Members' Business: The £20 Universal Credit Increase - 22 December 2020

Members' Business: The £20 Universal Credit Increase - 22 December 2020

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The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The final item of business is a members’ business   debate on motion S5M-23242, in the name of  Keith Brown, on the £20 universal credit   increase. The debate will be concluded  without any question being put. Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP): I welcome the opportunity to have this debate,   even at this inauspicious time, after a long  day. I am particularly grateful to those members   who have stayed behind to debate what is an  extremely important matter for so many people   in my constituency, across Scotland  and across the United Kingdom. I record my thanks to members who supported  the motion to allow the debate to take place.   That would be members of the Scottish National  Party, the Labour Party and the Greens, and Mark   McDonald. One has to wonder about the lack of  support from the Lib Dems or indeed the Tories,  

considering that the last line of the motion,  which states that universal credit has been a “vital safety net for nearly half  a million people across Scotland”, is a direct quote from the Tories’ leader,  Douglas Ross. That is another example of the   empty words of their Westminster-based leader  meaning nothing to the Tories in this chamber. It would appear that even the House of Lords   supports the terms of my motion. Just  last week, the Economic Affairs Committee   recommended that the UK Government commit to  making permanent the £1,040 per year increase   to the standard allowance, which is set to end  in spring 2021. Furthermore, the committee said:

“The Government should ensure  that those on legacy benefits   receive an uplift comparable  to that of Universal Credit.” It is worth noting that there is widespread public  support for making the uplift permanent. New   polling from the Health Foundation and Ipsos MORI  shows that the move is supported by 59 per cent   of the public, whereas only 20 per cent oppose  it. That builds on the strong public support   for the uplift as part of the response to the  pandemic, which 74 per cent of people supported. The £20 per week increase to universal credit,  introduced in response to the coronavirus   pandemic, has been hailed as a lifeline by  a coalition of more than 50 organisations   and charities, including the Joseph Rowntree  Foundation, Shelter, Oxfam, MacMillan Cancer   Support and Barnardo’s, which have all urged  the chancellor to make the increase permanent. The increase is a lifeline to more than  470,000 people in Scotland, which includes   5,379 people in Clackmannanshire and 6,850 people  in Stirling who are currently claiming universal   credit. There has been a staggering 80 per cent  increase in the number of claimants since March.

When the increase was announced, the Chancellor of  the Exchequer said that he wanted to “strengthen   the safety net”. To withdraw it in March 2021,  when, it can be argued, the economic impact of the   pandemic will be hitting many people hard, would  be a cruel and terrible thing that would inflict   suffering on the number of people that we have  talked about—according to the Joseph Rowntree   Foundation, the number is around 16 million  across the UK. Those people are all from   households who are struggling to keep their  heads above water in these difficult times. New modelling from the Joseph Rowntree  Foundation shows that 6.2 million families   will see an overnight loss of £1,040  next year, and around half a million   more people, including 200,000 children, will  be pulled into poverty. That will happen at  

a time when UNICEF has launched a domestic  emergency response in the UK for the first time   in its more than 70-year history, to help  feed children hit by the Covid-19 crisis.   It is clear that now is the time to strengthen  the welfare safety net and not to weaken it. Despite repeated calls to expand the £20  weekly increase, it remains unavailable   to claimants of legacy benefits, which has in  effect created a two-tier social security system   that is affecting around 2 million people. Of  course, those on legacy benefits are often carers,   disabled or suffering from ill health. The Joseph  Rowntree Foundation’s recent report “The financial   impact of COVID-19 on disabled people and their  carers” is a sobering reminder of the additional   costs that disabled people face. For example, of  the people who said in September 2020 that their   finances had been affected by the pandemic, 24.6  per cent of disabled people reported having less  

money available to spend on food, compared  to 12.2 per cent of non-disabled people. In May, the Secretary of State for Work  and Pensions, Thérèse Coffey, told MPs that “it is far more straightforward and ... quick” to implement the uplift for universal  credit and tax credit claimants,   because those systems are digital. She claimed: “It would take quite some time to  change the legacy benefits system—I   am talking about several months—with the process   we have.”—[Official Report, House of  Commons, 4 May 2020; Vol 675, c 425.] It has now been nine months, and in Scotland we  have seen our local authorities adapt and develop   their systems within weeks to pay millions of  pounds in new and additional grants and support.   There is no reasonable excuse for the Government  not to extend the additional £20 payment   to those on legacy benefits. It should  do so immediately, and it should backdate  

