Clause 1: Up-rating of state pension and certain other benefits following review in tax year 2021-22
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, leave out from “if” to end of line 8 and insert “the Secretary of State had determined that the general level of earnings obtaining in Great Britain had increased by 3.8%.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would remove the provision substituting “prices” for “earnings” and retains the earnings link for the 2022-23 year by stipulating the Government will assume earnings have risen by 3.8% for the purposes of uprating. This reflects analysis from an ONS blog suggesting that the underlying rate of earnings growth was between 3.2% and 4.4%. The figure of 3.8% is chosen as the mid-way point in that range.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 1, 2 and 3. I have to say to my noble friend that I truly believe that the legislation already allows for the provisions that we are trying to enshrine in this Bill. I actually do not believe that the Bill is necessary. It was passed through the other House on the basis of a false premise: that keeping the triple-lock earnings protection would require a pension uprating of more than 8%, at an Exchequer cost of around £5 billion.
However, we are amending Section 150A of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, and Section 150A(8) specifically states that
“the Secretary of State shall estimate the general level of earnings in such manner as he thinks fit.”
Given that we are supposed to be uprating benefits that are vital to the living standards of millions of pensioners —I am particularly concerned about the poorest pensioners, who are dealt with by Amendment 3—it is regrettable that the Secretary of State and the Government have chosen not to use the option in the Bill allowing them to estimate a level of earnings that would have allowed for what I think all noble Lords would agree is an exceptional impact from the measures taken in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic. That event is pretty unprecedented but could be allowed for when talking about uprating benefits that so many millions of our citizens rely wholly—or almost wholly—upon to be able to afford to live.
In my attempts to persuade and impress upon the Government that it is not too late to retain the triple-lock earnings link, I have tried to suggest ways in which we can still do this in the Bill, and I am most grateful to my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, who has supported me on Amendment 1. I stress that these are all probing amendments, but this one tries to help the Government by suggesting a level that could be used to reflect an actual level of earnings increase across the economy which is adjusted—in a way that has already been explained by the ONS in a recent publication—for the distortions relating to earnings figures in the normal measure, which has always been average weekly earnings.
The ONS analysis, which looked at the base effects and the composition effect, suggested that actual earnings growth was not more than 8% but was between 3.2% and 4.4%. I have just picked a number at the middle of the range: 3.8% is a figure that could be inserted into the Bill. The Secretary of State is at liberty to choose an alternative figure that she feels—perhaps with the advice of her officials and all the excellent analysts that the department has—would better reflect the actual number, but that itself would still preserve the earnings link that is so important, as we discussed at Second Reading. So, that is Amendment 1, which specifies that the general level of earnings obtaining would be 3.8% for the purposes of just this one year, which is what we are trying to do.
Amendment 2 is truly cross-party: I am hugely grateful for the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Smith, Lady Drake and Lady Wheatcroft. Again, this amendment intends to maintain the link between pension uprating and earnings while still explicitly accounting for the problem that, I believe, the Government have been advised to beware of, which is that not using average weekly earnings and not changing primary legislation to permit not using average weekly earnings could open the Government to challenge. I stress that I am also hugely grateful to my noble friend the Minister, who has engaged so constructively with noble Lords across the House, and to her officials, who have been very patient and generous with their time in going through these issues with those of us who feel so concerned about the social-policy and pensioner-poverty implications of potentially setting a dangerous precedent that, actually, increasing by earnings does not necessarily need to happen if the Government do not like the figure one year.
Amendment 2 aims to enshrine in the Bill a provision that says that, for this year only, those benefits—the basic state pension, the new state pension, pension credit, the minimum guarantee and the other smaller pensions, such as category B, category D and so on—need to rise in line with earnings, but that that level of earnings can be adjusted in light of
“the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the level of earnings for the previous year”.
That, again, would open the way for the Government to maintain the earnings link and use an adjusted figure, while addressing the potential concern about being challenged if primary legislation is not changed.
At the moment, the decision seems to have been taken that, if average weekly earnings—the specific statistic produced by the ONS, which has always been used in the past—are not used, the only alternative is to drop the earnings link altogether. These amendments are designed to show that that is not the only alternative. Even though, within the legislation, it is okay to use a figure that the Secretary of State adjusts as she sees fit, this would explicitly state that.
I am puzzled that the officials still seem to think that this could be open to challenge. Very few people would disagree with the idea that average weekly earnings statistics, as reported in the 8%-plus range, were not distorted in some way and that it is not acceptable to adjust them in any way. Indeed, in the figures that have come out for average weekly earnings, the three months that were compared with three months from last year—April, May and June—were all at around 8.8%, but the more recent July and August figures, which have already come out, were significantly below that. They have come down to around 5% or below, so there is an element of MPs having made a decision without recognising that there are alternatives. I propose that we suggest to the other place that there is an alternative that allows retention of the manifesto commitment to maintain the triple lock and, more importantly, of the earnings link.
Finally and briefly, on Amendment 3, I am again grateful for the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Drake, Lady Smith of Newnham and Lady Wheatcroft. This amendment is specifically aimed at the poorest pensioners—those who rely on pension credit. This credit has never been triple locked, so they have never benefited from that protection directly, although there has been a cash-terms increase to keep the pension credit a little more in line with the new state pension. Since its introduction nearly 20 years ago, it has always had to be linked to the level of average earnings. Suddenly, for one year, because of the pandemic, we are removing that protection even from the poorest pensioners. Typically, they are the oldest pensioners. The majority of them will be women who are not living on very much money; we are talking about £177.50, or thereabouts, a week, as the single pension-credit minimum-income guarantee level.
If nothing else, I am proposing that we do not abandon the earnings link for those poorest pensioners, so I have inserted a provision in page 1, line 8, at the end,
“for the purposes of paragraphs (za) to (c) … only”
of Section 150A(1) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. That would exclude this Bill from applying to the pension credit minimum income guarantee. It would, I stress, still allow the Secretary of State the discretion to use a different level of earnings than average weekly earnings should she decide to do that for reasons of policy, such as not having too big a differential or too big excess of pension credit over the new state pension. However, the main principle that I am trying to preserve within these amendments is the importance to pensioners, in the context of pensioner poverty and a state pension that is pretty much the lowest in the developed world, that the promised protection is in line with earnings. That is crucial. We must, in my view, not set a dangerous precedent, even for one year. We can take alternative measures to account for the distortions of the pandemic. I beg to move.
I should point out to the Committee that if Amendment 1 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment 2 by reason of pre-emption.
My Lords, I have put my name to the first three amendments because I believe that doing away with the earnings link would be a really dangerous step. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Altmann for doing such a lot of work on these amendments and providing the Government with a percentage, 3.8%, which should of course be acceptable. Nobody in this House knows more about pensions than the noble Baroness, and she has introduced this measure so effectively that I can be relatively brief.
Relying on CPI inflation, which would happen if we did away with the earnings link, will act to the detriment of pensioners, as it does not accurately reflect how those pensioners who rely most heavily on their state pensions spend their money. Last month, for instance, the greatest downward pressure on inflation came from hotels and restaurants. It is the basics of life which absorb pensioner incomes, though, not hotels and restaurants. Their money goes on food, fuel and housing, yet we know that the September CPI figure, which would be used to determine the inflation figure for pensions, does not and cannot take account of the increases that are going to dawn on food, fuel and housing prices over the next few months. Earnings are a good guide to where basic costs will go, and we should maintain the link for pensions.
Pensioner poverty is on the rise again. In June this year, Age UK reported that more than 2 million pensioners were living in poverty. We know that very many of those might qualify for extra benefits but do not apply for them, either through too little knowledge or too much pride, so it is crucial that the basic pension—currently, shamefully, the lowest in the OECD in relation to earnings—should rise significantly. There will be some who do not need the extra cash—members of that ever-reducing band with the benefit of a defined benefit pension, or those with an investment income—but the fact that they have more money does not mean that the basic state pension should not rise at a reasonable level: the tax system can claw back the excess. Would it not have been sensible to have made sure that the levy to pay for NHS and social care reform would come from income tax rather than from national insurance, which pensioners do not pay at the moment? I believe that those pensioners who are in work should pay.
However, these amendments make sense. They work as a package and therefore I support them.
My Lords, I will speak to probing Amendments 2 and 3 in this group. The triple lock is not legislated for; it rests on a commitment given by successive Governments since 2011. However, indexing pensions at least in line with earnings is legislated for. Through this Bill, the Government are neither applying the triple lock nor the underpin of earnings indexation. Both have gone as a consequence of this Bill—albeit that the Government say that they will not do it next year.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the removal of both is causing concerns that the Bill is trailing the Government’s consideration of lowering the value of the state pension going forward. While recognising the anomaly in the data behind the 8.3% earnings figure, the pandemic will not account for all of that increase. The decision to raise the state pension by the consumer price index in response to the anomaly comes without any analysis of how that change might impact the value of the state pension in relation to actual earnings.
In fact, the Pension Policy Institute has done such an analysis and, assuming that the CPI increase is of the order of 3%, which it is, the PPI’s recent analysis stated:
“Increasing the State Pension by CPI means that overall, State Pensions will rise by less than the real increase in earnings over the past two years. An alternative approach would have been to consider the rise in earnings over two years to give a more realistic estimation of real wage increases without the artificial impact of the pandemic impact in the year on year earnings statistics. This would need a pension increase of 5.3% in 2022 to match the increase in earnings since the setting of the State Pension level in 2020. Increasing the State Pension by this amount would save £3.1bn in 2022”.
So, increases in pensions will not reflect the real rise in hourly wages over that two-year period—which rows against the clear intention of the underpin of earnings indexation that is in the legislation.
The PPI approach of considering earnings over two years would reduce much of the methodology challenge in establishing an adjusted earnings index for one year, which the Minister refers to as the Government’s main defence for the approach they are taking. In fact, we have not heard a proper explanation from the Government as to why they could not consider different approaches. Several could have been taken, such as looking at earnings over the two-year period. So can the Minister give a fuller explanation of why they cannot take a different approach to that contained in this Bill? How do the Government intend to address the fall in the value of pensions against earnings over the last two years?
The triple lock was intended to address the extended fall in the value of the basic state pension. As the Minister states in her letter of 25 October, following Second Reading,
“the triple lock was introduced in order to boost the value of the basic state pension”.
It was to recover from those years of decline against earnings—a sort of accelerator, to get back to a reasonable comparative position.
With the Library’s help, I looked at the hypothetical value of the basic state pension and the pension credit as if they had been uprated in line with earnings, rather than the triple lock, since 2011. Currently, that triple-lock boost delivered a basic state pension of approximately £18 higher a week than it would have been if it had been indexed by earnings alone. When the Bill passes, in 2023 the basic state pension boost will fall to approximately £12 a week higher than if uprated by earnings alone. The pension credit minimum income guarantee, targeted on the poorest pensioners, is approximately £14 a week higher currently than it would have been if uprated by earnings alone. In 2022-23, it will be only £6.79 a week higher.
I am sure that the Government will produce more precise figures than mine, because their ability to do so is greater than mine, but what I am absolutely confident that they will not be able to contradict is that there will be a clawback from the cash value of the current triple-lock boost. The pension credit minimum income guarantee is targeted on the poorest pensioners and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said, it is not uprated by the triple lock, although earnings uprating is legislated for. The Government have mitigated that omission by applying the underpin of a cash increase, to give what they feel is a fair increase, rather than conceding the full principle of the triple lock.
However, many older pensioners still face declining incomes, and women are particularly sensitive to changes in the state pension indexation. On average, women are more likely than men to have lower incomes at older ages: 60% of those in relative poverty over the age of 65 are women; and women are more likely to be eligible for pension credit—so there will be a direct gender impact if one starts to tamper with less generous indexation, and there is nothing about future accrual of pensions that suggests that that gender bias would not persist.
Pensioner poverty is rising, and we are now seeing falling life expectancy in areas with the greatest incidence of pensioner poverty. We have accelerated the state pension age; pensioner poverty is rising; and in those areas, life expectancy is falling. That trend was emerging before the pandemic—before anybody says, “Well, it’s the product of the pandemic”, no, that trend was there. I am sure it has been accelerated, but it was there before.
So why are the Government not taking a different approach to the uprating of pension credit targeted on the poorest pensioners and applying a cash increase greater than the value of the uprating by CPI? There need be no complicating legal or methodological issues in doing so. There is a clear precedent for the Government choosing to apply a cash increase.
Some argue that the triple lock unfairly advantages older people and should be scrapped for reasons of intergenerational fairness. But not all older people are experiencing a higher standard of living—older pensioners even less so. In 2020, benefit income was the largest component of income for both pensioner couples and single pensioners, and nearly two-thirds of the total income for single female pensioners.
In fact, younger people arguably have more to gain from the triple lock than older people because, when the state second pension was replaced by the new state pension in 2016, which will apply to future pensioners, its full value then was set at around 24% of average earnings—and that is low in comparison with any other advanced economy. But that is the base on which one is looking to make private savings work. To achieve a replacement income in retirement of 45% for the average earner, privately saving 8% under auto enrolment, the new state pension needs to be nearer 30% of average earnings. The Government argued when they introduced the new state pension that it was set because it was part of a package, together with the triple lock and the accelerated increases in the state pension age, which have been banked.
Again, research by the Pensions Policy Institute indicates that, without the triple lock, it will be harder, at least until the new state pension rises above a certain level, for young workers to achieve an adequate income in retirement, because it is the base on which their private savings will assist in securing them an income in retirement, and the dominance of the role of the state pension in pensioner income will persist long into the future.
My Lords, I begin by apologising to your Lordships for not taking part in Second Reading due to the volume of Bills currently before your Lordships’ House.
I will be very brief. I rise to offer the Green group’s support for the intention of all these amendments. I express my pleasure in following the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and stress her point that we are not talking about a contest between generations here. There are some very poor people among our older communities, and they deserve not to live in poverty, but that does not mean taking money away from the young. I also stress the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, about how pensioner poverty is rising and that we should have a society where no pensioner is living in poverty.
I particularly want to address Amendment 3, which is the one I would most like to have attached my name to, had there been space. It is crucial: pension credit gets so many people to at least a basically decent, not awful, standard of living, but the fact is that that is useful only if you actually get it. I had a conversation—or a debate—with the Minister about a year ago. At that stage, the rate of pension credit take-up was 60%; that meant about a million pensioners were not receiving pension credit who would have been entitled to it. That was money the Government were not paying out—about £3 billion. It was estimated that it was costing the NHS and social care a spend of £4 billion. So not paying pension credit is actually costing the Government money. Can the Minister now—or later in writing, sharing it with other Peers—update me, a year later, on whether those figures still hold? Have the Government planned, as they did not plan a year ago, a programme to promote pension credit to ensure that those who are entitled to it take it up?
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, says, all these amendments seek to protect pensioners against price increases during a temporary suspension of the triple lock. I very much welcome the proposals made in Amendments 1, 2 and 3, and particularly welcome the proposal to include pension credit in the link with earnings.
I want to speak to Amendment 4 in my name, which seeks to base the uplift on the predicted increase as forecast by the Bank of England for April 2022. My amendment proposes that, as the pension increase will be in April 2022 and the previous pension increase was in April 2021, the best measure would surely be price increases between those two dates.
Circumstances have changed considerably since the Bill completed its passage through the Commons, including rising costs, rising inflation, unreliability of supply chains and the various pressures brought about by those circumstances. While we do not know what inflation will be by next April, there is plenty of reason to think that it will be higher than currently—that is sadly what the Bank of England thinks. For example, the energy cap went up 12% on 1 October, and is expected to go up again next April. I do not think the Government should be happy that these cost rises are not included in the inflation figure that they have used.
We know that pensioners, and older pensioners in particular, tend to spend more time at home and feel the cold more, and so energy bills tend to be a higher share of their household budgets. Given soaring energy costs, pensioner inflation is likely to be higher than average inflation. This is another reason to think that just linking to September’s average figure, when setting the state pension rate, is the answer to the wrong question. I know that some Members will think that using a forecast is not as robust as using an outturn, but this legislation is only for one year, so really we are not setting a precedent. In fact, I am reliably informed that, in the 1980s, the DWP used to use forecast inflation for benefit uprating.
