Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & Money resolution & Money resolution: House of Commons
Thursday 1st October 2020

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Act 2020 - Government Bill Page View all Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Debates Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 1 October 2020 (PDF) - (1 Oct 2020)
Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Dr Thérèse Coffey)
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I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am pleased to introduce the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill. It makes technical changes for one year only that will ensure that state pensions can still potentially be uprated, despite the likely fall in earnings. This will allow the Government to maintain a manifesto commitment to the pensions triple lock policy, providing peace of mind to pensioners about their financial health. It will also allow for potential increases for the poorest pensioners who are in receipt of pension credit, as well as uprating widows’ and widowers’ benefit in industrial death benefit.

As I set out with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), in our letter to all right hon. and hon. Members last week, each year the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my good self, is required by law to conduct a review of certain benefit and pension rates to determine whether they have retained their value in relation to the general level of earnings. If there is a rise, then there is a requirement to uprate the state pension and benefits at least in line with that increase.

In accordance with the usual process, I will undertake that review of social security rates shortly and will report to Parliament on the outcome of the review in November. However, if there has been no increase in the general level of earnings, there are currently no legal powers for the Government to bring forward an uprating order. Since 2011, the Government have used average weekly earnings growth from May to July as the basis for the review. The provisional figure for that period, published by the Office for National Statistics on 15 September 2020, shows a decline in earnings of 1% due to the economic impacts of covid-19. Confirmed figures will be published later this month. Owing to the challenging economic circumstances, average weekly earnings are expected, unfortunately, to show no growth this year. Therefore, this Bill will temporarily amend the Social Security Administration Act 1992 for one year only to grant discretionary powers to increase these rates irrespective of the growth or indeed fall in earnings.

The Bill covers the basic state pension, the new state pension, the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit, and widows’ and widowers’ benefits in industrial death benefit. Those benefits are linked in primary legislation to earnings. The Bill does not extend to benefits that are linked to prices. I will review those under the existing powers in the 1992 Act.

The Bill largely covers reserved matters for Great Britain. On the one element that is devolved to Scotland, Scottish Ministers laid a legislative consent motion, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament yesterday. Under the Social Security Administration (Northern Ireland) Act 1992, the Department for Communities has the power to mirror the uprating order made under the Act that applies in Great Britain. The Northern Ireland Executive can make a corresponding order under their existing power, which mirrors the outcome of the Secretary of State’s review without the need for new primary legislation in Northern Ireland.

The Bill must receive Royal Assent by mid-November to allow the review to be completed. If the Bill does not receive Royal Assent ahead of this deadline, the current legislation will apply, and state pensions will almost certainly remain frozen.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I thank the Secretary of State for giving way; I know that she has other business this afternoon. As well as uprating, many of us in the House have a concern about the lack of uptake of pension credit. Will she tell us what measures her Department will take to ensure that there is a better uptake of that particular benefit?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We always want to encourage people to take up benefits to which they are entitled. There was an extensive amount of advertising earlier in the year, which was linked into GP surgeries and other public places, in order to encourage that uptake. The changes that the BBC has made in regard to the TV licence has also encouraged some people to take that up. We will continue to try to encourage people to access the benefits to which they are entitled.

If the Bill does not receive Royal Assent ahead of the deadline, the current legislation will apply and it is almost certain that state pensions will remain frozen. The prompt passage of the Bill is essential, which is why I am grateful to the usual channels and the House for expediting this important legislation. In our discussions with the shadow Front-Bench team, we were able to highlight that there has been similar legislation, with a clause in the Welfare Reform Act 2009, to give similar flexibility to the then Secretary of State in consideration of uplifting benefits.

I have set out that this is a technical but important Bill. The Government have worked hard to protect people of all ages during the pandemic by strengthening the welfare safety net, introducing furlough and income protection schemes, as well as supporting those who have lost their jobs to try to help them get back into work. It is right that we also provide protection to our pensioners. Provided the Bill has passed into law by the time I conduct my annual review next month, those pensions and benefits need not remain frozen next year and we will provide our pensioners with important peace of mind.

--- Later in debate ---
Guy Opperman Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Guy Opperman)
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I would like to begin by thanking everyone who has spoken in the debate, which has been wide ranging and consensual and has covered a number of topics.

