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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:25 pm on 5th June 2019.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 3:25 pm, 5th June 2019

I shall be very brief. I know that there are many aspects to universal credit, but I want to focus on the in-built five-week wait, which is pushing people into severe hardship and is cruel in the extreme. To say that advance payments address that is simply disingenuous, since those payments are unaffordable loans by another name, offering claimants the Hobson’s choice of hardship now or hardship later. That must urgently be addressed.

The loans have to be repaid and take no account of people’s ability to repay them. That is how other loans work, but the DWP advance payment loans have repayments set at a fixed level, which can be hard to challenge even if people fall into financial hardship while trying to repay them. Renegotiating repayment levels is rare but even if someone manages it, they are by that time already likely to be in serious financial difficulty with other bills.

The debt that people are pushed into can sometimes overwhelm them, or can undermine them so much that entering or sustaining employment becomes a much greater challenge, as people are forced to rely on food banks. The only way to deal with that pernicious aspect of universal credit is to remove the need for bridging loans by ending the five-week wait. There should be a single, non-refundable assessment payment for all claimants during the five-week wait period, with immediate effect.

If the Minister does nothing else today, or during his time with his current portfolio, he can and should do one thing: abolish the five-week wait. By doing so, he could make life much easier for many households who are struggling under the system as it is currently designed.