Second Reading (and remaining stages)
I am delighted that we have the opportunity today to discuss this important legislation, which will make a huge difference to millions of families. This Government fully understand the pressures that households across the UK are experiencing as we continue to face the challenges of high inflation brought about by global issues such as the war in Ukraine and the legacy of Covid. The Prime Minister has set out our ambition to see inflation halved this year, easing cost of living pressures and increasing financial security for families. The Office for Budget Responsibility is now forecasting that CPI inflation will fall to 2.9% by the end of 2023.
Nevertheless, short-term challenges remain, so it is vital that the Government continue to take a responsible and disciplined approach to public spending while supporting vulnerable people and protecting vital public services. This is why we are taking this further decisive action, as announced by the Chancellor last November, to help families through this difficult period. The measures we have taken over the last year demonstrate that this is a Government who will always protect those who are the most vulnerable to changing economic conditions.
To give some context before I turn to the specific provisions of the Bill, it is our firm belief that the best way to help people to improve their family’s financial circumstances is to support them to move into and progress in work. The measures we took to protect millions of jobs over the pandemic are just one example of the extraordinary interventions by this Government to maintain a strong labour market. There are almost 1 million fewer workless households compared with 2010, and unemployment is close to a 50-year low at 3.7%. But with 1.12 million vacancies, our focus remains firmly on helping people take advantage of these opportunities. The core support provided in our jobcentres, including the new in-work progression offer, builds on these priorities.
Noble Lords will have heard the Chancellor announce a range of employment measures in last week’s Budget that will provide further support to help people enter work and increase their working hours. This includes extending childcare support so that eligible working parents in England will be able to access 30 hours of free childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year from when their child is nine months old. For those on universal credit, childcare costs will be paid in advance when parents move into work or increase their hours, with an increase to the childcare cap to £951 for one child and £1,630 for two children.
To further support low-paid workers, we are making the largest ever cash increase to the national living wage from April: an increase of 9.7% to £10.42 an hour. This represents an increase of over £1,600 in the annual earnings of a full-time worker. Also, from April more than 10 million working-age families will see their benefit payments rise by 10.1%, nearly 12 million pensioners will see a 10.1% increase to their state pension, and we will increase the benefit cap levels by 10.1%. Helping people to improve their living standards through work will always be our overriding priority, but it is also right in these challenging times for the Government to step in and provide additional support, especially for our most vulnerable citizens.
In 2022-23 our substantial package of cost of living support provided help through the energy price guarantee, the household support fund and the initial tranche of cost of living payments for those on eligible means-tested and disability benefits. The energy price guarantee offered much-needed support for rising energy bills. As noble Lords will have heard last week, the Chancellor announced that we will maintain the energy price guarantee at £2,500 for a further three months from April 2023. We made over 30 million cost of living payments to those who needed them most in 2022: £650 was made available to households on means-tested benefits; £150 payments were made available to those on eligible disability benefits; and there was a £300 top-up to winter fuel payments to more than 8 million pensioner households.
The household support fund, distributed by local authorities in England to help households with the cost of essentials, has been providing support since 2021. We have announced a further extension for the next financial year. Local authorities have accountability for supporting households in the most need, particularly those who may not be eligible for the other support the Government have recently made available. The devolved Administrations will receive Barnett consequentials to spend at their discretion and with their local knowledge.
I turn now to the specific details of the Bill. Noble Lords will note that this is a narrowly defined Bill with one very simple aim: to get financial support to those most in need. It gives the Government powers to make vital cost of living payments of up to £900 for more than 8 million households on eligible means-tested benefits and £150 payments for more than 6 million people on qualifying disability benefits—worth around £8.6 billion in 2023-24. These are tax free and not subject to the benefit cap, so people will receive every penny of these payments, which will be made automatically, so no one will need to apply.
