Universal Credit — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:13 pm on 19th April 2017.

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Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire 3:13 pm, 19th April 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell on securing this important debate, as the daily lives of our constituents are being adversely affected by the operation of the universal credit system. I want to highlight for the Minister a couple of examples of West Lancashire constituents who are in receipt of universal credit and what their experience is. The system is far from improving work incentives and tackling poverty among low-incomes families and far from developing a particularly effective new administrative system. Families are not paying only the financial cost of the system failures; there is an emotional cost as well.

As for improving work incentives, a young person in West Lancashire was offered four days’ work. In accepting, he had to get the jobcentre adviser to sign a form confirming that he was in receipt of universal credit. If the forms were not completed by the deadline set by the employer, the job offer was to be withdrawn. Two days before the deadline, he was told that the form would need to be sent to the DWP’s Wolverhampton office to be signed, which was ridiculous. Only through my intervention and the good sense of a senior jobcentre official was the matter resolved in the end.

It strikes me that there is an organisational culture in the DWP in which process trumps outcomes. I have dealt with the case of a single parent with one child going out to work. Their problem was caused by the unintelligent and inflexible assessment system that universal credit operates. Those of us who are paid monthly know there are occasions when our payday is earlier owing to the standard payday falling on a weekend or a bank holiday. In some instances, universal credit assesses a person as having two sets of income in the one month and therefore they do not get any payment. In the case of my constituent, they lost out on £350 for their childcare costs. The following month, the payday was also brought forward.

I suspect that the Minister will say that, in the round, the payments will equalise out, but that fundamentally ignores how household budgets operate and the family’s need for the payments they receive to be consistent and regular. For families whose day-to-day existence is financially balanced, that leads to them asking whether they are really better off in work, if that is the result. A change in one month’s payment can have a ripple effect that lasts considerably longer than one month for a family’s financial position to recover.

Another West Lancashire family, a working couple in receipt of universal credit, experienced problems receiving payments in four consecutive months, which included their claim being incorrectly closed after the information that the claimant provided was not entered in the system. Having not received their payment, they called the Department to seek an explanation and asked for a call back. Owing to the request being processed incorrectly, there was no call back. In months three and four, payments were again not paid. What did the DWP do? It sent a letter apologising for the repeated failures, which it said were due to an “oversight” on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions. Well, that’s okay, then—I think not. Anybody with an ounce of compassion for the people they deal with would not even put such words on a piece of paper.

For their trouble, the family received a £25 consolatory payment, although the DWP could not say when that would be paid because it takes weeks to process. I am sure that, for the Minister and the people operating the universal credit system, such failures seem to be minor administrative mistakes. I raise them in the desperate, perhaps forlorn, hope that the Minister will begin to understand that such mistakes have monumental and disproportionate consequences for the people on the receiving end. It is not only about the financial costs; there is a lasting emotional cost.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply, but I remind him that he will be judged by his actions in making the system better for families, rather than contributing to their daily struggles. He has that responsibility.