I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the roll-out of universal credit in the North West.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. This is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have secured, and I will endeavour to observe the correct procedure. I am pleased to have secured this debate on such a critical subject for my constituents in St Helens South and Whiston and for people across north-west England.
I am sure that no hon. Member would disagree that the recent debate on changes to tax credits has been one of the most important in this Session. Following pressure from Members on both sides of the Commons, the Lords and the public at large asked the Government to think again. The Chancellor announced in the autumn statement that planned changes to tax credits had been scrapped, saying:
“I have listened to the concerns. I hear and understand them. Because I have been able to announce today an improvement in the public finances, the simplest thing to do is not to phase these changes in, but to avoid them altogether. Tax credits are being phased out anyway as we introduce universal credit.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1360.]
However, for many people in the north-west of England the change to universal credit is a reality. The huge changes to our social security system have been trialled with people in the north-west.
Simply because of where they happen to live, many people in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies face dramatic drops in income from April 2016. For 77,378 people in the north-west, or 53% of the 155,000 currently in receipt of universal credit, this is a deeply worrying time. Some 51,000 of those people are in employment, and any of them experiencing changes that warrant a fresh application are seriously concerned. That issue of reduced work allowance is at the forefront of the minds of my constituents and the constituents of many other Members. I urge the Minister to take that away and think again.
The Office for Budget Responsibility expects the universal credit case load to be 330,000 in 2016-17, and many of those claimants will be in the north-west as those who get into work go on to universal credit. If families move from tax credits as part of their managed migration, they will be eligible for transitional protection until such time as their universal credit award catches up or the family experiences significant change to their circumstances. Transitional protection will apply only to families moved over through managed migration. Details on transitional protection have not yet been announced, and I ask for transitional protection to be put on a legal footing.
We know from the House of Commons Library that there will be no transitional protection for lone parents aged 25 or over with two children and no housing costs who are working full time—35 hours a week—on the minimum wage in 2015-16 or on the Government’s national living wage in 2016-17. Such a family will lose £2,384 in 2016-17. The same family with the housing element of universal credit will lose £309, and a disabled family with no housing costs will lose £3,000. Many families will face drops in income of between £2,000 and £3,000. That is the effect of these cuts on those whose circumstances have changed and warrant a fresh application.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, with cuts to universal credit already being planned, there will be greater demand for transitional funding when current tax credit claimants are migrated on to universal credit?
Yes, there will. How can it be right that anyone should be subject to a great injustice based on a postcode lottery determined by arbitrary decisions and the serial failings of the Department for Work and Pensions in delivering the programmes thus far? We have all heard the arguments on tax credits, and Members on both sides of the House were in agreement. Surely the change of terminology to universal credit from tax credit does not justify or warrant these cuts. It is simply indefensible that some people should be cast aside in this incompetent administrative experiment.
We have experienced other issues during the roll-out of universal credit. It would be unreasonable to assume that such a large scheme could be implemented without hiccups and a certain level of teething problems. The Government were forced to slow down the roll-out of the programme dramatically compared with their original aim. The OBR forecast in March 2013 that there would be 6.1 million claimants, but it is now expected that 330,000 people will receive universal credit during 2016-17. However, the problems that we have experienced in the north-west go well beyond what could be put down to normal problems that can be ironed out as the system beds in.
A range of administrative issues have had a terrible impact on people in receipt of universal credit. Many of the issues were highlighted in a report by Citizens Advice published in the summer of 2015. That report, “Waiting for Credit,” was drawn from 16 citizens advice bureaux, the majority of them in the north-west, including St Helens CAB. It detailed a range of issues faced by people claiming universal credit and by those trying to access it. For instance, universal credit is paid monthly in arrears. Following a new claim, the aim is for the claimant to be paid within five weeks—that is a total of nine weeks. The time lag causes claimants huge short-term financial difficulties, even when that aim is adhered to. However, the report found that 30% of claimants had to wait even longer.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. She mentioned that people are paid monthly in arrears. Does that not apply to everybody who works for a living and pays taxes, which is what ultimately pays for the welfare?
It can take five weeks for people on universal credit to be paid—that is the Government’s aim. If the hon. Gentleman listened to my point, he would know that the report found that 30% of claimants had to wait even longer than the nine-week total. Those people suffer from income deprivation, which is why they are eligible for universal credit and why they are different from those in normal, well-paid work.
The report found that many claimants faced continuing difficulties in getting the right amount, even when their claim had been processed. Basic administrative problems, such as being asked repeatedly for the same documentary evidence, were cited.
The hon. Lady talks about administrative problems, but was not the key problem when we had a Labour Government that many people were left languishing on welfare and given no help at all to find work, some for as long as 10 years? Is that not the key difference from what we now have under this Government? Hundreds of thousands of people are now being supported into work. Is that not better for them, their families and their communities, and for the income that their households earn?
No, I do not agree. People knew what was coming and knew that the funds were available. There are 155,000 people on universal credit now, and I am talking about the problems that they are experiencing now. For most people, not getting paid on time will cause at least some level of difficulty. For people on universal credit, not getting paid can be a catastrophe that makes it impossible to manage everyday living and responsibilities such as heating their home, eating, or clothing their children. Increased numbers of people are in rent arrears.
In my experience, there have been other cases of people facing great hardship through the incompetence of the programme so far. Basic work with different agencies has not taken place. For example, one of my constituents was previously in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance and was subsequently moved on to universal credit. Upon going to the dentist he required treatment, which was free under the NHS. When he was filling in the usual form, he was advised to tick the box marked “income-based jobseeker’s allowance”, as there was no box for universal credit. Subsequently, he was billed and pursued by the NHS Business Services Authority and threatened with county court action for a false declaration. If that is the level of co-operation between different agencies at this stage, what hope is there for the future?
I must highlight the DWP’s use of sanctions in the case of universal credit. It has thus far been largely concentrated on those who are on jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. We have all heard of the cases of people who have had their benefits stopped, often for absurdly spurious reasons such as selling poppies or not searching hard enough for jobs on Christmas day—that is true. We have come across many tragic cases of constituents who are literally starving and unable to turn on their heating because they have no money. Sanctions are sometimes imposed for the crime of arriving only a few minutes late for a jobcentre appointment following a hospital appointment.
There is no confidence in the current sanctions regime. It is both incompetent and brutal. There needs to be a full and independent review to restore some kind of confidence in the whole system. It is therefore completely irresponsible to expand the use of sanctions under universal credit to claimants in work.
Conditionality of benefits is being trialled for some of the in-work elements of universal credit. The New Policy Institute published a report into sanctions last year, which said:
“The expansion of conditionality under Universal Credit could see a substantial increase in sanctions: if sanctioning occurred at the same rate as for JSA claimants, then the number could almost double, with an additional 600,000 sanctions.”
