I want to raise three issues briefly; some of this has been covered already but I want to reiterate some of it and go into more detail. The first is the benefit cap. The second is the triple lock. The third is the carer’s allowance, where I follow on from the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain).
This debate is primarily about the increase, but in the past these debates have been used to try to shape the debate on social security for the future. Much of what I say, therefore, may be aimed at the Government, but now that the Select Committee has announced its inquiry, part of it is aimed at the agenda for that inquiry.
Those of us who were in the House when the benefit cap was introduced will know that it was born in an era when the debate on poverty had descended into definitions of “skivers” and “strivers”; it was almost a reversion to the language of the Poor Law. We knew what impact it would have and we knew the numbers affected would increase rapidly. Just over 70,000 were being impacted at the start but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) said, this rose to 120,000 and above. The cap hit some areas in particular, including London constituencies. I am a London MP and I know that 44% of those affected are in London. It hit the black, Asian and minority ethnic community in particular; it has hit eight out of 20 from the BAME community, yet they represent three out of 20 in the population overall, so this was discriminatory.
I hope that Conservative Members and others who may not have had the experience of this recognise how it has affected our communities. I do not use the word lightly, but some of us have experienced what are almost forms of social “apartheid” within our communities, where certain sections of housing are no longer available to working-class people. In some instances, fenced communities have developed as a result. I highlight reports of what happened in my constituency as regards the Ballymore housing development.
I come back to the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham made, which is that the cap has had an impact on a large number of children, with the last calculation being 308,000; 70% of the people affected are single parents. As he said, this pushes people into deep poverty. I was looking at the figures and they show that the average capped household with two children is now £150 a week below the Government’s own poverty line. Scrapping the cap would increase benefits to them by an average of £65 a week; the cost would be £500 million, which is 0.2% of the total spending on social security. A marginal increase in the efficiency of tackling tax avoidance, an increase in national insurance beyond getting rid of some of the limits at the higher levels—that would easily pay for this marginal improvement but would have a dramatic effect on the living standards of so many people.
I campaigned against the breaking of the link between pensions and earnings when Mrs Thatcher introduced it, so I wholeheartedly welcomed the triple lock when it was introduced by a Conservative Government and I made that point in this House. I regretted bitterly, however, that the Government broke their pledge last year, because once the link was broken, a debate was opened up among some Members about the triple lock being no longer necessary. I am hoping that the statement about social security and pensions today reaffirms the message across the House that the triple lock is here to stay.
When we look at the figures, we see that one in five pensioners is in poverty; 2.1 million older people are in poverty; they get £40 a week less than the Government’s own poverty threshold; 1.3 million older people are now categorised as suffering forms of malnutrition; and we have always had a high level of excess deaths in winter among older people, with on average between 25,000 and 30,000 dying unnecessarily. I looked at the figures showing what has happened since the break with earnings.
The proportion of those people living in severe poverty is five times higher than it was in 1986—we have had the largest increase in western European countries. So I make an appeal to Members from across the House. The triple lock was a major reform, and I thought we had built consensus on it. It should not be in any way undermined in the future.
I think the triple lock should apply to all benefits, and I hope the Select Committee will have that debate. I asked the House of Commons Library to give me the figures on what would have happened to carer’s allowance if the link had been kept since the 1980s. It is now at £76.75 but it would have been £146.42. Invalidity benefit is now £130.20, but it would have been £233.55. If we look at unemployment, we see that jobseeker’s allowance is now £84.80 but it would have been £185.49. There is a moral argument for maintaining the protection of benefits over time and trying to build consensus across the House on that, in the same way in which it was eventually built on the triple lock for pensions.
Finally, let me touch on carer’s allowance. I have been chairing meetings of unpaid carers or informal carers, as they describe themselves, over the past 18 months, and I just want to get the stats on this out there. I pay tribute to what the hon. Member for North East Fife has done with her legislation and the campaign she has waged. Some 8% to 10% of the adult population are informal carers; two thirds of carers are in employment—that is the whole point here; six in 10 of those who are caring for 35 hours a week or more are workless, which is three times the rate of those caring for less than 20 hours a week; and about 25% of informal carers are living in poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s latest figures. Another figure, which I believe she has quoted in the past, is that it is estimated that unpaid carers across the UK provide £135 billion-worth of caring in our society, and that largely falls upon the shoulders of women. It is now time to recognise the significance of the role that these carers play and the fact of the poverty they live in.
As for Northern Ireland, the Carer Poverty Commission was established last month and it is chaired by Helen Barnard of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Research from Carers Northern Ireland showed that nearly one in three unpaid carers in Northern Ireland were struggling to make ends meet, with one in four cutting back on essentials such as food or heating just to get by. I believe the situation is exactly the same across the UK for carers.
Let me make this suggestion: the unpaid carers I have met say that, like everybody else who works, they should be paid a living wage. They should at least get the minimum wage so that they can get by. At the very least, let us take the first step in that direction, which would be to recognise that maternity allowance is paid so that people can care for a child. Perhaps carer’s allowance should at least go up to the level of maternity allowance. If we can increase carer’s allowance in that way, it will enable at least some of those informal carers to be lifted out of poverty. I put that suggestion on the table for the Government to debate and for the Select Committee to look at as well.
As the WASPI women have been mentioned, I cannot help but do so too. This is an injustice that needs to be redressed, and it needs to be redressed soon, because many of the women who were affected are now late in life. We have already lost some of them, and many may not live long enough to see the recompense that they deserve. However, I fear that those who are placing their hope in the ombudsman’s assessment will be sorely disappointed by the levels that are recommended. If that is the case, I commit to returning to the matter on the Floor of this House to make sure that the campaign continues and succeeds.