Minister for Disabled People

Baroness Sherlock Excerpts
Tuesday 19th December 2023

(7 months, 1 week ago)

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Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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Mims Davies is the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, but I do not think we should spend all our time focusing on titles. I do not want to tread on my noble friend Lord Younger’s toes but, having studied this subject in preparation, I was trying to talk a little about what we will actually do for the disabled. Of course we need to respect them and talk about them in an appropriate way but, as noble Lords will know, it is important to have action and get things done.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, words matter, but action matters even more. Are my back-of-an-envelope sums right—is Mims Davies now the 13th Minister for Disabled People since the Government came to power in 2010? If so, does the Minister think that all this moving around is damaging things? For example, it is introducing massive delays to the Access to Work scheme, which left one autistic woman waiting 13 months to get a job. We need some action now, do we not?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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The noble Baroness may be right: perhaps Ministers do move around more than is ideal on occasions. I was delighted to discover that I was not moving in the last reshuffle and can continue. The key thing is to focus on the work in hand, and I believe Mims Davies will do that, with support from across the Cabinet.

Universal Credit (Transitional Provisions) Amendment Regulations 2022

Baroness Sherlock Excerpts
Monday 24th October 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

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Moved by
Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock
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That this House regrets that the Universal Credit (Transitional Provisions) Amendment Regulations 2022 (SI 2022/752) do not take adequate steps to protect claimants from financial hardship removing (1) the requirement to evaluate the managed migration programme after the initial 10,000 claimants have been transferred, and (2) the obligation to involve Parliament in the decision to expand the rollout of the programme nationally.

Relevant document: 10th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument).

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, my regret Motion relates to the regulations which amend the process of “managed migration”, the means by which DWP plans to move people who are currently claiming legacy benefits to universal credit. Some 2.5 million households receive legacy benefits, with most receiving ESA or tax credits. Some of those households will move on to universal credit over time through “natural migration” if, for example, their circumstances change. Some will choose to move and some will end their benefit claims altogether. The rest will be moved on to universal credit via a compulsory managed migration process. This was originally intended to be completed by April 2017. It is now due to happen, I believe, by late 2024. Will the Minister confirm if the current aim is still to complete migration of all legacy benefit claims by late 2024?

Concerns about this process have been expressed over many years, both within Parliament and outside. Originally, we all assumed the term “managed migration” meant that DWP would in fact manage the process of transferring people from the current benefit on to universal credit, but that is not what is going to happen. Rather, people will get a letter telling them to apply for universal credit and three months later their benefits will be stopped, even if they have not made an application for UC. If they do not make a successful application within that time, they will no longer be eligible for transitional protection, which is the only guarantee they have that they will not be worse off when they move to universal credit. I will return to this.

The original managed migration regulations were introduced in 2018, but the volume of concern from many quarters, including the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, led to their being withdrawn. After a couple of false starts, some new regulations were introduced in January 2019. These still, however, did not address some of the key concerns about the migration process.

DWP began testing the migration process in 2019 through a pilot, which was expected to last some 12 months before being evaluated and the process gradually scaled up. Such was the concern that the then Secretary of State undertook to come back to Parliament before the full rollout. The 2019 regulations permitted only 10,000 migration notices to universal credit to be made, after which Parliament would have to vote specifically to extend the migration to the rest of the remaining legacy benefit caseload. However, after only a handful of cases, Covid hit and the pilot was abandoned.

These new regulations remove that 10,000 limit, leaving the Government free to scale up the rollout entirely at their discretion, without any further reference to Parliament. In place of a pilot, DWP is running a “discovery phase”, but there is no transparency about how this will work or what the learning is from it. Without information about success criteria and performance, there is no way for Parliament to hold the Government to account on this hugely complex and vital project. DWP was due to publish an evaluation strategy and a full evaluation for the pilot, but I believe it is not planning to do so for the discovery phase. Is that true? If it is not doing so, will she explain why not?

I commend the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its valiant if ultimately fruitless efforts to get DWP to provide more information and answer questions about this new approach. DWP’s case seems to be in essence that it managed lots of new applications very quickly during the pandemic, so it does not need a pilot to prepare it to scale up. However, as the SLSC points out, it offered no evidence to support that view. It said:

“Our concerns were not simply an issue about gearing up IT platforms and administrative capacity but also about the practical impacts that these changes might have on benefit claimants. DWP has been entirely silent on these issues in the EM for these Regulations”.


The Committee also noted that DWP has no firm plan for achieving transition by the end of 2024, nor does it explain why providing evidence to Parliament after 10,000 notices would obstruct that objective. It said:

“In 2019, the then Secretary of State, Amber Rudd MP, undertook to gather evidence and return with it to Parliament, to seek permission to complete the migration. That undertaking has been overturned by this instrument without explaining either why that promise will not be fulfilled or offering alternative briefing to this House. … In doing this, DWP also removes any obligation to involve Parliament, particularly the House of Lords, in the decision to expand the rollout”.


The Committee then wrote to DWP to ask for further justification for the removal of the cap, but noted that the response it received:

“Does not provide any additional explanation”.


It therefore drew these regulations to the special attention of the House and concluded:

“We therefore still take the view that the House has been given insufficient detail to make an informed decision about DWP’s proposals”.