Mention was made in the previous debate of the need to implement the new rates as quickly as possible. This really does not take as long, in this day and age; there are processes in place to make it much easier. Surely it would not take long for the preferred body—the Bank of England or the OBR—to come up with an inflation forecast; presumably the Budget will bring new inflation forecasts in any case.
If the Government are committed to protecting pensioners against rising prices when they set the pension in 2022, they should see that this is a more transparent, easily understood method of ensuring that pensioners are protected against the expected rise in prices, costs and pressures in the year ahead.
My Lords, there are two issues being discussed in Committee that I particularly want to address. First, what should be the provisions to determine the operation of the triple lock? Secondly—a distinct issue—what is the desirable level of the fixed-rate state pension, and how can we get there? These are clearly linked but distinct issues, which is why I sought to have them grouped apart. In this group, Amendments 1 to 4, we are dealing with the first issue. The question is: how should the triple lock work? We need to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for her work in producing these amendments, as well as the Minister, for the immense amount of time and effort she has put into explaining the Government’s position.
On the clause stand part debate, I will say that I am in favour of the 8% increase; I will explain why at that stage. However, as I said at Second Reading, given the Government’s clear and unambiguous commitment in their election manifesto to sticking by the triple lock, I do not understand why they are not prepared to adopt one of the approaches proposed by the cross-party group of noble Baronesses before us today. Unfortunately, of course, we have a Government who are now in the habit of breaking their promises; in this case in a relatively blatant fashion and, as has been explained, unnecessarily.
The Minister should understand that her Government’s refusal to give any consideration to any of these proposals is why there is so much fear—in this House and more generally—that this is not a one-off, that a precedent will be set that will be attractive to austerity-minded Chancellors in future, and that other excuses for breaking the link will be found. This is clearly not a party-political point. No one could accuse Age UK of being partisan, but it has said that
“it’s asking a lot for older people to believe that any scaling back of the triple lock would only be temporary, rather than permanent.”
The organisation goes on to point out that
“some of the prominent voices arguing for a suspension of the triple lock in response to the pandemic, are the same people who have called for its abolition in the past.”
The only way for the Government to mitigate these widespread concerns is to demonstrate commitment, either by sticking to the current legislation or, more likely in practice, through an appropriate amendment to this Bill. Such an amendment is now necessary to demonstrate the Government’s continued commitment —in practice and not just in fine words—to the key earnings element of the triple lock.
We must thank the Minister for her letter—which eventually reached me—and her explanation of why the Government believe that it is so difficult to adopt another definition of the earnings increase that would satisfy Section 150A of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. I am also glad to have had meetings with the Minister, at her instigation, to discuss the issue in detail. I thank her. But the case essentially comes down to “legal risk”. Unfortunately, I still find the argument less than compelling. On the face of it, the choice of the index is a decision for the Secretary of State. Subsection (8) could not be more definitive:
“The Secretary of State shall estimate the general level of earnings in such manner as he thinks fit.”
This puts it in the hands of the Secretary of State, so long as, that is, she does it in a way that is not irrational.
In truth, it is the decision to drop any link to earnings that is irrational—and, anyway, if it were correct that the Secretary of State’s choice is so open to challenge, it would be surprising that it has not been challenged in the past. For example, the prices index is based on a single month, September, whereas earnings are based on the three-month average from May to July. What sense does that make and why has one or other choice not been challenged? Earnings indices, along with those for prices, are inherently a matter of judgment and interpretation. It is not as though there is one true earnings index buried under the data that might ultimately be revealed in the course of legal action. Is any court really going to substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary of State? I am afraid that the excuses being offered for why the Government are unwilling to accept the approach suggested in these amendments bear all the hallmarks of post hoc-ism, the sort of clutching-at-straws justification that is commonly introduced to justify a decision that has already been made. The Minister has to understand that this is exactly why so many people continue to doubt the Government’s protestations that this is simply a one-off.
For these reasons, I shall support Amendments 2 and 3, in the spirit of helping the Government out of a hole that they have dug for themselves. Unfortunately, although I often agree with the noble Baroness, I am against Amendment 4. Just to give a brief history lesson, the idea of predicting prices figures is fatally flawed. I criticised it back in 1975 when my pensions hero, Barbara Castle, tried it, and I am against it now. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to use visual aids in this Chamber, but those noble Lords who have to hand the House of Commons briefing document can turn to page 22 and see a graph of the real value of the basic pension against earnings. Noble Lords will see that in 1975, when Barbara Castle was Secretary of State, there was a sharp downward dip, which is when they decided to adopt a projected rather than a hard figure. I am against it—I am sorry, because I am sure that the intentions are the best, but it gives too much scope for the Government to adjust the figures.
My Lords, at Second Reading I accepted the Government’s case for not increasing pensions by 8% or so, and I called for a review of the triple lock, because of the arbitrary nature of the triple element of the lock—that is, the 2.5%—while emphasising the importance of maintaining pensions and related benefits relative to average earnings as a general principle. I therefore support Amendments 1 and 2, which are consistent with that argument.
At Second Reading, as we have heard, the Minister argued that there was no robust methodology for establishing what the underlying increase in earnings had been this last year. But surely the ONS range of estimates, on which these amendments are based, is at least based on some kind of methodology, which is more than one can say about 2.5%, which can be used to increase pensions should it exceed earnings and prices. As it is, the jettisoning of earnings this year has given rise to understandable fears that the earnings link might be abandoned altogether in the longer term, just as it was by the Conservative Government in 1980, leading to a steady deterioration in the position of pensions relative to average earnings during the following two decades.
Moreover, the case for basing pensions on the underlying increase in earnings is the stronger, given what is happening to inflation, which is addressed by Amendment 4. All the indications are that inflation is going to rise above the 3.1% on which the uprating will be based. The Bank of England’s chief economist has warned that it could go as high as 5% in the next few months. For pensioners and others reliant on social security, the effective rate of inflation is likely to be higher still, given the differential impact of inflation when the increase in basics such as fuel and food, which constitute a disproportionate part of low-income budgets, is a key driver of inflation, as already mentioned. I raised this issue at Second Reading and asked the Minister whether she would undertake to look at how the problem might be addressed, but she did not respond then or in her subsequent letter.
The other day, the Chancellor said:
“I know that families here at home are feeling the pinch of higher prices and are worried about the months ahead. But I want you to know, we will continue to do whatever it takes, we will continue to have your backs—”
whatever that means—
“just like we did during the pandemic.”
The amendments we are debating here today would be one way of doing whatever it takes. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will take them seriously and, if she does not accept any of them, explain how the Government will do whatever it takes to protect those reliant on social security in the face of rising inflation.
Finally, on pension credit, the subject of Amendment 3, I believe that the uprating should be protected legally. But I would like to return briefly to the issue of take-up raised at Second Reading by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, which also has implications for later amendments on pensioner poverty. I welcome the willingness of Ministers—and our Minister in particular—to discuss with Peers ways of improving the lamentably low take-up rate. I had understood that it had been agreed that one way of doing so was to include a suitably arresting and well-designed leaflet or similar in communications with pensioners. I have received a couple of communications from the DWP since then, neither of which has drawn my attention to pension credit. Just last week, the letter I received about the winter fuel allowance made no mention at all of pension credit. Could the Minister tell us whether the idea of such a leaflet has been abandoned and, if so, why?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Altmann and Lady Janke, for introducing their amendments, and all noble Lords who have spoken. We had a good discussion at Second Reading about the way the Government have gone about trying to find an alternative to the triple lock that would deal with the impact of the pandemic on earnings data. But I think it is fair to say that the Minister will have worked out from the contributions that this has not entirely satisfied noble Lords around the House as a way forward.
Let me look briefly at the three sets of issues raised by the amendments in this group. Amendments 1 and 2 from the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, would replace the provisions of this Bill with the provision to uprate using an earnings measure designed to reflect an underlying rate of earnings growth. Amendment 1 sets that at 3.8%, being chosen as the midpoint in the range of this now famous blog by the ONS. I suspect the person who wrote it must be wondering whether they will ever blog again. But that blog suggested a range that—if you were to strip out the base and compositional effects—would give an indication of underlying basic earnings growth.
Amendment 2 takes a similar but less prescriptive approach, leaving it to the Secretary of State to pick a number informed by that same ONS piece of work. Given that a number of noble Lords have expressed scepticism about the Government’s defence—that one of the reasons they do not want to move away from average weekly earnings is fear of legal action—could the Government rehearse again exactly what they are worried about and why? I think that would be helpful, because, clearly, noble Lords are not persuaded by that.
I do not think anyone is very happy with where the Government have landed. My noble friend Lady Drake contributed, I have to say, another piece of astonishing, wonderful analysis. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, that I think it is possible that my noble friend is an even greater expert than the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, based on the strength of her contribution. We have huge expertise in this House, and we are greatly blessed by it. My noble friend summarised the matter when she said that, essentially, in this Bill, the Government have contrived to find a way forward in which they apply neither the triple lock nor the earnings indexation on which the triple lock is meant to build.
The quote from the PPI about what would have happened if the triple lock had been applied over two years was interesting. When we debated the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill 2020, I asked whether the Government had considered some sort of smoothing process, such as applying the principles of the triple lock over two years instead of one. I went back and read Hansard again today, and the Minister said—I paraphrase—it was all a bit uncertain. But that would have avoided the methodological complexity and any associated legal risks that Ministers are worried about, since presumably, they are using an established measure—immune, I imagine, to legal test. I ask the Minister again: did the Government consider it? Looking back, does she think that might have been a safer way forward?
I raised these issues at Second Reading. We are discussing them again precisely because—as my noble friends Lady Lister and Lord Davies and other noble Lords have said—people are worried that the break with earnings is setting a precedent, and the Government will come back next year with some new scheme that will make that break with earnings permanent. I realise that the Minister is not going to like these amendments, because she will be nervous of recasting the whole way things are calculated. So I strongly encourage her to say clearly that the Government are committing today to an earnings link as a minimum next year and that they will use average weekly earnings.
Amendment 3 from the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, would exclude pension credit from the provisions of this Bill so it would still be uprated with reference to earnings. Can the Minister say whether the Government considered doing that? If so, why did they reject it?
Amendment 4 from the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, would specify that the reference point for prices will be the predicted rate of inflation as of April 2022. The noble Baroness is right to raise concerns about the speed at which inflation is rising and where we will be next year. My noble friend Lady Lister made a really important point that the poor have a different rate of inflation, a point also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft. If you spend all your money on essentials, your inflation rate is fundamentally different from those who spend it on other things such as eating out or travel.
This was a bit of a lesson for me. I did not know that predicted inflation had been used in the 1980s. Nor did I know, if I may say to my noble friend Lord Davies, that in 1975 Barbara Castle had used this. I confess that in 1975 I was thinking less about pensions and rather more about boys and make-up, but I thought it was fascinating. I would be interested if the Minister could say if this has happened again in recent times. Have the Government considered whether there might be a way of using a predicted rate of inflation?
More broadly, there is clearly an issue about what to do in years when you get unusually high rises and falls in inflation. Normally, the received wisdom is that this comes out in the wash—you may get lucky one year and unlucky the next. But there are two problems with that. For the very poor, getting more money than they need next year is not much help if they are getting less than they need this year. The other problem is what you do in an unusual situation like this, where inflation bubbles along, something spikes dramatically and then comes back down again by the time the next reference point comes up. I am just interested to know if these matters are under discussion in DWP. If so, can the Minister share any government thinking?
I was very interested to hear the points raised about intergenerational fairness by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and my noble friend Lady Drake. My noble friend Lady Lister raised this at Second Reading. It is quite important to reflect on the needs of different groups in society and to remember that cutting investment in pensions will be a problem for the current generation of young adults as well; they will find themselves not only potentially losing out now but going on to be poor pensioners in due course.
Some very important points have been made in this debate. I will come back to questions of pensioner poverty in a later group because I have a number of amendments on that so I will not repeat them; I do not want to detain the Committee too much. If the Government Whips decide unilaterally to start a Committee stage as important as this at 8:30 pm without any consultation, then I do not want to delay them longer than is necessary. However, I do want to delay them as long as is necessary to scrutinise these amendments.
We understand the difficult situation with the anomaly in earnings, but I hope the Minister is able to hear and address the nervousness that removing the earnings link underpin has caused and give the Committee some reassurances. I look forward to her reply.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their amendments and my noble friend Lady Altmann for her courteous note explaining her reasons for tabling her amendments.
Amendment 1 in the name of my noble friend Lady Altmann, would increase the benefits in this Bill by an adjusted earnings figure of 3.8%. My comments are also highly relevant to Amendments 2 and 3, also in the name of my noble friend Lady Altmann, which retrospectively increase the benefits in this Bill in line with an adjusted earnings figure and excludes the standard minimum guarantee from the Bill, increasing it by existing legislation instead.
The principal difficulty with these amendments is that they rely on a commentary from the Office for National Statistics, which, by its own admission, is intended to give a sense of the context in which the current earnings growth figures have arisen. The highly caveated range of figures in this commentary is, I am afraid, simply not robust enough to form the basis for an uprating decision. It does not have official status but features in a blog, already referred to, that the ONS published alongside its usual earnings statistics, starting in July this year. The blog explains:
“There are a number of ways you can try to strip out these base effects, but no single method everyone would agree on. We have tried a couple of simple approaches … Neither approach is perfect … Our calculations of an underlying rate are there to help users understand base and compositional effects, but … there remains a lot of uncertainty about how best to control for these effects”
so they need to be treated with caution. I submit to noble Lords that decisions affecting billions of pounds of public expenditure should not be grounded in a range of possible estimates in an environment where it is acknowledged that no single method can be agreed on.
A further point is that the ONS has calculated its range of adjusted underlying earnings growth for a measure of regular pay. The usual measure of earnings used for uprating is total pay, which is regular pay plus bonuses, because this gives a more complex picture of earnings, in which bonuses can play an important part. There are no such problems with CPI, which is a robust national statistic and provides a clear and sound basis for this year’s uprating with no need for any adjustments.
In the light of this, the Government decided that the most transparent and robust way to proceed in this exceptional second year of the pandemic is to suspend the link between earnings for one year and instead uprate the relevant state pensions by at least 2.5% or in line with CPI, whichever is the higher. Noble Lords will recall that we also suspended the earnings link last year because otherwise the relevant state pensions would have been frozen. I accept that the circumstances in the two years are different, with a slump in wages followed by a spike, but the Government consider an unrepresented spike in state pensions to be unfair to younger taxpayers this year, just as last year they considered the slump or freeze in state pensions to be unfair on pensioners, even though the cost of uprating was borne by younger taxpayers.
Under this Bill, the Secretary of State must increase the relevant pension rates by at least 3.1%, assuming a 3.1% increase is applied to the current rate of the basic state pension in 2022-23. This would mean that the full yearly rate would have increased since 2010 by £570 more than if it had been uprated with earnings and £720 more than if it been uprated with prices. That is over £2,300 more in cash terms than in 2010.
Finally, I remind the Committee that this Bill applies for one year only. From 2023-24, the legislation will revert to the existing requirement to uprate at least by earnings growth. The Government’s triple lock manifesto commitment remains in place.
Amendment 3, tabled by my noble friend Lady Altmann, seeks to exclude the pension credit standard minimum guarantee from the provisions of the Bill so that the underlying legislation would apply. This would mean uprating the standard minimum guarantee in line with the growth in earnings rather than, as provided by the Bill, not less than the higher rate of 2.5% or inflation, which we now know is 3.1% for the reference period used for uprating.
In structural terms, the standard minimum guarantee is linked to earnings so that pensioners on the lowest income share in rising national prosperity. However, as we have discussed, the earnings growth figures for this year have been inflated by the temporary slump in wages last year, followed by an unprecedented rebound as the economy and businesses have reopened and millions have moved off furlough and returned to work. The reasons for suspending the earnings link just for 2022-23 therefore apply as much to pension credit as they do to the state pension.
