This Government are delivering the biggest changes to the welfare state in a generation. We are building a benefits system fit for the 21st century, helping more people into work by providing tailored support and more financial support for the most vulnerable. These changes are designed to reflect not only the technological age we live in, which is having a significant impact on work and communications, but people’s working lives. We are providing extra support for childcare costs, and offering flexibility to look after children or elderly parents. Our reforms take into account flexible working, self-employment, multiple jobs, the gig economy and societal changes, particularly the growing awareness of mental health conditions, which is strongly linked to the changing pace of life and the barrage of constant communications.
We are succeeding in our aim to reshape the system and provide for the most vulnerable. So far, we have supported nearly 3.4 million more people into work since 2010—that is more than 1,000 people a day every day since 2010—producing a record rate of getting people in work and the lowest unemployment level since the 1970s. We are also spending £54 billion on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions—this is up £9 billion since 2010. We are also supporting a record 600,000 disabled people who have entered work over a four-year period.
Universal credit is a brand new benefits system. It is based on leading-edge technology and agile working practices. Our strategy is based on continuous improvement, whereby we are listening, learning and adapting our delivery as the changes roll out across the country. The result will be a tailor-made system, based on the individual. This is a unique example of great British innovation, and we are leading the world in developing this kind of person-centred system. Countries such as New Zealand, Spain, France and Canada have met us to see UC, to watch and learn what is happening for the next generation of benefit systems. Let us not forget that we are introducing this new system because the legacy regime it replaces was outdated, not only in terms of an ageing IT infrastructure that was built in the 1980s, but in the way it trapped people in unemployment and disincentivised work.
Today, I am updating the House on the changes we have made to UC as a result of this iterative approach we are taking. That is why last autumn we abolished the seven waiting days from the application process; we put in place the two-week housing benefit run-on to smooth the transition for an applicant moving to UC from the previous system; we ensured that advance payments could be applied for from day one of the application process, for up to 100% of a person’s indicative total claim; and we extended the recovery period for these advances to 12 months. Extra training was given to our work coaches to embed these changes.
Prior to that, we also changed the UC telephone lines to a freephone number to ensure ease of access for claimants enquiring about their claim. Earlier this year we reinstated housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds, and ensured that kinship carers are exempt from tax credits changes. Just last week, we announced changes to support the severely disabled when they transition on to UC; within our reforms, we want to ensure that the most vulnerable get the support they need. These proactive changes were made to enhance our new benefits system.
Our modifications to UC have been made alongside significant changes to personal independence payments, to reflect the Government’s support for disabled people and all types of disabilities—unlike the system before UC, which focused on physical disabilities. In fact, within week one of my entering this job, I took the decision not to continue with the historic appeal regarding a High Court judgment on the PIP-amending regulations, in order to support people suffering from overwhelming psychological distress. We have committed to video recording PIP assessments so that everyone involved can be sure of their fair and reviewable outcome, and earlier this week we announced a more practical approach to the assessment of claimants with severe degenerative diseases. Those patients who receive the highest awards will no longer be required to attend regular face-to-face interviews repeatedly to verify their difficult and debilitating circumstances.
Let me turn to the report on universal credit published last week by the National Audit Office, which did not take into account the impact of our recent changes. Our analysis shows that universal credit is working. We already know that it helps more people into work, and to stay in work, than the legacy system. Universal credit has brought together six main benefits, which were administered by different local and national Government agencies. Once fully rolled out, it will be a single, streamlined system, reducing administration costs and providing value for money for all our citizens. The cost per claim has already reduced by 7% since March 2018 and is due to reduce to £173 by 2024-25—around £50 less per claim than legacy cases currently cost us to process.
Beyond the timespan of the NAO report, we have greatly improved our payment timeliness: around 80% of claimants are paid on time, after their initial assessment period. Where new claims have not been paid in full and on time, two thirds have been found to have some form of verification outstanding. Verification is a necessary part of any benefits system and citizens expect such measures to be in place. We need to ensure that we pay the right people the right amount of money.
Upon visiting jobcentres, the NAO observed good relationships between work coaches and claimants. The results we are seeing are thanks to the exceptional hard work that our work coaches put in with claimants day in, day out. UC is projected to help 200,000 people into work, adding £8 billion per year to the economy when it is fully rolled out. Those are conservative estimates, based on robust analysis that has been signed off by the Treasury. At a user level, we know that 83% of universal credit claimants are happy with the service that they receive.
