60 Baroness Meacher debates involving the Department for Work and Pensions

Tue 26th Mar 2024
Tue 24th Oct 2023
Tue 18th Apr 2023
Tue 17th Nov 2020
Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill
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3rd reading & Report stage (Hansard) & 3rd reading (Hansard) & 3rd reading (Hansard) & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage
Tue 13th Oct 2020
Wed 13th May 2020

Care Leavers: Universal Credit

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2024

(1 month, 1 week ago)

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Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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This is an important subject. As I said earlier, we recognise the challenges that care leavers face as they move out of the care system. We look forward to continuing our very close partnership with the Department for Education, to ensure that care leavers can access the right skills, opportunities and wider support to move towards sustained employment and career progression. It might be helpful to the right reverend Prelate to know that we are providing over £250 million across this spending review to support care leavers on a whole range of issues, including housing, improving access to education, employment and training, and to help them develop social connections and networks, which can be very helpful to them as they set out in life.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the acquisitive crime rates among care leavers under 25 are significantly higher than the acquisitive crime rates for care leavers over 25? We know that these care leavers are exceptionally vulnerable. If there is this discrepancy between the acquisitive crime rates, can he say clearly that we need to increase the universal credit rates for under-25 care leavers?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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The noble Baroness’s first point is correct: there is an element in the crime rate. I have the statistics somewhere here. We are well aware of it and are working very closely with the MoJ on it. Putting that aside, it is ever more important that care leavers have the best possible help to move on from the pretty challenging start that they have had in life, to show them the light—the way forward into work or education—and see them into a better life.

Child Poverty

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I have already spelled out what we are doing about it. Do not forget that these figures are one year out; they are retrospective figures. In my opening Answer, I spelled out what we had taken action on. The noble Baroness is right; we do prefer absolute poverty, because relative poverty can also provide counterintuitive results, as it is likely to fall during recessions due to falling median incomes. Under this measure, poverty can decrease even if people are getting poorer.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I wonder whether the percentage of children in absolute poverty in this country is higher or lower than in France or Germany. I wonder whether this Government have some lessons to learn from our neighbours.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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Indeed. I do not have any figures to answer the noble Baroness’s question, but she makes an important point, which other Peers have raised, about the importance of bringing as many children out of poverty as possible. I happen to cover the Child Maintenance Service in government, and I feel very proud that every year we take 160,000 children out of poverty by ensuring that the money flows from the paying parent to the receiving parent—it is very important.

Health: Migraines

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Tuesday 24th October 2023

(8 months ago)

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Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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The noble Baroness is quite right. It allows me to say—I asked about it during briefings—that GPs are given regular updates and training on how to treat migraines. I also asked as to whether the training was taken up properly by GPs, who we know are under pressure, and the answer is yes. Coming back to pharmacies, greater training is being encouraged and given by the Government to be sure that those who work in pharmacies have a greater understanding in terms of giving direct and more immediate treatment for migraines.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, migraine is indeed unpleasant, but does the Minister have any estimate of the number of people who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome in this country? It is a deeply serious affliction that certainly prevents people from working for long periods and there is no effective treatment. Can he comment on the numbers and research into treatment?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I might be able to help the noble Baroness in some way. It is estimated that 190,000 migraine attacks occur every day in the UK. Over three-quarters of people who get migraine have at least one attack each month. Chronic migraine—it is a justified question—when a person gets a headache on 15 or more days a month, eight of them migraine, is less common but affects about two in 100 people.

Universal Credit

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Tuesday 18th April 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

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Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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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.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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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.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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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.

Universal Credit: Benefit Cap and Two Child Limit

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Tuesday 24th January 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

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Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I am certainly aware of the larger families project. The latest published statistics on households on universal credit show that the majority of families—79%—on universal credit had fewer than three children, with 21% of universal credit households with children having three or more children. Having said that, it is important to note that there are a number of other initiatives where we can help families with more than two children if they get into difficulty.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, one of the major contributors to poverty is the absence of affordable housing. Shelter produced a really alarming report this week which showed a year-by-year reduction in the building of affordable housing over the past 12 years. Do the Government have a commitment to reverse that policy and to increase the number of affordable homes built every year so that people living in abject poverty—particularly those depending on universal credit—will at least be able to find an affordable home?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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Absolutely. There are a number of initiatives on housing, which I am sure the noble Baroness will be aware of. One example is the discretionary housing payment, which can be paid to those entitled to housing benefit or the housing element of universal credit, particularly those who face a shortfall in meeting their housing costs. It is certainly a matter that I am aware of, and I know that my noble friend Lady Scott will be very much on top of that. We are working across government on this issue.