The Social Security Advisory Committee also took these regulations on formal reference. SSAC is privy to rather more detail than most parliamentarians about DWP’s plans, but its most recent report was still casting doubt on the department’s capacity to meet its ambitions, noting the lack of evidence to back up the information about DWP performance. SSAC was also concerned about the removal of the requirement to return to Parliament at the 10,000 mark. It said in its last report:

“In the absence of such a stage-gate, we are not convinced that the governance arrangements currently in place are sufficiently robust to safeguard against, or put strong mitigations in place for, those risks which have the potential to impact adversely upon up to 1.7 million households and to affect public confidence in the programme”.


Has the Minister’s department been able to satisfy SSAC any further since then?

Coming back to Parliament is not just a matter of protocol. Amber Rudd, as Secretary of State, made that commitment because of widespread concern about the impact this process could have on a very large number of people. Will the Minister tell us the latest figure for the number of people likely to be subject to managed migration? I believe that, as of December 2021, DWP estimated that some 1.7 million claims would be migrated, but that figure may have come down a touch. However, that is a lot of people.

To summarise, I have three main concerns. First, I am concerned about the way the process will affect vulnerable claimants, given that the plan to stop legacy benefits three months after a managed migration notice has been issued is going to operate like a hard stop. DWP’s suggestion that its pandemic experience means that everything will be fine does not answer the question, because the legacy benefit caseload is not the same as the caseload that came on to universal credit during the pandemic. Almost half of those people, or thereabouts, are claiming ESA, the benefit for people who are sick or disabled. Most of those are in the support group and most have been on ESA for at least five years.

Mind points out that as of last August:

“There are more than 700,000 people with mental health problems, learning disabilities and dementia receiving income-based ESA who will be affected by managed migration”.


Managed migration is therefore going to affect some of the most vulnerable claimants, including many who will really struggle to deal with this process without support. Both SSAC and the Work and Pensions Select Committee have raised concerns about the impact of managed migration on vulnerable claimants. I understand that DWP’s own research highlights similar risks.

DWP says, “Don’t worry, we will support vulnerable claimants through the managed migration process”, but the Minister will be aware that charities in this field are not confident that DWP is always good at being able to identify and support all the vulnerable claimants. CPAG research found that staff do not systematically ask if claimants with a mental health problem require any reasonable adjustments to their service, contrary to the department’s own guidance. We know from some of the terrible cases that hit the newspapers this does not always work the way that it should.

--- Later in debate ---
On the issue of uprating, I am afraid I cannot give any information. I am sorry, but I have to wait until the Secretary of State carries out—
Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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Just to clarify, nobody who has raised the question of uprating has asked the Minister to comment on the amount by which benefits will be or should be uprated. On the assumption that every year there is some uprating, the value of transitional protection will be different before the next financial year or after, so if somebody moves before, they will be worse off than if they move after. The questions are, first, whatever those rates are, will the Government do anything about that? Secondly, will the department warn a claimant who could choose to migrate either side of the line that they will be worse off if they go this side of the line?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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The answer to that question is that I will need to write to the noble Baroness. She raised it in our meeting and I have asked my officials to prepare me a written answer so that I get it correct. I will write to the noble Baroness and place a copy in the Library.

All noble Lords who have taken part today have asked a number of justifiable and understandable questions. I will make sure with my officials that they are all answered in a subsequent letter. I thank all noble Lords who spoke whose questions enable us to clarify in more detail. Be reassured that the Government are fully aware of the concerns over the scrutiny of managed migration. We believe that managed migration to UC is the right step for claimants and that this is the right time. We believe we know how to protect claimants and are learning from the discovery phase. Given my response, I respectfully ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her Motion to Regret.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lord who have spoken tonight and thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for making some important points about the position of vulnerable claimants and asking some good questions. I thank my noble friend Lady Lister for a powerful speech illustrating the range of issues that will have to be considered very carefully over the weeks and months ahead. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for raising the questions he did and to the Minister for answering them.

Given the lateness of the hour and the business ahead of the House, I will not respond at great length, but I want to say a couple of things. First, the Minister said that my Motion was “mis-founded” because universal credit is good for claimants, so they should be encouraged to move across, and they do not want to do anything that gets in the way of that. She is right that many people will be better off on universal credit, but others will not. For those who will be worse off, it is small comfort that someone else will be better off. It is incredibly important that those who will be worse off, and especially the significant numbers who are vulnerable, are given appropriate support, that their needs are properly attended to and they are not simply left behind, as she said, when others are moved across.

Secondly, she is right that a number of people are worried about universal credit, but not just on the grounds of media comment. The experience of some universal credit claimants has not been good: waiting a long time for benefits, complicated processes, things that they did not understand. I know, just from the charities and churches that I have spoken to, that the experience has not always been straightforward. There are good reasons for people to be concerned.

There are a number of questions here. The Minister is right: she said the Government wanted to change the regulations because the new approach better fits with their strategy and the old approach placed some regulatory constraint. That was the point: the point was to place some constraint. That is why the Secretary of State did it; that is what it was for; and that is what the Government have simply abandoned.