In conclusion, we are building an agile, adaptable system, fit for the 21st century. We want people to reach their potential, regardless of their circumstances or background, and we will make changes, when required, to achieve that ambition. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement, but the Opposition believe that she should have come to the House on Monday to make a statement about both the damning National Audit Office report that was published last Friday and the Government’s decision, announced last Thursday, to put back the target for the completion of universal credit by another year—the sixth such delay. Rather than taking pride in not continuing with the appeal on PIP regulations, the Secretary of State should reflect on her Department being forced three times in the past year by legal challenges to review payments to disabled people.
Universal credit is the Government’s flagship social security programme, and the NAO report on it that was published last Friday is damning indeed. It concludes that universal credit is a major failure of public policy: it is failing to achieve its aims and, as it stands, there is no evidence that it ever will. The report suggests that universal credit may cost more to administer than the benefits system that it replaces, and concludes that it has not delivered value for money, that it is uncertain whether it ever will, and that we will never be able to measure whether it has achieved its stated goal.
The Trussell Trust recently reported that food bank referrals have increased by 52% in areas where the full service of universal credit has been introduced in the past year, compared with 13% across the UK as a whole. In Hastings, food bank referrals went up by 80% following the roll out of the full service. The Department for Work and Pensions does not measure whether claimants are experiencing hardship; is it not time that the Secretary of State woke up to the realities of poverty in the UK and instructed her Department to do so? Some 60% of claimants have asked for advanced payments, showing just how high the level of need out there is.
The Secretary of State says that universal credit is based on leading-edge technology and agile working practices. However, the National Audit Office report says that 38% of claimants were unable to verify their identity online and had to go to a jobcentre to do so. It makes no sense to accelerate the roll-out of universal credit at the same time as rapidly closing jobcentres. The NAO report reveals that a significant number of people struggle to make and manage their claim online. The Department for Work and Pensions’ own survey found that nearly half of claimants are unable to make a claim online unassisted, and that a fifth of claims are failing at an early stage because claimants are not able to navigate the online system.
The Government claim that the introduction of universal credit will result in 200,000 more people finding long-term work than under legacy benefits. They repeatedly cite evidence from 2014-15, but that was before the cuts to work allowances were introduced and covers only single unemployed people without children. If one looks at the range of claimants in areas where universal credit has been rolled out, there is no evidence that it is helping more people find long-term work. Delays in payments are pushing people into debt and rent arrears on such a scale that private and even social landlords are becoming increasingly reluctant to rent to universal credit claimants.
The NAO report also points out that 20% of claimants are not being paid in full and on time, and more than one in 10 are not receiving any payment on time. The people who are most at need from the social security system are the ones most likely to have to wait for payments. A quarter of carers, over 30% of families who need support with childcare and, most shockingly of all, two thirds of disabled people are not being paid in full and on time. The report points out that the Department does not expect the time limits of the payments to improve over the course of this year, and that it believes that it is unreasonable for all claimants to expect that they will be paid on time because of the need to verify each claim. Does the Secretary of State find the expectations of her own Department acceptable? She has made some claims that things have improved greatly since the closure of the report, so will she substantiate that by putting that information in the Library?
The impact of universal credit on some of our most vulnerable people is clear. Universal support is supposed to help people, but funding is severely limited and provision is patchy. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of it? Is she satisfied that her Department is doing enough to support people who are struggling?
Universal credit was supposed to offer personalised support to claimants, but stressed and overloaded staff are often failing to identify vulnerable claimants. The DWP is aiming to increase the workloads of work coaches fourfold and of case managers nearly sixfold as the Government try to cut the cost of universal credit still further.
The NAO is very clear that the DWP should not expand universal credit until it is able to cope with business as usual. The Government must now listen to the NAO, stop the roll-out of universal credit, and fix the flaws before any more people are pushed into poverty by a benefit that is meant to protect them from it. Universal credit is having a devastating impact on many people and will reach 8.5 million by 2024-25. The Secretary of State must now wake up to the misery being caused by her policy.
First off, this was the earliest time that I could come to the House to make an oral statement. I sought to make a statement as soon as possible, which is why I am here today. Obviously, everyone will know what has been happening this week in the House.
On the legal changes that I have made, let me say that I took them from day one. I took them immediately. No one was forced to do that; I actually took the changes on myself with the rest of my team and also with Conservative MPs who came and told me what they would like to do. I also went out to visit various groups up and down the country. I felt that that was the best thing that we could do.
