Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
We now come to the first urgent question, which I expect to run for 45 minutes.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make a statement regarding the delay to the full roll-out of universal credit.
The Secretary of State and I informed Parliament yesterday that we had revisited our forecast for universal credit and were extending its completion date to 2024. Our planning for universal credit relies on assumptions about the number of people whose circumstances will change each day, thereby naturally migrating. Our forecasts to date have relied on 50,000 households experiencing a change in circumstances each month. Based on this, we had predicted that the process of natural migration to universal credit would be completed by December 2023.
Information collected on changes to people’s circumstances suggests that natural migration is happening less frequently than we expected. This suggests broad stability in people’s lives and can be attributed to a number of reasons, including the robustness of the labour market. We now estimate that 900,000 fewer households will naturally migrate between now and December 2023 than we had forecast. Given that we expect to manage about 100,000 households to universal credit each month, it necessarily follows that if we are to protect the interests of claimants and move them to universal credit safely it will take a further nine months to complete the implementation of universal credit.
I can assure colleagues that claimants will not lose money from their universal credit award owing to this forecasting change. We will always put the best interests of our claimants first, and as we move into the managed migration phase protecting the vulnerable will be our utmost concern.
The UK Government still have no respect for the House. They let the BBC announce this delay as part of a news trail for the documentary being aired tonight, without a written ministerial statement—I have not seen one, so can the Minister tell the House where it is?
I feel for the Minister, being forced to stand here today, because I know it was not his decision to withhold that information from colleagues. Where is the Secretary of State? This should have been an oral ministerial statement.
Quotes from the documentary seem to suggest that this decision was taken by a senior official, not the Secretary of State. Has she abandoned decision-making oversight? When did she sanction this decision? Perhaps there was no oral ministerial statement because she found out only last night, like the rest of us—what an absolute shambles.
Universal credit was supposed to have been fully rolled out by 2017. This further delay means that it will have been delayed by a further seven years at a potential cost of £500 million. It highlights how far universal credit is from getting it right, as does the fact that this delay is needed to avoid further hardship to those in receipt of the benefit.
Ministers say, as the Minister said again just now, that the delay is needed because people are scared to go on universal credit. They say it like they are actually surprised. The great irony is that if this Tory Government were to listen and do what expert charities and those actually in receipt of universal credit were saying, these delays would not be needed.
Will the UK Government use this delay productively by making a meaningful investment in universal credit to see it fixed, scrapping the two-child cap and rape clause, ending the debt and poverty-inducing five-week wait and making work pay by fully restoring work allowances?
Finally, will the Minister confirm that this delay means that more people will be part of the natural rather than the managed migration process, which in turn will mean that those recipients will lose out on transitional payments, thus saving the Government more money at the expense of people who actually need it?
I have not yet seen the BBC documentary, and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has not done so either, because it is due to be aired shortly. However, it is important to stress that officials discussed advice to be sent to Ministers late in 2019, and the final discussions were held with Ministers in 2020. Parliament was then informed. This relates to the back end of the timetable, which concerns people moving to universal credit in 2024-25, so the change was communicated in good time.
The hon. Gentleman referred to cost, and it is important to put that in context. This is additional money that will go into the pockets of our claimants, some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our country. About 900,000 people could now receive transitional protection who would not have been able to receive it through natural migration.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s clarification of the need for this reforecasting. May I invite him to restate the Government’s total commitment to a universal credit arrangement that simplifies the system? It means dealing with one Department rather than three, it combines six benefits into one, it helps people to get into work more quickly, and it smooths their transition into work thereafter.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and for all the work that he did in our Department. He is absolutely right: universal credit is a modern, flexible, personalised benefit that reflects the rapidly changing world of work. Conservative Members believe that work should always pay, and that we need a welfare system that helps people into work, supports those who need help, and is fair to everyone who pays for it.
Yesterday the BBC reported that the Government had decided to delay the roll-out of universal credit until September 2024, adding £500 million to its overall cost. That is hugely embarrassing for the Government: yet again, they have had to delay what is meant to be their flagship social security policy. Last week the Minister told the House that they had managed to process fewer than 80 households since July, as part of what was meant to be a pilot of up to 10,000 households in Harrogate, and that only about 13 of those households had transferred to universal credit. At that rate, it would take the Government more than 380 years to complete their managed migration pilot.
