Welfare Reform and Work Bill: Bishop of Durham supports amendments on benefit cap and rate freezes

On 21st December 2015 the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, spoke in favour of six amendments to the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill, during the fourth day of its committee stage.

Durham171115The Bishop spoke to amendments 93 and 94, which would introduce considerations for the safeguarding of children and the welfare of the disabled into any statutory review of the benefit cap; to amendments 95, 100 and 102, which would block the proposed benefits freeze; and to amendment 101 (on behalf of the Bishop of St Albans), which would protect ESA Support Group claimants from the impact of the freeze to the basic ESA rate.

Amendment 93 and 94

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I wish to speak specifically to Amendment 93, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and Amendment 94, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher, Lady Pitkeathley and Lady Lister.

We all agree that the welfare of children is key in our considerations. I remind the Committee that this is rooted not simply in the modern era of rights but in our Judaeo-Christian history, where the care of the orphan was paramount in Old Testament law. The failure to protect orphans was one of the core messages of the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus himself demonstrated that welcoming and caring for children lay at the heart of what the Kingdom of God is like. We have not always demonstrated this care of the child well—I include my own church in that—which is why the need to ensure children’s welfare is in our legislation. It is there as a reminder to us all, specifically those who exercise power and authority, that children must be taken fully into consideration in decision-making.

In principle, I accept that a benefit cap is a reasonable approach, partly for the reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, has just outlined, although I am not wholly convinced by his arguments about why the reduction should be made in the way proposed. Inevitably, whichever level the benefit cap is set at will affect children, so it is surely essential that the Secretary of State is required to consider its impact on children’s welfare rather than leave this as a possible other matter that is considered relevant.

Sadly, in the busyness of economics, politics and high-level decision-making, all of us can lose sight of the child. I see it happening in the House of Bishops, in the General Synod of the Church of England, in local authority decision-making and in national decision-making. Therefore, to ensure that this does not happen unintentionally, I hope that the Minister will seriously consider Amendment 93.

Alongside this, I note the well-documented reality of increased costs for those who live with disability, and for their families and carers. I suggest that we have a slight problem with language here. One reason that many carers are not available for paid work is because, frankly, they are working very hard, caring for their family member. To suggest that they are not working is to demean them. It therefore seems entirely reasonable that since the benefit cap will impact these families, serious consideration should be given by the Secretary of State. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pointed out, this has no financial costs. It should not be left to his or her discretion.

I have three questions. The first is in relation to the point about disability and Amendment 94. Will the Minister agree to bring a suitable amendment on Report to include this in the review? In relation to Amendment 93, does the Minister accept that in the complexities of political and economic decision-making the child can be forgotten or side-lined? In the light of that, will the Minister accept that the welfare of the child must be at the top of priorities and so should be stated in the Bill?

Lord Freud: Amendments 92, 93 and 94 are tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher, Lady Sherlock, Lady Pitkeathley and Lady Lister, the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Kirkwood, and the Earl of Listowel. These amendments would require the Secretary of State, when reviewing the level of the benefit cap, to have regard to any impacts on disabled people, their families and carers; the relationship between the level of the cap and median household income; the promotion of the welfare of children in the United Kingdom; households affected by the cap; and public authorities, local authorities and registered social landlords.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked whether we will go on reducing the cap. The Bill requires the Secretary of State to review the level of the cap at least once during a Parliament and provides him with the power to review it at any other time if he considers it appropriate. We believe that this provides the most effective means of ensuring that the cap stays at the appropriate level, while also providing the stability that households on benefits require. Any changes to the benefit cap level will be sensitive to its key principles of maximising work incentives, bringing fairness for working households and providing a reasonable level of support for capped households.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, spoke about carers. I emphasise that the Government recognise the contribution carers make to society. I will deal with carers when discussing the amendment that appears in a later grouping.

The power to review the level of the cap is necessarily broad and has been drafted to allow the Secretary of State to take into account any matters he sees relevant—for example, the wider impacts on families and children. I do not think it right to prescribe in legislation any particular factor which must be considered as part of this review.

Amendment 94 requires the Secretary of State when reviewing the level of the benefit cap to take into account the impact on disabled people, their families and carers. As I mentioned, there are exemptions from the cap for people who are a member of a household that includes somebody who is entitled to attendance allowance, disability living allowance and PIP.

That has been in place since the cap’s introduction and reflects the fact that these benefits are paid in recognition of the extra costs that disability can bring. There is also an exemption for those who are entitled to the support component, and the equivalent in UC, whose health conditions mean that they are unable to undertake any work-related activities. Those exemptions are not changing.

The new provisions will allow the Secretary of State the ability to consider the context of the cap and its level in a broad and balanced way. For example, he may take into account, although he is not limited to these, factors such as: earnings, housing costs and the wider impact on disabled people, families and carers.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: Will the Minister accept that he has just proved my point that children get ignored? I asked him a specific question about whether or not that happens, and he has not answered it.