When this system is fully rolled out, it will be £50 cheaper per claim. It is an automated system and it is a personal tailored system. For those who cannot get access, or who are not sure about the IT and how to support it, we have given an extra £200 million to local authorities to support people—to help them with IT and to help them with debt—not that we would ever recognise that from the scaremongering of the Opposition.
Labour talks about poverty figures, but, compared with 2010 when it was last in office, there are now 1 million fewer people in absolute poverty. Rates of material deprivation among children and pensioners have never been lower, inequality has fallen and remains lower than in 2010, and according to the latest figures, out this week, inequality, because of our benefit and tax changes, has fallen by two thirds in the last year. I wish the Opposition would keep up with the rapid changing of things.
We are helping more people into work. More than 3.2 million more people are in work—1,000 jobs every day since 2010. How much evidence do the Opposition need, for heaven’s sake? The support is there, and now the advances. It was key we made those changes in the last Budget. We knew if people were having difficulty with the benefit, which was there to support them, we had to make those changes—the advances, the two-week run-on for housing benefit, stopping the waiting days—and now we find out that 4% of people are moving into work in fewer than six months and that 50% spend more time looking for work. That is the reality.
Please allow me, Mr Deputy Speaker, to mention some of the real people I have met and spoken to and what they are saying about universal credit. Shafeeq, who was homeless, got an advance that got him temporary accommodation and put him in a better place to look for work. He said it
“helped me out a great deal and I’d have been lost without it”.
He is now in a job. Lisa said an advance payment helped her to secure a place with a childcare provider. She is paying it back over 12 months, which she says means a great deal to her. Gemma, a lone parent, said,
“it’s amazing being able to claim nearly all my childcare costs back, it’s a real incentive to go out to work – I’m going to be better off each week”.
Ben in Devon had a work coach, who helped him to progress in work from day one. Ryan from Essex had a lack of work experience and confidence, and his work coach helped him through universal credit. I will end it there—with the people receiving the benefit.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. The NAO report is, to be frank, a shoddy piece of work. It has simply failed—[Interruption.] Genuinely; anyone who reads it—I do not know if anyone on the Opposition Benches has bothered—will realise that it fails to take account of a series of issues, not the least of which are that the Treasury signed off annual recurring savings of £8 billion and, more importantly, that the changes last November and December have made a huge difference to people’s lives. I urge her to carry on and to tell the Public Accounts Committee to ask the question: who polices this policeman? This piece of work does it no credit at all. Will she now apply her efforts to universal support to make sure that every council area delivers the extra bit that is supposed to go alongside universal credit?
My right hon. Friend has done more than most people in the House to support people into work, and I thank him for his question. He emphasises the point about universal support—the £200 million for local councils—to help people with debt management and IT. That is one thing we are definitely doing. Equally, he raises an important point about the NAO report. I am sure that Opposition Members have not read it. It does not say stop the roll-out; it says continue with the roll-out and do it faster. Please read about stuff before talking about it!
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. The NAO report was damning in its criticism of universal credit, and I am honestly surprised that anyone on the Government Benches could stand up and say they do not agree with it. This is what it does: it audits things. That is its role. I should not be surprised, though, because the Government have form. When the UN published its report on the rights of disabled people, a Minister stood up and said, “Problem? What problem? There’s no problem here”. They are trying to do exactly the same thing with this report.
The NAO in its report says it is not clear that universal credit will ever cost less to administer than the existing benefits system and that the Department will never be able to measure whether universal credit actually leads to 200,000 more people being in work.
Universal credit is pushing families into poverty and hardship. In addition to this report, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report has damningly criticised the sanctions regime, setting out how dreadful it is for individuals. A Trussell Trust report refers to the number of people needing to visit food banks in the areas where universal credit has been rolled out. Universal credit will be rolled out in my constituency later this year, and I am worried for my constituents. I expect what many other Members have seen: a massive increase in the number of people who are facing financial hardship coming through my door. My office, in Scotland’s third city, already refers one person to a food bank every fortnight because of the actions of this Tory Government. The Government can no longer bury their head in the sand. They need to own up to these failings and make changes to improve the system.
