My Lords, we are reforming the welfare system to better support the most vulnerable while encouraging more people into work, which is the most effective route out of poverty. We provide a strong safety net for those who need it and continue to spend over £95 billion a year on working-age benefits. We are introducing big changes and a further £4.5 billion boost following the Autumn Budget, which will shortly filter down to those in need.
I remind the noble Baroness that 70% of people in poverty are actually in work. The Secretary of State, Amber Rudd, acknowledged in February that the difficulty in accessing universal credit was forcing families to use food banks. The CEO of the Trussell Trust, Emma Revie, said recently that it is,
“unacceptable that anyone should have to use a food bank”,
“No charity can replace the dignity of having financial security”.
Does the Minister agree with that statement? What steps will the Government now take to speed up universal credit payments and end the shameful need for half a million children to depend on emergency food parcels?
My Lords, while we have always said that there are many reasons why people use food banks and that their growth cannot be linked to a single cause, we have long acknowledged that there were issues with the early rollout of UC. We have responded quickly to the feedback we have received and made numerous improvements to universal credit. We have removed waiting days and created advances of up to 100% of first payments, which people can receive within hours of attending a jobcentre. We have given extra support for disabled people and a two-week housing benefit run-on for new UC claimants. We are working hard to ensure that we are tackling the root causes of poverty, but also making sure to the best of our ability that we can improve our research into why people are using food banks.
My Lords, food poverty is particularly hard on children. In last week’s Children’s Future Food Inquiry we found many things. Rickets is now at its highest rate in 50 years and is stunting height—children are 1 centimetre shorter at the age of 10 if they have grown up on bad diets. Can the Minister give me any idea what the Government are doing to ensure everyone in this country, regardless of income or geography, can access decent, affordable and healthy food?
I agree with the noble Baroness: everyone should have access to decent, healthy food. Tackling disadvantage will always be a priority for this Government. We welcome the new report from the Children’s Future Food Inquiry. Employment is at a record high and wages are outstripping inflation, but we know that there is more to do to ensure that everyone has access to nutritious, healthy food. We have already taken steps to tackle food inequality by providing free school meals and our Healthy Start vouchers. We are also investing up to £26 million in school breakfast clubs and £9 million to provide meals and activities for thousands of disadvantaged children during the summer holidays.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of recent reports of schools and teachers buying food, clothes and basic essentials to enable children to come to school, and that children feel ashamed because they cannot afford them? Many people, including charities, attribute this to the benefits cap. What plans do the Government have to address this and to ensure that children’s education is not put at risk through poverty?
I think it is fair to say that I answered that question to some degree in a previous answer. We are working hard with schools and injecting significant funds to ensure that children are properly fed, if not at home then by breakfast clubs, and through the school holidays. There is much more that we have been doing to ensure that families are not worse off; indeed, we have the most generous benefits for families of all the G7 countries. We recognise that there is more we can do but I have to keep saying: remember, we have made significant changes and increases in people’s income through increasing work allowances and so on. However, some of this will not yet have come through to be felt on the ground. We are still rolling out some of the big changes to universal credit.
Has my noble friend visited the Trussell Trust? Its HQ is in my home town of Salisbury, which is now recovering from its difficulties. The Trust first alerted me to the phasing problem that families have with the introduction of universal credit. Are the measures she described actually beginning to solve the problem it identified? I found it extremely interesting and poignant.
I can reassure my noble friend that one of the reasons we have been making so many iterative changes to universal credit is that we have been concerned about the delay in people receiving income quickly and fairly. I re-emphasise that we are still waiting for some of the benefits of that to filter through to the work on the ground and benefit people who need the support. Our department is working very closely with the Trussell Trust—some of my officials are having a meeting with it today—because we believe it is very important that we work together.
My Lords, according to the Trussell Trust, the main reason for people needing emergency food help is that benefits are consistently not covering the cost of living. A key reason for this is the four-year freeze. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury says, “Don’t worry, the Government are moving on from the freeze as it ends next year”. However, hungry claimants, in or out of work, cannot move on from the permanent effect of a significant real cut in their benefit. Will the Government therefore now reverse and make good the freeze, as a matter of urgency?
My Lords, the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 provided for a four-year freeze, and this was supported by Members in both Houses. This freeze will lapse after 2019-20. The freeze was implemented at a time of great public debate about the fairness of benefits outstripping earnings growth. However, we are doing much more than that. Switching people on to universal credit is taking time because it is a huge change, but it is empowering people to take responsibility for their own lives. It is changing from the dreadful legacy system, which left people in the shadowlands of dependency without any responsibility or a prospective future that could actually make a difference to their lives.