those payments. It is unthinkable not to cast the  strengthened safety net to cover that group too. In times of crisis, it is the job of Government to  support and protect those who need it. Throughout   the pandemic, millions of people have found  themselves caught up in its economic fall-out,   which will last way beyond March next  year. In fact, I would go as far as to say   that those of us who can remember the  1980s will recognise that the uplift is   a real investment. For a large number of  people, the effect of this relatively small   increase will be paid back many times  if we can avoid repeating the problem   of too many people experiencing the excruciating  poverty that was a legacy of the 1980s. Evidence tells us that increasing the income of  people on low incomes stimulates spending in the   economy, as they spend it on household necessities  and bills and are far less likely to have the   ability to save than those on higher incomes. They  will buy food, pay rent and pay for their energy  

costs; they will not buy a yacht in the Caribbean.  All that helps the economy: it goes straight back   into the economy. The uplift provides a  double boost. It enables families to keep   their heads above water, and it puts money into  the economy at the time when it is needed most. The Tories have spent 10 years systematically  and brutally dismantling the safety net of the   welfare system, with their austerity agenda. It is  time for them to start rebuilding that safety net,  

so that it can help people when they need it,  now and in future. We can start by making the   universal credit increase permanent  and extending it to legacy benefits. Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con):  I thank Keith Brown for bringing this  important debate to the Parliament. We are living in extraordinary times and  through one of the most difficult periods that   this country has encountered in recent years. The  virus has delivered a profound shock to all of us.   People have had to deal with illness and  the tragic loss of loved ones, and measures   to control the spread of the virus have taken  away all the normal decision making that we do   daily. Covid-19 has reached deep into our lives,  affecting people’s incomes, jobs and security.

I am therefore very pleased that, during the  pandemic, United Kingdom ministers have taken   unprecedented measures to protect the most  vulnerable and put in place a strong package   of financial support to  help families and children.   The UK Government is spending an estimated £19  billion to support Scotland through the pandemic,   protecting nearly a million  Scottish jobs and livelihoods   through the recently extended job retention  scheme and self-employed income support scheme. I welcomed the decision that the chancellor  took swiftly in April to provide a temporary   12-month uplift of £20 per week for  people who were eligible for universal   credit. That means that claimants have been  up to £1,040 better off during the year. Universal credit is playing a large part in  the economic response to the on-going pandemic.   The most recent figures from the Department  for Work and Pensions show that 500,000   people in Scotland were on universal credit  in September 2020. Since March, an additional  

213,000 people in Scotland have received  support through universal credit. No one is immune from the impact of the pandemic.  Analysis by the Scottish Parliament information   centre in May showed that, between March and  April, the most deprived were hardest hit,   in the context of the unprecedented increase in  people claiming unemployment-related benefits.   A survey that the Child Poverty Action Group  carried out and published last week showed that   three quarters of low-income families are  finding it difficult or very difficult to   manage financially. CPAG found that there  is no sign of improvement, as employment  

loss, the rise in living costs and additional  caring responsibilities cause financial strain. The Secretary of State for Work and  Pensions has said that the UK Government   is not ruling out continuing  the universal credit uplift   after March. The Scottish  Conservatives welcome that comment. Keith Brown: I agree with much of what Jeremy Balfour has said   so far, the inescapable logic of which is that he  should support the extension of the benefit uplift   beyond March, when I presume that the pandemic  will be having an even greater effect on people.

