The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-07056, in the name of Alex Rowley, on support for Citizens Advice Scotland’s call to stop the accelerated roll-out of universal credit. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament notes with concern the reported evidence from Citizens Advice Bureaux regarding the initial roll-out areas in Scotland, and elsewhere in the UK, which it believes highlights that the reality of universal credit risks leaving many people in Scotland without the support they need, pushing them into debt and leaving them unable to make ends meet; is further concerned that Citizens Advice Scotland, it understands, has reported that evidence from initial roll-out areas shows that, since universal credit was introduced, bureaux have seen a 15% rise in rent arrears issues compared to a national decrease of 2%, and an 87% increase in Crisis Grant issues compared to a national increase of 9%, and that two of the five bureaux in impacted areas have seen a 40% and 70% increase in advice about access to food banks, compared to a national increase of 3%; notes the call from Citizens Advice Scotland and a host of antipoverty organisations across Scotland for the UK Government to pause the accelerated roll-out of universal credit until the reported design and delivery problems have been addressed; notes the comments from the Chair of Citizens Advice Scotland, Rory Mair, that “universal credit has major delivery and design flaws which risk hurting families instead of helping them. These include long waits for payments that push people into crisis and debt, all the while battling a highly complicated process with little support”; considers that it is not right to proceed with the accelerated roll-out of universal credit in the knowledge that it will, it believes, result in tens of thousands of men, women and children in the Mid Scotland and Fife region and across Scotland being driven into debt and rent arrears and having to turn to foodbanks just to survive, and notes the calls on the UK Government to pause the process, listen to the evidence and act accordingly to address the issues.
I thank everyone who supported the motion, which has allowed the debate to take place. I bring the motion to the chamber today to build the support of the Scottish Parliament behind Citizens Advice Scotland’s call, which is supported by much of civic Scotland, to halt the roll-out of universal credit and to address the issues that are of concern.
My point is quite straightforward. Why would any Government in a civilised society continue to roll out a new policy that it knows is going to hurt tens of thousands of people, will drive people into debt and towards relying on charity to feed themselves, and will result in even more people in our country being driven into poverty? That cannot be right, and it is not right. The Tory party must think again. It must listen to civic Scotland and stop this roll-out.
I lodged the motion for debate today after visiting various community organisations across Scotland and hearing at first hand about people’s experience and what they are having to deal with, where roll-out of universal credit has taken place. I heard about the issues that people are facing and the increasing problems that organisations are having with helping people to cope with the roll-out.
CAS published a briefing in July that called for a halt to the accelerated roll-out of universal credit. On the back of that, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and every member of Parliament in the country to ask them to support CAS’s call. All parties and organisations that want to help to alleviate poverty should work together to ensure that people do not suffer as a result of the roll-out of universal credit.
The motion that we are debating today highlights the problems that CAS has found in the pilot roll-out areas. On top of that, only last week 25 Scottish third sector organisations published a joint letter calling for the roll-out of universal credit to be halted. This week, we have seen an intervention from the Church of Scotland that draws attention to the experience of people as seen in churches across Scotland.
It is clear to everyone—apart, it seems, from the Tories—that something needs to be done to resolve the issues. The Tories seem to be burying their heads in the sand, in complete denial of the facts. Alongside the letters that I wrote to every MP in the country, I wrote to Ruth Davidson to urge her to lend her support to CAS’s call, but sadly I have not heard back from her. I appeal to the Tories in Scotland—to Ruth Davidson’s party—to get behind civic Scotland and to call for the roll-out of universal credit to be halted until those issues can be addressed.
I received a response from the United Kingdom Minister of State for Employment, who wrote back and claimed that the UK Government does not agree with the conclusions of the Citizens Advice Scotland research. He went on to say:
“The report is based on evidence from a self-selecting group of people”.
That is just another classic example of the Tories denying that a problem exists as they continue to attack those who are least able to defend themselves and, in the process, to drive up poverty in our country.
There has been a 15 per cent increase in rent arrears, an 87 per cent increase in crisis grants and a massive increase in food bank use in areas where universal credit has been rolled out. Those are facts, and it is not right to simply ignore them.
One of the biggest problems with universal credit, which we have heard about time and again, is the six-week waiting period at the start of the claim before payment. That is one of the things that are driving the increases in rent arrears and food bank reliance. What was the Government’s response to that? The minister said is his letter to me:
“Many people coming to Universal Credit will have wages from their previous jobs to cover their expenses until their first payment.”
How out of touch is the Tory Government? It is driving people into poverty and forcing people to rely on charity to feed themselves, and it simply assumes that people will have enough in their savings to cover their expenses for six weeks. It is wrong. Indeed, earlier this year, Citizens Advice Scotland published research that showed that 22 per cent of the public had no savings to fall back on and that a further 24 per cent had less than two months’ income. That just goes to show yet again how much the Tories do not understand what day-to-day life is like for many people in our country.
Unless the delay period for payments is fixed, there is a huge risk of driving individuals and families further into poverty. The Government should not be defending those issues; instead, it should recognise the problems that it is causing and commit to fixing them before they cause even bigger problems further down the line.
It is clear that the system is deeply flawed and that we must work together to address that. I repeat: no Government should inflict something on its citizens that will do more damage than good. No Government should push people further into poverty, and no Government should be so arrogant as to ignore the concerns that have been raised by individuals, organisations and communities the length and breadth of our country. Until we find a solution to the problems that are found in universal credit, I urge everyone in Parliament to support the calls to halt the accelerated roll-out.
