I wholeheartedly endorse that. It is always good to have these debates to which others bring their knowledge and information, and the hon. Lady highlights something that clearly needs to be addressed. Perhaps the Minister can give us an indication on that when he concludes the debate.
We should be cementing, investing and encouraging business growth that pays into the Treasury in a natural manner. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) referred to her reasoned amendment, which I think shows what those of us on the Opposition Benches are thinking. This is a difficult topic, and I am aware of the pressure of covid-19 on the economy and how my grandchildren—and perhaps their children—may be paying for it throughout their lifetimes. However, I am concerned about how we recoup the money. It cannot be through overly taxing those who have paid all their lives and seeing them shoulder the burden more than those who can afford to pay more. We need—this seems to be a slogan—to stop squeezing the middle class. We should be investing in and encouraging business growth.
Others have referred to pension credit. When I am on the doorstep or at a social occasion, there is not an occasion when I do not speak to someone in that bracket and ask them, “Are you getting all your benefits? Are you getting your tenant’s allowance? Are you getting your pension credit?” Unfortunately, more often than not, many of those people are not getting their benefits. The Government have a role to play in ensuring that those who are not aware of a benefit know that they should be getting it. Will the Minister remind us of where we stand on that?
The figures for Northern Ireland are quite scary: 15% of pensioners—some 43,000 people—are in fuel poverty and overall poverty. That concerns me. Perhaps the Minister can address that. The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) when referring to universal credit mentioned in passing his reasoned amendment, which was not selected. He also said that, whenever furlough ends, many families will find themselves in a difficult position. I subscribe to that view, as does probably everyone on the Opposition Benches. In Northern Ireland, we are facing gas bill rises of some 35% as winter comes in hard, and those who live in Housing Executive or housing association accommodation that has been converted to gas heating face the double whammy of not just how their pensions are affected but by the cut to universal credit, and they will be squeezed more than ever. Pensioners will therefore be impacted unfairly. This winter will see increasing pressure on pensioners and many more than the 15% will fall into that category.
The right hon. Member for East Ham also referred to those in work, and I will give one quick example from a constituent. This lady said:
“You make a third of your money when you do overtime for the benefit you lose, so I am paid £3 an hour in real terms. While I do take the overtime offered to me if I am able to do it, I can also understand why others don’t. Making up £20 a week is not as easy as many would have us believe today.”
I have long opposed the cut to universal credit, especially as we are coming into winter, when there are additional costs. For the sake of working families in my constituency, I must add my voice to those calling for the money saved by this uprating change and other methods to be factored into the ability of families to afford the gas price increase. We are thinking of capping the pension increase for the most vulnerable sector of people without a real review of how their living costs will increase this year. I do not feel that we can comfortably do that with the limited information provided. Given the increase in the cost of living, as I think the right hon. Member for East Ham said, many will face the stark choice of whether they have a meal or turn the heat on. Those are cold realities for many people.
As we see rises in the cost of living in Northern Ireland, with 20% rises in the cost of food and fuel in the next few weeks, I say with great respect to the Minister and the Government that I must support my pensioners and stand with them. I will support the reasoned amendment and oppose the Bill. The Bill is not right, so I cannot support it.
I thank the 13 colleagues who have contributed to a wide-ranging debate. The Bill makes technical changes to set aside the earnings link for 2022-23. We will instead increase the relevant pensions and benefits by at least the higher of inflation or 2.5%. This approach will ensure that pensioners’ spending power is preserved and that they are protected from the higher cost of living, but it will also take into account the difficult decisions elsewhere across public spending.
The practical reality is that many issues were raised tonight, not least pensioner poverty. I would respectfully remind the House that pensioner poverty is going down, not up. As a result of the triple lock since 2010, the full yearly basic state pension has increased by £2,050 in cash terms. There are 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty, both before and after housing costs, as compared with 2009-10, and material deprivation—an alternative way of measuring poverty—is at an all-time low of 6% of pensioners.
In my constituency, £10.5 million will disappear from the spending capacity in our local economy when more than 10,000 people and working families lose access to this benefit. Does my hon. Friend agree that that will have a tremendously bad effect on local spending power?
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for introducing this important debate. Northern Ireland has the highest levels of child poverty in United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. My mailbag, like everyone’s, is full of real-life stories of people worried sick about how they will be affected. Does he agree that the removal of the £20 universal credit payment will plunge even more people into food poverty and have a detrimental effect not just on their pockets financially but on their health? It is a double whammy, and they just cannot take it.
The hon. Member is kind. I hope he will answer my intervention rather than re-intervene on me; I found that very odd earlier. Is it better in principle that people receive £20 through the benefits system or through going into longer hours, with more progress in work and building up a career where there is no limit on what they achieve?
My hon. Friend makes a compelling argument about universal credit being an in-work benefit for many people. I have been inundated with calls from constituents who are supermarket workers, teaching assistants and carers. They are already working long hours and they have gone above and beyond during the pandemic. Does he agree that this is not the way to thank those hard-working key workers for everything that they have done for this country?
I will give my hon. Friend some statistics from my constituency, where 37% of all children—that is 6,802—are living in poverty, a figure that has increased considerably under the Tories. Thousands of them and their families rely on universal credit to put food on their tables. With the latest figures showing inflation rocketing, and that is very much on food, does my hon. Friend agree that adults and children will go hungry if the Government do not do the right thing?
The Government said at the time they increased the universal credit payment that it was to pay for essentials during the pandemic. I take that to be food and fuel. Does the shadow Secretary of State believe that food and fuel prices have fallen since the pandemic, and if not, does that not just do away with the Government’s argument altogether?
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. In Oldham, there are over 11,000 people in work reliant on universal credit with 22,000 children. Is he as concerned as I am that the long-lasting impacts of driving these children into further poverty—as we saw, for example, in the Nuffield Foundation report yesterday—are going to be detrimental not just for those families, but for society as a whole?
According to the Resolution Foundation, over 40% of people on universal credit were food-insecure before the Government introduced the £20 uplift, so does my hon. Friend agree that by cancelling the uplift and cutting universal credit by £20 a week, the Government are taking the money from people that they need to put food on their tables and to support their families?
My hon. Friend is making an extremely powerful speech. We have been through a period when communities have come together, and he has just talked about volunteering and the way that communities have come together to deal with food poverty in particular. Children have been involved in that, and this is the Government who failed to feed our children during holiday time, so it is no surprise that they are bringing in this cut. Even in a constituency such as mine in London, over 5,000 children live in households that receive universal credit and are going to face a cut on top of what we have all been through over the last 18 months. It really is time that this Government started to think about the consequences of what they do to the poorest people in our communities.
Erdington may be rich in talent, but it is one of the poorest constituencies in the country. Some 63% of working age families with children in my constituency face a £1,040 cut in the biggest overnight cut to social security in the history of the welfare state. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the Government seem to be oblivious to the despair of mums and dads who are wondering how they are going to be able to feed their kids as a consequence of soaring bills—electricity, gas—and prices in supermarkets, and that at a time like this this cut is truly the cruellest cut of all?
I took a moment to look back at some of the calls the hon. Gentleman has made over the last couple of weeks to increase benefits. When I added them all up, I found that there is not just the £6 billion for this benefit, but a total of about £15 billion that the Labour Front Bench has called for. Can he tell us how we are going to pay for that, because it is real people who will be paying for those benefits?
Some 7,850 of my constituents will in three weeks’ time also lose £20 a week. Does my hon. Friend agree that the real cost will be the impact on people’s lives—the lost opportunities for those children’s futures and the hopes we all carry? Is it not right that we invest in people, not see this as a cut in itself?
I absolutely support everything my hon. Friend is saying in his speech, and the Government should listen hard, because we have all lived through a very difficult 18 months and there are increasingly difficult times ahead as well. We have learned many lessons during this period, such as that we should invest more in the things we value most. This money is targeted at families; 40% of families with children in my constituency will lose out as a result of this decision, and that will have an impact on those children. We have one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world and we know that working families are struggling. The Government can do something simple to support those families by changing their direction on this cut today.
On the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the last Labour Government and the 2008 financial crisis, what support did that last Labour Government give to those families?
Actually, that is a really important point because the hon. Gentleman was guilty in his comments on the previous welfare system of looking at it through rose-tinted lenses. There were huge problems with the previous welfare system. It caught hundreds of thousands of families in poverty traps, and at every opportunity since 2010 the Labour party resisted our efforts to reform welfare, to make work pay and to provide better financial support for families in Britain.
Just this week, the official jobs statistics showed that more people are getting back into work and there is a record number of vacancies. That is a tribute to the British people and businesses. It shows that our plan for jobs is working. It shows that our comprehensive and unprecedented support for citizens and corporations as well as the NHS, in trying to protect lives and livelihoods, has worked. After the terrible personal and economic impact of covid, boosted by the successful vaccination roll-out, Britain is now rebounding.
It was right that we took prompt and decisive action to support our nation during this challenging time. We had the job retention scheme, the self-employment grants, the VAT changes, the business rates relief, the suspension of evictions for people and businesses who were renting—I could go on. We could only do that, though, because we went into the global pandemic with strong economic foundations built as a result of 10 years of Conservative measures to restore the nation’s finances after the financial crisis on Labour’s watch, when, memorably, there was no money left. Those measures included a sustained focus on supporting people to move into and progress in work through universal credit, with the highest level of employment ever seen in this country just before covid hit.
I will not, because I am conscious that we are nearly an hour into this debate and many hon. Members will want to speak about this important matter.
Right across Government, we are investing to help people to get better-paid jobs, whether that is through digital boot camps, the lifetime skills guarantee, the £650 billion infrastructure programme that will generate 425,000 jobs, the £8.7 billion affordable homes programme expected to support up to 370,000 jobs, and the green jobs taskforce, which goes from strength to strength as we work our way towards net zero. I have referred to the extra funding through the health and social care levy, which will include support for care workers, but we will not stop as we help people to progress in work. This Conservative Government and Conservative party want people to prosper as we build back better and level up opportunity across the country.
Tackling poverty through boosting income is one element and we will continue to support people with the cost of living. We have kept the uplift in housing support through the local housing allowance rates, as I mentioned to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), maintaining it in cash terms this financial year. We spend over £6 billion on supporting childcare, which is equivalent overall to about £5,000 per family. As I said to the House, that can be up to £13,000 per family for people on universal credit.
We have increased the automation of matching benefit recipients with energy suppliers to make it easier for the warm home discount to be awarded almost automatically. I was very pleased to see that more mobile and broadband suppliers stepped forward with social tariffs for people, which is why I am delighted to let the House know that we are working with those suppliers to make it easier for them to verify the identity of people seeking those special discounts. I am also leading cross-Government action to do more on tackling poverty and the cost of living, which will help many families with their day-to-day costs.
