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Extreme Poverty

Volume 808: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Destitution in the UK 2020, published on 9 December, what steps they are taking to address any (1) increase in, and (2) intensification of, extreme poverty in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, tackling poverty is a priority for this Government. Throughout this pandemic, this Government have sought to protect jobs and incomes, spending billions on strengthening welfare support and ensuring the most vulnerable can meet their basic needs. Our long-term ambition is to level up opportunity across the UK by helping people back into work as quickly as possible, based on clear and consistent evidence of the important role work can play in tackling poverty.

My Lords, is it not shocking that the JRF found that

“even before the COVID-19 outbreak destitution was rapidly growing in scale and intensity”,

with 2.4 million people, including over 500,000 children, in households unable to afford the essentials needed to eat and stay warm and dry? Given that this and other research identifies social security cuts and design flaws as the key cause of this hardship, what assessment have the Government made of the impact on extreme poverty of withdrawing the £20 UC uplift in April and refusing to extend it to disabled people, the unemployed and carers on legacy and related benefits?

Tackling poverty, as I said, is an absolute commitment and a priority for this Government. The noble Baroness raises the issue of the £20 uplift, and I can only confirm that the £20 uplift is in place until April 2021. Discussions between our department, the Treasury and others are ongoing, and a decision will be made in due course.

My Lords, before the impact of lockdown, in 2018, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty found that 14 million people in the United Kingdom were below the poverty line, 9 million of them in households where at least one person worked. Wages need to be increased to reduce poverty. To this end, and to increase demand, the OECD and the ILO advocate the promotion of collective bargaining. Does the Minister agree with them? If so, what steps to restore collective bargaining in the United Kingdom will the Government take to enable the voice of workers to be heard in the determination of wages?

I am pleased that the noble Lord recognises that being in good, well-paid work is a good route out of poverty. On collective bargaining, I will need to come back to the noble Lord in writing.

The noble Baroness will be aware that many people in poverty and destitution do not have access to computers. They are often deprived of support and advice as well as crucial referrals to such services as food banks. Often, they do not pick up DWP instructions, and they end up being sanctioned through no fault of their own, adding further insult to injury. What plans do the Government have to bridge the digital divide and ensure access for the poorest and most deprived to such essential services?

The noble Baroness raises a really important point. As we move to more online activity, access to technology will be critical for people to get the information they need. I can confirm that our department is looking at how we can increase digital access as part of the work the Secretary of State is conducting across government on the cost of living. Indeed, this is one of the things the flexible support fund exists to help with. When people see their work coach and explain their difficulties with access to IT, the flexible support fund can help.

My Lords, to read the words “living in destitution” as a description of life for some people, particularly children, is acutely distressing. When will the Government bring forward a proper strategy for tackling poverty, which, as this latest report clearly shows, was rising and intensifying long before the pandemic?

I can confirm to my noble friend, as I already have, that this Government have consistently supported the lowest-paid families by increasing the living wage and continually strengthening the welfare safety net, including with an injection of billions extra this year for those in need. Our long-term ambition is to support economic recovery in this country by getting people back to work as quickly as possible.

My Lords, there have been two worrying reports this week: Destitution in the UK by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Covid-19 Marmot review by Sir Michael Marmot. These reports paint a bleak picture of deprivation and destitution in the UK made worse by Covid-19. Both highlight the shocking, disproportionate impact these are having on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller. When will the Government acknowledge this specific fact and, more importantly, ensure there is targeted action to deal with it effectively?

This Government have acknowledged the issues the BAME community faces and taken action. In fact, the number of BAME community members going into work was increasing. The detail of the noble Lord’s question might warrant, I may suggest, a meeting between us to talk about them further and in more depth.

My Lords, we all want to help people into work, but this report shows people are destitute now. It highlights the fragility of our social security system, pointing out that half of destitute households were getting universal credit or had applied for it. It says that needing to repay advances was leaving them with little to live on, and it warns that Britain is increasingly reliant on food banks as a core welfare response to destitution. This is scandalous—does the Minister agree with me? If so, what are the Government going to do about it now?

I certainly acknowledge the issues that people are facing; I do not shy away from that at all. But, at the risk of repeating myself, the Government are right now putting over £100 million extra into working-age welfare, we have the Covid winter support fund, we have the plan for jobs and the pandemic policies are under continual review. There are free school meals and money for food charities. I am not sure I agree with the noble Baroness’s implication that we are not doing enough.

My Lords, we clearly face a completely unprecedented shock to the system, in which families who have been hard working and supporting themselves are being plunged into poverty and destitution by the economic shocks associated with coronavirus. One group that is often forgotten is those in rural poverty, whose difficulties are often made worse by their difficulty in accessing services that have been centralised. Will the Government put a priority on ensuring that at least some services are directed to the more remote, rural communities, where people in destitution often find themselves unable to get the help that people in more urban areas take for granted?

The noble Lord raises a very pertinent issue. I am well aware of the issues that rural communities face. What I would like to do, if he is happy with this, is go back to my colleagues in the jobcentre network in order to understand exactly what they are doing to target help at the rural communities, and come back to him in due course.

My Lords, the Government introduced a welcome measure to help up to 4 million people on low incomes in September, offering a grant of £500 to those who had to self-isolate but could not work from home and therefore faced a drop in income. However, some of the local authorities through which this grant is routed are running out of funds, thereby prejudicing the success of the scheme. What steps can my noble friend take to ensure that those who are entitled to these grants get them?

The £15 million allocated for discretionary payments is a fixed envelope to cover cases of exceptional hardship that fall outside the scope of the main test and trace support payment scheme. In addition, the Government have made a range of other support available to those on low incomes who have to self-isolate. That includes changing the rules to allow claims for statutory sick pay, increasing the standard allowance of UC and the Self-employment Income Support Scheme.

Sitting suspended.