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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:05 pm on 5th June 2019.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:05 pm, 5th June 2019

I thank Ruth George for bringing this debate. As I often do, I will give a quick example. A troubled young man from my constituency, from a good family, is unable to deal with his social situation and finds himself sleeping rough. As he is a new claimant, he has to move on to universal credit. He goes to the housing executive, which tells him that he is not a priority, and to self-refer to a hostel. He depends on his family.

I want to put on record that the staff at the Ards benefits office—Frances, the manager, Lee and Donna—are tremendous and exceptional. If every person had such people to respond to them, it would be very helpful. They do their best to help, but they can only do what the system allows them to do.

Due to problems in the past, my constituent is already paying £10 a week out of his jobseeker’s allowance, and £40 a month comes off his housing benefit, which leaves him with £30 to live on. Internet is essential for those making online claims. What if somebody cannot use the library or another place with wi-fi? He waits five weeks for a claim that is not even back paid. What if he did not have a loving family, doing what no one would expect them to do for a 40-year-old man? Is this system working? I say to the Minister: it is not—far from it.

I meet people with severe and immediate financial hardship every day. Nearly a quarter—24%—of all universal credit claimants have a deduction of above 20% of their standard allowance. Research by StepChange found that even a deduction of 5% would push nearly half of StepChange clients on benefits into a negative budget. When a 40% deduction is applied—these are serious figures—70% will be pushed into a negative budget.

I ask the Minister: can we give staff such as Frances, Lee and Donna in the social security office in Newtownards the opportunity to read a situation, and allow them the discretion to allow past bad debt to be repaid at a nominal rate? We should understand that the private sector does not understand the bedroom tax, and rent does not come down to what the Government say it should be. It just does not work.