We have heard that universal credit is flexible and that people are treated individually. I am very aware of the challenges on food insecurity. That is why we included the questions we did in the family resources survey so that we can start to think about how we can direct our policies specifically to those people. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) was trying to get out of the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), what is accurate—I am pretty sure to say—is that, in 2008, tax credits may have changed, but that was effectively for people in work. What we did not see was a boost in the unemployment benefits, so when the shadow Secretary of State criticises us for putting an extra £20 a week in the pockets of people who were newly unemployed, I do not think that his assertion is defensible.
One thing that the House may see in a couple of years is that, although in the last year of the last Labour Government we saw a reduction in relative poverty, that was largely driven by the fact that higher-paid people were unemployed—we saw a shrink in relative poverty simply because of a statistical anomaly. We have to deal with real-world facts and make sure that the provision of cash, by helping people with their income, is really the way to help them to get on in work but also to help them with the cost of living.
The last Labour Government—admittedly that was quite a long time ago and many Members of this House will not have been serving here then—did not build enough homes. Prices were not tackled, money was not well spent and we were left with no money.
The shadow Secretary of State will be aware that I am not a fan of talking about relative poverty, because it is simply a statistical element. However, since 2010, there have been 60,000 fewer children in absolute poverty before housing costs. Children living in workless households were around five times more likely to be in absolute poverty last year than those in households in which all adults worked. We know that full-time work reduces the chance of being in poverty. Overall, there are also 220,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty.
My hon. Friend is right to praise his local jobcentres. One thing we have done as part of the plan for jobs is increase the number of work coaches, and indeed the number of jobcentres, thus demonstrating to people—particularly those who have been out of work already but are coming off furlough—that we are ready to support them so that they can get back into work as quickly as possible.
Every single universal credit payment depends on the individual, so I cannot articulate that, but it is fair to say that a number of different levers appear when people work more hours, and that includes the lifting of the benefit cap. There are a number of ways in which people can earn more and keep more of their money when they are working more hours.
I do not know the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s calculation and his suggestion, but what I do know is that the Labour Government did nothing to help people in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008, whereas we have injected more than an extra £7.5 billion. We recognised the need for the temporary uplift, particularly for those who were newly unemployed and coming on to benefit for the first time. That is why we made the temporary uplift similar to that of the minimum paid through statutory sick pay. We will continue to do what we have been doing: investing in our plan for jobs, helping people back into work and helping them to make progress in work.
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on the annual uprating of state pensions and survivors’ benefits in industrial death benefit.
Each year, as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I am required to undertake a review of certain benefit and pension rates in relation to the general level of earnings. Just as last year, this year I anticipate an unusual change in earnings due to the effects of the covid pandemic. The unprecedented but necessary covid restrictions we introduced last year protected lives, especially the most vulnerable, many of whom are pensioners, and protected the NHS, but those restrictions caused disruption to the economy, including preventing many people from working, wages falling and, sadly, many people being made redundant.
As we sought to protect lives, so we sought to protect livelihoods. To mitigate the worst impacts, we introduced a £407 billion package of support, including the furlough and self-employment schemes, to support incomes. Nevertheless, last year we saw earnings fall by one percentage point. In response, we legislated to set aside the earnings link, allowing me to award an uprating of 2.5%, as that was higher than inflation. If we had not done that, state pension would have been frozen.
Thanks to our vaccination programme, which started with the eldest and most vulnerable in our society, we have seen that as the economy and businesses have reopened and millions have moved off furlough and returned to work, the labour market has shown strong signs of recovery and earnings have risen at an unprecedented rate. We face a distorted reflection of earnings growth. The latest Office for National Statistics figures from August show an increase in average weekly earnings of 8.8%, compared to the same time last year. Confirmed figures will be published next month, but we expect growth of 8% or more for May to July 2021. The relevant period earnings are taken into account as part of my uprating review.
This year, as restrictions have lifted and we experienced an irregular statistical spike in earnings over the uprating review period, I am clear that another one year adjustment is needed. So tomorrow, I will introduce the social security (uprating of benefits) Bill. For 2022-23 only, it will ensure that basic and new state pensions increase by 2.5% or in line with inflation, which is expected to be the higher figure this year. As happened last year, it will again set aside the earnings element for 2022-23, before being restored for the remainder of this Parliament. That will ensure pensioners’ spending power is preserved and protected from higher costs of living, but also ensure that as we are having to make difficult decisions elsewhere across public spending, including freezing public sector pay, pensioners are not unfairly benefiting from a statistical anomaly. At a time when we have made tough decisions to restore the public finances which have impacted working people, such as freezing income tax personal thresholds at current levels, that would not be fair. Setting aside the earnings element is temporary and only for one year. This means we can and will apply the triple lock as usual from next year for the remainder of this Parliament, in line with our manifesto commitment.
While the earnings growth is a welcome sign of the country’s overall economic recovery given the unique and exceptional events of the past 18 months, this year’s measure is being skewed and distorted, reflecting a technical and temporary period of reverting or rebounding earnings—the differing cohorts of people who were retained or made redundant. As a result, the earnings measure is a statistical anomaly and is not a real-life basis for considering this year’s uprating of state pensions. As other commentators have said, for example the Institute for Government:
“The figure for earnings growth is distorted...the increase is artificially high because so many workers were furloughed last year”.
The Social Market Foundation also endorses my proposal, stating:
“The triple lock should be replaced with a double lock...pensions would still rise, but less quickly, reducing the fiscal burden on the working-age population”.
In addition to those receiving basic and new state pensions, this adjustment will apply to those receiving standard minimum guarantee in pension credit, and widows’ and widowers’ benefits in industrial death benefit. The Bill will not extend to other benefits that are linked to prices, which I will review under the existing legislation, as I did last year.
The Government are committed to ensuring that older people can enjoy their retirement with security, dignity and respect, and that those who have worked hard and put in for decades can be confident that the state will be there to support them when they need it. Since 2010, the full yearly basic state pension has increased by over £2,050 in cash terms. There are also 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty, both before and after housing costs, than in 2009-10.
I am proud of our record on support for pensioners and of the action we took last year to ensure that pensioners’ incomes continue to increase despite falling earnings among working-age taxpayers. Our recovery is based on the principles of fairness and sustainability as we level up opportunities across the country, invest in jobs, skills and public services while repairing the public finances. This is the fair and reasonable course of action, given the temporary statistical anomalies in earnings we have seen this year as a result of unprecedented interventions in the economy and the labour market. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for having read the statement and for recognising some of the challenges that we face. I accept that it is his role and that of the Opposition to suggest that the Government are not taking the right course of action. However, this is where I disagree with him. He referred to the earnings link that was dropped in, I think, the late ’70s or early ’80s. It was not reinstated by the Labour party until the late noughties and was not commenced until the coalition Government were in place. That is why we have followed the triple lock policy for the last decade, recognising that we wanted to restore the earnings link and to see an increase in pensions overall. We have made good progress on that, as I set out, with the £2,050 cash-terms increase in just over a decade.
We have used the earnings link since the policy came into effect a decade ago, and we have done this on the same basis. As for trying to mess about with different bits of earnings, the Office for National Statistics produced some data but we did not find it necessarily reliable, in terms of what could be considered as a substantiated basis to make the change. I have made the recommendation to the Government—that has been endorsed today and I hope that the House will endorse it in the forthcoming legislation—to set aside the earnings link, as we did last year, recognising the challenges of covid and the implications that that would have had last year directly on pensioners. There is the same fairness of approach here.
I do not intend, as is usual, to publish legal advice. That legal advice is quite straightforward. I would summarise it as “The best way to introduce this temporary set-aside is through legislation, just as we did last year.” I intend to take this forward on that basis.
As for making comparisons with other countries, I am conscious that we have a substantial amount of occupational pension here. We also have a whole fringe of pensioner benefits alongside it that are not necessarily available in many other countries. Just this year alone, which is about to come to an end, while the pension cost is about £105 billion, we are spending about £129 billion directly on pensioners. We have genuinely shown a measured approach to supporting pensioners during our time in office. We think this is a sensible thing that will be broadly welcomed by the public, recognising the balancing act that we continue to face.
Recent statistics show that before the covid-19 pandemic, we were in a strong position, with rising incomes and 1.3 million fewer people, including 300,000 fewer children, in absolute poverty, after housing costs, compared with 2010. There were also over 600,000 fewer children in workless households. Our long-term ambition is to support economic recovery across our United Kingdom, and our new plan for jobs is already supporting people to move into and to progress in work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. As our economy improves, we will increasingly focus our support on in-work progression to improve opportunities for those in low-paid work and support them towards financial independence. As part of our comprehensive £30 billion plan for jobs, there is an extra 13,500 work coaches, the kickstart scheme, the restart scheme, SWAP—the sector-based work academy programme—and our in-work progression commission, which will report shortly on the barriers to progression for those on persistent low pay and recommend a strategy for overcoming them.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I will not be able to comment on live litigation, but what I would say is that we do have a comprehensive childcare offer, both as a Government and specifically as a Department. I would also say that, unlike the previous benefit system, in which childcare costs could be up to 70% recoverable, in universal credit the figure is 85%, so it is a far more generous system.
No one in this House wants to see anyone in this country reliant on a food bank, and the Secretary of State and I are working across Government to identify and tackle the root causes of food insecurity and poverty. In the meantime, we continue to spend over £100 billion a year on benefits for working-age people, and during the pandemic we have pumped an additional £7.4 billion into our welfare system to support those facing the most financial disruption. But I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is right that we now shift our focus to supporting people back into work, because all evidence suggests that work is the best route out of poverty, and we have a comprehensive plan to do this via our £30 billion plan for jobs.
We take this issue incredibly seriously, which is why we have the In-Work Progression Commission, which is due to report back soon, and why we spend over £100 billion a year supporting people of working age through the benefit system and put an £7.4 billion into the welfare system over the course of the pandemic to support those facing the most financial disruption. But I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he knows that the best route out of poverty is work. All the evidence suggests that that is the case; that is why all the efforts of this Government will be about, yes, ensuring that we have a strong, robust welfare safety net but also that the focus is on jobs, jobs, jobs—and through our £30 billion plan for jobs we will achieve that.
The opposite is in fact the case. Many of those with a disability will be better off on universal credit, and it is important, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, that they go on a benefits calculator—one of the independent benefits calculators on gov.uk—and check their eligibility. Labour Members—and the hon. Gentleman is no exception —regularly come to this House and ask for many billions of pounds more to be spent on benefits after the pandemic. Let us be clear: that is exactly what the hon. Gentleman is asking for when he refers to the universal credit uplift. I have to say that we fundamentally disagree with Labour’s approach. It is an approach that under the last Labour Government left a generation trapped on benefits and in poverty, incentivised not to work, and left children growing up in workless households, and we know what that meant for their life chances. Work is the best route out of poverty, and that is why we have put jobs and supporting people into work at the heart of everything we do. The difference could not be clearer: Labour’s focus is on billions of pounds more on benefits and the Government’s focus is on jobs, jobs, jobs.
