Universal Credit — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:22 pm on 19th April 2017.

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Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon 3:22 pm, 19th April 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to Catherine McKinnell for obtaining this important debate. All the hon. Members who have spoken have made many constructive and proactive points based on individual experiences and the casework that we all regularly do. I know that in the Minister we have someone who is keen to listen and engage, and to take many of the challenges that have been raised today. I hope that he will further improve what is an important way of dealing with benefits in a modern society.

Universal credit is a vital part of our being able to deliver record employment in every region of the country and, crucially, to help improve people’s future opportunities and not just simply get them into work. The fundamental difference—this helps with many of the challenges that have been raised—is that for the first time the claimant has an individual, named work coach, someone they can turn to throughout the whole process. When opportunities and challenges come up, there is someone to help them to navigate the securing of additional childcare, training and support. Evidence has already shown that those on UC are typically able to spend 50% more time looking for work. For every 100 people who found work under jobseeker’s allowance, 113 found it under universal credit. It has removed the dreadful 16-hour cliff edge that under the old system prevented people from progressing towards full-time work, and it makes sure that work always pays better than benefits, with the support of claimants and taxpayers.

Crucially, the individual support is allowed to be personalised and tailored. I was interested to see what difference that makes, so in the past month I have twice been to visit the Swindon jobcentre to see how claimants are progressing through the system and to meet the staff, who in the past 20 years have navigated a huge amount of change from Governments of different parties and political persuasions. I went to see what was making a big difference. Swindon is an early adopter and we have been rolling out UC for quite some time. I understand that perhaps there is more experience there than in some areas where it is only beginning to come in.

I made notes on my visit. The staff are not people who will always give representatives of Government an easy ride, but they made it clear to me that they saw UC as a cultural change. The morale of the staff had significantly improved, as they were empowered to offer personalised, tailored support for the people who are often those furthest away from the jobs market. As we get close to structural full employment, the people seeking work need additional support, and we have empowered the staff to give it. In conjunction with the introduction of UC, jobcentres are being refreshed. The layout is brighter and less cluttered and the centre is a hive of activity, which is less intimidating for the claimants coming in. It is interactive and vibrant, and the staff felt they were a collective team, working together to help to support the people most in need of it. They felt that the ethos was now about what they could do to help; it was a conversation, and small steps. It was not rigid. It was removing the stigma of the jobcentre and encouraging external organisations to work in partnership to deliver the key improvements.

For me, the final thing was the recognition that the issue is not as simple as getting someone into work, typically on the national living wage. It is about providing support once they are in work and have shown they can turn up, and shown their dedication. It is about their being able to increase their hours, get promotion, become a supervisor and get additional training, so that they can progress up the career ladder that many of us took for granted. I was surprised at how positive the staff were. Yes, there are challenges—that is why there is a debate and why the Minister needs to engage with the issue—but overall UC is making a crucial difference to some of the most vulnerable people.