We have said quite clearly that this report is out of date and does not take into account the significant changes that we have made. The changes in the Budget were worth about £1.5 billion and the ones that are coming in are worth several billion pounds, but the report does not take that into account. Genuine people who get support from work coaches are saying, “It has transformed our lives.” I invite the hon. Lady to visit a jobcentre and meet the coaches in her area to see how revolutionary this process is. If she does not agree, she knows as well as I do that her party has considerable powers in Scotland to change the welfare system. Should Scotland wish to do that it could, but it is not doing so.
Like a number of Members, I am disappointed that the NAO report does not take into account the changes that the Department made in response to last year’s recommendations from the Work and Pensions Committee. I believe that the changes made by the Secretary of State were part of a test-and-learn environment, which is essential to the future success of universal credit. Will she commit to continuing with test and learn? In doing so, will she look at the Committee’s recommendations on universal credit and self-employment?
My hon. Friend has spent considerable time investigating what we do, and providing solutions and support. He is right that this is a test-and-learn process. Indeed, I ensured that that would be the focus, and it is what we will do for people, whether they are self-employed or disabled. Let me quote various charity groups that have agreed with exactly what we have done. When I made the decision—along with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse—to offer the housing element of universal credit to 18 to 21-year-olds, Shelter said that it was “thrilled”. The chief executive of Citizens Advice, Gillian Guy, said that the Budget changes would
“make a significant difference to the millions of people who will be claiming Universal Credit”.
If only the NAO had read her words and produced its document accordingly.
I cannot believe what I am hearing from the Government. They are in absolute denial, and not just about this report. In the past six months, there have been not one, not two, but three High Court decisions or tribunal rulings saying that the Government’s actions with regard to PIP and, most recently, with regard to severely disabled people transitioning on to UC, are discriminatory and unlawful—they have been made to change. But yesterday, the Minister for Disabled People said in a Westminster Hall debate that there was nothing unlawful or discriminatory about the Government’s actions. Does this not reflect what the UN called a “disconnect” between the “lived experience” of disabled people and this Government’s policies? What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the implementation of all her policies recognises these judgments?
Again, I ask the hon. Lady to read the Court judgment. I had already made the decision on the disability premium. The Court did not ask the Government to alter the severe disability premium—we won on that point of law—so I ask the hon. Lady to digest the judgment properly. We have put in an extra £9 billion of health and disability funding to support people. In the last couple of years, we have got an extra 600,000 disabled people into work. That is what this is about—supporting the most vulnerable and helping more people into work. We have seen 3.2 million people move into work, including 600,000 disabled people. The hon. Lady should stop scaremongering. Should people have difficulties, I ask her to assist them so that they can get the best support for what they need. That is what Government Members are doing, and the figures reflect that.
The Work and Pensions Committee went to Marylebone jobcentre this morning to see work coaches, who were genuinely excited about the UC roll-out that took place yesterday. I hope to find the same thing in my constituency tomorrow morning. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the key to making this work is for work coaches to have the necessary skills, training, time and access to outside support so that they can give claimants the support that they need to get ready for work?
That is exactly right. Work coaches have received—and will continue to get—more training. People are talking about work coaches with a renewed enthusiasm because of the support that they are getting. Darren from Wales, who was put on a confidence course—we were utilising our flexible support fund—said:
“My…work coach was fantastic…helped me turn my life around…fulfilling a lifelong dream”.
That is what this is about—turning people’s lives around. I urge hon. Members to visit jobcentres and meet work coaches, who feel liberated for the first time ever because they are helping people into work.
I hope that the Secretary of State has read and digested her very own Department’s “Universal Credit Full Service Survey” of more than 1,000 claimants. Its results are as damning, if not more so, than the National Audit Office report. The survey shows that 40% of claimants are in real financial hardship after nine months on universal credit. Only half felt better off with more work, and only half could claim unassisted. In the light of that report and all the other evidence before us, will the Secretary of State please listen to the National Audit Office’s recommendation that the programme should not expand before it can deal with higher claimant volumes? Some 100,000 people a month are moving on to universal credit this year, and there will be 200,000 people a month next year. This will affect 4 million families from the end of next year, and 40% of them must not be in hardship.
This is the same report that actually says that people are getting into work quicker, staying in work longer, progressing in work better and getting £600 more a month through our support. It is also the same report that focuses on the 16-hour benefit rule, that shows that people were locked out of work under the legacy system, and that shows that our plans will enable people to work 113 million extra hours a year because they are not locked on benefits.