The Government recognise that the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit is the safety net for pensioners on the lowest incomes. I accept that that is therefore different from the contributory state pension, which provides a foundation for private saving, notably through auto-enrolment. However, the measures the Government took last year, together with those in this Bill, will ensure that the safety net for pensioners on the lowest incomes more than keeps pace with inflation. Over the two years of the pandemic, it will have increased by more than the increase in prices. It was increased by 1.9% in April 2021, when the CPI for the relevant uprating review period was 0.5%, and will be increased by 3.1% from April 2022, in line with the relevant rate of CPI this year. We believe this strikes a fair balance over the two years between the interests of pensioners and those of younger taxpayers.
I should also point out that this amendment would undermine one of the key aims of the 2016 reforms that introduced the new state pension. From the outset, the full rate of the new state pension has been set above the basic means test, which is the single rate of standard minimum guarantee, in order to provide a clear foundation for private saving. Currently, the full rate of the new state pension is £2.50 a week higher than the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit. This amendment would lift the single rate of the standard minimum guarantee above the rate of the new state pension and so bring more pensioners into the scope of means testing. If the standard minimum guarantee was increased in line with earnings growth of 8.3%, the single rate would increase by £14.70 to £191.80 a week. That is £6.65 a week more than the full rate of the new state pension if that rate increases by 3.1% in line with the provisions of this Bill.
I know my noble friend Lady Altmann does not agree that we would need to increase the standard minimum guarantee by as much as 8.3%, but we have discussed the reasons why the Government do not consider there is a robust alternative measure of earnings that could be relied on instead. As we have made clear, the Bill is for one tax year only. After that, the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit would continue to increase at least in line with earnings from 2023-24.
On Amendment 4, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, which would uprate the benefits included in the Bill by April 2022 CPI figures, I understand the noble Baroness’s concerns over trends in price inflation and welcome the discussion we have had on the issue. I of course sympathise with the thinking behind this amendment. The Government would like to use the most up-to-date indices when it comes to the annual uprating process, but this is bound by a number of practical concerns which mean that the most up-to-date index we can use is the one for the year to September, which is published in October each year.
The Secretary of State’s uprating review needs to be completed by late November due to IT deadlines and the need to commence inputting the new rates into the department’s numerous computer systems. There are also interdependencies with HMRC and local authorities, which require the rates before Christmas. Additionally, there is a requirement to follow the correct legislative process. The new rates are included in the uprating order, which needs to be debated in Parliament before they come into force in the new tax year.
Finally, on average, September’s CPI is higher than in the following April half the time, and lower half the time. This has a long-term smoothing effect, provided the same index is used each year, as it is for benefits ordinarily linked to prices, such as attendance allowance and the additional state pension. The CPI for September 2020 was 0.5%, but in April 2021 it was 1.5% However, in each of the previous three years, the September CPI used for uprating was higher than the CPI figure for the following April. In these years, pensions saw a slightly higher increase than they would have done if it had been possible to wait and use the April CPI figure.
The Government’s intention with the Bill is to suspend the earnings link for one year but retain the price limb of the triple lock. This is to ensure that the purchasing power of state pensions is preserved, while protecting younger taxpayers from funding an increase that would otherwise be exaggerated by the statistical anomaly thrown up by the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, raised the point about pensioner poverty rising. The Government are committed to bearing down on levels of pensioner poverty. There are 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty, both before and after housing costs, than there were in 2009-10. We spend over £129 billion on benefits for pensioners in Great Britain—5.7% of GDP. This includes spending on the state pension, which is forecast to be over £105 billion in 2021-22.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, raised the point about food prices increasing and observed that for poorer pensioners it is basics that drive their expenditure. Despite the numerous pressures on the food supply chain at the moment, which will be leading to some upward pressure on prices for some products, we are not currently expecting widespread, significant and sustained increases in consumer food prices in the coming months.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, also mentioned energy prices. Energy is another big expenditure for pensioners. Domestic customers will be protected by the energy price cap when being switched to a new supplier—this protects millions of people from sudden increases in global gas prices.
The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, raised the issue of the reasons for the Bill. When we introduced it in the other place early in September, earnings indices were showing significant volatility. We needed to take clear and decisive action to address the exceptional growth in earnings and give clarity on what would happen in April next year. That is why we placed a double lock in the Bill, rather than providing for ministerial discretion, as we did last year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, also raised the point about the triple lock phasing out. A number of noble Lords have expressed concern that the Bill could mean the end of the triple lock or a permanent break of the link between state pension uprating and earnings growth. I stress that the provisions of the Bill expire after one year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, also raised the issue of pension credit uprating, which I know is a concern to all noble Lords. Pension credit is intended to help to meet a wide range of day-to-day living costs, including utility bills, for pensioners on low incomes. Last year, the September inflation figure was 0.5%, and average earnings declined, but we increased the standard minimum guarantee by 1.9%. This year, we will increase it by not less than 2.5% or inflation, which we know is 3.1%.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Drake and Lady Sherlock, raised the issue of smoothed earnings and asked why we could not use a measure of earnings smoothed over two or three years. Over a two-year period, comparing April to May 2019 with April to May 2021, there is an employment composition effect that inflates earnings growth. This would need to be adjusted for, and there is no clear way to do so that all could agree on.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle and Lady Lister, mentioned pension credit take-up. I know that all noble Lords across the House wish to see this increased. As I have said on numerous occasions, we continue to engage with the BBC. We have had meetings, and the department has established a working group, involving organisations such as Age UK and Independent Age, as well as the BBC, British Telecom, Virgin Money and the Local Government Association, to explore new ways to reach eligible pensioners. But I will come back to the noble Baroness on the homework that she gave me about the leaflet, and I will make sure that it does not get lost—I assure her of that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Janke, raised the issue of rising prices. As the global economy recovers, many economies are expecting high inflation, in part due to pressures from rising energy prices and disruption to global supply chains. These global pressures are the main driver of higher inflation in the UK.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Sherlock, asked: why not use a different forecast of inflation? Forecasting inflation is extremely difficult to do accurately, and if inflation turned out to be very different from the forecast, there would need to be a complex clawback mechanism to ensure that over the long term, uprating kept in line with actual inflation. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, raised the issue of Age UK, which said:
“If suspending the triple lock for a single year helps get a government deal on social care over the line, then I believe it’s a price worth paying.”
I believe that I have covered all the points that noble Lords have raised, and I therefore ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I have two quick questions. I am not advocating smoothing, but the Minister’s argument against it was that there would be a compositional effect. From memory, the base effect was many times more than the compositional effect, in terms of the impact on earnings data. The composition effect was less than 1% and the base effect was 3% or 4%, so is that really an argument?
The second question is something I have always wondered. The argument she gave to noble Lords who asked about timing was that two of the reasons why it had to be decided now were that the computers must be programmed in November and that the order usually has to be put through in January. What would happen if the computers had been programmed and the order was rejected by Parliament?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her detailed response and clear efforts to address the issues that have been raised, and I thank all noble Lords who have spoken on this important group of amendments.
I am still struggling to understand the rationale for not retaining the earnings link. Noble Lords are being asked to accept that, because estimating the pandemic’s distorting impact on earnings is rather difficult, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Office for National Statistics, the OBR and the legions of statistical experts we have at our disposal could not come up with a figure that the Secretary of State could use to allow for such adjustments without being at risk of being considered irrational. I really struggle with that concept.
Nobody is suggesting that the Secretary of State knows an answer that everybody would agree to. However, in the face of rising pensioner poverty, rising inflation, the lowest state pension in the developed world and the problems we can foresee coming next year, with the poorest pensioners being unable to afford the basic costs of living, it is concerning that we are deciding to remove a critical part of their protection which was promised in our manifesto, and which is not unaffordable, on the premise that it is too difficult to adjust the numbers.
I accept that the figure of 3.8% in Amendment 1 was based on an ONS blog; it was the only figure available that was a remotely official statistic. However, Amendments 2 and 3 contain important provisions that would allow the Secretary of State to use all the resources at her disposal to come up with a number that adjusts average earnings correctly and fairly, in a way on which maybe not everyone would agree but that would at least retain the vital principle of the earnings protection that pensioners have always been promised and, in the case of pension credit, that the poorest pensioners have always relied upon.
I shall withdraw my amendment, but I hope we can have further discussions between now and Report and perhaps work out a way forward based on the important principles of social security policy that we have always stuck to in the past. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendments 2 to 4 not moved.
5: Clause 1, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
“(3) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish a review of the impact of this Act on pensioner poverty.(4) This review must be laid before both Houses of Parliament, and a Minister of the Crown must arrange to make a statement.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires the Government to carry out an assessment of the impact of the Government’s chosen policy option on levels of pensioner poverty.
I rise to move Amendment 5, in my name, and to speak to the other amendments in this group. I tabled Amendments 5, 6 and 7 for two reasons: to try to plug what seems to be a serious knowledge gap in this legislation, and to highlight the wider concern about the growing rates of pensioner poverty and the worsening cost-of-living crisis.
It seems evident that the Bill must have an effect on pensioner poverty, because it will not only give today’s pensioners a lower pension next year than they expected but it will affect the value of the state pension for them and for future generations of pensioners for ever, as it is the base from which future percentage increases will take place. As noble Lords have already said today, that is a low base, since the UK pension is comparatively low.
The last Labour Government were able to achieve big reductions in pensioner poverty, in large part by introducing pension credit. At Second Reading I asked the Minister what action the Government would be taking to increase the take-up of pension credit, since at that point the last figures that I had seen suggested that only six in 10 of those eligible were claiming it. In response, the Minister picked just one figure and talked about take-up by value, and only for the guaranteed minimum standard pension credit. She did not talk about the aspect that most people talk about: the proportion of people who could claim pension credit who are actually doing so—in other words, take-up by volume.
I am sure the Minister will appreciate that that matters a great deal. With some benefits, if you only get a small amount then some people might choose not to claim. But the thing about pension credit is that if you get it at all, it is a passport to other really important benefits, including council tax credit, help with health and energy costs, and of course the free TV licence for the over-75s. It therefore matters that everyone gets pension credit if they are entitled to it.
I think the latest figures show that take-up for pension credit is still only 63%. Will the Minister confirm that? If so, what are the Government doing to boost it, including the leaflets mentioned by my noble friend Lady Lister? There were lots of other ideas—what is happening about those?
Since 2012 pensioner poverty has started rising again. Official figures show that some 18% of pensioners were living in poverty last year. That amounts to around 2.1 million poor pensioners, with over 1 million of those living in severe poverty. Has the Minister seen the report in June by Independent Age which found that people aged 85 and over have the highest rate of poverty among pensioners, at 22%? There are big regional variations; London has by far the highest rate of pensioner poverty, at 25%, but there are worries about rising poverty in the north.
In September, Age UK published research which found that, since 2012-13, the number of women pensioners living in poverty has increased from 990,000 to 1.25 million—an extra 260,000 women living in poverty. This is especially remarkable given that, because the state pension age was going up at that time, the actual number of female pensioners fell by 800,000. So we have 800,000 fewer female pensioners and yet 260,000 more female pensioners living in poverty. Can the Government explain that and tell us what they are doing about it? Age UK also found that older people from black and Asian communities are around twice as likely to be living in poverty as white pensioners.
Given the worries about pensioner poverty, and the fact that the state pension is the largest single source of income for most pensioners, it would seem obvious that Ministers would want to carry out an impact assessment so that they would know what effect suspending the triple lock could have on pensioner poverty. But astonishingly, at Second Reading, the Minister confirmed to us that the Government have not done that and do not propose to. My Amendment 5 would simply force the Government to carry out that assessment within six months of the Bill passing, and then make a Statement to both Houses outlining the steps needed to address pensioner poverty.
Of course, the Bill cannot be seen in isolation from other government decisions, including the cut of £20 a week for up to 5 million or 6 million universal credit claimants—to which we will return in more detail a little later. The number of older workers claiming universal credit has hit a record high just as the Government’s decision to cut £1,000 from universal credit comes in. There are older workers who are affected by both of these things, so that one decision will take a whopping £1.3 billion from the pockets of 1 million over-50s.
At Second Reading, I asked how many people would be affected by both the £20 cut in universal credit and the Bill, and the Minister said it would be around 50,000 people. We have since had clarification that the estimate is that more than 30,000 mixed age couples will be claiming universal credit at the start of 2022-23. So that is 60,000 people, plus any dependants, facing a double whammy of the Government’s decision to suspend the triple lock and to cut universal credit but, again, no attempt has been made to look at the impact on them. Amendment 6 in my name would force the Government to review the impact of the Bill on those households.
That £20 cut and this Bill both take place at a time when inflation is rising and energy bills are skyrocketing. As winter approaches, we are heading for a real cost of living crisis, which could have a devastating impact on pensioners. My Amendment 7 would require the Government to publish an assessment of the impact of the Bill on pensioners’ ability to pay their energy bills. The Minister mentioned the price cap earlier; she will be aware that 15 million consumers on default energy tariffs faced a rise in the price cap from 1 October. That meant an increase of £139 for those paying by direct debit and £153 for those on prepayment plans. National Energy Action, the energy charity, estimated that this was
“likely to result in more utility debt, 500,000 extra households in fuel poverty and an increase in preventable deaths this winter.”
I fear that prices are likely to rise further still. Research firm Cornwall Insight is forecasting that the energy price cap could be put up in early 2022 by about 30%, adding hundreds more pounds to household bills. As so often, the poor end up paying more, and the “poverty premium” on energy is really marked. Having to use prepayment meters, which are more expensive, not being unable to pay by direct debit, and even having to request paper bills can all add up. The poorest households also tend to have fewer adult occupants, so the burden is not spread out.
Data shows that energy makes up a much larger proportion of expenditure in the poorest households but, to my astonishment, new analysis has shown that the poorest 10% of households pay on average £756 a year per person for electricity, gas and other fuels. So the poorest 10% pay £756 a year for energy—50% more than the richest households, which pay just £504 per person. The poorest households spend more on energy per person than any other group.
There is widespread concern that the state pension increases could be outstripped by price rises. The Centre for Economics and Business Research found that retired households will be nearly £700 worse off by next year as the state pension fails to keep pace with soaring bills and tax charges. Does the Minister accept that pensioners will be worse off? If she does, what will the Government do about it? If she does not, and if she disagrees with what I have said, all the evidence I have cited and the things that other noble Lords have done, there is a very simple way forward: she can accept my amendments, do an impact assessment and tell us the facts. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to support this amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. I thank her for that incredibly good and detailed outline of what the problem is.
I want to speak briefly as the chair of the charity Feeding Britain, where I succeeded the wonderful Frank Field—the noble Lord, Lord Field of Birkenhead. We began three years ago to support the rollout of affordable food projects. We originally held the assumption that most of the people who would want it would be working-age groups, disabled people or families with kids, but that assumption proved to be wrong. We have 80 affordable food projects in our network. In many of them, between 30% and 40% of the members are pensioners on low incomes. They either could not or would not use a food bank. Pensioners find it extremely difficult to go to a food bank. I think that when you have paid your taxes and national insurance all your life, to find yourself at 85 having to ask someone whether they will give you a can of baked beans is both humiliating and almost impossible. Indeed, we have heard stories of many people who would really rather go without than have to endure that.
In Glasgow, where we have set up many affordable food projects, we have now set them up particularly in areas where there are lot of pensioners. People have really been supported by this. One said to us: “It’s been a godsend, really, because all the prices are going up—electricity, the cost of food and the lot.”
When I was a kid, my parents both did meals on wheels, and I used to go round with them once a week and deliver meals to people’s houses. It was kind of a joy; my parents really enjoyed it. When I chaired the London Food Board, I spent a lot of time seeing what we could do to bring meals on wheels back. The reality is that no councils have any money for this anymore. As always happens when it is about food, it is a budget that gets cut, or the costs go up and it becomes not many people, so it gets struck off the list of things that you could do. One thing we could do would be to start looking at a service like that.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, pointed out about energy, you have to pay a lot to be poor in this country. It is certainly true of food. If I go to a shop, I can buy a large size of washing powder or rice or whatever it happens to be. If you are scraping along on very little money, you pay a great deal more. We did a survey in Greenwich which pointed out that your average shop would cost you 30% to 40% more in your corner store than if you had been able to go to your local Aldi. You pay a price to be poor. That is really terrible, and it is why I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock.
