There have been 3 exchanges involving Lord Polak and the Department for Work and Pensions
|Mon 11th June 2018||Bereavement Benefits (Lords Chamber)||4 interactions (177 words)|
|Thu 6th April 2017||Bereavement Benefits (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (86 words)|
|Tue 17th November 2015||Welfare Reform and Work Bill (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (799 words)|
Bereavement support payment focuses support in the immediate months following a bereavement, when it is needed most. It is intended to meet the additional costs associated with bereavement, rather than providing an ongoing income replacement. Unlike its predecessors, it is not taken into account for income-related benefits, thus helping those on lowest incomes. We intend to assess the impact of these reforms once sufficient evidence is available.
My Lords, my noble friend asked a Question about bereavement support payment and I have the greatest sympathy with people in this situation. However, we are talking about a system that was set up over 90 years ago to support women following World War I who would never be expected to work again and support their family, and who had no other means of support. This change restores fairness to the system by focusing on the 19-month period after a loved one dies. Unlike its predecessor, it applies to both men and women. It is not taxed and is not taken into account for income-related benefits to support children when in need, thus helping those on low incomes the most.
My right honourable friend will obviously listen to what the noble Baroness has had to say, but I reject her allegation that these are cuts. There will be no savings to the taxpayer in the first two years; thereafter, as was made clear in the impact assessment, there will be some savings. The important point to get over is that we have increased the initial payment, which was frozen by the previous Government in 2001 and remained frozen for many years, from £2,000 to £2,500. We then make payments for 18 months to those with children. Obviously, no element of money will resolve the problems that individuals who have lost one or other parent will have. This is designed to help with the immediate costs of that bereavement. That is why we think that, by increasing the initial payment, we have made a very real change and provided some support for those with children.
My Lords, again I do not accept what my noble friend said. We have made changes to this because the old system of three benefits—bereavement payment, bereavement allowance, widowed parent’s allowance—was overcomplicated, had been in place, with minor changes, since around 1920 and needed change. We have made a change that provides extra support at the immediate moment that that support is needed and appropriate support for those with children. There are, as I said, no immediate savings to the taxpayer; there might be savings later but it is always important, in all matters relating to benefits, to keep an eye on the overall costs.
My Lords, I will explore just some of the concerns about this new wave of welfare cuts. We need to consider these cuts in the context of the £21 billion of cuts implemented in the last Parliament. Under this Government, we are witnessing the most dramatic rolling back of the role of the state and the deepest reductions in the security floor for our most vulnerable citizens ever seen, in my view, in the UK.
The Minister said, I think, three times that the Government will protect the most vulnerable. My Lords, I have to say that is not my perception. What, for example, will this Bill mean for disabled people? The Government’s justification for the cuts is, of course, that they want to make sure that work pays and to end benefits dependency as far as possible. This is certainly a fine theoretical position—no one could disagree with it—but it does not work for people with a disability or long-term sickness who cannot find an employer willing to take them on. This is the bit of the jigsaw that is missing in this Bill: the probably perfectly realistic position of employers. Whom will they employ? They will not employ some of the people who are going to be affected, and the results could be catastrophic.
Can the Minister inform the House whether his department has assessed the likely impact of the benefit cuts on the demand from disabled people for mental health services—for example, a bed in a psychiatric hospital or social services? The Royal College of Psychiatrists has expressed some concern about what that effect could be. In my view, it could be very worrying. The key issue is that if the DWP succeeds in cutting its budget, all that happens is an increase in the budget for the NHS and social services. Then, the Government’s objective of a smaller state will not be achieved. I really would be grateful if the Minister addressed that point in his wind-up speech.
There are many, many causes for concern, but the cut I find most cruel—other noble Lords have mentioned this—is the cut of nearly £30 per week for sick and disabled people placed in what is commonly known as the WRAG: the ESA work related activity group. These people—as, again, other noble Lords have pointed out—have been assessed by an independent assessor as unfit for work. The Government argue that the extra £30 disincentivises sick and disabled people from working. The noble Baroness, Lady Browning, mentioned those on the autistic spectrum. I have worked with people with a variety of mental health problems and people with learning difficulties. In my experience, all these people desperately want, more than anything else, is to be regarded as normal. What does that mean? It means being able to go to work. They really do not need this sort of incentive or disincentive.