Universal credit was supposed to make work pay, but instead it has caused misery for thousands across the country. It seems from yesterday’s report that senior civil servants think people are too scared to transfer to it. Can the Minister tell us why so many people are scared? Is it because of the five-week wait that is pushing so many families into debt and rent arrears, and making them turn to food banks to survive? Is it because of the two-child limit, which the Child Poverty Action Group has described as
“a policy designed to increase child poverty”?
Is it because of the sanctions regime that has made some of the most vulnerable people in our society destitute? Or is it down to the fact that, according to the Government’s own research, nearly 50% of claimants were not able to make a claim online unassisted?
It is clear that the Government have been forced to delay universal credit yet again because people do not have confidence in the system. Can the Minister tell us what they intend to do with the extra time? Will they get rid of the five-week wait? Will they scrap the two-child limit? Will they call a halt to the sanctions regime that is pushing people into destitution? And will they now apologise to all the people whom they have pushed into hardship through universal credit, and create a social security system that protects people from poverty and treats them with respect?
The hon. Lady says that I should be embarrassed. I will never be embarrassed about putting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society first, and neither will the Government. She talked about cost. As I have said, this is up to £500 million of additional money that will go into the pockets of our claimants. When she referred to the pilot, she was conflating two very separate issues. She also said that people were scared. Perhaps if members of the Labour party desisted from their scaremongering and spent more time in our jobcentres speaking to work coaches, they would have a better understanding of universal credit and how well it is working.
I am certainly no fan of the Department for Work and Pensions and its campaign to improve universal credit, but I do know that this Minister cares about making universal credit work, and this Minister has my full backing to make it work—and I have worked with many Ministers over the last 10 years. Will he tell me clearly, however, whether my constituents will be better off or worse off because of the way in which the migration works?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his kind words. The answer is a categorical yes: his constituents will be better off. Under our forecasting, around 900,000 people will now be eligible for transitional protection, and as a result they will be better off.
I congratulate Neil Gray on securing this urgent question. Claimants are extremely reluctant to be moved on to universal credit. It has a dreadful reputation, largely because for the first five weeks that they are on it the only help they can get is a loan. Claimants on universal credit are two and a half times more likely to need a food bank than those on the previous benefits. Will Ministers look urgently at drastically cutting that five-week delay?
First, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his election as Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee. I take all issues around policy in my Department, in the areas in which I have control, very seriously and I am happy to work with him. Are there improvements that we can make to universal credit? Yes, of course there are, and I look forward to working with him find some of those solutions.
Is the Minister as surprised as I am that, when questions about universal credit come up, people have a clear tendency to forget that the legacy benefits system leaves a lot to be desired and traps people in jobs where they cannot work more hours? Universal credit is a massive improvement. Of course there are going to be issues, but I for one am pleased that the Minister is taking this cautiously and carefully. Universal credit helps people to get into work and makes work pay, and he should not be embarrassed about it at all.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. The previous system has been described as clunky and confusing, as leading to overpayments and therefore ongoing deductions, as acting as a disincentive to work through cliff edges at 16, 24 and 30 hours, and in some cases as a marginal tax rate of 90p in the pound. Labour was content to have people trapped in a life on benefits. What did that mean for the life chances of people and their children? Under universal credit, it always pays to work and increase your hours.
The final delivery of universal credit seems to be even later than a Northern train. It is a demonstration of the incompetence of this Government that they have wrecked the benefits system in this way. When universal credit was rolled out in my constituency as one of the experiments—they never do experiments in their own constituencies—it caused a tenfold increase in food bank usage and huge hardship—[Interruption.] The Minister can pretend all he likes that that did not happen, but I know from my own advice surgery that this benefit causes misery.
Let us instead look at the facts. Universal credit will give claimants an extra £2.1 billion a year, once it has been fully rolled out, compared with the system that it replaces. Around 1 million disabled house- holds will receive an average of around £100 more a month, and 700,000 families will get the extra money that they are entitled to—around £285 a month—under universal credit. Claimants will have access to around £2.4 billion of previously unclaimed benefits—benefits that they did not receive under the legacy benefits system of the previous Labour Government.
