The speech made by Stephen Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham, in the House of Commons on 17 May 2022.
I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), who chairs the Treasury Committee. I agree with much of what he said.
Cost of living rises affect everybody. The Work and Pensions Committee focuses on families with the lowest incomes who depend on social security. The prospects for them at the moment are bleak. The Committee argued—unanimously, cross-party—against the removal of the £20 a week uplift in universal credit last October. The Government went ahead anyway and cut the main benefit rate to the lowest real-terms level for more than 30 years. As a proportion of average earnings, it is lower now than when Lloyd George introduced unemployment benefit in 1911. Benefits are at a historically low level and no Minister can justify that—we have asked.
We now have a massive cost of living surge. Citizens Advice reports that a single unemployed person spent 15% of their benefit on energy bills two years ago. It is now 25% and it will be 50%—just on energy—when the cap goes up again in October. How can people pay their other bills, which are also going up? National Energy Action told the Select Committee that, after last month’s energy price rises, 6.5 million UK households are in fuel poverty. It is a disaster for families with long-term health problems; being cold at home makes respiratory and circulatory problems much worse.
The Gracious Speech provided no help at all to people dependent on benefits. At the Liaison Committee, I asked the Prime Minister why the spring statement did nothing. His answer was that
“we want to support people into work wherever possible”,
but a large number of people cannot work and they have to survive too. Surely, the Government must now respond to the immense pressure on those families.
Mike Brewer of the Resolution Foundation pointed out to our Committee the obvious problem with benefits going up by 3.1%, as they did last month, when inflation is 8% and rising. He proposed revisiting uprating, immediately for universal credit, as the Chancellor confirmed that he could and as he did at the beginning of the pandemic, and in October for those benefits needing longer—there are some of those, as he has pointed out to the House. That must surely now be done.
Universal credit was raised by £20 a week before, so the Chancellor should do it again. I agree with the Chair of the Treasury Committee, who has just reaffirmed the case for an interim uprating, about which he pressed the Prime Minister at the Liaison Committee. The Prime Minister said that he would look at it. It is urgent.
Crisis highlighted that local housing allowance rates have been frozen for two years in a row. Average rents went up by 8.3% just in the last three months of last year. Families on the breadline face an average £372 deficit between the local housing allowance and the cheapest rents in their area. In research just published, Lloyds Bank Foundation reports that 44% of universal credit recipients are having money deducted, averaging £78 a month—nearly a fifth of what single over-25s can claim. Deductions are for advance repayments, old tax credit overpayments, energy or rent arrears. The foundation says that that is
“driving impoverishment and further debt, particularly hitting the most vulnerable.”
We need major changes, especially to the five-week wait for a first regular universal credit payment, which forces people to take out an advance.
Pensioner poverty is now surging. We know that, in 2019-20, 850,000 families entitled to pension credit did not claim it. We need real vigour behind raising take-up. The Department for Work and Pensions should have a take-up target for pension credit and a plan to deliver it. In 2010-11, the DWP trialled automatic payments of pension credit, and it should do that again.
The least well-off in our society need urgent help. As Sir John Major said yesterday:
“Everyone needs to believe that The State cares about them”,
too. There is no time to lose.