About half those in WRAG are entitled to DLA or PIP. These are people with serious disabilities who will find it very hard to find work or to keep a job if they get one. Does the Minister not find it appalling that people with Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis—progressive illnesses, of course—are included in the WRAG because they are unfit to work now, and they will be subject to this £30 a week cut? If they are not fit for work now, the chances of an employer’s taking them on in the future, as their symptoms get worse, are surely remote. Will the Minister ensure that such groups with worsening symptoms, assessed as not fit for work, are in future placed in the support group, whatever happens to the WRAG group?
Further, over 50% of people affected by this cut will suffer from mental and behavioural disorders. These people long to be accepted. Their families, who themselves may be on benefits, will have to pay for their food and heating. Is the Minister aware that 70% of respondents to the Disability Benefits Consortium survey said that the cut would in fact mean a return to work later, rather than sooner? Obviously, that is a judgment, and it may be wrong—but job hunting costs money, including money for transport and clothes, since you cannot go to work or an interview without appropriate clothes. That is probably particularly true for disabled people. If a claimant cannot afford the fare to attend an interview, how will that promote his employment prospects? Does the Minister have any evidence of the likely consequence of this cut on the employment prospects of sick and disabled people?
The Disability Benefits Consortium welcomes the commitment in the Conservative manifesto to halve the disability employment gap. Again, we are all behind such an objective, but depriving disabled people of essential resources will simply not achieve it. A specialist employment support programme has been mooted, which really could make a significant difference. Again, it would be good if the Minister advised the House about progress in developing that proposal.
The exemption from the benefit cap for claimants of DLA, PIP and the support group level of ESA is very welcome. However, many sick and disabled people will be subject to the cap, along with a small but significant number of carers of those defined as non-dependants in the benefits system, such as carers of adult disabled sons or daughters. The four-year freeze of benefits, including JSA, ESA, WRAG, housing benefit and universal credit, will also severely affect many disabled people, so there are multiple cuts coming along for particular families.
Perhaps the most extraordinary fact, if I am right about it, is that the most drastically affected claimants are families with disabled children. As a result of a cluster of cuts to child tax credit, the disability component and the introduction of the two child limit, a new universal credit claimant would have a maximum annual entitlement of just one-quarter of their current entitlement in the tax credit system. Will the Minister inform the House whether that is correct? Do the Government really want to penalise such families with a disabled child more than anybody else? I find that quite difficult to believe. What action are the Government taking to assess the impact of these cuts on those people? I would be grateful to know about the evidence behind that.
There are many other serious concerns, including the impact of the reduction in social housing rents on the provision of supported housing for a number of vulnerable groups, as explained by the National Housing Federation. On housing, it seems that there is one real opportunity for the Government to save billions without hurting anybody, which I have mentioned before: by releasing 10% of the greenbelt around the major urban areas. That would transform the cost of land, housing and housing benefit. Yes, we love our greenbelt, but we go walking in the greenbelt regularly, and there is never anybody there.
In conclusion, the level of anxiety among sick and disabled people and others about this onslaught on their modest standard of living is unimaginable. The future for them is truly frightening. I hope that, through debating this Bill, we can truly mitigate the effects of the Government’s plans.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure and an honour to follow my noble friend Lord Polak—I am not sure he can hear me as his left ear is to this side—particularly after a maiden speech that was remarkable for both its humaneness and its humility. The tone he struck rings completely true for those who, like me, have known my noble friend in his previous incarnation as director of Conservative Friends of Israel and now as the organisation’s unsalaried honorary president. I have always been moved and touched by my noble friend’s consistent work in improving relations between Britain and Israel for the common good of each country. He will, I am sure, make a uniquely valuable contribution to the work of this House. We welcome him to us.
I am pleased that this important debate has also enticed other new Peers to make their voices heard in this Chamber. I congratulate my noble friends Lord Lansley and Lord Lupton on their impressive contributions. Given her important role in designing universal credit, I am particularly looking forward to hearing the contribution from my noble friend Lady Stroud, and I want to acknowledge how fitting it is for to make her maiden speech in this debate. What better occasion to express the compassionate and one-nation conservativism—and I believe it is—that is not a new-fangled device cynically constructed to sweeten the bitter pills of difficult decisions? Rather it has a deep seam of tradition and a valued history in our party that goes back to Disraeli, Baldwin, Chamberlain and Butler—and today reaches Iain Duncan Smith and the Prime Minister.
