Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill – Bishop of St Albans calls for temporary increase in universal credit to be made permanent

On 13th October 2020 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill at its Second Reading. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]: My Lords, I add my words of welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Field of Birkenhead, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stuart of Edgbaston, and look forward to their maiden speeches.

I welcome the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill. Pension credits are vital for the welfare of low-income retirees and it is right that measures are taken to support them in this challenging time. However, there is certainly scope for going further.

Accusations relating to intergenerational fairness are not entirely unfounded. While I am for uprating the basic state pension, providing a guaranteed rise of 2.5% at a time when millions have lost income due to the pandemic, I realise that it will raise questions over whether this Government represent the entire country or just those who are older.

As other noble Lords have mentioned, the situation is perilous for those on the breadline. The Government’s failure to guarantee the permanence of the April 2020 universal credit uplift will be devastating for those formerly employed and now relying on universal credit. Across the country, arrears are building up, and immediate action will be required to prevent low-income families being burdened with unrealistic debt.

While the pandemic has affected everybody, when it comes to income, it is not retirees but low working-age households that have been most affected, whether through cuts in income or redundancy and rising living costs. I hope that the Government make the right decisions and stay true to their levelling-up agenda by being a national Government who choose to represent all age demographics.

Faith groups have been working hard to raise awareness of the financial difficulties endured across the country. For example, the recent Reset the Debt report by a coalition of four national Christian denominations drew attention to the increasingly unstable position that those made redundant due to Covid-19 now find ​themselves in, with many through no fault of their own sliding into debt spirals and homelessness. Their call to reset the debt through a Jubilee fund is the sort of innovative policy required so not to condemn generations to imposed poverty.

I join my Church of England colleagues, the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Durham and the Bishop of Portsmouth, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in its “keep the lifeline” campaign in urging the Government to make permanent the universal credit uplift that occurred in April this year.

I understand that difficult economic decisions will need to be made. However, given the uncertainty that we face, cutting back on economic support before the crisis is over will only exacerbate the situation and do so quickly. The Treasury has been taking bold decisions and will need to take more that will entail spending additional revenue in the short term to give those chances on the line a chance in the long run.

Lord Shipley (LD): … We have heard from a number of speakers about the importance of intergenerational fairness. I subscribe to the opinions expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Bourne, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and others. I say to the Minister that we will need a national debate on how we address the fragility of our benefits system, which has become so exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. The financial well-being of society should be an ambition that demonstrates that it is truly inclusive. The next few months need to be used to review and reform…

Baroness Sherlock (Lab):.. Many people claiming benefits for the first time have been shocked to find out how low they are. I have had people who have lost their jobs ask me how they are meant to live on £95 a week universal credit. I sympathise, but then I have to tell them that if they were getting income support or ESA, they would be getting just £74 a week and that if the Chancellor goes ahead and scraps the universal credit top-up, and if they have not found a job by next April, their benefit will be cut by £20 a week, which will have a huge effect, as noted by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Lord, Lord Field, and others..

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Stedman-Scott) (Con)…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned the deep poverty issue that came out in various reports. This Government are helping those who need support the most. I do not want to repeat myself, but I say again: we are putting £9 billion into the welfare system.

I refer to the letter that 50 charities wrote to the Chancellor asking for the £20 uplift to be made permanent and extended to legacy benefits. Many people have championed retaining the £20 extra, and we are not a bit surprised by that. DWP Ministers have worked closely with our Treasury counterparts throughout the pandemic response and will continue to do so.

I pay tribute to faith groups, which do the most amazing work with the most vulnerable, especially in this difficult time.

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