I do not have that assessment to hand. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Office for Budget Responsibility significantly reduced its forecast in respect of the impact on unemployment, in recognition of the excellent provisions already made by the Government in the past few months and the ongoing measures set out in the Budget. We made a commitment to aim for a quarter of a million kickstart jobs to be in place by the end of this calendar year; we are well on track to doing that. We should recognise that kickstart is designed for those people who are furthest from the labour market. We will continue to use our excellent jobs army of work coaches, of whom we will have nearly 13,500 extra by the end this month, to help young people to get into work.
The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question about why these have all been taken in parallel. I think that it is to give certainty and direction to the country and to employers, particularly when it comes to the operation of the furlough scheme. As I have said before, this is really the time for those employers to get their workers ready again to go back into work, ideally sooner than before the end of September. Thinking about the temporary £20 uplift that was applied to universal credit, I think it is also fair to say that that is not the only way that we have supported people on benefits in the last year. There are also things such as the increase in the local housing allowance rate, which is on a permanent setting in cash terms. Those are the sort of other measures that we have taken, including to help some people on low incomes with the cost of living.
Yesterday’s Budget needed to do two things: first, support communities and businesses through the economic crisis created by the pandemic; and secondly, outline a comprehensive strategy to kick-start the UK’s recovery. However, the Chancellor failed to deliver on both counts.
All I can draw out from the Chancellor’s Budget speech is that, rather than meaning redistributing wealth and investment and giving working class people a real stake in their economy, “levelling up” seems to mean moving part of the Treasury to Darlington, creating a few freeports and rehashing old funding. It is smoke and mirrors to cement the status quo—policies that fail to provide a vision for a more prosperous, fairer society and that will not improve people’s day-to-day lives.
There is nothing for the NHS, social care, schools or local council services, and no meaningful plan to tackle the housing crisis. Rather than levelling up living standards, the Budget has downgraded them, with a public sector pay freeze, forcing councils to increase council tax, and announcing a £20-a-week cut to universal credit in six months’ time.
My Luton South constituents needed to see plans for a more secure, equal and sustainable future, with the Chancellor committing to a new green economy based on full employment and a strong public sector. By choosing to adopt a half-baked, unambitious version of Labour’s commitment to a green investment bank, the Chancellor failed fully to comprehend the scale of the climate emergency we face. The funding made available to the bank offers only a fraction of that recommended by the National Infrastructure Commission, and no new investment has been announced for green recoveries in key industries such as automotive and aerospace.
The free market is incapable of addressing the climate crisis—in fact, I would say that it was market failure that created the crisis—so policies that weaken the state’s role in the market, such as the super deduction tax, only reduce the Government’s ability to incentivise and direct investment towards a green transition. Instead, the UK needs an innovative, Government-led industrial strategy that stimulates green growth and job creation, ensuring that the transition is equitable and that everyone has the opportunity to have a well-paid, skilled job—something that the market is incapable of delivering.
Last week, Unite the union highlighted seven shovel-ready projects that would help the UK to develop as a modern manufacturing nation. Investing in those projects would have wide-ranging benefits. For example, building gigafactories and rapid charging infrastructure would help Vauxhall in Luton South transition to manufacturing electric vehicles. Labour has repeatedly called for a £30 billion green economic recovery to create 400,000 secure, unionised jobs in clean industries. We must not return to the same insecure, unequal, unsustainable economy that preceded the pandemic.
The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) was absolutely right to highlight the second day of a Budget debate as a moment when we can discuss these bigger issues. I join him in thanking nearly 50 colleagues for their contributions, but I am afraid I disagree with him on some of his diagnosis; perhaps, in the course of my remarks, I can explain why.
The hon. Gentleman claimed that the Budget had no ambition. You do not have to listen to me or the Chancellor, Madam Deputy Speaker, if you want to know whether the Chancellor’s Budget had ambition; you can simply listen to the Resolution Foundation, which said:
“This was a big, policy focused, budget. It rightly sought to boost the recovery before turning to fix the public finances, in both cases with a large (potentially too large) focus on Britain’s firms.”
That, I think, is pretty clear. It also said:
“Continuing furlough to September will reduce the rise in unemployment ahead, with the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) expecting it to peak at just 6.5 per cent (down from 7.5 per cent). If realised, this would be”—
I am quoting—
“by far the lowest unemployment peak in any recent recession, despite this being the deepest downturn for 300 years.”
That would include the Labour recession of 2008. So we can only hope and pray that these measures may have something like that effect, but to suggest that they are short of ambition is quite wrong.
If I may, let me just remind the House of the scale of what we are attempting. There are three great themes to the Budget. The first is the need to support people and businesses through this crisis; the second is the need to begin to fix the public finances; and the third is the need to lay the foundations of our future economy. Those are all big issues. As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde rightly pointed out, those are big matters which we are grappling with, and gripping, from the Dispatch Box and from the Chancellor’s own Budget.
Let us just touch on those. Supporting businesses and people—that would be extending furlough to the end of September. It would be the further grants we have made to the self-employed: the restart grants, a new set of grants designed to help the retail, hospitality, leisure and personal care businesses—I emphasise personal care businesses, such is the very important role they play in our economy—to get going again. The business rates holiday, which has been extended for three months before tapering for another nine months. Extending the VAT cut to 5% for a further six months before tapering it for another six. Continuing our stamp duty cut. Extending universal credit and working tax credits by six months. More money for apprenticeships. New recovery loans. A large package for the arts, culture and sports.
That is one component of this Budget, but of course, as the Chancellor has rightly emphasised, we must engage with the work of fixing the public finances, and that is why we are asking the largest and most profitable firms to pay more in two years’ time by increasing corporation tax. But of course we are giving at the same time, in the shorter run, a super-deduction. I think that is a very thoughtful policy. What that essentially says to those businesses—something like £100 billion is held on corporate balance sheets at the moment in the UK—is that we need to get away from the patterns of underinvestment by business, and this is a way of attempting to move corporate Britain in that direction. It may succeed, it may fail, but it is a very worthwhile attempt to kick-start that business investment that will be foundational, not just to recovery from the pandemic but to our long-term prosperity. Of course we have taken a variety of other measures to support the public finances and then to build the future economy.
The suggestion was made by some colleagues across this Chamber that the Budget was a piecemeal effort; that could not be further from the truth. Forty-five new town deals. The £150 million community ownership fund. The freeports in England. The infrastructure bank. I have been very closely involved with the infrastructure bank, and I can tell you that it will potentially be a very significant institution. It has, of course, its starting capital, but it also has firepower of up to £40 billion. That is not a trivial amount of money, and placing it in Leeds could not be a more emphatic demonstration of the Government’s commitment to levelling up, as the move by not just the Treasury but other Government Departments—the Department for International Trade, BEIS and the MHCLG—to join in a new campus in Darlington has been. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) said, that will transform that town, but it also sends a much wider signal: “By their fruits shall ye know them.”
It is all very well talking about these things. Those towns and areas could have been supported by the Labour party over decades and they were not. This Government are stepping forward to make that difference. Of course, the difference will not be just in the investment—the pounds, shillings and pence that are spent there. It will be in the lifting of expectations, the career opportunities, and the possibility of framing a new narrative based on different assumptions about how the world works than just those to be found in London. That is profoundly exciting and important.
Of course, we are talking also about the levelling-up fund, Help to Grow, and a very important development on future breakthrough. I love the fact that we will support not just levelling up but our green investment through the UK infrastructure bank. That will be a very important part of the picture. Let me turn to some of the comments made by colleagues, because they were very well taken. There are many areas where I am not sure that I always agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), but when he said, “Go for growth,” he was absolutely right to emphasise the growth aspects of the Budget.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) pointed out, rightly, that the Budget delivered for Devon. He was absolutely spot on about that. I disagreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) about corporation tax. He needs to understand, if I may say so, that the rise in corporation tax was the result of many aspects of things. What is noticeable about it, though, is that it did not trigger an enormous increase in business investment. That is one of the reasons why we have adopted this slightly different approach.
I agree very much with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), who pointed out the importance of the start-up grants that will support beauty and personal care businesses. He was absolutely right about that. He mentioned the town deal and the east midlands freeport, and rightly so. I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), who said he was pro our UK infrastructure bank being located in Leeds. He was right to say that. That was not by any means the picture taken by the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), who also spoke, but I think that the hon. Member for Leeds North East was right in saying that.
The point that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) made in praising the Chancellor’s honesty and directness when engaging with us struck a chord with me. I think it strikes a chord with many people across the House and in the wider public. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) pointed out the importance of skills—absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) pointed out the value of the super-deduction plan. Again, I thoroughly agree with him.
It was nice to hear my great friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), talk about the importance of her Thames freeport. That is right. I was surprised that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) did not welcome the Liverpool city region freeport, which I think will be a tremendous boost to that area. I think she was wrong to say that. I think it will be widely welcomed, particularly as it gets up and running. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock on that.
I respected very much the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) as she sang the glories of Croydon. That was a beautiful moment in our debate. I very much liked the possibility that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, might, as my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell) invited you, teach the world to sing. I look forward to that very much. Perhaps in a future debate we can be treated to a yodelling intro in the style of the late New Seekers—or am I betraying my age?
My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) was absolutely right. He pointed to the town deal that existed for Ipswich. He pointed to Freeport East, and said, or implied—I am sure he would say—that this is a Government who do what they say. I am very pleased that, in that regard at least, we have been able to deliver for him in a way that we have delivered for many other places across the country that historically have been ignored.
Let me end by thanking hon. Members for their comments. We are trying to do something big here. We are trying to respond to the big issues that the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde rightly flagged. He is wrong about what he claims are cliff edges. There is, in each of the cases I have described, a tapering effect in the major reliefs, which is designed to return us to something akin to normality if we can follow the road map and get out of the position we are in. The fact of the matter is that, as the Resolution Foundation pointed out, we are in the worst crisis, the deepest downturn, for 300 years. That is not a fact we can ignore, and it is a fact that it is incumbent on us, across the House and in this Government, to address.
Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Tom Pursglove.)
Debate to be resumed on Monday 8 March.
We have provided an unprecedented economic support package to protect and create jobs through the pandemic. For people who need to change careers, our sector-based work academy programmes—SWAPs—offer training, work experience and a guaranteed job interview to get those people ready to start a job, allowing them to learn the skills that employers in that particular industry look for. Alongside that, our flexible support fund has been boosted by an extra £150 million so that work coaches can help to support individuals facing redundancy through retraining and overcoming barriers to work.