These payments will be made across the UK. We are legislating on behalf of Northern Ireland, as we did with the 2022 payments; this approach has been noted in an exchange of letter by the respective Permanent Secretaries. The Secretary of State has obtained formal Cabinet clearance to legislate without the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly, given that there is currently no sitting Assembly or caretaker Minister for Communities.
This Bill replicates the successful and straightforward approach that enabled the Government to make cost of living payments this financial year while maintaining core benefit delivery. We recognise that keeping the policy simple means that some people may miss out. This is one of the reasons for making three separate payments: to reduce the chance of somebody missing out completely. There is also the wider package of support that I have touched on already, including the household support fund.
These payments are a crucial measure of support, demonstrating this Government’s commitment to helping those most in need. This Bill gives much-needed financial security and support for the most vulnerable during this period of higher inflation, through hundreds of pounds given directly to millions of families around the United Kingdom, and I commend it the House.
My Lords, it would be churlish not to welcome this Bill, which will bring much-needed support to those who qualify for the payments it provides. However, I am sure the Minister did not expect unqualified praise from me. The qualifications are twofold: they concern context, or rather a different take on context from the Minister’s, and the shortcomings of one-off payments.
With regard to context, I will not repeat the arguments I made during our recent debate on the uprating regulations, covering the cuts in the real value of benefits since 2010, the current freezing of the local housing allowance, which we will be debating on Wednesday, and the impact of the much higher inflation rate suffered by those on low incomes when the price of basics such as food and fuel is going up faster than average prices. However, I want to go back to the point about claimants having had to struggle this past year on benefits uprated by only 3.1% when inflation was expected by the OBR to average 10.1% over the period. We were told last year not to worry as it would all be smoothed out in the subsequent uprating, but since our debate last month I have seen the following warning from the Institute for Fiscal Studies:
“Astonishingly, it is not until April 2025 that benefit rates are set to recover the ground they lost … due to lags in uprating them with inflation”.
I am sure the department will have seen the IFS pre-Budget briefing in which this was stated, so I would welcome the Minister’s comments on this warning.
This brings me to my second qualification, because no doubt he will respond that the one-off payments will help bridge the gap. But using one-off payments rather than an additional uprating to weekly benefits, to help those on low incomes cope with the cost of living crisis, has a number of limitations, as was made clear during the passage of the Bill in the Commons. A general point, made by the Work and Pensions Select Committee last year, with reference to the last set of cost of living payments, is that
“regular, predictable income”
rather than lump sums is
“better for households trying to manage a budget”.
In other words, a regular income does a better job of providing the financial security that social security is supposed to provide. However, the Government did not heed the committee’s call for options other than one-off payments to be prioritised in future. Instead, other than a small but welcome tweak, they have simply replicated the approach taken last year, with all its limitations. One of these, highlighted by the Treasury Select Committee, is the “cliff edges” it creates so that
“those who earn one pound too much, or become eligible for a benefit one day too late, may not receive it”.
As a result, some of those on low incomes will lose out, with
“implications for fairness, and … work incentives”,
as the committee pointed out. The committee therefore recommended a payment each month for six months, but it seems that “the computer said no” and the only concession has been the tweak that replaces the original two payments with three—mentioned by the Minister.
Unfortunately, some of those “cliff edges” are created by the rigid operation of universal credit’s monthly assessment period, which means some universal credit recipients do not receive the benefit for one month because of the way their wages are paid. Other problems raised in the Commons debate concerned the self-employed, pursued by Conservative Sir Robert Neill, and those who have been sanctioned. According to the Bill’s impact analysis, 7,000 households lost out on the first of last year’s cost of living payments solely due to a sanction.
Nigel Mills MP, a Conservative member of the Work and Pensions Committee, tabled an amendment with Sir Stephen Timms, its chair, that would extend the qualifying period from one to two months, making it less likely that someone would lose a payment arbitrarily. He made, in my view, a very strong case, pointing out that it would be more consistent with universal credit’s objective that work should always pay. He also pointed out that the current rules put UC recipients at a disadvantage compared with those still receiving tax credits, which was unfair. He made a similar suggestion last year, so there was plenty of time for it to be considered.