Lord Freud: I apologise to the right reverend Prelate. The only reason why I have not answered by now is that I am taking an intolerably long time to get through this speech. I will come to his point. I crave noble Lords’ indulgence to let me get through and then, right at the end, if they have some outstanding questions, we will have another—

(A noble Baroness: Pass.)

Lord Freud: Thank you.

The revised cap levels are being set to create a strong work incentive to ensure fairness for both working households and those receiving out-of-work benefits, while providing a safety net of support for the most vulnerable. Amendment 92 would require the Secretary of State to have regard to the relationship between the level of the cap and median household income—a point reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. Additionally, it would require that the impact on households affected by the cap was considered along with the financial impact on public authorities, local authorities and registered social landlords.

In future, when reviewing the levels of the cap, the Secretary of State must take into account the national economic situation and, where necessary, he will be able to consider any other matters that he might consider appropriate. Earnings and housing costs may be very much a part of this, but other factors also may be, such as inflation, benefit rates, the strength of the labour market and any other matters that may be crucial and relevant at the right time. Any decision when taken in the round will balance these factors with the impacts of the cap on its principle aims: to incentivise work and bring greater fairness to those in work while maintaining support for the most vulnerable.

Reinstating any direct link between future cap levels and the median household income undermines the changes we are introducing. Many working families earn less than the level of average earnings of £26,000 a year. It is important that relevant matters are looked at in the round. We want the Secretary of State to have the flexibility to consider a broad range of social and economic factors when reviewing the level of the cap in the future. Legislating for these specific factors to be considered unnecessarily reduces the scope for that.

Amendment 93, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, would require the Secretary of State to take into account the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children when reviewing the cap. I reiterate that we consider the impacts with regard to all relevant legal obligations when formulating the provisions of the Bill.

Now I move, at last, to the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. The welfare of children is at the heart of our reforms. It is important that children grow up recognising the value of work. Work provides purpose, responsibility and role models for children. The evidence shows that, for families responding to work incentives, the cap provided clear positive impacts on children and family lives through additional income and from the long-term positive role model effect provided by parents being in employment. There is clear evidence that children in workless families suffer worse educational outcomes compared to those in working families. That is why, as we discussed earlier, we are introducing new measures of worklessness and educational attainment.

The benefit cap is a key part of our aim to reduce long-term welfare dependency. The revised cap levels are being set to create a strong work incentive, ensuring fairness for working households and those receiving out-of-work benefits. These principles will guide a review of the cap levels in the future. It means the Government will be able to review the level of the cap in the light of any significant economic events that occur. The clause as drafted provides the best approach to allow for any future review to set the cap at the most appropriate level.

By convention, the amendments were later withdrawn.

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Amendment 95, 100 and 102

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I support these three amendments. I do not wish to repeat what has already been said but the passion of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, echoes in my heart because I, too, am deeply concerned by the impact these freezes will have on the poorest.

Most of us were delighted when the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided in the spending review that the national economic situation meant that we could, after all, as a nation afford not to make the previously determined cuts in tax credits. If this House had not voted the way it did, I presume he would not necessarily have been given the opportunity so to reassess in the light of the national economic situation. If the Bill is passed as it stands, the Chancellor has no option but to enact a freeze for the next four years.

While accepting that welfare spending must be controlled, we need to look very seriously at the impact on the poorest. I do not want to see the Chancellor’s hands tied to a freeze if the national economic situation continues to improve as forecast, or perhaps even more significantly. Suppose it does: who should be the beneficiaries? Surely, it should be the poorest. If the economic situation improves in 2017 and the Chancellor realises that actually, the nation could afford a slightly higher rate of child benefit or other benefits, that is what he should allow—not give it to people already perfectly well off because we earn enough. As the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said, austerity, frankly, is not hitting large numbers of us. Surely, then, the Chancellor should value the freedom to once again say, “Well, we didn’t think we would be able to afford this but the national economic situation is better than expected so we are delighted to be able to offer a small—or perhaps large—amount of extra support for the well-being of children and the most needy in our country”. Does the Minister not think that would be a good position for the Chancellor to be in, rather than having to stick with a freeze without exception?

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park: My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Lister, and the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for these amendments. I will first set out why we believe a four-year freeze of certain social security benefits, child benefit and elements of working tax and child tax credits is necessary.

In total, measures to freeze benefits and tax credits are projected to contribute £3.5 billion of the £12 billion welfare savings the Government are committed to by 2019-20. The Government need to make these savings to reduce the deficit and to manage welfare spending. Spending on welfare increased by 54% in real terms between 1999 and 2010, and tax credit expenditure more than trebled over the same period. Despite the progress made in the last Parliament to increase incentives to work and reduce reliance on benefits, there is still more to do.

Some 7% of global expenditure on social protection is spent in the UK, despite the fact that the UK has only 1% of the world’s population. Between 2008 and 2015, average earnings rose by 12%, and the minimum wage increased by 17%. At the same time, benefits such as jobseekers’ allowance increased by 21% and the individual element of child tax credit rose by 33%. The benefit freeze will begin to reverse this trend. However, we are clear that we must continue to protect the most vulnerable. That is why we ensured that certain benefits are exempted from the freeze, such as pensioner benefits, benefits which contribute to the additional costs of disability and care, and statutory payments.