It is surely inconceivable that people in work could be left in such a situation because of a Government policy that is supposed to support them for doing the right thing, but that is what will happen unless the Government think again.
To say the least, there has not been a smooth transition to universal credit for people in the north-west region. I do not have enough time to outline the range of problems that we have faced as a result of being the guinea-pig region for the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that behind the roll-out of universal credit is the desire to help working families, to get people back into work and to fulfil the aspirations that people have for their lives and their families, and that it would be much better for us to support that aspiration, support universal credit and iron out all the operational difficulties that she has highlighted?
Universal credit was supposed to simplify the benefits system and increase incentives to work. It has not simplified the benefits system. People have to wait longer, and very often the assessments that they receive are wrong. How does it incentivise people to work if they are subjected to cuts that they would not have been subjected to previously? We have experienced neither benefits being simplified nor incentives to work being increased.
The cuts to the work allowance will destroy the basis of the new system and any incentive or encouragement to work. The Minister said that no one would lose a penny, but now the Government are saying that people should work for three to four hours more a week—200 hours more a year—to be no better off. How does anyone find three to four hours more a week for an adviser to help them when they are in full-time employment anyway?
This change will hit the people who most need help. I urge the Government to stop, think and implement something that will work. They should think again before pursuing these devastating cuts, and, importantly, they should put transitional protection on a legal footing. Until someone’s earnings reach the universal credit work allowance scheme limit, their transitional protection should be put on a legal basis. That is what I ask for.
Thank you, Mr Nuttall, for calling me to speak in this important debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) for bringing this important debate to this Chamber today. In the last Parliament, it was my privilege to work for three years on the Work and Pensions Committee. We conducted an investigation and produced a report on the introduction and roll-out of universal credit, and we visited jobcentres in the Greater Manchester area. Indeed, we also conducted an investigation at about the same time into jobcentres themselves, which was overwhelmingly welcomed by the people at the sharp end—the people who work in jobcentres.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited two local jobcentres—one in Runcorn and one in Northwich—and the staff told me that universal credit made it a lot easier to help people to get into work, particularly the long-term unemployed. Together with the changes that the Government have introduced to tax, which effectively take some of the lowest-paid people out of tax altogether, universal credit helps people who have been unemployed for a long time. There is a clear incentive to work, because people can keep more of their pay. The Government intend to introduce a system whereby people can earn £12,500—just over £1,000 a month—before they start to pay income tax.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this change marks a profound shift in the welfare system? As many people would expect, the welfare system is now a mechanism to help people into work, as opposed to a catchment for people to remain unemployed.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; he hits the nail on the head. This change is about enabling people to stand on their own two feet and to get away from the welfare culture that grew under the 13 years of the previous Labour Administration. When Labour introduced tax credits, they were going to cost £4 billion; the figure is now £30 billion. That is simply unaffordable. As a nation, do we pay money to people for not working or do we encourage them to stand on their own two feet and get a job? And as I say, the tax incentive means that people can earn about £1,000 a month before paying tax, because Conservatives believe that people should keep more of their earnings.
Perhaps it is also good to remember that this Government are going to double the amount of free childcare to 30 hours a week, which for working parents of three and four-year-olds is worth about £5,000 a year per child. More than that, even for those on universal credit there is help. Universal credit currently covers up to 70% of eligible childcare costs, but from April that will increase to 85%. That is a huge difference, worth £1,368 per year for every child.
I am most grateful for that intervention; my hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. As I have said, jobcentre staff say that the changes that the Government have introduced to simplify welfare and benefits, and the incentive to work, enable those people who are unemployed to get into work quickly. And for long-term unemployed people who have been on benefits for many years, there are now clear incentives to get into work, because they will keep more of the money they earn; universal credit enables them to keep more of what they earn.
It has emerged clearly from this discussion that there needs to be greater awareness of the cuts to the universal credit work allowance that are coming in this April. Let me just give the example of a single parent—say, a single mother—with one or more children. That allowance will be halved from April from £8,808 to £4,764, which is a reduction of £4,044. In cash terms, that working mother will lose £2,628 from this April. How on earth is that an incentive to work?
We have to look at the whole scheme. We have to look at the fairness to those in receipt of welfare and benefits, but what we never hear about from Labour Members is that the scheme has to be fair to the people who pay for it, who are the hard-working taxpayers. If we look at people who are working—[Interruption.] I know it is controversial to talk about the people who actually contribute and pay for welfare, but we have to look at the people who make the decisions to work hard and work full-time. The examples that people always look at are of people who work part-time, and their income is topped up. Well, we have to look at the decisions of people who work hard every day. They have to work full-time—work, work—and make those decisions and pay taxes, which go into the welfare system.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and then I want to make some progress.
I intend to make a speech, and I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s courtesy in giving way. I gently say to him—this is important in a debate on universal credit—that Britain is not divided into two groups of people: those who pay taxes and those who receive welfare benefits. It is a lot more complicated than that. The point of universal credit was actually to allow a seamless transition between the two to support people. The point of this debate should be to point out that that transition is not working so far in the initial roll-out of universal credit. That is where the attention needs to lie in a discussion such as this.
As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I am not saying that the system is perfect. Under the Labour Government, the welfare system was very complicated. In the previous Parliament, the Government tried to make it simpler and fairer for people in receipt of welfare while also making it fairer for the people who pay for it—hard-working taxpayers. Not for one minute am I saying that the system is perfect, but the people who work in Jobcentre Plus tell me that universal credit makes it a lot easier and simpler for them to help people, particularly the long-term unemployed, to get into work. That is the evidence in my constituency.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
May I make a bit of progress first? I have actually got a speech here.
Everyone with the ability to work should be given the support and opportunity to do so. The previous system wrote too many people off for too long, and too many people were left in a cycle of welfare. The point behind the reforms is to break that cycle. The roll-out of universal credit will fundamentally transform the welfare benefits system in Britain and the north-west, making 3 million people better off and bringing £33 billion in economic benefits to society. Universal credit will simplify and streamline the welfare system, improve work incentives, tackle poverty among low-income families and reduce the scope for error and fraud.
The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston gave some powerful examples. I am not saying that errors do not happen; of course they do. Things are not perfect, but other nations around the world are looking at the welfare reforms that the previous Government introduced and are considering doing the same. Since the introduction of universal credit, unemployment in the north-west has fallen by 50,000—more than 30%. Unemployment in my constituency has more than halved in the same period. While that fall cannot be solely attributed to universal credit, its roll-out has had a part to play in that success, and it will continue to play a major part in entrenching that success as the roll-out continues.