I found the Minister’s reasons for rejecting the amendment, which referred to
“administrative challenges such as out-of-date contact or bank details”
and extending the time
“between eligibility and payment”—[Official Report, Commons, 6/3/23; col. 99.]
less than convincing. Perhaps the Minister today could make a better fist of explaining why what seemed to me a perfectly sensible amendment was rejected. To say breezily, as the Secretary of State did, that even if someone loses out on a payment because of qualifying period anomalies, there will be one or two others they may qualify for coming along, suggests a complete lack of understanding of how every pound can make a difference when someone is struggling to make ends meet.
Another problem with the way that these one-off payments have been structured is that a single person gets the same amount as a family with children. The Minister in the Commons did at least acknowledge the point, but said they could not find any better solutions. Once again it would seem that policy is driven by technology rather than the other way round. When Barnardo’s finds that almost a quarter of parents polled struggle to provide sufficient food for their child—just one example of the impact of the cost of living crisis on families with children—surely everything possible should be done to ensure that children are adequately protected. Surely this group fits the Minister’s description of those most in need.
Another group in vulnerable circumstances who are losing out are carers not in receipt of means-tested benefits, just as was the case last year. According to Carers UK there are several hundred thousand carers in receipt of carer’s allowance who do not receive means-tested benefits, many of whom are facing serious financial stress. Carer’s allowance is paid at a lower rate than equivalent benefits, yet carers do not qualify for a cost of living payment akin to the disability additional payment included in the Bill—why not? Why are carers being ignored in England when in Scotland and Wales additional provision has been made by their respective Governments?
The stock ministerial response, which we have heard again this evening, to all these criticisms is that those who do not benefit from the payments in the Bill can turn to the household support fund, which has been extended for a year, which is of course welcome. However, a discretionary cash-limited fund is no substitute for reliable payments as of right. In the Commons, Nigel Mills was pretty dismissive of this stock response, pointing out:
“It is far better practice to make the laws we pass work, than to have discretionary funds to try to fix things.”—[Official Report, Commons, 6/3/23; col. 87.]
Both he and Sir Stephen Timms were sceptical that many constituents would know about the fund and would realise they could apply to it if they failed to qualify for a one-off payment even though they were struggling. The Minister tried to reassure them by referring to
“strong communications and engagement with local authorities for anybody who may be missing out”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/3/23; col. 98.]
Could the Minister give us more information on what exactly the Government will be doing to increase awareness of the fund and its availability in such situations?
A note on the fund from Citizens Advice suggests a degree of growing awareness as more people claim help, but it also indicates a number of barriers to accessing it and difficulties where help is provided by way of vouchers rather than cash. It raises a number of issues with the eligibility criteria, with some local authorities applying more restrictive criteria than others and many rationing access or running out of money. Inevitably, given its discretionary nature, there is something of a postcode lottery. Ultimately, Citizens Advice concludes that the fund is not really suitable to deal with a situation in which huge numbers of households are finding themselves with incomes that cannot stretch to cover their outgoings. CA advisers commented:
“It’s just a drop in the ocean … a very small sticking plaster on a very big wound.”
At the end of the Commons consideration, the Minister said that the DWP
“is planning an evaluation of the cost of living payments … we will consider what further information we can release in future.”—[Official Report, Commons, 6/3/23; col. 101.]
Can the Minister, either now or in a letter, give us more details of that evaluation and an assurance that its findings will be published? We cannot amend this Bill, but given that this is the second year running in which we and colleagues in the Commons have criticised the approach taken, at the very least we can hope that questions will be answered and that the evaluation will lead to lessons being learned.
I have one final practical question. Organisations on the ground are urging the Government to name the date of the first instalment to help struggling families budget. The DWP has responded that it will be in the spring and that specific dates will be confirmed closer to the date. Given that today is the spring equinox and, officially, it is spring until June, can the Minister at the very least tell us whether it will be early, middle or late spring, to give struggling families a little bit more certainty?
