Universal Credit: Rollout - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 20th June 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Opposition Senior Whip (Lords) 3:29 pm, 20th June 2018

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the continued rollout of Universal Credit following the report by the National Audit Office Rolling out Universal Credit.

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott Deputy Chairman of Committees, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we will continue to deliver universal credit as planned, completing the national rollout for new claims by the end of 2018, and from 2019 we will start to move people from the old benefits system and tax credits to universal credit. We have taken a test-and-learn approach; we have learned a lot, and we will continue this. We have made changes—advance payments, direct payments to landlords, the two-week housing benefit run-on, removing waiting days, support for kinship carers and extending transitional protection—and I have no doubt that the list will get longer.

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

My Lords, Ministers claimed that universal credit would be fully in place by 2017, that it would be more efficient and better for claimants and that it would help more into work. A National Audit Office report says that only 10% of claimants are on universal credit and it will be 2023 before it is rolled out. Every claim costs £700 to process, and the NAO found no evidence that universal credit will be cheaper to run. It says that the DWP has no idea whether universal credit is reducing fraud and error, and that it found no evidence for the Minister’s repeated claim that it will help an extra 200,000 into work. Meanwhile, 40% of claimants are in financial trouble and, on top of the planned delay in payment of five or six weeks, 10% of new claimants waited 11 weeks or more for full payment and 5% waited for five months. When universal credit hits an area, food bank use rises and rent arrears go up. My question is simple: the DWP keeps insisting that all is well but it is not, so will the Government now urgently review universal credit and stop pushing people into debt and hardship?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott Deputy Chairman of Committees, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we are trying desperately to put a new system in place that will make work pay for people. There have been issues. The National Audit Office report—I have read it and I urge all noble Lords to do so—has serious concerns about the programme, I acknowledge that. However, we are serious about the way we are going to deal with those problems; we are committed to doing that and we are committed to making things better. We have a business plan for the rollout. In any good business you have a business plan with targets, you measure them, you review them and, when you do not hit them, you revise your plan. We will approach this in a business-like but compassionate way to make sure that we do all to serve people who are influenced by it.

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

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the NAO universal credit report will serve to heighten the fears of those means-tested legacy claimants who will be automatically transferred within a 12-month period on to universal credit? In the autumn, when the universal credit managed migration regulations are published, will she personally ensure that the transitional protection arrangements within those regulations are adequate for the purpose, will be automatically available to claimants and will serve in future to reduce further financial distress?

Oh!

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott Deputy Chairman of Committees, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I know noble Lords do not like it but I can say to them that out there is a band of work coaches who are doing an amazing job. One of their jobs is to take people on a journey, help them, guide them and mitigate stress, and I have every confidence that they will be doing that. On the noble Lord’s point about transitional protection, I will talk to officials to make sure that when I tell him yes, I am doing it with confidence.

Photo of Lord Fink Lord Fink Conservative

My Lords, I had the pleasure of visiting the main south-inner-London jobcentre at Kennington Park this morning. The staff there could not have been more evangelical in their support for universal credit, and many of those who were handling legacy claims were only waiting for the time when those claims moved over to universal credit. They said that the new system had much more flexibility, that most of the cases and examples in the NAO report had already been addressed and that in fact it was already out of date because the new system was so flexible and adjustable. Can the Minister assure us that we will continue to roll out the programme, which has been so well valued by staff in the jobcentres?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott Deputy Chairman of Committees, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My response to my noble friend is: you bet we will. I called a district manager in Jobcentre Plus and asked her to tell me truthfully how things were going. She said, “It is going much better. It is agile, it is flexible and once we identify problems locally with individuals, we are solving them overnight”. My noble friend should therefore take heart that this will continue and just get better.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour

My Lords, as the Minister said, the DWP makes much of its test-and-learn approach to UC rollout, yet, instead of trying to learn, its public response to the damning NAO report was utterly defensive—although I do welcome the more open response she has given today. What specific lessons for action will the department take from the report’s findings, which were echoed at an APPGUC meeting that I attended just now by front-line welfare rights workers, who reported a catalogue of problems faced by the people they are trying to work with?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott Deputy Chairman of Committees, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I understand exactly the point that the noble Baroness makes. There are huge lessons to learn and lots of them. Support organisations and job coaches identified that people are being given the wrong information, and are struggling to meet the requirement to submit a claim because of language barriers and not having a bank account or identification. All I can say to the noble Baroness—I would not say it if I did not believe it—is that the work coaches are doing everything they can with people in local communities to overcome these issues. I can see that she is not quite on board with me yet—but she is smiling. I hope that if she asks this question in six months’ time, we will have an even better response for her.