The hon. Gentleman is making powerful points, but I am sure that he recognises the concerns of those of us on this side of the Chamber. Government Members may share those concerns, to be fair. Society is marked by its attitude to those on low incomes and the less well-off. In this House, we have a duty to them as well as to taxpayers, who provide income. Does he accept that universal credit is causing undue delays for many of my constituents and those of other Members in the Chamber? There is a knock-on effect on those receiving benefit with the changes to their income tax, tax credits and housing benefit. Some people are without money for periods of seven, eight, nine or even 10 weeks. There has to be something wrong with a system that cannot respond to the needs of those on low incomes when they need it most.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There is a lot of evidence that delays are there, and those delays are unacceptable for the individuals concerned. I will not attempt to defend that. The system is not perfect, but any individual cases should be brought perhaps to the attention of the Member of Parliament, but certainly to the attention of Jobcentre Plus and the benefits agency. Those cases should be looked into and investigated.
People claiming universal credit are 13% more likely to be in work than people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. They are earning more money and are more willing to take a job. One constituent of mine, a hairdresser, was complaining. She said, “At this time of year, I usually get a rebate on income tax, but because I now have a far better personal allowance, I do not have that problem.” She is keeping more of her hard-earned money. That is what the Government are helping the lowest-paid to do.
Employment has been the Government’s real success. A thousand jobs were created each and every day during the last Parliament. That represents 2 million jobs over that period. The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that a further million jobs will be created over the next five years. This country is the economic powerhouse of Europe. Yorkshire is creating more jobs than France, and that is why so many people want to come here. We have good quality, well-paid jobs, and the living wage is being introduced. We have a far better working environment than many other countries in the European Union. That all indicates just how successful the Government have been at getting people off benefits and back into work. There are so many opportunities in all our communities, and it is important that we expose those opportunities to those looking for work.
Crucial to the Government’s success has been the support towards childcare costs for parents, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) pointed out. Under universal credit, there is additional cover for childcare costs for parents, with up to 70% of childcare costs covered regardless of hours worked. That will be increased to 85% this year, with a monthly limit of £646 for one child and more than £1,000 for two or more children, helping more parents into work. When my children were younger, I remember Mrs Evans saying, “It is pointless me going back to work because of the childcare costs.” I know that the cover for childcare costs is an important step forward in helping working mums to work longer and keep more of their money.
The ethos of “It pays to work” is built into the DNA of the Government’s reforms, particularly universal credit. I have no doubt that as universal credit is rolled out further, we will continue to see more and more people getting back into work. The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston referred to the region as a guinea pig, but I am comfortable and proud that the north-west has led the way. I was particularly pleased when universal credit started in my jobcentres in Weaver Vale, because it made a massive difference. I pay tribute to the hard-working staff at Runcorn and Northwich jobcentres for the fantastic work they do helping people back into employment. They are a great example of best practice, and their hard work was recognised by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions when he visited the jobcentre in Northwich at the end of last year. He gave the staff an award for the number of people they had helped back into work. The staff at Northwich jobcentre have told me that the introduction of universal credit has made their job easier.
A lot of people come into Weaver Vale to work. As the MP, I am puzzled why people travel great distances to work in my constituency yet I still have unemployed people. One of my challenges is to get my constituents to take the jobs that are virtually on their doorstep. That is why, when I became the MP, I started my jobs and apprenticeship fairs. The fifth will take place next month. The first time I did it, there were a lot of unemployed people, but that number has halved over the past four or five years. It is the harder-to-reach people who are left. The companies that come to my jobs fairs are fine-tuning their job offers for people who perhaps have not been in work for a long, long time.
I was most privileged to have the John Lewis Partnership come into Northwich. I am sure Members will agree that Waitrose is a fantastic organisation. When it came, it said, “We will guarantee that 30% of interviews will be for local people.” That was only an interview, not a job, but it was so impressed with the calibre and the quality of the interviewees that it ended up with more than 50% of its employees being local people. Some of those people had been long-term employed, but Jobcentre Plus had worked with the local authority and Mid Cheshire College, training the people for job interviews, CV filling out and what retail employers are looking for. That was a great example of organisations working together to get the long-term unemployed working for the great company that is the John Lewis Partnership. That 50% figure is an achievement of which we can be proud. The reforms are transforming the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities and giving people the skills and the opportunity to get on in life and stand on their own two feet.
I am keen to move Weaver Vale—indeed, Great Britain —from a low-wage, high-tax, high-welfare economy to a higher-wage, lower-tax, lower-welfare country. I support the Government’s reforms in welfare and universal credit. The system is not perfect, but it is far better than that attempted by the previous Government. I believe it is working, as proved by the reduction in unemployment, the growth in wages and the quality of the jobs now available in this country.
Will people who wish to catch my eye please stand?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) on the eloquent way in which she put the concerns of her constituents—indeed, all our constituents—about universal credit, particularly the changes to the working allowance, which will disadvantage working people. That bears saying once more. Such people are taxpayers. There are not two groups—people who pay tax and people who get benefits—because people move in and out. They pay tax and they deserve support, but they will lose money. Some 20,000 people working full time in my constituency will lose money by 2020. That is appalling.
However, as I represent a pathfinder authority, I want to move on to the difficulties caused by the universal credit roll-out and the lessons we can learn to make sure that it goes more smoothly in the rest of the country. Call me cynical, but I worked in the Citizens Advice Bureau from 1986 and I saw the change from supplementary benefit to income support. We now have universal credit. The aim was always to simplify, not to make things more complicated. The basic fact is that people’s lives are not simple. Lives are complicated and a system has to be devised that deals with the complications and issues that people have at different times of their lives. Certain problems with universal credit have been highlighted in the roll-out, such as the mismatch in budgeting periods and the six-week universal credit waiting period. I take issue with what the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) said about everyone who is in work being paid monthly. In fact, only half of low-paid workers are paid monthly. Many are paid weekly or fortnightly, so they do not have a cushion to rely on when they first claim universal credit. Anyone who is paid weekly will have one week’s money to manage on for five or six weeks.
There is some difficulty in claiming advance payments, and people are loth to do so. We have seen a rise in debt of 42% over the past six months. People go to payday lenders and suchlike to cover that period of time. There are other delays, without the additional delays in receiving payments. According to the Citizens Advice report, three in 10 have experienced a delay of more than a week beyond the standard five weeks. One in 10 wait more than nine weeks and some wait four months, owing to administrative problems. I accept that things go wrong, but we can look at what happens when things go wrong and at how we can improve that for people.