My Lords, I also welcome this measure. Very briefly, I will touch on three points: current plans for tackling anomalies arising from the Bill; the task of achieving better longer-term solutions; and finally, in that connection, taking proper note of what works best in other countries.
The Bill’s eligibility criteria are commendably simple. As my noble friend the Minister has observed, these can enable payments to tens of millions of people in a timely way, thus also reducing adverse effects from otherwise more complicated legislation such as unnecessary levels of delay, error and fraud.
Yet, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, indicated, there are still inconsistencies—not least that emanating from what in this case are flat payments. For here, the proposed disbursements would be the same regardless of household size, even though larger households have higher spending needs, particularly those with children. The latter stricture also reflects another mismatch between this Bill and universal credits, which are higher for couples than for single people, and children are also recognised in that system. Then there is the so-called cliff-edge problem, caused by the cost of living payment being linked to receipts of means-tested benefits, meaning that a person who earns just £1 above the limit could lose out on £900.
First, among the recommendations of the Treasury Committee is to provide a greater number of lump-sum payments than the two in 2022-23. This would help ensure that more households have support when they need it most, while reducing disincentives to work within each relevant assessment period. The second recommendation is to deploy the payment model used in the energy bill support scheme; that is a payment each month for six months, thus enabling regular help over the colder winter period. Thirdly, in advance of future adjusted methods of support, it recommends that the Government assess the work disincentive effects of different sizes and frequencies of lump-sum payments. The fourth recommendation is to judge whether a taper might better incentivise work as part of any subsequent payments from 2024-25. Does my noble friend assent that these four prescriptions for improved and adapted delivery should now be followed?
Also, further to assist better longer-term solutions, does my noble friend concur that constant and proper study must be made by this country of what works best in other countries? The United Kingdom plays an active part within the intergovernmental European Committee for Social Cohesion of the Council of Europe. That committee facilitates dialogue and the exchange of best practice. It is particularly relevant to this debate, since through Covid and the Ukrainian war all other 45 states within the human rights affiliation of the Council of Europe share with the United Kingdom the same challenge and priority within their set-back economies: the protection of vulnerable people and families.
I am grateful to my noble friend for affirming within the Explanatory Notes of this Bill that, under Section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998, in his view the provisions of the Social Security (Additional Payments) (No. 2) Bill are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights of the Council of Europe.
In this connection, it should be recalled that over 60 years ago the United Kingdom ratified the European Social Charter of the Council of Europe. Your Lordships will be aware that, since then, the UK has accepted all provisions in the fields of health, social security and social protection. The only exceptions are Articles 12.2, 12.3 and 12.4 on the right to social security and Article 4 of the additional protocol on the right of elderly persons to social protection. The adoption of the Social Security (Additional Payments) (No. 2) Bill now provides us with a good opportunity also to accept Article 12 of the European Social Charter and Article 4 of its additional protocol. I hope that my noble friend may be able to agree to that.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction. I noted everything that he said, but I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, that, while it would be churlish not to welcome the Bill, such a welcome must be qualified. A year ago, as she reminded us, there were lots of objections—including from me—to the level of the increase, particularly in view of the rising rate of inflation and its projected peak.
As the Minister said a moment ago, the aim is to get financial support to those most in need. I think that is an objective we would all subscribe to. However, while the Bill helps over 8 million families across the country at a time of rapid increases in the cost of living, some households are excluded from support. One category is sanctioned universal credit recipients, the vast majority of whom have missed an appointment for a variety of reasons. To qualify for the cost of living payment, a claimant has to be entitled to some payment, however small, in the month preceding the qualifying date for that additional payment. If they are sanctioned, they have no payment, and yet those people have an underlying entitlement.
