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
My Lords, I want to focus on monthly assessment and the treatment of changes of circumstances under the whole-month approach adopted for universal credit. First, however, I will take a step backwards to our earlier debates during the passage of the Bill, when some of us raised our grave concerns about the implications of the move to monthly payments. These concerns remain. Indeed, they have been heightened as a consequence of research published subsequently. Given the late hour, I will spare noble Lords the details, but every piece of research reinforces our argument that we are not simply talking about a small, exceptional group of people with budgeting difficulties, which appears to be the premise underlying the guidance on personal budgeting that we have been sent.
This is a systemic issue, born of the difficulty of budgeting on a low income. I still do not believe that it is a problem that can be solved with an elaborate panoply of exceptions to protect so-called vulnerable groups. That has in effect been recognised by the Northern Ireland Assembly ad hoc committee which recently recommended that claimants should have the right to opt for bimonthly payments in order to minimise the potential adverse impact on women and children. We will return to this issue when we debate the claims and payments regulations-I am sure the Minister cannot wait-but given that guidance has been circulated, I would like to ask the Minister two questions now.
First, what are the department's working assumptions about the number and proportion of recipients who will require personal budgeting support, both generally and specifically with regard to monthly payments? Secondly, what resources will be made available to the external organisations which will be expected to deliver money advice, according to the guidance, and what discussions has the department had with those organisations about their capacity to provide such advice at a time when the advice sector is under considerable strain?
Turning back to monthly assessment and the whole-month approach to treatment of changes of circumstances, I start with a mea culpa. When we debated monthly payments, I argued that we could separate the question from that of monthly assessment. However, I think I was wrong. As the Women's Budget Group-I declare an interest as a member-observed in its evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, the implications of monthly assessment were only,
"fully realised on publication of the Explanatory Memorandum for the Social Security Advisory Committee about the draft regulations".
I pay tribute to the tenacity of Fran Bennett of the Women's Budget Group in pursuing this issue. I have decided that I am a bear of little brain when it comes to understanding it-I hope that recipients manage better than I do-and therefore I will be drawing heavily on what she has written on the subject.
What now strikes me, reading what has been said about this by the department, is the extent to which monthly payment, motivated by the desire to change behaviour to monthly budgeting, is the driver behind monthly assessment. In other words, the two issues are in fact closely entwined. In the same way that I argued during the Bill's passage that monthly payments risked undermining universal credit as a consequence of the Government taking what the Social Market Foundation calls a "sink or swim" approach, so I fear now its underpinning by monthly assessment could do the same, not least because it has limited the options for dealing with changes of circumstances and with more frequent payments.
It seems that the key to understanding the whole-month approach to a change of circumstances is that a whole month's entitlement will depend on a recipient's situation on one particular day just because it happens to fall at the end of the assessment period. If a baby is born at the end of the month, the extra benefit will be paid for the whole month, which of course is to the recipient's advantage. But if a teenage child turns 18 and leaves home towards the end of the month, the universal credit recipient will lose a whole month's credit for that young person even though she had been feeding her throughout the month. This strikes me as somewhat arbitrary, as I suspect it will to recipients as well.
I acknowledge that this is how the main out-of-work legacy benefits-ESA, JSA and IS-operate already but they do so on a weekly rather than monthly basis, which is totally different. Moreover, these legacy benefits typically represented only part of a recipient's income as they would also be receiving, for example, housing benefit and child tax credit, whereas with universal credit nearly all their benefit eggs are in one basket, with the exception of council tax support and, thankfully, child benefit.
This approach to changes of circumstances also seems to be out of tune with all the talk about universal credit being more responsive to a recipient's immediate circumstances. In fact, it is going to be less responsive than income support because instead of following changes of circumstances week by week, it does so only month by month. The Explanatory Memorandum states:
"This whole month approach means that Universal Credit payments will reflect the claimant's circumstances at the point of payment, and so leave them better able to manage from pay day to pay day".
But it also means that claimants may not reflect the circumstances that pertained at the time the payment relates to. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain to this bear of little brain how exactly it will leave claimants better able to manage from monthly payday to monthly payday.
SSAC has drawn attention to the particular implications for women who have fled violence. In its response to the draft regulations it observes that:
"Given the unpredictable nature of each potential crisis, the Universal Credit rules about changes of circumstances taking effect from the start of the monthly assessment period do not fit well. The draft regulations mean that an existing claimant arriving and leaving a refuge within their monthly assessment period would be entitled only to their regular monthly payment of benefit. The person or organisation providing the accommodation would receive nothing. Respondents were concerned that the network of support currently made available to those fleeing violence would be weakened. The Committee recommends that the Government gives further consideration to the issues that have been raised".
Of course, since the SSAC report, the Government have announced that supported housing costs would be administered separately from universal credit and would be disregarded in the calculation of the benefit cap. Although we very much welcomed this concession when it was announced, I have subsequently learned that domestic violence organisations are concerned that the definition of supported housing in the regulations will leave many survivors of domestic violence within universal credit and so subject to the rigidities of monthly assessment.
SSAC also recommended that Government engage with stakeholders on the issue of monthly assessment. Can the Minister explain what engagement has taken place, and will he undertake to think again about how supported housing is defined in order to ensure that all refuges are covered? The Government's recent response to the Work and Pensions Select Committee report on universal credit stated that there would be a process of consultation with stakeholders later this year on the long-term future of supported housing costs, which will affect refuge services. Can the Minister say if this consultation will include how supported housing is defined in order to ensure that all refuges are covered?
As the Women's Budget Group pointed out in its evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, the whole-month approach to changes in circumstances may reduce administrative complexity for the department and-the Government no doubt hope-the adverse publicity associated with the underpayment and overpayment of tax credits in the past. But in reality underpayments and overpayments in relation to actual circumstances will still exist. They will simply be hidden by the whole-month approach and the impact will be borne by the recipient-for good or ill.
Clearly the department now thinks monthly and thus in its eyes changes of circumstances during a month simply do not exist, but I am not convinced that that is how recipients will think. I think they will be confused and uncertain as to how what they do affects their universal credit entitlement, and will have greater trouble in budgeting. It seems that the Government want to change not only behaviour but how people think about their everyday lives-and that is not so easy.
I would welcome the Minister's observations on this and seek an assurance that the impact of monthly assessment and the whole-month approach to changes of circumstances will be closely monitored. I received an assurance from his department yesterday that the general evaluation framework covers intra-household issues as well as household-level issues, which is very welcome. I would be grateful if he could confirm that this will include evaluation of the impact of monthly assessment and monthly payment, because I am particularly concerned about the possible impact on mothers as the main day-to-day budgeters who will carry much of the hidden burden of these changes.