Confusion about the council tax reduction needs to be looked at, but the major effect of delayed payments has been the increased use of food banks. My local food bank, the Brick, has reported that the majority of people visit because of sanctions and waiting for universal credit—that includes people who are in work. That is a key finding of the survey, which found that 80% have difficulty paying essential household bills such as rent and utilities during these periods. Wigan and Leigh Homes has said that rent arrears have gone up since universal credit came in. People do not realise that they are getting all their money, which is another issue. Many people have been pushed into debt simply because of universal credit.
My local citizens advice bureau reports a much greater level of debt among universal credit claimants compared with the claimants of the past legacy benefits. Some 63% of people say that they have difficulty buying food and feeding their families—a basic human need—which means that the rise in food banks is related in some way to universal credit. I do not think that that can be denied.
I remember claiming a benefit when my husband walked out on me and I had a young child. The whole situation was appalling. I went to the Benefits Agency and felt pretty bad at having to claim benefits. If I had had to go to a food bank as well to feed my family, how would that have incentivised me at that particular period in time to seek work? I was fortunate. I managed to find work within three months, but if I had had to rely on a food bank and wonder where the next meal was coming from for me and my daughter, I am not sure I would have been able to concentrate as much on finding work.
A claimant in my constituency went to my local CAB because they were sanctioned for hundreds of days—not a short period—because they were passed backwards and forwards between jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance. Both teams said my constituent was not eligible for benefit. Ultimately, that person received £4,000 in backdated benefits, and universal credit was put back into regular payment. It is very nice that they got £4,000 in backdated benefits, but how on earth did they manage to feed their family during the time when they were owed £4,000 by the Government?
We need a way to resolve such problems. I would like a universal credit claimant champion, as recommended by Citizens Advice—someone who can look at difficult cases and take responsibility for them. Part of the problem is the fact that no one takes responsibility and people are passed back and to. I do not know about other hon. Members, but I have certainly seen an increase in the number of people coming to my surgeries about universal credit problems since we became a pathfinder. They have to go to their MP because we have a helpline, but advice agencies should have a dedicated helpline. I want to plead for extra funding for advice agencies. Since the changes to legal aid in 2010 when welfare benefits were no longer seen as a legally aidable necessity, less advice has been available from such agencies. Indeed, welfare benefits specialists are having to find other work. We are losing our expertise.
We should have a review before the full roll-out to make sure that when things go wrong, they are quickly resolved and we do not get into a situation in which people are paid huge sums of money backdated, but wonder how they live in the meantime.
The helpline has an 0345 number, which is charged at a fairly high rate on prepaid mobile phones. Constituents have told me that they have run out of credit using their mobile phones to ring an 0345 number, because they have been passed back and to. As I have said before, we need a local number. There should be a freephone number. There should be more phone lines available in offices. Freephone numbers should be available so that people can use the few phone boxes that are available to ring the universal credit number.
I fully accept what the hon. Lady says. It is absolutely right that we should have a system whereby people are not penalised for phoning to get information or assistance. Perhaps a system should be set up where the person is able to use a freephone number. If not, perhaps they could send an email and be called back free of charge. I do not believe people should be penalised.
I agree, but, as for sending emails, the local authority did a survey to see how many people in Wigan use the internet regularly and found that 30% have never accessed or even looked at the internet. We need to think about those people. When we look at digital by default as a way of claiming, we need to provide more help for people to claim in other ways and not penalise them with a delay.
The hon. Lady is making powerful points and I do not disagree with a lot of what she is saying. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) also just made a very good point. On digital by default, when I left school there were no computers. I have had to learn how to use computers throughout my life, so I know how difficult it is for people of a certain age to gain access to the internet. Even now, I am not perfect—my children are far better. Does the hon. Lady agree that, in the 21st century, if someone is unemployed and looking for a job but is not very good with the internet and computers, they will not find many jobs in which some form of computer use would not be required at a basic level? It may be that 30% of the hon. Lady’s constituents have never accessed the internet, but as much help as possible should be given to that 30% to enable them to apply for jobs, because I am pretty sure that computers will be involved.
I do not disagree, but in the meantime people should not be penalised by having to seek help to claim the universal credit benefit because it is digital by default. If they want help to claim, there are agencies that can help, but there is often a delay in receiving an appointment for that. People should not be penalised because they have to wait to claim universal credit simply because they do not have access to a computer. That is another issue to look at.
When claims are refused, people are sometimes confused about why. Again, a helpline number—an 0800 number—would be extremely helpful for those people. When it gets complicated, there should be a named person to help them. I do not think anyone would disagree with the idea that we want to make the system as simple as possible. We know that people’s lives are complicated and that they move in and out of work, particularly those in low-paid work. Anything that makes the transition more simple should be looked at carefully.
The hon. Lady has made a number of valid points, and I have great respect for her. We worked together as councillors on Warrington Borough Council and I know that she has in-depth knowledge of the subject, beyond that of many Members, but as I understand it, as part of universal credit a named personal contact is now being offered to help individuals to seek work, as well as to ensure that they access the right benefits.
Although there is someone available to help them to seek work, I am looking for someone to help when things go wrong—someone with a detailed understanding of the universal credit system, not someone who perhaps has more knowledge of the work environment. People need someone to talk to about the complexities of the universal credit system and how it relates to council tax benefits and local authorities—all the major issues—rather than simply a work adviser.
Trying to make things simpler with universal credit is a laudable aim. We need to look at what has happened in the pilots and how the system can be made to work. I cannot finish without also saying that we need to look at how universal credit can incentivise people to work, which is certainly not done by cutting the work allowance and giving people less incentive to find work.
It is a pleasure to see a fellow north-west MP in the Chair for this important debate, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) on securing the debate, and indeed on the impressive work she has done since being elected to Parliament. St Helens is a place with similar issues to my borough, Tameside, so it is excellent that she is raising them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) is also present. She, too, represents Tameside, which was a universal credit pathfinder area, so we were one of the first parts of the country to experience some of the problems related to it. No matter what political perspective a person has going into the debate on welfare rights and the welfare system, it is important to listen to relevant experience, where it exists, of how universal credit has functioned so far. I should say at the outset that I completely support the goal of simplifying our welfare system—I do not think anyone in this country would not want that.
Like many Members, I use the Child Poverty Action Group handbook to help constituents when they come to me with problems. The handbook is sometimes referred to as the bible of welfare rights; indeed, it is the same size and written in a similar font as the Bible. That indicates the complexity of the system, so of course people should be trying to simplify it. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) said, we cannot get away from the reality that many people lead complex lives and have complex needs. The system must function in a way that gives them the support they need.
