This is a great opportunity for the Minister—a valuable chance to hear from different constituencies about the situation of those claiming benefits through universal credit.
Gloucester’s experience broadly mirrors that of the country over the past 18 months. The roll-out has steadily expanded. By February, just over 4,000 people were on universal credit. That represents 26% of our population—slightly more than the 24% figure for Great Britain as a whole, and marginally less than the figure for the south-west region, which is 27%. The figures have continued to rise and I suspect in Gloucester it is now close to 5,000 people.
I pay tribute to the staff of Jobcentre Plus, especially the work coaches, who are implementing the policy and working closely with my office when constituents have difficulties. It is of course true that there are difficulties, and 117 of my constituents have been in touch with me and my office about issues. The vast majority of them are having difficulties with application forms. One of my staff, who is dyslexic, did the form herself. It took her seven minutes. I have tested it myself and it took me marginally longer, but broadly the application form is challenging only for those without personal internet access or much experience of digital processing. That, of course, is why the contract with Citizens Advice is so important.
I shall briefly share the Citizens Advice experience of UC inquiries, which is important. First, the calculation of benefit entitlements is more transparent than under legacy benefits, which is, of course, a significant improvement. Secondly, with the exception of those in receipt of disability benefits, it sees little difference between UC and legacy benefits. Thirdly, the increased availability of advance payments has improved the situation, but further flexibility would, it is noted, be beneficial. The last comment is that it is fairly commonly recognised that those in receipt of disability benefits are worse off than they would be under the previous system. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that. In my experience the situation is varied. People suffering from multiple sclerosis have quite often received greater benefits than previously, so there seems to be a little variation from disability to disability.
Clearly, debt is an important issue. Large numbers of our constituents have debt issues. More research is needed on how those debt issues arise and why so many people have so much debt when they come on to universal credit. That is, of course, a wider issue than universal credit itself.