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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:56 pm on 5th June 2019.

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Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 2:56 pm, 5th June 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ruth George on an absolutely outstanding opening speech. There is not much more that one can say. However, I will pick up on a few points.

To understand the rise in poverty that people are facing across the country—not in isolated areas, as some on the Government side would like to say—we need look no further than social security policies, unfortunately, and universal credit is a key aspect of that. The Child Poverty Action Group said back in 2015 that an additional 1 million children would be living in poverty. Just a couple of weeks ago, Policy in Practice estimated, on behalf of the Children’s Commissioner, that half of low-income households would lose nearly £3,500 a year, which will see child poverty double. The figure is already at 4 million—three quarters of the children living in poverty are from working families—and it is set to double. That is down to three social security policies: the two-child limit, the benefits cap and universal credit—particularly, as my hon. Friend said, the five-week wait, and the repayment not just of the advance loan but of other debts.

We recognise the intervention in last autumn’s Budget, but it is paltry compared with the £12 billion that was cut in the 2015 summer Budget. It did not go even halfway to restoring what was cut. It is still the case that 40% of people on UC will be and are worse off—this applies especially to disabled people; 1 million disabled people are worse off under universal credit—by nearly £2,000. It also applies to the self-employed and single parents; they are all worse off as a result of universal credit. We have touched on the natural migration that is happening, separately from managed migration, as a result of a change in circumstances.

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, said last month that the UK’s poorest people face lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. He accused Ministers of being in a state of denial about the impact of policies, including the roll-out of universal credit, and referred to the “systematic immiseration” of a significant part of the British population. I know that his comments have caused some consternation on the Government side, but we have only to look at Westminster tube station to see our homeless people. Two thirds of those in homeless refuges are people who have issues with universal credit. We all have constituency cases—I shall mention a few if that is okay, Sir Henry—of people who are really suffering.

Sally is a single mum who moved out to escape an abusive relationship. Due to her change in circumstances, she has lost £400 from her universal credit. Katie’s employers made a mess of their returns, and she was left with £67 to live on. It was her employer’s error. She said:

“Every time I call they just say there’s nothing they can do and I just have to wait for a decision. Please help me as I’m at the end of hope!”

June was in receipt of employment and support allowance with a severe disability premium. Again due to a change in circumstances, she lost £300 a month. Karen works for the Greater Manchester police and has a two-year-old daughter. She was told by the jobcentre that universal credit would pay for 85% of her childcare. She had to pay it up front, but she was still waiting six months later. That is unacceptable, and it is happening up and down the country.

The Minister will be aware that universal credit has a bad press. In debates such as this, it is our job to draw attention to the dire circumstances that people are facing. There are also rumours, based on leaked emails, that there is a planned propaganda exercise to try to restore the public’s faith in universal credit. I would be grateful if the Minister could address that. I have gone over my time, so I will end there.