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Universal Credit

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 13 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the benefit cap on the incomes of Universal Credit claimants following the increase in the Universal Credit standard allowance announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 20 March.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, we monitor the impact of the benefit cap policy and publish these findings every three months. The latest available statistics were published last week, on 7 May, and reflect the position as at February this year. The next publication, scheduled for 6 August, will reflect the current position and the impact of the increases awarded from April of this year.

My Lords, welcome as the increase is, many thousands will not benefit because of the cap, which is already causing real hardship and unfairness, as demonstrated by the Work and Pensions Committee, yet it is not realistic or safe at present to expect people to seek work or reduce housing costs to avoid it. Will the Government now listen to anti-poverty and faith groups, the IFS and others, and urgently fulfil their statutory duty to review the cap and suspend it, or, if operationally easier, raise it significantly?

I must be very clear that it is not the Government’s intention to change the current level of the benefit cap. What I want to point out is that claimants may benefit from a nine-month grace period, where their universal credit will not be capped, if they have a sustained work record. Exemptions will also continue to apply for the most vulnerable claimants who are entitled to disability benefits and carer benefits. I finish my answer by saying that the Government have quickly and effectively introduced £7 billion-worth of measures that benefit those facing the most severe financial disruption.

Many people who have recently found themselves made redundant as a result of the Covid-19 crisis will be struggling on universal credit. Some of these people will have decided to isolate with vulnerable loved ones to provide them with the care that they need to be protected from the disease. This can lead to added expense. Will the Government consider removing the benefit cap for such people?

Claimants who receive certain benefits for caring or for a severe disability or health condition will not have their benefits capped. This ensures that the most vulnerable people are protected. Universal credit households are exempt from the cap if the household earnings are at least £604 each month. Households may also be exempt for a period of nine months, if they have a sustained work history.

My Lords, advances for universal credit claimants have to be repaid when claimants finally receive their benefits—after at least five weeks, and often very much longer than that. But their benefits will be well below subsistence level, due in part to the benefits cap, but also to the two-child limit, and to very tough rent and council tax rules. Could any Minister maintain their mental health in these circumstances? I absolutely could not—and I mean that. Will the Minister plead with her colleagues for urgent further changes—I understand that some have been made—to protect the mental health of universal credit claimants?

The noble Baroness makes an excellent point: these are very difficult times. People are struggling in all sorts of ways, and we are mindful of the impact of mental health issues. I am afraid that I am unable to make any commitments around the points that the noble Baroness made, but I will say that, in these very difficult times, nobody has to wait five weeks. Since 16 March, we have issued 700,000 advances, and the majority have received their money within 72 hours.

My Lords, can I bring the Minister back to the point made by my noble friend Lady Lister? The Government’s argument for the benefit cap was that you can always escape it by just going and getting a job or moving to a cheaper house. But that is simply not possible at the moment. The Minister says that the Government are not going to lift the cap. Given the demand from the IFS and over 50 organisations, and given the Commons Library estimates that an extra 18,000 families are being drawn into the benefit cap as a result of the Government’s actions, can she tell the House not merely that they will not do it but why they will not do it?

I draw the noble Baroness’s attention to the fact that, in a repeated Oral Statement and at Oral Questions, the Secretary of State was absolutely clear that this benefit will not be changed. I agree with her that things are very difficult at the moment. That is why we have tried to be as flexible as we can by introducing this £7 billion package which gets to the people who are in the most difficult group, removing the minimum income floor, increasing UC, pausing deductions for historic debts, introducing statutory sick pay from day one and increasing working tax credits from over £1,000 to £3,000. I cannot give her any other answer than that, but I can make a commitment to take her question back to the department and again ask what she and others would like me to ask.

Is the Minister aware that 85% of those who have had benefits capped are single parents, many of whom have lost jobs through the current crisis? To ease the severe hardship these families are suffering, will the Government at least consider suspending the benefits cap pending a future review?

The benefit cap is reviewed once in every Parliament. The Secretary of State will do this, although I cannot tell noble Lords when. Until that happens, I am not aware of any intention or plan by the Government to remove the cap.

I thank the noble Baroness for again highlighting how the benefit cap is trapping families in poverty. In light of the report published last week by the Church of England and CPAG which estimates that around 60,000 more families will be affected by the two-child limit due to Covid-19, what assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the impact of this limit on families who have made a new universal credit claim since the lockdown?

I will need to go back to the department and ask whether an assessment has been made. I am mindful of the recent Child Poverty Action Group report and was grateful to receive an advance copy. My officials are carefully considering this, and I hope to be able to write to the Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England this week to cover the point that the right reverend Prelate just made.

My Lords, I point out that, as far as I am aware, Labour is not committed to ending the benefit cap; let us start by saying that. It seems that we can never do enough, but would the Minister agree to look very carefully at the situation as it unfolds and confirm that, where we can make minor adjustments, we will? But we have to realise that there is a limit to the amount of money we can spend.

My noble friend makes a very valid point. These days are very difficult and the situation is fast-changing. We are reviewing and considering things on a daily basis. There is nothing at all in our plan that aims to make life worse for people; in fact, it is quite the opposite. When noble Lords look at what we have done, we have moved quickly and effectively to try to bring additional resource and support into the system.

My Lords, one of the drivers of food bank usage identified by Feeding Britain—I declare an interest—is the monthly sums deducted from universal credit to repay advance payments. The Chancellor’s plans to lower the rate of deductions and extend the repayment period are not due to take effect for another 18 months. Would the department not consider bringing them forward immediately for existing claimants and replacing advance payments with targeted grants for all new claimants from now on?

I advise all noble Lords that there is no plan to convert advances to grants. I must be clear about that, although I know that it is not what people want to hear. However, I will take the point back to the department and see whether there is any movement, and I will give a written response to the noble Baroness.

Given that, because of Covid, we are in all likelihood entering a period of much higher unemployment when it will be more difficult for people to get a job, does the Minister agree that there is a case for a review of universal credit and suspending the benefit cap until such a review has taken place?

I think that I have answered the questions about the benefit cap and reviewing benefits quite adequately during the course of the Question. I agree that these are very challenging times. We have launched a job help website and an employer help website. We will turn every stone to ensure that we help people back to work as quickly as possible.