Universal Credit — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:18 pm on 19th April 2017.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality) 3:18 pm, 19th April 2017

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Davies. I congratulate Catherine McKinnell on setting the scene so well. The subject is a concern for my constituents. Although there is no roll-out at the moment in Northern Ireland, it is on its way and September will be the witching hour for it coming in, so we have some concerns. I am worried about my constituents who have mental health issues, which are exacerbated by stress. Health issues have been very much in the media over the past few days. Prince Harry and Prince William are examples of those with stress-related issues, and I wish to express concern about such issues. I firmly believe there is a better way of doing things.

We are all aware of the report submitted by Crisis, which I am sure Members have read. It is not easy reading for any parliamentarian. It relates to the most vulnerable in our society. The report suggests that the overwhelming majority—89%—of English local authorities surveyed for “The Homelessness Monitor” in 2017 have expressed concern. New claims for universal credit are typically taking eight to 12 weeks to process—much too long. Delays are being experienced by people with more complicated circumstances, including those who have lost identification documents during a period of homelessness. Those were issues that I did not expect. I certainly did not expect people to be waiting for up to three months to receive the calculation of their benefit entitlement. I will never forget seeing a billboard for the Simon Community homelessness charity, stating that one in three families in the UK are only a month’s pay cheque away from losing their home. That is something that sticks in my head. So one in three could lose their home before universal credit would be processed to pay them. That is almost incredible, and it is totally unacceptable.

What is being done to address the failure in the system? What is in place to help those who may lose their home during the waiting period? The monthly payment to people who are not used to budgeting and, indeed, do not know where to start to budget their finances is not helpful. Crisis clients are struggling to budget over a monthly period, and because many have had their rent paid directly to their landlord for years and simply do not know how much their rent is, it is a massive issue. The same issue is relevant to landlords, 68% of whom say that direct payments of universal credit housing costs to claimants have made them more reluctant to let to people receiving universal credit. If the system disadvantages applicants to start with, and disadvantages them again with the landlords, we must look at it. Sixty-six per cent of landlords say the current situation has made them more reluctant to let to homeless people. That was not the intention behind universal credit, but if it is now a fact of the process, we must address the issue as well.

As well as the planned six-week delay in first payment, waiting days and the maximum backdating period of one month, people are experiencing unforeseen delays as a result of administrative errors: a third penalty—and the administration system lets them down again. Those issues are causing rent arrears, threats of eviction and homelessness. It is clear that the DWP should reduce the waiting time between submitting the online application and being invited to appointments necessary to progress the claim, and that waiting days at the start of a claim should be abolished. At the very least an exemption should be introduced so that people who are homeless do not have to serve waiting days. Where is the compassion and understanding in the system? I have great concerns about what the impact will be on households across the Province and, indeed, in my constituency. There must be a rethink of the scheme, with special reference to circumstances in Northern Ireland. Let us learn for the future from the problems of today. The most vulnerable people are being put into an untenable situation and we must help them, not worsen their living situations. I again urge the Minister and the Department to rethink the whole scheme completely, immediately.