Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Work and Pensions

Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill

Thérèse Coffey Excerpts
Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Dr Thérèse Coffey)
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I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am pleased to introduce the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill. It makes technical changes for one year only that will ensure that state pensions can still potentially be uprated, despite the likely fall in earnings. This will allow the Government to maintain a manifesto commitment to the pensions triple lock policy, providing peace of mind to pensioners about their financial health. It will also allow for potential increases for the poorest pensioners who are in receipt of pension credit, as well as uprating widows’ and widowers’ benefit in industrial death benefit.

As I set out with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), in our letter to all right hon. and hon. Members last week, each year the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my good self, is required by law to conduct a review of certain benefit and pension rates to determine whether they have retained their value in relation to the general level of earnings. If there is a rise, then there is a requirement to uprate the state pension and benefits at least in line with that increase.

In accordance with the usual process, I will undertake that review of social security rates shortly and will report to Parliament on the outcome of the review in November. However, if there has been no increase in the general level of earnings, there are currently no legal powers for the Government to bring forward an uprating order. Since 2011, the Government have used average weekly earnings growth from May to July as the basis for the review. The provisional figure for that period, published by the Office for National Statistics on 15 September 2020, shows a decline in earnings of 1% due to the economic impacts of covid-19. Confirmed figures will be published later this month. Owing to the challenging economic circumstances, average weekly earnings are expected, unfortunately, to show no growth this year. Therefore, this Bill will temporarily amend the Social Security Administration Act 1992 for one year only to grant discretionary powers to increase these rates irrespective of the growth or indeed fall in earnings.

The Bill covers the basic state pension, the new state pension, the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit, and widows’ and widowers’ benefits in industrial death benefit. Those benefits are linked in primary legislation to earnings. The Bill does not extend to benefits that are linked to prices. I will review those under the existing powers in the 1992 Act.

The Bill largely covers reserved matters for Great Britain. On the one element that is devolved to Scotland, Scottish Ministers laid a legislative consent motion, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament yesterday. Under the Social Security Administration (Northern Ireland) Act 1992, the Department for Communities has the power to mirror the uprating order made under the Act that applies in Great Britain. The Northern Ireland Executive can make a corresponding order under their existing power, which mirrors the outcome of the Secretary of State’s review without the need for new primary legislation in Northern Ireland.

The Bill must receive Royal Assent by mid-November to allow the review to be completed. If the Bill does not receive Royal Assent ahead of this deadline, the current legislation will apply, and state pensions will almost certainly remain frozen.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I thank the Secretary of State for giving way; I know that she has other business this afternoon. As well as uprating, many of us in the House have a concern about the lack of uptake of pension credit. Will she tell us what measures her Department will take to ensure that there is a better uptake of that particular benefit?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We always want to encourage people to take up benefits to which they are entitled. There was an extensive amount of advertising earlier in the year, which was linked into GP surgeries and other public places, in order to encourage that uptake. The changes that the BBC has made in regard to the TV licence has also encouraged some people to take that up. We will continue to try to encourage people to access the benefits to which they are entitled.

If the Bill does not receive Royal Assent ahead of the deadline, the current legislation will apply and it is almost certain that state pensions will remain frozen. The prompt passage of the Bill is essential, which is why I am grateful to the usual channels and the House for expediting this important legislation. In our discussions with the shadow Front-Bench team, we were able to highlight that there has been similar legislation, with a clause in the Welfare Reform Act 2009, to give similar flexibility to the then Secretary of State in consideration of uplifting benefits.

I have set out that this is a technical but important Bill. The Government have worked hard to protect people of all ages during the pandemic by strengthening the welfare safety net, introducing furlough and income protection schemes, as well as supporting those who have lost their jobs to try to help them get back into work. It is right that we also provide protection to our pensioners. Provided the Bill has passed into law by the time I conduct my annual review next month, those pensions and benefits need not remain frozen next year and we will provide our pensioners with important peace of mind.