It was estimated that, last year, well over 6,500 households across the UK did not receive a cost of living payment. This problem was known about a year ago, and I find it surprising that a solution has not yet been found by the department because the people who are affected by this are, by their very nature, vulnerable. It is difficult to see why this problem needs to exist when solutions are available. Why can the qualifying period not be extended from one month to two? That way, those who enter employment with an immediate increase in pay would not receive the payment but those who do need it would get it. Is it necessary to add to the problems of a universal credit recipient who is already sanctioned by giving them the additional penalty of being disqualified from the extra payment during a cost of living crisis? I do not think it is right for a universal credit recipient to be punished twice.
Further, what are the Government’s plans to help those with fluctuating incomes, such as receiving a one-off bonus in the qualifying period? I recall the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, saying that, in the Commons, there had been a debate about the qualifying period and the number of payments; it was suggested that if there were three payments in the course of the year then, broadly speaking, that would reduce the chances of success of someone losing out. The difficulty is that some did lose out in the last year—some 6,500 households did. It seems that the simpler answer is to move to a two-month qualifying period. Can the Minister give an explanation as to why that does not seem to be on the Government’s agenda?
I remind the Minister that it was a year ago that these issues became clear. I feel that the opportunity was there then to address some of those concerns about the Bill. Is there any procedural override within the system—perhaps at a local level—to help those who are facing substantial financial pressures?
Finally, the point has been made about the start date for the first instalment. I find it very odd that that date is still not publicly known. Over the weekend, I saw in the press that this matter has been questioned. If I was on a very low income and was very dependent on the support, I would really want to be able to plan better than people are currently able to. I hope the Government can give some reassurance on the matter this evening.
I thank the Minister for his introduction to the Bill. I also thank my noble friend Lady Lister for her contribution, which makes my job of inadequately filling in for my noble friend Lady Sherlock much easier. My noble friend posed many of the key questions, which I will try not to repeat.
On these Benches we of course welcome this Bill for what it is, and for the much-needed help it will provide to families up and down the country who are encountering some of the toughest financial conditions in a generation. The OBR has confirmed that the hit to living standards over the past two years is the largest since records began: inflation in recent months has reached a 40-year high; food rose by 16.8% over the past year to January 2023; gas and energy prices have risen to levels we would have thought unthinkable only two years ago; and wages, which are lower in real terms than they were 13 years ago, are expected to remain below 2008 levels until 2026. The gap between income and expenditure for many people who were already struggling before has now hit breaking point and is causing very real hardship.
Those in receipt of benefits and pensions are some of the hardest hit. Although the payments in the Bill recognise this fact, taken alone they represent a highly inadequate one-off provision that simply will not touch the sides of the deep crisis forcing families to choose between food and heating, and wrecking the physical and mental well-being of families up and down the country.
The Bill is rightly being criticised in the same way that its predecessor was, with the addition of how disappointing it is that the Government have not addressed the issues that Members across both Houses raised last time, and which have been raised again by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and my noble friend Lady Lister in their speeches. Last year, the previous Minister argued that help needed to be delivered swiftly. If the Government are committed to bringing short-term support through this one-off provision, they should have taken the time to bring in changes to make the support more effective this time round. They could also tell us when the first payment might be due.
A flat payment cannot take into account a range of circumstances that effect someone’s needs, with household size being the most obvious one. Children in larger families are at far greater risk of living in poverty. Over the summer, academics at the University of York estimated that 90% of large families would be experiencing fuel poverty at the start of this year. The cliff edge involved in these payments, which has been referred to by my noble friend, is also incredibly concerning.
Linking this cost of living payment to the receipt of means-tested benefits means a sharp cut-off for anyone earning above the limit. Being £1 over the threshold should not mean missing out on £900; that is a huge disincentive for people who might otherwise look to take on more hours or look for better-paid work to lift themselves off universal credit. The number of payments was increased from last year from two to three, but has the Minister considered increasing the spread of payments further in order to reduce this cliff edge?