A number of the issues that come up at my constituency surgery that I wanted to raise have already been mentioned, but they are so important that I want to reiterate why they are key to making the system work properly. The first one is the first payment that people get. In my experience, there are immediate problems for people when they try to access universal credit because of how the system is designed. It is not a teething problem with the roll-out, but a structural flaw in how universal credit has been created. A lot of people are immediately put into a position where they struggle to afford food and heating. That simply does not seem to tally with the goal of supporting people into and out of the workplace. Instead of giving them a professional and efficient service when they need it, it often robs them of their dignity and puts them into crisis.
Like other Members present, at times of my life I have had to access support from the welfare system, particularly the tax credit system, which is almost always the case for those who have children at quite a young age. It did not lead me into a life of welfare dependency—it arguably led me to a worse life, as I ended up here in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, that is an important point, because so much of the Government’s rhetoric is based on the assumption that there are two sets of people in the country: an underclass of welfare recipients who must be punished and whipped back into the workplace, and everyone else who suffers from having to pay for the system. If that is the Government’s mindset going into the designing of a welfare benefit, the welfare system will simply never be designed in an appropriate fashion to meet the objectives of the people who have been described in this debate.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has brought up the question of whether that is what the Government intend, because the answer is clearly no. The greatest dignity that we can give to anyone is the dignity of work and employment. That is the main thrust of what the Government want to see. Getting people off benefits and into full-time work will provide them with dignity and give their children a role model to follow.
I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman’s motivation. Before the debate we exchanged some comments about that sense of there being a group of taxpayers paying for the welfare system and a group of people in receipt of welfare benefits. That is not the way to design a welfare system. We cannot do it in a way that divides the country so simply into those arbitrary classifications. Indeed, if we do that, it is impossible to design an effective system.
I mentioned the issues relating to the first universal credit payment. People have to wait a long time, because it is designed to be paid five to six weeks in arrears. As the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) said in an intervention, the assumption is that they are in the workplace and receiving a monthly salary in arrears, so they will have that support before receiving universal credit. I say this completely genuinely: that is not how the economy of my constituency works. A great many people are still paid weekly or fortnightly. A lot of people have different levels of income week by week because of zero-hours contracts. That does not seem to have been considered in the level of detail required to design how and when people will receive the support that they need.
Delays occur in any bureaucratic system, but there is an even bigger structural flaw in universal credit that I have heard about several times in my constituency surgeries. If someone applies for universal credit on the wrong day—perhaps one or two days before they really “should” apply; in other words, when they have lost their job but before they have received their final pay cheque from their former employer—the system becomes disastrous for them. We must bear in mind that a lot of people, on finding out that they are going to be made redundant, would go to the jobcentre to look at the available support. If they apply for universal credit but receive a further pay cheque from their employer, they will wait not five to six weeks but 10 to 11. That is an enormous problem that must be looked at. If that happens—if someone has to know exactly when to apply for the support to which they are entitled—it will go far beyond the current level of complexity. That would have to be sorted out before any national roll-out.
I have raised those points because we have to find a way to get a supportive system that copes with people going into and out of the workplace—regular or temporary work—in a way that does not completely reset the system and cause all kinds of problems if they then go back into work. That is what I mean when I say that we should not split the country with an arbitrary classification of those in work and those out of work and receiving welfare benefits.
Whenever problems with universal credit are raised, the Government say that advance payments can sort out all the problems, whether with housing arrears, heating or food. That is the first question I ask people who come to see me with problems with universal credit, and a lot of them tell me that they have not been told about the advance payments system. I do not know what the experience of other hon. Members is, but advance payments do not seem to be programmed into the initial assessment. If a person does not know about the advance payment system, they have an even bigger problem, because they cannot claim an advance payment if they are a number of days past their initial assessment. If people accessing unemployment benefits for the first time face a confusing system that does not give them the funding they are entitled to, given that they have paid into the system, and that prevents them from getting back into the workplace, that is not an improvement on the current system. There has been a lot of party political advertising of the employment rate, the Government’s successes, childcare and all that, but we need to look at these genuine, serious problems.
Despite the objective of simplifying the system, the roll-out would have been disastrous in my area if it were not for our welfare rights advisers. To my mind, the staff of Tameside citizens advice bureau are absolute heroes. The reality is that that kind of support is being stripped from all communities. Law centres and citizens advice bureaux are closing. If the system is to work, we have got to give people impartial, fair advice. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) made a fair comment about how people can get in touch with welfare advisers. That is important, and it is sad to see welfare advisers going at a time when people need them.
Universal credit is a big change, and if people do not have support to access it properly, their perception of it will be negative. We have to ensure that that is not the case. From my casework and experience, from what is happening in other parts of the country and from people’s testimonies, my overwhelming impression is that, despite the scale of the bureaucratic challenge of moving to universal credit, we are not tackling the big problems of our social security system. We are not providing sufficient support for people who have lost their job for the very first time—particularly during the global finance crisis—and who never thought they would be unemployed. When they find out what their national insurance contributions will buy, they are often frankly disgusted at the level of support available to them.
We are not tackling the sanctions, the conditionality and the job search criteria. Frankly, I think we are treating a lot of people like children and robbing them of their dignity. We are not giving them what they should reasonably expect when they access the welfare system. Most of all, the system is unable to cope with the flexible working patterns that are so common in our economy. Many people do not have jobs for life; often, they do not even have jobs that last for years. The system has to reflect that, but I do not think those things have been priced in. Despite the bureaucracy and our overall level of spending on the social security system, people in my constituency have been left genuinely destitute and reliant on charity and food banks to survive. That cannot be right. Given the resources we put into the system, there has to be a better way to do it.
I think we need an even more radical approach. We should look to other countries for best practice. Concepts such as basic income do not lead to a taper problem and do not disincentivise people from going back into the workplace; rather, people are supported in different stages of their lives and everybody gets something out of the system for what they pay into it. That is the direction in which we have got to be looking. We need something more radical than universal credit. Universal credit, if it worked properly, would be welcome, but at the moment there are huge teething and design problems. Even once those problems are sorted, it will not tackle the big problems of the welfare system. Let us sort those problems out, but let us not end the conversation about welfare reform here. Let us address the challenges and create a system that truly works for everybody.
We now move to the winding-up speeches. I gently remind the shadow Minister, the Minister and the Scottish National party spokesman to leave a couple of minutes at the end of the debate before 11 o’clock for the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) to wind up.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) for securing this debate. It is primarily focused on the north-west of England, but as it concerns the roll-out of universal credit across the isles, the implications of what is said this morning stretch much further than the north-west. I congratulate her on her very good speech. She rightly did not shirk the opportunity to give the Government a kicking on their record on this matter. I pay tribute to other hon. Members who contributed. In particular, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) delivered a very powerful speech.