I have a couple of housekeeping issues. Members who intend to be called to speak must press their request-to-speak buttons. A couple of members have not done that.
Twelve members wish to speak in the debate, so I am minded to accept a motion without notice under rule 8.14.3 of the standing orders to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Mr Rowley to move a motion without notice.
I would be pleased to do so. It is encouraging that so many people are involved in such a serious issue.
That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.
Motion agreed to.
I thank Alex Rowley very much for bringing the debate to the chamber.
The debate is timely and imperative. It is timely because my constituents—the people of Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse, who live in the South Lanarkshire Council area—live in the next local authority area to receive the full roll-out of universal credit. Make no mistake: the debate is also imperative because the botched roll-out is, purely and simply, detrimentally affecting lives.
People—not claimants, customers or service users, but human beings—are going for up to seven weeks without any form of welfare from the Government. That is potentially seven weeks without food, electricity or other power, sustenance or other needs. The list goes on.
I put that in my speech this morning before I heard some news two hours ago from the selfless volunteers, whom I know very well, at the Hamilton District Food Bank. They are the true heroes of the front line, defending people from Tory reform. They advised me about people who came to see them today who have, as a result of the universal credit changeover, waited 12 weeks for any form of welfare. They have waited 12 weeks—three months. I will let that sink in. Members should try to imagine that happening to them or a family member.
Essentially, what the roll-out has achieved is a Tory-engineered systematic shutdown of any form of life for the “deserving poor”, as the Tories would put it: those who have the immense misfortune to find themselves in times of trouble and who are met with desolate silence from the UK Government—a bit like Ruth Davidson’s answer to Mr Rowley’s letter. That reeks of the callous and cruel nature that has become synonymous with the Conservative Government.
Since the partial introduction phase of universal credit in South Lanarkshire, my constituents have faced a myriad of problems, from significant delays in their payments that have forced hundreds into arrears, hunger and destitution, to an incomprehensible help system. What a laugh: a “help” system through which people are unable to contact the universal credit processing centre to resolve any of their issues.
While we hurtle at breakneck speed into the ever-growing digital economy, we cannot leave behind the people who brought us here. We cannot leave behind those who lack the technical online literacy that is needed to complete the deliberately complicated Department of Work and Pensions forms. That is not hyperbole; the forms are designed to be complex. They seek to exclude the vulnerable, the needy and the hopeless, and they aim to divide and to cause unnecessary hassle for those who have the audacity to claim from the UK Government.
The evidence is there and it cannot be ignored. In the two authorities in Scotland that have had most experience of universal credit full service—East Lothian Council and Highland Council—approximately 82 per cent of people who are in receipt of universal credit are in arrears.
The decision has real consequences. For South Lanarkshire Council, they are to the tune of £4 million, which is the amount that it has had to put aside to mitigate the cost of the roll-out. That is a chronic waste of resources. That money could have been added to budgets for schools, houses, health, infrastructure or anything else that the council wanted to do. Instead, it is used to deal with a Government that wants to demonise those who are at risk.
There is a risk to the safety and wellbeing of women, men and—regrettably—children, who will go hungry because the Tory Government insists on continuing its failed attempts to force through the roll-out. Let that sink in. Instead of heeding the warnings from CAS, charities, local authorities and welfare rights organisations, and listening to people who are on universal credit—they are the people who matter—the Tories will continue to make children hungry and to put their welfare in jeopardy.
I, for one, will not allow the Tory pursuit of ideological welfare reform to jeopardise any of my constituents.
I thank Alex Rowley for bringing the debate to Parliament.
Presiding Officer, I apologise to you, the minister and other members in the chamber because I will, now that the debate is to be extended, be leaving early as I have been called to give evidence to the Edinburgh tram inquiry this afternoon.
The scale of change to welfare over the past few years has been dramatic, and the move to universal credit is one of the most significant and ambitious.
I suspect that we can all agree that the current benefits system is extremely complex. Claimants are entitled to different benefits from different agencies. For example, housing benefit is from local authorities, other benefits come from HM Revenue and Customs, and so it goes on.
There is wide support for the principles underlying universal credit, which should simplify social security by replacing a complex and chaotic system that has damaged people, held them back and trapped them in dependency for generations. The best way to help people to improve their lives is to help them into work, to give them a purpose and to allow them to earn money. Universal credit allows that to happen; in time, it will allow it to happen faster and quicker than was the case under the previous system.
East Lothian Council was the first local authority in Scotland to go to the full service in March 2016. Last year, I had the pleasure of visiting Musselburgh jobcentre, where universal credit is changing the way in which the jobcentre works. Simpler administration processes are freeing up staff to meet people face to face. The employment outcomes that matter most—
I saw the way that jobcentre staff embraced their roles as work coaches and how that was transforming the whole relationship with claimants.
The digital take up of universal credit is another success story, with 99 per cent of new claims being made online, which will mean that in the long run the service will be more expedient and more user-friendly.
Overall, 82 per cent of universal credit customers have reported that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the service. The figures show that it is working in practice. Claimants are spending twice as much time looking for a job as they did under the old system and they are moving into work faster, with 113 people moving into work under universal credit for every 100 who were doing so under the previous system.
