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Cost of Living: People on Low Incomes

Volume 724: debated on Monday 5 December 2022

20. What steps his Department is taking to support people on low incomes with the cost of living. (902592)

In 2022-23, the Government provided £37 billion in cost of living support. We also uprated benefits, pensions and the benefit cap, as I described in previous answers.

I welcome the steps my right hon. Friend has taken to support Carshalton and Wallington residents. Will he join me in welcoming the work of Wallington Jobcentre Plus in putting on advice events with local charities, especially in St Helier and Roundshaw? Will he commit the Department for Work and Pensions to supporting me when I put on my cost of living advice fair, which I hope to host very soon?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for his question and put on record my support and thanks to Wallington Jobcentre for its extraordinary work, which I know is encouraged by him. I will certainly look at what the Department can do to support his job fair.

I praise the Secretary of State for his work to help those on benefits get the support they need this winter, but does he agree that with inflation running high, a symptom of Putin’s barbaric war in Ukraine, we need to ensure we get support to households on low and middle incomes, too? Will he work with me to ensure we protect constituents such as mine in Hyndburn and Haslingden?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. She is perhaps referring to those who are not necessarily on benefits but are still struggling. I would point to the £400 payment, which has gone out through fuel bills; the increase in the personal allowance over the years, taking many of the lowest paid out of tax; the recent increase in the national living wage to historically high levels; and the energy price guarantee, which has been rolled out to support those struggling with their energy bills.

Given the cost of living crisis, or emergency, we are living in, it is deeply worrying that the Government have still chosen not to uprate local housing allowance, despite there being no change since 2016. Even those on the lowest income will face challenges in relation to being on housing benefit and universal credit. Could the Secretary of State say how much additional resource is being given to local authorities to pay for additional housing costs via the discretionary housing payment? Can he set out the Government’s rationale, because I do not believe he has answered why they are still freezing local housing allowance?

On the discretionary housing payments, I believe the figure is about £1.5 billion over the last few years, but I will get—[Interruption.] There was a recent announcement about further moneys which are included in the figure I have just provided to the hon. Lady. I will look to get a more precise answer, but it is of the order of £1.5 billion.

Research shows that nine in 10 disabled people are worried about their energy bills this winter. People with disabilities have been one of the hardest-hit groups during the cost of living crisis, yet many are being denied crucial support. One of my constituents is a disabled single mother who is currently undergoing chemotherapy. She told me that the mobility element of her personal independence payment has recently been removed and that without it she is really struggling. With many disabled people worrying about rising costs and unable to afford basic essentials, do Ministers really think they have done enough to support them through this cost of living crisis?

I am very sorry to hear the details of the hon. Lady’s constituent; if she writes to me, I will be happy to look into the matters that she raised. More generally, it is only fair to say that the Government have done an extraordinary amount to support those who are disabled, not least into work, beating all the targets that we set to get 1 million more disabled people into employment. As for the cost of living payments, along with various other payments, there was a £150 payment to 6 million disabled people up and down the country.

This Christmas, the £66 energy voucher will be the difference between heating and eating for many of my constituents, but many on prepayment meters are still waiting for their vouchers. Ministers have been warned countless times about the gap in payments, so what are the Government doing to ensure that those on prepayment meters do not miss out?

The vouchers that are administered by the energy companies come under the remit of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, rather than the DWP. None the less, that is a concern right across Government. We have been liaising with BEIS, and I am satisfied that the Secretary of State there is totally aware of the situation and has been in close contact with the companies to see that things improve. My understanding is that very much a minority of the payments are affected, but for everybody who is affected, that is clearly a serious matter.

I am glad that the Secretary of State has expressed concern for my hon. Friends’ constituents. He is keen to explain just how much money the Government are spending, but let us look at what the results of 12 years of Conservative Government mean for the money in people’s pockets, especially those on low incomes. We have double-digit inflation and 2.5 million working-age adults out of work, and more than 2 million emergency food parcels were handed out in this country last year. Could that be the reason that the public in Chester looked at the Government’s record and gave the Tories their worst result in that seat since 1832?

I am rather surprised that the hon. Lady raises unemployment, in particular. Under Labour, we saw unemployment rise by nearly half a million; female unemployment go up by a quarter; youth unemployment rise by 44%; the number of households with no one working in them double; and 1.4 million people spending most of their last decade on out-of-work benefits. That is not a record to be proud of.

A recent report for the Aberlour children’s charity found that the DWP deducts an average of £80 a month from Scottish families on universal credit to cover debts such as advance payments caused by the five-week wait. Does the Secretary of State think that it is acceptable that 56% of our constituents claiming universal credit have been left with such tiny sums of money that they have been forced to go without food or to eat just one meal a day? Will he consider replacing the advance payment loans with a non-repayable grant?

On deductions from universal credit, the hon. Lady will know that, during the pandemic, when things were extremely difficult, we paused that entire process. As a matter of principle, it is important that, when claimants are in debt, arrangements are made such that they can work their way through that and come out of debt. That often means deductions—I say “often” because it does not always mean that, and our debt management team are always very aware of the circumstances of those with whom they are dealing. We also reduced the maximum amount that can be deducted—first, from 40% to 30%, and now to 25%—so I am satisfied that the balance is broadly correct, but wherever there are individual instances where somebody feels that they are not being treated appropriately, they always have recourse to appeal.