The Minister has said several times that she will update Parliament at the appropriate stages. The fact is, once these regulations go through, there is nothing to require her to come to the Floor of this House and say anything. The only reason she is here tonight is because I tabled a Motion against these regulations, so once they go through, the department will have complete freedom to whatever it wishes. I am really grateful for the time and the detailed responses she has given, but will she please commit to going through Hansard with some care? I think she will find when she does that there were questions that were not answered, or not answered fully. Secondly, will she please look for opportunities to engage this House and not simply the Work and Pensions Select Committee, so that we, as well as the other place, can properly have our say?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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I think I have emphasised the value of regular meetings, updating people and giving them the opportunity to advise us of things they are worried about and things that have gone wrong. I have given my word here. I know our Secretary of State—

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Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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I have no intention of talking as if that is the answer and nothing will be wrong after that. I understand that it has a fixed life. Our job is to work with these people, and I understand the vulnerabilities. I understand the barriers people face when work coaches are trying to find them extra hours they can do, taking into account the things that are stopping them now. The relationship with their work coach will be invaluable. There is nothing in a work coach’s job description that says they must say, “You’ve just got to do this”. I hope that the relationship with the work coach will make a huge difference, and that they will go to their superiors when there are real issues that cannot be overcome through those channels.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for her answers. There are still some outstanding questions, and I remain very worried about the impact on people who are utterly dependent on the benefits they get to keep body and soul together. I very much hope that we will have opportunities to discuss this. However, I have reached the limit of what I can do about these regulations, and voting on this Motion would not change them. In the light of that, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

Unemployment Figures

Baroness Sherlock Excerpts
Thursday 20th October 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

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Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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I believe that the Secretary of State for Health, Thérèse Coffey, is focusing on this. I am sorry; I am really not trying to duck the issue, but the fact of the matter is that it is one for the Department of Health to look at. Clearly, we need more people to clear the backlog.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, I think the Minister is here to answer—

None Portrait Noble Lords
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Front Bench.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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I am grateful to my noble friend and will try again. The Minister is here to answer for the whole Government, but if she does not want to answer for anything but her own department, can I tell her that one-fifth of adults between 50 and 65 who have left work are currently on NHS waiting lists? Does she accept that the very least her department could do is ensure that it can assure those people that, as well as that problem, it is not about to cut the value of their benefits as well?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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We will have to wait and see what is in the Secretary of State’s review of uprating. We have honoured the pledge we made on the triple lock and I am afraid that until we get to 25 November I will not be able to answer that question in all truth.

Out-of-work Benefits

Baroness Sherlock Excerpts
Monday 17th October 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

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Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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I am very happy to look into it. Before I do so, maybe I can speak with the noble Baroness to get some more information to share with my colleagues in the department.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, the Minister mentioned people with ill health. The group falling out of the labour market fastest are the over-50s, and the ONS has found that more than half of over-50s who have left the labour market since the pandemic have done so because of physical or mental ill-health. What is the Minister’s department doing to target over-50s who have left the labour market, who are much needed out there and who want to get back into work? Some of them are not technically unemployed; some are not even getting benefits. What are jobcentres doing about those people?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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We have our programme for over-50s and our over-50s champions. If somebody over 50 is on a benefit, they will be engaged with a work coach, who will have to identify the barriers and put interventions in place to overcome them. People not involved in benefits will get a mid-life MOT and direction to Jobcentre Plus.

Income Equality and Sustainability

Baroness Sherlock Excerpts
Wednesday 6th May 2020

(4 years, 2 months ago)

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Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the most reverend Primate for choosing this topic and for his years of public service, especially for his care for those on the margins and the risks he has taken for justice—from cutting up his dog collar live on air to protest Mugabe, to being willing to be driven blindfolded to try to persuade gang members to identify those who killed Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare. Even more impressively, he has even cooked for Mary Berry. The House will miss him in retirement, but it was a delight to hear the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby. I look forward to more from her.

Our country is in stasis, our economy in meltdown and our way of life in the spotlight. This crisis is a lens through which we see clearly the way we have chosen to order our society and our world. The disparity in our jobs, our homes and our wealth reveal massive inequality and injustice. Those in overcrowded flats, insecure jobs or freshly unemployed with few savings are having a very different crisis from those who are working at home, jobs and income secure, kids studying online, relishing the peace outside.

Will the Government talk directly to those hardest hit in this crisis before they shape the recovery? It does not have to be like this. We do not have to accept the poverty and inequality, the gig economy and the tax avoidance, the polluters not paying and the erosion of the welfare state. My noble friend Lord Wood is right: this can be a Beveridge moment. We can use this terrible crisis, like the post-war Government did, to say we want a country fit for heroes—in the NHS and social care, in supermarkets and schools, the drivers and refuse collectors, the stressed parents, the desperate carers, the anxious disabled people and the lonely older people. This is a moment of decision. We can make different choices for all of us. The future need not look like the past.

Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill [HL]

Baroness Sherlock Excerpts
Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, for opening this debate and all noble Lords who have contributed. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, was quite right; it may be a small debate, but it was a quality one for all that. I have certainly learned a lot this morning. I should say at the start that it is an unexpected treat to be here this morning, but I would have much preferred that my noble friend Lady Hayter was standing here covering this brief. Her gifts are rather greater than mine and she would have done a much better job. I fear she is a loss to the Front Bench and your Lordships will have to make do with me.

I am with my noble friend Lord Dubs and the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne: I love voting. I love everything about it. I love the sense of responsibility, the sense of hope and the deep secrecy of the polling booth. I even love the pencils on strings. I often give thanks for those who fought so that I would have the right to vote and I have always used it. I voted in a general election for the first time in 1979, when I was still at school. If I am honest, the result was not all I had hoped for. However, I kept voting and by and by it got better. By about 2010, I had got the hang of it, but then I was not allowed to do it any more. In the middle, in 1997, it went really well for a few years. It went up and down.

I confess that I now miss voting in a general election. The last time I went to vote locally, there were two clerks on the polling desk. One asked the other what the “L” next to my name meant. She whispered, “Lord”, looked quizzical and just said, “Well, because…”. Then she looked at me and waited for me to move away, I suspect before intoning the list of Peers, felons and so on, because it seemed faintly rude.