When any new system is introduced, especially one that is as ambitious as universal credit, there will be operational difficulties. Citizens Advice Scotland is concerned—rightly so—about the most vulnerable citizens. However, we must ensure that that does not stop what is happening on the ground and that the success stories of individuals are not forgotten because of the propaganda from the other parties in Parliament. [
The DWP is holding surgeries across the country every week to provide digital support to claimants. I accept that for many people the idea of having to fill out all the forms online is intimidating. That is directly mitigated by the fact that people can drop in with no appointment and be given face-to-face advice on how to do it.
Universal credit is a single monthly payment. As we all know, universal credit remains reserved to Westminster and the Scotland Act 2016 gives the Scottish Government the power to vary the housing costs element for people who are renting their homes and to alter the payment arrangements. The Social Security Committee took evidence on that this morning.
Universal credit was supposed to be a new, flexible system—all the things that Jeremy Balfour talks about. It is no wonder that he would not take an intervention, because if his eyes were open, he would see that we are far from reaching the objectives of universal credit. Universal credit roll-out is an unmitigated disaster—that is before his very eyes. What more proof does he need?
We have discussed the six-week waiting period many times in the Parliament. As Alex Rowley has said, it is an absolute nonsense to say that any one of us could survive without our salaries—never mind no income—for six weeks. If the UK Government was prepared at least to fix the six-week problem, I would have some respect for members on the Conservative benches, yet it continues to press on regardless.
Let us make no mistake: if there is no change and the problems of universal credit are not addressed, that will have serious implications for Scotland because of the poverty levels here, which we have discussed in the Parliament. I will read out some of the statistics. In Musselburgh, where the roll-out of universal credit in Scotland started, referrals to food banks are now the highest north of the border. That is not a coincidence. I, too, went to Musselburgh as part of the Social Security Committee’s inquiry. I sat next to a gentleman who was trying to do his form-filling for universal credit on a very small smart phone. When people such as him make calls to try to sort out the problems that they are having, they are charged—you could not make it up.
The effect of the six-week waiting period for a first universal credit payment can be serious. As I have said, it can lead to food bank referrals, and it can cause mental health issues, rent arrears and evictions. On the navigation of the online system, the system would, in theory, be a good one if everybody was online. However, a high percentage of ordinary Scots who are claimants do not have access to the online system.
Councils have pointed out that universal credit rules force them to put up homeless families in short-term bed-and-breakfast-style lodgings to wait six weeks to qualify for rent support, which councils say is incompatible with laws that require them to move those families on to more suitable accommodation within six weeks. Further, homeless people in temporary accommodation, whether hostel or B and B accommodation, who go to register for benefits often do not state that they are homeless, as they are not rough sleeping, and are then put on to the wrong housing benefit, which causes them to receive underpayments.
The Chartered Institute of Housing Scotland has warned that, to date, the new universal credit has led to tenants finding it increasingly difficult to pay their rent on time—that is such an obvious failure of the system. The recent “Welfare Reform Impact report”, which was published by the HouseMark consultancy group, showed that
“the average rent arrears debt of a UC claimant is £618”,
“compares to average non-UC arrears of £131”.
What more evidence do we need?
The universal credit issue is a serious one that we must get some action on: it cannot continue. Universal credit is deeply unjust and it will cause deep-rooted problems in Scotland if we do not get the changes to the system that are obviously required to make it the kind of system that it was designed to be.
I thank Alex Rowley for bringing this important and necessary debate to the chamber.
The words “universal credit” are misleading and cruel because they give the illusion of something for everyone, whereas the reality is that it is anything but that. Universal credit, which was introduced by the Tory Government at Westminster, is merely a euphemism for more Tory austerity. It is the continuation of the attack on our poorest citizens and part of the wider destruction of the UK social security system. It is the same attack on the welfare state that the United Nations has called a “human catastrophe” for disabled people.
I remind members what has happened in the attack so far. The Tories have cut £30 a week from the disability benefit employment and support allowance, hitting those who are unable to work; they have implemented the hated two-child tax credit limit, which takes money from low-income mothers and fathers who desperately need it; they have removed the family element of working tax credits, again hitting low-income parents hard; and they have locked young people aged 18 to 21 out of housing benefit. Those are just some of the measures that have been taken by the Tories.
Universal credit has got off to a terrible start, but it is to be radically extended this autumn. That extension must be delayed. As a former board member of East Dunbartonshire Citizens Advice Bureau, I was all too aware of the fears of the bureau’s staff before the implementation of the universal credit system. Those hard-working staff are on the front line and could foresee the misery that the system would cause to so many people who are already struggling to make ends meet every day. Sadly, their fears have been realised. With universal credit, benefits are paid in a lump sum, leaving many recipients unable to budget and increasing the risk of homelessness and food and fuel poverty.
East Dunbartonshire Citizens Advice Bureau is one of five bureaux piloting the so-called full service universal credit. In those areas, there has been a 15 per cent rise in rent arrears, compared with a national decrease of 2 per cent. A lot of statistics have been mentioned today, but they are worth repeating. The phasing out of disability tax credits means that more than 110,000 disabled people who are in work are at risk of losing up to £40 a week. There has been an 87 per cent increase in crisis grant issues in the pilot areas, compared with a national increase of 9 per cent—just think about that. Two of the bureaux have seen increases in advice about access to food banks of 40 per cent and 70 per cent, compared with a national increase of 3 per cent. As we have discussed, 39 per cent of claimants waited for more than six weeks to receive their first payment. The six-week wait is deemed acceptable by the Tories, who evidently expect people to live on fresh air.