Jeremy Balfour:  If the member can be patient for a  minute, I will clarify my position. We are concerned that, as the Joseph Rowntree  Foundation reports, 700,000 people in the UK   could be “pulled into poverty” after April 2021  if the £20 uplift is removed. The JRT said: “The withdrawal of the uplift will  risk sweeping 700,000 more people,   including 300,000 more children, into poverty;  500,000 more people could end up in deep poverty”. There were disappointing developments over the  weekend. The pandemic is generating a pace of   change that is unprecedented. That is why I  and the Scottish Conservatives call on the  

UK Government to extend the temporary increase  in universal credit for the foreseeable future,   as Mr Brown asks. Throughout the pandemic,  universal credit has been a vital safety net   for nearly half a million people in Scotland.  It would not be fair to take support   away from people while the pandemic continues  to damage our way of life so keenly. Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish  Conservatives, has encouraged the UK Government to   make the commitment to extend the uplift as soon  as possible, to provide the reassurance that many   people are looking for. A £20 uplift  may not seem to be a vast sum of money,   but it will make a huge difference to  a family that receives that support.

My understanding is that it would not be  operationally viable to make changes to the legacy   benefit systems, whereas digital systems can be  changed more simply and quickly. Furthermore,   the UK Government’s approach has been to target  support at those who face the greatest financial   disruption. However, claimants of  legacy benefits can make a claim   for universal credit if they believe  that they would then be better off,   and there are special arrangements for those  in receipt of the severe disability premium,   who will be able to make a new claim for  universal credit from January next year. I think that we would all want to thank the DWP  and the UK Government for their clear commitment   to supporting people through this challenging  time, with unprecedented packages of support   rolled out for businesses and individuals alike.  The universal credit uplift should continue,   and the Scottish Conservatives will continue to  urge the UK Government to make that commitment.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:  Pauline McNeill wanted to take part in  the debate, but it appears that we have   had a technical problem somewhere along  the line. Therefore, I call Bob Doris. Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill   and Springburn) (SNP): I thank Keith Brown for   lodging the motion for debate. At the heart of the motion is an  impassioned appeal to the UK Government,   urging it to make permanent the temporary  uplift of £20 a week for universal credit   and to extend that increase  to those on legacy benefits. For many months, I have joined others in urging  the UK Government to do the right thing and make   the uplift permanent. Like others, I have welcomed  the £20 temporary uplift, but have acknowledged   that many people moving into the benefit  system during the Covid-19 pandemic and   facing the additional expenses and hardship that  Covid-19 has caused have needed additional funds.

However, let us be clear: the levels of  universal credit and legacy benefits were   woefully inadequate before Covid-19.  Long before Covid-19 hit and afflicted   Scotland and the UK, those who were in  poverty desperately needed the uplift,   and those who may, unfortunately, remain  on benefits for some time once—God   willing—Covid-19 has passed and been banished  will also still desperately need the uplift. There is simply no argument for removing the £20   uplift. Removing it would push 60,000  people in Scotland into poverty,   including 20,000 children. Hundreds of thousands  of Scotland’s lowest-income households would lose  

more than £1,000 a year. Those households simply  cannot afford that. Removing the uplift would also   push up child poverty rates in Scotland  by 2 per cent. The poorest 10 per cent   of the population, who are already struggling,  would lose 6 per cent of their average income. We should contrast that with the Scottish  Government’s approach. The Scottish child   payment is being rolled out, for under-sixes  in the first instance, from February next year.  

The first phase will benefit 194,000 children  in Scotland by ensuring that they receive £10 a   week. That is an investment of £77 million in our  lowest-income households. When fully rolled out,   the investment will be £184 million, and  half a million children will benefit. The Scottish Government is directing our  resources, as it should, at tackling child   poverty. If the UK Government does not retain  and extend the £20 universal credit uplift,   that would be a direct assault on low-income  households during these most challenging times. In the time that I have left, I will say a  little about food need and connect that back to   the £20 uplift. Food bank usage has rocketed in  recent years. I thank the individuals and groups  

that have addressed food need directly during the  Covid-19 pandemic. They include Young People’s   Futures, North United Communities, Love Milton,  Royston Youth Action, the G20 youth festival,   Lambhill Stables, the Partick Thistle foundation,  several local churches and housing associations,   and many more. They directly meet food  need rather than ask for referrals. Before Covid-19, my office was open to the  public—unfortunately, it cannot be open currently.   Individuals used to come to my office to  seek a referral to a food bank that ran a   referral process. They would often talk about the  five-week wait being the reason why they needed   a referral—or sanctions, some other delay,  being short of income or some other reason. The main reason why folk came to me in  need of food was the low level of benefit   payments. They simply did not have enough money  