I simply do not understand why Opposition Members are so against this system, which is helping people into work. I have visited my jobcentre in Poole, where work coaches are so positive about the universal credit system because it gives them the tools to get people into work. It is not just Conservative Members who support universal credit; it is also those who have been helped into work by our work coaches.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him for visiting his jobcentre. If more Members across the House did so, they would have a better understanding of the system and of how our work coaches feel about it. They would find that, as my hon. Friend rightly says, it is a valuable tool to help people to get into work and to progress in work. We should all be proud of it.
In a written answer to me, the Secretary of State has conceded:
“As the two-child limit policy was introduced in April 2017 there is insufficient data to assess any impacts of the policy on low income.”
Almost three years on, we still do not have sufficient data to assess the impacts. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister take the opportunity provided by this period of grace that they have granted themselves to get proper statistics on the effect of the two-child rule on people of ethnic and religious backgrounds, and at local authority and parliamentary constituency level?
I am not entirely sure about the correlation between that question and this urgent question but, nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman can write to me, or I would be happy to meet him to discuss the issue further. I cannot guarantee that we will agree, but I will be happy to listen to him to understand the issues he raises.
When I visited my jobcentre in Redditch, which, contrary to some suggestions from the Opposition, has had full roll-out of universal credit since October 2017, I found work coaches to be incredibly positive about the transformational help being given to their clients. Does the Minister agree that the constant scaremongering and muddling from Opposition Members is the problem? First they want to scrap universal credit, then they want to pause it—who knows what they would do? We need to be on the side of the people, and I am glad that this Government are.
My hon. Friend is quite right. At every single jobcentre that I visit—I visit one every week on average —I get that same feedback, and the one thing that staff would like to change is the reputation. It would be helpful if Opposition Members visited their jobcentres, spoke with work coaches, got that understanding, and desisted with the unhelpful scaremongering.
My constituent, a mature student with a wife and child, claimed UC and provided all the information that was required. The DWP later announced that it had made an error and asked my constituent to pay back £2,416. He has had to give up his studies, and his family is now in hardship. Does that incompetence not demonstrate why people are so scared to make a UC claim? While the Minister for deep-fried Mars bars is at the Dispatch Box, will he explain why he still has not apologised to me and my colleagues?
I hope you recall, Mr Speaker, that I did make a full, frank and unreserved apology in this Chamber. As for the case that the hon. Lady raises, if she would like to write to me with the details, I will happily look into it. There are strict Treasury rules about errors and deductions, but I will be happy to look at them.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that today’s announcement does not change the fundamental course of our policy, which is to move away from a perverse legacy system that incentivised claimants to minimise the number of hours worked to one that incentivises them to maximise their hours and gives them a chance to move away from long-term benefit dependency?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for his support for universal credit and, indeed, his local jobcentre. We believe that work should always pay, and we need a welfare system that helps people into work, supports those who need help, and is fair to the taxpayers who pay for it. It is important to stress—my hon. Friend is right about this—that it always pays to work and increase one’s hours under universal credit. That was not the case under the legacy benefit system.
I have huge respect for the hon. Lady, and I would be happy to visit her constituency to meet some of the organisations she references. It is important to state that nobody has to wait five weeks for an initial payment, which can be done on day one. It is repayable over 12 months but, as of next year, that will be extended to 16 months. We also have additional measures such as the two-week housing run-on and, as of July this year, a further two-week run-on of other legacy benefits. Are there further improvements that I would like to make? Yes, of course there are. They would all require Treasury approval, but I would be happy to work with hon. Lady to look at them in further detail.
I, too, have visited my jobcentre and its staff universally welcome universal credit—there is no doubt about that—but there have been one or two hiccups. When an employer tends to pay early, say at Christmas, that does tend to muck up the next month’s universal credit payment. Are we trying to resolve that issue?
