Social Security (Additional Payments) (No. 2) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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2nd reading
Tuesday 21st February 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
Social Security (Additional Payments) Act 2023 View all Social Security (Additional Payments) Act 2023 Debates Read Hansard Text
2.52 pm
Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

A hallmark of a civilised society is that it looks after the most vulnerable and those who are most in need. That lies at the centre of this Bill. The House will be aware of the challenges that inflation has presented to millions of our fellow citizens up and down the country—inflation that was there before the Ukraine-Russia conflict but that has been substantially exacerbated by it.

As a newly appointed Secretary of State, some of the first actions that I took were to increase and uprate pensions by 10.1%, to respect and uphold the triple lock, to increase benefits by 10.1% and to increase the benefit cap by the same percentage. Those actions, along with measures such as the increase in the national living wage by more than 9%, which will come into effect in April, have done a great deal to underscore this Government’s approach to looking after those who are most in need.

In 2022 alone, 30 million support payments were made by my Department. Eight million low-income households received £650. Eight million pensioners received a £300 payment along with their winter fuel payment, and 6 million disabled people received a payment of £150. That was alongside various other measures from the recent past, such as the reduction in the taper rate for universal credit, which provided 1.7 million families with, on average, an additional £1,000 per year.

Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC)
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There is a substantial lag between the announcement of the uprating and April when it will be brought in. What steps can be taken to reduce that lag so that people benefit earlier?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a series of payments were made last year right up until the autumn. The energy price guarantee and various other payments of which he will be aware will help millions of our fellow citizens come through what is a difficult period. The household support fund administered by local authorities is available, particularly for those who have not benefited from the assistance that I am setting out.

Luke Evans Portrait Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) (Con)
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The third iteration of the household support fund has come through. I went down to the Hinckley hub to see how people there were getting on. They expressed their thanks to the Government for this important fund. They have the accountability to be able to give funding to people in extreme circumstances when they need it. It is not heavily red-taped and regulated, so they can use it how they see best to help their clients. Is that something that the Department for Work and Pensions will take forward?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I am pleased to hear his personal experience of the measure. He is right to point out that there is great flexibility in how it can be administered by local authorities. We place a particular emphasis on making sure that that assistance goes to those who may not have benefited from the measures I am outlining, but who are still in need.

In addition to the taper, we recognise that pensioners need additional support where it is appropriate. My Department has thrown itself into promoting the uptake of pension credit. The Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), did such sterling work as the Pensions Minister and, more recently, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), has promoted pension credit with such vigour on social media and radio that there has been a 73% increase in applications for pension credit compared with this time last year.

My Department has an excellent record on unemployment. Disabled employment is up by 1.3 million since 2017. We have arrived at our target for the employment of disabled people a full five years earlier than originally planned.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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I just wonder whether the Secretary of State would like to comment on the disability employment gap.

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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As the hon. Lady will know, the disability employment gap is a key measure on which we are focused. It has more recently increased a little, which I think is the point that she is alluding to, but generally, prior to that it was on a downward trend. The Department is very focused on making sure that we get it as low as we possibly can.

In the last year we also had the energy price guarantee, which ensured that average energy bills came in at £2,500 on average, and £400 off energy bills directly paid to bill payers. In England, we had the council tax discounts for bands A to D. We had two further extensions to the household support fund, as was just referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans). For the devolved Administrations, there have been Barnett consequentials of £1.5 billion since October 2021. I am very proud of our record and the wide package that has already been deployed, which is valued at £37 billion.

That brings me to this year, when we intend to go still further. As the Prime Minister has stated, one of our key aims as a Government is to reduce inflation by 50% by the end of this year. I am confident that we will achieve that, but we recognise that, despite the relief that that will provide to millions up and down the country, we need to provide further support payments. There will be three payments totalling £900 for around 8 million low-income households. Like last year, there will be a £300 payment alongside the winter fuel payment of £300 to pensioners, and a £150 payment to disabled people. The delivery of the support for pensioners will be via regulation and is not the subject of the Bill, but the other payments will be delivered through this legislation.

The Bill sets out the basis of qualification for the payments and who makes the payments, whether that is me and the DWP or His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in the case of, for example, tax credits. It makes provision as to how the timing of the payments will be set out and it exempts the payments from charges to taxation. It sets out the arrangements that will ensure that data can be transferred and shared between my Department and HMRC, so that all the payments run smoothly and we avoid duplication and minimise fraud.