to live on. The UK Government should think about  that and should make the £20 increase permanent. Mims Davies, the UK Government minister who  is responsible for some for this, came to the   Social Security Committee, which I chair, and said  that she was keeping that under review. That is   welcome, but the reality is that  the UK Government is embarrassed   by the state that the welfare system is in.  Hundreds of thousands—in fact, millions—of people  

who have never before used the welfare system  or relied on benefits are now engaging with it.   The UK Government is embarrassed by the state  that that system is in for new claimants, but it   should also be embarrassed about that for everyone  else who has been stuck for too long on benefits. The £20 per week increase should be made  permanent. I thank Keith Brown for lodging   the motion.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab): I welcome the debate that Keith Brown   has brought to the chamber. Like  people in every other constituency   and region, those in Central Scotland have seen  the social security safety net that was created by   the Labour Government ripped from beneath them  by the Tories. That is what the Tories do:   through welfare reform, austerity and  Brexit, the Tories have set out to erode   the protections secured by Labour Governments  to support people throughout the country. Let us look at what the Tories have achieved  in office: the rights of disabled people have   been systematically violated; pensioners shiver  in their homes; women have seen their pensions   cancelled as they approached retirement;  parents rely on food banks to feed their   kids; and workers do not know whether they  will have jobs after Brexit and the pandemic. The universal credit system  is a national catastrophe.   It is set up to treat our neighbours, families  and colleagues as skivers and scroungers,   and it has pushed people to the brink.  The system is set up to cut and to harm.

Members should not take my word for that; the  Tories have acknowledged it through their actions.   The £20 universal credit top-up is an  acknowledgement that the level was never   enough for people to survive on, although it was  deemed enough to punish those who were already   on benefits. Yet, somehow, those who became  unemployed during the pandemic were seen as worth   more by the Tories—although only £20 more.  That is a desperate state of affairs. At its heart, universal credit is a cruel system  that is designed to harm and penalise people. It   swallows up tax rebates, and people wait weeks  for payments. Students are sent demands for   thousands of pounds because the Department  for Work and Pensions has not processed the   information that they have given it. Powers to  write off bills that were caused by Government  

ineptitude have been scrapped. Anyone  who works and is on universal credit   suffers an effective tax rate that is  higher than that paid by millionaires. The tax credits system, despite its failings,  was far better than that. People could keep   a pay increase and their award; if  they had savings, they could keep them,   too. That system lifted hundreds of thousands  of kids and their parents out of poverty.  

When the Government made mistakes with  claims, it was the Government that paid,   not struggling families. Pension credit lifted  110,000 Scottish pensioners out of poverty. When Labour was in government, it created a  safety net to support people from cradle to grave.   Universal credit does not support people from  cradle to grave. The third baby in a family—the   third baby in that “cradle”—gets no support unless  the mother goes through a humiliating process to   apply for support under the rape clause. I cannot  think of a worse policy than the two-child cap.

I have three siblings—a brother and two sisters.  My dad was a welder and had to give up his job   because he was diagnosed with heart disease in his  30s. If it was not for child benefit, how would my   parents have coped? My family never planned  for my dad to become too sick to do his job,   just as families today have not planned for  mass unemployment caused by a global pandemic. The two-child cap is an appalling  policy that pushes children into poverty   just because they have more than one sibling.  It must be ditched, along with any decision   to reverse the £20 uplift in universal credit.  I ask members to support that vital campaign.

The Deputy   Presiding Officer: I call Shirley-Anne Somerville to respond to   the debate. You have around seven minutes, cabinet  secretary. [Interruption.] The cabinet secretary   appears to be muted; we  will try and sort that out.   I wonder whether anyone would like to  give us a song or a poem. [Laughter.] We are checking with the technical team to  see what the best course of action is. Cabinet  

secretary,   if you make some noise, we will know  whether we have you. [Interruption.]   I am afraid that we do not. I will suspend for a short time  until the cabinet secretary logs out   and back in again—we will see  whether we can pick her up. The Deputy   Presiding Officer:  Order. We will recommence. I call Shirley-Anne  Somerville to respond to the debate. The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security  and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville):  Thank you, Presiding Officer. It  is a relief that the technology  

is working. I appreciate that  everyone has had a long day. I begin by thanking Keith Brown for bringing  the debate to the chamber. It is an important   debate because it will make a real difference  to the lives of many people across Scotland,   whether or not the campaign to ensure  that the £20 uplift is made permanent.