As has been explained several times to the House today, and previously by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the Government introduced a raft of temporary measures to support those most impacted by the covid pandemic. The hon. Member is aware of the statement I made to the House, where I said that the situation would be reviewed in the new year, and that is exactly what I am doing. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor as we consider the options on how best to support people through the pandemic.
I can only more or less repeat what I said before. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I are actively working on proposals on how we can continue to make sure that we support people most badly affected by the pandemic. This is part of the discussions that are still ongoing, and I can assure the House that we are actively considering it and hope to make an announcement when we can, in order to give that certainty, as the hon. Member points out, to a number of people.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a pressing reason to have a debate and vote on this issue today is the fact that all the evidence suggests that the restrictions resulting from the measures taken to deal with covid have hit the poorest in society hardest? Poverty is up, and those people who most depend on this kind of support are the ones who are most damaged at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman is a reasonable man—I like him. He is making a sensible speech. While we are being honest about social security systems, is it still the Opposition’s policy to abolish universal credit, as it would have been had they won the general election in December 2019, although it is widely accepted to have been successful in flexing to expand in the current crisis? Is it still Her Majesty’s Opposition’s policy to abolish the entire system, and what do they propose putting in its place?
Before I call the Minister, I have three points to make. As people in the Chamber can see on the annunciator—I am not sure whether people can see it at home—there is a three-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. For those who are contributing outside the Chamber, there is a timing clock, which you should be able to see on the bottom right hand corner of whatever device you are using. It would be a lot cleaner if Members could bring their contributions to a close before the three-minute limit is up, otherwise you will be interrupted by the Chair. For the convenience of everyone as well, the question will be put at 7.15 before we move on to the next business.
I thank the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee for that intervention. I would be very happy to meet him, alongside the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, to discuss, in particular, those in receipt of the severe disability premium. Yes, it is the position of Her Majesty’s Government that we want more people to move over from legacy benefits, including working tax credits, on to universal credit, because it is a modern, more dynamic benefits system; it is the future. However—this is a very important caveat—I would encourage anybody looking to move over from legacy benefits to universal credit to first go on to gov.uk and check their eligibility, because it is important to note, as I know the Chairman of the Select Committee knows well, that on application for universal credit, the entitlement to legacy benefits will cease, so it is very important that people do check.
As I said, we have a modern, dynamic, agile, fairer welfare safety net that, in the face of unprecedented demand, ensured that millions of people were paid in full and on time. Therefore, it is quite astonishing that the position of Her Majesty’s Opposition is to scrap it—a system that, by any measure, has passed the most challenging of tests. This weekend they briefed to the papers with a press released entitled, “Cut to universal credit to hammer families in marginal Conservative seats”, playing politics with the lives of nearly 6 million vulnerable people rather than focusing on helping them through this pandemic. We will take no lectures whatsoever from Labour on universal credit. There is little doubt that had we relied on the legacy benefits system, we would have seen queues down the streets outside jobcentres and long delays leaving families facing financial disruption without support.
The reason I am here today responding to this debate is that I am the Minister responsible for universal credit and this is a debate about the £20 per week uplift to universal credit. The Secretary of State is in active discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and, of course, the Prime Minister about how best to continue to support the most vulnerable, disadvantaged, lowest-paid and poorest in our society, as the Chancellor has consistently done throughout this pandemic.
I am grateful to the Opposition for bringing forward this debate, because it gives Conservative Members an opportunity to talk about the wide-ranging and comprehensive support that we provided to the lowest-income and most vulnerable families in this country. We did so not just through the £20 universal credit uplift, but through the furlough scheme, which we know is critical to keeping that vital link to work—the sustainable route out of poverty—through the hardship fund, through the winter support grant and through the catch-up schemes. This support has been provided to the families who most need it—and in a timely fashion.
It is worth dwelling on a point that the Minister and others have made: at points during this crisis, we had 100,000 people a day applying for universal credit, yet nine out of 10 applicants were paid on time—a fact that I hope to see recognised by more Opposition Members. In that context, it is inexplicable that we would now seek to scrap universal credit, and it is worth dwelling for a second on what we inherited from the Labour Government. It can be summed up in two simple words: welfare trap. We had a welfare system that was inexplicable, with six interacting benefits. If a person went into work, they actually lost money. There was an effective tax rate of 90%.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that there is a debate to be had about the right level of the taper rate, but I think we can all agree that it is better that people should want to earn more by working, and that the previous situation was worse. We have moved forward, but there is always more progress to be made, and it is important that we make progress. I think the new system is better than the last. We have a welfare system in which it pays, for the most part, to go to work. We are trying to provide a safety net, not a trap; that is the difference between now and what we had.
Today, we are discussing a complex question. The hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members will know that getting people out of poverty is more complicated than just giving them money. That is necessary, but not sufficient in and of itself. We need to provide re-training, help to get into work, and support for the whole family in the numerous challenges that they may face. It is absolutely right that this decision be taken in the round at a fiscal event, when we can think about how to look at all these things, and, crucially, how we pay for them.
The Opposition said this was not the time to think about fiscal events. We have shown that we will throw the kitchen sink at protecting the most vulnerable during this crisis, but that does not mean that we can make uncosted spending pledges. We need to think very carefully about how we deploy our money. That is not to say that a debate should not take place, but we should think about this in the context of our wider spending pledges, and in the context of making sure that we target support at the most vulnerable in society. I am very glad that, at the outset, all of us, wherever we sit in this House, recognised that we are all here to do that.
My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to this important point. As a result of actions by this Government the UK is the first major economy to put climate risk and disclosure into statute for pension schemes, leading the way on this issue, having already legislated for net zero by 2050 and introduced ESG—environment, social and governance—legislation through 2018 amendments to the occupational pension schemes investment regulations. I genuinely look forward to when we manage to complete the Pension Schemes Bill to bring all that into effect.
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to our plan for jobs. He will be aware that there are a number of schemes already under way, including kickstart, JETS and the sector-based work academy programme. It will take a little time to contract for the long-term unemployment programme, but I assure him that, compared with the last financial crisis just over a decade ago under the Labour Government, we have acted far more quickly in getting these employment contracts in place, because we need to make sure that people do what they can to try to remain connected to the labour market.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government introduced a raft of temporary measures to support those hardest hit, including the furlough scheme, the self-employment income support scheme and the £20 UC uplift. The Chancellor has confirmed the UC uplift until March ’21, and it is right that we wait for more clarity on the national economic and social picture before assessing the best way to support low-income families moving forward. That is exactly what I put in the written ministerial statement last week.
I agree, and I was coming on to that argument. I am not sure that achieving net zero can be pushed down to individual pension schemes and individual investment advisers. I suspect we will have to accept that between now and 2050, there will be some businesses out there that are bad for the environment but we are still going to need their products and services. We will need some of those even after 2050. We will achieve net zero by having other businesses that are more positive for the environment, with some still being bad for it. I am not sure that we can require every individual pension scheme to be a net zero investor. Otherwise, there will be a load of things that they just cannot invest in, as they cannot achieve that strategy.
I fully agree with the sentiment and agree that the industry needs to do more. I said on Second Reading that what we do not need are posh written documents that sit there with nice-sounding promises that never get implemented. We need pension schemes and their investment managers to be much more—
I am grateful to the hon. Member, but I am not sure what the amendment would achieve then. If we say to a pension scheme, “You need to make sure that your overall investments are consistent with the nationwide net zero strategy”, they can just say, “Of course we are because there is a nationwide net zero strategy and we are just investing in legal businesses”, which we would presumably put taxes or carbon levies on to make sure we push this. It becomes a circle that would presumably mean only that the trustees have to produce a strategy and occasionally review it. It would not actually drive a great deal of different behaviour. I think I would want to see much more activist investment from pension schemes and their investment advisers to ensure that the businesses that they are investing in are sticking to their obligations and strategies on how they can reduce their impact on the environment, making sure that those promises are being kept on a management level rather than setting trustees an impossible target, which I am not sure would even mean what hon. Members seek to make it mean.
I was—I have it right here. We took some comfort from that statement from the Minister, but I have to emphasise the word “inappropriate” in respect of that de-risking journey. For the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister confirm that unless schemes started to move towards significant maturity, there would not be any appropriate de-risking journey? Will the Minister further confirm that he has no intention of insisting that all open schemes progressively de-risk their investments if any remain sufficiently far from significant maturity, and that he will ensure that the regulations do not have that effect? If so, how will they ensure that? We also ask the Minister to accept amendment 7, but if that does not happen, we will support the Liberal Democrat amendment 1.
On amendments 9 and 10, we return to the treatment of vulnerable customers and the need to better define the difference between guidance, advice and information. We touched on this in Committee and the Minister accepted the principle of where we were coming from with our amendments but could not accept them into the Bill. I ask him to look at that again. The SNP have tabled amendments to require that specially trained advisers and guidance are made available to people in vulnerable circumstances, including but not limited to persons who suffer long-term sickness or disability, carers, persons on low incomes and recipients of benefits. Circumstances of those types can have a significant impact on people’s finances and long-term savings plans. It is also the case that people in difficult financial circumstances may be more likely to utilise new pension freedoms, but at a cost to their long-term savings.
It is clear that the UK Government had not put in place adequate safeguards to ensure that older people who opt to free up their funds would not end up in a desperate financial situation later. Those with less money are more vulnerable to economic shocks in their personal finances, as well as being potentially more vulnerable to scammers who give misleading or false advice for free. That is why we have re-tabled amendment 10 to ensure that customers who use the pensions dashboard are made more aware of the difference between information, guidance and advice, which are very different things. People who expect advice as to what route they may be able to take may be disappointed to receive only various pieces of information. Likewise, there may be issues with exactly what the body is allowed to advise and to what extent it is able to advise on the options available. It is a simple amendment but would be extremely helpful in taking the issue forward.
As on all these issues, we have tabled amendments in good faith to try to improve the legislation. We look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in his response to the debate.
This is a hugely important piece of legislation. It is a landmark Bill. It will impact the lives of millions of people across this country and it will make our pensions safer, better and greener. I genuinely believe that the work we are doing on CDCs and the pensions dashboard, the fact that we are giving real powers to the regulator and taking the opportunity to crack down on the callous crooks who take our constituents’ pensions, the work we are doing on scams, and the fact that we have for the first time put climate change at the heart of pensions means that this will be groundbreaking legislation that we should all be proud of. I welcome the cross-party support that we have heard.
I may not be able to address all 30 amendments or the 17 separate requests for clarification, so I refer all colleagues—and those in the other place, when they consider this matter—to the two days of debate in Committee, where I expanded in great detail on many of these issues. I will happily write to individuals who asked me to address particular points. I will of course meet the ASW, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) requested, and write on the Roadchef issue, but I cannot promise anything more than previous Ministers have done.
