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Universal Credit

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 18 April 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation An Essentials Guarantee: Reforming Universal Credit to ensure we can all afford the essentials in hard times, published on 27 February; and in particular, the recommendation to introduce an ‘Essentials Guarantee’ to support those living in relative poverty.

My Lords, the department is aware of the report, but no formal assessment has been made. We have a long-term approach to tackling poverty and supporting people on lower incomes. The Government are increasing support for low-income and vulnerable households, with welfare expenditure forecast to rise from £251.8 billion in 2022-23 to £275.6 billion in 2023-24. As the Spring Statement made clear, the focus is on supporting workforce participation, helping people move into work and higher earnings.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. Of course, all increases will be welcome after years of freezes and below-inflation rises. However, the key issue is that universal credit levels today are based simply on the result of historical precedent and subsequent political assessments of what the Government can afford. Does the Minister agree that it is time for an objective, independent assessment based on evidence of real need and actual costs? Does he agree with the Rowntree analysis that the universal credit standard rate falls well below what is needed to afford basic essentials?

We are certainly aware of the severe difficulties in some cases that households are experiencing. Our way of dealing with this—we are aware of the report, as I said earlier—is that, following the Autumn Statement announcement, measures directly aimed at helping households with cost of living pressures in the coming year 2023-24 are now better targeted to low-income households. Support provided from the £3,000 EPG and cost of living payment is on average more generous for households in the bottom four income deciles than our £2,500 cap alone.

My Lords, could the Minister remind the House what the point of the two-child limit is and what its impact is on the provision of essentials?

The House will be very aware of this subject, which does keep cropping up. The House will be aware that, since 6 April 2017, families have been able to claim support for up to two children and there may be further entitlement for other children if they were born before 6 April 2017 or if an exception applies. As the right reverend Prelate will know, there are a number of exceptions, including any child in a household who is adopted, any child living long-term with friends or family or who would otherwise be at risk of entering the care system.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to help those having difficulty purchasing essentials due in some part to mandatory deductions from their universal credit?

The Government recognise the importance of supporting claimants to manage their liabilities. It is true that some households get into quite severe debt. Under universal credit, there is a co-ordinated approach to deductions from benefits which supports claimants to manage their financial obligations. The primary aim of deductions from universal credit is to protect vulnerable claimants by providing a last-resort repayment method for arrears of essential services. The House might be aware that the Government have reduced the standard deduction cap from 40% to 25% of the standard allowance in recent years.

My Lords, quite clearly, the universal credit level in recent years has not been sufficient to meet the cost of essentials. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify what the Government now include as “essentials” to make sure that people can survive adequately on universal credit, without accessing food banks or starving.

It is right to say that, although the Government are very aware of the severe issues at the moment, we do not look at every single essential item because we think that individuals and households have the right to spend how they like. The benefit cap, which is probably the gist of the noble Baroness’s question, provides a strong work incentive and fairness for hard-working tax-paying households, and it encourages people to move into work where possible. Let us not forget that households will still be able to receive benefits up to the value of gross earnings of around £26,500, or £31,300 in London.

My Lords, of course households make their own choices, but the point of this report is that we all need certain things: somewhere to live, clothes to wear, food to eat and the ability to heat our homes. The suggestion is that there simply is not enough money in the system to do that. For most of the last decade, the Government have not uprated benefits by the rate of inflation, which results in a disconnect between the cost of living and what the social security system gives people to live on. Now, we are seeing poverty, destitution, homelessness and the use of food banks are all going up. Does the Minister think it would make a difference if benefits and tax credits were automatically uprated by inflation, rather than simply being down to what Ministers want to do that year?

The noble Baroness will be well aware that we have raised many benefits—particularly the benefit cap, by 10.1%, which we think is pretty generous. But we also acknowledge that it continues to be tough for households and businesses across the UK at the moment, which is why we continue to provide support with the cost of living, as I alluded to earlier. This totals £94 billion over the next two years, which is equivalent to an average of £3,300 per household this year and next year.

My Lords, should we take that as a pledge that the Labour Party will uprate benefits by inflation, or is this just another example of the Opposition attacking the Government and having nothing to say?

My noble friend makes a good point. I will add to what I said: we are still on track to deliver the Government’s pledge, with the OBR—it has to be the OBR—forecasting that inflation will reduce to 2.9% by the end of the year. In my newspaper today, I noticed that there are signs that food prices, which have been extraordinarily high, are beginning to slip, so I very much hope that this is going in the right direction.

Is it not correct that the Government have decided to increase pensions by 10%, for example, but not to do anything to change the system for families with more than two children? Is this not a direct choice of the Government? What are the implications for children living in those families?

I think I made my position clear on the two-child limit, as I have over my three months in this role. Obviously, putting children first is extremely important, and that is why we have given huge support, as I said—a total of £94 billion over this year and the next—to help households and individuals. The focus on children is a very important point: that is key.

My Lords, the Centre for Health Economics found that the cost to the NHS of poverty in in-patient care alone was £4.8 billion. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that poverty was costing the NHS and social care, collectively, £28 billion a year. Putting aside the social and human cost, are the Government not being penny-wise and pound-foolish by not providing an essential guarantee, which would take a huge amount of pressure and cost off our schools, our NHS, our criminal justice system and so many other parts of public services?

I made clear the Government’s position on essentials earlier, and I do not want to go over that again. On the noble Baroness’s point about poverty, I remind the House that in 2021-22 there were 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty after housing costs than in 2009-10, including 400,000 fewer children, 1 million fewer working-age adults and 200,000 fewer pensioners.

My Lords, I will ask the Minister about the Healthy Start vouchers for the under-fours. They are really important and have moved from vouchers to a card system. Many people lost those benefits in the transfer system, because it was not simplified. Could the Minister look at how we ensure that benefits are simplified so that people can actually get what they are entitled to?

The very fact that we have been rolling out a universal credit system over the last few years since 2013 comes to the essence of what we have been trying to do, which is to simplify the system. The noble Baroness makes a very good point about putting children first, as I said previously. One example of that is what we have done with free school meals.

My Lords, I declare a family interest in this Question. Over the next two years, people with long-term disabilities who currently receive employment and support allowance will be moved to universal credit, and there is already an acknowledgement that there will be some differences in the amount of money they will receive. What analysis has my noble friend the Minister and his department done to check whether that particular group—people with long-term, life-long disabilities—will not become part of the group we are discussing today, who cannot afford essentials?

My noble friend makes an excellent point, because, apart from the fact that we spent around £67.9 billion last year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions, we are doing more, as the Spring Budget said, to help those who are disabled, and particularly those who wish to go into work.