The fact that the application can be made only online makes the process even more shambolic. Disabled people are the group in society that is least likely to have internet access. It is estimated that 35 per cent of them do not have access to the internet. In comparison, more than 90 per cent of the non-disabled population have access to the internet.
Put simply, people are sinking further into deprivation thanks to a roll-out riddled with error, and the roll-out must be paused until key problems are addressed. No organisation would go ahead with a scheme that had failed so badly in a trial, but, as ever, the Tories will plough on with their disastrous policy regardless of the human cost.
Universal credit is emblematic of the bitter and cruel treatment of people under this UK Tory Government. Thankfully, the Scottish Government’s approach to shaping our own social security system could not be more different, even with the limited powers that we are receiving. In the name of humanity, will the Tories admit that the system is a disaster and stop the roll-out? To err is human, but to compound a mistake is simply madness.
I thank Alex Rowley for securing this important debate.
We have heard much about the botched roll-out of universal credit, and my own constituents in Musselburgh will know better than anyone about the problems that have been caused, because Musselburgh was one of the first areas in which universal credit was tested.
During the Social Security Committee’s investigations into universal credit earlier this year, we met and heard from universal credit recipients in Musselburgh. Some spoke of health conditions that had worsened because of the stress of not knowing whether they could pay the rent. Others had to make endless numbers of calls on expensive phone lines and wait anxiously for a call back that never came, perhaps due to the call volumes that staff were experiencing. Some people told members that they had left their jobs—the precise opposite of the impact that universal credit seeks—because payment delays meant that they could not afford to pay for childcare.
East Lothian Council has been faced with significantly increased demand for emergency payments, with applications for Scottish welfare fund crisis grants being 20 per cent above what it expected. Some universal credit recipients simply cannot afford to pay the rent. In 2016-17 there was a 12 per cent increase in council tenant rent arrears across the board, but for universal credit claimants the figure was almost double that, at 22 per cent.
Issues with the implementation of universal credit and associated information technology gremlins are only part of a much bigger problem. My constituents and people across the country are suffering not only because the roll-out is being botched, but because a whole raft of welfare cuts are secreted within universal credit. For many recipients, moving on to universal credit means having to get by with less support than they might have received previously, as well as having to deal with some of the teething problems that we have heard about today.
Research by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility shows that by 2020 universal credit will have taken about £3.1 billion out of the pockets of some of our poorest families, and that figure does not include the benefit freeze that will apply to universal credit. Sheffield Hallam University suggests that it will take out another £300 million in Scotland, and families with children will be the worst hit. A report from the Child Poverty Action Group and the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that two-parent families with children will be worse off by an average of £960 a year in 2020 compared with the income they could have expected in the absence of cuts to universal credit, and single-parent families will be worse off by a staggering £2380 on average.
Those claims are not made only by CPAG. The analysis is shared by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, which has said that universal credit
“is now less generous on average than the tax credits and benefits systems that it replaces”.
In light of that, it seems like a very cruel joke indeed that the white paper that launched universal credit claimed:
“No-one will experience a reduction in the benefit they receive as a result of the introduction of Universal Credit”.
The white paper also promised that 900,000 people, including 350,000 children, would be lifted out of poverty. CPAG claims that the opposite is the case and that universal credit will put around 1 million children across the UK into poverty. It is no wonder that the UK Government no longer makes those claims and has repeatedly not responded to requests for a poverty impact assessment.
I see that the Presiding Officer is indicating that I should close. Greens have previously called for the UK Government to listen to the experience of universal credit recipients and improve the system. In the light of the calls of Citizens Advice Scotland and many other third sector organisations and parties, it is clearly time to take action and halt the roll-out of universal credit until the problems with it are resolved.
I thank Alex Rowley for bringing the debate to the chamber.
In the previous session of Parliament, I had the privilege of serving as the deputy convener of the then Welfare Reform Committee. In carrying out my duties in that role, I contributed to a number of reports on and investigations into welfare reform. I also contributed to the United Nations investigation into the effect on disabled people of the welfare reform process, which the UN has said will be a humanitarian catastrophe visited on the people of the UK by their Government. In the face of that and the information that we have had from all the third sector organisations, such as CAS, that signed the declaration to ask for universal credit not to be rolled out, I cannot understand why Tory members do not recognise what is happening in their country.
I am sorry, but I do not have time.
In 2015, I visited the pilots in the Highland Council area to investigate how well universal credit was being rolled out. I and my committee colleagues heard from a number of panels, including one from the DWP, which we asked questions of. At the time, my overall impression was that the process was fraught with manual intervention, which gave me great concern about the sustainability of the roll-out across the country. People had managed to find fixes to problems, but the fact that the council and the third sector organisations that were involved said that the fixes were not scalable was a great concern for the roll-out of the new system.
Among the problems with universal credit in rural areas that were raised was that of the time and expense of transport to interviews. Another issue was digital exclusion, which Pauline McNeill and others have mentioned, and the inability of some people to access the internet to apply for universal credit. The seasonal and fluctuating nature of some employment in rural constituencies was another concern.