My hon. Friend asks a pertinent question that was raised by six separate colleagues at oral questions only last week. I am looking closely at this area and intend to organise a roundtable with interested colleagues and officials to explore how we can tackle the issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Gray on his urgent question. Policy in Practice analysis shows that disabled people lose an average of £3,000 a year, but they are not the only group to lose money under universal credit. In addition to considering the five-week wait, about which so many of my colleagues have raised issues, will the Minister examine increased support for disabled people? Disabled people and children are being plunged into poverty as a result of this benefit.
I think I have already answered this question. Around 1 million disabled households will receive an average of £100 more per month under universal credit. Importantly, the claimants will have access to around £2.4 billion of previously unclaimed benefits that, for all sorts of reasons, they did not claim under the legacy benefit system.
Harrogate and Knaresborough has been a trial area for universal credit since it started, including being the location for the legacy migration. I have therefore followed universal credit for many years and I have spoken with claimants, employers and the team at Harrogate jobcentre who have done a great job. They all report positive feedback. There are obviously some problems, but there were problems with the previous system. Universal credit is helping people to get into work and to make work pay. Will the Minister continue the focus on making work pay?
I thank my hon. Friend for his very helpful question and for his support of universal credit and his local jobcentre. I am full of praise for those staff working in the jobcentre at Harrogate and the work that they are doing on the pilot. That is hugely important work, because it sets the scene and gives us the all important data and learnings we need to move out universal credit at scale and pace.
In the last 18 months, a food bank in my constituency has seen an increase of two thirds in people using it. Will the Government accept that more people in the UK—including those in employment—are using food banks than ever before, as a direct result of policies such as universal credit, the five-week wait and the two-child limit?
I do not want anyone in our country to have no choice but to use or visit a food bank. I visit food banks regularly, and I want to get a clear understanding of food insecurity in our country. That is why we have commissioned questions for the Family Resources Survey, which started in April last year. I am also working with food banks and other organisations that tackle food insecurity to better understand the issue. If we better understand the issue, we will know how to tackle it.
Does my hon. Friend recognise as I do that the opening of the food banks that serve my constituency in 2009 was a response to the deep-seated problems at the height of Labour welfare spending? Does he agree that the feedback from local authority areas where universal credit has been rolled out has been that it is a much more supportive system than the legacy system?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right: it is a far better system than the previous legacy benefit system. We know it is working better at helping people to get into jobs and stay in them. Is it any surprise that under this Government the number of people in work is up more than 3.8 million since 2010, and the employment rate is 76.3%, a record high?
Given this latest delay, which follows endless repeated delays over the last few years, can the Minister assure the House that sufficient investment is being made to maintain the legacy systems, which will now have to last an additional seven and a half years longer than originally envisaged?
I can of course give that commitment, but I stress that this is a change in policy based on forecasts. Forecasts do change, and it is responsible of Ministers to look at them and change policy accordingly. If the forecast changes, I will of course look at it, as will the Secretary of State, and where necessary, act accordingly.
We hear a lot from the Opposition, and we certainly did during the election, about scrapping universal credit or sections of it, but I and many people in this Chamber would much rather have a change of forecast than a change to the entire system, and certainly the jobcentres would agree with that. Will the Minister tell us what, if anything, claimants will notice on the ground from the change in forecasts?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I welcome her to her place and indeed to her position on the Select Committee. Most claimants will not notice any difference whatever, other than that an extra 900,000 will be eligible for transitional protection. She raises an important point. The IFS slammed Labour’s pledge to scrap universal credit as uncosted and
“unwise…expensive, disruptive and unnecessary.”
It is important to point out that no Labour Government have ever left office with unemployment lower than when they started.
The Minister is correct that he apologised to Glasgow MPs, but he told us he would write to us that day and we are still waiting. Delays seem to be an important part of his stewardship.
On the five-week wait and given that we now know from parliamentary answers that the Department receives £50 million a month in repayments from advances, surely that now tells us to scrap the five-week wait and make sure the first payment is not a loan or an advance payment, but a first payment for universal credit.
It is a system based on arrears, not on advances, unlike the legacy benefit system. The hon. Gentleman knows that people are able to access an advance on day one repayable over 12 months. That will extend to 16 months next year and I am looking at whether we can explore options to extend that further. We have made further changes—scrapping the seven-day wait, the additional two-week run-on, the two-week run-on starting in July of legacy benefits—and, where there are further changes we can make, I am of course willing to look at them and act where appropriate.
