Skip to main content

Universal Credit: Food Poverty

Volume 631: debated on Monday 13 November 2017

5. If he will make an assessment of the effect of the length of waiting time to receive universal credit on levels of food poverty. (901836)

The availability of advances at the start of a universal credit claim ensures that those who need money immediately can access it. Our data shows that around half of claimants are receiving advances, and we have recently undertaken an exercise to improve awareness and access to this support.

The manager of a food bank in Lincoln has said that there is evidence of a clear correlation locally between the introduction of universal credit—in Lincoln, we have only had it partially so far; we are getting full roll-out in March—and an increase in the use of food banks. I ask for your comments on that, and do Government Members, including yourself, think it is acceptable that people in Lincoln and across this country are starving but for food banks because of waiting for universal credit payments.

I would not presume to say what is acceptable for the people of Lincoln—that is way above my pay grade—but the Secretary of State might wish to proffer an opinion on the matter, and we look forward to it with interest and anticipation.

This is why I repeatedly make the point that nobody needs to wait a long period of time for cash support under the universal credit system, and to suggest otherwise is causing unnecessary anxiety for those who are not on universal credit—and I think we should all discuss this in a slightly more responsible manner.

When I visited Newark’s jobcentre a week or so ago, I found that 80% of the jobs on offer were paid either four-weekly or monthly. Does the Secretary of State agree that we have to be careful not to patronise working people and not to prevent them from entering the workplace with as much ease as possible? The vast majority of jobs in my constituency are paid monthly.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Part of the purpose of universal credit is to close the gap between being out of work and being in work. Most jobs are paid monthly, and getting people used to that monthly system is a sensible approach. I also very much welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has visited a jobcentre, and I recommend that other hon. Members do so, to hear how universal credit is operating on the ground. I know that many hon. Members have found the experience to be extremely positive.

I will not ask Government Front Benchers for a fifth time whether I should believe the Secretary of State’s statement that the roll-out of universal credit in Birkenhead will be hunky-dory, or the opinion of the food bank, which says that it will need an extra 10 tonnes of food to prevent people from going hungry—if he cannot abide the word “starving”. We will have a debate on this on Thursday, which Members across the House have signed up to. This will be the first time that Conservative Members will have an opportunity to vote on whether they want to reform universal credit. Will the Secretary of State open that debate, hear it and take the message directly back to Cabinet, please?

The position that we have made clear for a long time is that we want to ensure that universal credit works. This is a test-and-learn system, and we are always looking at ways in which we can improve it, particularly for that first period. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House as a whole that universal credit is helping us to address the best way to deal with poverty, which is to ensure that people can get into work. That is the argument that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends will continue to make.

I, too, have visited jobcentres, and I know that work coaches are an integral part of the universal credit system. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how the new work coaches will assist jobseekers in my constituency in their eager quest to find employment?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is why we are recruiting work coaches up and down the United Kingdom to provide the personalised support that people need to help them get into work. I come back to my experience of meeting work coaches in jobcentres up and down the country. They believe that they have a system in place that is helping them to do more to transform lives, and that is hugely important.

One of the original objectives of universal credit was to reduce child poverty. In 2010, the Government said that UC would reduce child poverty by 350,000. That figure was revised to 150,000 in 2013, but last year, Ministers failed to produce a figure in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). What is the Government’s current estimate of how many children will be lifted out of poverty as a result of universal credit?

Universal credit gives people a better opportunity to work, and it gives parents, including single parents, greater support with childcare. I come back to the example I gave the House a moment ago. Someone who had previously been on income support and unable to get help with childcare can now get that help and get on to the employment ladder, thanks to universal credit. That is what universal credit is delivering.

That was a really disappointing answer. As we have already heard, the Child Poverty Action Group published data last week predicting that 1 million more children will be pushed into poverty as a result of universal credit cuts, 300,000 of whom will be under the age of five. Another objective of universal credit was always to make work pay. Given that four out of 10 people on UC are in work and will be on average £2,600 a year worse off, when will the Government admit that UC is not fit for purpose or fit to meet the challenges of a new labour market and stop its roll-out?

May I just point out that child poverty is down since 2010? I think the hon. Lady has rather given the game away: she does not want to pause and fix universal credit; she wants to scrap it. She wants to rewind to a system under which claimants faced marginal deduction rates of over 90% and had to cope with a multitude of benefits. We had a benefits system that was not an aid but an impediment to working people and that trapped people in poverty and dependency. That is what universal credit will bring an end to.