Universal Credit — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:08 pm on 19th April 2017.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 3:08 pm, 19th April 2017

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Catherine McKinnell on securing this important debate and on her thorough and comprehensive speech.

Like the hon. Lady and probably every other hon. Member present, I am contacted daily by constituents who have encountered significant problems with the benefits system. In some parts of my constituency, principally Kirkintilloch and surrounding villages, that situation has been made many times worse by the roll-out of full service universal credit. I know from speaking to local people, advice agencies and landlords that, in short, the roll-out of universal credit there has been a dog’s breakfast. It has had profound implications for the constituents concerned, and I support those who call for it to be halted now.

I was contacted recently by a constituent who is suffering from depression, anxiety and agoraphobia. She described the “living nightmare” of waiting six weeks for her payment, which itself represented a £30 cut to her previous social security payments. She concluded her email to me by relating the

“enormous negative effect on my mental health…
I can honestly understand now why so many people struggle and give up and end up taking their own lives. This has to stop”.

I agree.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North has already pointed out some of the major flaws in universal credit. A key point is that those flaws are not teething problems that can be simply ironed out as we muddle along, which is what the Government seem to think. As the hon. Lady has said, all the evidence suggests that there has been an incredible upsurge in the number of cases of claimants building up rent arrears caused by the huge gaps between applications and payments, the very restricted ability to request direct payments to landlords and significant problems resulting from the system of monthly payments, all of which create huge budgeting problems and personal budget crises.

Most fundamentally, as the hon. Lady has pointed out, many of the changes referred to, combined, are set to punish families with children. We have heard from some organisations that families will be left worse off by up to £1,000 a year by 2020, but single-parent families are particularly hard hit by a massive £2,380 cut on average. We know that overall the Government’s pursuit of cuts looks set to force up to 1 million more children into poverty in the years ahead.

When a social security system acts completely contrary to its original purpose, and when its so-called reforms are substantially increasing rather than reducing poverty, it is surely time to go back to the drawing board and ask what we are seeking to achieve. While people and families suffer, landlords and advice services in my constituency are also finding this situation a nightmare. There are concerns that it is leading private landlords to shy from accepting tenants who are in receipt of universal credit payments.

I want to raise one specific issue that not been touched on yet: what seems to be the shambolic system for processing applications for alternative payment arrangements. The class of people entitled to make such applications is limited, but it will become significant in volume because it includes many of those in arrears. Housing associations in Kirkintilloch tell me that problems arise even from the outset, with applications for APAs not acknowledged or processed. Indeed, multiple application forms are sent out to the organisations involved. Most importantly, payments appear to be utterly erratic. As I understand it, the housing association is supposed to receive one payment for all the tenants on APAs each four weeks.

However, I understand from one housing association that since an initial payment was made in December it has only received payments for perhaps two or three tenants when there are supposed to be around 14 or 15 on APAs. In addition, they are receiving APAs for ex-tenants, despite notifying the DWP that they have moved on. Their concern is that if this is happening in a relatively small area such as Kirkintilloch, roll-out in places such as Glasgow will be an even bigger disaster both for constituents whose arrears are going through the roof and for the housing associations relying on the payments. As Crisis argues, the mechanisms for allowing direct payments must be made simpler and more accessible.

In addition, as with other advice services, advisers working in housing associations highlight the huge logistical problems caused, as the hon. Lady has said, by the abolition of implicit consent. To go beyond that, advisers have also raised the lack of places for them to go now to escalate and resolve issues faced by clients and tenants. For all those reasons, I argue that the roll-out should be stopped now. If the Government insist on carrying on regardless, they should take urgent action to resolve the predicament of too many claimants, just as the Scottish Government are looking to use their limited flexibilities to alleviate the worst features of the system. So, allow tenants to choose to have payments made directly to landlords and to have the option to receive twice-monthly payments. If the Government do not listen, their universal credit promises will have been broken, and a reform that was said to bring simplicity will instead bring complexity and cuts.