Unemployment: Over-50s

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Tuesday 9th March 2021

(3 years, 3 months ago)

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Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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I am pleased to report that the Government have appointed Andy Briggs as business champion for older workers to spearhead the Government’s work to support employers to retain, retrain and recruit older workers, including the disabled.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB) [V]
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My Lords, as the Minister well knows, the over-50s who have lost their jobs during the pandemic are at a serious risk of long-term unemployment, at huge cost to themselves but also to the taxpayer. Have the Government considered creating an over-50s Kickstart scheme—it is an excellent scheme for young people—encouraging employers to create jobs but also providing retraining for older workers who might well benefit from it?

Universal Credit

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Tuesday 1st December 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

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Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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I can confirm that the DWP continues to support vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities, through a series of safeguards and easements aimed at simplifying and improving their interaction with the benefits system. For ESA claimants, we have launched the New Style ESA online portal, which allows the majority of people who need to claim to do so online. Everyone infected with Covid-19 or required to self-isolate in line with government guidelines will be treated as having limited capability for work in ESA, without the requirement for fit notes or a work capability assessment.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB) [V]
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My Lords, will the Minister consider the plight of families thrown into unemployment because of the pandemic who are subject to the cap? My understanding is that these families have not benefited from the £20 uplift to universal credit. They have very little—perhaps a few pounds a week—once they have paid their rent. Would it not be fair to raise the level of the cap by £20 a week to try to help these desperately needy families?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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The Government believe that the benefit cap restores fairness between those receiving out-of-work benefits and taxpayers in employment. The noble Baroness raises an important issue that we should continue to consider, but we ought also to consider that the benefit cap statistics that have come out and show an increase in the number of people impacted are unacceptable, but also not surprising when we have a 600% increase in the number of those who have gone on to universal credit. We have also increased the local housing allowance rates.

Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
3rd reading & Report stage & 3rd reading (Hansard) & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 17th November 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

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Baroness Janke Portrait Baroness Janke (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I, too, thank noble Lords for their contributions to our deliberations on the Bill, and I thank the Minister and her team for providing us with advice and information to help us understand the issues raised by the Bill. We very much welcome the Government’s commitment to the triple lock and hope that it will not be abandoned as a short-term political fix in the face of the economic difficulties that are no doubt ahead of us. I am sure that the Government have listened to the issues raised in the debate, and I hope they will look again at the position of overseas pensioners whose pensions are worth so little despite how much they have contributed over the years. It seems that the Government have committed to consider the numbers of pensioners living in poverty. I draw attention particularly to the plight of many women who have received very unfair treatment and unfair settlements on their pensions.

I welcome the work that is being started on pension credit and I believe that the Government are committed to ensuring that those who need it most are, in fact, able and willing to claim it. I thank the Minister again for the meeting yesterday, which I thought was extremely positive, and I look forward to working with her on that project. I also thank my colleagues for supporting the Bill and Sarah Pughe in the Liberal Democrats office, who supported us so ably. So saying, I give my support to the Bill.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, it is a privilege to have been asked to make the Cross-Bench concluding contribution at the end of our consideration of the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill.

In Committee a number of noble Lords raised concerns about the level of pensioner poverty, most notably the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and I very much support their comments; but others of us wanted some reassurance that while working people are experiencing job losses on a massive scale and abject poverty—often facing homelessness—many pensioners, including me I suppose, are in a much more secure position and should not be given disproportionate support. Those sentiments certainly do not apply at all to people on pension credit. I was delighted to hear—the Minister might be able to give us some figures—about the increase in the take-up of pension credit. That is at least a start. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, I would certainly like to hear an assurance that pension credit will in fact be protected by the triple lock. I think that these pensioners and other subgroups mentioned by the Minister are in a very particular position and that any support that can be given should be given.

