When it comes to problems with the Department for Work and Pensions and its policies, it is actually quite difficult to know where to start. The people who depend on this Government Department often depend on it absolutely, and it absolutely is not working. It is not working for those on universal credit, assessments for personal independence payments are not fit for purpose, and the benefits freeze has been described by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as the “biggest policy driver” of poverty in this country.
Perhaps universal credit might work if the Government had not taken £3 billion out of the budget back in 2015—it might then fulfil its original and admirable brief of simplifying the system and helping people get back into work—but they did, and now it is not doing so. They did put half of the money back, but it still is not enough. I do, however, applaud the Secretary of State for her acknowledgment that the problems with universal credit have contributed to the frightening and unacceptable growth in the use of food banks by families in this country. We are also seeing late payments, increased stress for people who are often already suffering from stress or mental health issues, and a growth in homelessness.
Let us put this into context. The DWP will spend £184 billion on benefits and pensions this year. That is a quarter of all public spending. More than half of that, £105 billion, is on pensions, mainly the state pension. Only £22 billion is spent on working-age benefits, and a further £21 billion on housing benefit. As MPs, we have a duty to be careful with our language and to help change the story people in this country hear about the relationship between benefits and poverty.
The DWP should exist to help families break free from poverty, to support people into work who are able to work and to provide security in old age, but that is not what the story of current policies reflects or tells people who are listening out there. Policies such as the five-week waiting time for universal credit reinforce the feeling among claimants that the Department does not actually want to help them, at least not right away. What they see is a delaying tactic—putting off payments for as long as it possibly can. Meanwhile the Government have spent £370 million last year, and advance payments just paper over the cracks.