It was reported that 80 to 90 per cent of the people who were on universal credit were in rent arrears compared with 12 to 15 per cent of those who were not. The average level of rent arrears for non-UC tenants was £200, while for UC claimants it was more than £1,000, and for those in temporary accommodation it was £2,100. Universal credit claimants were potentially in arrears from the minute they applied, because they would not receive payment for five weeks. That was the case in Highland; other members have mentioned 12-week delays.
The DWP had no idea of the impact on landlords. If nothing else, we would expect the Tories to be on the side of landlords and entrepreneurs, but the DWP had no idea that the changes to housing benefit and the ending of direct payments to landlords would be an issue. Another problem was that, when people with chaotic lifestyles moved accommodation, the landlord might receive no payment whatever.
The arguments have been well rehearsed. Many of the issues that my colleagues have raised were known about in 2015, yet the Tories continue to deny the human catastrophe that the citizens of our country are facing. I will call out what the Tories are doing for what it is—they are picking the pockets of the Scottish people, because we are having to mitigate the disaster that is universal credit. In doing so, as the First Minister mentioned earlier today, we are spending hundreds of millions of pounds. The Tories are picking the pockets of the health service, the education system, every person in the chamber, our friends, our families and our neighbours. I ask members to wake up and call out this disaster for what it is.
I rise to support the motion. I apologise for having to leave early, but I have to chair a meeting of a patients group and I did not anticipate the extension of the debate.
I often speak with hyperbole in this place about the various responsibilities that we as decision makers discharge both in this Parliament and at Westminster, but the safety net that we provide for those who, for whatever reason, cannot provide for themselves should be the measure of any civilised society. My party has a proud history in the genesis and introduction of the welfare state in the early days of the 20th century, with the first state pension introduced under Lloyd George. In the 1940s, that great Liberal William Beveridge was the catalyst for the advent of social security when he identified the original “giant evils”, as he described them, of ignorance, idleness, squalor, want and disease. It is a failure of progress that, if we strip out the antiquated language, many of those evils still hold sway in our society today.
We should remember that, until this decade, the systems of welfare in this country had not undergone significant reform since their introduction, despite generations of incremental modification. For decades, welfare reform was sought by poverty campaigners, third sector organisations and academics so that we could dispense with unneeded red tape and inject much-needed social mobility into the system.
It fell to my party, in its period of coalition government, to co-preside over that much-needed redesign. I would, however, that we had had different bedfellows in that task. There are elements of the system that underpins the process that I take no pride in at all, and there are aspects of the new system that I still find shameful. Nevertheless, I am glad that we were there, for I dread to think of the welfare system that our Conservative partners would have designed unencumbered. We all saw the measure of the ideological compass behind Conservative social policy in the ill-fated manifesto that Theresa May published in the spring.
Today, we are debating the flagship aspect of the welfare reform agenda—the roll-out of universal credit. I support the motion, which does not suggest that we tear up welfare reform or even junk universal credit but which speaks to the human cost of the inadequacies of the roll-out. A large undertaking such as that might well have been expected to have teething problems, but the difficulties in the areas of Scotland where it has started go far beyond that. People who are switching to universal credit have had to endure a six-week wait—and more—before receiving their first payment. That is intolerable in 2017, and it presents a material risk to the wellbeing of those people and their families. Put simply, it is pushing families into crisis. As we have heard, Citizens Advice Scotland has received reports of many clients resorting to emergency stopgaps such as food banks, crisis grants and food parcels, while others are going into significant rent arrears.
I support the call of my Labour colleagues for the Parliament to support a total halt to any further roll-out of the new system of universal credit until the issues that have been highlighted in the debate have been properly addressed. It makes no sense to plough on regardless and ignore the huge impact on vulnerable families that has resulted from crucial payment delays. With 25 different stakeholders backing the call, we, as a Parliament, must surely listen. The accelerated roll-out that is due in October must be delayed to prevent any more people from being pushed into financial crisis unnecessarily.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and I thank Alex Rowley for lodging the motion and giving us an opportunity to call the Tories out for what they are.
I understand why Jeremy Balfour, who this morning joined the Social Security Committee—as the convener, I welcome him to that committee—had to leave the debate early but, with all due respect to him, words fail me when I compare what he said with the evidence that I and the committee received at the jobcentre in Edinburgh. What everyone else—committee members and others—has said in the debate is absolutely true. The treatment that people are receiving is not what Jeremy Balfour says he saw, and I cannot agree with the way in which he apparently sees universal credit.
We have taken evidence from various people. As members have already talked about that, I will not go over it all again, but I will say that during the evidence taking, a lady burst into tears because she had received a text on her mobile phone to tell her that her money had been cut. As I said at the time, these mobile phones are like tags; every single day, people have to fill in a diary with what Pauline McNeill has called a summary. They have to say at what time they did this or that, the number of jobs they looked for, where those jobs were and so on. Many of those people are vulnerable and, as members might imagine, their situation is being made even worse with this sort of thing over their heads every day. That lady burst into tears while we were speaking to her at Musselburgh jobcentre.
That is the reality of universal credit. I will not go over everything that everyone has said, but the absolute reality is that people can go weeks and weeks—in some cases, 12 weeks—without any money. They cannot pay their rent or utility bills, they cannot buy food and they cannot go anywhere. This is supposed to be a civilised society and, according to Jeremy Balfour, universal credit is supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread. It is the absolute opposite.