My Lords, these amendments raise important issues about the impact of the Bill on poverty. I simply want to raise a point about the measure of poverty that should be used.
At Second Reading, in her response to the debate the Minister referred to a fall in pensioner poverty since 2009-10 as measured by the so-called absolute poverty measure, and she did so again earlier this evening. In fact, it is not a measure of absolute poverty as such but is better described as an anchored measure which measures any change by adjusting the 2010-11 poverty line for inflation. In contrast, the House of Commons Library briefing, using the relative poverty measure, recorded an increase in pensioner poverty from an historic low of 13% in 2011-12 to 18% in 2019-20, as my noble friend Lady Sherlock said. With reference to Amendment 8, single female poverty is higher than the overall figure—a point already made.
However, the Minister was dismissive of the use of a relative measure, stating:
“The Government believe that absolute poverty is a better measure of living standards than relative poverty, which can provide counterintuitive results”.—[Official Report, 13/10/21; col. 1885.]
Criticisms of the relative poverty measure as potentially counterintuitive have tended to focus on when it is used for short-term, year-on-year comparisons, but, in this case, we are talking about a rise in relative poverty over a period of eight years, which surely should have triggered some alarm bells in the department.
Relevant here is a recent Work and Pensions Committee report. Although its focus was on measuring child poverty, what it has to say is relevant also to pensioner poverty. It states:
“The Secretary of State is of course right to say that a relative measure can, in the short term, produce counter-intuitive results—but it has great value for assessing long term trends. We are concerned to see Ministers focusing on a single measure, rather than drawing on the rich information offered by DWP’s own set of income-based measures, which combines relative, ‘absolute’ and broader material deprivation statistics … Ministers should reaffirm their commitment to measuring poverty through all four measures”.
Similarly, I have a Written Answer from the Minister’s predecessor, dated May 2018, which states:
“No one measure of poverty is able to fully capture the concept of a low standard of living in all economic circumstances.”
Yet increasingly, Ministers use the so-called absolute measure, as if it is the only appropriate measure. Will the Minister reaffirm that commitment as called for by the Work and Pensions Committee? After all, I remind her that, when he was leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron explained:
“We need to think of poverty in relative terms—the fact that some people lack those things that others in society take for granted. So I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.”
Can the Minister explain why that is no longer the case? What has changed, other than that the Government’s record on poverty looks worse using the relative poverty measure that Mr Cameron championed?
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 3. To quote from a publication by the Institute for Fiscal Studies,
“We’ll know we are on the way to levelling up when differences in health and life expectancy across the country start to drop. Sadly, that’s one measure of inequality that has clearly been moving in the wrong direction over the past decade.”
Associated with those growing inequalities is pensioner poverty, which, as we have heard, has risen from 13% to 18% and is likely to rise even further. For older pensioners, the rise is even higher. With the rising energy and food costs that we can all see coming down the track, there will be a lot of old people this winter with very little money, sitting in cold houses, fearing that they will not get any help when they fall ill. That will be the reality for many thousands of people in the coming winter months.
We know that there is a major problem generally of households on low incomes with rising debt who will not be able to weather the storm of the growing cost-of-living problems that we are beginning to see. Then again, looked at from a regional perspective, in the majority of regions in England pensioner couples have average weekly incomes below the pensioner couple average, and we are seeing this problem in particular regions: in the north-east, the north-west, east Midlands, West Midlands, Yorkshire and indeed in London, which now has the highest relative level of pensioner poverty. As Imperial College research now shows us, life expectancy is falling in urban areas in these regions—in Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and other areas. Cuts to health and social spending will have contributed to that trend, and we have not yet experienced a winter with the backlog that the NHS is dealing with.
Pensioners with low incomes are more sensitive to indexation changes because they are more dependent for their income on those benefits. Yet we have seen no assessment of the impact of suspending the triple lock, or indeed what could be the implications of decisions the Government will take next year or the year after, given that through the Bill they have suspended both the triple lock and the legislative underpin of earnings. We know that projected levels of pensioner poverty will vary according to the uprating provisions applied to the state pension, given its dominance in pensioner income. If you play negatively with pensioner income, pensioner poverty will go up. That sensitivity to indexation will continue to increase, as fewer and fewer pensioners reach state pension age without the generous defined benefits or defined contribution pensions which, in the past, cushioned the fall in the state pension that occurred under successive Governments.
Pensioner poverty is not a legacy issue. State pension is and remains a dominant source of income for the majority of both current and future pensioners. Research by the Pensions Policy Institute—your Lordships can tell that I am a governor—reveals that the UK is currently on course for a quarter of people approaching retirement being unlikely to receive even a minimum income. Of the 11 million people in the UK between the age of 50 and state pension age, around 3 million will not receive a minimum income.
Those earning at median levels or below—women, people from BME communities, carers, disabled people and the self-employed—are more likely to be in the groups not meeting adequacy levels in retirement. All the drivers of the gender pay gap also drive the pensions gender gap, and added to that is the current generation of women pensioners who accrued their state pensions under a legacy system that directly discriminated against them. Many women are now excluded from auto-enrolment and treated less favourably under the tax system when saving their pensions than those on higher incomes. The number of workers now ineligible for auto-enrolment has risen to over 10.1 million.
Listening to the Minister reply to the previous debate was extraordinary, given the sort of circular restriction the Government have imposed on themselves. The Minister said that they have spent 5.7% of GDP on pensioner benefits, but that is low by any basis of comparison. If that is the basis going forward, the Government have a plan that will make future generations poorer on 5.7% of GDP. I do not have the figures with me, but it is certainly lower than the figure that was quoted when the new state pension and the accelerated state pension ages were introduced and talked about. Because that new state pension is set at a relatively low level, the minimum income guarantee—an underpin of protection for our poorest pensioners—cannot go up by more than that new state pension. The Government have created a sort of ceiling. There is a limit to how much we can help our pensioners through the pension credit, because it cannot go above the new state pension. But that new state pension is based on an assumption of GDP that is pretty low, and the value of it is pretty low relative to earnings.
We are beginning to see inequalities of pensioner income emerging, and if the Government really are focused on the kind of regional inequalities that we are seeing, it is just not sustainable to keep saying that we cannot increase the minimum income guarantee for pensioners because we have set the new state pension at a relatively low level. The Government have locked themselves out of the main mechanism for dealing with pensioner poverty.
The Bill removes the earnings indexation underpin and suspends the triple lock. What will apply next year or in future years rests on a verbal promise which, like snow, could melt when the heat rises. Who knows what next year will bring? But a precedent has been set that both the triple lock and the earnings underpin can be taken away.
Pensioners with lower incomes, particularly women, will be very sensitive to those index changes, and yet we have no impact assessment on this matter of considerable importance. Rather than just debate endlessly, the amendment is calling for the Government and the Minister to lay some analysis about the impact on pensioner poverty. Rather than having an argument, could the Minister not just accept the intent of my noble friend Lady Sherlock’s amendment and provide that report, so that we can all clearly show where we are going on trying to protect our poorest pensioners?
My Lords, very briefly, I have added my name to Amendments 5 and 6 and I support the thrust of these amendments. I urge my noble friend the Minister to look seriously at the merits of investigating the poverty levels that are rising among pensioners. Indeed, I urge her to accept some of these looking at the gender issues—so not just pensioner poverty but relative pensioner poverty between men and women—in her new role as Minister for Women, on which I congratulate her. I support these amendments and I look forward to hearing my noble friend’s comments.
My Lords, I just want to add that we have a complete lack of information on these proposals. As a matter of law, when the regulations come, they have to be accompanied by a report from the Government Actuary. In effect, we are making the decision now—the regulations are just a carry-on of the Act—and it is really unfortunate that we do not have before us the information that Parliament has decided should be available to us when we deal with these regulations.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for her amendments and for the information she has drawn to our attention. I share her concern at the lack of impact assessments of the proposed uplift on the most affected groups. The increasing pensioner poverty that we are all aware of and the poor take-up of pension credits, which are important as a passport to other benefits, are matters we are all extremely concerned about. I agree that pension increases are fast outstripped by rising costs, and I certainly fear a winter crisis, with increased energy prices and their effect on those who most need heat to keep their homes healthy and warm.
We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, about how poor pensioners do not want to claim food —they do not want free food, they would rather starve than do that—and I believe that that is certainly an element in the uptake of pension credit. Again, we all worry that we are going to see more and more food banks and people unable to feed themselves as costs rise. The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, raised the whole issue of regional poverty and inequality. Certainly, when you look at the statistics across the regions, they are quite breath-taking. I believe we need much more information, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said, particularly about regional inequality. I wonder why we do not have this information when the Government have such a strong levelling-up agenda. How will they address these issues without adequate information on which to base decisions?
My amendment in this group highlights the unfairness experienced by many women as result of the pension gender gap. I will point out the current situation. The average pension pot for a woman aged 65 is one-fifth of that of a 65 year-old man. Women receive £29,000 less state pension than men over 20 years and this deficit is set to continue, closing by only 3% by 2060. Many women are wholly dependent on the state pension and as a result of this situation, we should take a particular interest in conducting impact assessments on the uprating of pensions on poverty. I support the measures proposed in this group and look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock, Lady Drake, Lady Boycott, Lady Altmann and Lady Janke, for raising important issues through these amendments and I reassure the Committee that we are committed to ensuring economic security at every stage of life, including when one reaches retirement.
On Amendments 5 and 8, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Janke, on publishing a poverty impact assessment, the department collects and publishes a wide range of data on income and poverty which are released annually in the reports in the households below average income series. Noble Lords raised the issue of pension credit take-up. Time does not allow me to go into the detail, but I undertake to have a further pension credit update when we can have more time to discuss and answer the questions that noble Lords wish to have answered.
In the absence of actual data, the only way to provide an assessment in advance of those dates would be to forecast and model how many pensioners might have their income lifted above the various low-income levels under an earnings uprating versus an inflation uprating. Assumptions would need to be made about how each individual pensioner’s income would change in future under each scenario. This would require making assumptions about, for example, how each pensioner might change their behaviour around other sources of income, such as drawdown of income from investments or a change in earnings, when faced with different amounts of state pension, which is virtually impossible to do.
Those projected incomes would then need to be compared with projections of the various income thresholds, which are themselves extremely uncertain. For absolute poverty, the threshold is increased each year by inflation; and for relative poverty, the threshold is determined by changes in median income across the whole population. Given the volatility in the economy and labour market, this is impossible to do accurately. There is a very high risk that any analysis seeking to forecast the number of pensioners moving above or below these projected poverty thresholds would be misleading due to uncertainty about both the economy and pensioners’ behaviour in response to various levels of state pension.
I turn to Amendment 6 and the specific request of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for a review of the impact of the Bill on mixed-age couples, and point to some practical concerns. Mixed-age couples in receipt of universal credit are a very small group, and data sources are limited. It is therefore not possible to identify these couples and analyse changes in health inequalities and homelessness for this group.
Further, the Government believe it is important for both individuals and wider society that people below state pension age remain in the labour market and continue saving for their own retirement. That is why, where a member of a couple is below state pension age and the couple are on a low income, support is provided through universal credit rather than pension credit. Providing support where it is needed through universal credit ensures that the same incentives to work and save for retirement apply to the younger partner in a mixed-age couple as apply to other people of the same age. Where the younger partner is unable to work because of disability or caring requirements, they may qualify for additional amounts and will not be subject to any work-related conditionality.
This approach is based on clear evidence about the importance of employment, particularly where it is full-time, in substantially reducing the risks of poverty and in improving long-term outcomes for families and children. In 2019-20, adults below state pension age in households where all adults were in work were six times less likely to be in absolute poverty, after housing costs, than adults in a household where nobody works.
As our economic recovery gathers pace and with vacancies at record levels, the focus of our expanded multi-billion-pound Plan for Jobs is helping people who can work to move into and to progress in work wherever possible. However, recognising that some people continue to require extra support this winter, we have announced the new household support fund.
On Amendment 7, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, to publish an assessment of the impact of the Bill on those receiving the state pension, with reference to their ability to pay energy bills, energy prices are one of the factors built into the CPI measure, which is used in the assessment of annual uprating of benefits not covered by this Bill, such as personal independence payments and jobseeker’s allowance. In aggregate, where benefit rates are increased in line with CPI, the increases in those prices are reflected over time in the increases in benefit rates. The energy price cap will continue to protect millions of customers this winter, saving 15 million households up to £100 a year. Additionally, suppliers are prohibited from disconnecting customers of pensionable age between October and March, ensuring that pensioners have continuous supply during the coldest months.
I ask the noble Baroness, taking account of the points I have made, to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have signed my amendments. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Altmann, and my noble friend Lady Drake and others. I am most grateful to those who spoke.
My noble friend Lady Drake summed up the problem when she said: “There are going to be a lot of old people this winter with very little money, sitting in cold houses, worrying that they will not get the help they need.” I think there really will be.
Listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, I was very moved by the vision. I think that her parents must be terribly proud. They took her out to do meals on wheels when she was young and she in her turn is now doing such amazing work supporting people who cannot afford to eat. I really commend her for that—it was a wonderful image.
Like the noble Baroness I have been involved with many organisations such as churches and others that do food banks. I know how older people do not like to use food banks and how difficult it is. I think how shameful it is that we have come to the point where they have to, or indeed anyone has to, on the scale that we have in our country. We have somehow lost our way.
The worrying levels of pensioners on low income and those approaching low income should really concern us. My noble friend Lady Drake mentioned a figure from the PPI. If we are heading for a quarter of all people approaching retirement being unlikely to receive even the minimum income level, something has gone badly wrong. What has happened to the vision that was meant to lift people away from that situation? Can the Minister tell us what has gone wrong there?
The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, in her amendment, mentioned women pensioners in particular. Those drivers of the gender pay gap are driving the gender pensions gap as well. If we do not get things right earlier on, we are not going to be able to put it right later. This means that it is not just a legacy problem. It has been clear from the comments and contributions from noble Lords tonight that this is not a problem just of older systems in days when, for example, caring was not recognised. This is happening now and is going to drive pensioner poverty into the future.
On the question of poverty measurements, I am so grateful to my noble friend Lady Lister who has literally written the book on poverty and is therefore in a very strong position to be able to take apart the Government’s arguments. It just does not work to say that relative poverty is some hopeless measure that no one uses when, frankly, it is used robustly by academics all over this country, Governments and international bodies. It has been used over very long periods for longitudinal studies. It is fine to use other measures as well. It is fine, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, has done in her work, to look at baskets of measures. However, simply to say that relative poverty does not matter and cannot be measured is not a credible stance if we are to have a serious conversation about social policy.
The point about trends was really well made. Even if the noble Baroness does not like measures year to year, in 1997, pensioner poverty in the UK was at 29%; in 2010 it was 14% and in 2012 it starts to rise. Last year it was 18%. There are huge trends there. Something is happening with pensioner poverty and the Government cannot simply turn a blind eye to it.
The Government argue that they cannot do an impact assessment and that they have data such as households below average income. That is nonsense. HBAI is simply a statement of the state of income across the nation. It is not a measure of the impact of any legislation. Whenever the Government do an impact assessment, of course they have to make assumptions about what will happen and how people will respond. It is called modelling. All I am asking is for them to do it on things they do not want to do it on, as well as the things they do want to do it on. That does not seem to me to be an unreasonable request.
To be honest, a lot of the people that we are talking about here are so close to the poverty line that I do not think it would be very hard to make assumptions about what was going to happen to their income, and how far they are going to draw down extensively on assets, as a result of measures the Government are taking.