In the last general election, 48,324 people voted in the city of Durham and 55% of them voted for my wonderful honourable friend Roberta Blackman-Woods. Obviously, I would have been happy if I had been able to vote, but it would not have made a difference to her election. I take the point from the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, that there are times when it does. Had it been on a knife-edge, and my vote had tipped the balance, I am not sure the people of the city of Durham would have welcomed that with open arms. They may not have felt happy about it, if that had made a difference. Fortunately, it did not. My honourable friend’s standing was so great that the people of Durham came out to back her in great numbers.

My noble friend Lord Desai made the point that, traditionally, the view has been held that we pay a price for being here. Although I hear very clearly what my noble friend Lord Dubs thought of that analogy, it has seemed to me personally that if I had to trade the chance to vote in the city of Durham to be able to stand here to amend Bills and change legislation, that is at least a fair swap. As my noble friend Lords Dubs will know, although he may not approve of it, the view of the Labour Party has long been that if we are to look at this question, we should look at it in a broader sense. We have long had a view that there should be a constitutional convention which should look at the composition and role of the House. This could be swept up in that.

Despite the steely stare of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, I want to talk briefly about other ways of extending the franchise, something raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, is right: there is a question about priorities. If I were going to start extending the franchise, I do not think I would start with us. I would want the opportunity to give 16 and 17 year-olds the chance to vote. Then the rather impressive 17 year-old described by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, would not have to wait for the next election, should it happen to come along sooner than currently planned. I look forward to seeing him take up the former seat of the noble Lord in due course—possibly not very long, based on that comment. However, I would send one comment back to him. If we get rid of all the archaic laws on our statute book, it might look a little different from how it does now. He might want to give some thought to that.

I will share one thought in passing on young people voting. Can the Minister let me know whether it is true that members as young as 15 have a vote in the Tory party elections to choose the next Prime Minister? If so, is it not ironic that they can effectively choose the next Prime Minister but cannot vote for their local MP?

Alternatively, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, we could extend the franchise to long-resident EU nationals in this country after we leave the EU—or before, since some were denied the chance to vote in May. Or we could address the difficulty in voting faced by people in rented accommodation, young people on the move, or indeed homeless people, of whom there are, I am sorry to say, more than there are Members of this House. Can the Minister share any thoughts from the Government on that?

In parenthesis, before I close, one of the interesting things about our current system is that we are Members of the UK Parliament and remain so even during a general election. Should there ever be a crisis—God forbid—while the Commons was not sitting, at least our being here permanently means that we have the opportunity not only to express a view on questions, but to challenge and bring to account Ministers on the decisions they may take. Maybe that is a slight benefit to our being slightly aside from the fray.

For now, notwithstanding the very strong views expressed around the House, it is our view that this is not the biggest priority to tackle. It is not the biggest injustice before us. I am not sure that it is even the biggest injustice in this House. The hereditary by-elections, with their in-built bias on grounds of sex and race, frankly call to be addressed ahead of this. As fortune would have it, we have an opportunity to do precisely that on 6 September when my noble friend Lord Grocott brings his Bill before the House. That is something to look forward to.

Universal Credit

Baroness Sherlock Excerpts
Thursday 16th November 2017

(6 years, 8 months ago)

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Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, this has indeed been a powerful debate. I am indebted to my noble friend Lady Hollis for opening it with her characteristic combination of passion and mastery of detail. I am also grateful for the contributions of all noble Lords, who, between them, have told the story of universal credit, from the original dream, the plans, the delays and the stumbles, to the reality of the gap between the dream and what now is.

On 13 September 2011, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, stood at that Dispatch Box for the Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill. He described universal credit as,

“the most radical reform of the welfare system since its invention”.

He told us:

“It will be simple to understand and access”.—[Official Report, 13/9/11; cols. 628-9.]


He also assured us that everyone would be on it by 2017.

He described a seamless system that would ease the passage into work, make people better off and ensure that work always paid. He claimed that UC could lift nearly 1 million people out of poverty. Those promises were the basis on which Parliament voted to adopt universal credit, so to ask whether the system meets those promises is not to play politics, it is to judge the Government by the standards that they set for themselves.

If any noble Lord opposite ordered a hire car and were expecting a Rolls-Royce, and what they got was a battered old Morris Minor with a flat tyre and a broken back window, I do not think that they would be very happy if the company said, “You don’t really want to go home. If you wanted to drive, you would just get in it and go”. We are merely asking that the Government deliver what they promised, and that is what is not happening.

It does not help to get into a political game of pretending that tax credits were all dreadful and universal credit is all perfect. I worked as a special adviser in the Treasury alongside my noble friend Lord Livermore. We were all trying to do the same thing: to make work pay, to lift people out of poverty and to have a system that works for everybody. Let us try to work together to get this right.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, described what universal credit was meant to do. Of course, in that conception, it was a much more generous system. It had a 55% taper; it had more support; it had full universal support; it was a very different creature. We have to work out what is happening now, but it has been subject to repeated cuts from the Treasury, a point made by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Livermore in a very powerful speech, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, the noble Lord, Lord Low, and many others. We have heard many noble Lords demolish the idea that universal credit, as it is now constructed, always makes work pay: it clearly does not, and we need to get to a place where it does. My noble friend Lady Hollis made that very clear.

I am also sorry to say that we do not yet know if it works to help people to move into work, because the only evidence is research done before the work allowances were cut, back in the days when most people on universal credit were young single people, not those with kids or disabilities. We just do not know; the jury is out.

