Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Work and Pensions
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.

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts). I will be picking up on similar themes to those he mentioned.

We welcome this Bill, as it enables the uprating of the state pension and pension credit despite a fall in earnings. We would expect the Government to uprate them accordingly and ensure that everyone can benefit. As the Secretary of State said, the purpose is to ensure that we meet the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit and other benefits. According to the Office for National Statistics, earnings fell by 0.1% in the three months to July 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The Government have said that they are committed to ensuring that the Bill will allow them to meet the requirements of the triple lock. We would certainly expect that. The triple lock was a manifesto commitment from the Government, but it was very much supported across the House.

Without this Bill, the existing legislation would mean that the Secretary of State would probably not be able to increase the relevant benefit and pension rates. They would remain frozen, as happened in 2016-17 when the consumer prices index in the 12 months to September 2015 showed a negative growth rate of 0.1%. We therefore certainly welcome the Bill. As the Secretary of State indicated, it also applies to industrial death benefit, which falls within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament, where there has been an agreement with a legislative consent motion. The Scottish Government are committed to expediting the timetable to match that of the Government here.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that unemployment shocks to older workers, many of whom have lost their jobs or will do so when the furlough scheme ends, could have severe implications for individuals’ retirement savings, and therefore long-term effects on their living standards in retirement. We should be very wary of that going forward, not just in discussing this Bill.

On pension credit, we encourage the Government to look at ways of ensuring that there is uptake of that benefit. There are really alarming statistics from the charity Independent Age about the numbers of pensioners who could be in poverty. We really want to ensure that pensioners are kept out of poverty by increasing uptake. I press the Government, once again, to look at as many imaginative and creative ways as they can to ensure that pension credit is taken up, because the statistics, not just in my constituency but in every constituency across the UK, are pretty alarming. I have tried holding constituency events myself to make sure that the benefit is taken up. The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), knows that I have raised the issue of uptake of pension credit with him many times.

We start from the principle that just as the national health service was created to protect all in time of need, the social security system should do the same. I encourage the Government to ensure that the £20 uplift to universal credit remains permanent and is extended to all legacy benefits. There are some really dire predictions. The Trussell Trust forecasts that food bank use could surge by a staggering 61% in the coming months, which would be equivalent to 846,000 parcels being given out. Behind these statistics are families hit by the pandemic and in desperate need of support.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity—I am sure that the Minister would think it remiss of me not to do so—to suggest that the social security system should be fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament, where we would make sure that the job was done. The Scottish Parliament has now initiated the Scottish child payment, which will be open for applications in November, with the first payments to start in February 2021, providing low-income families with an additional £10 a week initially for each child under the age of six. We will be supporting the Bill on Second Reading, but I look forward to proposing some amendments in Committee.