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 take on board the hon. Gentleman’s serious concerns and, indeed, implore the Government to get this process right before they roll it out across the country.

There are also some fundamental flaws in the system. The fact that payments are made monthly and in arrears effectively embeds debt into the system—as landlords awaiting receipt of the housing benefit element of universal credit know all too well—and requires repeated applications for advance payments from DWP and/or budgeting skills, which many people sadly do not have. Indeed, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently commented:

“People risk debt, destitution and eviction while they wait…to receive their first UC payment”— a description that surely belongs in the world of Charles Dickens, rather than in the modern, fit-for-purpose and efficient social welfare system that we should have in 21st-century Britain.

So what was the DWP’s initial response to the increasing number of complaints about universal credit claims? In a letter dated 20 January 2017 and addressed to

“Colleagues working in the welfare advice sector”,

MPs in full service universal credit areas were informed that they could not receive any information about a constituent’s case unless the constituent in question had provided online explicit consent directly to the DWP. The letter stated that such consent

“must be given freely, unambiguously and in an informed way. The claimant must be clear on the information that they want to be disclosed and who the information can be disclosed to…Consent does not last indefinitely, but covers a particular query or piece of business.”

Even when I had been sent an email by a constituent that provided me with all the details of their case and that specifically asked me to intervene on their behalf—usually because they had reached the end of their tether —that was not deemed sufficient proof for the DWP to provide me with information about the case. I am, of course, pleased that that ridiculous situation has now been reviewed, after complaints by many hon. Members and an intervention by the Leader of the House, but I must emphasise that it caused weeks of additional challenge for my constituents and for my caseworkers in Newcastle, who were deluged with universal credit cases but could not receive any sensible information about them.

The Minister need not take my word for the problems that people face in Newcastle. He can come and visit the Newcastle citizens advice bureau, for which the DWP’s explicit consent edict remains in place. He can hear about the 85 universal credit clients from Newcastle upon Tyne North alone that the bureau has supported in the last year, who have faced severely delayed payments and, in the bureau’s words,

“unnecessary hardship through no fault of their own”.

They face that hardship because of difficulties in finding or accessing a computer, failure of jobcentre staff to provide information about advance payments, incorrect information held on claimants’ records, incorrect advice being provided by jobcentre staff, and incorrect payments being made.

Alternatively, the Minister can come and meet staff from Your Homes Newcastle, the arm’s length management organisation responsible for managing Newcastle’s council housing stock, to discuss the significant level of support that they are having to provide to tenants through the universal credit process. Indeed, Your Homes Newcastle has highlighted that it and Newcastle City Council have so far provided support to 506 people,

“specifically to help those who may be unable to manage monthly payments or don’t understand UC and need explanations at the very start of their claims. The time taken to support customers in personal budgeting varies between 2 and 15 hours of support, although there are some exceptional cases where this can take considerably longer. The average time per case is currently 3.5 hours and this is carried out by staff co-located at Jobcentres. The cost of placing three staff in Newcastle Jobcentres to provide this service is £93,651 annually.”

That support is above and beyond the 25 minutes to two hours that it can take Your Homes Newcastle staff to assist tenants through the initial universal credit claim process. Some of the more complex cases can take significantly longer. Indeed, Your Homes Newcastle staff have highlighted the case of one tenant whose universal credit application has taken them approximately 100 hours to progress. Throughout that time, the woman has seen a significant decline in her health and wellbeing, as well as real financial hardship because of the severe delays and mistakes on the DWP’s part. If this represents a simplification and streamlining of the benefits system, I dread to think what a more complicated system would look like.

Of particular concern to Your Homes Newcastle is the significant impact on rent arrears of the roll-out of universal credit and the associated delays. I know that the Minister has repeatedly claimed—no doubt he will do so again this afternoon—that a large number of cases that enter universal credit have existing rent arrears. However, Your Homes Newcastle has made it clear to me that its current income collection rate is 93.9% of the rent due from tenants who are on universal credit, compared with 99.8% of the rent owed by other tenants. As a result, there was a reduced income collection of £220,000 for customers on universal credit at the end of the financial year. Your Homes Newcastle went on to state that tenants on universal credit owe a total of £784,000 in rent arrears, of which some £381,000—just under 50%—are solely as a result of universal credit. As Newcastle City Council has informed the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, of the 1,380 Your Homes Newcastle tenants claiming universal credit on 10 March, some 1,186—more than 85%—were in rent arrears. The average level of those rent arrears was £686, more than double the average of £300 for YHN tenants in rent arrears. Clearly the situation is completely unsustainable.

Housing-related concerns about universal credit are shared by the homelessness charity Crisis, which clearly states that, as it currently operates, universal credit

“is causing rent arrears, threats of eviction and homelessness for our clients”.

Meanwhile, the Residential Landlords Association has raised concerns that

“as it currently operates, Universal Credit is causing rent arrears problems for a considerable number of tenants. Changes are needed to provide tenants and landlords with greater confidence that rent can be paid on time and in full.”

All three organisations—Your Homes Newcastle, Crisis and the RLA—are pressing the Government to make alternative payment arrangements much easier to set up.

It is clear to me and to many other hon. Members that the roll-out of universal credit is having a significant detrimental impact on far too many of our constituents. These issues are not unique to Newcastle; they are being replicated across the country, as other parliamentary debates—including one recently secured by Drew Hendry—have made all too clear. Indeed, some of the concerns that I have highlighted this afternoon recently caused the Work and Pensions Committee to reopen its inquiry into the impact of universal credit. The Chair of the Committee, my right hon. Friend Frank Field, commented:

“Despite a growing body of evidence about the very real hardship the rollout of Universal Credit is creating for some, often the most vulnerable, claimants—and the struggles it is creating for local authorities trying to fulfil their responsibilities—it is flabbergasting that the Government continues to keep its head in the sand.”

I agree.

On behalf of my constituents, of people in other areas in which universal credit has been fully rolled out, and of people in the rest of the country who will still have to endure this process, I strongly urge the Minister to take his head out of the sand and start addressing the very real issues that the roll-out of universal credit—the Government’s flagship policy—is causing. We must ask ourselves: how many times, from how many people and organisations across how many parts of the country must the Minister hear that universal credit is not working before he finally accepts that it is time to act?