Bishop of Durham challenges Government on Universal Credit pilots and two-child limit

Durham040219On 23rd July 2019 the Government Minister Baroness Buscombe repeated a government statement about Universal Credit. The Bishop of Durham, Rt Revd Paul Butler, asked some follow-up questions:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for all she said and look back several months to how she involved us and engaged with a group of us in a range of helpful ways. The regulations that have been laid show evidence of the Government having listened. I am deeply grateful for the ongoing engagement with stakeholder groups. However, along with my noble friends who have already spoken, I wish to highlight that this House and the other place, not the stakeholder groups, have to scrutinise the regulations, so to land them on us at this point in a negative form seems quite hard to take, if I am being honest.

I thank the Minister for the explanation about Harrogate—I had written down, “Why Harrogate?”—but Harrogate is not going to produce 10,000, so presumably work has been done on other places that would also offer that kind of thing. Can the Minister give us any indication of where after Harrogate, because there will be similar issues?

I have three further questions. The Statement began by emphasising yet again that UC is about helping people into work, yet we know that the largest percentage of people are already in work. So, in the pilot, what examination will be undertaken to see whether UC really is helping people into work? Secondly, will the pilot include people who are being negatively impacted by the two-child limit, and will an analysis of the impact on those affected by the two-child limit be undertaken as part of the pilot? It could offer some comparison with the report All Kids Count, which sought to offer some analysis which shows how severely damaging the two-child limit is proving to be.

Finally, on migration notices, paragraph 44 of the regulations is very clear about people being informed that,

all awards of any existing benefits to which they are entitled are to terminate and that they will need to make a claim for universal credit; and … specifying a day (‘the deadline day’)”.

Will the Minister acknowledge that this phrasing will still be extremely hard for people to hear and receive when a letter arrives stating that all their benefits are going to be terminated and that they will have to make a fresh claim? I acknowledge that the earlier criticisms about timescales have been heeded and there is a three-month wait, but what thought has been given to how that kind of letter will be worded to make it very clear that, as the Minister has said to us, it is not the intention that benefits will be terminated in the sense that no benefits will be received? That is not how it sounds in the regulations.

Baroness Buscombe (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions): I thank the right reverend Prelate for his positive response to these regulations. I appreciate the frustration of noble Lords who feel that they seem to have come late in the day. As I said, the key reason for that relates to the judgment, which we needed to respond to. We needed to get it right. The judgment said that there was an unintended consequence and we were not being quite fair in how we were treating people in terms of the severe disability premium. We are really keen to get that right. From tomorrow, we can start working on how we can support those people, backdating their pay and so on to ensure that they are properly supported financially.

I want to be very positive about universal credit and about how the pilot will help more people into work. It is really important to stress that managed migration will open up the world of work for thousands and deliver financial support for those whose circumstances have not changed. The good news stories that our department reads about, listens to and sees on our videos and on social media on a daily basis are very different from some of the scaremongering that has gone on over the many months and years during which universal credit has been developed. It is fantastic when one meets people who feel for the first time an extraordinary sense of dignity and pride, and a sense of “can do”—a phrase used by the person who will become our Prime Minister tomorrow. That is really important, because these are people whose families, sometimes over generations, have not worked. They have lived in families who do not understand what the word “work” means and they have had no sense of self-worth. Now, they have that and it is fabulous. Therefore, I hope that the right reverend Prelate will support—

Lord McKenzie of Luton (Lab): My Lords—

Baroness Buscombe: I am in full flight here.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: Does the Minister accept that this Government were not the first to understand the importance of getting people into work? If she goes back just a few years in history to previous Governments, she will see that it was a Labour Government who started the process of engagement with people, rather than leaving them to rot on disability benefits. The game plan of the noble Baroness’s Government was to push people on to disability benefits so they would not count as part of the unemployment statistics. It was only when a Labour Government came in that programmes such as New Deal and many others were started.

Baroness Buscombe: One reason I became a Conservative was that there was an incredible advertisement in 1979 that said, “Labour Isn’t Working”. It showed lines and lines of people outside what we then called the employment exchange. That was a long time ago, but in 2010—the noble Lord knows this—20% of working-age households were still entirely workless. We have got that down to 13.9%. It is still not good enough but we are doing all we can. I accept that in the past the party opposite encouraged people into work but we feel that this reform has made a huge difference. A thousand people have entered work every day since 2010, and that is an incredible legacy. The reality is that we have record employment and extraordinarily low unemployment. Indeed, I am rather proud that unemployment among women is lower than it is among men. We are working hard to encourage as many people as possible to contribute to the country they live in and to feel proud that they can work for and support their families.

In terms of the two-child policy, I say to the right reverend Prelate that I have made it clear several times at the Dispatch Box, and I will make it very clear again, that we believe strongly that people who would like to have more than two children must make the same tough decisions as everyone else and ask themselves whether they can support those children in the same way as people who do not turn daily to the state for support. My children’s generation are all asking themselves, “Can we afford to have more children who we look after, contribute to and support ourselves rather than expecting others to pay for them?”. I have to be really blunt about this.

We must think about affordability. A family with six children will receive in tax credits—over and above all other benefits—about £17,000 a year. That is net. We are talking about a considerable sum of money which, if you gross it up, will be many people’s entire income. I must be blunt. That policy will remain firm—to the best of my knowledge, because I am merely the conduit of the policy in your Lordships’ House, in a sense.

The reality is that we are trying to support as many people as possible, encourage them into the world of work, be excited for them—

Baroness Goldie (Con): My Lords, I am sorry. This is to allow Back-Benchers to ask questions. There are one or two more who wish to in the remainder of the 20 minutes.


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