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I give way to the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee.

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms
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As I understand it, the eligibility for the payments is based on being in receipt of benefit—at least 1p—in a specific month. There will be people who, for example, are paid every four weeks instead of every month and may get two payments in a particular month, so they do not get any benefit in that month. Would it not work better to base eligibility on a two-month period to reduce the likelihood of that problem arising?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The right hon. Gentleman raises a valid point and we looked at instances where anomalies can occur in what is known in the legislation as the “qualifying period”. The reality is that we cannot iron out all the possible hard edges, but we did break the payments into three for this financial year, rather than the two that we had last year, so that in the event that the circumstances he described were to occur, there would at least be other periods in which someone could qualify. There is also the household support fund, which has already been referred to and is for just the kind of circumstances that he described.

Luke Evans Portrait Dr Luke Evans
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I am glad that the Secretary of State has looked at how to break up the payments. Will he ensure that people who find themselves with an anomaly can swiftly speak to someone to make sure that such issues are resolved quickly? When someone is struggling with their finances, one of the biggest sources of heartache and stress can be trying to get some of these payments.

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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My hon. Friend makes a characteristically excellent point. Anybody will be able to go on to the gov.uk website for further information, and we will have additional resources in place to ensure that people are manning telephones to answer the type of queries that he and the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), have raised.

The Government are on the side of the most needy. We demonstrated that first in the pandemic, through the furlough scheme and the support that we provided for businesses; and secondly, as I have outlined, with the £36 billion of direct payments last year to support those most in need. As I have set out, this Bill will bring forward yet further support in the coming year to help millions.

The Government will always stand alongside those most in need; the Bill is yet another example of just that. Let the record show that this Government, more than any other, understand that the hallmark of a civilised society is that it looks after those most in need.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I call the shadow Secretary of State.

Jonathan Ashworth Portrait Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab/Co-op)
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We will not divide the House this afternoon, because it is clear that our constituents need extra support. Families, poorer people and pensioners in our communities need help and support not simply because of the inflationary impact of the world unlocking from covid and the spikes in wholesale gas prices on the back of Putin’s heinous invasion of Ukraine, but because for 12 years—coming up to 13 years—we have seen mediocre economic growth under Conservative Governments and a failure to make our economy more productive or sustainably raise living standards.

After five Conservative Prime Ministers, six Conservative Chancellors and nine Conservative Work and Pensions Secretaries, families have been asked to endure the most brutal cuts and freezes to social security that have rendered out-of-work benefits at their lowest level for 30 years. Children have been punished by the pernicious two-child limit and there has been a 25% cut in the value of child benefit. Of course, universal credit was cut by £20—

Jonathan Ashworth Portrait Jonathan Ashworth
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Mr Bumptious needs to calm down. That is the reality of the policies that he supports, which have put more children into poverty on his watch as a Work and Pensions Minister.

Those policies meant that poorer working families entered the crisis with less resilience, less protection and less to fall back on than they otherwise would have. Before the pandemic, the lowest-income households were four times as likely to have no savings as the highest-income households. Today, we face a situation where not only child poverty has increased in relative terms under the Government, but child destitution—where children’s families do not have the means to properly heat their homes, put food on the table, buy toiletries or even provide a decent bed to sleep in at night—is now at half a million. In all our constituencies, demand for food banks has exploded, and there are now also bedding banks, baby banks and even 13,000 so-called warm banks where the vulnerable gather so they do not need to shiver in their homes.

We have all heard stories from our constituencies, such as at the Wesley Hall food bank in my constituency, of fresh food being turned down because mothers in work cannot afford the electricity bill associated with keeping the fridge running. We have heard stories of families saying no to fresh vegetables, because they cannot afford to boil them on the cooker hob. We have heard stories of pensioners using tea lights to try in vain to heat tins of beans.

None of that, by the way, is because people cannot add up or run a household budget, as some headline-chasing Tory MPs lecture us—not the Secretary of State, I concede, but some of his colleagues. In my constituency, the poorest people are some of the best at arithmetic. They go up and down the supermarket aisles, constantly adding up the cost of everything and taking items out of their basket to avoid the indignity of having insufficient funds available when they get to the checkout.

