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Women: Cost of Living

Volume 819: debated on Thursday 10 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to mitigate the impact on women of the rising cost of living; and in particular, the impact on single mothers in poorer households.

My Lords, the Government are acting to support families with the challenge of rising living costs by providing £12 billion of support for this financial year and next, increasing the national living wage and cutting the universal credit taper. Through our Way to Work programme and a new network of specialist progression champions, we are helping people to get a job, get a better job and build their career, which we believe is the best route to managing living costs. In everything through Way to Work, we are cognisant of single parents’ issues.

My Lords, I am glad that the Government see the need for some intervention in response to this tsunami of rising household costs, but I have to say to the Minister, for whom I have a lot of respect, that it does not go nearly far enough, especially for lone parents, 90% of whom are women and 43% of whom live in poverty according to the Women’s Budget Group. Will the Government increase all benefits by 7%, in line with inflation? Will they reintroduce the £20 increase in universal credit and working tax credit equivalent, as well as paying the childcare element of universal credit up front instead of in arrears to make it easier for lone parents to re-enter the workplace? Women should not be shouldering this cost of living catastrophe.

I thank the noble Baroness for her intervention. I say again that we are cognisant of and understand the issues faced by lone parents, not least in respect of childcare and the barriers that stop them getting into work. That is why our work coaches are there. I shall pass to the Treasury the exam question that the noble Baroness has given me; she will forgive me if I cannot answer it.

My Lords, I hope I am right in assuming there will be some extra benefits for households subject to the benefit cap. If so, can my noble friend say what they are and, just as important, how easy or difficult it will be to access them?

Claimants can apply to their local authority for a discretionary housing payment if they need help to meet rental costs. We have the flexible support fund to help people as well, and we have given help with energy costs, which are rising exponentially. Of course, I have not tried to claim those benefits myself, but I know from somebody who has that it is reasonably straightforward, and I am not aware of any backlog in dealing with those claims when they have gone in.

My Lords, as the main managers and shock absorbers of poverty and inadequate social security benefits, women are bearing the brunt of not just the benefit cap but the two-child limit. When will the Government take the advice of the former Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and scrap these poverty-creating policies?

I understand the passion with which the noble Baroness makes her points. All I can say, and I have said it time and again, is that I will take the representation back to the department and make it known, but I am not able to give the response.

Will my noble friend look again at the report of the Economic Affairs Committee on universal credit and in particular reconsider the decision to take away £20 a week from the poorest families in the country? I understand that it is very expensive—it costs £6 billion—but that is because it affects 6 million people: 6 million people who are going to have to cope with these astonishing increases in bills, not just energy bills but bills across the piece. Surely, in the name of humanity if not in the interest of politics, we should look at this again, given that the Chancellor is getting increased revenue from the rising costs of petrol and other energy sources.

Many noble Lords have made the point about the £20 uplift. To be absolutely straightforward and open, there is nothing I can say about it, other than that for those on universal credit the taper rate compensated for some of the withdrawal. There are moments when I wish I was Chancellor.

My Lords, let me spell out what this is going to do. Inflation is running at record rates. The Bank of England forecasts that, next month, it will go up to 7.25%. That forecast was made before the war in Ukraine. Benefits are going to go up by 3%. Next month, the energy price cap will go up to £2,000. People are currently being offered £3,500 fixed-price tariffs. To put that in context, that is £67 a week. We give an adult on universal credit or JSA £75 a week to live on. How are they possibly meant to manage?

The noble Baroness’s explanation of the metrics is absolutely accurate. Inflation is gathering momentum, mainly because of pressures from rising energy prices and disruptions to global supply chains. We understand about the higher cost of living, but at the risk of repeating myself—I have no desire to annoy noble Lords—there is no comment I can make about what the Government may or may not do about the situation.

My Lords, here is a simple action the Government can take that will help the poorest households, many of which are forced on to prepayment meters for their energy bills. The cost they have to pay per unit of energy is hugely more than the average household has to pay. First, does the Minister agree that it is scandalous that we are asking the poor to pay the most? Secondly, will she force change on to the energy companies so that the poorest pay the least—the cheapest rate possible?

In our debate yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, raised the issue of the higher energy costs due to the method of payment that many people face. I have agreed to take that back to the department, and I will do so. Again, I can make no promises. As for forcing change, I will have a good go.

My Lords, yesterday evening, believe it or not, I hosted a dinner for those in the bailiff industry, as I call it, and they are expecting a veritable explosion in debt, because people on benefits simply cannot pay council tax and all the other things they have to pay. Does the DWP have an estimate of that huge explosion in debt? If not, will it please get that information, because it will need it? This can be resolved only by the Treasury, and the DWP needs its ammunition.

I am not aware that the information the noble Baroness suggests we should have is there. She makes a good point, and again, I shall go back, talk to my colleagues and try to get that information.

My Lords, many single women are older—including mothers—and in poorer health, and they are also at greater risk of long-term unemployment. What are the Government doing to address that issue?

The Government are doing an awful lot in this area. Despite the unacceptable rise in the cost of living and all the impacts on people, we are working morning, noon and night to get people back to work—into a job, a better job and a career, so that they can be self-sufficient. The Restart programme really helps them to do that. It is intensive tailored support, which I am sure will have great benefits for some people.

My Lords, the Spring Statement is due on 23 March, so will the Minister talk directly to Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that there is a one-off windfall tax on energy prices? They have risen exponentially in the last two weeks, therefore disproportionately impacting on women, households and, in particular, single parents.

Again, we have another question that is very Treasury driven. I have no doubt—indeed, I know it for a fact—that the Chancellor is well aware of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, has been making on this subject.

My Lords, the 15 years from 2007 to 2022 are forecast to be the worst on record for household incomes. Is the term “cost of living crisis” really adequate for the situation we are in now? What we are really seeing is a long-term collapse in the financial stability of British lives; this is not just a crisis of the moment. Do we not need to take a different approach to offer people true security, particularly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, single parents—overwhelmingly women—who are bearing the greatest weight? Do we not need a universal basic income?

We have spoken many times about universal basic income, and I have heard nothing on the airwaves to suggest that it is being considered. I will finish this Question by saying that it is a difficult time, and that we understand the great challenges people face. Please do not think this Government do not care—because they do.