Universal Credit and Debt — [Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 5th June 2019.

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Photo of Ruth George Ruth George Labour, High Peak 2:30 pm, 5th June 2019

All councils need an uplift in their budget, but if the Department for Work and Pensions was to give money away, I would say it should go into the pockets of the people who are suffering at the sharpest end of universal credit.

We have already seen four years of a benefits freeze that has cut more than 6% from those benefits. That is on top of the three-year freeze in 2011 and the 1% benefit cap from 2014. On housing, the impact of those freezes, together with limiting local housing allowance to the lowest 30% of rents, means that now tenants in 97% of areas must make up a rent shortfall out of their universal credit. In one in five areas, that shortfall for a family with children in a two-bedroom home is at least £100 month, Shelter has calculated. That is a huge amount taken out of an already low income, but universal credit will mean even more reductions.

With managed migration having been delayed, most people will transfer on to universal credit due to a change in circumstances—anything from having their first baby, losing a job or moving to a different local authority area. Those 5 million or so households are not due to receive any transitional protection if they were better off on legacy benefits. Contrary to what Parliament was promised when the cuts to universal credit were pushed through in 2015 and 2016, most people will immediately be worse off.

Even after the changes to universal credit, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has calculated that, although 5.6 million people in working households will gain an average of £3,000 a year, 5.1 million working people will lose an average of £2,300, including 1.7 million who are already in poverty. Of non-working households, 1.9 million people will gain an average of £2,000 a year, but 2.6 million people will lose an average of £1,400 a year, with half of those—1.3 million—already in poverty. Overall, even after the changes, 7.5 million people will gain from universal credit, but 7.7 million people will lose out, including 3 million households already in poverty. While the Government may state that more is being spent on universal credit, which may well be correct, that does not change the fact that the majority of people already on very low incomes, many of whom are in poverty, will be worse off.

Even those who are supposed to be better off on universal credit often struggle because of the deductions from their payments. According to yesterday’s written answer from the Minister, who I thank for responding in time for the debate:

“Of all eligible claims to Universal Credit Full Service due a payment in Feb 2019, 57% (840,000 claims) had a deduction.”

An answer to a further parliamentary question showed that an average of 10% of all universal credit is now deducted from people’s claims. Almost everyone seeing deductions took the advance payment introduced to help people get through the minimum five-week wait for their first payment. Some 60% of people take that advance, mainly because rent is payable in advance, whereas universal credit is payable in arrears. That advance has to be paid off over 12 months, so people are paying 13 months’ rent out of 12 months of income. With a system that in 97% of areas does not even give enough money each month for one month’s rent, it is not surprising that people are struggling, and that five-week wait is absolutely part of that.

On top of repayments for advances, another 440,000 households are also repaying at least one other debt for benefit overpayments, social fund loans or other advances. That does not include third-party debts such as rent arrears, utility bills or council tax debt. The Department does not keep data on those debts that it also deducts. I question why not, as it clearly has the data on the deductions being made and should monitor the impact on vulnerable people. Of those 840,000 households seeing deductions, half were of up to 20% of the standard allowance in universal credit, 170,000 were between 21% and 30%, 238,000 were between 31% and 40%, and 13,000 were above 40%.

With 40% of the standard allowance as the current maximum deduction supposed to be permitted under universal credit, that means deductions of £127 a month for a single person’s claim or £200 a month for a couple. Of the 3.3 million couple-parents already losing an average of £2,500 a year under universal credit—more than £200 a month—a majority see deductions on top of those losses of up to another £200 a month, plus their rent top-up of around £100 a month, so many will be £500 a month, or more than £100 a week, worse off.

It is not surprising that we see such an increase in people going to food banks and struggling with debt, like one of my constituents, Gareth, who is struggling to keep his head above water. He suffers from anxiety and depression. His mother died recently and he split from his partner so had to move into his own place and claim universal credit. He had been working as a cleaner but had to give up his job. He was awarded universal credit of £692 a month, including £374 for housing, although the lowest rent he could find is £500 a month, so he has to make up the shortfall of £126 a month. Some £58 a month is being deducted for his advance payment, and £46 a month for an earlier budgeting and crisis loan, leaving him with £588 a month, of which his rent is £500, so he is left with just £20 a week for all his bills and food. He is experiencing extreme poverty, which is obviously impacting on his health.

