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

Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

That is one of quite a number of anxieties that are around at present.

What should happen with universal credit is that the advances that are payable to people up front—about a quarter of those who have been applying over the last few days have applied for an advance—should be converted to grants for the duration of the current crisis. We were told this morning that it is very difficult to change the IT so that the advances are not automatically clawed back from subsequent payments, but I really cannot believe, even with this extraordinary IT system that appears to be in place, that that is beyond the wit of those who are running it to manage. It is a very simple thing: just do not claw back the advances from subsequent payments, because otherwise, people will ask how the Government can treat self-employed people so badly by comparison with the package for employees.

I also think that the current savings limit for eligibility for universal credit needs to be lifted, if it is going to do the job of supporting self-employed people. At the moment, if someone has more than £16,000 in savings, they get nothing at all from universal credit. If someone has more than £6,000 in savings, the amount that they get in universal credit starts to be reduced. If we are going to support adequately self-employed people over the next few months, that needs to change.

I hope as well that during this crisis, there will be a long and careful look at the rules around sanctions for universal credit. People will not be required to go into jobcentres for the time being, which is welcome—I am glad that that has been announced—but I hope the opportunity is taken to ensure that sanctions are not applied, because people will not be required to look for work in the normal way. As for the handling of deductions for past debts—tax credit overpayments and that kind of thing—I hope that there will be some easements in the application of terms.

I very much welcome the increase in the local housing allowance, which is back up to the 30th percentile. I hope that it will stay at that level so that it can adequately support rent in the future. However, there is a problem in London of the interaction between that new higher level of the local housing allowance and the separate housing support cap, which means that many renters in London will not be able to benefit from the increase in the local housing allowance. I hope that the cap will be addressed. I was disappointed this morning to hear that there will not be any change in the overall benefit cap level, and I think that that may well need to be looked at again as things develop over the next few months.

My final point has been referred to already a number of times in this debate. There is a large group of people in my constituency, and in many others, who are hard-working, law abiding, and permitted to work in the UK, but they do not have indefinite leave to remain and they do not have recourse to public funds. That means that if they have to stop working because they have to self-isolate, or because their business has collapsed, they will get no help at all as things stand. We do need people in that position to be able to support themselves, because, otherwise, they will have no alternative but to carry on working at risk to themselves and to wider public health. I want to end with a plea that the Government should, at least temporarily, lift the restriction of no recourse to public funds to those who have leave to remain but not yet indefinite leave to remain.