As for supporting people into work, the idea is meant to be that the claimant and their work coach work together to produce a personalised claimant commitment. That was the original vision, but I am hearing too many complaints about the variable quality of work coaches. The Government’s own research shows that most claimants feel that they are given a one-size-fits-all demand that does not meet their circumstances.

Although the carrots have been taken away, my worry is that the sticks are still there and the Government will have to lean on them. We have heard concerns about inappropriate sanctions on universal credit claimants, a point also made by the Trussell Trust. The trust also flagged up the problems emerging with in-work conditionality. In this new system, getting a job is not enough: if you do not earn enough money in that job to get off universal credit completely, you can be pushed to get more hours, or a second job, or to ditch your secure job for a better paid job. That is not very easy if you have kids or caring responsibilities. The system has to work before those sticks are wielded at people, and I do not think that they should be wielded that way anyway.

My noble friend Lady Donaghy made a very powerful case about the problems facing self-employed claimants. If the key argument for universal credit is a response to changes in income in real time, how can it be right to penalise self-employed people who are, across a year, earning the amount of money that the Government require, simply because they have good and bad months? That is what happens in business, even if they are not in seasonal work. Why can you get penalised if your profits drop one month because you have to pay the insurance bill? That simply cannot work, and I hope that the Minister will address this point.

Is universal credit working to lift 1 million people out of poverty? Sadly, as many noble Lords have said, it is having precisely the opposite effect. That is not surprising when we see the level of cuts in support that have been given, compared to the previous system. The CPAG shows that a lone parent earning £150 a week from working 18.5 hours would be £2,336 a year worse off than under the 2010 tax credit system. How is that progress? We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, the noble Lord, Lord Low, and my noble friend Lord Beecham about the problems for people with disabilities. The cuts in the severe disability premium and the challenges of using the system were well described by my noble friend Lord Touhig. I am very grateful to my noble friends Lady Armstrong and Lady Drake for highlighting the impact of the two-child policy on some kinship carers, despite the vote in this House to exempt them.

None of this will be offset by the tax cuts that get mentioned every now and again. As we have heard, they do not help the poorest. Even if the personal tax allowance were increased next week, somebody on £80,000 a year would get the whole benefit of that. A single mum working 35 hours a week during term time would not benefit from any of it, because she wouldn’t be earning enough.

The IFS used its gold-standard TAXBEN model to look at the impact of all of the fiscal changes that the Government have made. Its projections show that unless changes are made by 2021-22, 37% of our children will be living in relative poverty, the highest percentage since modern records began in 1961. For shame.

Is the system simple and easy to access? I need hardly go there, with all the stories that we have heard today. It clearly is not. I hope very much that the Government will address the long wait. I hope that Ministers will remember that, when the Bill was going through Parliament, noble Lords from all around the House pointed out that this would be a problem. That was in 2011, and I am sorry to say that almost every problem that has happened to universal credit was mentioned back then, during the passage of the Bill. The Government have had years to address this and they have failed to do so, so I hope very much that they are listening, but I am getting a little nervous, because now, in 2017, the problems are still here and are not yet being addressed.

The six-week wait clearly has to be addressed, but that is not a delay, it is a target. It is built into the system, and people simply cannot manage, as my noble friends have pointed out, without being supported much earlier. I am worried about how the system will affect vulnerable people—a point made by my noble friend Lord Cashman and others. I worry, too, about the implicit consent rule. I am also worried about the need to do this online. An advisor told me about a man suffering from severe depression who cannot leave the house, has no computer or internet skills and cannot manage an online account. The DWP has not helped him at all. His sick notes are now rejected by the jobcentre because he has to enter them online.

It is not working. We have heard descriptions of chaos, failing systems and problems. This has to stop. The problems with housing, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, my noble friend Lady Warwick and others should be enough to ensure that it does. My noble friend Lady Andrews described the problems in Wales and other parts of the country, as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I worry that the Government have not realised how serious this is. I do not blame the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. She has been gracious to deal with and generous with briefings, but she inherited this mess and she simply has to help her department sort it out. I worry that the Government have been complacent about the scale of the problems, and I have not been encouraged by some of the contributions from those sitting behind the Minister today. Either the Government believe that the problems are not very serious or they have decided that they are collateral damage—a price worth paying. Either of those is mistaken; and the second is, frankly, unacceptable.

It is not too late. This system is in serious trouble. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said in a very powerful and helpful speech, what happens here results in human misery, and we need to address it. I urge the Government to take a deep breath now and stop. As my noble friend Lord Cashman said, leadership is not about ploughing on regardless; it is about stopping, pausing, listening to every word said here today, reading 650 pages of evidence given to the Select Committee and getting the system right before pressing on. That is the very least that this country demands.

Working-age Benefits

Baroness Sherlock Excerpts
Thursday 16th November 2017

(6 years, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, I commend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for choosing this subject and for managing to get it debated the week before the Budget, which I think is a very coveted spot indeed. In doing so, he has highlighted one of the greatest and most overlooked scandals of the austerity policies pursued in recent years. With apologies, I am going to go through some of the history to this and what I think is wrong with this approach to deciding benefits and then look at why I think it is being done.

Previously the default position was that social security benefits and tax credits were indexed to inflation so they would keep their value. Before 2011 they were linked to the retail prices index or ROSSI—a variant on RPI which excluded housing and some council tax costs. From 2011 they were linked to the consumer prices index and, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, pointed out, that was contested but did at least preserve the stated intent of ensuring that benefits and tax credits remained in real terms at the level at which Parliament had decided to set them. It meant that Parliament knew what it was voting for when it approved changes to benefit levels.