Those deductions are things he knows about, but many are not. The second highest number of deductions are for tax credit overpayments, and two thirds of people migrating on to universal credit from tax credits are seeing deductions for an overpayment. The Treasury states that £6.9 billion of tax credit overpayments will be transferred on to universal credit. The reduction in the excess earnings limit in one year from £5,000 to just £1,000 in 2012 has meant that constant overpayments are now hard-wired into tax credits, but in many cases these are historical.

Only 29% of that £6.9 billion relates to 2016-17 onwards. More than half relates to between 2011-12 and 2015-16, and 16% is even older. Many people just were not aware of these overpayments and are not given the opportunity to challenge them. Locally, I have the case of Mrs G, who has a disability. She migrated on to universal credit because she had to move into accessible accommodation, which happened to be in the neighbouring local authority. Only after she had claimed was informed that she had tax credit overpayments of around £450 from 2011 and £850 from 2005. She had not claimed tax credits since 2015, and had paid off the only overpayments of which she had been informed over the next two years. She challenged the overpayments through Derbyshire County Council’s welfare rights service, which is marvellous at handling these cases, but was told that she had been informed about them in 2011 and 2006, and as the Inland Revenue had not received a dispute within three months of those letters being sent, the overpayments could not be challenged.

After losing her disability premiums, Mrs G was already £43 a week worse off under universal credit—almost £200 a month. She was having £42 a month deducted to repay her advance payment and was left with only £169 a month. A further £48 a month was then deducted for her tax credit overpayments, which she faces for years to come. Faced with having to live with a serious disability on just £121 a month, and with no one in government prepared to look into her case, the welfare rights service told me that Mrs G’s mental health deteriorated rapidly and that, on new year’s day, she attempted to take her life. Fortunately the attempt did not succeed, and she is now being supported by her GP, but five months later the issue is still not resolved, even with expert advice and her local MP contacted. Mrs G says,

“it’s on my mind all of the time”,

and it is still affecting her health.

The inability to challenge deductions—or even, in some cases, to find out about them—leaves people feeling utterly helpless and either angry or hopeless. People often receive a note on their journal saying:

“We agreed to pay a fine from your universal credit”,

but they are not even told how much the fine is, where it comes from or how to challenge it. I have seen cases of much more than the 40% limit being taken from people’s standard allowance, leaving them with practically nothing to live on. Advisers on the universal credit helpline have been unhelpful and aggressive, even to Citizens Advice and the welfare rights service.

Real examples like those from in and around my constituency, where limited numbers of people are on universal credit, bear out the problems illustrated in those answers to parliamentary questions. They are key drivers for the increase in food bank use and debt and rent arrears, and are a significant reason for the huge increase in depression and anxiety.

The Government must act. It will not necessarily take anything very radical. Many of the actions have already been agreed, but they need to be brought forward and done now. We need to look at the five-week wait, as I think is agreed across the House, and at the very least, as a first step, bring forward the two-week run-on of jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance and income support from July 2020 to July 2019. The maximum 30% cap on deductions needs to apply now, not in October, when another 800,000 people will have applied for universal credit and be suffering 40% reductions. And people suffering hardship should be able to reduce that.

The extended repayment period for advances from 12 months to 16 months should apply now, not in October 2021. Historical tax credit overpayments should be written off, as the Government stated they were doing back in 2011. Later overpayments should be proved and the opportunity given to challenge them properly before they are collected. The benefit freeze needs to be ended and the cap on rents restored at least to the 30th percentile. And the monthly assessment period should be reviewed, as the High Court has stated it should be.

Just the measures that I have listed would be an enormous help for the hundreds of thousands of people—almost 1 million—suffering already under deductions from universal credit. If this is test and learn, those people are the guinea pigs that this Government are experimenting on. The Government can make changes. We in Parliament get a second chance at legislation, but the people who are suffering this system now are left with spiralling debts, to which they can see no end. They are driven by the unresponsive system even to try to take their own life. They do not get a second chance at living a better life. Their children do not get another chance at a childhood not marred by poverty. Another 60,000 families will apply for universal credit next week. That is why it is not just our job but our absolute duty to get it right.