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Budget 2021: Departmental Policies

Volume 690: debated on Monday 8 March 2021

What assessment she has made of the implications for her Department’s policies of Budget 2021. (913001)

Since the start of the pandemic, our priority as a Government has been to protect lives and people’s livelihoods. That is why we are continuing to give our support, extending the temporary £20 a week increase in universal credit for a further six months, taking it well beyond the end of this national lockdown. I should point out to the House that total welfare spending in Great Britain for 2020-21 now stands at an estimated £238 billion, 11.4% of GDP. Alongside that, the Budget confirmed the ongoing measures that we will be taking as part of our plan for jobs, including the expected starting of the restart programme, particularly focused on long-term unemployed, before the summer recess.

The Budget was a kick in the teeth for people claiming legacy benefits, who have been unjustly denied the extra £20 per week in support since last March. The SNP has pressed UK Ministers on this countless times. Will the Secretary of State now answer a simple yes or no question? Yes or no—did she ask the Chancellor to extend the £20 uplift to legacy benefits in the Budget?

Discussions between Ministers are normally confidential, but the answer is no, the reason being that we have a process that was put in place as a temporary measure relating to covid. The rationale for that was set out last year. I encourage the hon. Lady to genuinely consider encouraging people who are still on legacy benefits to go to independent benefits calculators to see whether they would automatically be better off under universal credit. Universal credit has been a huge success during the last 12 months—if not the years before that, but it has particularly shown its worth—and I genuinely encourage people to really consider whether they would be financially better off moving benefits now rather than waiting, potentially, to be managed-migrated in the next few years.

I think the Minister has possibly given the game away there by linking an explanation of her refusal to ask for an uplift to legacy benefits to an attempt to pressurise my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) into pushing her constituents to move from a useless system of legacy benefits to an equally useless system of universal credit.

Does the Secretary of State not accept that the fact that universal credit had to be increased by £20 a week as soon as lockdown was imposed is a clear indication that the underlying rate of payment of universal credit is not adequate for people to live on? I defy anyone on the Conservative Benches to live on universal credit for more than a few weeks, never mind two to three years. Will the Secretary of State now accept that the underlying rate of universal credit is utterly inadequate and that the £20 uplift, as a minimum, should be made permanent with immediate effect?

No, I do not accept that, and I want to be clear. It has been explained to the House in multiple ways over the past year why that decision, which the Chancellor announced last year, was taken at the time. Let us be straight about this: universal credit is working and will continue to work. It worries me how many Members of Parliament criticise universal credit when it is clearly working. It has done what it was designed to do. For those people who have had their hours reduced, universal credit has kicked in and the payments have gone up. Frankly, unlike in the last recession, in 2008, when the Labour party did nothing to help with some of the financial instability that people were going through, I am very proud of what we have undertaken by investing over £7 billion extra in the welfare system in this last year.

Pensioners who have worked hard their whole lives have seen their life savings disappear after becoming the victims of some truly dreadful scams, which have happened both online and on the telephone. The Government say they want to protect the interests of savers. However, there is mounting evidence that they are failing to act sufficiently to curb some appalling abuses, and this was not mentioned in the Budget. Will the Secretary of State explain to the House just how these dreadful scams have happened, and will she commit to taking further action? She is taking action against scams on the phone; will she now also commit to taking action against scams online?

We have just passed the Pension Schemes Act 2021, and aspects of scams were considered in that legislative process, so the suggestion that somehow we are not doing things to tackle scams is far from the case. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman will be aware from the Budget of the ongoing support that we continue for pensioners in honouring our triple lock.

In extending the £20 uplift of universal credit, albeit for only six months, the British Government are clearly conceding that without the £20 uplift, universal credit is insufficient to meet people’s needs. I want to take the Secretary of State back to a point she made to my hon. Friends the Members for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). She said that claimants should move from the legacy system to universal credit. Will she stand up at the Dispatch Box and make it crystal clear that for some people that will mean being worse off, particularly when the £20 universal credit uplift is taken away? Can she clarify why she thinks that disabled people, for example, have lower bills as a result of the pandemic and why they were not worthy of the £20 uplift?

The hon. Member should be clear about what I did say. I encouraged people who were on legacy benefits to get an independent assessment, which is available through a number of organisations and online calculators, rather than wait to be managed across to universal credit. It is really important that MPs encourage their constituents to consider the ways they could be financially better off, rather than waiting for the Government to go through quite an arduous process during the next few years.