Universal Credit — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:52 pm on 19th April 2017.

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Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Social Justice and Welfare) 3:52 pm, 19th April 2017

Usually people have exhausted their savings or redundancy money before they claim benefits, but if someone starts a new job, it is normal to be paid at the end of the week or month in which they start. The Government have said consistently that they want universal credit to mimic the world of work, but in that respect it really does not, and they need to look urgently at waiting times.

We all understand that processing a claim will take some days, but the monthly payment and discounted first seven days slows down the process unnecessarily and leaves people in considerable hardship. In reality, many claimants are having to wait a lot longer than six weeks. Eight to 12 weeks is more typical in some full service areas, and often longer. That is just not okay, and we have heard today about how those problems are not just abstract. I know from previous discussions on the subject that people have lost their homes. Many people on universal credit will be in work already so may have some other source of income, but a significant minority of new claimants will be sick and disabled people, assessed as unfit for work, and people who have just lost a job. The advance payments available are simply inadequate and are driving people into food banks, into debt and into trouble with their landlords. The bottom line is that the system is failing. It is in chaos.

Rent arrears are possibly the most far-reaching adverse impact of the full service roll-out. The Highland Council alone has seen rent arrears soar by £1 million, which is entirely and solely attributable to the roll-out of universal credit. My concern is that that is just the tip of the iceberg. We can get accurate figures of the scale and extent of the problem from local authorities, but the impact on other social landlords is likely to be profound. I know that housing associations in Scotland have warned that increases in arrears damage their financial stability, hitting their ability to invest in existing properties and build new ones. Private sector tenants and landlords face significant problems too, given that landlords may be servicing mortgages and may not have the level of solvency needed to wait several months for unpaid rent. We are already witnessing evictions. Just as worrying, we are already seeing evidence that some landlords are simply refusing to consider universal credit tenants.

Evictions and homelessness cause untold upheaval and misery for all involved and have a huge impact on other public services. The homelessness charity Crisis reports that 89% of English local authorities fear that the roll-out of universal credit will exacerbate homelessness. That situation is avoidable. We do not need to go down that road. The Government need to get a grip.

The Government have offered the excuse that the sharp increase we have seen in arrears appears to fall over time, several months down the line, but, frankly, that obfuscates the scale and extent of the increase in arrears. It also obscures the debt and hardship that those tenants, on desperately low incomes, are enduring in order to pay off a level of arrears that they would never have incurred under the previous system. It is yet another way in which the universal credit system fails to mimic the world of work, where most landlords require rent to be paid upfront a month in advance and, certainly in the private sector, expect sizeable deposits. Once again, the systemic pressures of the new system are being borne by people on marginal incomes—those with the fewest assets and means, working in the lowest paid jobs, recently unemployed or unable to work because of ill health or disability.

The other major breakdown in the system is in relation to the online accounts and problems with call handling on the telephone helpline. In many parts of rural Scotland, digital connectivity is well behind that in urban areas, notwithstanding significant recent progress. In my own constituency, 25% of people do not have access to the internet. It also remains substantially more expensive than in urban areas, and because of that, there are significant numbers of people with limited digital skills and experience who rely heavily on public access terminals.

My hon. Friend Drew Hendry highlighted the high costs and time involved in travelling from rural areas to a diminishing number of jobcentres. I do not think a 200-mile round trip is acceptable. To put that trip in perspective, it would be like asking somebody here in central London to travel to Nottingham or Stoke-on-Trent for a DWP appointment. I do not think that is realistic.

My hon. Friend also highlighted a litany of problems with the telephone helpline. If someone calling from a mobile phone has to wait half an hour on the line, they could spend as much as a third of their weekly income on food, heating and essentials. Twenty quid may not sound like a king’s ransom to higher rate taxpayers, but for someone on a very low income, it is an enormous amount of money. Even if the Government’s assertion that waiting times are only eight or nine minutes was backed up by the documented experience from MPs’ offices and citizens advice bureaux, that is still a fiver. Proportionately, that is a lot of money for someone in receipt of £73 a week who is struggling to pay rent, heat their home and buy food.

Universal credit should have been quite easy to roll out in the Highlands, in that there is a relatively buoyant labour market and universal credit should, in theory, be better suited to managing patterns of seasonal employment, which is widespread in the region. But it is proving to be a disaster, not just there but, as we have heard today, across the UK.

My last point is this: leaving aside the catalogue of incompetence that has dogged universal credit from the start, the new benefit is turning the screws on low-income working families and is now unrecognisable from its original design. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, by 2020 families with children will be, on average, £960 pounds a year worse off than they would have been under the previous system. The effects are magnified for families where one parent is working full time and the other is working part time or is at home with the bairns. Parents of severely disabled children are losing out. Those who will be most disadvantaged are single parents working full time in low paid jobs, who will be, on average, £2,380 pounds worse off. That is almost £200 a month.

The idea that work always pays under universal credit is just nonsense. It is a massive cut in household income and it punishes people who are already working full time, doing everything they can to make ends meet. For some of those people, work will no longer pay, and they would be better off if they cut their hours. That is exactly the opposite of what universal credit was designed to do. The policy has been so filleted by successive austerity cuts that it is no longer able to deliver the improvements it promised. Instead, it is set to drive up child poverty.

As we have heard today, the full service roll-out of universal credit is proving to be a disaster. It is causing chaos for landlords, housing associations and local authorities. It is causing turmoil, upheaval and real hardship in the lives of claimants who are entitled to support. We have had no adequate assurances from the Government that the systemic failures are being addressed. In those circumstances, I believe that we need to call a halt to the universal credit roll-out and go back to the drawing board, because at the moment it is an unmitigated mess and ordinary people are paying the price.