The other issue referred to by a number of noble Lords is the number of pensioners living in what I shall call unprotected countries abroad who have had their pensions frozen, often for many years, and find themselves in 2020 still living off something like £5 a week—serious, abject poverty. I hope the Government will give attention to that issue and also the other issues that noble Lords raised in Committee.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, as always, made a number of very powerful points. Importantly, she sought reports on current levels of pensioner poverty. I hope we will perhaps have a report on pensioner poverty shortly. She was also looking for an impact assessment of the Government’s policy options. I am not sure whether we have had a commitment on that or not.

In conclusion, there was general acceptance of the thrust of this Bill, and no amendments were pressed to a vote. I want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, for her cheerful and always courteous responses to our pleas and questions, which she always gives with a smile, which is quite disarming at times. Also, a big thank you to the Bill team, which, as always, makes sure our deliberations and debates are meaningful.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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First, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, which were valid and important. On the working-age benefits, as raised by all contributors, as soon as the Secretary of State has completed the review, Parliament will be advised of the outcome. I am glad the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, was with us yesterday for our pension credit meeting and our robust and creative discussion about increasing take-up. It was probably one of the best meetings I have been in since becoming a Minister. I am sorry the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, could not be with us, but my office did advise me prior to coming to the Chamber that it is finalising the read-out; I think she will be pleased with the actions we have agreed.

In respect of the letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, I was sure that had been sent, but let me go back to my department, double-check and confirm that to the noble Baroness.

Regarding the potential for uprating the standard minimum guarantee, it is right that we protect the incomes of the poorest pensioner households in receipt of it. A decision on how to uprate it next April will be made in the review the Secretary of State is carrying out. It will be announced this month, and we will wait to see what the outcome is and report it to Parliament, as I have already said.

The Government are committed to action to alleviate levels of pensioner poverty. For current pensioners, this includes the contributions of the triple lock, the new state pension and pension credit.

As I have already said, the Bill reflects the Government’s commitment to maintaining the income of pensioners in these difficult times. I am grateful to noble Lords for ensuring that it will be passed in time to receive Royal Assent before the Work and Pensions Secretary must conclude her uprating review of benefits and pensions. In doing so, the state pension and pension credit standard minimum guarantee can and will be uprated next year.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, it is indeed a special privilege to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Field of Birkenhead. It is very difficult to call him that; I have known him for 50 years and now I have to learn his new name. My noble friend is of course well known for his expertise and contribution in the area of poverty, whether in welfare benefits, food banks, education for underprivileged children, housing needs and so forth. He has also made an exceptional contribution to the welfare of the people of Birkenhead on all those issues and many others, as well as being an exceptionally effective parliamentarian over 40 years. The combination of those two contributions is remarkable.

Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Field, has also contributed on a considerable number of other issues over those years. I could probably keep your Lordships here all afternoon going through all the different issues that he has talked about and effected change on over the years, but noble Lords will glad to know that I shall mention just three.

With one or two other people, it was the noble Lord, Lord Field—Frank Field as he then was—who persuaded Mrs Thatcher, as she then was, to enable council tenants to buy their own houses or flats and become homeowners. For these deeply underprivileged people, to own a home was an incredibly important change in their lives and we should never forget it. If people remember, the issue at the time was that the noble Lord wanted these houses sold to the tenants but for the money to be used to invest in new social housing. The sad thing about that whole policy was that Mrs Thatcher agreed to sell the properties to their tenants but not to use the money to invest in social housing. Half the policy was wonderful but had the noble Lord, Lord Field, had his way, there would have been investment in social housing and then it would have been the perfect policy.

On a very different issue, the noble Lord, Lord Field, was one of the masterminds of the Modern Slavery Act. He chaired the committee that developed that policy and then led the charge in driving the Bill through the other place. We know that my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss and the noble Lord, Lord Randall, were also key players in that reform. It is a radical, major issue, which will last for many decades to come—that is important.

The third, totally different, example, which illustrates the versatility of the noble Lord’s mind, was the adoption by the Queen, for her Jubilee year, of the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy—it was his idea and rather a wonderful one. We can expect the noble Lord to contribute on all sorts of issues to do with climate change and the planet—you name it and he will be up there. I think he will be an extremely active Member of your Lordships’ House and a formidable challenge to anyone who chooses to disagree with him. I have to confess that that might often—sometimes, anyway—include me.