People are turning to food banks because, after 13 years, wages have become so inadequate, housing costs so severe, childcare bills so impossible, social security cuts so deep, and debts chased by the DWP so crushing that, combined with the price of shopping and energy bills going up, families simply cannot afford to survive on the income that they have. The safety net is now so threadbare that in food bank Britain, hunger, the cold and the constant dread of the bailiffs have become a way of life. That should not be a way to live.

Yesterday, the Office for National Statistics reported that 21.9 million people are spending less on food and essentials because of the increase in the cost of living. It said that 50% of disabled people and 50% of parents with a dependent child are cutting back. That is reality of the crisis and of the dismal, devastating poverty that many of our constituents face.

Let me deal with the specific measures that the Government are proposing. First, the Secretary of State rightly mentioned the inflation-proofing of benefits this year, although it is not in the Bill. We welcome that and we pushed him on it—as did, in fairness, many hon. Members on both sides of the House. To be frank, to have done anything else would have been unconscionable. He did not outline, however, that the Government are again freezing the housing allowance rates and the cap on childcare allowances in universal credit. We will see whether that changes in the Budget; I understand that the Government may be looking at that. If they make that change, we will welcome it as another example of them pinching one of our policies—I look forward to it. However, the impact of not inflation-proofing some of these allowances will be to hold families further in poverty.

Secondly—though not in the Bill, but again connected to it and mentioned by the Secretary of State—there are the energy price cap and the universal energy bills support scheme. However, the £400 discount on energy bills of course ends from April, and the Government are reducing the generosity of the energy cap from April, costing the average household an extra £500 on their energy bills. So there we have £900 extra on energy bills that households will have to find. Talk about giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Of course, not every household has been covered by the energy cap—

--- Later in debate ---
Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
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I begin by thanking all those who have contributed to this debate, which has been, as the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said, short but important. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said, the Bill legislates for two key elements of the £26 billion package of further support announced by the Chancellor in November. It builds on last year’s £37 billion package of support to help with the cost of living, and demonstrates our continued commitment to ensuring that people continue to get the help that they need throughout these challenging times.

The Bill plays a vital role in ensuring that, over the next financial year, we can continue to help the most vulnerable to cope with the increased cost of living brought about by global pressures. We look forward to and welcome continued support from hon. Members across the House, including from Front Benchers, to ensure that the legislation progresses quickly. That ensures that we can begin to make the first payments to those people on means-tested benefits in the spring.

The focus of the debate is on the provisions in the Bill that will give additional support of up to £900 to households on means-tested benefits, and on the separate payment of £150 for people on disability extra costs benefits. The Secretary of State already noted that last year we successfully, at unparalleled pace, delivered tens of millions of payments to people across the UK. That was in addition to our normal benefit processing operations. I pay tribute to my officials at the Department for Work and Pensions and all the civil service teams across Government who worked tirelessly to ensure that happened.

We were able to achieve that delivery because we deliberately kept the eligibility criteria for the payments as simple as possible. Let me respond to hon. Members who asked why. We were keen to avoid introducing complexity, which could ultimately lead to delays and unacceptable levels of error or fraud.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell (Watford) (Con)
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I applaud the additional benefits, but how can my constituents in Watford find out about them? Will there be a communications campaign?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank my hon. Friend, who is standing up as ever for his constituents. There is a cost of living website, there will be details on gov.uk and of course there is the benefits calculator on gov.uk. Those who are entitled will not need to do anything, because payment will be made to them. I hope that reiterates the point. There will be a rounded communications campaign on that. In fact, I made a video just this morning. I hope that is helpful—I promise the video was on this issue.

The key principle that has guided our approach to the Bill this time is to make those further payments to millions of vulnerable people over the coming year. Keeping the rules simple means that people on a qualifying benefit will receive the cost of living payment. That is why we are introducing the Bill. I reassure hon. Members across the House, including on the Opposition Benches, that we did take our time to look at addressing some of the hard edges. Ultimately, we concluded that introducing any significant policy changes would risk delaying payments to millions of people and introducing unacceptable levels of fraud and error. I will go into detail on that shortly, if I may.

We will be delivering the means-tested cost of living payments in three separate payments in 2023-24, as discussed, reducing the chances of someone’s missing out altogether. For those who miss out on a cost of living payment, and for others who may need further support with the costs of essentials on top of our statutory provision, we are extending the household support fund throughout the next financial year. The details have been confirmed today.