People we have spoken to have said, “Yes, we need simplification of the social security system.” They do not welcome the idea with open arms, but they are prepared to look at and work with it. However, what we have is an absolutely diabolical mess that needs to be stopped now.
I have signed up with various individual organisations to halt the roll-out of universal credit, because it is—and I mean this—literally killing people. We need to stop it. It is literally killing people who are vulnerable, who are disabled and who have mental health problems—that is how bad the system and its roll-out have been. Given that the Tories are the only ones who seem to think that universal credit is great, I appeal to the few who are in the chamber to stop the roll-out and join the rest of the parties in the Parliament in admitting that the system is a mess and that it is killing people.
I have to leave after my speech, Presiding Officer.
I thank Alex Rowley for bringing this vital debate to Parliament. I see that, today, the Tory party is adopting exactly the same practice as it adopted in the rape clause debate. It has one tokenistic speaker, along with four others who are unwilling to take part in the debate but who have been told by their whips to come and sit here in the chamber. Where is Tomkins? Where is he? Where is the social security spokesperson who is supposed to be here defending this disgraceful policy? He is off—three-jobs Tomkins is not even here to defend the policy, and yet the Tories lecture vulnerable and poor people about the benefits of universal credit. What an utter disgrace they are.
I whole-heartedly support the anti-poverty organisations in calling on the UK Government to pause the roll-out of universal credit until all the problems have been resolved, given its impact on my constituents across the Lothians and the impact that it will continue to have, if it is not stopped, on up to 600,000 Scots. Most normal people are a job loss, a relationship breakdown, an accident or a diagnosis away from the benefits system; I have been in that position many times in my life. Not all the people out there are, like us, privileged to be on £60-odd thousand a year, and not all of them have the opportunity to have two or three jobs or have inherited wealth to sustain them.
However, this discussion is not about other people but about everyone in our society who might at some time have to rely on that increasingly worn safety net. Citizens Advice Scotland and others are—rightly—calling for a freeze on the policy to allow the issues to be addressed. As everybody—apart from the Tories—knows, the impact of the new rules and policies that relate to the administration of universal credit is causing dire problems for claimants. How can people possibly wait six weeks for their first payment? That is a lifetime to people who have to sign on for benefit.
As a former housing officer, I know the worry and strain that that puts on tenants, which has an impact on their mental health, physical health and wellbeing and causes anxiety, depression and hardship; in some cases, as has been mentioned, people are taking their own lives. If we see crisis grants up by 87 per cent and food bank use up by 70 per cent, how can anyone tell us that the system is working? How can they tell us that? It makes no sense whatever.
I commend the Scottish Government for writing to the UK Government to call for a halt to the service. Unsurprisingly, that call went unheeded by the caring, compassionate Tories. The Scottish National Party Government has stated that it will continue to press the case. I hope that it does and I hope that all of us will also continue to press the case. However, more needs to be done, and CPAG and others have suggested some ways forward.
Last week’s report by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the UK Government’s performance highlighted how the UK Government deals with disabled people. I do not care what party members are in; surely they have the self-respect to see that that is absolutely shameful treatment of all the people in our communities who have disabilities. It is incredible that some members cannot even bring themselves to say that that is disgraceful. I thought that some of the people on the Tory benches had more self-respect than that.
This Parliament must continue to apply pressure on the Tories, and I support the call by CPAG and others for greater investment in discretionary housing payments to alleviate some of the difficulties and for consideration of whether such additional investment might be required for a longer period, so that we can get a longer-term solution. We need to increase the capacity of advice services and support all that they do in order to help the most vulnerable people. We can either use the powers that we have here to help people and continue to argue with the Tory Government, or we can do nothing while the poorest people in our society suffer even more.
I thank Alex Rowley for bringing this important matter to the chamber for debate. I welcome the joint letter and the cross-party support that it has received, and I hope that it will finally make the UK Government take notice of the devastating impact that universal credit is having on people, although given the response of the one Conservative member who has contributed to the debate so far today, I do not feel too optimistic.
As members will be aware, universal credit is already operational in the Highlands. It was piloted in Inverness and it now covers the whole of the Highland Council area. Because of the problems that we encountered in Highland, and in the other pilot areas, Angela Constance had already called for the UK Government to halt the roll-out back in March, but to absolutely no avail. It is yet another example of the UK Government not listening to the people of the Highlands and not listening to the people of Scotland.
As others have said in this debate, one of the main problems is that new claimants have to wait up to six weeks before receiving their first payment, and longer in some circumstances. I know that it is difficult for people in privileged positions who come from wealthy backgrounds to understand, but most ordinary people cannot manage to survive for six weeks with no income. Lengthy delays are resulting in tenants building up rent arrears and being pushed to seek crisis or hardship payments, and turning to food banks.
I and my colleague Drew Hendry MP have been campaigning for many months to have the roll-out of full service universal credit halted. Earlier this year we invited Jeane Freeman, the Minister for Social Security in Scotland, to a round-table meeting in Inverness so that she could listen at first hand to evidence of the harm. We heard the story of a pregnant woman who was forced to travel to Aberdeen so that she could get a national insurance number before she could claim any money. We heard the story of lots of people with poor digital skills and connectivity struggling with no money. We heard how housing associations find themselves in the unenviable position of having to pursue tenants through the courts, at huge public expense, for debt that is not of the clients’ making.