The Minister says that we do not have time to discuss pension credit take-up tonight. This is the Committee stage of a Bill in which we are meant to do line-by-line analysis. We have been asking this for quite a long time and if we do not have time to do it tonight then, frankly, proceedings should carry on at another time when we do have time to do it. It should not be that we do not get to discuss things and to have questions answered because the timing, which was entirely in the Government’s hands, is such that the noble Baroness feels that we do not have time to discuss it tonight. Take-up of pensioner credit is fundamental to pensioner poverty. This is a group of amendments about pensioner poverty so I think it would have been helpful if she had anything else to say on that.
I am disappointed that the Minister is not willing to move on this. These are gentle, simple and reasonable amendments. If the Government will the ends of this, they should will the ability to assess the impact of their ends. I hope that the noble Baroness will revisit this idea and be more willing to accept it before we come back to these matters later in the Bill. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Debate on whether Clause 1 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle and my noble friend Lord Davies of Brixton for their support for this proposal. My motives are very simple—to address poverty among our senior citizens. I should like to see an 8.3% increase in the state pension, although 8.3% of little is still very little. It is not going to make an enormous difference to the Government’s finances—I shall deal with that issue in a moment.
Previously, Governments have broken the link between earnings and state pension, which has had disastrous intergenerational consequences. As has already been mentioned, in the 1980s, the Thatcher Administration broke the link between earnings and the state pension, and we never recovered from it. This is another example of where, once that link is broken, we will never really recover from it; the Minister so far has not said that in future the backlog will somehow be made up. Nothing has been said about that.
The current full state pension at the moment is £9,350 a year, and only four out of 10 retirees receive it. The average state pension is about £8,000 a year and, as has already been pointed out, is around 24% or 25% of the earnings. It is the lowest among industrialised nations, and by not increasing the state pension in line with average earnings we are going to condemn it to remain low.
According to the OBR, in one of the documents I came across, it said that by 2022-23 the UK is expected to allocate around 4.6% of its GDP to the state pension. That is considerably less than the European Union or OECD countries, and Germany already allocates about 10%. Why is it that the Government are content for such low allocation to the state pension? What happened to the billions that the Government took from 3.8 million women by raising their state pension age from 60 to 66? What happened to the billions that the Government said would be saved by coming out of the European Union? Why have those resources not been used to lift our senior citizens out of poverty?
Some 2.1 million pensioners receive a state pension of less than £100 a week, and most of these are women. Some gender issues have already been discussed. Currently, female pensioners receive on average 16% less state pension than men; the Government use the pretence of equality to raise the state pension age for women, but women still receive less.
A low pension inevitably means that there are consequences. For example, some 1.3 million senior citizens are undernourished. Every year, 25,000 or sometimes more senior citizens die from cold because they simply cannot afford to heat their homes or buy adequate food. As has been pointed out, this Bill has not been accompanied by an impact assessment from the Government to show the effects on the lives of our senior citizens.
Pensioner poverty has increased so, despite the triple lock, the proportion of elderly people living in severe poverty is five times as much as it was in 1986. Again, that is the largest increase among western European countries—bearing in mind that the UK is one of the richest countries in the world. That is really an indictment of the policies that have been pursued by successive Governments.
Despite the triple lock, 2.1 million pensioners live in poverty, 1.25 million of whom are women. The poverty rate is higher now that it was in 2012-13. Many simply struggle to survive. Those retirees who try to top up their meagre state pension with part-time work will soon be hit by the Johnson tax: a 1.25% hike in national insurance. At the same time, what do we actually observe? For those rich people who make vast fortunes from capital gains and dividends, or speculation on second homes, commodities markets and securities markets, no national insurance contributions are payable on unearned income. That money could definitely be used to alleviate poverty, but the Government have not indicated any inclination to do that.
The cost of honouring the earnings link to the state pension is probably around £4.7 billion. It is miniscule compared to the cost of bank bailouts, or the £895 billion in quantitative easing. It is certainly less than the £8.5 billion subsidy handed to train companies, which are promptly paying out very high dividends. It is certainly less than the subsidies given to the oil and gas companies. Retirees are not asking for vast sums of money. All they are asking for is something to enable them to keep they heads above water. The 3.1% increase in the state pension from next April is not really enough—it is actually a backward-looking measure. It only reflects the consumer price increases, not the RPI increase, which is always higher. In fact, it only reflects the consumer price increases during the last year and does not take into account the 12% hike in the energy cap or the expected food price rises, for example. The experts are already telling us that the rate of inflation will be 5% very soon. That means the value of the expected rise is already eroded: it has vanished. So, retirees will actually be even worse off.
A triple lock based upon the existing formula could have given an increase of around 8% to 8.3%, adding up to about £14 a week in the full new state pension, instead of £5.55 a week. That is a difference of about £8.50 a week. Is that really a king’s ransom? It is probably less than what many Ministers pay for a glass of wine with their lunch. That is all retirees are asking for. I will spell out the financial consequences in a moment.
Let us also remember that retirees pay council tax, VAT, various duties and, where appropriate, income tax. Their expenditure boosts local economies and is likely to have a greater multiplier effect on the local economy because they spend the money on essentials. The best legacy for future generations is a decent state pension now, because they would be even more reliant upon it. The final salary pension schemes have all but vanished for new members, so income from occupational pension schemes will be low. People will be forced to rely upon their state pensions. Workers’ ability to save for private pensions has been severely damaged. Workers’ share of GDP has declined, from 65.1% in 1976 to 49.4% now—the biggest decline in any Western country. People just do not have the ability to save extensively for a private pension.
As others have mentioned, around 14.5 million people live in or below poverty. Household debt is some £1.7 trillion. Young people just do not have the capacity to pay high housing costs and high food costs, repay student debt and then save adequately for their retirement. That, again, is a very serious issue.
The social divide in this country is stark. Some 18.4 million individuals have an income of less than the tax-free allowance; 42% do not earn enough to pay income tax; 6.2 million people, as the Minister told us last week, do not earn enough to pay national insurance contributions. Paradoxically, however, individuals who do not earn enough to pay income tax are somehow asked to pay national insurance, while millionaires from capital gains do not pay any. The poorest people are being damaged.
A large proportion of the population is not sitting on a pot of money that they can easily use for retirement. The poorest 50% of the population have only 9% of the total wealth. The poorest fifth of society has only 8% of the UK’s income. Inevitably, the state pension will be their main source of income in retirement. We need to meet that challenge now, not in five or 10 years. We need to make progress towards a decent state pension now.
The cost of honouring the link with earnings is about £4.7 billion. This can easily be met out of the £37 billion surplus in the national insurance fund account. The Minister disagrees; I shall respond to that when we come to another amendment. The Government can maintain the triple lock without increasing the 20% or 40% rates of income tax, or increasing national insurance contributions for the vast majority of people. Will the Minister tell us if she agrees that £17 billion a year could easily be raised by taxing capital gains in the same way as earned income, and another £8 billion by ensuring that the beneficiaries of capital gains pay national insurance at the current rate? That is £25 billion from that measure alone. A further £5 billion could be raised by taxing dividends in the same way as earned income. Ensuring that all earned income is liable to a national insurance levy of 12% would raise another £14 billion. There is absolutely no shortage of finance.
Why do the Government lack the political will to lift so many people out of poverty? Ours is one of the richest countries. People should not be living in squalor or poverty. I urge all Members of this House to make a concerted effort to ensure that our senior citizens do not live a life of poverty. I commend this amendment to the House.
My Lords, may I make it clear that this is not an amendment? We are debating a straight question of whether Clause 1 should stand part of the Bill or not: in other words, whether it is accepted or not.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of my noble friend Lord Sikka and in favour of retaining the existing legislative provisions by leaving out Clause 1 entirely. As the noble Baroness said, it is about whether Clause 1 should appear in the Bill at all. Clearly, to leave it out would vitiate the entire Bill but it would invite the House of Commons to think again, which is the primary role of this House. The intention now is to enable those of us who believe it would be reasonable and right to go for the full 8.3% increase that the Government have stated is the appropriate figure to debate it.
The triple lock has come in for some criticism. It does not enjoy universal support. I understand some of those criticisms and perhaps, in a perfect world, it should not be necessary. We would like to live in a world where pensioners would simply share in the same increases in living standards as those enjoyed by the working population. This is not where we are. For me, the triple lock serves a dual purpose. First, it is needed to protect pensioners’ living standards. Secondly, and in some ways more importantly, it is a way of increasing the flat-rate benefits towards a more adequate level. I am glad to say that I do not have to expound at length on that point because the case has been made so clearly by my noble friend Lady Drake. It is an accelerator which will project the basic pension to a more adequate level.
What is clear is that it is not at an adequate level at present, which is why what is described as the “ratchet effect” of the triple lock is so important; of course, the same would be true of a double lock, based on prices and earnings, which is why we shall return in a moment to the important role of the 2.5% element. Introduced as a political fix at a time when inflation was somewhat higher than it has been for most of the last decade, it has turned out to be of real benefit to pensioners.
As was so clearly explained by my noble friend Lady Drake, the job of the triple lock is not just to protect pensioners in relation to earnings and prices; it is, over time, to achieve real increase in their incomes when measured against either of these indices. As I have said before, it is an inherent feature of the triple lock, not a bug. Whether you agree depends on whether you think the state basic pension or the new state pension are currently high enough. If you think they are, you might consider that we do not need the triple lock, but if you want to see them increase, as I do, the triple lock has a proven track record of gaining ground on that objective. The triple lock may not be pretty, but experience has shown us that it works. During periods when the triple lock—or, in the case in the long-distant past of the 1974-79 Labour Government, a double lock—has applied, we have seen a consistent incremental move of the state flat-rate pension towards a more adequate level.
The element of the triple lock that has attracted most criticism, not least from my noble friend Lady Lister, is the 2.5% minimum increase. It has been said that it is arbitrary and without any justification. Maybe, but so are many other figures in legislation. When we analyse the real increase that pensioners have benefited from since 2011 with the triple lock, almost half the improvement has been due to the 2.5% element. To me, that in itself justifies its inclusion. Does anyone here believe that the basic state pension should be 18% of earnings rather than 19%? It might not sound like much but, to the poorest pensioners, everything counts.
Perhaps we need a debate about what level of flat-rate state pension we need and what the target should be when we have a ratchet effect. I would favour a commission to address the issue, building on the work of the earlier Pensions Commission, which set out the present structure of pension provision in this country. The commission itself did not feel able to specify with any precision what the basic pension should be in earnings terms, but the structure it established depends as much on the level of the flat-rate element as it does on the pension produced by automatic enrolment. I am pleased, therefore, to see that more work is being done in this area, through initiatives such as those from the Living Wage Foundation and the Pension and Lifetime Savings Association, with its retirement living standards.
Particularly given the hour, now is not the time to have a full-scale debate on the conclusions of that work, although it would be valuable to do so when appropriate. What is clear from the work that has been undertaken is that 19% is not nearly enough; it is well short even of the 26% that was attained back in 1979. These benefits are not just inadequate; there is a long way to go before they can become adequate. Consequently, we definitely still need a triple lock and its ratchet effect, and I would be prepared to see something better and faster replace it. That brings us to the increases due in 2022, as determined by this Bill. I believe that we can and should stick to the triple lock, as provided in the legislation, which means the 8.3% increase. Taking the increases to be made in 2021, 2022 and 2023, this provides an ideal opportunity to achieve a significant increase in flat-rate pensions towards a more adequate level in the longer term, which can only be a good thing.
It will no doubt be pointed out that this would have to be paid for, with the figure of £5 billion per annum being quoted. My noble friend Lord Sikka has dealt with that but, for the purposes of today’s debate, I simply say that I support increases in general taxation on those with the broadest shoulders to meet this clear social need, with the obvious target of equalising what I still think of, in the old terminology, as unearned income, rather than earned income. I believe that this would best be done by the restoration of the Treasury’s supplement to the National Insurance Fund, for which there is already provision in legislation.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lords, Lord Sikka and Lord Davies of Brixton. Given the hour, I will be brief. I very much endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, about this Clause 1 stand part debate seeking to ask the other place to think again, and indeed to ask your Lordships’ House to debate this.
I would be more radical than either noble Lord who preceded me. I believe that the state pension should be set at a level where no pensioner is living in poverty—that is looking at the relative poverty levels, as outlined and widely discussed by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. That would mean abolishing the contributory principle. Our debate tonight has demonstrated how discriminatory and actively massively unfair that is—because, as worked through now, it largely acknowledges only contributions through paid work. We know that many people, particularly women, make huge contributions to our entire society and future through care, community work and other activities which are simply not recognised in our pension system. This is leaving huge numbers, particularly of women, in a state of living that our whole society should regard as not acceptable.
I agree again with the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that the triple lock is far from perfect. We have talked about heating costs. Of course, another way in which we have very much failed our pensioners is the quality of the housing stock that they are living in. Reference has been made to the quality of council housing, but we also have a huge problem with more and more pensioners now living in private housing due to the huge privatisation of our housing stock through right to buy. Those people are living in extremely poor conditions and are placed in very difficult circumstances in that housing.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, that the cost of not going forward with ending the triple lock for this year—£4.7 billion—is very modest in the overall scheme of things. We have bailed out the banks. When Covid-19 hit, we bailed out many businesses. Surely we should look to bail out our pensioners.
I finish by noting that, when we talk about £14 a week, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. There is a relatively small number of people in our society for whom £14 a week is small change, but there are very large numbers of people and pensioners for whom it is literally a matter of life and death. I invite noble Lords to consider our excess winter deaths, many of which occur among pensioners.
I will be very brief. I thank my noble friend Lord Sikka for introducing this debate. We all share an underlying concern about the living conditions for poorer pensioners. I will not dwell on pensioner poverty; I made a perfectly long—arguably overlong—speech on the last group of amendments about this very subject.
Because the Bill has only two clauses and Clause 2 is the commencement clause, I suspect that, in coming back, the Minister will be tempted to focus on the fact that this may be regarded as a wrecking amendment because it would remove the entire contents of the Bill. We on this side accept that there is a difficulty in looking at and using the data for the earnings measure without adjustment, so that is not the position that we are in. I encourage her, when she responds, to answer and speak to the underlying concerns about pensioner poverty that have been expressed noble Lords, and perhaps give some assurance to the House about how the Government will tackle that, as well as looking at the immediate issue.
My Lords, I support the triple lock and its effect of keeping the value of the state pension, which has been lost over very many years and has not yet recovered. I share the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, that we accept that these are special circumstances. The Minister has assured us that this is just for one year, so we take her at her word and will judge her on future actions next year.
I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and the whole Committee, that the Government take the issues of living conditions and the standards of pensioners seriously. As I have relayed in previous contributions to this debate, we have done an enormous amount to try to help, but I have no doubt that that will not be enough for some. It is a work in progress, and we will see where that goes.
This clause requires the Secretary of State to review the rates of the basic state pension, the new state pension up to the full rate, the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit, and survivors’ benefits in industrial death benefit, by reference to the general level of prices in Great Britain. Under this clause, if the relevant benefit rates have not kept pace with the increase in prices, then the Secretary of State is required to increase them at least in line with that increase or by 2.5%—whichever is the higher.
This is a two-clause Bill. If the noble Lords, Lord Sikka and Lord Davies, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, successfully oppose Clause 1, the Bill will fall and, as a result, these pension rates will be increased by 8.3%, which is the average weekly earnings index for the year May to July 2021. This means that, if the Bill does not achieve Royal Assent in good time, there will be an increased cost to the Exchequer of between £4 billion and £5 billion.
Taking into account the points raised, I ask the noble Lords to withdraw their opposition to the question that Clause 1 stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I am very grateful to all the participants in this debate, which has been very interesting. I am particularly grateful to the Minister for her comments, but the issues remain. Many of our senior citizens are condemned to poverty and, by breaking this link with earnings, we will be condemning more to poverty, not only the current generation but future generations too. Nevertheless, for the time being I would like to withdraw this amendment, but I reserve the right to bring it back.
My Lords, just to be clear, it is not an amendment.
Clause 1 agreed.
Amendments 6 to 8 not moved.
