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Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:21 pm on 25th March 2020.

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Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 4:21 pm, 25th March 2020

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We took evidence this morning on that very point—the need to improve universal credit and change some of the problems. Unfortunately we were told that, because of the IT systems, there is very little that can be done in the short term.

For example, one thing the Government have agreed to do is reduce the maximum deduction from people’s standard payment of universal credit. There are deductions for people to pay back the advance they receive up front and for other reasons. There is a case for suspending those deductions for the time being, but that is not the Government’s intention at the moment. They have agreed that the maximum deduction will be reduced from 30% of the standard amount to 25%, but they tell us that they cannot do that until October 2021 because of the problems with the IT system.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Chi Onwurah for reminding the House that, years ago, we were all told that this was going to be done in agile, precisely in order that changes could be made quickly. I am afraid that those promises have not been fulfilled. We were assured time after time that all the problems of the old DWP systems would be solved by adopting the agile approach. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case. Despite that, I am going to press this afternoon, as I and the Committee did this morning, for changes to universal credit. A way has to be found to overcome some of the problems and to get these things done much more quickly than is suggested will be the case.

I very much welcome the fact that the headline rate of universal credit and working tax credit has been increased, although only for a year. Given the long freeze in the rates of benefits, there is a case for making that increase permanent rather than temporary. That is something we will no doubt come back to in the months ahead.

When it comes to universal credit providing much needed support to the self-employed, people who come off zero-hours contracts and freelancers, there are some serious problems with the way it works at the moment. The Trussell Trust has found that people on universal credit are two and a half times more likely to need a food bank than people on legacy benefits, such as jobseeker’s allowance.

There is a remarkable article in this month’s issue of The Lancet Public Health about universal credit, which finds that

“an additional 63674…unemployed people will have experienced levels of psychological distress that are clinically significant due to the introduction of Universal Credit”.

It goes on to estimate that more than a third of those people

“might reach the diagnostic threshold for depression.”

A little further on, the article states:

“When the policy change was introduced, the prevalence of psychological distress started to increase among those eligible for Universal Credit;
however, the prevalence remained constant for people not affected by the change”.

Lastly, the article states:

“We also tested if there was an increase in the number of participants transitioning from unemployment into work in the intervention group after the introduction of Universal Credit relative to the comparison group;
the reform had no effect on employment”.

There are serious problems with the way universal credit is working, and we are now forcing—understandably—hundreds of thousands of additional people on to this benefit. What is the problem? Why does it cause so much more difficulty for people than jobseeker’s allowance and other past benefits? A big part of the answer is the fact that people have to wait five weeks after applying to receive their first regular benefit payment. That is inevitably pushing people into debt with the Department for Work and Pensions. A lot of people are then choosing to say, “In that case, I’d better not pay my rent for a bit,” and they are getting into rent arrears. The National Housing Federation is reporting that people on universal credit are significantly more likely to be behind with their rent than people on jobseeker’s allowance, both in the past and currently. This is a problem that will affect very large numbers of those who are now applying for universal credit.

It seems to me that it cannot be a good idea—given the boldness and generosity and the welcome characteristics of the package for employees that was introduced last week— to force self-employed people, by contrast, on to an arrangement where they do not get a substantive payment for five weeks.