Because this is my first appearance back at the Dispatch Box, Madam Deputy Speaker, I just want to raise a personal matter. This is my first appearance since the demise of my twin boys in late June, and I was genuinely struck by the amazing words of commiseration and support that I received across the House from all colleagues. I am deeply grateful, and I know I speak for my wife on that particular point as well.

Moving on, I was struck by the opening point from the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) on the shadow Front Bench, and it is one I think we should all celebrate in this House: rising longevity is a fantastically good thing, and it is a wonderful problem to have. Clearly, there are policy and fiscal issues that follow it, but it is a genuinely good thing that we are addressing.

Even though the House is not well populated today, I am conscious that before me I have a former Pensions Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions—the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who now chairs the Select Committee. I also think that the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde was a special adviser—

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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He was an adviser—let’s put it that way—to the previous Labour Government, and he is acutely conscious of the issues that we are dealing with today.

Clearly, there is a delightful sense of a cross-party consensus, but I want to address some of the key points that were raised. People clearly wish to make the case on pensioner poverty, and I will address that. One can trade statistics, but material deprivation for pensioners fell from 10% in 2009-10 to 6% in 2018-19. There are 100,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty before and after housing costs than in 2009-10. Average pensioner incomes have grown significantly in real terms over the past two decades. Average weekly income in 1994-95 was £165 a week after housing costs; that compared with £320 a week in 2018-19. For 2020-21, we are forecast to spend £126 billion a year on pensioners, including £102 billion on state pension. Colleagues will know that that is a record sum spent by any Government in this House in respect of pensioners.

I will attempt to answer some of the particular points that were fairly made on pension credit. It is again the case, and I should put this on record, that pension credit increased significantly under the coalition and then under this Government, from £132.60 to £173.75 for a single person and from £202.40 to £265.20 for a couple. The take-up of pension credit is something that all would like to see increased. I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) on that; this is the first chance I have had to respond to him in this House, and it is delightful that he is here. He makes the fair point that it is in all our interests that pension credit be increased.

One of my colleagues asked what had been the impact of the BBC decision. There is no totally granular data on that, but I can assist to a degree: the claims for pension credit, which is what we want to see, were dramatically increased as of July 2020 compared with January 2020. There is definitely a massive increase in claims and clearly a filtering through of the acceptance of said claims. I refer hon. Members to the parliamentary question asked by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), PQ 82024. I will ensure that I put a note of the issue on the record in the Library to answer that particular point and expand upon it.

In respect of pension credit, the Secretary of State was right to identify that we had a significant nationwide campaign in the spring of this year, and that the combination of that and the impact of the BBC decision clearly had an impact on greater take-up. The specific causes of the increase in take-up are hard to assess, but there is no doubt that the take-up has been larger.

In respect of the point raised by various hon. Members about working-age benefits, it is right to say that the Government are proud of the fact that they have provided support during the pandemic for those below state pension age, whether through the plan for jobs, with Kickstart now open for bids across Great Britain and doing very well, increasing the standard allowance in universal credit and working tax credit by £1,040 this year, benefiting 4 million families, investing approximately £9 billion of extra support to protect people’s incomes through the pandemic, removing the seven-day waiting requirement for employment and support allowance claims linked to covid-19, or relaxing the universal credit minimum income floor for self-employed people.

As the Secretary of State said to the right hon. Member for East Ham and the Work and Pensions Committee yesterday, that is a matter that is clearly in her mind and that is to be considered by the Secretary of State. I cannot really add or expand upon the answer that she gave, and it would not be appropriate to comment further, because clearly she has to conduct a review and then return to this House to respond to that review.

Having dealt with the specifics, all colleagues have identified that this is an important piece of legislation, without which the state pension would be frozen for a year from April 2021. It makes technical changes to ensure that state pensions can be uprated, providing peace of mind to pensioners regarding their financial health. It is a one-year Bill, so it is not the case that we are considering the matter beyond the first year. Clearly, this arises out of the covid emergency and its impact on earnings, and it would not be appropriate to address the future at this stage. I believe this Bill is a further demonstration of this Government’s action in support of pensioners, and provides them with financial peace of mind in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).

SOCIAL SECURITY (UP-RATING OF BENEFITS) BILL (MONEY)

Queen’s recommendation signified.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.—(David T.C. Davies.)

Question agreed to.