Regretfully, I will not engage with the WASPI debate, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made clear that he would. I continue to defend this Government’s position, as I defend the Government of the two former Labour Pensions Ministers sitting on the Back Benches, who supported the exact same policy during the Labour Government. I very much take forward all the work that is done on a cross-party basis. I put on the record my thanks to the Clerks, to all colleagues who have spoken in this debate and to colleagues from across the House for their work in Committee, which was of great assistance to the House.
I turn first to clause 123 and the various amendments on open DB that were raised by a variety of colleagues. We have made it entirely clear that we do not want to see good schemes close. We support DB and we are not proposing a one-size-fits-all regime that forces immature schemes with strong sponsors into an inappropriate de-risking journey. We have also made it clear that we will use secondary legislation to ensure that the requirement for all schemes to have a funding and investment strategy works appropriately for open schemes and ensures that immature open schemes are not prevented from taking appropriate investment risks where that is supportable.
As we have explained, it would be wrong for all schemes that are expected to stay open to be treated differently from other schemes. Not all open schemes in this category share the same characteristics. Some will be maturing just like closed schemes, and it would be wrong to treat such schemes for all purposes as if they were the same as immature schemes.
We hope that we have provided reassurance that open schemes will be able to adopt funding and investment strategies that are appropriate to their individual circumstances. The regime will remain scheme specific and will continue to apply flexibly to the individual circumstances of each scheme, including those that remain open to new members.
We have made it entirely clear that we will frame our secondary legislation in such a way that schemes that are and are expected to remain immature, and have a strong employer covenant, continue to be able to invest in a substantial proportion of return-seeking assets, which will help to keep costs down. I have engaged with a range of parties—I met a number of them in detail on 2 October, and I have subsequently had discussions with a number of organisations—and we are trying to reassure them of the way ahead.
The Pensions Regulator is a regulator, not a legislator. It must regulate in accordance with the legislation made by Parliament, but we believe that the right way forward is a combination of primary legislation, regulations and the defined-benefit funding code, whereby we will seek to effectively balance employer affordability and member security, taking into account the circumstances of different types of schemes as is appropriate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on making her point so eloquently and intervening speedily in this short Third Reading speech. I can confirm that the law stays as per the Supreme Court decision, even after we leave the EU. I stand by what I wrote to her in the detailed letter that I drafted to her in October, a copy of which I will place in the House of Commons Library to set the matter firmly on the record.
Before I was so generously interrupted, I was saying that this is a hugely important piece of legislation with cross-party support, for which I thank colleagues from all parties, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who cannot be with us tonight. The Bill will affect the lives of millions of our constituents throughout the country; make pensions safer, better and greener; stop scams; introduce CDCs; create pension dashboards; and crack down on callous crooks who take away our constituents’ pensions. It also legislates for a new type of pension scheme, establishing the dashboard and making pensions fundamentally greener. I commend the Bill to the House.
Like others, I wish to put on record my thanks to the Clerks, Huw Yardley and Kenneth Fox, and to Djuna Thurley in the Library, for their support. I also thank our SNP researchers Zoe Carre and Linda Nagy for their fantastic assistance, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) for his considerable and informed support in Committee.
This Bill takes matters forward in the pensions world. It could have gone further, and I regret that it does not, but we thank the Minister and the other parties for working together constructively on such an important piece of legislation. We look with interest to its further stages in the other place.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, this Government have put an unprecedented package of support in place to strengthen the safety net for individuals, families, communities and businesses who need help at this critical time. We recognise that this has been a challenging year for everyone, especially for those who have lost their jobs and those families who are feeling the extra strain, worrying about putting food on the table or money in the meter. The Prime Minister has been clear that this Government will use all their efforts to make sure that no child should go hungry this winter. This Government also want to ensure that every child reaches their full potential. That is why I am announcing a comprehensive package of support to see these families through the winter months and beyond, through the new covid winter grant scheme, increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers, and the national roll-out of the holiday activities and food programme for the longer holidays in 2021.
With Christmas coming, we want to give disadvantaged families peace of mind and help those who need it to have food on the table and other essentials so that every child will be warm and well fed this winter. Through the covid winter grant scheme, we are delivering £170 million to local authorities in England, starting next month, to cover the period until the end of March. That fund builds on the £63 million already distributed earlier this year and, as then, funding will be disbursed according to an authority’s population, weighted by a function of the English index of multiple deprivation. Any Barnett consequentials are already included in the guaranteed £16 billion funding for the devolved Administrations, so there is funding available for every child in the UK, and I hope that the devolved Administrations will play their part in this mission.
Local councils have the local ties and knowledge, making them best placed to identify and help those children and families most in need, and it is important to stress that the scheme covers children of pre-school age, too. Targeting this money effectively will ease the burden faced by those families across the country worrying about the next bill coming through the letterbox or the next food shop. Grants will be made under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003, and different from earlier in the year, they will carry conditions and reporting requirements to ensure that the scheme is focused on providing support with food and utility costs to vulnerable families with children who are affected by the pandemic. We will require that at least 80% of the grant is spent on children with their families, providing some flexibility for councils to help other vulnerable people. We will also require councils to spend at least 80% on food and key utilities, again providing some flexibility for other essentials.
In trying to give children the best start in life, it is important that food for young children and expectant mothers should be nutritious, as that will help in their future health and educational attainment. That is why we are increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers by more than a third, helping low-income families to buy fresh milk and fruit and vegetables, and helping to boost their health and readiness for school. From April 2021, the value of vouchers will rise from £3.10 to £4.25.
The third part of our comprehensive package is the extra support we will be giving children and families during the longer school holidays. After successful pilots of our holiday activities and food programme, I am pleased to let the House know that it will be expanded and rolled out across the country starting from Easter next year, through the summer and the Christmas holidays, supported by £220 million of funding.
Our manifesto set out our commitment to flexible childcare, and the expansion of the holiday activities and food programme has always been part of that commitment. We are building on the learning from the successful delivery of the programme over the past three years to expand it across England, as we had set out to do. The programme, which is being extended to all disadvantaged children, offers that vital connection for children during the longer school holidays to enriching activities such as arts and sport which will help them perform better in school, as well as a free, nutritious meal while they are there.
In May, the Government provided £16 million to charities to provide food for those struggling due to the immediate impacts of the pandemic. I announce today that we will match that figure again, making a further £16 million available to fund local charities through well-established networks and provide immediate support to frontline food aid charities, who have a vital role to play in supporting people of all ages. The package taken as a whole will make a big difference to families and children throughout the country as we continue to fight the virus.
We are taking a long-term, holistic approach, looking at health, education and hunger in the round, not just over the Christmas period but throughout the winter and beyond. This is not just about responding to the pressures of winter and covid but about further rolling out the holiday activities fund, which is an established part of the Government’s approach to helping children reach their full potential. With this announcement, we are ensuring that as well as taking unprecedented action to protect jobs and livelihoods, we are protecting younger generations.
We are living under extraordinary circumstances, which require an extraordinary response, but I am steadfast in taking action to support all children to fulfil their potential long after we have beaten the pandemic. Social justice has been at the heart of every decision this compassionate Conservative Government have made, whether that be protecting over 12 million jobs through our income support schemes, injecting over £9 billion into the welfare system or providing over 4 million food boxes to those shielding. This is yet another example of how the Government have supported people throughout the pandemic.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for these measures, but I am somewhat disappointed by his approach. It is quite simply false to label this as anything other than a significant expansion of existing support measures and delivering on our manifesto commitments to support disadvantaged children and families. This summer alone, 50,000 children benefited from the holidays and activities fund and, as we have said, next Easter, summer and Christmas, that will be open to all eligible children who want to take part in it. Also, I think that an additional 2,500 breakfast clubs have been started during covid.
I would remind Labour Members that their proposal simply to extend vouchers for free school meals recipients over Christmas would have cost £40 million for the two-week period, and that only school-age children would have been eligible. By contrast, our new package of support, building on the £63 million earlier in the year for the local welfare assistance fund, is £170 million. It will last 12 weeks and support thousands more disadvantaged children and families. That is not to mention the commitment to extend the holiday activities and food programme, the Healthy Start vouchers and food redistribution charities. Recognising the Barnett consequentials, this represents more than half a billion pounds of support for children and families. That is happening in a much more targeted way, trusting our local councils, which can draw on the variety of information they have to ensure that we help the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people at this time.
It is that targeted approach that really sets this policy apart. We will work with councils up and down the country to ensure that every child is warm and well fed this winter.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I praise him for raising this issue on behalf of the many people he represents. This Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty, particularly among pensioners, and will continue to deliver winter fuel payments this year. I was pleased by the work done by my Department to make sure that those on pension credit, including in your constituency, Mr Speaker, received the £140 from the warm home discount scheme, without lifting a finger.
The Government have taken unprecedented action in the design of their new schemes, recognising that some businesses right around the country are still experiencing a loss in demand. As a consequence, we have developed two different schemes, one of which is “a third, a third, a third” in terms of helping people with their cost of living. Where we believe, in conjunction with local leadership, that it is the right thing for certain sectors to be closed in areas, the two-thirds support of wages is important. Of course if people do come under a certain threshold, they may well be eligible for UC, which would help top up their ongoing income during these difficult times.
What is different from the regime we had earlier in the year is that then the strong message was very much for people to stay at home and retail was closed, along with a number of different sectors. That is not the case anymore: we have now had to intervene in a much more limited number of sectors, often in conjunction with the local leadership. As a consequence, we will continue to review the best ways to support people through the welfare system, as well as through the plan for jobs and the measures that the Chancellor has introduced.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has just told me he will share with the hon. Gentleman the letter that he sent to the Chair of the Select Committee. Generally, pensions legislation has broad support across the House, in recognition of the fact that these are long-term decisions, so of course the Government will look carefully at any amendments in Committee and any points made by the hon. Gentleman. We want to make sure that, going forward, we have conference in the long-term objectives of the changes that the Bill will bring in.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who is passionate about pensions, exceptionally assiduous and, in my humble opinion, the best Pensions Minister we have had in a very considerable period of time. I hope the House will agree that having safer, greener and better pension schemes is good for our constituents, as we encourage people to invest in themselves today to prepare for a comfortable retirement, and help to make them better informed about how their money is growing and being used for them and the planet. I commend the Bill to the House.
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and, in particular, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), on their long-standing commitment to improving security for all our people in older age. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham has shown over a lengthy period his commitment to securing older age for all in our country.
I would like to make four brief points, which I hope my hon. Friend will take into account as this excellent Bill continues its passage through both Houses. First, I would like to talk about the safety of pensions. There is no doubt that auto-enrolment has been a huge success for many, but Ministers will be aware that some people—particularly those on low pay—have been auto-enrolled into a pension scheme and found, when they tried to get information on their investment, that the company handling their pension is, in fact, a bogus firm.