The Bill will not sew up the holes growing ever larger in our social security net, but the £900 will be welcomed as an increase on last year’s payment. However, the £150 payment for those in receipt of certain disability benefits has stayed the same, despite the huge increase in inflation. Can the Minister explain why this payment has not also been increased?
There are other good questions about the Bill that need to be and have been raised. Having a one-month assessment period for recipients means some may not qualify in a specific month—which I think has also been referred to—because of the way they are paid. This same issue was raised last year with the previous Bill. Does the Minister have any information from last year on how many people who are paid every four weeks missed out last year on receiving payments because of the short assessment period? Does the Minister have a similar answer for those who are self-employed but will miss out because of the operation of the minimum-income floor? Again, this was raised last year. We were told that the payments were an admittedly blunt instrument that needed to be got through quickly—that argument works less well a year later.
These payments are welcome as a one-off help, and so we are happy to support them in that capacity, but we need to make it crystal clear that they are not a long-term solution that will reform our social security net, address our broken labour market and fix the dire living standards that are dragging families down. Anything less is simply papering over the cracks.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contribution to today’s debate. This is significant legislation that will provide support to low-income and vulnerable households across the country, and I am delighted at the progress we have made today to move this Bill forward. I start by echoing the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock; I too wish her a very swift return.
I am grateful for the support—perhaps qualified support would be a better way of putting it—from Peers for today’s Bill. The cost of living payments we are providing for will make a significant difference to the lives of low-income families across the country. Millions of people on means-tested benefits will soon gain from the first payment, in the spring. I will pick up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, as to when the first payments will be made. They will both be disappointed because, although I cannot give more detail today, I can assure both Peers that we will release details of when we plan to make payments to the vast majority of recipients on GOV.UK when these are available. Perhaps I can be helpful by saying that we aim to do this very soon.
I recognise that we may not always agree on the detailed design of the payments, but I know that we are united on the need to take action to support people with the increased costs of living. Our priority has always been to safeguard the swift and accurate delivery of these payments to those who need them. I will pick up on some points made by several Peers, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, who asked about the adequacy of what we are doing. She will know that inflation is forecast to remain high in the next few months, which means that many people will continue to need additional support with the cost of essentials. The Bill will enable the delivery of very significant additional support worth almost £9 billion in 2023-24.
It is important to remember that these payments are just one element of the measures announced by the Chancellor in November and in the Budget last week. We intend to uprate benefits and the state pension by 10.1% from April and to increase the benefit cap by 10.1%, as the House will know. In the Spring Budget the Chancellor set out a package of measures designed to support people to enter work and increase their working hours, including an increase in childcare support and doing more to close the disability employment gap, which I alluded to earlier this afternoon.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, raised the £900 payment, and I want to follow up on that. The cost of living payments are one part of the package of support, as I have mentioned, which includes, as I have not said yet, maintaining the energy price guarantee at £2,500 for a further three months from April, and the extension, as mentioned earlier, of the household support fund.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked an important question about those with fluctuating earnings and who are assessed monthly. Whichever eligibility period is chosen, there will always be some people who will not qualify during that period. That is why we decided to deliver the cost of living payments for means-tested benefit claimants in three separate payments over the 2023-24 period, to reduce the chance of households missing out altogether, which is a theme I may well return to.
We have carefully considered the position of those with fluctuating earnings. Unfortunately, it is not feasible to distinguish between people with permanent changes to their earnings and those with temporary fluctuations due to non-monthly earnings; for example, those who are paid on a four-weekly basis.
My noble friend Lord Dundee and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, raised a number of issues relating to the payments. On the flat-rate payments, it may be helpful for me to explain that these payments are being made using the department’s ad hoc payment system, which has some limitations, including that it can make only one payment “type” at a time, of a single value. In practice, staggering payments according to household size would be administratively challenging and would delay making payments to millions of vulnerable people. Of course, families on means-tested benefits will gain from our planned uprating by 10.1% from April. This includes families who are subject to the benefit cap, which is also increasing by 10.1%, as I mentioned earlier. As I have said, for families who need additional help, we are extending the household support fund in England throughout 2023-24.
