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Poverty Levels

Volume 688: debated on Monday 25 January 2021

Tackling poverty and levelling up opportunity will always be a priority for this Government, while using universal credit, which works for the labour market, to encourage people to move into and progress in work. There are several measures of poverty in the annual publication “Households below average income”—which is based on the annual family resources survey—of which absolute poverty before housing costs is the measure on which the Government most focus. Since 2010, 400,000 people have been lifted out of absolute poverty, including 100,000 children, and additionally, the rates of combined material deprivation and low income for children were at their joint lowest, at 11%, in 2018-19.

Child poverty is a disgrace in the UK and it is strongly linked to welfare payments. Quite clearly, more people are going to be pushed into poverty if the Tory Government continue with their planned cut to the £20 uplift in universal credit and the working tax credit. Ministers have ducked this all day, but given that the Government did not vote against the motion last week, they have a duty to honour that motion, so will the Secretary of State confirm what discussions she has had with the Chancellor about retaining the vital £20 uplift?

I updated the House in November and did say that we would be reviewing this in the new year. That is exactly what we are doing, and I am actively considering with the Chancellor the best way to continue to try to support people who are impacted on strongly by the economic impacts of this pandemic.

Between November 2019 and November 2020, the number of universal credit claimants in Aberdeen South had risen by 188.7%, and any move to cut the £20 universal credit uplift would have a catastrophic impact that would ultimately exacerbate poverty levels. So let us try again: can the Secretary of State confirm that she has made personal representations to the Chancellor on maintaining the full £20 uplift, and if so, and he chooses to ignore her, will she resign?

As often happens, as the hon. Gentleman will know from the Scottish Government Administration, Government Ministers tend to have discussions about policy while they are considering it. It is important, recognising the scale of the support that the Government have given to families, businesses and so on, that we continue to make these important decisions based on evidence in a competent, considered and compassionate way. That is exactly what the Chancellor and I will be doing in our recommendations for the Prime Minister.

Unless the universal credit and working tax credit uplift is made permanent, a further 60,000 people in Scotland, including 20,000 children, will be pushed into poverty. If this support is not extended beyond March, and if tackling poverty is a priority for the Secretary of State’s Government, as she says, will she set out what alternative and additional measures her Government intend to bring forward to tackle child poverty, which shamefully still affects 30% of children across the UK?

I have already set out the approach and discussions that the hon. Lady can be assured I am continuing to have with other Ministers, including the Chancellor. It is fair to say that we are very conscious that one of the ways to try and help people get out of poverty is through the plan for jobs. While I am conscious that there are not lots of jobs at the moment—although we estimate that there are over half a million vacancies—we want to try and make sure that people are ready to take advantage of the opportunities, particularly when we have seen the number of workless households sadly increase.

The Secretary of State suggested that her approach to universal credit is evidence-based, yet the Government dismissed the Select Committee on Work and Pensions report on this issue. Then she described anti-poverty measures as a priority, yet removing the universal credit uplift would plunge 200,000 children across the UK into poverty. If the UK Government make the smaller one-off payment that has been suggested, it will provide no security and do nothing to help those who first claim UC after the payment has been made. Alongside the discussions on universal credit, has the Secretary of State suggested to the Chancellor any action to end the discrimination against those on legacy benefits who have seen their support rise by just 1.7% during the pandemic?

People on legacy benefits can transfer to universal credit, and the final barrier to that is being lifted this Wednesday. I encourage people to consider that move, because we are confident as a Department that the majority of people would be better off. I remind the House that Parliament voted to end both legacy benefits and tax credits and to move to universal credit because it is a welfare system that is agile and incentivises people to work when they can.

So no action on legacy benefits, which means that the active discrimination from the UK Government against sick and disabled people, who disproportionately claim them, will continue. Robert Burns said:

“Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion of goodness; but whatever injures society at large or any individual in it, then this is my measure of iniquity.”

If the uplift to universal credit is not made permanent, the Secretary of State will be presiding over a system that not only discriminates against disabled people but in which out-of-work support falls to its lowest ever level relative to wages, confirming Burns’s definition of iniquity. In that scenario, how in all conscience could she remain in post?

Tonight, many people right across the United Kingdom will be celebrating Burns night, recognising the strength of the poet and the prose he delivers. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s comments fail to hit with me right now. The reality is that we have supported the welfare system with an extra £7 billion in the past year. We continue to spend more on benefits and we continue to spend more to try to help people back into work. This is a Government who are on the side of people, recognising the difficult situation that we face. As I have said before, as long as the Opposition keep trashing universal credit it will be no wonder that people do not realise that many of them would be better off moving tomorrow. I would encourage people to look into that.