That changed when the coalition Government decided to limit most working-age benefits to a 1% annual increase for three years from 2013-14. This Government went further and froze those benefits at their 2015-16 cash levels for another four years so they will not rise again in cash terms again until 2020. The frozen benefits include payments on which the poorest families in our society depend. I suggest there are two major problems with this change: one of process and the other of impact. First, it means that Parliament has no idea what it is signing up to—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood—when something is set for four years at a time. The impact assessment for the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which brought this policy in, showed a projected saving to the Treasury of £3.5 billion by freezing the benefits as opposed to uprating them by CPI, although it noted that:

“These savings will continue in future as increases will be from a lower base”.


But of course inflation changes so the exact saving to the public purse and the corresponding cost to those who get the benefits and tax credits are variable quantities. So the Government asked Parliament to adopt a policy when they could not know the precise impact on the people who would be affected by it.

That is the second problem—the impact has turned out to be severe. This freeze cuts in real terms the incomes of affected households year on year. Inflation is now higher than when the Bill was passed. The impact assessment helpfully cited the OBR inflation forecasts for CPI inflation for every year of the freeze period. They varied between 0% and 1.9%. The forecast for this year was 1.2%. In fact, the CPI 12-month rate last month was 3%. That is good news for the Exchequer which scores a saving much higher than predicted. As David Finch of the Resolution Foundation points out, by 2020 the estimate is that the freeze will have saved the Exchequer some £4.7 billion, a full £1.2 billion more than previously forecast. With CPI at 3%, that makes year three of the benefit freeze alone worth £1.9 billion to the Treasury.

The bad news is, of course, that it is £4.7 billion which would have gone into the budgets of those who get benefits and tax credits and use them to feed their children and pay their rent, and now they will not. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans pointed out, it is worse for the poor because they have to spend more of their income on essentials, such as food, and the inflation rate for food and energy is higher than the 3% general inflation rate. Most forecasts suggest that it will get worse. My noble friend Lord Beecham has revealed the effect of that in his area, and also the significant impact on housing.

CPAG analysed the effect of the freeze before the latest rise in inflation and found that in a universal credit system, the four-year freeze to UC and child benefit uprating will cost the average single-parent family £710 a year and the average couple with children £430 a year. I commend the concern for families of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for whom I have a great deal of respect, and I admire him for it. One of the reasons I am most worried about this freeze is that it affects most families with children, and that is where the damage is being done. I appreciate his raising that issue.

What will this do to inequality? That was set out in painful detail in a recent report by Hood and Waters of the IFS, Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2017-18 to 2021-22—there have been catchier titles, I grant you. It uses Treasury and OBR data and macroeconomic forecasts to model the impact on household incomes. Its projections showed this: inequality will rise over the next four years; the official rate of relative poverty after housing costs will rise by two percentage points, driven entirely by child poverty, which will rise by seven percentage points; absolute poverty will remain the same, but pensioner poverty will fall and absolute child poverty will rise by four percentage points. Children must be looking enviously at the triple lock enjoyed by pensioners.

Prices are rising but the real incomes of poor households are falling, and most of those had nothing to spare in the first place. What does the Minister think those families should do? More to the point, why are the Government doing this? We know, because on 30 October, my noble friend Lady Lister asked the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, the Minister’s colleague, to describe the Government’s reasoning. The noble Baroness said:

“The benefit freeze is part of a package of welfare reforms that is designed to ensure that the system remains sustainable and to incentivise claimants into work. These reforms are working, and we have not had a lower unemployment rate since the 1970s. The changes we have made to the benefits system allow us to target the support we provide to those who need it most”.—[Official Report, 30/10/17; col. 1156.]


Let me take that Answer apart. First, it is part of a package of welfare reforms. The benefit freeze is not a reform: it reforms nothing; it is simply a cut every single year on year. Secondly, it is designed to ensure the system remains sustainable. Ministers often complain about rising social security spend without giving any context, or referring, for example, to the rising levels of age-related disability, or even without mentioning that spending on out-of-work benefits rises during recessions which, of course, is the safety net kicking in—automatic stabilisers, as economists put it, kicking in. A much better test of sustainability is the cost of social security as a percentage of GDP which has changed remarkably little in recent decades. However, if these cuts go ahead, the OBR Welfare trends report said that by 2020-21 social security spending in support of children and working-age people would be at its lowest share of GDP since 1990-91.

Thirdly, it is to incentivise claimants into work. But this benefit freeze affects people claiming ESA who have been deemed not fit to work yet. It affects mothers of children under one, whom even this Government do not think should work. It affects working tax credit and child tax credit which go to people in work. The same people whose incomes from wages have been squeezed are now finding the system that is meant to top up their household income is being slashed just when they need it most. Fourthly, the changes are to allow us to target the support to those who need it most. Yet the biggest losers overwhelmingly are families with children and especially single-parent families. How is that a good target?

Ministers keep telling us the country cannot afford to pay benefits at decent levels. The coalition Government famously said that,

“those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden”.

Yet a detailed study by Ruth Lupton et al of the coalition’s social policy record found that,

“the poor bore the brunt of its changes to direct taxes, tax credits and benefits”.

With the exception of the richest 5%, those in the top half of the distribution were net gainers from the changes. The study said:

“Perhaps surprisingly, overall the ‘welfare’ cuts and more generous tax allowances balanced each other out, contributing nothing to deficit reduction”.


