Universal Credit — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:59 pm on 19th April 2017.

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Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 3:59 pm, 19th April 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell on her persistence in securing today’s debate and on delivering an excellent, wide-ranging speech. I associate myself with her remarks about the debt of gratitude we owe to PC Keith Palmer. My thoughts are with his family and friends, and all those who lost their lives or were injured in the attack on 22 March. Today’s debate is really important, and we have heard compelling contributions from many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) and my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms, who spoke with real authority and insight.

In 2010, Mr Duncan Smith, the then Work and Pensions Secretary, announced that universal credit would radically simplify the existing social security system, make work pay and help lift people out of poverty, but the stories we have heard today show that that is simply not the case. Universal credit brings with it a huge range of problems. Its roll-out has been repeatedly delayed. So far, the completion date has been moved back seven times. It was originally set for the end of this year, but the Department is now aiming for March 2022. The roll-out is still mainly restricted to groups whose claims are reasonably straightforward, such as single people without children. However, the Government now intend to speed up the roll-out, and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North described how the introduction of the full digital service is now causing major problems in areas such as her constituency. The former Work and Pensions Minister, Lord Freud, told the Work and Pensions Committee in February that universal credit could take decades to perfect. Does the Minister agree with Lord Freud on that point?

The design of universal credit means that claimants are left for six weeks at the start of their claim without any income while their initial claim is processed. In some areas, the wait is even longer due to delays in dealing with claims. Croydon Council said in January that the average delay is 12 weeks. That can cause people to be in arrears with their rent, leaving them at risk of eviction and turning to food banks. What are the Government going to do to reduce the delays, and will they end the six-week initial wait for payment?

Then there is the Catch-22 that arises when universal credit meets a council’s legal obligations in relation to housing. If councils house people waiting for a payment in temporary accommodation, they are legally obliged to ensure they do not remain there for more than six weeks. However, to claim help with housing costs through universal credit, someone must have lived in a property for at least six weeks. Will the Government reconsider that rule, which does not fit in with councils’ legal obligations?

Once a claim has begun, payments are monthly under universal credit, rather than fortnightly, as with tax credits. That causes some claimants problems with budgeting. There is evidence that private landlords are becoming increasingly reluctant to rent to universal credit claimants because there is no provision for direct housing payments to the landlord except where someone is assessed as being vulnerable or already has two months’ rent arrears. Will the Minister look again at the issue of direct payment of the housing cost element to landlords so all tenants claiming universal credit can choose to do so?

[Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]

An investigation by The Guardian recently revealed widespread evidence that thousands of tenants on universal credit are running up rent arrears because the minimum waiting period for the first payment is just too long. Surveys by housing associations found that up to nine in 10 tenants on universal credit either run up rent arrears or increase the level of pre-existing arrears because many of them are not financially equipped to cope with long waits without any income. In September 2013, a National Audit Office report on universal credit revealed that IT failures had already cost £34 million, and highlighted the

“weak management, ineffective control and poor governance.”

Since November 2014, DWP has been gradually rolling out the full digital service to a limited number of areas as well as the original live service in others. There are differences not just in the way the services are managed and in the kind of claims, but in the rules for claimants between the two versions in relation to childcare costs and assessment periods, for example. Even now, the universal credit IT system is not capable of coping with the two-child limit this April. Families with more than two children who make fresh claims will actually be diverted to tax credits until November 2018. DWP insists on pressing ahead with a policy that is not just morally wrong, because of the way it implicitly treats some children as more important than others, but which the Department cannot even technically implement properly. Will the Government reconsider the two-child policy?

Universal credit poses further challenges. Just as the Government were speeding up the roll-out of UC, they announced plans to close more than one in 10 jobcentres throughout the UK. It is simply not good enough to quote figures about online claims to justify closure plans. Making a claim online can present real difficulties for people who are not confident in using IT or do not have easy access to the internet. DWP admits that it is likely that online claims are sometimes made only with help from jobcentre staff. Sorting out problems that arise is complicated by the requirement that claimants who contact their MP for help also authorise DWP online to release information to the MP. DWP recently said it will not be necessary to do so for MPs, but said nothing about advice agencies and welfare advocates. Will the Minister make it clear that the DWP will release information to advice agencies acting on behalf of a claimant without further online authorisation?

Universal credit will place other new demands on staff, who will have to assess whether self-employed people claiming universal credit have a viable business plan, and operate in-work conditionality, which will require people already in work to increase their pay. Will the Minister look again at the model of generalist work coaches that DWP is adopting to assess whether it is appropriate to the new challenges that universal credit will involve?

Staff will also have to deal with an increased number of claimants. As universal credit is based on household income, the partners of somebody claiming universal credit can be invited to attend a jobcentre to discuss work even if the partner has not themselves made a claim. People not in work who claim child tax credits or housing benefit but not jobseeker’s allowance are not required to look for work at present, but they are required to do so under universal credit. Will the Government reconsider their plans for jobcentre closures, which risk chaos as the speed of the roll-out of universal credit is increased?

Alongside the practical problems that the roll-out presents, changes to universal credit since 2010—especially cuts to in-work support—have undermined its capacity to reduce poverty. The Government have refused to listen to criticisms of cuts to the work allowance from Labour and voluntary organisations. Analysis by the Child Poverty Action Group and the Institute for Public Policy Research shows that families with children will be worse off by an average of £960 a year by 2020, compared with the income they could have expected under the original design of universal credit, and single-parent families could lose £2,300 on average. Will the Minister review the impact of work allowance reductions on working families—particularly working single-parent families?

The combination of the delayed roll-out of universal credit, the U-turn on tax credit cuts and the dramatic changes to universal credit work allowances is actually increasing the complexity of our social security system. If two families have exactly the same circumstances but one claims tax credits and the other claims universal credit, they may receive very different rates of social security. It is a genuine postcode lottery, because that is how universal credit has been rolled out.

Given all that, it is little wonder that the Government are now silent about how many people they believe universal credit will lift out of poverty. In 2011, they estimated that it would be 950,000. Two years later, it had fallen to 400,000, and by last year they preferred to keep silent. Will the Minister tell us the DWP’s current assessment?

We are seeing different rates of social security for people on tax credits and universal credit and different rules for people on the live and full digital services. We have even heard that the Office for National Statistics is concerned that the statistics for the claimant count no longer present an accurate picture of the labour market because they include all universal credit claimants. Is it really a simpler system? Our social security system is already struggling to cope with its introduction, even before the jobcentre closures go ahead. Far from lifting people out of poverty, there is growing evidence that universal credit risks impoverishing people waiting for payments and making it more difficult for claimants to find affordable housing. Severe cuts to in-work support mean that it can no longer genuinely claim to improve work incentives. Even the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has called for the cuts to be reversed, as they go against the key principles of universal credit.

Really important issues have been raised in this debate about the effect of the Government’s roll-out of universal credit. There is a huge range of issues, such as debt, eviction, the stress and anxiety for some of our most vulnerable citizens, and pressures on DWP staff and the system itself. I ask the Minister to respond clearly to the points raised in this important debate and explain how the Government intend to get a grip on universal credit.