I commend the Government for delaying the roll-out of universal credit and, indeed, for the changes that they have made to the system over the last four years or so, but may I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to getting rid of the five-week wait, notwithstanding the answer he gave to Yvonne Fovargue? In my experience, it is causing very serious challenges for my constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and the constructive way in which he put it, but I must respectfully disagree with him. There is no five-week wait. People are able to access their advance on day one.
Can the Minister tell us whether we can now expect to see an improvement to the kind of delays that many applicants are experiencing in their applications being processed? Will the Minister commit himself to publishing some statistics so that we can see whether the impact of this delay has resulted in an improvement to those kinds of delays?
I am a little confused, because my understanding is that those performance stats are indeed available. The Department has a very good record on payments and payment timeliness. Can we improve? Of course we can, and I meet with officials on at least a weekly basis to discuss that. In many cases, it is down not just to the Department but to how the claimant provides information. We are putting in additional resource, where appropriate, to help people to help themselves to get us that important information that we need to process the claims.
Will the Minister confirm that one solution to this would be to get more uptake for the excellent help to claim service through Citizens Advice? Will he confirm that service will be extended so that it is there for the whole period through to the end of the roll-out?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for his work on the Select Committee. He is right: help to claim, commissioned via the Department and run by Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland, is working really well. We are now in detailed discussions in relation to a second year, but I want to go further and in April we will launch a £10 million transitional fund for UC, in particular to support disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. It will also help Members, because organisations in their constituencies will be able to bid for that funding.
The Public Accounts Committee is not in the business of scaremongering, but from the very beginning we have raised concerns about the pace and the over-ambitious nature of this policy. Only today, the Minister listed so many changes that have taken place since it was rolled out that it shows there is a problem. In our last session on this issue, we heard from local authorities about the millions of pounds they are having to put aside to help people. With this extra time, will he look at what support he can give local authorities who are having to backfill mistakes by his Department?
Universal credit is an evolving system and it is a relatively new system. I meet with stakeholders and Members from both sides of the House on a regular basis, and where there are improvements that we can make quickly, I will of course look at them and make them. Where there are changes that can take a longer period of time, I can start setting those in train. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and discuss the issue she raises in further detail.
One of the very first constituency visits I made as a new MP was to Aylesbury jobcentre. Does my hon. Friend agree with me, and with the work coaches and claimants I met there, that universal credit is a much better system than what went before because it positively incentivises people to find a job?
My hon. Friend is right for all the reasons that he points out, but I would go further and say that it is the personal relationship with a work coach that makes it so very different to the legacy benefits system. Work coaches will work with people to help them get work ready, to get into work and then to progress into the job that they want and that suits their family.
I do not recognise those statistics, or indeed the correlation. I do not know when the hon. Gentleman last visited his jobcentre, but I would strongly recommend he does so to discuss with work coaches the difference that universal credit is making in his constituency. If he has specific concerns, I invite him to write to me and I will look at them in detail.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if people out there are scared, the blame, at least in part, is with the Opposition parties, whose reckless, irresponsible scaremongering paints a picture wholly at odds with the picture on the ground in jobcentres across the UK?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. When I speak to and visit jobcentres and work coaches, they always tell me that the one thing they want to change is reputation. While Opposition Members continually talk down universal credit and say they would scrap it—against the advice and guidance from organisations such as the IFS and many charities—they are not helping the situation a jot.
If I accept that part of the Minister’s motivation is to protect the interests of those on legacy benefits, will he equally accept that those who are wrongly transferred to universal credit because of erroneous advice from a jobcentre, should have their interests protected by an automatic right to at least have their legacy benefits restored?
The hon. Gentleman raises a pertinent point. I am looking at that very issue. I would be happy to meet him to discuss it further; it does concern me. On his first point, I will always put disadvantaged and vulnerable residents at the forefront of my mind in any decision making that I undertake while in this role.
