I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for her insightful intervention, which highlights one of the major issues caused by the roll-out of universal credit when combined with the impact of the cuts agenda. This is a ticking time bomb and it is of particular concern to areas such as ours—Newcastle—given recent analysis by the TUC highlighting that while employment in the north-east grew by 60,000 between 2011 and 2016, a staggering 40,000 of those new jobs were without guaranteed hours or baseline employment rights. That means that some 124,000 people in our region—the equivalent of one in nine workers—now work in insecure jobs. Given that the north-east has the highest rate of insecure employment of anywhere in the UK, those people need a universal credit system that functions.
That leads me to the reason I have been trying to secure this debate. I want to focus on the actual experience of people in Newcastle upon Tyne North attempting to claim universal credit, in the hope that the Minister will acknowledge the clear failings in the system, do something to address the situation and commit to putting the failings right before universal credit is rolled out elsewhere.
To put this into context, the universal credit live service was rolled out to three jobcentres in Newcastle in April 2015, following which full service universal credit was introduced to Newcastle’s Cathedral Square city centre jobcentre in May 2016, the Newcastle East Jobcentre Plus in February 2017 and finally the Newcastle West Jobcentre Plus on
“It is essential that the Universal Credit rollout for all claimant types is delivered in an orderly and successful manner;
that claimants receive the support they need in a timely fashion;
and that welfare reforms are delivered safely as the roll out continues.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 613, c. 23WS.]
I welcome that aim, but I have to tell the Minister that it simply is not happening in Newcastle. Indeed, it is fair to say that my office has been deluged with complaints from constituents about a universal credit system that is clearly struggling to cope and failing to deliver the support that claimants need in anything like an orderly or timely fashion.
Those concerns include a universal credit verification process that requires claimants to produce photographic identification such as a passport or driving licence, which many simply do not possess and certainly cannot afford, even though some have been in receipt of benefits for several years. Deciding that universal credit must be digital by default has also created significant difficulties for many, making it extremely difficult to obtain information about their claim from a human being. Constituents face long and expensive telephone queues, and when they do get through, they are told to report any concerns or queries via their online journal, following which they have to wait for increasingly long periods to receive a response. The fact that universal credit is centred on an online journal system assumes that all claimants have access to the internet or are computer literate. That is certainly not the case for many people across Newcastle, and it can make it very hard for people to verify updates on their claims or post information about their work activity, which is necessary to prevent their claims from being suspended.
I also have numerous examples of universal credit claims being shut down before they should be; of documentation being provided to the DWP, at the constituent’s cost, and repeatedly being lost or even destroyed; and of totally conflicting, often incorrect, information being provided to constituents about their claims. That is because of a clear lack of understanding about universal credit by the staff who are trying to administer it, and it also results in incorrect payments being made. Indeed, one of the cases I have been handling involves a constituent who received a £600 universal credit payment, while no one at the DWP is able to explain what it is for. There are significant inconsistencies in payment dates and amounts paid, even for people who work regular hours and have regular incomes, leading to overpayments of universal credit that the introduction of real-time information was supposed to prevent.
Claimants are waiting significantly longer than the commonly advertised six-week period to have their universal credit payments processed. That leads to many finding themselves in very serious financial difficulties as they wait for the DWP to get its act together—hardly surprising when all their benefits are rolled into one payment, which, if delayed, can make just about managing feel like an aspiration.