I thank my hon. Friend for doing so much in this area. She often meets me to talk about ideas that she thinks would make considerable improvements, and one of her suggestions was video recording. We want to give people confidence in the system and to get transparency in the system, which is why we have said that we will implement the idea. Over the summer we will be testing and learning by working with disabled people and asking them, “Do you feel more confident with this? Is video recording what you want?” We have made a commitment to improve the process through recording.
I, too, was at Marylebone jobcentre as part of the Work and Pensions Committee’s inquiry into benefit sanctions. Given that the Secretary of State seems open to suggestions, may I suggest that she reviews the policy whereby a claimant can be sanctioned if they refuse a zero-hours contract? Could it not be counterproductive in the fight against poverty to move people from out of work into low-paid, insecure work?
Yes, of course I will listen to what is best with sanctions, because the key aim is not to give anybody sanctions, but to help people into work—that is what we need to do. Since benefits began, there has always been some form of sanctions regime that says, “If you’re not living up to our expectations, this is what will happen, ” but that is minimal on jobseeker’s allowance, and even less on employment and support allowance—less than 1%. We want to make sure that we get people into work, and if the hon. Gentleman has suggestions, I will meet him.
We have heard a lot of huffing and puffing from Opposition Members, but they are not offering many solutions. Given that the National Audit Office has said that the Government should continue with universal credit, and that one of its criticisms was that that had not been rolled out quickly enough, does my right hon. Friend think that the Opposition’s solution of pausing universal credit in any way reflects the National Audit Office’s report? Will she continue making improvements to universal credit? I know that my constituents are grateful that she is looking at the issue regarding payment dates and assessment periods. I urge her to continue to look at the improvements that my constituents have suggested to her, rather than pausing universal credit, which would go completely against what the NAO has said.
I thank my hon. Friend. I went with him to his local Trussell Trust to see what other changes we should be looking at, and one of them involved the payment system for people in work. Remember, this is the first time we have ever had a benefit system supporting people in work. Beforehand, it was always for people who were out of work. I pledged to look at that, and the team is doing so. As I said, we are supporting people.
What my hon. Friend says about the Opposition is quite right. The NAO did not say that we should stop universal credit; it said that we should carry on and, if anything, proceed more quickly. But remember, this is the Opposition who said that our changes in 2010 would result in 1 million more people being unemployed. How wrong they were, and how wrong they are again!
The NAO says that universal credit is expensive, massively delayed and over-complex, and that the Department will never be able to provide evidence that it helps more people into work. The Secretary of State says that everything is tickety-boo, and that this is a personal, tailor-made system based on the individual. Perhaps I could encourage her to meet my constituent, Augustin, who did not meet the minimum income floor and expected earnings under universal credit and has been made homeless as a result. She could meet him at my local food bank, which has seen a tripling in the number of children it supports as a direct result of universal credit roll-out. Will she meet him?
A couple of things, starting with the minimum income floor: this was brought in for when people had set up a business and were getting paid below the minimum wage in order to support them and to help them to improve their business case, but so that if that was still not working, we could then say, “How do we help you to become employed, because self-employment is obviously not working for you?” That was why the minimum income floor was brought in. If anybody has been made homeless through this, I will meet them. We have advance payments and support, and our work coaches work with homelessness charities to achieve the exact opposite of that. In fact, I can tell the hon. Gentleman about countless cases where they have stopped people being homeless, but if that has not been the case for his constituent, we need to listen and get that changed rapidly.
I entered politics to enable people to get on in life and to open doors to opportunities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that universal credit is a fantastic example of doing that, given that it makes work pay and it is forecast to help 200,000 more people into work than jobseeker’s allowance did?
My hon. Friend is right. She came into Parliament to help the most vulnerable in society and to help people into work. That is what Conservative Members do, and it is what Opposition Members want to do, but our solutions and ways of doing things are working. I reiterate that an extra 3.2 million people are in work since 2010. Universal credit has come about because the world has significantly changed, even in the past 10 years. Think about technology, automation and people online—the world has changed. We have to deal with the gig economy, with flexible working hours, with part-time and multiple jobs, and with the difference in working life for people who have caring responsibilities for children and adults. That is what this system takes into account; the legacy system could not do that.
There might be 1 million more people in work, but there are also 1 million more people on poverty wages. Food banks used to be the exception to the rule, but they have now become part of the rule. More importantly, I have constituents who I listen to—not the Secretary of State—who are on the personal independence payment but are facing assessment delays and do not know when they will be paid. The process can take weeks and sometimes months, which creates great distress and can add to their illnesses and disabilities.