I vividly recall a constituent coming to see me at my surgery. He was a delivery worker on fairly low pay. He was concerned about his auto-enrolled pension and wanted to know what was happening to his assets. He was trying to get an answer from the administrator for that firm and was simply told that the assets had decreased in value. When he tried to find out more, the firm would not engage with him. It was incredibly difficult for me, as someone who is quite familiar with the asset management sector, to get on to the ombudsman on his behalf. It was very difficult to get answers out of anyone. I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that we have the ability to clamp down hard on scams of all sorts, including by those who provide auto-enrolment schemes, and to enable people who may not be at all familiar with managing assets and their own investments to seek redress where necessary.
My second point is about the structure of pensions. I completely agree that the dashboard concept is a great idea. There is no doubt that it will transform people’s ability to hang on to all their small pension pots from the various jobs they have had. Most people these days have several jobs during their career, not just one or two, and it can be a case of people looking in the back of a drawer and trying desperately to remember the name of the company where they worked for six months. That is why we end up in a situation where lots of people have lots of little pots that they never manage to lay their hands on. I ask my hon. Friend, as he considers the next steps for pensions, to consider properly the potential for creating a lifetime pot that follows the worker. Obviously, that would be a radically different approach to the pensions dashboard that enables people to keep track of all those pots, but, actually, when individuals try to consolidate a pension, quite often the transfer value of that pension is considerably less than the pay-out value if they hang on to it. That is often why one pension pot will try to hang on to a person as one of its members and stop them going somewhere else. In my view, it would be worth while looking at a pot that follows the individual that they then keep paying into wherever they work throughout their career.
In 2014, which seems like light years ago now, I was City Minister and I was very proud to be working with George Osborne, who was Chancellor at the time, to introduce the pensions freedoms. I heard what the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) said about that being an opportunity for scammers. I completely agree that some of the measures that have been put in place have really helped with that, and that, indeed, there have been some major problems. However, I do not agree that we should not have brought in those measures, because the ability of many people to then get a decent amount of money on retirement was quite life-changing for them. It enabled some to have a great holiday. It enabled others to help their children buy their first home, or to pay off their own mortgage to give them greater security as they went into a lower income in a later stage of their life.
At that time, back in 2014, we also upgraded the Pensions Advisory Service, so that people could get good advice on how best to manage their own pension assets. In my view, this has been a positive change, but there is still a very low level of understanding of pensions among members of the public, so for many, making decisions about what to do with their pension freedom or with any kind of investing is a really worrying time. That leaves them open to crooks and scammers. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister what conversations he has had with the Secretary of State for Education about adding an applied practical element to the maths GCSE that would educate young people on issues such as pensions, mortgages, car finance schemes, and, yes, student loans. What more can be done to enable people to familiarise themselves better at a younger age, so that it is not such a mystery to them as they reach the shockingly old age of people like me—
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.
As I recover from my nosebleed from being so high up the call list today, I should say that I do enjoy these sparsely attended debates, which give us all an opportunity to expound a little.
Covid has obviously had a huge impact on all our lives and arguably led to the elderly in our communities having to make some of the biggest sacrifices. During the worst of the pandemic, they rightly shielded to protect themselves and their families. As restrictions have eased, many have provided vital childcare to their children and grandchildren, allowing younger generations to get back to work. As the Government have already provided extensive financial support to many young people in our communities through schemes such as kickstart, it is right that the elderly are not forgotten during this pandemic and that their support mechanisms are reinforced.
I am glad to support the Bill and pleased to hear the Opposition’s keenness to pass it swiftly, as it will provide pensioners with much-needed financial security and stability. It is right that those who have spent much of their life working hard and contributing to the UK economy continue to receive the support they deserve. As other welfare benefits have been strengthened and increased over the past few months, it is only fair that the same principle is applied to state pensions. With nearly a quarter of my constituents in Delyn aged over 65, I know that they will be thankful for the Government’s efforts to ensure with this Bill that pensioners are properly supported, especially after the potentially devastating financial impact of covid.
The Bill rightly allows the Secretary of State to uprate the basic state pension, new state pensions and other benefits for the next tax year. Pensioners should not have to make further sacrifices because of the impacts of covid by seeing their state pension remain at a stagnant level. Instead, we should protect our pensioners and their incomes by ensuring that state pension increases are safeguarded, even if earnings do not increase.
As we have heard from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, without this Bill the existing legislation could prevent any state pension increases next year, just when financial support will be needed most, partly to tackle the economic consequences of covid. I commend the foresight of the Department for Work and Pensions in bringing forward the Bill, as many would have simply assumed, as I did, that the triple lock would persist, without realising that the wording in the 1992 Act may preclude that, leaving many pensioners surprised at not receiving their normal annual increase.
The Bill is another good example of the Government following through on their promises to the people of the United Kingdom. The triple lock on pensions, introduced in 2010, is structurally more generous than its predecessor process. It is important to bear in mind that the generosity in the benefit is locked in once supplied, as its effects compound over time. For example, the full basic state pension for an individual this year is almost 9% higher than it would have been had it been CPI indexed in the past decade, and almost 8% higher than if it had been earnings linked. It is therefore a policy that has been of real benefit to pensioners over the past 10 years.
Sadly, however, pensioner poverty is a real and pressing problem facing many of our communities across the whole United Kingdom. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report last year on UK poverty revealed that more than 2 million pensioners are living in poverty or on a low income. That is often due to low benefit take-up. One of the key benefits, mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West in his intervention, is pension credit, which currently has one of the lowest take-up rates of any income-related benefit, with more than 1 million people missing out. I mentioned that to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House during last week’s business questions. Statistics provided by Independent Age’s campaign to increase pension credit take-up estimate that more than 1,500 pensioner households in my constituency of Delyn are missing out on a total of £3.2 million.
I pay tribute to the outstanding work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and, indeed, her whole ministerial team, but I urge Ministers to work with charities such as Independent Age to increase the awareness and take-up of much-needed benefits such as pension credit. Although the Bill will help to address the issue of poverty and ensure that pensioners have greater levels of income, more needs to be done to ensure that no pensioner is left behind and that the needs of our senior citizens are fully considered in the Government’s levelling-up agenda. I am sure that my right hon. Friend, along with Treasury Ministers, will in future ensure that there is a serious discussion to be had with regard to intergenerational fairness in the longer term.
I am glad to be a member of the Conservative and Unionist party, which is a party for all and is supporting individuals throughout the United Kingdom regardless of age, whether that be helping young people into new jobs via the kickstart scheme, providing free access to college courses to increase the skills of the workforce, or, through this Bill, bringing peace of mind to pensioners about their financial security.
The Secretary of State and other Members have outlined that state pensions rise each year under the triple lock mechanism, which was introduced by the coalition Government and ensures an increase of whichever is the highest of earnings growth, price inflation or 2.5%. As there is expected to be no average growth in earnings between May and July 2019 and May and July 2020, due to the pandemic, the Government have brought forward this welcome Bill to allow a rise to take place. It also allows for an increase in pension credits. However, the Bill does not state a specific rise in the pension; it simply allows the Government to raise it.
The Liberal Democrats welcome provisions in the Bill that mean all retirees— especially the very poorest, who are claiming pension credits—will see a rise in their benefits. The Government have said that they intend to ensure that the triple lock on the state pension is maintained, but as I said, there is no mention of a specific level of increase in the Bill. It is slightly worrying that the Bill gives the Government the power to raise the state pension but fails to say by how much. If the Government were to raise the state pension by less than 2.5%, they would not be maintaining the triple lock as they have pledged to do. I hope the Minister can explain why there is no such provision in the Bill and commit the Government to at least a 2.5% increase, in line with the triple lock.
It is fair to say that concerns may be expressed about the Bill in relation to intergenerational fairness. Things have been very difficult for young people, whether as a result of issues with exams, what they are now experiencing at university or for those looking to enter the job market. Pensions expert Ian Browne has stated:
“There is a danger that guaranteeing a 2.5 per cent boost to the state pension is perceived to be intergenerationally unfair, given it will provide a considerable boost to pensioners’ income when many others are taking a cut in their pay, working less hours or have lost their jobs altogether.”
The Liberal Democrats support the triple lock on pensions, and I hope the Government do not intend to abandon it. I acknowledge the concerns but would argue that guaranteeing a strong state pension is becoming increasingly critical. It is clear that many working-age people—especially younger people—are not, and are simply unable to be, saving enough for their retirement, and final salary pension schemes are largely a thing of the past. That means that the state pension will become an increasingly important source of retirement income. We tend to think of pensions as supporting older people, but if we were to abandon the triple lock and give smaller and smaller increases over the next few decades, that would erode the retirement income of those who are only just beginning to enter the workplace. I hope the Minister agrees that maintaining the triple lock is imperative for ensuring that the next generation of retirees enjoy a comfortable income.
Another reason why the triple lock is welcome is the position of many older women. Many women rely more on the state pension than men do for their retirement income, as women have traditionally found it harder to build up a private pension due to taking a career break to raise children or to care for relatives. Raising the state pension is therefore critical for many women who rely on it and pension credit for the bulk of their income.
As the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), said, although it is not addressed in the Bill, there is a risk that the Government will have to scrap the triple lock next year due to an artificial rise in wages. In normal times, the state pension could be expected to increase by about 3% to 4%, and by a minimum of 2.5%, as per the triple lock rules. Given the disruption caused by the pandemic this year, it is highly unlikely that this increase will be far higher, for reasons outlined by other Members. People have lost their jobs in lockdown and been furloughed. As the lockdown lifts, furlough ends, and as the economy recovers, average wage growth will jump significantly. That will show up in the statistics as a massive wage rise, which would mean that the state pension shoots up too. I hope the Minister will give some indication of the Department’s plan for this largely predictable situation.
In short, this Bill is largely uncontroversial and to be welcomed, but there are clearly issues ahead. Although it is clearly an expedited Bill that the Government are looking to pass quickly for the next year only, it remains the case that many will not benefit from the uprating being agreed today—for example, overseas pensioners whose pensions have previously been frozen. I note that the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) intends to raise those issues in Committee. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the elderly and most vulnerable in our society. Providing a degree of financial security is vital, but our approach to pensions must also be considered in respect of future generations and addressing historical inequalities.
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—
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.
It is good to see that social distancing is being applied at all times. It was remiss of me not to welcome the Pensions Minister back to his place. I did send him a private message, and thoughts of him and his wife and family are very much with us all in this House. I do welcome him back.
These are five non-controversial amendments, which I hope— [Interruption.] We seem to have a laugh already from the Minister. I do not know why. He has obviously not read these non-controversial amendments. We have tabled some probing amendments and look forward to his response.