There are a great many issues at play around the changes to universal credit and the roll-out in the north-west and further afield. SNP Members are fundamentally concerned about the removal of the work allowance, which underpins the potential success of universal credit and the aim to support people into work and make work pay. We are also concerned about the monthly payment regime. Support for housing benefit recipients will not go directly to landlords, and payments will be made to households, rather than individuals.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will make some progress; I am just starting.
Pilot projects across the country have shown that those areas of concern are problematic. That has been highlighted by a raft of third-sector organisations in reports on this subject. In principle, universal credit sounds tempting. We are told that it is a smooth, streamlined system to assist low-income families. However, as has been emphasised today, in reality it is fraught with flaws, and low-income families are the casualties of the Tories’ poor economic choices and ideologically driven cuts. The ineffective and costly roll-out of the system to date highlights the need for an urgent rethink of these draconian policies.
Universal credit was first introduced as a pathfinder in Ashton-under-Lyne in April 2013. New claims were taken from single unemployed people who satisfied the gateway conditions. The pathfinder was then extended to three other areas in the north-west—Wigan, Warrington and Oldham—in July 2013, and in the summer of 2014 universal credit was expanded to a further 29 areas in the north-west for single people and couples who satisfied the gateway conditions. After a relaxation of the constraints on single people claiming between September and December 2014, universal credit was expanded to cover all parts of the north-west of England. New claims from families with children have been accepted in some areas, and since last January new claims from families with children have been accepted throughout the north-west.
The north-west was the first area in which universal credit was rolled out to all jobcentres. Of the 155,568 claimants at mid-November 2015, 77,378 were in the north-west, and of those, 26,521 were in employment and 50,855 were not in employment.
May I go back to a point that the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) made about treating people like children? The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) mentioned paying housing benefit directly to the landlord. Are we not treating people like children if we do not think they are able to pay their housing benefit to their landlords? Surely people in receipt of benefits are perfectly capable of paying their landlords.
Actually, I do not accept that.
It is treating them like children.
It is not treating people like children. I totally disagree with that. People in such circumstances often live chaotic lives. Sometimes, although not always, they do not wish to have the responsibility for managing that extra level of financial responsibility. A great many people in my constituency have told me that they would far rather know that they have a roof over their head that is secure regardless of what happens elsewhere, and that they would rather see their benefit paid directly to their landlord. People should be given the choice over that matter, and at the moment they are not. It is being paid to them, and they are being given the responsibility, which is not always welcome.
I want to clarify for the record that my comment about treating people like children referred to people who have worked for 20 or 30 years and are forced to fill in a graph to show how many jobs they have applied for that day and that week. I do not think that is an appropriate way of treating people who have been in work for a long time and have lost their job; they should be treated with respect and dignity. On the point about paying housing benefit directly to landlords, I believe that there should be a choice. If people want to manage their money themselves, that is fine. There has been a huge increase in housing arrears in every area in which universal credit has been rolled out, which causes huge problems for everybody else because it has to be covered in some way. If that can be alleviated by paying housing benefit directly to landlords, I see no reason why that option should not be available to people.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
The New Policy Institute’s report “The rise of sanctioning in Great Britain”, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston, states:
“The expansion of conditionality under Universal Credit could see a substantial increase in sanctions: if sanctioning occurred at the same rate as for JSA claimants, then the number could almost double, with an additional 600,000 sanctions.”
That is very concerning. The Institute for Public Policy Research, an independent think-thank, found that low-income families in Scotland will face an £800 a year cut in their income by 2020 following the UK Government’s cuts while the richest 40% will see their incomes rise as a result of tax cuts.
A number of National Audit Office reports have come to damning conclusions about the ongoing universal credit transition, highlighting the early setbacks, missed targets and overspending. The numbers simply do not lie: 17,850 claimants were on universal credit in October 2014, but the Government had planned to have 500,000 claimants on universal credit by April this year and 7 million by December 2019. Not only does that show that the Government are completely missing their own targets, but they are spending huge budgets, wasting vital funds that could be better spent supporting poor families who are struggling to make ends meet. Indeed, the NAO published a report in May 2015 entitled “Welfare reform—lessons learned”. Speaking about the report, Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said that the DWP,
“has had to learn some hard lessons with significant financial and human costs.”
The hon. Gentleman has reeled off reams of statistics during his speech, but the key statistic is the legacy of the previous Labour Government: nearly one in five households in our country had no one working at all. That in no way brought dignity to those households, those families or their communities. Should we not be addressing that statistic as a priority?
Where people are capable of working, it is right that we should encourage them to do so. However, the problem with the changes that the Government are implementing through universal credit is that they are removing the work allowance, which is the only incentive to work in universal credit. It underpins the incentive to get into work and to remain there. Taking that away removes the premise that work should pay, which is a sad situation.
The DWP has said that universal credit will be simpler for claimants and will be treated like a wage for individuals, readying them for work. In reality, there are complex problems that will ultimately see less money in people’s pockets and more difficulties accessing adequate financial support. Analysis of the autumn statement by the IFS found that the benefit system is still much less generous in the long run, pointing out that universal credit now represents an additional cut on top of other changes, including the cut to benefit entitlement, of £3.7 billion a year in the long run. Some 4.5 million working families will be affected by the introduction of universal credit, and 2.6 million will lose an average of £1,600 a year.
This is where I must disagree with the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) and where he missed the point in his contribution. People are being encouraged into work, which is right for those who can work, but removing the work allowance aspect of universal credit takes away the only incentive to work. He also made the point that the social security system needs to be fair for those who pay for it, but he perhaps forgets that those in receipt of the universal credit work allowance are in work.
They are taxpayers.
Absolutely. They are taxpayers.
Some 1.8 million non-working families will be affected by the introduction of universal credit, and 1.2 million families will lose an average of £1,000 a year. Over recent months, the focus of much discussion has been on tax credits, but changes to universal credit will also have profound effects. The Government’s so-called U-turn on tax credits is nothing more than a delay tactic, with the pain to be felt in the next few years under universal credit. Support for working households on low incomes getting universal credit was also reduced in the summer Budget. Ian Mulheirn of Oxford Economics said that,
“this may be a U-turn in April 2016, but it doesn’t look like a U-turn by 2020.”
In conclusion, the Scottish people voted in May 2015 for an end to austerity when they voted for the SNP. They deserve the leadership they voted for and not to face the social security storm that the Tories are brewing. The failures of the UK Government to give us full power over universal credit have left our country picking up the tab for the Tories’ poor economic choices and shoddy governance once again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I warmly compliment my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) both on securing the debate and on the dignified, cogent and passionate way in which she put her case this morning.