We also heard directly from staff who worked in the council, in citizens advice bureaux and in housing associations, all of whom described the distress that they feel at being unable to help those people, because the removal of implicit consent means that they can no longer act on behalf of their clients. Instead, the client—that vulnerable person—has to navigate this impossible system on their own.
The most powerful testimony that we heard at that meeting was from the Macmillan CAB service, which helps people who are terminally ill to put their affairs in order before they die. Those folk have a limited amount of time and they spend the last months of their lives worrying and navigating an impossible system. Any politician worth their salt would look at this Dickensian policy with its colossal design flaws and realise that it has to be halted. The UK Government must accept that the roll-out is not working and halt it until issues are resolved. How many more people have to suffer?
I thank Alex Rowley for bringing this debate to the Parliament.
According to the latest statistics, an estimated 54,000 people in Scotland are claiming universal credit.
Universal credit was designed to ease the transition from welfare into work. It was designed to reflect people’s earnings, changes in their income month on month and their wage frequency, whether that is weekly, fortnightly or monthly.
No one disputes that welfare should encourage people to work and that it should make sense for people to keep more money as they work and earn more.
That means responding to changing circumstances. If work is to pay, welfare payments obviously need to adapt to pay. In turn, that means some form of assessment. The waiting period at the start of a universal credit claim is a consequence of that. The assessment period—the month in which income is first assessed—starts within a week of a claim.
There are significant exemptions to that, such as for anyone claiming universal credit due to a break-up, anyone with a terminal illness, a young person leaving care, victims of domestic abuse and others.
The first payments are made within seven days of the assessment period ending. Once someone is in the system—or if they have claimed universal credit or a range of benefits recently—they do not face the wait again.
I completely empathise with people who wait up to six weeks for a first payment—a period of time that most people would struggle to synchronise with the common payment of bills month by month.
I am pleased that Lord Freud has indicated that, as the system rolls out, the wait should decrease, which we should all support.
I would welcome the DWP looking at further ways to reduce the time between the claim and the payment and I am certain that the welfare secretary, David Gauke, will be answering direct questions on that when he meets the lead signatory—Laura Pidcock MP—of the letter penned by Westminster MPs last month, now that Parliament has returned.
We have to acknowledge that a responsible welfare system that recognises individual circumstances needs some form of assessment. It is a question of considering the best way to implement the system, rather than the fundamental principles of the system.
Universal credit is easing the transition from welfare to work. Claimants are now spending twice as much time looking for work. For every 100 people who moved into work under the pre-existing system, 113 people are now doing so under universal credit.
In accordance with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, we know that work provides the best route out of poverty. We know from the latest Office for National Statistics figures that in the three months to June 2017, the UK unemployment rate dropped to a 42-year low and the employment rate rose to an all-time high of 75.1 per cent.
I make a final point regarding the original purpose of universal credit in redesigning and simplifying the UK’s notoriously complex welfare system. That move was welcomed by opposition parties at the time of its creation and I do not believe that support has moved away from that basic principle. During its early roll-out, opposition parties were even quick to criticise the UK Government for not rolling it out fast enough.
I again express my empathy for those who are waiting up to six weeks for payment and I would welcome any changes that the DWP could introduce to decrease that time period.
However, when it comes to the basic principles behind universal credit, we should not forget what we originally set out to achieve on a cross-party basis. The principle of rolling several benefits into one to create one simpler benefit remains a good one to work towards. That is something on which I am sure that we still agree.
I thank Alex Rowley for bringing this vital topic to the chamber. Here we are, back from recess and back debating the horrors of Tory welfare policy. There have been several occasions relating to social security when I have thought that the Tories could sink no lower. The UN condemnation of their welfare reforms as “grave” and “systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights was one of them. We also had the two-child cap and the rape clause.
Now the UN has described the Tory Government as having created a “human catastrophe” for disabled people. A human catastrophe—will Tory members look up from their phones and let that sink in for a minute? Each time when I have thought that they could sink no lower, they have surpassed themselves, so I will not say that again today. If I have learned anything over the past year and anything today, it is that there are no limits to the depths of Tory callousness and Tory arrogance on this topic.
W hen the Tories are told about the damage that their policies are causing—they have been told consistently and repeatedly—they dismiss out of hand the evidence and the concerns presented to them. When in November 2016 the UN first condemned their policies as being in “systematic violation” of disabled people’s rights, the Tory Government said that the report was “patronising and offensive”, and that Britain was a
“world leader in disability rights and equality”.
When the Social Security Committee heard disturbing evidence from groups such as the Black Triangle Campaign, as well as from trusted MSP colleagues, about vulnerable individuals committing suicide as a result of distressing work capability assessments, the Tory Secretary of State in attendance said that he found it “unfortunate” that the issue was being politicised and that he disagreed with the analysis presented.
When MSPs from across the chamber, with the exception of those on the Tory benches, united to condemn the horrific Tory two-child cap and rape clause, this Parliament’s voice was dismissed by a Tory MSP as nationalist grievance stoking.
W hen the UN recently described the UK Government as having created a “human catastrophe” for disabled people, the Tory response was to remind the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that
“the UK is a recognised world leader in disability rights and equality”.
I do not think so.
When it comes to social security, to the Tories trusted disability charities are wrong, respected MSP colleagues are wrong, this Parliament is wrong and the United Nations is wrong. Last week, 25 Scottish third sector organisations published a joint letter calling for the roll-out of universal credit to be halted. Will the Tory Government listen to them? Perhaps our colleagues on the Tory benches today can tell us who they will listen to, and when. How bad does it have to get before the Tories will act?