Concerns have been raised about the level of benefit rates after three years of 1% rises, to now be followed by four years of the freeze. Successive Governments have always sought to strike a balance between the needs of claimants and affordability, and I can reassure noble Lords that when introducing this freeze we have had due regard to these issues, but we believe we have struck a balance that protects certain key benefits and generates the savings I have set out.

There are no cash losers with this policy, and the continued growth in wages will help to mitigate the impact of the freeze for working families. The OBR expects wage growth to reach 3.9% by 2020. Around 30% of households will face a notional loss but, as I have said, the other things we are doing in the broader economy should go some way to mitigate it, and I will go through a couple of them in a second. We have also fully assessed the Bill’s impacts on equality and the wider budget meeting our obligations, as set out in the public sector equality duty.

The purpose of the amendments is to replace the freeze with a duty on the Secretary of State to review those benefits, having regard to inflation and the national economic situation. This Government’s overall approach is to give a level of certainty to taxpayers, employees and benefit claimants. As well as setting out the four-year freeze, we have also set out a clear plan to raise the national living wage to £9 an hour by 2020, to increase the tax-free personal allowance to £12,500 by the end of the decade and to double the free childcare available for working parents of 3 year-olds and 4 year-olds to 30 hours a week, which is worth £5,000 a year. The amendments would take away the certainty that we are attempting to implement, and for that reason we cannot support them.

By convention, the amendments were later withdrawn.

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The Lord Bishop of Durham: My friend, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, cannot be here this evening. Therefore, I will speak largely on his behalf about Amendment 101, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie.

In the run-up to the general election, the Prime Minister was quick to stress that,

“the most disabled should always be protected”.

He was, of course, quite right to do so. We might be operating in a time of limited resources but that does not negate our moral duty to ensure that the most severely disabled people in our society are protected from financial hardship. Those whom we cannot reasonably expect to support themselves financially should not be expected to shoulder the burden of austerity. They already face enough burdens of their own.

For example, motor neurone disease is a condition that progresses so rapidly and so violently that there is little time for contingency planning. Jobs are lost and circumstances change so quickly that those suffering from the disease are often forced into debt. In practice, this means ensuring that the most severely disabled people in the UK—those in the ESA support group—are protected from cuts such as those in the Bill. This, of course, is exactly what the Government promised to do in their manifesto in promising to exempt disability benefits from the freeze to working-age benefits.

I recognise that Her Majesty’s Government have opted to exempt the ESA support group component from the freeze, but that component forms less than a third of the total provision made to the support group through ESA. The basic rate of ESA has not been exempted, meaning that those in the ESA support group, just like those in ESA WRAG and on JSA, will lose more than £250 a year in real terms by 2020.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie, is an attempt to rectify this situation with regard to those in the support group. I realise that it is not a simple amendment. The Government cannot exempt certain groups from the freeze to the basic rate, for then it would cease to be a basic rate. The amendment therefore seeks to compensate the freeze through an uprating of the ESA support group component. Should the Government desire a simpler method, a commitment to uprate the ESA support group component by around 3% plus CPI would negate most of the effect of the basic rate freeze, while preserving the integrity of the basic rate.

The amendment would simply protect the most vulnerable—those who will never be able to go back to work—from the impact of the benefits freeze. If the Government want to be taken seriously when they claim to be protecting the most vulnerable disabled people in our society from financial hardship, support for this amendment, or one like it, should be a bare minimum. I hope that the Minister will give the matter serious consideration.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park: My Lords, I have already set out why we believe the freeze of benefits is necessary so I will move directly to the amendments.

Amendment 101, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie, seeks to place into legislation a requirement for the support group component of employment and support allowance to be uprated by an additional amount above the amount it would otherwise be uprated by. This additional amount would be equal to the difference between the current main rate of employment and support allowance and that rate if it were uprated by inflation.

I understand the motivation behind the amendment, and the comments of the right reverend Prelate, but I will explain why we have included the personal allowance rate in the freeze. Personal allowance rates are aligned across all income-related benefits, including ESA, and are designed to provide a basic standard of living to those who are not in work but at a level that does not disincentivise moving into work. Those in the support group also already receive an additional amount, the support group component, which we have specifically exempted from the freeze. This additional amount is in recognition of the fact that this group of people is further from the labour market. In addition, many of those in the ESA support group who are being targeted with this amendment will be in receipt of disability living allowance or personal independence payment, which we have also exempted from the freeze. Again, these benefits are specifically aimed at contributing to the additional costs of disability, and will continue to increase in line with inflation. While I agree with the right reverend Prelate that we absolutely must provide suitable protections for disabled people, we do not support this amendment because the clause already sets out appropriate exemptions.

By convention, the amendment was later withdrawn.

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