I turn now to the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill, which is what I am supposed to be talking about today. I thank the Minister and her officials for their very helpful briefing the other day. I understand that if wages fall this year, as they are expected to do, without this Bill, the Secretary of State cannot uprate a range of benefits, but I have a few questions for the Minister.

First, I believe that this year and next year should really be taken together. These two years are going to be ravaged by Covid-19, in very different ways. We know that this year average wages are likely to fall by about 1%. Indeed, we know that people on the Government’s employment support scheme will lose some 17% of their wages. I applaud the scheme—I am not being critical of it—but we have to be aware that a lot of working people, including many young people, will lose substantial percentages of their income. Millions of others will lose their incomes altogether. This year is not like any other that we have experienced in our lifetimes.

Next year, however, average wages are likely to increase by about 4%. These shifts in pay make a nonsense of the triple lock. Over the two years, we can expect average wages to increase by, let us say, 3%—a purely illustrative figure. However, if the triple lock is applied, my understanding is that with that sort of wage change this year and next, pensions would increase by 6.5%—more than double the wage increases, if I am right. No doubt the Minister is looking around for some information to prove me wrong. Maybe she will succeed but I stand by my figures for the next while.

Seriously, there is an important issue here, which a number of other Peers have mentioned: the difference between the old—like me; I claim my state pension—and the young. It is crucial that we do not lose sight of that; others have made the point far better than I could.

I understand that there is a dispute between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. The Prime Minister wants to stand by his manifesto commitment to hold on to the triple lock, which I can understand. But nobody knew about Covid at the time of the election, although we probably should have done. The Chancellor, rightly, wants to ditch the triple lock for the moment and I have to say that I think he is right. I just want to put that on record. We have a Chancellor who really knows about figures and I think he has got it right.

I agree with the flexibility introduced by this Bill but hope that it will be repeated next year. Unfortunately, it is not just one Bill covering the two years. I also hope that it will be used to increase the basic pension in line with average earnings, at most. The basic pension should not increase any more than wages; in the light of the fact that so many pensioners have done rather well in the last decade or so, even to increase pensions in line with wages at least needs thinking about. Also, I very strongly think that pension rates and other benefits for the poor should be increased even more than the increase in average wages. I hope that the Chancellor will treat the basic pension differently from the pension and other benefits for the most deprived, because we have to deal with the most incredible inequalities in our society and that is one way in which to do it.

I turn to a slightly different issue. I hope that we will consider in Committee the problem of the 4% of UK pensioners who currently do not receive the pensions to which they contributed over their entire working lives. This is the 4% who do not live in the EEA or in a country covered by an agreement that requires us to update their pensions. If they are in other countries, their pension is frozen at the level it was when they moved from the UK or first claimed their pension. You could say that that is nothing to do with this Bill, or that this is an opportunity to do something about this rather tragic little group. These are people who may have moved to Canada, or somewhere, to be near their daughter because they are frail and have stayed there. They may still alive 15 years later but have had no increase in their pensions. In conclusion, I welcome the Bill but with one or two provisos, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Universal Credit

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Wednesday 13th May 2020

(4 years, 1 month ago)

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Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott
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Claimants who receive certain benefits for caring or for a severe disability or health condition will not have their benefits capped. This ensures that the most vulnerable people are protected. Universal credit households are exempt from the cap if the household earnings are at least £604 each month. Households may also be exempt for a period of nine months, if they have a sustained work history.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, advances for universal credit claimants have to be repaid when claimants finally receive their benefits—after at least five weeks, and often very much longer than that. But their benefits will be well below subsistence level, due in part to the benefits cap, but also to the two-child limit, and to very tough rent and council tax rules. Could any Minister maintain their mental health in these circumstances? I absolutely could not—and I mean that. Will the Minister plead with her colleagues for urgent further changes—I understand that some have been made—to protect the mental health of universal credit claimants?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott
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The noble Baroness makes an excellent point: these are very difficult times. People are struggling in all sorts of ways, and we are mindful of the impact of mental health issues. I am afraid that I am unable to make any commitments around the points that the noble Baroness made, but I will say that, in these very difficult times, nobody has to wait five weeks. Since 16 March, we have issued 700,000 advances, and the majority have received their money within 72 hours.