Let me clarify that there are 3 million more people in work, not 1 million more. We listened to what MPs and local charities said, and we brought in extra support for anybody who needs money straightaway. That is why there is now a 100% advance straightaway, and it is why, when people move from one system to another, there is an extra two weeks of housing benefit to help them. We are adapting to change so that we make this work.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse, who visited Stirling last week and held a roundtable meeting with representatives from the Stirling citizens advice bureau, our local food bank—Start Up Stirling—and Stirling Women’s Aid. It was a very useful meeting, but it was also an example of the engagement of this team of Ministers and their commitment to listening, for which I commend them. Will my right hon. Friend spell out what steps are being taken to improve claimants’ experience of the application and assessment process, especially disabled claimants and those with special needs?
My hon. Friend talks about the commitment and engagement of all our Ministers and the Department, and about what work coaches do on a daily basis with local charities to get this running as smoothly as possible. I have talked about the extra £200 million going to local councils as part of grant funding, and 98% of councils have taken up that money in order to make the process easier for people, whether they are people with disabilities or those who cannot use IT. This is what we are doing to make the journey easier, and he is right to champion those people who need support.
We have heard that the Secretary of State is keen to meet disability groups and disabled people, and that is fantastic, but perhaps she could tell us how we will improve the situation in which payments to disabled people are always late, never on time and never in full. This is borne out by our casework, and by some of the cases we heard about during my Westminster Hall debate yesterday.
The hon. Lady says that payments are always late, never on time and not in full, but that is absolutely not correct—[Interruption.] If I did not hear her right and she referred to two thirds of cases, she is still wrong. We need to make sure that people get support, and we know that they do. There is an extra £9 billion of support, whether that is financial support because people need it, or support to get them into work. We know that there are 600,000 more people in work in the last few years, and we are helping even more through Access to Work. Please look sometimes at the positive news and help your constituents a little bit more by focusing them on that additional support.
May I assure the Secretary of State that I, too, have been to my local jobcentre and spoken to the staff there? I have heard that this is the best system to help people for 30 years—that comes from the horse’s mouth in Redditch.
I used to work in the software industry, and the point about this system is that it is agile. A system on this scale cannot be built in the way that the Opposition suggest; that is not how technology operates. The benefit of this system is that it can learn on an individual basis. The staff in the jobcentre said that there was a different experience for every single claimant, and that is how the system responds. The idea that we should stop it flies in the face of any kind of technology learning—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but I want to get everybody in. Questions must be brief.
It was lovely listening to my hon. Friend—my learned friend, who knows so much about technology—because those words needed to be heard. As I said, this is at the leading edge of technology. Great Britain is leading the way. Countries that are coming to see us range from Sweden to the United States, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Canada, Cyprus, France and Denmark. They all want to know how it works to take it back home to their countries.
When the former Secretary of State was assuring the House that universal credit implementation was going well, it was the National Audit Office that told us what was really happening. Its reports have never been shoddy and have never been scaremongering. They have embarrassed Ministers—that is true—but they have proved to be truthful. The Secretary of State will recognise many of the findings of this latest NAO report in warnings given by Opposition Members when she was in the Department four or five years ago. The central flaw, of course, is the very long wait that people have before they are entitled to receive cash. Her predecessor, who was in the job for only a short time, managed, greatly to his credit, to reduce the waiting time from six weeks to five. Will the Secretary of State commit to build on that progress and reduce the waiting time significantly further?
I have heard the warnings from the Opposition before. I heard the warnings even about work experience and sector-based work academies—“Oh, we couldn’t do that for our young people.” We did, and youth unemployment dropped by over 43%. I have heard the warnings, and I appreciate that the Opposition do not like the way we do things, but the way we do things provides results—hence 1,000 more people in work every day since 2010.
I do agree with the right hon. Gentleman that my predecessor made significant changes in how we were rolling out this system. We have to make sure that waiting times are reduced as much as possible, but two thirds of those longer waiting times are due to a lack of verification. We need the verification to know whether people are legally entitled to benefit.
I would like to pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend Philip Davies, because he is right. The National Audit Office report says that the universal credit roll-out is slow, yet Opposition Members want to slow it down even further or even pause it. In noting that obvious tension, does my right hon. Friend agree that the pace of the roll-out, and the test-and-learn approach, mean that the system is continually improving and that people will always have the opportunity to get into work and be better off in work?
