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Covid-19: Low-income Families

Volume 806: debated on Thursday 8 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on (1) low-income families with children, and (2) the support provided to them by the social security system.

A direct assessment of Covid-19’s impact on low-income families with children has not been made. However, we are monitoring several data sources, including Her Majesty’s Treasury’s recent distribution analysis of Covid-19’s impact on working households. The Treasury analysis has shown that the Government’s unprecedented support package, including job retention, self-employment protection schemes and an additional £9 billion to strengthen the welfare system, has supported the poorest working households the most, with those in the bottom 10% seeing no income reduction.

My Lords, the Government may not make an assessment but I am seriously worried by mounting evidence from Action for Children, CPAG and the Trussell Trust of parents struggling to pay the bills and to feed their kids in this pandemic. We could help by lifting the benefit cap and the two-child limit and topping up legacy benefits, but Ministers have said no and now the Chancellor is threatening to scrap the £20 a week he put on universal credit. I have two simple questions. Does the Minister accept the evidence that a growing number of parents are struggling financially? If she does, what are the Government going to do about it?

I take the noble Baroness’s point well. I assure her that we are considering all evaluations—the Trussell Trust, Joseph Rowntree and Action for Children, as well as Understanding Society, the Covid-19 survey and the opinions and lifestyle survey by the Office for National Statistics. I am sure this question will come up many times today, so I say that the £20 UC increase was put in for one year only. As my colleague the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the other place said, dialogue is continuing with HMT on this, and the Prime Minister confirmed yesterday that it is under constant review.

My Lords, in 2010 the UK poverty rate stood at 15%; it now stands at 26%—an increase of more than 1.1 percentage points a year. An additional 670,000 people are expected to be classed as destitute by the end of 2020. I want to press the Minister a bit more on the detail on the supplementary question from the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. The Minister talked about what has been done. It does not seem to be working. Can we have some explanation of what the Government will do in the future?

I can again confirm to the noble Lord that all welfare issues are under constant review and, as sorry as I am, I cannot say more than that at this time.

My Lords, a recent report by the Church of England and the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted the “disproportionate impact” of the pandemic on low-income families with children, saying that:

“Without a radical change in policy direction, the prospects for many families are likely to deteriorate further through the remainder of this year as unemployment rises”

and more families become reliant on the welfare system. Following Prime Minister’s Question Time in the other place yesterday, will the Government do more than consider? Will they commit to making the temporary uplift in universal credit permanent? Will they also commit to a commensurate increase in the level of support for children, to reflect the additional needs of families with children?

As much as noble Lords press me today, I can only confirm that matters are under constant review. I am sorry, but I am not in any position to make any commitments.

My Lords, I attach great importance to the work of work coaches in getting the unemployed into work and out of poverty. Is my noble friend satisfied with the numbers of these at her disposal, and with their quality?

I know that my noble friend is a great champion of work coaches. They do a great job and we are proud of the work they are doing at the DWP. I am also proud of the fact that we are doubling the number, spending £895 million. We will have 13,500 more work coaches, 7,500 in the next three months. I am sure that they will do a great job.

My Lords, in the first four months of this pandemic, 300,000 people applied for universal credit because they had lost their job, and failed to get it. Far too many people are falling through the trapdoor of unemployment and finding that universal credit is not available to them. The Minister has just said that we are going to have a review. Will this be a root-and-branch review? Will it look at bringing our tax and benefit systems closer? The evidence now is that, if we do that, we will have a much better system by unifying the two.

We are all aware of the difficult time that people are having in these days. I will take the noble Lord’s request for a root-and-branch review back to the Minister for Welfare Delivery. I will write back to the noble Lord. If he has some very good ideas, would he please write and give them to me?

Will my noble friend the Minister recognise the work of StreetGames and community organisations which encourage young, disadvantaged people from low-income families to adopt a healthy and active lifestyle through the work of locally trusted organisations, which are the first port of call for many families struggling to cope with the crisis?

My Lords, children of school age have had their education severely disrupted, with those in the poorest households affected the most. We know that Covid-19 is passed on through droplet transmission, particularly in small, ill-ventilated spaces. Will the Minister assure the House that no families with school-age children will be evicted during this academic year, to prevent families being placed in bed and breakfasts, with the increased risk of transmission of Covid-19, to prevent mental health breakdown in children, and avoid further disruption to their education?

I thank the noble Baroness for bringing that important point to the notice of the House. My best response is that I will go back to my colleagues at MHCLG to get their position on the issue of evictions and write back to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, welcome as what the Government have done is, there is growing evidence of hardship among low-income families with children, most recently from Save the Children today. Following on from the right reverend Prelate’s question, why have the Government not done anything to improve social security benefits for children?

The Government have put £9 billion into the welfare system to help the poorest. As I said in my original Answer, the bottom 10% have not had their income lessened at all. I know how passionate the noble Baroness is about this, and I respect her tenacity in raising it on a regular basis. I have put my head above the parapet and organised an all-Peers briefing session on the benefit cap, with the Minister for Employment, next week. I am sure these issues will be talked about in greater detail then. I extend an invitation to all noble Lords to attend that briefing.

In 1942, William Beveridge introduced his report which led to the welfare state and the NHS. We are still facing the same giants that he was tackling at that time: squalor, want, idleness, ignorance and disease. Is it not time that we had another commission like that, and found an outstanding person with Civil Service colleagues to produce a report that will really tackle the long-term issues facing us?

I can only assure the noble Lord, and the whole House, that the excellent civil servants we have got, and the partners that we work with at DWP, are all the time trying to find better ways to deliver services to people so that they can realise their destiny.

I thank the Minister for her clear efforts in this area. I know that she is very sympathetic. My point is similar to that of other noble Lords. Save the Children said today that 27% of families are finding it harder to find food than they were in April. This is obviously going to get worse over the winter. I particularly want to ask about children: are the Government going to implement the three recommendations in the national food strategy, particularly about holiday hunger? The Christmas holidays will be upon us before we know it and we need a plan in place.

The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, also raised with me, outside the Chamber, the issue of food, children and holiday cover. I pledged to talk to my noble friend Lady Berridge. I have been so busy that I have not been able to do that, but I give an undertaking to do so and to write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, that there was no time for her question. We now come to the second Oral Question, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Polak.