Yes, those austerity cuts were not needed to cut the deficit but to pay for tax cuts for the richer.

There we have it. This policy hits the poorest who had no spare cash anyway. It hits low paid workers as well as those who cannot work. It hits children hardest. It will increase poverty and inequality, especially for children. Its impacts will be felt well into the future as these new, lower levels form the basis for any future increases. Every increase in inflation represents a windfall for the Exchequer at the expense of the poorest families in our society. This is unjustifiable. The Government should abandon it now.

Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) (Amendment) Regulations 2017

Baroness Sherlock Excerpts
Monday 27th March 2017

(7 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Brougham and Vaux Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Lord Brougham and Vaux) (Con)
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I inform the House that if this Motion is agreed to, I cannot call the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, due to pre-emption.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to the Motion in my name on the Order Paper. Widespread concern has been expressed about these regulations. I am grateful for briefings from a wide range of organisations pointing out their implications. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, explained how we came to be here. In December the Upper Tribunal ruled on two cases that determined what could be taken into account when making assessments for PIP. Ministers’ response was to declare that if those judgments were allowed to stand they would cost £3.7 billion over five years. Therefore, they had no option but to rush to legislate without consultation. They did not pause even to allow the Social Security Advisory Committee to scrutinise the regulations in advance of their being laid, as would be usual.

The cases were slightly different. The case of LB was about managing medication, affects far fewer people and would cost only about £10 million a year. As the Social Security Advisory Committee pointed out, the impacts of that case are by no means clear. So why did the Government not do what the SSAC recommended: consult widely and improve the estimate of the likely impact before the changes were introduced, given that the numbers and the cost were so much smaller?

The judgment in the MH case meant that, in applying for the mobility component of PIP, someone could rely on their inability to plan or manage a journey solely on grounds of psychological distress. These regulations are designed to reverse that completely. Yet when PIP was introduced in legislation, Ministers claimed it would be very different from disability living allowance, which preceded it, because it would not judge someone simply on the basis of their condition, but on what an individual could or could not do. Yet now the regulations seek to exclude a key dimension of that very judgment.

Ministers claim that they are restoring the original aim of PIP, but we were told that the higher rate of the mobility component of PIP would apply where mobility is,

“severely limited by the person’s physical or mental condition”.

Yet many people with mental health problems will be affected by these changes, including people with schizophrenia or bipolar or post-traumatic stress disorders. Will the Minister please tell the House how this fits at all with the Prime Minister’s promise to tackle the stigma of mental health problems and the Government’s commitment to parity of esteem between physical and mental health? It does not.

Ministers have been out there insisting that this is not a cut. However, 164,000 people with mental health conditions could miss out on mobility payments that they would have received under the Upper Tribunal judgment. As the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee warned,

“while this change may not result in an immediate ‘cut’ for people currently receiving PIP, they may lose out in future (despite no change to their condition), if they are reassessed under the new criteria”.

That committee called on the Government to make clear to the House the long-term impact of these changes. That is what I am trying to push them to do today. It also called on them to review all the descriptors for PIP, as did the Social Security Advisory Committee. Can the Minister assure the House that his department intends to act on the recommendations of both the SSAC and the scrutiny committee and report back to this House when it has done so?

Finally, the SSAC pointed out that it was not at all clear how tribunals or those making decisions would respond to changes in descriptors to exclude psychological distress altogether, particularly where that is a symptom of a condition; for example, an intellectual or cognitive impairment which would generally result in a higher level of need. It said that,

“where multiple factors made it impossible for someone to follow a journey without help, it would be difficult in practice to strip out the element of psychological distress from the other factors when making a decision. As a result it may well be that it is not consistently treated in these circumstances”.

The Disability Benefits Consortium highlights that by looking at the example of Parkinson’s. It is a highly complex condition with more than 40 physical and non-physical symptoms. Depression and anxiety can be a symptom of Parkinson’s as a result of chemical changes in the brain. At any point, up to 40% of people with Parkinson’s will have depression and a similar proportion will experience anxiety. Likewise, many people with MS experience significant cognitive difficulties and are more likely to have co-morbid mental health conditions. The Upper Tribunal recognised that someone who needs to be accompanied on journeys to avoid overwhelming psychological distress has needs which meet a higher descriptor, but these regulations will prevent that being recognised and that claimant getting an appropriate level of help. How are decision-makers supposed to strip out the element of psychological distress from other factors when making a decision, when it is quite clear to anyone who has looked at it that it will not be an easy task?

Even before the regulations, there was growing concern about the way PIP is working. The Disability Benefits Consortium points out that almost half of people lose access to some of or all their support when assessed to move from DLA to PIP. Sixty per cent of those who appeal succeed. We know already that more than 750 people a week are returning their Motability cars because they no longer qualify for the money that they previously used to pay for them.

The tribunal decisions highlighted some important failures in the way that the PIP assessment process is working for people with mental health problems. Instead of stopping to reflect and consult, Ministers have rushed out new regulations to overturn the effect of the judgments and to assure us that everything will work smoothly in future. It will not. The ambiguities remain. The flaws in the way the PIP process assesses people with mental health needs will not disappear. Their needs will now simply be officially ignored. If only the Government had accepted the amendment put forward during the passage of the Bill by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, which we backed and which would have introduced a trial period for PIP, these issues might have surfaced, but sadly she could not get support from around the House.

As a result, some people who need additional support to overcome barriers to mobility will not get it. Others will lose it when they come up for reassessment. That means that thousands of people could be trapped and isolated in their own homes because they cannot travel alone without help. That could make their depression or anxiety worse.

