I have three minutes of my speech left, so I will take no more interventions.
The Secretary of State claimed that the NAO report did not take account of the impact of recent Government changes. However, there have been no recent changes to support people in making and managing their claim online, and we know that the Government’s universal support programme receives only limited funding. The payment delays that people are experiencing are shocking.
The DWP this week published figures on the length of payment delays for new claims due in February. The Library estimates that nearly 13,000 people were not paid in full on time and 7,500 people did not receive any payment on time at all. In December, two thirds of disabled people with limited capability for work were not paid in full on time, and last year 113,000 people—a quarter of new claims—were not paid in full on time. This is outrageous. Why were they not paid in full on time and what is the Secretary of State going to do about it? These are people on low incomes who often do not have any savings to rely on in these circumstances. The delays are causing real hardship for people, leading them to build up debt and rent arrears.
The Residential Landlords Association has made it clear that private landlords are increasingly reluctant to rent to people claiming universal credit. The National Housing Federation this week reported that nearly three quarters of housing association tenants in England claiming universal credit are in debt, compared with less than a third of all other tenants. The Government claim that no one should have to suffer hardship because advances are available, although, as the NAO said, the Government
“has not measured the impact on claimants or assessed how much hardship Universal Credit claimants suffer.”
Should it not be the Government’s duty to understand the effectiveness of their own social security system?
Advances have to be paid back, often on top of debts for utility bills and council tax arrears built up while waiting for the initial payment. One of the Secretary of State’s senior officials told the Public Accounts Committee on Monday this week that the average monthly repayment of £35 a week is “not eye-wateringly large”. Maybe not to him, but what about someone on very low income struggling to cope with basic household bills? I have received so much testimony from people up and down the country on this issue. I have heard stories of people being sanctioned because they have accompanied their mother to a cancer treatment session and stories of people with special needs not receiving the support that they should.
I put it to the Government that their policy of managed migration of just under 4 million people on legacy benefits across to universal credit that is due next year risks huge problems for the people who transfer. Although they will receive transitional protection, it will only last for two years, and the DWP’s current plan is that those people will have to make a new universal credit claim. This could bring chaos.
The NAO has made it absolutely clear that the Government should not expand universal credit until they were clear that the system could cope with higher claimant volumes. If the Government fail to get this right, there will be many people whose lives are made a misery by a benefit that is meant to support them. That is why the Secretary of State’s inadvertently misleading claim that the NAO report says that the roll-out should be speeded up matters so much. Will she give an assurance that the Government will not start managed migration until it is clear that universal credit and her Department can cope with it?
Universal credit was created to simplify the social security system. Clearly, its complexity is so often defeating both claimants and the staff administering it. It was meant to lift people out of poverty; instead it is pushing many into debt. The Government claim that the Opposition are scaremongering whenever we raise issues about the suffering of our constituents. Well, the Residential Landlords Association, the National Housing Federation, Citizens Advice, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have all raised major concerns about universal credit.
The Secretary of State repeatedly claims her Department is testing and learning, but this testing and learning is using people like guinea pigs. This is unacceptable. Where is the dignity? Her Government are causing hardship with scant regard for the devastation to families up and down the country. She must now take responsibility for the real suffering being caused by the roll-out of this flawed programme. She must call a halt to universal credit and put forward a credible plan to fix its many failings before many more people suffer.