an economic strategy that focuses on inclusive and fair growth. The SNP is delivering for Scotland; Westminster is delivering ongoing austerity. We are all paying the price for that.

Question put and agreed to.


That pursuant to the Charter for Budget Responsibility: Autumn 2015 update, which was approved by this House on 14 October 2015, under Section 1 of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011, this House agrees that the breach of the Welfare Cap in 2019-20 and 2020-21, due to higher forecast inflation and spend on disability benefits, is justified and that no further debate will be required in relation to this specific breach.