As my noble friend Lord Polak said, government must take responsibility and it is vital to remember what the coalition inherited in 2010: a welfare system run by 35 different IT systems and a monster of complexity that constantly had to be fed and kept satisfied by myriad accretions of former Conservative and Labour Administrations alike. As he entered the last days of the 2010 election campaign, Gordon Brown promised a tiny toddler tax credit of just £4 a week, threatening to add further confusion to a system of 51 different benefits even highly numerate people found extremely difficult to understand.
In 2005, the National Audit Office said:
“Simplification is not an easy option. Radical reform is a rare, costly, time-consuming, and potentially controversial act”.
So it is hugely to their credit that the coalition Government embarked on the costly and ambitious project of root-and-branch welfare reform, so that we did not repeat the mistakes of previous downturns, when it became pointless for claimants who fell on hard times to get back into work. We urgently needed a system with an internal dynamic that responded to extra effort and other kinds of behaviour we want to see across the whole working-age population—and in the rising generation for whom they are role models—so that they benefit from the better health, social networks and sense of achievement and self-esteem that comes from earned, but not benefits, income.
The starting point of universal credit was the need to tackle relative poverty effectively. In the boom years of the mid-2000s, the DWP’s households below average income statistics showed that someone who had spent five years in low income had no more than a 10% chance of escaping poverty the next year. Large tranches of our population, often concentrated in poorer communities, were locked out of the record growth this country had been enjoying to 2008.
In 2009, by the time the recession had well and truly begun to bite, 5.9 million people were claiming out-of-work benefits, but throughout the preceding decade of high growth that number was only 500,000 lower. This speaks of a structural problem: high-participation tax rates preventing people in precarious economic circumstances moving into work and high marginal tax rates deterring them from working longer hours and progressing. Now, however, the British jobless rate has decreased to 5.3% and is at the lowest level since April 2008, when employment was at a record high.
Yet getting people into work is not the only priority. My understanding is that the ambition of ongoing welfare reform is to help people secure more hours and progress to better rates of pay so that they eventually no longer need tax credits at all. The 2009 Family Resources Survey showed that one in seven households were dependent on benefits for more than half of their income, and this may still be the case. Could the Minister explain to what extent underemployment, particularly as a result of working part-time, is contributing to low earnings, and not just unacceptably low wages? Surely progression towards full employment must distinguish between full-time and part-time work so that the Government hold themselves fully to account.
There were also penalties in the system that discouraged people from activities that could decrease their dependency over the long term, such as forming a stable family unit. Couples who had previously claimed as single people stood to lose far more income from benefits by moving in together than they saved through the economies of scale of sharing a home. If they were simply cohabiting, many continued to claim as single parents. In 2013, ONS and DWP figures suggested that well over 200,000 couples were pretending to live apart, with the couple penalty in tax credits a likely prime mover in this particular form of benefit fraud.
Married couples cannot hide their status and this is surely a major contributor to the social gradient in marriage. Wave 3 of the Millennium Cohort Study found that around half of new parents on a low income are married, compared to nearly 90% of those earning an annual salary of more than £52,000. Given the far greater stability of marriage, this has a terrible knock-on effect. Sadly, only half of children in poor families are still living with both their parents when they start school, compared with over 90% of those from higher- income families. Can the Minister explain what progress has been made in reducing the couple penalty in universal credit?
While on the subject of fraud, which is, after all, stealing from the taxpayer, your Lordships should also be aware that a tax credits system that pays for every child has created perverse incentives—for some migrants, for instance. Social workers in the borough of Westminster have made known to me that some are bringing in a large number of children, at least some of whom are very unlikely to be their own. If children are being treated as cash cows by exploitative adults, this is wholly unacceptable and must be exposed. It also puts the two-child limit for new claimants into a somewhat different light from what we have heard today.
To conclude, I was encouraged that, at earlier stages of welfare reform, noble Lords across the House acknowledged how complex, burdensome and inefficient our benefits system had become under successive previous Governments, and that universal credit offers a desperately needed runway out of poverty at a time when deficit reduction remains a pressing concern. The challenges predicted by the National Audit Office have been significant but surmountable. Universal credit is being relentlessly rolled out, and well below budget. I hope that the Bill will be similarly welcomed and given co-operative support, and that we can work together to ensure that this Government fulfil their elected mandate—for the common good.