My hon. Friend is, again, correct. The NAO made it clear that the pace could do with speeding up. It also said that we should continue with universal credit, far from what the Opposition are saying. It said that we should speed up the pace and carry on going, and that progress had been made in what we are doing. I say to Members: please read the report.
Having visited the DWP offices in Stanley and Chester-le-Street in my constituency, can I agree with one thing that the Secretary of State said and say thank you to the staff for their work? However, a real fear has been raised with me by constituents who have poor IT skills. What more can we do to support these individuals and also to expand access to IT, because many libraries have been closed or have introduced restricted hours, which is a stumbling block for a lot of those individuals?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for mentioning work coaches in such a positive way, because they are doing a significant amount of work, and I hear only praise wherever I go. The system needs to give people support, whether with IT or debt. Support is definitely there for IT—£200 million has gone to local authorities. The jobcentre can point claimants in the right direction, so I ask them please to go via the jobcentre in these situations.
Last week, I met a constituent at my surgery who had received just £11 for four hours’ work as a result of less generous earnings disregards and a sharper clawback of council debts than under legacy benefits. What estimates has the Secretary of State made of those features in terms of the continuing employment benefits that she has talked about? Can we help her to approach the Chancellor, as he prepares his autumn Budget, to ask him to put money into the universal credit system to improve the earnings disregards and to lower the rate at which other debt is recovered?
The hon. Lady has a great deal of knowledge in this area. I am more than happy to meet her so that we can ensure that we have continuous learning and continuous improvement. I am looking closely at the debt repayment that she talks about. I am very much focused on that at the moment. I would love to meet her.
Despite what the right hon. Lady says, some 40% of individuals are still not able to access claims because of verification failures due to a lack of IT. In rural areas such as mine, it may be six to 10 miles to the nearest town or jobcentre. What steps can she take to improve verification for individuals who cannot access computers and cannot easily get to a jobcentre or town?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a fair point on how we get that connection. What we are really focusing on now, as we continue with this continuous improvement, is outreach work to the people who are most in need or most isolated, maybe in a rural community, to help them to get the support they need. That is a part of our continuous improvement.
Hull is one of the cities that is to see the roll-out of universal credit later this year. We already have high levels of poverty, homelessness, and people using food banks. Following the publication of the report, what other measures does the Secretary of State plan to introduce to make sure that, when universal credit is rolled out in Hull, it is more successful than it has been so far?
We will make sure that it continues to be successful where it goes, with more people in work more quickly, staying in work and getting progress in work. On average, people will get £600 a month more in work through the extra support that the work coaches are getting. I ask the hon. Lady, too, to go to a jobcentre to find out what is going on and how we are helping people.
I am very disappointed that the Secretary of State is blind to the hardship that is being caused by this policy. Last night in my constituency, a number of constituents, including two of my staff, were involved in trying to raise money for the East Durham Trust food bank through a sponsored run. That food bank was completely depleted. May I respectfully point out to her that it is depleted because of the policies of this Government, particularly the introduction of universal credit, delayed PIP appeals, and sanctions that have been applied to my constituents?
I am certainly not blind to hardship. We all come into this House trying to prevent hardship. Conservative Members believe that poverty and hardship are prevented by getting people into work and supporting them in work to allow them to fulfil their dreams, hopes and ambitions. That is what we do. As I said, we have provided significantly more money for the most vulnerable, particularly for those with disability and health conditions. We want to support people into work and reduce poverty.
As a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, I am very conscious of how much that Committee—and, indeed, the House—relies on National Audit Office reports. I remind the House that the Department does agree with the NAO on the veracity of those reports. Where there are issues, then the Department can follow them up in the Public Accounts Committee.
May I ask about the habitual residency test, which is connected with universal credit claims? I have a constituent who has been refused advance payment due to a delay in her partner’s residency test, and it is not clear when that will be completed. It would be helpful to understand the timescales for the residency test. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether, if the partner fails the residency test, an entirely new claim will have to be made?
We do not agree with all the conclusions in the NAO report because it did not take into account the impact of the changes. We agree with some of the conclusions, such as the fact that we should continue with the roll-out and speed it up and on the progress made. The habitual residence test ensures that someone is legally entitled to a benefit. Verification was increased in 1994 and tightened in 2004. If someone fails the habitual residence test, they can reapply three months later when they can show that they have links to the country.