The Minister is exactly right in the careful, pragmatic approach that he is taking to roll-out; it is what responsible Ministers do. However, may I encourage my hon. Friend to follow his instincts and, in his discussions with the Treasury, make the case for improving universal credit? The truth is that if we are to improve this good policy further, it will require resource.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his helpful question and for all the work that he did while at the Department. He, like me, believes that work should always pay, and that we need a welfare system that helps people into work. My mind is full of ideas on how we can improve universal credit, and if he would like to help me in persuading the Treasury to get behind those, I would very much welcome that.
Barnsley food bank gave out over 4,000 food parcels to people in crisis in a year. The Minister appears to be in complete denial. Why will the Government not accept that the increase in food bank use has a direct link to policies such as universal credit, and that it is about time it was scrapped?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I could not disagree more, but I do agree with her that I do not want to see anybody feeling that they have no choice but to visit a food bank. I want to better understand this issue, which is why I visit food banks. I meet food bank organisations and other organisations that help to tackle food insecurity. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this further. There is a huge amount of ongoing work.
I very much welcome the approach that the Minister and his predecessors have taken on this issue, keeping universal credit under review and making changes where appropriate, but can he assure me that some things about universal credit will not change—that it will always be a system that is fair to claimants and the taxpayer, and that being in work will always pay?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. Under universal credit, it will always pay to work and it will always pay to do more hours. That is the principle that we stand by, and we will stick by it.
My constituency was the guinea pig for universal credit, and we had no protection over our transition. By 2024, Inverness will have endured 10 years of chaos, delays and hardship. What will the Minister do to compensate those claimants who have already been through this mill, and will he do something about repaying the £3 million in additional administration costs that Highland Council has incurred in order to operate universal credit?
First, I do not recognise the statistics and figures that the hon. Gentleman raises. I feel that he has a permanent prejudice against universal credit in principle. If he would like to write to me with any statistics or figures that support his claims, I would be happy to look at them.
I have worked very closely with the hon. Gentleman on issues such as homelessness. He knows that I share his passion to ensure that our welfare system works, and supports the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. However, it is important to point out that we spend £95 billion a year on benefits for working-age people, so we will continue to reform our welfare system so that it encourages work while supporting those who need help—an approach that is based on the clear evidence that work offers families the best opportunity to get out of poverty.
On Friday I visited Coventry food bank, where demand has shot up in the past few years. I asked the staff why. Their answer was immediate and unequivocal—universal credit. Will the Government finally accept that many more people than ever before, many of whom are in employment, are using food banks as a direct result of universal credit, the five-week wait and the two-child limit?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question but do not accept the anecdotal points that she makes. Governments and Ministers make and take decisions based on evidence. I am building the evidence base within the Department based on the family resource survey and the questions in it in relation to food insecurity, and working with food bank providers—the Trussell Trust being one, but there are around 800 independent food bank providers—to better understand the issues and how we can tackle food insecurity in the round and for good.
This Government need to take a long, hard look at themselves and the pressures they are placing on hard-working, low-income families and individuals. I do not trust the Minister’s pledges. For a hard-working, loving parent, it is absolutely, gut-wrenchingly worrying—which is no doubt beyond the comprehension of many of the privileged folk of this place—to find out that the moneys they are depending on, and entitled to, will not be coming. I do not need to visit a jobcentre to know that; I speak with some authority on the matter, because until my election to this place, I was a universal credit claimant, as a single parent. I ask the Minister to scrap the five-week wait and stop plunging hard-working families and individuals into further debt by making it necessary for them to avail themselves of a loan from the DWP.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I would suggest very strongly that he should visit his local jobcentre, because he would have a better understanding. [Interruption.]
Will the Minister reconsider the ill-advised and, frankly, insulting use of the word “scaremongering”? It is not scaremongering when food banks talk about a massive increase in demand, and when local authorities report huge increases in rent arrears; nor is it scaremongering for local authorities to report having to spend a lot of their scarce resources to make up for the shortfalls of universal credit. If the Minister wants to insult me by accusing me of scare- mongering, that is fair enough; when he insults me for raising the concerns of my constituents, he insults my constituents. Will he apologise for that, and will he reconsider the inflammatory language he has used?