The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) spoke well about the staff to whom he had spoken at a Jobcentre Plus office in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) made an excellent speech, drawing on her experience at Citizens Advice in the 1980s and speaking powerfully about the sad explosion in the number of food banks in this country since 2010.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) for his speech, in which he spoke well about the complexity of the modern economy. He made a powerful point about our need to draw on experience, and any well thought out, coherent and simple policy is to be welcomed. I may even give him a shorter book to read in due course. There were also interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), for Bolton West (Chris Green), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans).
Much of today’s discussion has been about the language with which the debate is conducted, and I am extremely concerned about the language framework that the Government use. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said on the “Today” programme on Monday 8 October 2012:
“It is unfair that people listening to this programme going out to work see the neighbour next door with the blinds down because they are on benefits.”
Those are his actual words. He presumably thinks that that type of stuff is popular at the Tory conference. The real problem with that sort of language is how divisive it is. There is no sense that the person behind those blinds might be vulnerable or disabled. The Minister has an opportunity today to condemn such divisive language, and I sincerely hope that she feels able to do so.
Even if one accepts the abysmal logic, which I do not, the real problem is that the Chancellor is so lost in tactical mazes of his own construction that he is actually on the wrong side of his own dividing lines. He is attempting to separate people into the workers and the non-workers—that is precisely what he was trying to do in that quote. However, what we saw with the cuts to tax credits, which the Chancellor eventually caved in on, we are also seeing with the cuts to the universal credit work allowance from this April.
What was appalling under the previous Labour Government was the high level of unemployment, which meant more people spending time with the blinds down. Under this Government, employment has reached record levels, unemployment has dropped, and far more people are earning more money than ever before. Is that not bringing dignity to the British people?
I will come to people earning more than ever before in a moment. I make no apology for a Government who introduced the national minimum wage or for wage growth in the Labour years. This decade risks becoming the lost Tory decade, with wage growth lower than at any point since the 1920s.
The hon. Gentleman wants to talk about money in people’s pockets. I have already spoken about the effects of the cuts to the universal credit work allowance on single parents from this April, so shall I use some other specific examples? Take a couple, living and working together, one or both of whom has limited capacity to work as they are disabled. For them, the work allowance will be cut from £7,700 to £4,700, a loss in income of £3,000. That is for people who are actually in work. To take another example, single individuals will essentially lose everything, with a reduction of £1,332, at a net loss to income of £865.
When universal credit is damaging and attacking people in work, it is in danger of undermining the aims that it was set up to achieve. If Government Members do not want to take my word for that, let us take the word of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s “State of the nation 2015” policy paper, published on a big date for dumping things just before Christmas, 17 December 2015. The paper is available on the Government website if any Members want to see it. The commission stated:
“The immediate priority must be taking action to ensure that the introduction of Universal Credit does not make families with children who ‘do the right thing’ (in terms of working as much as society expects them to) worse off than they would be under the current system. That means reversing the cuts to Universal Credit work allowances enacted through the Universal Credit (Work Allowance) Amendment Regulations 2015 before they are implemented in April 2016.”
That is what the commission says should be the priority from this April.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the Labour Government introduced the national minimum wage. I supported that outside this place, as did many of my Conservative colleagues. This Government, however, are introducing a national living wage and—this is the key thing, which is lost on the Opposition—are keen for people to keep more of their own money. That is why the personal allowance has increased, taking the lowest-paid out of income tax altogether. He might remember Gordon Brown’s fiasco with the 10p tax rate, which penalised the lowest-paid workers in the country. The system is complicated, yes, but the underlying mantra is that it always pays to work. Getting low-paid people out of tax altogether is the best way of doing things, so that they keep more of their own money.
I am interested in history, as the hon. Gentleman might know, but I do not recall the Conservative party in the 20th century supporting a national minimum wage. His personal view might well have been different, but I do not recall his party voting for a national minimum wage—rather, at the 1997 election I remember the Conservatives saying that it would cost jobs. They seem to have changed their position significantly since, which is to be welcomed.
Almost 20 years ago.
If the Parliamentary Private Secretary wishes to intervene, he is welcome to do so.
If I was allowed to, I would.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has special permission—I will take it up with him another time.
Another unfortunate pattern is the Conservative party putting forward various mitigations for its Government’s cuts. The latest one was on 6 January, when the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), tried to defend the cuts to the work element of the universal credit, saying,
“let us not forget, the fact that every time we fill up our tank with petrol there is a saving of £10 because of the freezing of the fuel duty.—[Official Report, 6 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 342.]
Back in the 1980s the Conservatives’ answer to the unemployed was, “Get on your bike,” but in 2016 it seems to be, “Fill your car.” That is the level of debate we have reached.
Confidence in the roll-out is another enormous issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston indicated. Let us not forget what the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said in a press release on 1 November 2011:
“Over one million people will be claiming Universal Credit by April 2014.”
The actual number reached by November 2015 was 155,568. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale said with delicious understatement that that was not perfect. I have to agree—less than one fifth of the target had been reached. According to the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, the number will not exceed 1 million until April 2018, four years late. Does that not show the situation that we are in today? Given the cuts to the work element of universal credit and the sheer scale of incompetence with the roll-out, are we not in the worst of all worlds, where the Government lack both compassion and competence?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Nuttall.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) on securing the debate and on her contribution. I thank all Members present for their good, strong and wide-ranging contributions, including my hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), for Bolton West (Chris Green) and for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) and the hon. Members for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), to name but a few. I hope to cover many of the points they raised.
The debate has been interesting because of its content and the nature and variety of the issues raised. My opening remarks, however, will focus on what the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) said. I, too, welcome him to his new role. He rightly highlighted language and its use, which are incredibly important when discussing people, welfare, benefits and access to welfare. However, I do not accept his assessment that the Government use divisive language. I do not see the Government’s focus of ensuring that work always pays and that Britain moves from being a low-wage, high-welfare and high-tax society to being a higher-wage, lower-welfare and lower-tax society as divisive. Nor do I see as divisive the language used by the Prime Minister this week when he announced our life chances strategy, which is to do with this very issue of welfare and transforming people’s lives.
This Government and the Conservative party are focused on helping people with multiple barriers to their life chances, or with difficulties in life, so that they can get back into work or secure their routes to employment, which the debate has touched on. Importantly, we are securing the right kind of opportunities for all individuals. That is the right thing to do and is what all hon. Members seek to do when they are elected as Members of Parliament to represent their constituents.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister when she is in full flow, as she often is. Will she clarify one point that arose earlier in the debate when the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) spoke about a “named contact”? I confirmed that, under universal credit, as I understood it, a named personal contact will not only act as a work coach, but also, according to the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People in a debate on 6 January,
“help them to deal with their individual case when they are navigating complicated benefit systems”.—[Official Report, 6 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 302.]