I assure the Secretary of State that I have read the NAO report in full, because I like to know what I am speaking about. I also like to know the lived experience of my constituents in Blaydon, where the full roll-out of universal credit happened just before Christmas. The NAO report certainly does reflect the problems that my constituents face with late payments and delays caused by all kinds of things. In particular, I would like to refer to the problems that some constituents with disabilities are having. A local voluntary organisation came to talk to me recently about problems that a deaf person is having, even with support, in claiming universal credit. Will the Secretary of State look at the provisions for people with disabilities, to ensure that they are able to claim easily? Does she intend to follow any of the recommendations in the NAO report?
We agree that it is important for people who are the most in need to get the most support. That is what we are doing. We are training more staff in different areas, including in disability needs, and working with various charities to ensure that that happens. However, I give another example. Caroline talks about access to work and mental health support. She has had bipolar disorder all her life but has now finally found a system that is helping her into work and listening to her. That is what our work coaches are about. We are helping more disabled people.
Last week in Prime Minister’s questions, I identified that the waiting time for appeals is 41 weeks for PIP and 30 weeks for ESA in the Gloucestershire area. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that universal credit appeals do not create further delays, so that people can try to get some justice?
I heard the hon. Gentleman raise that last week. I want to reassure him that we are working with the Ministry of Justice to increase the number of judges and the number people on tribunal panels. We are also recruiting 150 presiding officers, to ensure that we understand what is going on and make the system smoother and quicker. We obviously need to ensure that that happens for PIP, for ESA and, should we need it, for UC.
What an utterly contemptible and triumphant statement we have just heard from the Secretary of State. With the brassiest of necks, she boasts of changes to universal credit that Opposition Members have continually called for, many of which this Government were dragged through the courts before making. Universal credit will be rolled out across Renfrewshire in September. Can the Secretary of State please pause the roll-out and fix the multitude of problems we have heard about today before the people of Renfrewshire are made to suffer the consequences?
If the hon. Gentleman has been calling for some of the changes I have just made, surely he should be celebrating those along with me, because we have listened. It is about getting this right for the citizens, not just opposing for opposing’s sake.
Universal credit will be rolled out in my constituency in July. I already deal with lots of constituents who need help getting the benefits they are entitled to, due to unnecessary barriers put up by the DWP. The reality is that half of claimants are unable to make a claim for universal credit online without assistance. What real assurance can the Secretary of State give my constituents? I have heard little today that gives us confidence in the roll-out.
We are making it a much simpler system, by taking six benefits and turning them into one. Instead of the hon. Lady’s constituents having to get housing benefit from the local council, get tax credits from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and also go to the DWP, they can get it all under one roof, because it is streamlined. If she would care to go into a jobcentre with her constituents, they could see how it now works.
I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to ask a question, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I was unavoidably detained and missed the early part of the statement.
Listening to the Secretary of State’s answers, it appears that she agrees with anything positive the NAO report says, but the whole stream of things that the NAO says are a real problem with universal credit are completely dismissed out of hand. That is unwise. I powerfully and fiercely supported the £3 billion per annum that was put into universal credit under the coalition, despite putting caveats on the record about some issues with universal credit. Does she agree that, if that £3 billion per annum were still within universal credit, work really would pay, and it would be a substantially successful benefit?
We have said that the NAO report sadly was out of date and therefore has not taken into account all the changes that have been made. That is unfortunate, because it means that the report is not a true reflection of what is happening. It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman was not here for the statement, but if he reads it in Hansard tomorrow, he will have his answers on how well the system is working.
It is exceptional to take a point of order now—normally it would come after statements—but as it relates to this, I will.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The Secretary of State, in response to my question, incorrectly said that the Government had not been found to have acted unlawfully in relation to universal credit as it applies to severely disabled people. I have looked up that judgment. I was at court 28 when the judgment was handed down this time last week, and it is absolutely the case that, for severely disabled people transitioning on to universal credit, the Government were found to have acted unlawfully and in a discriminatory way. I would appreciate it if the record were corrected.
I would. If the hon. Lady read and were, supposedly, at the judgment—[Interruption.] I am giving her a get-out clause. On many of the points, the Government won. They were questioned on how moving area had impacted on people with the severe disability premium. It was not about the fundamental change that I have made to help half a million disabled people by giving transitional protection to people with the severe disability premium, which is different.
I will leave it at that, because it has certainly been put on the record and heard. I want to move on to the ministerial statement.