I meet stakeholders in relation to the Department every single week, and I take the concerns and issues they raise very seriously because they are largely based on evidence. When I refer to scaremongering, I refer to the tone and language and rhetoric so often used by Opposition Members.
I did not quite get to answer the question by Steven Bonnar and in fairness, I should. He mentioned hard-working people. It is important to stress that income inequality has been falling under this Government in real terms. The national living wage will rise to £8.72 in April, and to £10.50 by 2024. Our tax changes will make a basic rate taxpayer more than £1,200 better off. We have doubled the free childcare available to working parents. We are doing a huge amount to tackle the cost of living and to support working parents.
I think the Minister is quite a fair-minded man, but does he agree that the best policies for our welfare state are evidence-based? That means not just visiting constituencies and looking at jobcentres, but looking at the health sector. Ask GPs; ask the people running our hospitals and healthcare. They will tell us, and him, the real impact on people’s health up and down the country as one of the side effects of this silly, misguided policy.
I meet all sorts of organisations up and down the country, and they often raise some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. Where there are issues with our system that I can make changes to quickly, I look at them, and if they do not have a huge fiscal impact, I will make them. Otherwise, we have to look to fiscal events. However, universal credit is an evolving process. If there are improvements that we can make—and I believe that there are—we should make them. I am looking at those very closely; if the hon. Gentleman has ideas, I would be happy to hear them.
The National Audit Office has said there is no evidence that universal credit gets people into work, and that there is no way of measuring it from the Government’s perspective. The roll-out of universal credit in my constituency has caused council housing rent arrears to double, so that is putting a burden on local rent payers. In November 2018, income assessment period deductions for people getting two pay packets were found to be illegal. The Minister says he has lots of ideas to improve universal credit; can he give us an idea to improve at least one of those aspects?
Let us look at some facts: the number of people in work has increased by more than 3.8 million since 2010; the employment rate is 76.3%, which is a record high; the unemployment rate is 3.8%, having gone down by more than half since 2010; and 80% of the growth in employment since 2010 has been in full-time work. We are very proud of our record, but we are not complacent and our ambition is to go much, much further.
Perhaps if the Tory MPs had my case load, they would recognise the misery and poverty that their policies caused. This week, another constituent contacted me because she had been denied the vital UC cash she needs, as she is paid four-weekly and this last month she received two payments from her employers. When will this anomaly be sorted out and people not be left unable to pay their bills?
I believe I answered this question a little earlier today. I am looking at the issue, and I will invite the hon. Gentleman, along with other colleagues who have an interest in this area, to the Department to raise it with officials. We are looking at solutions. It is not potentially an easy or quick fix, but if we can address this, of course we will.
I see the delay as a wise step by government to reassess, and I congratulate the Minister on not enforcing a transfer to UC on people, who know it will see them in a five-week freeze. Will he use this delay to introduce a smoother, more workable transition period, to prevent people from getting into debt?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. The important point here is that when we talk about the £500 million cost, we are talking about £500 million that will go into the pockets of claimants up and down the country, including some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our country, who previously would not have received that transitional protection under the legacy benefits system or in their transfer over under natural migration.
Although I would visit jobcentres in my constituency on a more regular basis, it does not help when the Department shuts them, as it did the one in the Vale of Leven. Given a substantial increase in the uptake of support through the two food banks, Food for Thought and West Dunbartonshire Community Foodshare, although we may disagree on the implementation, I hope the Minister takes the opportunity to agree with me that with this extension and additional moneys going into the process there is an opportunity to reflect on what has gone on before, especially for those Members, such as myself, whose constituents do not feel as though they have been treated properly.
We have more than 630 jobcentres up and down our country, so there will be a jobcentre within reach of the hon. Gentleman. He raises a number of points. We are always looking at how we can improve UC, and if he has ideas, he can either write to me or come to see me, because I am very approachable—we could even share a deep fried Mars bar together.
It is probably best that I do not comment on this. We had intended to come to this House this week to announce this. Unfortunately, we got this done yesterday via a letter to the Work and Pensions Committee Chair and indeed a “Dear colleague” letter to myself, and I am here today to answer Members’ questions, which I hope has been valuable.