We are all too familiar by now with the  long list of failings of universal credit.   Even before the pandemic, its punitive  policies, including the five-week wait,   the benefit cap, the bedroom  tax, the two-child limit and,   as Mark Griffin so eloquently stated, the rape  clause meant that universal credit was clearly   failing the people who it was designed to  support and was driving more people into poverty.   Combine that with a decade of cuts to the  United Kingdom Government’s welfare system   that have left key benefits at subsistence level,  and there is no denying that the uplift was needed   long before the crisis that we face  happened, as Bob Doris said in his speech.

It is clear that the majority of members  understand the senseless harm that would result if   the UK Government cut this vital support at this  time of crisis, which is why the change needs to   be permanent. There is overwhelming evidence  that failing to retain the uplift will deepen   existing inequalities and push  more people into destitution. As a few members have stated, a devastating  impact will be felt far and wide   here in Scotland. A report published  by the Scottish Government last month   showed that, if the UK Government continues with  its plans to withdraw this support in April 2021,   it will plunge more than 60,000 people in  Scotland, including 20,000 children, into poverty.   The same analysis also showed that, although  a failure of the UK Government to maintain the   uplift would be felt by all groups who need that  vital support, it would disproportionately affect   single parents, most of whom are women, families  with children, and families not in employment.   It is simply not right that people have to go  without essentials such as food and electricity   during this crisis. That would wreak havoc on  individuals and hinder Scotland’s recovery.

That is not just a view of the Scottish  Government but, as Keith Brown said in his   opening remarks, it is also the view of the  Joseph Rowntree Foundation and many others.   They have come to the same conclusion:  that the removal of the uplift is wrong. Given those sobering warnings, it is  perhaps no wonder that calls for the   UK Government to permanently retain the  uplift are increasing, including from   across the political spectrum, the Work and  Pensions Committee, the Treasury Committee,   and the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee. To be blunt, Presiding Officer, there  is no conceivable scenario in which this   uplift will not continue to be necessary. The  pandemic has exposed and exacerbated existing   shortcomings with the UK Government’s  welfare system. I have written to the   Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on  no fewer than five occasions since March,   calling upon the UK Government to make  a range of urgent fixes to its benefits,   including retaining the £20 per week  uplift and extending it to legacy benefits.

I have also repeatedly urged the  UK Government to address the other   well-known issues with universal credit  that I mentioned in my earlier remarks.   Here in Scotland, we do not have the powers  to make those changes ourselves, otherwise   we would. Despite having only 15 per cent  of social security spending, the Scottish   Government has introduced an unprecedented  level of support through the pandemic,   making sure that we targeted new assistance to  get help to where it was needed the most. We have   committed more than £500 million of investment  to social protection, and have strengthened   local resilience with more than £200 million of  consequential funding. More than that, we have   worked tirelessly to maintain our commitment  to delivering the Scottish child payment.

That is why it makes it all the more galling  to know that a family with two children,   receiving Scottish child payment totalling  £1,040 per year, will not feel the benefit of it   if their annual universal credit award is  reduced by the same amount a month later. This demonstrates the core challenge of the  current devolution settlement and how it   hampers our ability to effectively and genuinely  support people in need through social security.   The UK Government must therefore show the  same commitment by making universal credit   into the system that it was meant to be—one  that supports people instead of holding them   back. It can start by doing the right thing, as  set out in the motion in Keith Brown’s name, and   committing to making that £20 uplift to  universal credit and working tax credits   permanent and extending the same support  to those who are on legacy benefits.

I am delighted that, in our Scottish  Parliament tonight, Keith Brown has once again   shone a light on an issue that is  important for people right across Scotland.

2020-12-24 19:46

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