The first amendment is a theme that was picked up on Second Reading by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), which is to ensure that the triple lock is applied in legislation. The Government would have to give an explicit commitment to maintain the triple lock for the year ahead. The amendment seems to speak very much for itself.
Amendment 2 asks for an assessment on poverty, which again was picked up on Second Reading. It is certainly our view that the Government are overseeing some brutal benefit cuts, which have exacerbated poverty, and we require a proper impact assessment of the proposed uprating and the impact that has on poverty levels in each of the devolved nations.
Previous UK Budgets have introduced some fairly punitive cuts to social security—certainly the most punitive in recent memory—and we are starting to see an active reversal of reducing and fighting poverty. The Social Metrics Commission report, which was referred to at an earlier stage, notes that prior to the outbreak 14.4 million people in the UK were already living in poverty, including 33% of children, 22% of all working-age adults and 11% of pension-age adults. The largest employment impacts of covid have been felt by those in the deepest poverty, with many at risk of falling deeper into poverty as a result of job losses, reduced hours or reduced pay. We have tabled amendment 2 to provide for that impact assessment.
Amendments 3 and 4 deal with the issue of frozen pensions. UK pensioners deserve a full uprated state pension, wherever they choose to live. Due to the historical arbitrary bilateral agreements between the UK and other countries around the world, some UK pensioners who live overseas do not have their state pension payments uprated every year. That means that their pension is frozen at the level at which they first received it for the rest of their lives abroad. As of August 2019, that affected over 5,110 UK pensioners, who we believe are being adversely affected by the UK Government’s frozen pension policy. Pensioners who have paid the required national insurance contributions during their working lives in expectation of a decent basic pension and retirement find themselves on incomes that fall in real terms year on year. Pensioners will now face ending their days in poverty because they choose to live in the wrong country, in most cases without any knowledge of the implications of their choice for their pension.
In our view the state pension is a right, not a privilege. UK pensioners who have paid their fair share of national insurance contributions should not have to suffer simply because successive Governments have failed to establish bilateral agreements with certain countries. Therefore, we are asking that amendments 3 and 4 be agreed. I also refer hon. Members to the frozen pensions campaign, of which many hon. Members are members.
Amendment 5 relates to 1950s-born women, an issue that I am sure the Pensions Minister would be disappointed if I did not mention. As a previous Speaker of this House advised in 2015, persistence is not a vice. The amendment would require the Government to publish an assessment of the impact of uprating on those whose state pension age was changed by the Pensions Acts 1995 and 2011, including in particular 1950s-born women, or WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women, as they are known.
The numbers of ’50s-born women and men claiming working-age benefits has rocketed, and they should have been receiving their state pension. This is a double whammy, with those with occupational defined-contribution pensions to fill the gap being squeezed even further. Those claiming benefits find themselves having lost Government support in many cases, excluded either due to gaps in national insurance contributions, because of low-paid, precarious work, or because of other parts of household income. We are very aware of the history of 1950s-born women and the inequality they have faced throughout many parts of their lives. They now find themselves discriminated against on the basis of so-called equality, while those losing their jobs or seeking work are being further disadvantaged by an unequal playing field and a shrinking job market.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to our amendments.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that Scotland was already starting to struggle with unemployment rates compared with other parts of the United Kingdom, but I want to assure him that we will not only work with kickstart, but ensure that we have a Scotland-specific job entry: targeted support—JETS—programme so that we can tackle people who perhaps need either support to pivot into different sectors, or intense support which recognises that they may have been unemployed for some time. We will ensure that the people of Scotland get the full support of the UK Government.
The hon. Gentleman will know that when people have a substantial amount of money—and I recognise the route he indicated on how they have received that—it usually takes them over the £16,000 threshold for support through the welfare system. He specifically referred to some other programmes, where it is absolutely acknowledged that there has been a complete failure within Government in that regard. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that that is not the case regarding the NHS, but I am sure, as the NHS is a separate employer from the Government, it will continue to work with its employees and the relatives of people who have sadly died.
We have set out the unprecedented steps we took to ensure that vulnerable people would not go hungry as a result of the pandemic, focusing especially on children. While schools were closed to most children, free school meal vouchers were still in operation if schools could not provide a meal. Further support was given through the summer food fund, money was provided to food charities to help get food to people who were struggling, and 4.5 million food boxes were given to vulnerable people who were shielding. Together with the extra £9.3 billion in welfare support that has been given to households across the country, we believe that this is a strong way to have supported people in these difficult times.
Yesterday, the Government launched our new kick-start scheme, as set out in the written ministerial statement and the letter sent to all Members of both Houses. This £2 billion programme will fund the direct creation of thousands of additional jobs for young people at risk of long-term unemployment, to improve their chances of progressing to find long-term, rewarding and sustainable work.
As we build back our economy and return fully to work, a lack of work experience can be a barrier to stepping on to the jobs ladder, which is why, through kick-start, employers will be supported to access a massive recruitment pool of young people who want to work and are bursting with potential. Employers from all industries and across the private, public and voluntary sectors are eligible if they can meet our simple criteria on the provision of roles. Employers will need to show that these are additional jobs which provide the experience and support a young person needs to improve their chances of permanent employment. These need to be new roles that do not simply replace staff recently made redundant.
Funding available for each job covers the relevant national minimum wage rate for 25 hours a week, the associated employer national insurance contributions, and employer minimum automatic enrolment contributions, as well as £1,500 for wraparound support. There is no limit to the number of jobs that can be created, and organisations of all sizes are encouraged to participate.
If a business wants to offer only one or two kick-start jobs, as set out in the online guidance, employers can contact their local employer support managers with an expression of interest, and we will work to link them to an appropriate intermediary. These intermediaries could include local enterprise partnerships, local authorities or business groups, ensuring the necessary support is in place to deliver placements effectively. We will continue to be proactive on involving employers and intermediaries following the scheme’s launch yesterday.
We have already undertaken substantial engagement on our labour market strategy. I want to pay tribute to our civil servants in DWP and the Treasury who have brought this scheme to fruition, and I particularly want to thank and recognise my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), the Minister for employment, who has worked tirelessly with her usual passion for helping young people get on in life and who I know will continue to do so.
Kick-start is a key strand of our plan for jobs focused on young people and will be a boost for the British economy. I want to encourage businesses and organisations all to take advantage of the most ambitious youth employment programme in our history and help kick-start to become a flying start for our young people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his sort of support for the kick-start scheme. I really think that across the House we should see this as an opportunity for us all to help young people in our constituencies. On the principles of the future jobs fund, we have actually taken some learnings from that, on where it worked and where it did not. He referred to the fact that it had taken so long to get here, but we had the pandemic in March and this approach was announced in July. We have worked tirelessly on it and, as I say, I pay tribute to my civil servants in that regard. This is actually quite a contrast to the financial crisis of the late noughties, because I think I am right in saying that that placement scheme did not get going until October 2009. It was a long time before that happened, so we have worked at pace.
There are other elements from last time that we have learned from. Hardly any private sector businesses were involved, and the criteria were so stringent in different ways that, frankly, that scheme was very limited. I know that it is not about setting targets for these things, but the consequence of that was that the future jobs fund achieved just over 100,000 placements, although the ambition had been higher. So we have simplified the criteria.
The hon. Gentleman points to the threshold for small employers to get involved, but it is exactly the same threshold that applied to the future jobs fund, where businesses could only get involved by going through their local councils. We are opening this up in a different way, and I think we will start to see local enterprise partnerships and chambers of commerce getting involved as intermediary bodies, as well as councils. There is also a lot of support for this from many of the mayoral combined authorities.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of hours per week. The reason for this is that this is not just about rebates like the coronavirus furlough scheme. Young people will be expected, with their employers, to do more to prepare themselves for the world of work, and that may include work search in additional time. So that is another reason why intermediaries are going to be a key element in helping some of our small businesses to provide these placements, as well as the wraparound support that will be required. On the other elements to which he referred, I know that he has tabled several written questions and he will be answered.
My hon. Friend is spot on. The Department has acted at incredible pace to bring in measures as quickly as possible to help those most financially disadvantaged as a result of c-19. Through the digital universal credit system, we have enabled those changes while meeting that unprecedented demand. The legacy system, which was heavily paper-based, would simply have been unable to cope.
It is important that as the jobcentres fully reopen this week we reinstate the need for a claimant commitment. It is an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there are, but I know that I can trust the work coaches and jobcentre managers, who are empowered to act proactively with people. There will be some people right now who have not had to look for a job for the last 20 to 30 years, and they will need careful support, tailored to make sure they can start to look for the jobs that are available and which I hope will soon become available.
Over and above the £6.5 billion we have pumped into our welfare system, there is the more than £16 million for food redistribution charities, the £3.5 million for the food charities fund, which offers grants of up to £100,000 to support those charities, the £63 million local welfare assistance fund through local authorities that the Prime Minister announced two weeks ago and, of course, the free school meals voucher scheme. However, the hon. Gentleman raises a good point. We want to better understand food insecurity in this country. That is why we commissioned extra questions for the family resources survey. I look forward to looking at the results of that in great detail.
The benefit cap does play an important part, but the hon. Gentleman may not aware of the exemptions to it. New and existing claimants can benefit from a nine-month grace period when their benefit will not be capped if they have a sustained work history. Since 2013, nearly 220,000 households which were subject to the benefit cap are now no longer capped.
As I outlined earlier, we want to ensure that we have that ongoing local support between jobcentres and businesses. I know that in Beaconsfield the local jobcentre staff are working with the local enterprise partnership to explore how they can collaboratively support people back into work. I am sure that the company to which my hon. Friend refers will also be looking at the Employer Help website, which provides a range of guidance and advice, including on identifying transferable skills, promoting opportunities to work in different sectors of the economy, and supporting staff.
The independent Pensions Regulator published guidance on an interim regime for pensions superfunds. I want to stress that this is an interim regime, and that the Government will continue to develop the permanent regime before legislating with full and proper parliamentary scrutiny in the usual way. Market participants are well aware that they should not assume that the interim regime will automatically transfer into the permanent regime.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. We received the judgment only on Monday, and it is a complex issue, as he rightly recognised and as I believe was recognised by the Court. The fix will not be a simple one, and we are facing unprecedented pressures on the Department at the moment. I will of course continue to keep the House and the Chair of the Select Committee updated as that work progresses.
My right hon. Friend is right absolutely about the universal credit system; it has not been easy over the course of the past six or so weeks. I must say that our people across the DWP have worked incredibly hard, but the system has also worked exactly as it should have done, with around 90% of claimants consistently paid in full and on time—more than 3.2 million people since 16 March.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Each and every judicial review has its own grounds for being brought and is looked at on a case-by-case basis, and with each JR, the Secretary of State, Ministers and officials look closely at the grounds and respond accordingly. I gently point out to him that the Court of Appeal accepted our interpretation of the UC regulations. However, the point that some people may face budgeting issues is why we are acting.