The extension allows local authorities in England to continue to provide discretionary support with the cost of essentials, particularly energy and food. The devolved Administrations will receive consequential funding, as usual, to spend at their discretion and with their expert local knowledge—[Interruption.] Sorry, I thought someone was interrupting there. The household support fund guidance and outlines have been released today. It is our expectation that local authorities will prioritise those in particular need and consider supporting those who may, through no fault of their own, have missed out on those cost of living payments but nevertheless are in need.

There have been a number of contributions to the debate and I will to try to respond to some of the points made in turn. The right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) talked about the energy price cap. He welcomed our uprating, which is significant. I remind him that childcare on universal credit is more generous than on legacy benefits and the way we have drawn the household support fund will cover many of the points he raised; I hope he will have a chance to look at those interventions. The personalised support with the Help to Claim service, working with the supporting families programme from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, will help the families with complex needs that the right hon. Gentleman spoke about.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) called this “substandard legislation”, which I take severe issue with, but he took the opportunity to make wider points about social security and talked about the “punitive sanctions regime”. I think we will always beg to differ on that. I make the point very strongly that this is a reserved matter. We are delighted to be making the payments for Scotland and today providing the Barnett consequentials in relation to the household support fund and further assistance—[Interruption.] I am sure he cannot resist intervening, so I will let him.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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Indeed not. I very much enjoyed being told to eat my cereal today. On the question of sanctions, how many people in Mid Sussex tell the Minister how wonderful the sanctions regime is? It is clearly increasing.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I will come onto the point about sanctions shortly. I know there is confusion among those on the Opposition Benches about whether they support sanctions, but this is about a safety net; it is about progressing and supporting people and helping them to go forward. In reality, when people are sanctioned, it does not just happen. There are processes to go through where work coaches try to engage and support people. If people are disconnected and they fail to attend, that is why they are sanctioned, which is often the reason they then re-engage, talk to their work coach and get involved with what is going on. That helps us to get under the skin of what is holding them back, and I think that is important. I assume from his question that there is a fundamental disagreement, but I will not hold it against him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) very kindly turned the focus on to employment. Having been Employment Minister for three years, how can I resist responding to that? A dynamic labour market is important, including the work around furlough, the plan for jobs, and the kickstart and restart schemes—I designed many of those programmes, so it is always nice to have a compliment. In reality, our talented new work coaches—those who we found, recruited and brought into the DWP because of the impact of the pandemic—have been transformational. The other side of this debate is important—it is jobs, it is livelihoods, it is careers, it is opportunities, and it is making sure that people, when at their most vulnerable, know that they have that safety net. I wish my hon. Friend good luck with his jobs fair on 10 March. I have my second in Burgess Hill—this is a great opportunity to mention it.

The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) spoke up for his constituents and their fuel requirements. Of course, the energy price guarantee will be key to protecting customers and our constituents, and the household support fund will be a key driver as well. It is absolutely right to focus on our constituents. I have worked very strongly on the household support fund to complement this piece of legislation, working with the Local Government Association, to ensure that we support everyone who comes to us in any situation. I was pleased to hear him talk about the rewards of work and why they matter too. We know that it is more than just a pay packet that we are looking for.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) spoke about households being squeezed, the cost of living website, and, of course, the fact that the help-to-claim service is there and that all constituencies—no matter how leafy and lovely they may seem—have pockets of challenge. It is absolutely right that we act when we see the impact of a global squeeze. That is absolutely the mark of what we stand for at the DWP. There is the £10 million going to Surrey, and the almost £10 million going to West Sussex just next door to my constituency. What has come out of this and the work that we have done during covid? It is our work with local authorities, which I must commend for stepping up and doing a magnificent job in helping people. They know where those pockets of support are needed. I thank those local offices.

I will quickly whip through some of the challenges made about the legislation. On the adequacy point, inflation is forecast to remain high over the next few months, meaning that many people will need this additional support, but it is important to remember that these payments are just one element announced by the Chancellor back in November. The broader uprating will make a difference.

On the points about housing support, I am working with colleagues at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on quality and provision. My party strongly continues to focus on opening up the benefits and freedom of home ownership and all that it gives. The 2020 local housing allowance rates were raised to the 30th percentile—a significant investment of £30 billion—and we have since maintained that increase. Of course, we know that housing costs are incredibly challenging, particularly for renters. That is something that we are working on and taking forward in through the housing taskforce.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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Can the Minister say to what extent the measures in the Bill will replace or add to the £34 billion that has been taken out of support for working-age people since 2010?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but it is not necessarily this Bill that will answer the challenges that some of our constituents face. It deals with issues that they face in skills, progression and other areas that have been holding them back. Tax credits, for example, quite often trap people in 16-hour contracts when they would be much better off moving on to universal credit and taking more hours, training and opportunities. I say to anybody listening: “Take the opportunities to see what is out there.”

