To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the recommendations for reform of the social security system made in the report Covid Realities: documenting life on a low income during the pandemic, published on 24 January.
My Lords, no specific assessment has been made. We are aware of the report and, as always, we constantly keep our policies and systems under review. Universal credit is a modern, flexible benefit, responding effectively to economic conditions. It replaces six outdated and complex benefits with one, helping to simplify the benefits system, providing support in times of need and making work pay. In 2021-22, we will spend more than £111 billion on working-age welfare, which is 4.9% of our GDP.
“The title social ‘security’ is laughable. We have never felt so insecure.”
This quote sums up a key concern of social security claimants who took part in this important participative research project, and it is disappointing that the department has not actually read the report but is only aware of it. The recommendations, co-produced with participants, emphasise that benefits should provide genuine security and be adequate to meet needs, and that the lived experience of claimants should inform policy-making and implementation. What is the department doing to meet these very reasonable demands, which echo those of the Economic Affairs Committee?
I can confirm, as I said, that the department is looking at the recommendations in the report. We are aware, as is the whole House, of the difficulties that people are facing at the moment. The department and the Government have moved to put in place finance to help the situation, but I cannot offer any other confirmation of funding. I guess we can wait for tomorrow in hope.
My Lords, mention was made earlier in Questions to the shocking report from the Centre for Social Justice, Swimming with Sharks. It appears that loan sharks have been sinking their teeth into up to a million people. Can the Minister’s department give any practical assistance? I realise that it goes beyond her department, but there may be things that her department is especially able to undertake.
I thank my noble friend for that question and for making a very valid point. I am aware of the Centre for Social Justice report about illegal moneylenders and the impact they have on vulnerable people. It makes three recommendations: clamping down on illegal moneylenders, protecting the most vulnerable and providing an alternative. When I get back to the department tomorrow, I will speak to the Minister for Pensions and the Minister for Welfare Delivery to see whether they have any plans to assist in any way and do something about this terrible situation.
My Lords, will the Minister, when talking to her ministerial colleagues in the DWP, give consideration to the contents of this report and the participation by ordinary people who have been impacted by poverty? Will she take on board the need to reform our social security system so that it is based on need, not other criteria that simply disadvantage people?
These matters are discussed in all our ministerial meetings. I can confirm to the noble Baroness that I will redouble my efforts in the department to raise these issues. The Government want to do what we can to support people in these difficult times—please do not think that we do not want to.
My Lords, the report provides testimony from claimants that they are not always treated with respect by DWP staff. Will the Government introduce measures to improve the relationship between claimants and the DWP; for example, by providing a single point of contact or caseworker, including people with lived experience in staff training, and ensuring that staff understand the impact of disabilities, domestic abuse and racism on claimants?
I am very disappointed to hear that there are claimants who feel they are not treated properly. I can confirm that the single point of contact—the one person—is the work coach. We have been expanding their role and training them to deal with the issues that the noble Baroness raises. We are giving them reasonable case loads and we are making sure that they address and help people with the dignity that they should receive. One of the most important points the noble Baroness made was on including first-hand experiences. It is in speaking to clients and spending time with them to find out how their experience has been that we are able to learn and make changes to the system.
As I have said many times—this subject comes up regularly—a benefits structure that adjusts automatically to family size is unsustainable. We recognise that some claimants are not able to make the same choices about the number of children in their family, and we have exceptions to protect certain groups. We continue to take action to help families with the cost of living. At the moment, as I have said before, there are no plans to change the two-child limit.
The Covid Realities report shows that the support for low-income families simply is not enough to manage on, even before the cost of living crisis hit. Does the Minister recognise that introducing a windfall tax would provide funding for immediate support and help families? What are the Government going to do to stop yet more of our children falling into poverty?
Clearly, the Opposition Benches and others have asked for a windfall tax. As far as I know, the Government do not intend to impose a windfall tax—the energy companies are already taxed more than others. On the point the noble Baroness raises about children and helping them, there is nothing more I can add to what I have said already. However, I ask her please to take it from me that the Government are doing their very best to support families.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that we need a wide range of supportive schemes when we are trying to work with those who are coping with the issues caused by low incomes? Have Her Majesty’s Government assessed the Financial Shield pilot scheme which is running at the moment? It brings together health professionals and community organisations, as well as creditors, who are trying to take a long-term supportive approach to working with those who find themselves in debt?
My Lords, the issue of Covid and poverty has revealed to us all deeper levels of poverty than hitherto imagined. It is about not only people on low incomes but people surviving on no income. An organisation, Neighbours in Poplar, has over the past two years delivered 24,000 hot meals each week to people who would not otherwise be fed. Reliance on food banks is growing. Therefore, will the Government undertake analysis with such community organisations and voluntary groups to make certain that when they withdraw what they are doing, the poorest and most in need are not left to suffer?
I must pay tribute to the community organisation to which the noble Lord refers and many others with which noble Lords will have contact. We are aware of the work that food banks and other such organisations do. Our best way to help people through these difficulties is to get them into work, where they can, and to ensure that they earn enough to survive.
I am not in the least surprised that my noble friend raises this issue. I commend her, and I was rather hoping that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, would be in his seat if this issue was mentioned. At DWP Oral Questions in the other place this week, my Secretary of State made some very good pronouncements about pension credit and our plans for a campaign to get take-up increased, which we will do. I am going to hold an all-Peers briefing on pension credit to bring all noble Lords up to date with the excellent work the department is doing.