My Lords, before my noble friend moves her amendment, it is my duty to draw the attention of the Committee to the advice I have received from the Legislation Office and ask the Committee to endorse it. It is rare for a Leader to advise the Committee in these circumstances. Since 1999, my predecessors have done so on only four occasions, and on all but one the House has endorsed the impartial advice given.
My noble friend’s amendment is not admissible under the rules governing what is relevant to a Bill. The Public Bill Office, therefore, properly and promptly advised me of that fact. Paragraph 8.56 of the Companion to the Standing Orders states that the Leader of the House
“draws the House’s attention to the advice when the amendment is called, and asks the House to endorse the advice of the Legislation Office … the admissibility of an amendment can ultimately be decided only by the House itself, there being no authority that can in advance rule an amendment out of order.”
To ensure that the advice is clear and available to all, I have placed the Clerk’s advice and my open letter to the party and group leaders about it in the Library of the House. If I may briefly assist the Committee, I will explain further why my noble friend’s amendment is not admissible before turning to the unusual decision the Committee is being asked to take.
The amendment is not within the scope of the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill. This is because the Bill covers one narrow topic and has only one purpose: the uprating for one year of the basic and new state pension, the standard minimum element of pension credit, and survivors’ benefits in industrial death benefit. Only amendments relating to the purpose of the Bill or touching on matters closely connected with it are permitted. My noble friend may point to the title of the Bill as being broad, but I am afraid that, in this case, that is not relevant. As the Clerk’s advice says, the scope of a Bill is defined by its purposes as contained in its clauses and schedules, not the title. Bills can have what might seem to be very wide titles but be narrow in scope. The advice from the Clerk is clear and unambiguous, and I hope my noble friend will not seek to challenge it and will not move her amendment today or bring it back at a later stage.
However, the fate of the amendment is ultimately in the hands of the House, as the Companion says, so, if I may, I will end with a wider point about how we work. So far this Session, 1,144 amendments have been considered by your Lordships’ House. The fact that every amendment is debated, and every point of view considered, enhances the quality of the legislation that makes its way on to the statute book. But this works only if we all respect the rules and conventions the House has set itself. We are a self-regulating House, and we rightly take pride in that, but that does not mean there are no rules. It means Members’ good sense and restraint must be relied upon to police those rules we set ourselves in our Companion and Standing Orders.
Many Members feel incredibly strongly about particular issues that are close to their hearts but work within the rules of the House to achieve the changes they passionately believe in, because they understand the damage to the House, its reputation and standing if they do not. So I very much hope noble Lords will carefully consider their stance on this amendment. As a House, we rely on the professional and impartial advice of our clerks; we rely on the judgment of Members to abide by the few rules we have; and we rely on the House as a whole to ensure that, in the last resort, the rules are enforced.
9: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“The universal credit uplift
(1) Within the period of one month beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, Ministers of the Crown must make arrangements to move a motion for resolution as set out in subsection (2) to be debated, and voted on, by both Houses of Parliament.(2) The resolution is to decide whether it is desirable to reinstate the £20 uplift into Universal Credit as per the modification of the standard allowance of universal credit under the Social Security (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations 2020 (S.I. 2020/371).”
My Lords, I should like to open with one preliminary point, which is to say that, in moving this amendment, as I do, I intend no disrespect to the clerks, for whom I have the greatest of admirations. This morning, I wrote to them to tell them that I wanted to put on record how much I respect and honour the work they do, and that any action I would take today would in no way undermine that. In fact, I could not have got here without their support and advice. Moving an inadmissible amendment is not a straightforward process. Several weeks ago, I was not even aware there was such a thing as an inadmissible amendment. However, there is a serious, genuine difference of opinion which I believe should be exposed to the view of this self-regulating House.
Accordingly, I rise to move the amendment tabled in my name and the names of my noble friend Lord Freud, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Boycott, whom I thank for their support. It is with a heavy heart that I have tabled this amendment to the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill. I do not take lightly the idea of disagreeing so fervently with my Conservative Government or of stretching parliamentary convention in an elastic way, as my noble friend Lady Evans, the Leader of the House, so delicately put it. But the removal of the £20 uplift is a grave misstep and risks undermining the levelling-up agenda, leaving behind society’s most vulnerable people and putting at risk the stability of many homes up and down the country as we enter an unpredictable winter. If this House stands for anything, it is to check and challenge the work of the Government, and this is all I am seeking to do here today.
So let us look carefully at the effect of this amendment and at what has been said about it. The amendment states:
“Within the period of one month beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, Ministers of the Crown must make arrangements to move a motion for resolution as set out in subsection (2) to be debated, and voted on, by both Houses of Parliament.”
The resolution is to decide whether it is desirable to reinstate the £20 uplift in universal credit, as per the modification of the standard allowance of universal credit under the Social Security (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations 2020. The amendment, if accepted in this place and then in the other place, would require the Government to bring forward a vote on the desirability of the reinstating of the uplift in universal credit.
Two concerns have been levelled at the amendment that I will take a moment to address. The first is on the basis of scope and the impact on admissibility, and the second on the basis that it asks the House to decide how the House of Commons should conduct its business. Let us look at these in turn.
It has been said that the amendment is inadmissible. Chapter 8 of the Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords states:
“The Legislation Office advises on whether an amendment is admissible and it is expected that this advice will be taken. If a member insists on tabling an amendment which the Legislation Office has advised is inadmissible, that Office writes to the Leader of the House, copying the advice to the other Leaders, the Chief Whips and the Convenor.”
That happened according to due process, and the clerks were good enough to show me exactly what both letters would look like. The Companion continues:
“The Leader of the House draws the House’s attention to the advice when the amendment is called, and asks the House to endorse the advice of the Legislation Office.”
That too duly happened. The reason for this is as stated by the Companion, that
“the admissibility of an amendment can ultimately be decided only by the House itself, there being no authority that can in advance rule an amendment out of order.”
The process through which an inadmissible amendment becomes an admissible amendment is through the decision of this House. We as Members of the House have to decide.
It will be no surprise to anyone who knows me well that this is not an issue on which I have taken action lightly. I am not a natural rebel. I have spent a lot of time looking at the previous occasion on which an inadmissible amendment became an admissible amendment, which was in 2013 when Lord Hart moved an amendment on the boundaries Bill. It is the reason why we still have 650 MPs.
I have looked carefully at the arguments that were made then. Speeches made by two ennobled former Speakers of the House of Commons helped me understand this more clearly. The first was by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, who said this at the time when Lord Hart moved an inadmissible amendment that became admissible:
“If there was any success in the Speakership of the Commons during my period of office, much of it was due to the advice and support that I received from the clerks. I have to admit that there were a couple of occasions when I overruled that advice, one of which was against convention. But I did so because I thought that it was right to provide an opportunity for debate on a contentious issue which was of public interest and of concern. The roof did not fall in.
We have no such arbitrator with authority to make a decision in your Lordships’ House but we are often reminded that we are a self-regulating House. While, of course, we must examine the advice of the Public Bill Office and the clerk, there can be no authority that can in advance rule an amendment out of order. The bottom line is that the admissibility or otherwise of an amendment ultimately can be determined only by the House itself. When I spoke last year, I suggested that the Government allow this House to determine the issue for itself and I am delighted that we have the opportunity of so doing today.”—[Official Report, 14/1/13; col. 510.]
So, first, the sky did not fall in and, secondly, the admissibility or otherwise of an amendment can be determined ultimately only by the House itself. That is what I am seeking to do today.
The second speech was by Lord Martin of Springburn, who said:
“My Lords, I, too, received advice from the clerks of the House and I valued it. At the end of the day, although I did not ignore that advice, there were occasions when I said, ‘I will go in another direction’. In effect, I did not accept 100% of what the clerks had said.”—[Official Report, 14/1/13; col. 514.]
The amendment before noble Lords, which asks that the Commons thinks again about protections for some of our most vulnerable people, does exactly what this House should do: asks the Commons to think again. We have the authority to make that decision ourselves.
It has also been said that the amendment asks the House to decide how the House of Commons should conduct its business, what it should debate, when and how. With all due respect, this is a misunderstanding of the amendment. In effect, the amendment asks the Commons to consider whether it wants to be asked to think again. If this amendment is passed, it has to go to the other place for agreement. The other place can choose not to accept it; we are not forcing legislation on the other place. The House of Lords cannot force legislation on the House of Commons. The House of Commons must agree to this and may choose not to.
Process, scope and convention aside, why do I believe so strongly that this issue should be of interest to this House? The reality is that the removal of the £20 uplift should have been a decision that came to this House for scrutiny. The uprating levels of universal credit claimants, as we are seeing now in the uprating of pensions, should not have been done through a sunset clause on a statutory instrument. The fact that £20 per week—for a single person, this is about 34% of their standard allowance—could be removed from a claimant without scrutiny by this House is extraordinary.
When George Osborne sought to remove £12 billion from the welfare budget, it took a major Act of Parliament to achieve it. Yet £6 billion has been removed without a single vote on the issue through a sunset clause on a statutory instrument. It has been done with no impact assessment and without a vote in either place. All this amendment seeks to do is give an opportunity for the Commons to express its view on the desirability of further consideration. It does not, as has been stated, reinstate the £20 uplift, but gives the Commons an opportunity to vote for a vote to express the desirability of doing so.
This is a matter of huge public interest. In a recent poll undertaken by iPolitics, only 3% of the British public said that the cut should come in this year—a staggeringly low number. This is particularly in light of the twin instability caused by the rising cost of living and the global pandemic from which we are just emerging.
Let us take a moment to look at the arguments that have been put forward for dismantling the uplift and consider why it is so important that this House has the opportunity to ask the Executive to think again. I have had a number of conversations with Members of this House who have said that the £20 uplift was for a crisis moment only. We need to be honest here. The reality is that many of our low-income families are in crisis, with the welfare state at its lowest ever value since its creation: having been founded at 20% of the median wage, it is now at a value of 12%. At the same time, we have rising inflation, rising energy prices and an increase in national insurance. Let us not delude ourselves that the crisis is over. We have an opportunity to think again and to do something about this in this Bill.
I am listening intently to the Budget announcements and the narrative that the Government are going to protect hard-working families by raising the national minimum wage to £10 per hour by the end of this Parliament. However, anyone who tracks Treasury forecasting will know that there is nothing new here. These are just the forecasts that were already baked in. In fact, I believe the actual figure is £10.33 per hour by the end of this Parliament.
If you really want to protect hard-working families on low incomes and not drive wage inflation, this would have been an argument for increasing the work allowance or lowering the taper rate. The work allowance always makes it pay to take work and the taper rate always rewards progression in work. To be honest, if you wanted to strengthen the work incentives, you would have put the £20 into the work allowance and lowered the taper rate from 63% to 60%.
The most important aspect of the removal of the £20 uplift, which would have been visible had there been an impact assessment, is the poverty impacts of taking this action. They are stark. The removal will impact 840,000 people, of whom 290,000 are children, and 450,000 people who are in a family including a disabled person, either a disabled adult or child. Granted, a proportion of these will take the 1 million available jobs and many will take advantage of any upskilling that is available, building this high-wage, high-skilled economy.
However, my real concern remains for those to whom we say, “The welfare state is your safety net”: those with disabilities and those with children under the age of two, with whom we have a social contract. We say to them, “You are valued by our society and we want to support you.” This group has just lost £20 per week, they are not expected to work, and they are about to experience rising inflation and high energy bills in the midst of a pretty dark winter. If we do nothing else, we should be asking the Government to think again and restore the £20 uplift for this group of people.
I do not do this lightly, but I believe that it is our responsibility to shine a spotlight on action that damages people and to ask the Government to think again. We all know what the Companion tells us, but in the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, we are often reminded that we are a self-regulating House. While of course we must examine the advice of the Public Bill Office and the clerk, no authority can in advance rule an amendment out of order. The bottom line is that the admissibility or otherwise of an amendment ultimately can be determined only by the House itself.
If this House stands for anything, it is to check and challenge the work of the Government. This amendment is in the public interest; we have the scope to admit it, and that is all I seek to do today. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is with the greatest possible reluctance that I have felt compelled to join my noble friend and former colleague Lady Stroud in putting down this amendment, which is considered inadmissible by the clerks of the House.
My noble friend Lady Stroud has discussed the issue of scope. I will focus purely on why the level of universal credit payments is so important and has been such a long-running sore that it is essential that it go through some sort of democratic process. In a word, this issue is important enough that the House may wish, on this occasion, to overturn its convention of keeping within scope. This amendment simply seeks a vote in Parliament on whether the £20 a week uplift to the standard allowance of universal credit, which lapsed this month, should be reinstated.
My argument is a simple one. After a decade of cuts initiated by the Chancellor in 2010, the standard allowance of universal credit is now simply too low to expect people to live on it. According to a Commons Library briefing in April last year, the combination of 1% increases and freezes over many years has reduced the real level of allowances by 9%. That is before a plethora of other measures: cuts to housing support, benefit caps, waiting days—thankfully, later reversed—and the two-child limit. The Chancellor targeted no less than £30 billion of annual cuts from the working-age welfare budget. Within the department we fought those cuts, but we were powerless to stop them. That is the history, and it left the level of universal credit so low that it was patently inadequate for the millions of people who flowed on to it as the pandemic struck last year. In the words of the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, we needed to “strengthen the safety net.”
The picture is worse than a simple look at the inflation-adjusted figures suggests. The standard allowance has slipped by significantly more relative to earnings over the last decade, and the relative earnings measure is a better reflection of how much the pressure on poverty has developed. We have been here before, when the Thatcher Government decided to uprate pensions by inflation rather than earnings—and look where that brought us.
What has changed that allows the strengthened safety net to be removed? Nothing has changed—in fact, the reverse. Inflation is taking off. It is already above 3%, with the Bank of England’s chief economist warning of 5% by early next year, and the goods on which the poorest people spend disproportionately—energy, food, transport—are in the firing line. My noble friend Lady Stroud has spelled out the impact on poverty of removing the £20 uplift, putting 840,000 people into poverty, and with inflation at these levels, the impact will undoubtedly be worse. This amendment is not about the removal of a temporary uplift. It is about putting universal credit on a realistic footing.
Restoring the £20 is not cheap. My noble friend the Minister told us at Second Reading that the department’s central estimate was that it would cost £6 billion per year. I do not believe that it would be so much, since 40% of the 5.9 million people receiving universal credit are working, and many of that 2.3 million will be moving further along the taper. Nevertheless, it is a substantial sum. If it is to be paid to the poorest there will have to be cuts elsewhere to afford it, which would bring with it some hard choices. However, I am not wedded to the blanket approach of the uplift, which was bizarrely targeted. It was worth 34% to singles under 25 and only 17% for couples over 25, for example. Adjusting various rates, and perhaps the taper itself, means that there is scope to maintain the benefits of the uplift for considerably less than £6 billion.
The point about universal credit is that it is seriously efficient at directing scarce funds to the poorest people—if applied by people who understand how it works. I felt genuinely sorry for my noble friend the Minister the other week when she had to defend the removal of the uplift by citing a wretched Treasury fig leaf of £500 million, to be distributed by local authorities. How are the councils meant to know who to give it to? That £500 million would be a good start to boost universal credit’s standard allowances. I read that a further £500 million is likely to be made available to support young families in tomorrow’s Budget; another bafflingly poorly targeted use of funds. I repeat that if the Chancellor wants to help the poorest, he will get the biggest bang for his buck by funnelling the funds through universal credit.
I spent 10 years of my life working to transform our welfare system. I am utterly convinced that if you want to make long-term sustainable savings, you must take a structural approach: get the taper to a level at which people are incentivised to work, for instance; help them to earn more by making skills training available; tie together the resources needed by those with multiple problems. You will not do it by making crude cuts, as George Osborne found. He cut the basic benefits and found that the levels of PIP soared. That was not a coincidence.