I am disappointed, if not surprised, that the hon. Gentleman has taken the opportunity to launch yet another attack—a baseless, unwarranted and unfounded attack—on universal credit. We all know, and he knows, the truth: the system has worked incredibly well and Labour’s broken legacy benefits system simply would not have coped with the unprecedented demand that we have seen during covid-19. Universal credit has passed that test with flying colours. There have been over 3 million claims, and I am so proud of our DWP employees and the universal credit system. It is time that Labour got behind this Government and universal credit and worked with us to make the system even better.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for rightly praising DWP staff for the work they are doing. That issue has been raised by a number of colleagues, and I am looking at data and exploring options. We have been working closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to encourage people to check their eligibility before making a claim and ensure that tax credit claimants understand that when they have claimed UC, their tax credits will end, and they cannot return to legacy benefits.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome him to his new position. As he knows, we have announced measures that can be quickly and effectively put in place that will benefit as many disadvantaged families as possible who are currently facing financial disruption. We at the DWP have been under huge increased demand, and we have prioritised the safety and stability of our benefits system overall. All things of this nature will be kept under review, but at the moment, as he rightly points out, the funding has been secured for a 12-month period from Her Majesty’s Treasury.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement updating the House on the work of my Department. First, I want to pay tribute to the civil servants in my Department as well as our contractors and partners, who have been working tirelessly to provide help and support to those in need. They are the hidden heroes for many people in this country, and they should take great pride in their hard work in and dedication to supporting people through these difficult times.
From16 March to the end of April, we received over 1.8 million claims for universal credit, over 250,000 claims for jobseeker’s allowance, and over 20,000 claims for employment and support allowance. Overall, that is six times the volume that we would typically experience, and in one week we had a tenfold increase. The rate for UC claims appears to have stabilised at about 20,000 to 25,000 a day, which is double that of a standard week pre-covid-19. I am pleased that my Department is standing up to the challenge. We have redeployed a significant number of DWP staff—about 8,000 so far—and staff from other Government Departments, about 500 so far, to process these claims. Our payment timeliness for universal credit is running at a record high.
We have also issued almost 700,000 advances to claimants who felt that they could not wait for their first routine payment, and the vast majority of those claimants received money within 72 hours. Where possible, and mindful of risk, we have streamlined our processes. We will consider learnings carefully from this time in the response phase, and whether any of them can be made permanent.
We have also sought to make it possible for people to work from home, and have deployed 10,000 computers. We are now at a level of deploying 750 new devices a day to enable working from home, and have added to the IT capacity for remote users. However, if staff need to continue to work at the office, we are applying social distancing. Making sure that our claimants and civil servants are safe is a key priority. From 17 March we suspended all face-to-face assessments for health and disability benefits. We automatically extended awards for existing claimants that were due to be reassessed by three months, and will only undertake reviews or reassessments when claimants notify us of changes that could lead to a higher payment. Any claim made under the special rules for terminal illness continues to be fast-tracked—it takes an average of six days to process those claims.
Since 24 March, job centres have not been open for regular appointments, but we continue to offer face-to-face appointments in exceptional circumstances if claimants would not otherwise be able to receive support. Claimants can continue to receive support over the phone or through their online journals. All local jobcentres have been turned into virtual processing teams, prioritising advances and the registration and payment of new claims. We have also paired jobcentres across the country to support one another with processing, using fully our network capacity.
That focus on the processing of claims means that we have stopped checking the claimant commitment on looking for and being available for work for three months. We do, however, want claimants to continue to look for work wherever they are able to do so. Ministers are working hard to make sure that existing vacancies can be accessed by people who have become unemployed. We will continue to support those people while they are waiting for the opportunity for work. We have created a new website to guide people—jobhelp.dwp.gov.uk—and we are advertising 58,200 vacancies.
Although our IT systems have worked—thanks to extensive work by the universal credit team, including our contractors—I know that some claimants experienced significant delays in the verification of their identity. Identity checks are crucial to reduce fraud risk, so we worked closely with the Cabinet Office to increase substantially the capacity of the online Verify system, and average wait times are now below five minutes.
Call volumes have been extremely high, with more than 2.2 million calls in one day at the peak. Having recognised the delays that people were experiencing—or, indeed, that they were not able to get through at all—we turned it around with our “Don’t call us—we’ll call you” campaign. A bolstered frontline team now proactively calls claimants when we need to check any information provided as part of a claim. This has been successful in freeing up capacity and reducing the time that customers need to spend on the phone.
In respect of other departmental operations, although we have redeployed staff we have kept critical work ongoing in child maintenance and bereavement. We are monitoring our performance and will return staff to these areas if the response rate is unacceptable. We have cancelled the pension levy increase, supported defined contributions through the job retention scheme, and worked with regulators to assist defined benefit pensions and to combat scams.
It is worth reminding the House of our financial injection of more than £6.5 billion into the welfare system so that it can act as a safety net for the poorest in society. We have focused on changes that could be made quickly and would have significant positive impact. We have increased the standard rate of universal credit and working tax credit for the next 12 months by around £1,000 per year; we increased the local housing allowance rates for universal credit and housing benefit claimants, so they now cover the lowest 30% of local rents; and we increased the national maximum caps, so claimants in inner and central London should also see an increase in their housing support payments. I have been made aware that some councils have not made the adjustment in housing benefit, and my Department is communicating with them all this week. Furthermore, across England we had already increased the discretionary housing payment by an extra £40 million for this financial year.
The 1.7% benefit uplift was implemented in April, ending the benefits freeze, and the state pension rose by 3.9%, as per the triple lock, reflecting last year’s substantial rise in average earnings. We have introduced regulations to ease access to benefits: we legislated to allow access to employment and support allowance from day one of a claim; we relaxed the minimum income floor so that the self-employed can access universal credit more readily; we have made it easier to access ESA by launching an ESA portal for online applications; and we legislated to ensure that statutory sick pay was available for employees from day one of sickness or self-isolation due to covid-19. I remind the House that statutory sick pay is the legal minimum.
We will continue to look at issues that arise—for example, we are ensuring that maternity pay is based on standard pay, not furlough pay levels—and see what we can do quickly and straightforwardly to fix either unintended consequences or unforeseen issues, but it is not my intention to change the fundamental principles or application of universal credit.
We have undertaken a significant project to support the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the national shielding service by establishing the outbound contact centre. Furthermore, we use the contact centre to contact proactively our most vulnerable customers who receive their benefits or pensions solely through Post Office card accounts. I thank the Post Office for helping us to support this group of customers. We have been able to provide contact-free cash payments by Royal Mail special delivery, and we were able to signpost people to extra support from their local council.
I can inform to the House today that the DWP will stop any new benefit and pension claimants from using the Post Office card account from 11 May, as we prepare for the end of the contract. The uptake of accounts in the past year has been exceptionally low, but, in any event, given that we believe the vast majority of people using POCA already have a bank account, the cost of the contract is poor value for taxpayers. Existing customers who currently receive payment through a Post Office card account will see no change and will continue to receive payment into their accounts for the remainder of the contract period. We can use the HMG payment exception service for people who cannot access any bank account.
I thank the Health and Safety Executive—an arm’s length body for Great Britain that is sponsored by my Department—for its work on covid-19. It has been doing crucial work with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Public Health England to provide guidelines for employers to adhere to once restrictions can begin to be eased. The HSE is working hard, along with local authorities, to enable work to continue safely in the sectors for which it is responsible. It has developed practical guidance on the enforcement of the law where workers are being exposed to unnecessary risk.
In conclusion, my Department is standing up to the challenge of unprecedented demand for its services, and we are getting support to those who need it. We will continue to work across Government to help the nation get through this health emergency. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and welcome him to his position. We are in an unusual place today—literally, as he is appearing virtually for our first exchange in a statement—but we will be seeing each other again next Monday at questions.
On legacy benefits, I should stress that the increase to working tax credits and universal credit is only temporary —until 12 months from when it was applied. There are two things here. First, we have a digital UC system. The working tax credit system is digital. It is far more straightforward and it was quick to change that. It would take quite some time to change the legacy benefits system—I am talking about several months—with the process we have. When we make changes to benefits, they tend to happen four or five months before the actual changes come through, because that is how long it takes our computer systems to work.
Secondly, the statutory sick pay weekly rate is about £95. The change to UC is about £94. We anticipate and hope that people will be on UC for a quite a short time while we go through this significant emergency. It was, as I pointed out, straightforward to change that. There are other things that people will benefit from, including the work we have been doing on mortgage holidays, on stopping renters being evicted due to issues connected to covid-19, and on electricity pre-payment. No utility supplier will restrict supply due to issues at this time.
On the benefit cap, I said in my statement that it is not the intention to change fundamentally the process, principles or application of universal credit. I am conscious of the benefit cap, but we are still talking about a potential yearly income outside London of £20,000, or £23,000 in London, being given to benefits claimants. I am conscious that that could effectively be something like a £25,000 to £30,000 take-home salary after we take into account taxation and similar, so I do not think it is necessary right now to change the benefit cap. What I do want to point out to the hon. Gentleman is that claimants may benefit from a nine-month grace period, where their UC will not be capped if they have a sustained work record.
On the savings threshold, there is no universal credit eligibility where people have savings of £16,000. UC is designed to help the poorest in society. I am conscious that, if any changes were contemplated, they would have taken some time to process. We have decided to focus our efforts on those who are the poorest in society. I should also say that money saved for taxation payments, such as by the self-employed, will effectively be treated as business assets, and so would not be included for consideration or be deemed personal savings.
On the five-week wait, there is no intention to change that. In fact, in terms of the largest number of people who have claimed, this will be our biggest payment week going ahead. I am aware of what the hon. Gentleman says about people who have been paid in the last month. My understanding is that there is a phasing issue in terms of the calculation of universal credit payments that people would be entitled to with regard to the standard allowance. One of the benefits of having the advance is that it is designed to spread an annual income over 13 payments, instead of 12. For people who are going through that right now, my recommendation is that they should consider getting the advance. As I say, the total annual payment will be spread over the year.
On universal credit regulations relating to maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay, I will look into that for the hon. Gentleman and write to him. I know that quite a lot of consideration has been given to the different rates supporting people in maternity, but I will write to him on that.
On people only receiving statutory sick pay, I point out to the House that that is a legal minimum, but one of the purposes of the furlough scheme was that people, instead of being made unemployed, had this opportunity. Of course, if people are sick, an employer is entitled to do statutory sick pay. I should also point out that the furlough scheme can be applied straightaway for people who have been shielded and cannot go to work and cannot work from home, and we are encouraging employers to do so.