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Universal Credit

Volume 557: debated on Monday 28 January 2013

7. What assessment he has made of the preparations for the introduction of universal credit; and if he will make a statement. (139390)

Early roll-out of universal credit begins with a pathfinder in April 2013 in the Greater Manchester and Cheshire region, including the jobcentre in Ashton-under-Lyne. I am aware that a number of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will be involved as a result, as will other Members’ constituents, and my Department will write to all of them to invite them to discuss the roll-out.

The Secretary of State is right to say that my local authority of Tameside is one of the pathfinder areas. Conversations that I have had with officers from that authority and the wider public infrastructure show that there is a lot of concern about the lack of detail and support from the Department of Work and Pensions with regard to the implementation. Given that this is just a few months away and is a cause of serious concern, will the Secretary of State reassure me and people in my local area that the Government are on top of this and that implementation will take place as planned?

It will—I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. We are discussing this at every level with the local authorities concerned. The process will start at a jobcentre in each of the areas I have mentioned on 29 April, and that will start bringing in childless couples to claim universal credit, rather than jobseeker’s allowance. Over that period, once people are captured into the universal credit system, they will not go back on to jobseeker’s allowance, so a lot of tax-credit people who fall unemployed will move on to universal credit. We are in deep discussions with the regions.[Official Report, 31 January 2013, Vol. 557, c. 6MC.]

The previous Government’s record in commissioning and managing large IT projects was a catalogue of failure. Have my right hon. Friend and his colleagues been able to learn anything from that in how they have designed universal credit?

All such programmes under Governments of any hue have always carried risk, because they are about change. The DWP benefits systems, including tax credits, are very complicated and often contradictory. Of course what we are doing involves risk, but we are trying to manage that risk. The best way to do so is to ensure that we introduce it stage by stage, so that we can recognise where we need to learn lessons, correct what is difficult or going wrong and ensure that we roll out the system properly.

On Friday, I visited a housing association in my constituency that is greatly concerned about the introduction of universal credit, as well as the bedroom tax and the benefits cap. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on the finances of housing associations from the possible increases in rent arrears as a result of his Government’s policies?

I do not believe that there will be an impact. [Interruption.] The Opposition should look to their own record and the housing benefit mess that they left us. They left a rising bill that had doubled in nearly 10 years, so it would be better to have a little less from them. We are trying to ensure that those who are paying this money are not allowed to slip into debt for any great length of time. That matter is being discussed with housing associations and we are making good progress on it. I believe that this approach will help people who are trying to get back into work enormously, rather than their being treated as though they are children who have to have all their bills paid for them.

A constituent of mine who did a few extra hours at Tesco before Christmas faces losing her income support and carer’s allowance for a whole month and will be much worse off. Does the Secretary of State agree that that shows the injustice of the system left by the previous Government, and that universal credit is desperately needed?

That is exactly the point. My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The mess of all the chaotic benefits left by the last Government, many of which contradicted each other, meant that people were not incentivised to go to work for anything more than 16 hours in some cases. Many people who could have got themselves out of poverty by working did not do so because they were penalised by the system. That is the shame of what the last Government left behind.

Will the Secretary of State say what resources are being allocated to in-work conditionality for part-time workers under universal credit, given that the Department has acknowledged that there is no evidence nationally or internationally of what works to sustain people in employment and enable them to progress?

The Department is looking closely at how we can assist people to take more work while on universal credit. We do not have the final results of that, but I am happy to sit down with the hon. Lady at any time and discuss her concerns. She is right about one thing: rather than parking people on a specific number of hours, universal credit will allow people to work more hours and get more money, rather than losing it, thereby getting themselves and their children, if they have any, out of poverty.