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Universal Credit: Advance Payments

Volume 631: debated on Monday 13 November 2017

2. Whether he has made an assessment of the potential merits of reducing the repayment rate on advance payments of universal credit. (901833)

Advances are interest free and repayable over six months for those making a new claim, or 12 months for those who were on benefits before claiming universal credit. Our objective is to strike the right balance between supporting claimants with their living expenses and ensuring they have the ability to repay the advance.

The Secretary of State knows that the guidance states that 40% of the standard allowance can be used to repay an advanced payment, and that 40% can be deducted to pay back creditors. It is not clear from the guidance whether a claimant might end up paying both, meaning that they will have more than 40% deducted from their award. Will the Secretary of State clarify the maximum amount repayable? Does he recognise that, as it stands, this is a charter for loan sharks?

The deduction from subsequent payments that take into account an advance does not apply to the 40%. We have to remember that it is an advance. An advance gives people greater flexibility to access universal credit early, so they are able to cope during the initial assessment period.

We hear a lot from Opposition Members about universal credit, but we have to remember that it is a much more effective system at getting people into work. Nationally, 113 people move into work under universal credit for every 100 under the previous system. My constituency, which was a pathfinder for universal credit, is seeing very substantial falls in the number of people claiming. Is it not a better system all together?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Universal credit is helping people to get into work and to progress in work. It is also clear that people on universal credit are spending more time looking for work than those on legacy benefits. It is really important that we all work to ensure the success of universal credit. We believe it will result in 250,000 more jobs—something worth achieving.

What the Secretary of State has repeated again this afternoon falls into the trap of treating everyone on universal credit as if they were out of work. Surely one big issue is the problem of applying conditionality to people who already have jobs?

The point about universal credit is that it operates when people are out of work and when they are in work. What we will not get is what happens with the legacy system: people worrying about working extra hours in case they find that their claim is closed. That holds people back from progressing. I believe that in-work conditionality has a role to play within our system to ensure that people progress. There is an issue in terms of people who are in work but are none the less receiving substantial support from the taxpayer. We want them to be able to progress to be less dependent on the state. That is what universal credit will deliver.

We have changed the guidance that applies in jobcentres on advanced payments and increased publicity in jobcentres. I visited a jobcentre in Bedford and saw myself how the operation of advances is working. We believe there will be an increase in take-up, which will ensure that people receive the support they need. The suggestion that people under universal credit will face weeks and weeks and weeks without any financial support whatever is, I am afraid, scaremongering. That is what is happening under the system as it is operating now.

Yesterday, the Scottish Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay, wrote to the Chancellor ahead of his Budget appealing for universal credit to be fixed, and today 114 academics published an open letter in The Daily Telegraph criticising the advance payments system and echoing Derek Mackay’s call to reduce the first payment wait time, move to a twice-monthly payment system and reverse cuts to work allowances. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Chancellor should act?

On universal credit and early payments, of course the Scottish Government have flexibility, which they are exercising, but that means that at the end of the second assessment period people get only 50% of what they are entitled to, the rest being deferred and paid in the third assessment period, which strikes me as making the situation more difficult, not easier, for claimants, although it is for Scotland to decide how it wants to do it.

If the Secretary of State is looking for the Scottish Government to show him how it is done, he should devolve universal credit in full, and we will get on with it. Has he seen the report from the Child Poverty Action Group and the Institute for Public Policy Research saying that cuts to universal credit will leave an extra 1 million children in poverty? Is 1 million more children in poverty not evidence enough for the UK Government to reverse their cuts to work allowances and make work pay?

My point was that the Scottish Government are delivering universal credit differently and in a way that I think is worse than the situation in England and Wales. The point about universal credit is that it will help people into work. I will give one brief example: I heard of an account last week of a single mother on income support not previously able to claim for her childcare costs but now able to do so under universal credit. She is taking up a job, working eight or nine hours a week, which she could not do previously—a first step on the ladder. That is an example of what universal credit is delivering.

A recent report by the Resolution Foundation using new data based on bank transactions shows that 58%—the majority—of new claimants moving on to universal credit as a result of leaving employment in the last year were paid either fortnightly or weekly in their previous job, which is a far higher percentage than in the economy on average, where about one in four of all jobs is paid fortnightly or weekly. The Government should ensure that no claimant has to wait more than 10 days, so will they end the six-week wait and ensure that universal credit mirrors the world of work for those who claim it?

Universal credit is replacing tax credits, and under tax credits 57% of claimants are paid monthly and 12% four-weekly—nearly 70%—so if we are to have a system that works for everybody, it has to be a monthly system.