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Universal Credit

Volume 629: debated on Monday 9 October 2017

Payment in arrears has been in the design of universal credit since 2010, and was implemented by the coalition Government in 2014. Our latest data show that more than 80% of new claimants are being paid in full and on time, which is a significant improvement on the position earlier this year, and that more than 90% receive some payment before the end of their first assessment period.

Universal credit is due to be rolled out in Torbay in May 2018. What further assurances can the Secretary of State give that resources will be made available to ensure that people in my constituency who make claims under the scheme will receive their payments on time?

We are ensuring that sufficient resources are available in jobcentres. It is worth pointing out that we have made significant progress on universal credit timeliness this year—as I have mentioned, more than 80% of new claimants received their full payment on time, and more than 90% received part of their payment—and we expect to build on that positive trend. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming universal credit roll-out to Torbay next May.

The problem is that “on time” means after a six-week delay, and that delay, as the Secretary of State knows well, is causing immense hardship up and down the country. Last week I met Maria Amos, who came within an inch of suicide because she had to live literally on nothing but water for six weeks, irreparably damaging her health. The Secretary of State can choose to ignore organisations such as Citizens Advice, but will he at least take some notice when Sir John Major calls for a pause?

What I would say—this is exactly the point I made earlier—is that I do not believe that anybody should be left without any support for six weeks when they do not have savings or an alternative source of income, which is why it is important that advances are available within the system. The majority of claimants now make use of advances. We need to ensure that that is properly communicated to claimants. I will certainly do that, as I am sure will all Members of this House.

My constituency was one of the first to introduce universal credit, and it went on to full service in 2016. Staff in my constituency tell me that they are very familiar with the new system. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to ensure that what we have learnt from the pathfinder jobcentres is quickly rolled out to those now taking up the new system?

We must constantly learn from experience—this is about testing, learning and improving. We must ensure that awareness of the advances system is high, and clearly that has increased in recent months. My hon. Friend makes a point about jobcentre staff, and my experience of meeting such people up and down the country is that they are enthused by what universal credit can do for claimants to help them to get into work.

Twenty-four per cent. of new universal credit claimants wait longer than six weeks to be paid in full. Only one advance payment is allowed for a new universal credit claim, and the maximum award is 50% of the claimant’s estimated benefit, so how will advance payments really prevent families from getting into debt while waiting for their first universal credit payment?

The timeliness of payments has improved since the figures that the hon. Lady cites were compiled, and we continue to improve it. As I have said, 90% of claimants receive some support within the six-week period. Advances are an important part of the system to ensure that people get the support they need. It is incumbent on all of us not to worry people that they will be left without any support whatsoever, but to draw their attention to the fact that they can access funds when they need to—generally waiting no more than five working days or, if necessary, receiving them straight away.

According to the Trussell Trust, food bank referrals have increased at more than double the national average in areas where the universal credit full service has been rolled out. Does the Secretary of State agree that the social security system should prevent people from having to visit food banks, rather than exacerbating need?

We are very keen to ensure that the advances system means that people can access funds so that they do not have to visit food banks. In recent months we have seen an increased use of that system, because we have done more to publicise it, and I want to go further on that. I think that is an important part of a system that, when we step back and look at it, is ensuring that more people are able to work and to progress in work, and that should not be forgotten.