Will the Minister confirm that the named contact will supply the support necessary for people both to access their benefits and to get into work?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Claimants have access to personalised and dedicated support via a named work coach. Indeed, I have been to many of our jobcentres and sat in on universal credit interviews with claimants and work coaches. There is additional support available for claimants who require help with housing and other benefits, arrears payments or even budgeting.
It is therefore worth highlighting how much our welfare system has moved on, compared with the complex and distorted system that existed previously. Many years ago we had a number of benefits but, fundamentally, universal credit has rolled six benefits into one to streamline our system and to make it less complicated. The more complex a benefits system is, as we saw in the past, the more difficult it becomes to support individuals—they spend more time navigating the system than looking for or being supported into work.
All that goes back to some of the fundamental principles of the universal credit: it can support individuals and families not only in having a job, but in their journey to employment. Once they are in work and achieve sustained employment, they get support to secure long-term employment or to work more hours, which removes the barriers that existed under the previous system.
As we have said, universal credit supports individuals to make progress into work in particular. Yes, people are supported by the wages that they earn and benefits they receive at the same time, but, unlike in previous systems, we do not have the barrier of a 16-hour work requirement that may have caused people to restrict their working in order to avoid losing benefits. That is part of the changes brought in by universal credit, which stays with the claimants when they move into work and gradually reduces as their earnings increase. Therefore, people—in particular those on low incomes—do not lose their benefits all at once.
Lord Freud has said that there will be an automatic movement from tax credits to universal credit in two situations: “repartnering” and a
“new member joining the household”.
Will the Minister confirm that, if someone gets married or has a child, they will be moved from tax credits to universal credit?
We are clear that people being moved on to universal credit from tax credits will be supported and will not lose out. A fundamental principle of universal credit is that it removes barriers that may have existed and, importantly, it gives people the support they need when they come on to it. That is different from previous systems. It is different from tax credits, for example, which did not provide support for people when they wanted to increase their hours and earnings.
The previous system was fragmented and there was little incentive for people to take up even a few more hours of employment, but under universal credit people can benefit as soon as they start to work. It is a simpler system to understand. It comes back to the point that we have support in our jobcentres to help people to extend their hours of work or, when they are moved on to universal credit, to understand the system and support them.
That is different from what existed before. Under universal credit, no one will have to worry about the Government asking for money back because the real-time information system connects the employer and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on the number of hours worked. That is dramatically different from the situation when tax credits was introduced and millions of low-income families faced uncertainty about owing money back to HMRC at the end of the year. I am sure all Members have dealt with many examples of casework in that area.
I want to come on to the points raised, because I am conscious of time. There is evidence that universal credit is getting people into work and helping them stay in work. We have reviewed universal credit and, as a result of the support that people are given, we see that they spend 50% more time looking for work. We now see more universal credit claimants moving into employment compared with JSA claimants thanks to the focused support they get through their single point of contact, their work coach and other means.
Is not the point—surely this helped win us the general election—the message that no one should be better off out of work than in work? With the national living wage and higher thresholds, we have ensured that far more people who are in work will keep more of their money.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about people keeping more of the money that they earn rather than going through the process of having more taken away and then recycled through benefits such as tax credits. It is also worth reflecting on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale. He mentioned Northwich jobcentre, which has done a great deal of work to support people on universal credit. The award that the Secretary of State gave to staff members there shows how they are supporting people and transforming lives, which is fundamental to the welfare reforms that we are bringing in.
Many comments were made about universal credit in terms of the process, the roll-out and delays. I do not agree with some of the assessments and analysis given, and those with reference to the OBR in particular. We are rolling out universal credit as planned. Importantly, we no longer believe in the “big bang” model used in previous systems such as tax credits, which when introduced brought a great deal of chaos to jobcentres and the welfare system. We have adopted a test-and-learn approach to ensure safe and secure delivery and, importantly, to ensure that we can learn from individuals as they go through the process.
We have an enhanced digital service, which makes it clear immediately that a claim has not been progressed and that further information is needed. Jobcentre Plus and work coaches speak well of the system. I have seen it in action, with the immediate way in which data are exchanged and claims are processed. We have faster electronic payments to allow the Department to make payments via BACS on the same day to minimise further delays, because of course people need to be supported.
I do not agree with the comments made about the report from Citizens Advice, because we know that the research for that was based on anecdotal evidence from a small group of current UC claimants—the sample was less than 1%. Even Citizens Advice said that that was not representative of all claimants on universal credit.
We have universal support working alongside universal credit, which offers wraparound support for those who need it. That comes back to the points raised about no two individuals being the same. Situations are different for claimers and no one can count for the life circumstances of individuals, so universal support provides that wraparound support.
It sounds a little inconsistent to say that the Government did not want a big bang approach and want to learn from the roll-out, but then the Minister immediately dismissed one of the most useful and authoritative reports on the roll-out in our area. That report includes a number of cases that, based on my constituency surgeries, are spot on in the problems identified.
We are clear that we have an agile test-and-learn system. That is not a big bang approach. With all due respect to Labour Members, previous Governments went for the big bang approach on welfare systems and there were consequences: I highlight again the tax credits example.
I will wrap up, because I am conscious of time. In terms of incentives and support, from April we are increasing the amount of eligible childcare cost in universal credit to 85%. That will make a remarkable difference to families. Welfare is about much more than just giving people money. It is about removing barriers for individuals, understanding circumstances and giving people the support they need to get on in life.
I am deeply disappointed that the Employment Minister has not taken the debate seriously. Does she not accept that the language used by the Chancellor and indeed the Prime Minister is unacceptable? The trouble is, their words are at odds with the outcomes of the Government’s policies experienced by people in this country. She has not accepted that significant changes will remove people from the transitional protection arrangements. She should look at the Library briefing.
I ask the Minister to stop and think again. I ask her not to implement the cuts to work allowances. She should examine and address the real problems experienced out there in the pilot areas, as outlined so eloquently today.
The cuts in the work allowances remove the incentive to work. Transitional protection is not secure, because it is removed if one person leaves the household. There is more inequality and the dividing line is widening. The experience of people in our communities is worsening. There are examples of that in the report commissioned by the Minister’s Government, produced just a couple of weeks ago. She should read that report.
I ask the Minister to take seriously what is being experienced out there in the community and not to make the mess even worse. We are trying to help to improve roll-out across the country. She must examine and address the inequality and outcomes in the pilot areas before that. She should stop and address the problems, and not cut work allowances. Otherwise, there will surely be an outcry right across the country.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).