My concern is that this Government simply do not understand how universal credit works. If they did, they would nurture it, not trash it in the name of a past austerity inherited from a previous Chancellor; not take out £500 million and give it to local authorities to distribute; nor even provide the same crude cash boost of £20 both to couples and to singles in the pandemic. Through this amendment, we want to give MPs a chance to decide on the future of universal credit. It would give them the opportunity to show what is meant by “levelling up”. It is right that there should be a democratic process to decide something so momentous.
My noble friend Lady Stroud and I are not planning to push the amendment to a vote at this stage. We will wait to see whether the Chancellor has some measures up his sleeve tomorrow to protect universal credit recipients. If he has not, my noble friend and I will be returning to the issue on Report.
My Lords, it is always a privilege to speak in your Lordships’ House, even at 11 o’clock at night. I am a great admirer of my noble friend Lady Stroud, and I am even a great admirer of my noble friend Lord Freud. I should say for the Hansard writers that I am saying that with a smile—he knows that I have a great fondness for him. They are both hugely knowledgeable and great experts in policy in this area, and I know that they have given a huge amount of practical support to people in need in lots of different contexts. They are recognised for that, and rightly so. It therefore gives me no pleasure to disagree with them today, but I do, on both the substance and the practical application of their amendment.
I start, briefly, with the substance. As my noble friend Lord Freud just said, we do not know what the Chancellor will be announcing tomorrow. I know that we have seen quite a bit trailed over the past few days in the media, but we do not know the sum total of what he will announce to alleviate pressure on families faced with rising energy costs and increases in the cost of living. If he is able to do anything with regard to universal credit, I would much rather he changed the taper rate, so that working more hours is clearly advantageous when the temporary £20 uplift comes to an end. I do not support the temporary uplift becoming permanent for various reasons.
But that is irrelevant, because it is not relevant to this Bill. With the best will in the world, it is not a question for us to answer, at least not in this context. That brings me to the practice which my noble friends are applying in order to force this issue into play. My noble friend the Leader has already set out the constitutional and conventional reasons why this approach is outside our standard procedures, and I will not repeat them, but I very much endorse all that she said, and I certainly accept the advice of the clerks. I should add that I am not one of her predecessors who ever had to face the situation she is facing today, but I have been in the Chamber in the past when a similar situation occurred, and I have had my own encounters with this House on matters to do with social security and so on, so this is not an unfamiliar situation.
Having said all that, I want to add a couple of points which I urge my noble friends Lady Stroud and Lord Freud to consider between now and Report Even though I know that they are both hugely principled, and are pursuing their cause with great sincerity, not everyone looking at what is being attempted will see it in that way. I think my noble friends are suggesting that we break our rules because Mr Speaker did not break his own when this Bill was in the other place and he was considering amendments proposed by Members of the Commons.
I am not familiar with all the detail of the goings-on in the other place, but I am aware that this Mr Speaker made a commitment when he was elected that he would be impartial and uphold the rules and conventions of the Commons. This was welcomed by that House and the Government, because it came after a very turbulent period of rules and conventions being ignored by his predecessor as Mr Speaker and by many Members of that House.
Since then, not only does the other place have a new Speaker but there has been a general election, the result of which is many new and re-elected MPs who now have the greater confidence of their electorate. The Prime Minister and the Government overlook this fact and act too often as though they are still facing the same disruptive and obstructive House of Commons pre-2019. I urge him and his ministerial team to reconsider their approach when they are engaging with the House of Commons in particular.
Even though there has been all that change down the other end of the corridor since December 2019, the House of Lords is still the same. We have not faced the electorate; we have not changed. Irrespective of what the Government think about this House, or what some noble Lords think about the Government, we have a responsibility to maintain public confidence in Parliament. Some people outside Parliament might agree with my noble friends on what they are proposing in terms of the substance on universal credit; some of them might agree with me, but what would probably unite all of them is the view that the House of Lords has no place in dictating to the House of Commons—that they elected—what its MPs should do and when.
So let us see what the Chancellor has to say tomorrow, but whatever action he takes, I really hope that my noble friends, whom I am fond of as well as have huge respect for, will not return on Report with a similar amendment to this. Because however well-intentioned and noble their cause, we have no legitimacy engaging in this matter at this time and in this way.
I will be very brief, given the hour. As I said, I am chair of Feeding Britain, and I would like to briefly report from the front line, so to speak, on the effect of the stopping of the £20. I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, that this needs to be put before the other House so that there can be a vote on it.
Our experience at Feeding Britain has suggested that the £20 increase in universal credit was responsible for a drop in the number of people needing to use food banks this year—it was 17% lower than before the pandemic. Of course, we also had the school meals campaign by Marcus Rashford and various other people but, since then, in the three weeks since the increase was removed, our social supermarkets, which are affordable food projects, have started to show signs of distress.
Some of those who used to shop monthly for low-cost food, and for whom membership represented a nice insurance policy, are now there every week, if not more. Some who used to use a debit card are now using credit cards. Some of those who used to rely only on our option of low-cost food now also want help with gas and electricity. Some cannot even afford their membership fees, which are as little as £3. They are instead going without the food or having to use food banks. People are really clinging by their fingertips to avoid that nightmare scenario.
I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, that we need skills and ways to help people try to avoid the traps that they are in, which is what our social supermarkets do. Being poor is not only an expensive thing to do in this country; it is also very hard work as you spend your life drifting from one office to another trying to find someone who can help you sort out your problems with rent, food, schools et cetera. I am very glad that this House is bringing this amendment forward, because if we do not do it, who will?
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, for tabling this amendment. Like the noble Lord, Lord Freud —I must be careful I do not get into a habit of agreeing with him—I will focus on the substance of the issue, although I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, that this is not about dictating to the House of Commons, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, said.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, I am disappointed that apparently no attempt was made to assess the impact of what constitutes an unprecedented overnight cut in universal credit claimants’ income, despite the Financial Times reporting that an official had told it that the impact would be “catastrophic” in terms of poverty, homelessness and, as we have already heard, food bank use.
The lack of a formal impact assessment has been criticised by the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Olivier de Schutter. He told the Government that as a signatory of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, they must adequately justify what he defined as a retrogressive measure by carrying out such an assessment. Indeed, he warned that it was prima facie doubtful whether the removal of the £20 uplift is a measure that conforms to international human rights laws and standards. What was the Government’s reply to him?
Olivier de Schutter clearly did not see the original temporary nature of the uplift—repeatedly cited in justification—as a conclusive argument for withdrawing it now. The other main argument deployed by Ministers has been that the priority is to get people into reasonably paid work, as if that and maintaining the uplift are somehow alternatives between which we have to choose. Given that we know that hardship can undermine job-seeking efforts, what attention has been paid to the likely impact on job seeking of increasing hardship at the stroke of a computer key? What thought has been given to the impact on the significant minority who cannot be expected to seek work or work longer hours because of caring responsibilities or lack of fitness for work?
The Government have also tried to bolster their case by pointing to the £500 million household support fund referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Freud. But a discretionary fund of this kind is totally inappropriate for meeting the kind of regular needs that the UC standard allowance is supposed to meet. It offers no security or certitude to claimants in the way that a regular payment does. Not all local authorities are well placed to administer the money, especially if they are one of the significant minority which does not even run a welfare assistance scheme. I took part in a workshop last week where one participant said that her local authority had begged her food bank to administer a previous pot of money released by the Government to it because otherwise the local authority would have to return it for lack of administrative capacity.
A further sticking plaster is more money for family hubs, which could well find themselves picking up the pieces of families buckling under the strain of the loss of the £20. If, as rumoured, the Chancellor announces a cut in the taper rate tomorrow, again while welcome, it will do nothing to target the necessary help on those worst hit. Similarly, while the proposed increase in the national living wage is welcome, as both the IFS and the Resolution Foundation have made clear, it does not compensate for the loss of the uplift, not least because many of those earning the living wage are not in households in receipt of UC.
The very fact that the Chancellor was moved to introduce the uplift—which was welcome as far as it went—was tacit recognition, as we have heard, that UC rates are too low, a point made in the Commons by former Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb. Just how low is in part attributable to a decade of cuts and freezes, which took well over £30 billion a year out of the social security system, as the noble Lord, Lord Freud, has said.
As Mr Crabb pointed out, the cut raises a more fundamental question about the adequacy of the benefits we expect our fellow members of society to live on—an issue also raised by two committees of this House. While the narrow scope of the Bill does not enable us to have the more fundamental debate about benefit adequacy that I had hoped for, the amendment at least opens up the possibility of a serious vote in both Houses on the desirability of reinstating the uplift—a question that cannot be divorced from the underlying question of the adequacy of UC to meet needs.
Such a vote is needed because, although presented as somehow inevitable, the decision to withdraw the uplift was a political choice. The fact that it was originally intended to be temporary is neither here nor there, as the UN rapporteur made clear. Temporary often becomes permanent—and so it should when the overwhelming evidence shows that, be it from the perspective of food insecurity, as we have heard, debt or general hardship, the UC standard allowance is simply, to quote Stephen Crabb,
“too low to provide anything like a decent, respectable level of income replacement”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/9/21; col. 1004.],
Although inevitably so far largely anecdotal, it is clear that claimants are extremely anxious as the money disappears out of their accounts; not all of them were even aware that it would do so. An increase in fear and anxiety is how a pastor in Burnley described it to the journalist John Harris. Therefore, I hope that this amendment will be deemed admissible by this House.
My Lords, I find myself in a strange position tonight. I have made no secret of the fact that I believe it is a great error of judgment to end the uplift of universal credit or, at the very least, not to have brought it down by degrees. That said, I cannot agree with this method of trying to deal with the situation.
Perhaps I should explain that I spent many years in the House of Commons as a member of what was then called the Speaker’s panel of chairmen and as a Deputy Speaker there, as well as being a Deputy Speaker in this House, so I became very conscious of amendments and whether they were in or out of scope. It is important that those rules are observed, for the very good reason that, if you start to break them, anything can be added to any Bill and you can soon get into a real muddle. It does not always work in people’s favour, either.
I am very conscious of the fact that I believe that this amendment is outside the scope. We have certainly been advised so by the Legislation Office, but it was a conclusion that I came to on my own after many years’ experience of looking at amendments and seeing whether they were or were not admissible or out of scope. It is important to look at the Long Title of the Bill as the well as the short one; it is not a very long title, because it is not a very long Bill, but it makes provision
“relating to the up-rating of certain social security benefits”.
They are listed in this short Bill, and they do not cover universal credit.
For that reason, although I share many of the doubts and worries about universal credit—my noble friend Lord Freud made a most powerful case—my point is that this is not the way to deal with the situation. As we are a self-regulating House, if it comes to the point, I shall do my little bit of self-regulation and vote against any such amendment.
My Lords, I am as keen to get home as anybody, and I was looking forward to leaving, but I would not have missed this for the world. It has been the most gripping sitting that we have had.
I have a question for the Leader of the House. I cannot add anything to the substance of the debate, and I very much agree with what has been said about universal credit, but I am concerned about what the noble Baroness said about what counts as being in scope. What was said appeared to discount the significance of the Long Title; we were told that we could amend only in terms of what was already in the Bill. Potentially, that seems extremely restrictive; in future, we could be told that something is not provided for in the Bill so we cannot introduce an amendment on that subject. In her role as speaking on behalf of the House, and not as a Minister, can I ask the Leader of the House whether it is the case that nothing has been said that is intended to restrict, now or in future, what amendments can be laid, and whether the Long Title has an important role in determining the scope of a Bill?
My Lords, it is very late and I have not participated in the Bill before, so I shall be extremely brief. My interest is not so much in the matter we are debating; I understand that people feel very strongly about it, on both sides, but I have no particular dog in that fight. My intervention comes because I am chairman of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House. As is well known, we produce a report every week where we try to provide a commentary on the instruments that are coming up through the process so that your Lordships have some guide—some thoughts, some suggestions—about areas that might usefully be probed as we undertake our primary role, which is of scrutiny and the ability to hold the Government to account.
I have read my noble friend the Leader’s letter with great care and I recognise and accept the seriousness of the points she makes and has spoken about this evening; that we are a self-regulating House and how this amendment, if I may summarise what she is saying, is pushing the envelope too far. I introduce to the House the concept of Isaac Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I think Newton’s third law of motion may explain some of the background to the issues that we are debating so strongly tonight.
The SLSC, along with many other Members of your Lordships’ House, is increasingly concerned about the use—some might say misuse or misapplication—of secondary legislation, which, as all Members of your Lordships’ House know, and the Government very conveniently find, has a very much lower level of scrutiny. So, in summary, while my noble friend may be pushing the envelope, I think the Government have been pushing the envelope in recent months and years a great deal. What do I mean? I shall give just two examples which I think are of particular relevance to our debate this evening.
Permanent changes to our laws, which probably should be introduced by primary legislation, are being rushed through in regulations, and sometimes being rushed through under the excuse that they are needed for the pandemic. Planning regulations have nothing to do with what we are discussing today but are something that may change our high streets, perhaps for ever. They have nothing to do with the pandemic, yet are now law because of regulations made under a pandemic regulation. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, made a point about impact assessments. Regulations with sunset clauses have no impact assessments because they are going to last for less a year, and then—surprise, surprise—they are extended, they go over the year, but still no impact assessment is produced; or impact assessments are introduced long after the debate in your Lordships’ House, when regulations are in place, and are of no real value, therefore, in influencing the way the House decides.
Last week, we looked at the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021: these concern critical issues about road safety and no impact assessment has yet been provided. If debate and scrutiny are stifled, as they are by not providing this information, the Government must expect Members of your Lordships’ House to try to find ways to get round the point, and that is what brings us to the issue we are facing tonight. The system for scrutiny has not provided a way for a proper extent of looking at and considering issues which mean so much to people on both sides of the argument that we have been discussing for the last couple of hours.
I will not go on but will conclude by saying that while of course I understand my noble friend the Leader’s concerns and worries, I say to her gently that I think there is a view in your Lordships’ House, and outside in academia, within the Hansard Society and elsewhere, that the Government, the Executive, have made a grab for power at the expense of Parliament, the legislature, and that these actions have led to the equal and opposite reaction that we are debating tonight.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, has made an important contribution in your Lordships’ House, albeit at this late hour. This is a terrifically important debate; it is about our role as a House that scrutinises and about the democratic deficit the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, referred to earlier. I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for coming to the Cross-Bench Peers meeting last week and setting out the arguments about scope, but also about the Bill in general.
I think there has been, across the House, outside and inside the Chamber tonight, a really important discussion about our role as parliamentarians, and what our job is in these kinds of circumstances. Ultimately, despite my incredible affection, as she knows, for the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes—I am sorry we disagree on this occasion; I have enormous respect for her, and we have spent much of our lives in both of these Houses defending democratic values—I do not think the argument is about whether or not the amendment that has been tabled tonight is in scope. It is about the position and rights of this House to reach a decision on this issue. I agree with the noble Baroness that, looking at the Title of the Bill, she is right to come to the conclusion that she has, but taking the argument that the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, had put, that was advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, in her remarks tonight, it demonstrates that in some circumstances we can reach a different conclusion.
Those circumstances, as the Leader of the House has told us, ought to be extraordinarily rare. Therefore, I do not say that I came to a short, sharp decision on this issue. Indeed, my mind is still open and I have been listening carefully. I recognise it takes some courage to persist in the face of procedural questions of custom and practice, especially in a House such as this. The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, has given decades of commitment, along with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, to these issues. They have done this with extraordinary conviction, knowledge, courtesy and passion.
I will say a word about precedent and this issue of scope. I have also occasionally found myself in disagreement with the clerks and have, on the whole, of course, accepted their decisions. There are three questions, though, that might tilt the balance for me, and which I think apply in this case.
The first is, of course, the position of the elected House. Until I stood down from the House of Commons, I had the privilege of serving there, following my election as long ago as 1979. Within my recollection, there were a number of occasions where, on all sides, we were relieved when Members of your Lordships’ House sent back an amendment that gave us the opportunity to think again. Indeed, as recently as in the last 12 months, your Lordships persisted with an amendment to the Trade Bill on the question of genocide. At the end of a protracted process of ping-pong, an accommodation of sorts was reached between both Houses. Several senior Conservative Members, including a former party leader, expressed their thanks to your Lordships that we had given them, in another place, a chance to think seriously about an issue that had not been debated at any stage of that Bill’s progress in the House of Commons.
