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Universal Credit

Volume 550: debated on Monday 10 September 2012

We hope that most people will be able to manage their money successfully and we are working towards that, but we also recognise that, in the development of universal credit, there will always be some people who will need additional support. We are looking at and trialling that and making arrangements. There will be a range of budgeting support services available for those people to help them prepare for universal credit and to provide ongoing support. We are consulting on these matters at present.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. I meet a local single mothers support group, the Women of Wandsworth, on a regular basis. Some of the mums have expressed concern about monthly budgeting and are worried that it will just be assumed that they can manage. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, under universal credit, my constituents can be reassured that support is in place and that there will be no question of them just being left to their own devices?

Absolutely—I can give that assurance. That is exactly what we are working and consulting on at the moment. Of course, people will be concerned about it, but there are positives to take from this. The most important thing is that, by trying to move people, eventually, on to a monthly payment, that will bring them much more into line with the world of work. One of the great problems we have had is that, when people who have been unemployed go into work, they find it very difficult to cope with having suddenly to take on and manage their arrangements. The key thing is that we want to get those who can do so to that point, and we will work with the others. For some, there may be interim two-weekly payments. At the moment, we are looking to trial a whole series of arrangements to make that much easier for them, and we will make sure that that happens.

Is part of the Secretary of State’s strategy to help people move on to universal credit the expansion of food banks, which is seen as a disgrace and a condemnation of this Government across the country?

Not at all. When we came to office, I was told by the Department that despite the constant requests from a variety of people who provide food banks, in particular the Trussell Trust, to put their leaflets in jobcentres to advertise what they were doing, the last Government said no, because they did not want the embarrassment of their involvement. We immediately allowed them to do so, which is one reason for the increase in the number of people seeking food banks.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on retaining his position. Given that eligibility for free school meals is a key factor in determining deprivation and a key indicator of a child’s educational life chances, what assurances can he give that the structure and income bands of universal credit will not undermine the ability to target educational improvement where it is most needed?

May I say first that the work that my hon. Friend did at the Department for Education will stand the test of time and that people will thank him for it? The consultations and work we are doing on things such as passported benefits are critical to ensure that everybody’s position improves as a result of universal credit. I give him my personal guarantee that that is exactly what we will do.

Does the Secretary of State accept that somebody on jobseeker’s allowance with a disposable income of less than £70 a week who manages with fortnightly payments is actually very good at budgeting? The danger of monthly payments is not budgeting but the lack of money to buy everything that everybody else takes for granted and that a person should be able to buy with their benefit.

Absolutely—I accept that we have to deal with those issues. We are seeking to move to monthly payments. When payments moved from being weekly to fortnightly, everyone said it would cause major problems, but very little happened. We are putting in place requirements so that people may receive their money on a two-weekly basis if they are unable to cope. We recognise that when we introduce this process, people will have to transition into it so that they are not left with a period without any money. All that is under consideration. We are trialling the programmes to ensure that we get this right. I give the hon. Lady my assurance that we will not move on this unless we are certain we can make it work.

I am a strong advocate of universal credit, as the Secretary of State knows, but I retain a couple of concerns. The plan for a single person within the family to receive all the universal credit could be detrimental to women in particular. Will he confirm that there will be enough flexibility to ensure that women do not lose out?

That issue has been raised, so we have discussed it with a number of people and will allow for it. People will be able to nominate who should receive the payment. If there is a problem, in certain circumstances we will agree that an individual should receive the money. There is huge flexibility over where the payment should go and we are consulting on that at the moment. We will make any changes we need to make.

The Secretary of State will recognise that among the people who will need help with budgeting under universal credit are women and men in flight from domestic violence and seeking refuge. Will he give an absolute guarantee that they will not suffer from a lack of places and that refuges will not be penalised, causing a reduction in places for the women and men who need them?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that guarantee. If he has any concerns that he thinks we might not have dealt with, my door is open for him to come and talk to me. I am talking to many organisations, including Refuge, to ensure that we cover those issues. This is a priority concern for us and I give my absolute guarantee that that will happen.