Baroness Lister: An above-inflation benefits increase will help the most vulnerable with the cost of living
There is no excuse for a lack of understanding about the effects of DWP policy decisions, the benefits freeze has contributed to increased homelessness, child poverty, reliance on food banks and general suffering, writes Baroness Lister.
The unprecedented four-year freeze in most working-age and children’s benefits (alongside a raft of other social security cuts and restrictions) has caused immense hardship. Given the legislation required its termination in March 2020, the manifesto commitment to end the freeze was no more than acknowledgement of the status quo and the least we could expect given assurances that austerity is a thing of the past. After all, it is social security claimants, many in vulnerable circumstances, who have borne the main brunt of austerity.
An estimated 27 million or more people have been affected by the freeze, which has cut the real value of benefits, already far from generous, by over 6 per cent. IPPR has calculated that couples with children are now, on average, £380 a year worse off than they would otherwise have been and that the £73.10 a week currently received by a single unemployed person represents only 12.5 per cent of median earnings compared with 20 per cent in 1984.
The freeze has been identified by a number of organisations as a key driver of an increase in child poverty (on some measures), predicted to worsen further. Moreover, given that many of the children affected are already in poverty, the freeze is likely to have pushed them further below the poverty line, reflected in an increase in severe income poverty and deprivation.
Various studies indicate that the freeze has contributed to increased homelessness, reliance on food banks and general suffering.
But do the government care?
Not according to the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights who accused them of maintaining ‘a state of denial’ about the impact of their policies on people in poverty. Nor the Work and Pensions Select Committee who, in July, observed it is ‘difficult to avoid concluding that the Department [for Work and Pensions] simply does not understand the impact of its reforms on some of the most vulnerable people it supports.
The DWP’s policy decisions have a direct impact on the incomes of millions of people. There is no excuse for a lack of understanding or transparency about the effects of those decisions.
The Committee, therefore, warned that simply lifting the freeze ‘is not enough’. It recommended an additional 2 per cent on the normal uprating for the next four years in order to reach the level the benefits would have been had they not been frozen. The Prime Minister and Chancellor have both committed to ‘levelling up’ in the name of One Nation Conservatism. But levelling up is not just about much needed investment in so-called ‘left behind’ areas. It must also be directed to the individuals who live in those areas and elsewhere who have suffered as a result of social security cuts, justified in the name of an austerity the Prime Minister now distances himself from.
Indeed, during the Election Campaign, Mr Johnson, acknowledging that it is wrong that so many have to rely on food banks, declared that ‘helping people with the cost of living’ is an ‘absolute crusade’ for him. An above-inflation benefits increase in April is the quickest, most tangible, means of furthering that crusade. That is the message I want to get across with my oral question today.
Baroness Lister is a Labour Life Peer in the House of Lords.