Secondly, what would tip me in favour of the noble Baroness’s amendment today is the support that she has received from an illustrious former Minister who dealt with these matters: the noble Lord, Lord Freud. The noble Lord will remember that I harried him when he was a Minister on an issue that went to ping-pong. It was about mesothelioma, which for personal reasons I know he felt deeply about. He defended the Government’s position, as he was right to do. We went to ping-pong and ultimately an accommodation was reached, and it went further than that: the noble Lord then introduced an entire Bill on mesothelioma. It is part of his extraordinary legacy from his time as a Minister. He is a man I enormously admire. I note too that six former DWP Secretaries of State since 2010 have said that the £20 uplift investment should remain.
Thirdly, there is the little issue of manifestos. Commitments made in government manifestos are very much in scope when we come to consider legislation. The Government’s current policy regarding uprating is entirely at variance with that commitment. It is not a trivial issue; it is something on which our colleagues in the elected House have the right to deliberate. This amendment would give the opportunity to do that in the House of Commons.
What of the substantive argument about the universal credit £20 uplift? Sir William Beveridge, who was a Member of both Houses, said it was our duty to provide a safety net—a phrase that was used by the noble Baroness earlier on—against the “giant evils”. Today, there are cuts and sears in that safety net that we must repair.
Finally, at Second Reading, the noble Baroness set out her formidable objections to the removal of the £20 uplift, but also her serious concerns about the democratic deficit. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, talked about public confidence and thought that if we took this decision it might erode public confidence. I think it will have precisely the opposite effect, and this is not something I argue for lightly. I certainly think we need to give it a great deal more thought.
This is not just about whether an amendment is in scope. It is about whether democracy is in scope. We should keep an open mind. I was glad to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Freud, that those who tabled the amendment will not press it to a vote this evening. We want to see what will happen tomorrow in the Statement that will be made in another place. We will then wait with anticipation to see what happens on Report. Despite the lateness of the hour, I congratulate the noble Baroness on bringing this amendment to us this evening and initiating this extraordinarily important debate.
My Lords, I remember being in the Chamber just under five years ago when your Lordships’ House was united in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Freud on the occasion of his final speech as Minister for Welfare Reform. Hansard cols. 1697 to 1720 of 21 December 2016 paid testament to the esteem in which my noble friend is held. I join other noble Lords in thanking him and my noble friend Lady Stroud for their courage and tenacity both in their previous, pivotal positions in driving welfare reform and also for tabling what I regard as a crucial amendment, which we are considering this evening. So the question that I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister would answer is: if we listened to my noble friend Lord Freud when he was a Minister, why should we not listen to him today? What has changed?
I shall briefly address this from the perspective of a disabled person. Disabled people have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic. Perhaps the biggest change since has been the recent significant and growing increase in the cost of living, to which other noble Lords have alluded. For those disabled people in particular who cannot work, the calamitous impact of the removal of the universal credit uplift, just as their need for support is growing, could hardly have been worse timed. For them, the impact of Covid—for which the uplift was introduced—not only endures but has increased considerably. It is completely fatuous to pretend otherwise.
Of course, I do not blame the Government for increases in the cost of living. It is not the Government’s fault that heating bills have risen by 12% and are expected to continue rising as we head into winter. Nor is it their fault that petrol now costs £1.43 per litre—an all-time high—and that prices at the pump are also predicted to increase further. But that does not mean that the Government can deny their responsibility to mitigate the real hardship faced by those disabled people who are unable to work and need the universal credit uplift now more than ever.
As a Conservative, I of course support efforts to bring the deficit under control but, as a disabled person, I suggest that that Conservative principle needs to go hand in hand with pragmatism. In conclusion, only MPs can fully appreciate the implications of ignoring the universal credit uplift crisis, for the simple reason that it is their severely disabled constituents and their families who are being hardest hit. They deserve the opportunity to vote to protect their most vulnerable constituents. As we have heard, this amendment would simply give them the chance to choose whether they want to take that opportunity. I urge the Government to think again and thereby make this amendment unnecessary. That is in the Government’s gift.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, for bringing this amendment to the House, together with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and other noble Lords. They have done it in entirely the appropriate way, in recognition that there is a Budget tomorrow and other opportunities to take this whole debate forward. I have been very struck by the arguments on both sides and how well they were balanced and expressed. But I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, that the rules may not be quite as clear cut as they appear to be, that people will bend, expand or do something with the envelope as they see fit, and that this area needs much more discussion. I particularly agree with him on the planning laws, for example.
I want to make one substantive point which I do not think has been made yet, about the effect of this cut on health. I spent a lot of time recently in some of the poorer communities in the country working on health. In doing so, I have recognised, as we all have, the fragility of some people’s lives and the balances they need to strike to make things work. This may well knock many people on into poverty, as the noble Baroness has said. It will have an impact on physical and mental health and on other public services, and it will be damaging in the long term for society, not just for the people involved.
We have already heard one great paradox: how costly it is to be poor, and how you pay more. There is another great paradox, which is that quite a lot of cost-saving measures end up costing other budgets rather more.
My Lords, I rise to make three brief points. I wish first to join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, who has shown real bravery and great leadership this evening in moving these amendments from the Government Benches, and to the noble Lord, Lord Freud, for doing likewise. I commend the others who have supported them.
My second point is constitutional and builds on what the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said. Noble Lords may know from history that there has been a real shift in attitudes towards innovation. In the Middle Ages, innovation was a slur, a way of attacking people, whereas in the modern world we think of it as being a wonderful thing. The Government like to celebrate innovations. We have seen lots of innovations in our constitution from the Government, but they do not seem to like what they see as other people’s innovations— even though the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, clearly set out a number of precedents to show that what she and others are doing here is not an innovation at all.
I want to go back a considerable number of hours to the Environment Bill. Noble Lords who have covered both Bills may have seen the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, a Cross-Bencher and hereditary Peer, lead a very cross-party charge, to the point where the Government eventually reversed their position—crucially, after there had been a huge public outcry about water treatment and water companies dumping sewage into our rivers and oceans.
This is a weird situation arising from our dysfunctional constitution and centuries of historical accident; but it was the House of Lords that enabled the people to speak and express their views in a way that eventually changed the minds of MPs. Were your Lordships’ House to go forward from this point and enable these debates, I have no doubt that the people of this country, the voters, would speak loudly and clearly through social media, letters and phone calls to their MPs about their very strong views on the £20 universal credit uplift. Your Lordships’ House could have the opportunity to make that happen. That, I would argue, would be intensely democratic.
My third point is very brief. The Minister, sitting beside the Leader of the House, knows that the circumstances of universal credit, its inadequacy, low wages, insecure employment and zero-hours contracts have given me many opportunities to plague her by talking about a universal basic income. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and many others have made hugely powerful points about the dreadful human impacts of the cut to universal credit, but I ask your Lordships to consider whether you believe in the human right to life. The right to life implies access to food, shelter, heating in winter and the basics of security, and that is what this amendment is about. We are talking about basic universal human rights, and that surely has to be a matter for your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I have not spoken in this House for close on two years—18 months at least—through Covid. I was not intending to speak today because of the Environment Bill coming through and the things that I personally disagree with that were in it, which none of us has covered.
I have listened to my noble friends on this side in bringing forward this amendment. I understand the argument that this is the wrong place to bring through a technical argument that is in the wrong place, but, surely, we have all said that taking money away from our poorest people at this point in time and in where our communities are going is the wrong thing to do. We all know that the £20 uplift was a temporary arrangement to get our poorest people through Covid. As a country, we have not got through Covid; we are in the worst part of Covid’s impacts on our community. So I am hopeful that tomorrow the Chancellor, because he cares about our people in our country, will bring in some measures that alleviate the worst impacts of Covid on our poorest people.
But we cannot overturn all of those rules and regulations that all of you clever people understand about how this place is supposed to work. We cannot break the rules to introduce an amendment that cannot be bolted on, or else we will turn every piece of legislation into a Christmas tree. I will be the worst person in this House for doing this. Every time that you bring something through that I do not like the look of, I will put another bauble on it. That is what we are risking tonight.
I am pleased that my noble friends, who passionately care about this issue, have said that they will not press this to a Division. We must be ready to give a voice to the people outside of this Chamber, if the Government do not understand the seriousness of that return to a previous set of benefits. I will not call it a cut because it is not one; it was a temporary bringing in of alleviation for a problem. The problem has not gone away, and we must try to convince the Government that they need to slowly reduce that alleviation or, at least, re-evaluate what universal credit is supposed to be about. It is supposed to be about making sure that everyone has a decent standard of living and that, if they can work, they go to work and work harder to get more money: “If you can’t work, don’t go to work; we will look after you. But if you don’t want to go to work, we won’t look after you.” That surely has to be part of that conversation. The benefit bill should be for those who need us most. They are our friends, neighbours and families; we should look after them.
I do not see that 11.45 pm is the right time to speak much longer, even though it is the first time that I have spoken for a long time. I am sorry.
My Lords, I too will be brief. We have heard from other Members of this House on the impact of the cut to the £20 uplift in universal credit, and the effect it has on people’s lives, particularly children and, as the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin raised, the disabled. We know that this is causing major misery and despair to many people in this country, among them the most vulnerable.
I too respect the rule of law; the rules of engagement are important. As the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the noble Lord, Lord Porter, have said, if you want to be effective, the rules are important. However, when I first came into this House—I am not a very long-standing Member—there was an occasion when the House took a stand on tax credits. We have no powers, as we know, but we took a powerful stand. Certainly, it upset the then Government, and those tax credit cuts did not go ahead. What I learned from that is that, while I have great respect for the rules of this House, its procedures and its conventions, sometimes there are exceptional circumstances which sometimes demand exceptional action. That is what I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and her supporters are taking forward at the moment.
I too hope that the Chancellor will put something in his Statement tomorrow—we will, of course, wait to hear it—but I pay tribute to the courage of Members of this House who have put their money where their mouth is. They have put themselves on the line. They believe it is so important to ask the other place to think again that they are prepared to risk a lot in order to do so. We in this House should back them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, for introducing Amendment 9 and speaking so passionately on its content. We tried everything to get an amendment on universal credit into scope, so I am not surprised that, despite all her ingenuity and application, the noble Baroness was unable to get anything past the clerks. I have some sympathy for the efforts that must have gone into that; the nearest I could get was Amendment 6 in my name on mixed-age couples—“close but no cigar” is, I think, the technical term for it.
I understand that these issues are complex and sensitive. I have learned a lot today, in fact, about what happens in practice. Having listened to both the Leader and the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, I now understand that, in effect, the House will decide the admissibility of an amendment only at the point at which it decides whether or not to accept or vote for it. So basically, we will not find out tonight at all. Given that, I will take the opportunity to talk yet again about universal credit; I have been banging on about it for quite a long time. I will do so briefly.
I have been talking about this £20 for a boringly long time. I cannot tell noble Lords how happy I am to have such an illustrious array of support coming in behind the issue—what a delight that is. It has been very interesting to listen to some of the contributions, which I passionately agree with. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, for pointing out the impact of this cut on health, to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for pointing out the impact on food, people’s poverty, and the quality of their lifestyles, and to the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for pointing out the impact on disabled people.
I still believe that it is not just bad but one of the most shocking decisions to remove £20 a week from universal credit at the point at which we are dealing with the effects of a pandemic which, as the noble Lord, Lord Porter, pointed out, has decimated communities, and is still having that effect. People have lost jobs and hours. We are in a cost-of-living crisis. To proceed at this point with what the Economist called
“the biggest single cut to social security since the foundation of the modern welfare state”,
frankly, beggars belief.
I warn the Minister that, the next time she tries to defend this cut by pointing to the £500 million discretionary fund, I am going to get up and quote the noble Lord, Lord Freud, at her. I may even look at a combination of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and my noble friend Lady Lister—if I am honest, not an alliance I have seen a lot of in the past, but I shall be quoting them at her together. Frankly, at that point, she should just put up her hands and give up; if the two of them are agreed, she may be on to a loser.
The other defence that will be used—indeed, it is already starting to be—is about what is happening with the rise in the national living wage. Obviously, it is good that the Government have accepted the Low Pay Commission recommendation and that the minimum national living wage will rise, but this simply does not make up for the universal credit cut, for three basic reasons.
First, there are well over 5 million adults on universal credit, but only 2 million people get the national living wage and many of those do not get universal credit. Secondly, it is not enough. The Resolution Foundation has done the sums and a full-time worker on universal credit who gets the national living wage would see their pre-tax pay rise by just over £1,000 as a result of this increase. However, their take-home pay would go up by only £265 because of the UC taper, because they pay more tax and will be paying more national insurance come April. Losing £1,040 and gaining £265 is not a win. That is in cash terms. In fact, most of that increase will have to go to cover the cost of inflation in any case.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, may be right and the Chancellor may be doing something in the Budget. None of us knows what is going to happen. Maybe he will knock a couple of percentage points off the taper rate. I really hope he cuts the taper rate but that will not be enough to make up for the damage that this cut has wrought.
The third point is that improvements in the living wage and the taper rate help only those in work. Just 38% of adults in families on universal credit are employed. What happens to the rest? What about the sick and disabled people who are not able to work? What about those with caring responsibilities? How are they meant to feed their kids and heat their home? What happens to them? Let us not forget the hit to local economies when families who have to spend every penny they get suddenly have £1,000 less to spend a year in local shops and businesses because it has been taken away from them.
That is enough for one day. We have had a very interesting debate. I shall read Hansard with care. Perhaps the Chancellor will take the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin. Perhaps the best favour he could do for the Leader of the House and the Minister is to take this problem away from them by acting tomorrow. We look forward to seeing that. I hope the Minister can give us some hints.
My Lords, we will have to wait until the Chancellor gets up to speak to find out what he has to say in his Statement. I thank my noble friends Lady Stroud and Lord Freud, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Boycott, for their amendment. My noble friends Lady Stroud and Lord Freud were, of course, prominent architects of universal credit and noble Lords will, I am sure, join me in appreciating their depth of knowledge and strength of feeling on the issue. I know from all that has been said that others in this House share many of their concerns. I will not take time to repeat them now.
I must inform your Lordships that this amendment, if passed, would challenge the broader constitutional balance between the two Houses of Parliament. I am sure it is not the intention of noble Lords to open such a Pandora’s box, but I would be failing in my duty to your Lordships’ House if I did not clearly spell out the unintended effects.
Since the other place has already approved the Bill, I urge your Lordships not to risk its effects being negated by ping-pong between the Houses that takes us beyond the hard deadline for reprogramming the relevant DWP IT systems. This amendment deals with matters of public expenditure which are the province of the elected Chamber. It also effectively asks this House to decide how that Chamber should conduct its business, what it should debate, what it should choose to vote on and when that should be done—in this case, within one month of Royal Assent.
Taking into account all the constitutional points I have raised, I invite my noble friend to withdraw her amendment and, if she feels unable to do so, I strongly urge noble Lords not to vote in its favour.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions this evening, particularly at this late hour. Who would have thought that such a gentle amendment on an issue so close the public’s heart could have generated quite so much debate?
I have listened carefully to the words of the Leader of the House and I commit myself to keep listening. It has been really helpful to have everybody’s feedback tonight. It is, however, as we all know, the eve of the Budget and I am still hopeful that inside No. 11 there may be ears to hear what we are saying tonight. It would cause me great sadness to divide the House on an issue on which we should all be so firmly united—the protection of the poorest in our society—and to do so under such contentious circumstances.
I will step back and beg leave to withdraw this amendment. But the care of the most vulnerable in our society is the rightful concern of this House. For if we stand for anything, it is to check and challenge the work of the Government, and that is all I am seeking to do today. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
Clause 2: Extent, commencement and short title
Amendment 10 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
Bill reported without amendment.
House adjourned at 11.56 pm.