Universal Credit - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 2nd March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness McDonagh Baroness McDonagh Labour 3:00 pm, 2nd March 2020

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the debt levels, (2) the mental health, and (3) the ability to work, of people in receipt of Universal Credit.

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

The noble Baroness’s Question recognises issues experienced by many people in our society. The department has made no official assessment of universal credit’s effect in these three specific areas. We often find that people experience debt and mental health issues that existed prior to claiming universal credit. We think that attempting to make an accurate assessment could be difficult—but not impossible.

Photo of Baroness McDonagh Baroness McDonagh Labour

I thank the Minister for her Answer. She is very straightforward, and I know she will want to get this right. I know too that the majority of people in this House agree that individuals are better in work—better for themselves, their families and the broader society—and benefits need to be simplified. However, we are spending billions of pounds of public money here. Theory is one thing, but practice is another. I ask the Minister to attempt again to persuade the Government to conduct an assessment, so that we can see whether there are any unintended consequences for mental health well-being, work mobility and indebtedness, and that we can properly debate this issue and recommend any changes and improvements where needed.

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

I am so glad that we agree on the principle that people should be, and in the majority of cases are, better off in work. I like the noble Baroness’s idea, and I am touched that she thinks my powers of persuasion are so good. In order that I can deploy them to the maximum, let us meet prior to me going back to work the magic. I would like to go with the best case possible to see if we can do this, to get the information that helps us help people more.

Photo of Lord Bird Lord Bird Crossbench

Are the Government aware that a number of the people sleeping rough on our streets at the moment have fallen through the universal credit net? Would the Minister like to comment on that?

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

Like all noble Lords in the House, I am only too well aware of the size of the problem of homelessness and people sleeping on the streets. I normally agree with the noble Lord, and I do agree that universal credit may have added to some people’s anxiety and their issues. Many of them have had issues for a long time that we have not done what we should have done to deal with—but I do not think they are 100% attributable to universal credit.

Photo of Baroness Janke Baroness Janke Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a large body of evidence supports the case that benefits sanctions have a devastating effect on claimants’ mental health and could even result in suicides? In the light of last week’s report in the Lancet, when will the Government conduct a comprehensive assessment of the impact of benefits sanctions on claimants, as the DWP pledged to do in 2013?

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

I have read the report in the Lancet, and the Government’s response is that we have no concerns surrounding the general thrust of the methodology. However, it is difficult, in that it says it would not have caused the issue but would have contributed to it—a point I tried to make in answering the prior question. I am not aware of the commitment the Government made then, but that will be down to me, not them. However, if the noble Baroness agrees, I will go back to the department, get an answer to that question and write to her.

Photo of Baroness Couttie Baroness Couttie Conservative

My Lords, could the Minister update the House on what the Government are doing to support those with mental health issues in accessing universal credit seamlessly, so that those issues are not exacerbated, and to help them get into work, which, as we all know, can sometimes help with mental health and well-being?

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

I thank my noble friend for that question. Mental health is a major issue for people on universal credit, and in other walks of life. At present, we are introducing health model offices in 11 jobcentres. These focus on claimants with health conditions. Blackburn jobcentre has agreed a new initiative, “advance to ausome”, for people with autism. Another jobcentre, in north London, is running quiet sessions for people who cannot cope with coming in.

This is what I would like noble Lords to go away with today. A young man came to the jobcentre who was working full-time, had mental health issues and did not know how he was going to keep his job. He was in a bad way. Our work coaches worked with him and, through the Access to Work mental health support programme, he is now back at work and working towards a promotion. None of that would have been possible without that support. We are doing everything we can—and there is more to be done—to help people with these issues.

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

My Lords, may I ask the Minister something quite specific? What plans does DWP have to deal with the outbreak of coronavirus? For example, can people on zero-hours contracts who cannot go to work get universal credit to support them if they have to isolate themselves at home and are unable to work? In a similar vein, can she guarantee that those on universal credit will not be sanctioned if they cannot go to a job interview, to the jobcentre or fulfil their commitments because they are isolating themselves at home? Will the Government suspend sanctions and advertise universal credit for those affected by isolation patterns?

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

I was not prepared for that one, that is for sure. I know that the Permanent Secretary has a plan to make sure that people get paid and get the help they need. However, I will be really upset if people are sanctioned because of this. I will go back to the department and write to the noble Baroness, to make sure that the issue is understood.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

Does the Minister understand the correlation between new attendants at food banks and universal credit sanctions? What are the Government going to do about that? Almost all new sign-ups to food banks are caused by delays. Not only is that bad for your health, it is bad for your mental health.

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

The issue of food bank usage and the reasons for it came up during a Question I took recently. I have no doubt that, as I have agreed before, universal credit has contributed to the increased use of food banks, but that is not everything. However, claimants will only ever be sanctioned where, without good reason, they fail to meet the reasonable requirements agreed in their claimant commitment.