The hon. Member for Glasgow East talked about the disability cost of living payments in the Bill. They are not disability benefits themselves, but rather payments relating to the cost of living increases that a disabled person may face. I hope that answers his point. I have covered some of the issues regarding Scotland, so I will move on swiftly, if I may.

In regard to the point from my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) about the 1p payment, we successfully delivered tens of millions of payments in 2022 by keeping the rules simple. That included a simple and clear rule that the person must have been entitled to a payment of at least 1p, as he pointed out. That ensures that those with other income sources are not eligible for means-tested benefits and are not included, nor are suspended benefit claims that include risk of fraud.

I reiterate the point around the household support fund and the three payments. They hopefully mean that if people have fluctuating payments, they have a chance to be eligible once again. That was pointed out by the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), who is not in his place, in terms of how we address those hard edges. Extending the eligibility dates would involve making more payments to those who had permanently increased their earnings, and that is the challenge. That is not the intention of the cost of living payments, which are deliberately targeted at those on the lowest incomes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley also mentioned making more payments, and I would like to address that these payments are being made outside our usual benefit processing systems, using our ad hoc payment system. That system has a limit on the number of payments it can make each day, and it can only make one type of payment at one time. That means a team of specialists have to extract and clean the data to make the payments. Having three means-tested cost of living payments and a single disability cost of living payment balances the spread of support throughout the year, but it does not compromise the core benefit delivery, and I hope that answers my hon. Friend’s questions.

I will just quickly answer the question on larger families and then conclude. In regard to how we look at supporting larger families, as I hopefully have outlined, families on means-tested benefits will benefit from our planned uprating of 10.1% from April, meaning that families subject to the benefit cap will also see an increase of 10.1%. In reality, for families who need additional help, we are extending the support through the household support fund. Again, that is linked to the issues around the ad hoc payment system.

I think I have covered most of the points in the debate, but I just quickly mention the sanctions point and reiterate my earlier point to the hon. Member for Glasgow East that sanctioned claimants who re-engage will be supported.

I will conclude, because I feel that people are desperate to be in the Lobbies. This Government demonstrate our commitment to supporting those in the greatest need and going through the greatest challenge with the increased cost of living. It is vital that we move ahead quickly with the legislation, so that we can begin to make those first payments in the spring. I look forward to further discussion as the Bill proceeds through its next stages, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Social Security (Additional Payments) (No. 2) Bill (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Social Security (Additional Payments) (No. 2) Bill:

Committal

(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Proceedings in Committee, on Consideration and on Third Reading

(2) Proceedings in Committee and any proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings in Committee of the whole House.

(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings in Committee of the whole House.

(4) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House, to any proceedings on Consideration or to proceedings on Third Reading.

Other proceedings

(5) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Mike Wood.)

Question agreed to.

SOCIAL SECURITY (ADDITIONAL PAYMENTS) (NO. 2) BILL (MONEY)

King’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 (Additional Payments) (No. 2) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of:

(1) a sum not exceeding £301 to anyone who is entitled, in respect of a day (the “first qualifying day”) not later than 30 April 2023, to–

(a) universal credit or state pension credit,

(b) an income-based jobseeker’s allowance, an income-related employment and support allowance or income support, or

(c) working tax credit or child tax credit;

(2) a sum not exceeding £300 to anyone who is entitled, in respect of a day (the “second qualifying day”) after the first qualifying day but not later than 31 October 2023, to a benefit mentioned in paragraph (1);

(3) a sum not exceeding £299 to anyone who is entitled, in respect of a day after the second qualifying day but not later than 29 February 2024, to a benefit mentioned in paragraph (1);

(4) a sum not exceeding £150 to anyone who is entitled, in respect of a day not later than 30 June 2023, to–

(a) a disability living allowance,

(b) a personal independence payment,

(c) an attendance allowance or a constant attendance allowance,

(d) an adult or child disability payment,

(e) an armed forces independence payment, or

(f) a mobility supplement.—(Mike Wood.)

Question agreed to.