T here is a real danger at this stage that we are running out of words to express our horror at the damage that is being done by those Tory welfare policies. Where on earth do we go from this human catastrophe?
We could be generous for a second and acknowledge the well-meaning thinking behind universal credit that is aimed at simplifying the process and at helping people into work. However, the contrast between the stated intentions of universal credit and its reality on the ground could not be more stark. As the evidence for the damage that it is causing mounts, we have to doubt the Tories’ sincerity. If they want their stated intentions to be believed, they have to act immediately to pause the roll-out of universal credit, they must listen to the evidence that has been presented to them and they must act on the issues. That would not undo the severe damage that has already been done—damage for which there can be no apologies great enough—but it would prevent further avoidable damage from taking place.
Continued failure to act would be not only astoundingly arrogant but wilfully harmful. For a Government whose role is to care for its citizens, that would be unforgivable.
I thank Mr Rowley for bringing this important debate to the chamber. I, too, would like to express my gratitude to the 25 third sector organisations that have already been mentioned, to Citizens Advice Scotland and Citizens Advice England and Wales, and to the Church of Scotland for all the work that they are doing to press the case for the UK Government to halt the roll-out of universal credit until the problems are fixed. All of that is based on evidence. It is not political posturing; it is evidence. It is evidence based on first-hand, personal, direct experience of dealing with real people facing real hardship.
We are seeing an increased use of food banks as a consequence of the problems with universal credit, and an increased use of emergency aid, such as the Scottish welfare fund. What a pity that Mr Balfour is not here because, to counter his statistics on customer satisfaction in East Lothian, we have seen a 35 per cent rise in crisis grant applications as a direct result of the introduction of the full roll-out of universal credit. As Mr Rowley and other members have said, the six-week wait produces an increase in rent arrears and rising debt before people even begin to try to deal with some of the situations that they face.
It is not a question of how well people manage their money, and nor is it about directing people towards work. Thirty-eight per cent of the people receiving universal credit are in work and are experiencing those very problems. It is about enforced anxiety, debt, poverty and misery, and those things have been enforced by the UK Government.
Mr Balfour’s description of how well universal credit is doing utterly beggars belief. It is jaw dropping in its simplicity and in its refusal to acknowledge what is actually going on. When Citizens Advice Scotland, which was one of the organisations that welcomed the initial policy intent to simplify the social security system, and which still supports simplifying the social security system, says that we have to halt the way that that is being done, because of all that evidence of hardship, the Government ought to listen.
I am grateful to Ms Wells for reading out the DWP’s public relations notice, but her empathy and sympathy do not help to address the problems of increased poverty, increased rent arrears and increased hardship that the manner of roll-out of universal credit and some of the fundamental policy components are causing to people the length and breadth of the country.
I am also very grateful indeed to Mr Findlay—it is a pity that he is not here and I hope that he reads this—for calling out what is clearly the strategy of the Scottish Conservatives, which is to sit on those benches when confronted by a debate about a UK Government policy that is indefensible and to choose to speak while utterly ignoring the points that are being raised, or otherwise to sit silent. Let me tell them this. When they sit silent, they collude with the problems. When they refuse to address them, they collude with those problems. We will never ever let them off the hook.
The UK Government is not listening. As Maree Todd said, my colleague Angela Constance wrote in March to the Secretary of State outlining in detail the problems with the roll-out of universal credit and asking him to pause it and fix those problems. In return we received a five-page letter extolling its virtues.
In the face of all the evidence and experience north and south of the border, there is no rationale for not pausing and fixing the system, so we are forced to conclude that the only reason must be utter contempt for the damage that is being done, arrogance about believing that it is always right, and a failure and unwillingness to admit to the sheer incompetence involved in the roll-out. There is a unique combination of contempt, arrogance and incompetence. Let that be the final say on what the UK Government is all about when it comes to social security.
Yes, we have limited powers in this Parliament and we will use them, but the DWP will charge us for that privilege. Those limited powers, to offer a choice on making rent payment direct to landlords fortnightly, will be introduced, but we do not have the powers to deal with the most damaging aspects of universal credit or its fundamental flaws.
Social security should be there for us all, to help us, not trip us up. Our approach in this Parliament, which I believe is supported across the chamber, except by Conservative members, is to have a rights-based social security system. We recognise that it is an investment in us all, as Mr Findlay said, and that it is there to provide help and support. That is why, in the programme for government, the First Minister said that we will publish evidence-based papers making the case for extending the powers of this Parliament in key areas including social security. If evidence is needed to demonstrate that we have to take those powers away from the UK Government and bring them to this Parliament—which on the whole, with some exceptions, demonstrates compassion, humanity and an understanding of what social security is about—it can be found in the roll-out of universal credit and the tin ear that is shown constantly by the UK Government and the Conservatives in this Parliament.
I support the motion. I support the call for the UK Government to listen, dial back the arrogance, pay attention to its own incompetence, halt the roll-out and fix its broken system. I say again to Conservative members in this Parliament that they should either properly argue in support of a system that is fundamentally flawed and which causes hardship and misery or stop colluding with it through their silence, false empathy and failure to hold their own Government to account.
13:57 Meeting suspended.
14:30 Resumed debate—