I will touch briefly on carers, raised, I believe, by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. I, too, recognise the vital contribution made by those who care for some of the most vulnerable in our society. We are focusing support on those carers who need it most. Around 480,000 carer households on universal credit already receive around an extra £2,000 a year through the carer element. I therefore encourage all carers on a low income to check that they have applied for all the benefits they are entitled to, including means-tested support. Although carer’s allowance is not a means-tested benefit, we know that 60% of working-age carers who receive carer’s allowance also claim an income-related benefit; this means that they should also be eligible for the cost of living payment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, raised the issue of communication. The household support fund guidance makes it mandatory for local authorities to make public their plans for the scheme, including how and when they will deliver the application-based element of their provision. As she may know already, it is also mandatory for local authorities to establish a dedicated and accessible webpage on their main authority website which sets out the details of their local scheme. I hope this helps the noble Baroness.
On the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about addressing the so-called hard edges, noble Lords said that we have had plenty of time. They will know that in 2022, we delivered tens of millions of payments successfully by keeping the rules for these payments as simple as possible. Although we have carefully considered our position on these issues for 2023-24, any major changes would introduce complexity, risking delays to payments, or introduce unacceptable levels of fraud or error. That is a really important point to make.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, stated that our support is too late. I acknowledge that many families have struggled this financial year with the 3.1% uprating, but the Government have made substantial support available to households this winter. This includes, as mentioned earlier: the energy price guarantee, which has been extended; the £400 discount provided through the energy bills support scheme; the £324 means-tested cost of living payment made in November; the £300 top-up to winter fuel payments; and, as mentioned—I will mention it once more—the household support fund.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, raised some other points about the payments. I think I have answered this point, but there is a very good reason why we are splitting the three payments for people on means-tested benefits, which is—as I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley—to ensure that we cover those who are missing out. That is an incredibly important point to make.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked about extending the eligibility period. Extending the window extends the amount of time between eligibility and payment. In this period, some people will experience changes of circumstance, including some who will permanently increase their earnings and will now be ineligible for means-tested benefits unless they are in need of support. That is the answer I would give to her.
I have answered the question on flat-rate payments.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked why we are excluding those with no universal credit award due to a sanction; I think that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, also raised this issue. They will both know that people are sanctioned only if they fail, without good reason, to meet the conditions that they agreed to. These sanctions can often be resolved quickly by claimants getting in touch and attending their next appointment. If someone with no universal credit award due to a sanction re-engages with us, they may get one of the later cost of living payments. I should make the case, however, that it is down to individuals to be in touch on a regular basis and to make sure that they can keep their appointments.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked about the evaluation. I know that she has asked about it before in previous debates in this House; I note her eagerness to see it. We are still in the planning stages of our evaluation. We will come back to the House as soon as possible with further detail; I am afraid that that is the very best I can do this evening.
My noble friend Lord Dundee and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked about splitting the payments; my noble friend indicated that this was suggested by the Treasury Select Committee. I may have covered this earlier, but we need to balance spreading support across the year with ensuring that we have enough time to deliver each payment without compromising core benefit delivery. As mentioned earlier, these payments are being made using our ad hoc payment system; that is perhaps a different way of saying the same thing, but I appreciate noble Lords’ questions.
I hope that I have covered the majority of the questions that were asked. As ever, I will look closely at Hansard to make sure, as I always like to do, that answers have been given to all the points that were raised.
To conclude, let me say that, as I said at the outset, I believe that this Bill provides substantial cost of living support, as announced by the Government over the past year, and the additional support announced at the Budget. It demonstrates our ongoing commitment to supporting the most vulnerable in our society. I am very pleased that we can now move quickly to start making these vital payments. Once again, I commend this Bill to the House.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 44 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.