The context for this change is that this Government and the previous Government have repeatedly cut benefits for sick and disabled people. They cut £30 a week from the ESA for the WRAG group. They introduced the bedroom tax—two-thirds of households affected by that contain a disabled person. Now we have another move which will hit vulnerable people.

The Government should withdraw the regulations to enable proper scrutiny and consultation. If they will not, the Minister should commit here and now to conducting a review of the impact of the regulations on those with mental health conditions, as my Motion demands.

Before I finish, I should say a word about the other Motion on the Order Paper. If the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, decides to push her fatal Motion to a vote, she will be well aware that we on these Benches cannot support her and neither will most of the House. There is a reason that the Lords has voted down secondary legislation only five times since 1945. It is because, unlike with primary legislation, if we vote against secondary legislation, it is dead, irrespective of the will of the elected House. The Cunningham convention sets out quite clearly the exceptional circumstances in which the House may do that and we are not in that territory. Even if the fatal Motion somehow passed, I presume that the Government would simply bring back something in a Finance Bill or in other financially privileged legislation on which we could have no impact. I regret that having on the table a Motion such as that must inevitably raise expectations that this House can do something that it could or would never have done.

However, we should not let the Government off tonight without making it clear to them that the House does not approve of what they are doing. We should make it clear that we are deeply concerned about the impact of the regulations on sick and disabled people and that we do not approve of a move that devalues mental health compared with physical health. I urge the Government to think again. If they will not, I urge the House to demand that they at least account for the impact of what they are doing.

Social Mobility

Baroness Sherlock Excerpts
Thursday 20th June 2013

(11 years, 1 month ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock
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My Lords, this has been a great but very short debate. I am so sorry that I have only four minutes in which to respond, so I cannot possibly comment on the many wonderful speeches. However, there was some clear consensus around the Committee today. First, we all think that social mobility is good. We must also acknowledge that if we allow inequality to continue at the current level, it is inevitable that social mobility will require some people to go down as well as up, and perhaps go down quite a long way. Perhaps I can tempt the Minister to depart from his brief briefly and look at the way that someone like John Rawls might have encouraged us to think about the circumstances in which, given a choice of an equal or an unequal society, but with no way of knowing where we might end up in the distribution, most of us would come down firmly in favour of a more equal society. What might that tell us here?

With the possible exception of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, there was also a recognition that social mobility is in trouble in Britain. After my first visit to the United States, I came away both impressed and shocked, feeling that I had come across a country which had very low social mobility but believed passionately in very high social mobility—hence the American dream. As my right honourable friend Ed Miliband said in a speech last year on this subject, the reality is that if you want the American dream, go to Finland. One of the challenges we have in Britain is that our social mobility is pretty poor by OECD standards, and slowing. We therefore have a problem; so what do we do?

I think we have all agreed that education is crucial. I will not repeat the many interesting ideas that have been put forward there. Most of us would agree that early intervention is also crucial. The previous Labour Government were very committed to this, as I am sure noble Lords will accept. We created Sure Start and invested in thousands of children’s centres. We also provided support for early years education and for disadvantaged pupils, and the attainment gap narrowed as a result. I worry about some of the changes in recent years. I am concerned at moves such as the scrapping of education maintenance allowance and the closure of children’s centres, and what that might mean down the track for opportunity.

I was pleased to hear both my noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby draw attention to some of the really severe barriers at the bottom where, with the best will in the world and even with lots of character, there are some pretty huge hurdles to overcome if one does not even get enough to eat, never mind having the kind of support that comes in other homes. That point was also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. I, too, was hugely impressed at the great lineage that has produced the noble Baroness, Lady Perry. That clearly explains why we see such a force of nature here among us today.

I was also very interested to hear about the question of character because, aside from all the other questions, character and resilience are clearly important. I did a stint on the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel, which was set up to look into the 2011 riots. One thing we found was clear evidence that as well as enabling young people to take advantage of opportunities, character and resilience could mean that when a split-second moment of crisis came and someone had to make a choice that could be life changing, they would be enabled to make a good choice at that moment and not a bad one. It has real benefits both ways round. Given the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, to whose work and that of her All-Party Parliamentary Group I pay tribute, about the formation of character being as important—if not more important—than the acquisition of knowledge or other things, do the Government feel that that is reflected in their approach to the curriculum? I would be interested in the Minister's response on that.

I am with the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Derby on this: we need to be quite careful of being overly utilitarian. If we want to invest in character in order to get certain results, there is a slight danger that that is like trying to become happy, when it is by doing other things that one becomes happy. In that respect, in preparing for this debate I looked at various sources, including the Lexmond and Reeves 2009 report for Demos. I was childishly thrilled to find that they began with Aristotelian ethics. It was a fascinating notion. When Aristotle wrote about ethics, he was trying to set out the ways in which people could become better or pursue the good. However, they also told us that the closest translation of ta ethika was not, in fact, “ethics” but “matters to do with character”. In other words, character represents a set of life skills, not a moral disposition.

That tells us something quite exciting, I would suggest. It takes us to a view of character as a shorthand for a set of personal capabilities that research shows to be linked to a range of interesting positive outcomes. The report describes it as well-being. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby said, that needs to be understood as well-being in its broadest and deepest sense of human flourishing. If we have people who are flourishing, we will find people who are more likely to succeed, make the right decisions at crisis points, do better in exams and get more fulfilling jobs, but they would also be better people and would build a better society. That is the prize really worth having.