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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:27 pm on 5th June 2019.

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Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 3:27 pm, 5th June 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ruth George on securing the debate.

There is an argument for a simplified benefit system, but what we know of universal credit is that it has led to many cases where people are trapped in further poverty owing to the way the system is administered. In its current form, it is causing too much hardship and stress. Every week my constituency office, like many others, supports local people who have been placed in difficult situations. I also work closely with the citizens advice bureau, providing support jointly to constituents in need of advice and support. According to my local citizens advice bureau, the issue of universal credit was raised with it on 1,882 occasions last year. I think that that highlights the scale of the need.

I want to mention advance payments. Because of the wait before people get their first payment, many fall into debt. People clearly need the advance in the initial period, as they have no money to live. However, the repayments are often too high and that leads to continuing debt problems, which cause anxiety and stress. There is much confusion about the repayment period for advance payments. In my constituency, although the maximum period is 12 months, I have heard of cases where repayment is expected within three months. Again, that causes further debt, anxiety and stress. Claimants have a choice of repayment period up to a maximum of 12 months, and up to 40% of their claim.

As we have heard this afternoon, the Government are planning changes to the repayment period, which will be a maximum of 16 months, with deductions of no more than 30% of the claim. Those changes are in the right direction, but they do not go far enough. We have heard more today about looking at other debts, and that is an avenue that it is important to explore. The disappointing thing is that we have to wait until the end of the year for the changes to take effect.

I ask the Minister to give us clarity about the changes and to make them a lot sooner. People need help now, because they are in debt now. They are using food banks more than ever. Will the Minister and the Government take note and take action as soon as possible?