Universal Credit — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:42 pm on 19th April 2017.

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Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne North 2:42 pm, 19th April 2017

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the roll-out of universal credit.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, not least because I have been attempting to hold a debate on this issue for several weeks, if not months, because of the sheer volume of universal credit-related problems raised with me by constituents. I originally secured the debate for 22 March, but it was understandably cut short following the appalling attack on Westminster that afternoon, so I would like to take this opportunity to place on the record my eternal gratitude for the selfless and incredible bravery of PC Keith Palmer on that day. My thoughts very much remain with his family and with the families of those from around the world who were killed or injured as a result of that sickening incident.

Before I expose the myriad issues that my constituents have faced in dealing with this Government policy, and at the risk of repeating what I said on 22 March, I want to set out the context for this debate. As all hon. Members are aware, universal credit is a new benefit that is being introduced to replace means-tested social security benefits and tax credits for working-age individuals and families, including working tax credit, child tax credit, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income support, income-related employment and support allowance, and housing benefit. According to the Government, the aim of universal credit, using real-time information on claimants’ circumstances, is

“to simplify and streamline the benefits system for claimants and administrators, to improve work incentives, to tackle poverty among low income families, and to reduce the scope for fraud and error.”

Following years of repeated delays and false starts, the infamous reset in 2013 after the Major Projects Authority told the Government to go back to the drawing board, and concerns expressed by the National Audit Office that delivery of universal credit had been beset by

“weak management, ineffective control and poor governance”,

the new benefit is finally, but very painfully, being rolled out across the country. As the Library briefing note helpfully produced for the debate highlights, since the 2013 reset, the Department for Work and Pensions has been developing and rolling out universal credit using a twin-track approach. The briefing note states:

“This involves rolling out Universal Credit using IT systems developed prior to the 2013 reset (the ‘Live Service’) while, simultaneously, DWP develops the Digital Service (now known as the ‘Full Service’) from which Universal Credit will eventually be operated”—

I hope everyone is still following me. That means that, since spring 2016, universal credit has been available in all jobcentres across the country, but in most areas it is available only for new claims from people with relatively simple circumstances—single unemployed people, or people with very low earnings, who satisfy the gateway conditions. In the small but increasing number of areas that have full service universal credit, all new eligible claimants will receive universal credit, as will existing claimants of legacy benefits who report a change in their circumstances that results in their being “naturally migrated” to universal credit.

Following the “reshaping” of the next phase of universal credit’s roll-out announced in a written statement on 20 July 2016, the Secretary of State confirmed that the DWP intended to continue the roll-out of full service universal credit to five jobcentres a month until June 2017 and expand that to 30 a month from July 2017. There will be a break over the summer of 2017. The Government hope to scale up full service roll-out to 55 jobcentres a month between October and December 2017 and accelerate that to 65 a month by February 2018, with roll-out to the final 57 being completed in September 2018.

As a consequence, under the Government’s current plans, universal credit should be available across the country to all new claimants and existing claimants with changed circumstances by September 2018, and the final stage of the roll-out of universal credit, the “managed migration” of existing benefit claimants with no change in their circumstances, will commence in July 2019 and be completed by March 2022—some five years later than the original target. Quite how that complicated timetable now fits alongside the DWP’s proposals, published in January, to close an estimated one in 10 jobcentres and merge or co-locate many others is something on which it would be helpful to receive confirmation from the Minister when he responds to the debate.

It is clear that the roll-out of universal credit is a hugely complex task and that hard-working jobcentre staff are being placed in an incredibly challenging situation. The Library briefing note states that it involves

“not simply the creation of a new benefit but development of entirely new administrative systems to support it. This includes development of the Digital Service, the online IT system via which claimants and DWP will manage awards, and training staff to administer a new conditionality and sanctions regime that imposes requirements on in-work as well as out-of-work claimants.”

As universal credit requires a broader span of people to look for work than is the case with legacy benefits—for example, by including those in receipt of housing benefit or child tax credits and, indeed, the partners of universal credit claimants—there has been a marked effect on the claimant count in areas that have full service universal credit. In the year to January 2017, there was a 25.5% increase in the claimant count in full service areas, compared with an increase of 0.1% across the UK as a whole.

There are numerous concerns about the impact of universal credit on existing claimants, particularly families with disabled children whose caring responsibilities prevent them from working. The charity Contact a Family estimates that those families could be up to £1,600 a year worse off after being transferred to universal credit. We also still have the disturbing two-child limit for the child element of universal credit for all families making a new claim, regardless of when their third child was born, and the totally unacceptable situation in which women will be forced to prove that any third child was born as a result of rape. Serious concerns remain about the cuts to work allowances introduced from April 2016 for universal credit claimants. The Children’s Society highlights that they mean that

“Universal Credit support for most working families was considerably reduced”.

The Government have pressed ahead with their potentially deeply damaging decision to remove entitlement to the housing benefit element of universal credit for 18 to 21-year-olds, subject to certain exemptions—a move that has been roundly condemned by homelessness charities including Centrepoint and Crisis. Meanwhile, organisations including the Federation of Small Businesses and the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group are pressing the Government to think again about the minimum income floor, given its potential impact on many genuinely self-employed people with incomes that fluctuate from month to month.

There is, of course, the fact that the change in the universal credit taper rate from 65% to 63%, as announced in the 2016 autumn statement, does not come close to outweighing the cuts to work allowances. The general secretary of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers recently commented:

“The very modest reduction in the high clawback rate of 65% of net earnings to 63% is a tiny step in the right direction, but is worth less than £300 for most working parents. It goes nowhere near offsetting the enormous £2,000 to £3,000 annual cuts that Universal Credit represents or taking the taper back to the 55% rate that was originally intended. Universal Credit is a ticking time bomb that will plunge far more working families into poverty, when they are transferred on to it. We supported the initial intentions of Universal Credit, to simplify benefits and improve incentives to work. However, severe cost cutting has turned Universal Credit into a real threat to the incomes of low-paid working families.”