Universal Credit - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:53 pm on 23rd April 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My Lords, we continue to roll out universal credit in a safe and controlled way, with an expected completion date of December 2018. Any changes to the rollout schedule are carefully considered, and we work together with local authorities and stakeholders to deliver universal credit. Universal credit is working and transforming lives across the country; it continues to deliver real improvements to people’s lives and strengthens the UK economy.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Opposition Senior Whip (Lords)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. The Welfare Reform and Work Act introduced the two-child limit to universal credit and most other benefits and credits. Noble Lords may recall the case I raised in December of Alyssa Vessey. She was 18 when her mother died suddenly and gave up college to raise her three younger siblings. When she later had a baby of her own, she applied for support and was turned down under the two-child policy. This House had secured an exemption for kinship carers, but Ministers applied it in such a way that, if Alyssa had had her own baby and then taken on her siblings she would have got help, but doing it the other way round she did not. Last Thursday, in a case taken by the Child Poverty Action Group, the High Court ruled that to be perverse and struck it down. Will the Minister confirm to the House today that the Government will act immediately to extend the exemption from the two-child policy to all kinship carers?

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My Lords, the Government acknowledge the immense value of care provided by kinship carers. We are working to ensure that they are supported by enabling them to access benefit entitlement in the same way as parents. We have introduced a number of exceptions to the two-child policy—providing support for a maximum of two children—to protect claimants who are unable to make the same choices about the number of children in their family. These already protect certain groups, including kinship carers. Regarding the court case to which the noble Baroness referred, the department is now closely looking into the impact of this policy on kinship carers.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

My Lords, under universal credit, claimants with mental health problems who are waiting for their work capability assessment and who may, therefore, be proved unfit for work, are nevertheless being required to look for work during that waiting period, and will be sanctioned if they fail to do so. Does the Minister accept that this is an entirely unacceptable and grossly unfair system? Will she assure the House today that the Government plan to take action to bring this system to an end? If she cannot do that today, will she write to me to explain what action the Government will take to give fair treatment to mentally ill people waiting for their work capability assessment?

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I thank the noble Baroness for her question; I know that she has great interest in this area. As I have said before, we are continually working to improve the work capability assessment. As a result of our Budget announcements last autumn, it is now possible for people to have a 100% advance on their universal credit while they are waiting for that assessment. I emphasise that those with severe disability do not now have to go through further work capability assessments. I assure the noble Baroness that we are constantly looking at this, working to improve the training of our work coaches and all the professionals involved in work capability assessments, to make sure that we minimise the number of people for whom we fall short in terms of support and protection.

Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My Lords, coming back to the rollout of universal credit, surely the Minister’s department’s priority in the short term should be to improve the quality of services available to vulnerable applicants for universal credit at a local level. Will she commit to working with her local authority colleagues to establish a more widespread network of multi-agency hubs, which have proved so effective in getting people from disadvantaged families through the transition process? Does she agree that multi-agency hubs are a much better form of support than food banks?

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My Lords, it is right to say that our focus is not necessarily on multi-agency hubs but on proper signposting by our work coaches to make sure that, working with local authorities, we protect those vulnerable groups. A particular example is prison leavers. We have made sure that they can now have up to 100% advances on their universal credit the moment they leave prison. Vulnerable groups are at the forefront of our minds.

Photo of Baroness Couttie Baroness Couttie Conservative

My Lords, many of those on universal credit also struggle with debt, sometimes involving expensive payday lenders, because of their credit standing. Are the Government doing anything through universal credit to support people who find themselves in such difficulties?

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Yes, they are, I am pleased to say. The Government have taken a number of steps to reduce the risk of problem debt, including capping payday lending costs and promoting savings. In addition, we have outlined a firm timetable for taking forward the breathing space scheme, and we are progressing with policy proposals for this and a statutory payment plan, all through the single financial guidance Bill, under which overindebted individuals will continue to be protected from creditor action.

Photo of Baroness Primarolo Baroness Primarolo Labour

My Lords, will the Minister explain why the universal credit sanctions regime imposes multiple sanctions on claimants with mental health problems, damages individuals’ health, causes unnecessary suffering and hardship, and does absolutely nothing to improve their ability to find paid work?

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My Lords, I have to disagree with the noble Baroness. Putting aside the raft of additional support and improvements that come with universal credit, we can demonstrate that universal credit is a far better route than the old legacy system to giving much better support to the people to whom she referred. Sanctions are used only in a minority of cases where claimants fail to meet their conditionality requirements without good reason.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Crossbench

My Lords, I want to take the Minister back to the Question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. The Minister said that the department is “closely looking into” this grossly unfair and unjust case. Those are almost exactly the same words she used when this issue was raised some months ago. Since then, I raised it with the Minister, her noble friend Lord Bates, who promised that the Treasury would look at it. Given that we have now had a court ruling, and given the great interest in this issue on the part of Members on all sides of this House, who have written to the Secretary of State about it, can the Minister undertake to let us know within the next week what the department will do?

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I well remember the noble Baroness asking me this very question probably about two months ago. I reassure all noble Lords that I continue to press on this point. However, as the result of last Friday’s judgment, I am now able to say that we are again looking at this point. I cannot confirm within the week, but I can confirm whether we will be able to go forward and support these people, who rightly deserve our particular attention, within the month.