I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the five project assessment reviews, carried out into universal credit between 2012 and 2015 by the Government’s Major Projects Authority now known as the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, and any subsequent project assessment reviews carried out into universal credit by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority between 1 January 2016 and 30 November 2017 that have been provided to Her Majesty’s Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions, be provided by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to the Work and Pensions Committee.
The purpose of today’s debate on universal credit, the fourth in nearly eight weeks, is to seek the release of the project assessment review reports on universal credit to enable this House to scrutinise the Government’s flagship social security programme.
As some of my colleagues are saying, we are asking for the documents now. We are pleased the Government finally acknowledged that their universal credit programme is not fit for purpose, and now we need to understand the extent to which it is not fit for purpose through the publication of these reports.
I wish to start by giving some context to today’s debate and then set out why it is so important that we have access to these project assessment reviews. For many months now, Labour has been calling on the Government to pause and fix universal credit. This is a direct response to the mounting evidence that the full service programme is driving hardship in the areas where it has been rolled out. I am sure hon. Members from across the House will now be aware of the figures, but the realities of the misery being caused by this programme bear repeating: half of those in rent arrears under UC report that their arrears started after they made their claim; 79% of those in debt are recognised as having priority debts by Citizens Advice, putting them at higher risk of bailiffs and evictions; and two in five have no money to pay creditors at the end of the month.
Is my hon. Friend aware of research published today by the Residential Landlords Association on this point, which found that 73% of landlords remain reluctant to let properties to people on UC? That is vital context. We need to understand what the Government know about the pressure on landlords in the context of UC.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes such a pertinent point. I was going on to say that demand for emergency food parcels in areas where UC has been rolled out is up 30%. Disabled people, single parents and families with children have been particularly affected. Initially, the Government’s impact assessments said that UC would reduce child poverty by 350,000, but then it was to be by 150,000. Now, the Child Poverty Action Group has estimated that by 2022 an additional 1 million children will have been pushed into poverty by as a direct result of cuts to UC. We have identified three drivers for these widespread problems: policy design issues; implementation flaws; and funding cuts.
As I have mentioned, at the recent Budget the Chancellor was forced to respond to Labour’s concerns about UC, as well as concerns from across the House—I acknowledge everybody’s work on this. As I said in my response to the Secretary of State’s statement on this, the measures in the Budget are welcome, not least in finally acknowledging that UC was not fit for purpose. But they are not nearly urgent enough, as they do not come into effect until next year; they do not address key issues, such as the assessment and payment periods or the single household payment; and fundamentally they do not redress the cuts and restore work incentives. Only £1 in every £10 that has been cut has been restored. Though he refused to pause the programme, as we had demanded, the roll-out of UC has been slowed considerably, meaning that the roll-out to all jobcentres will now not be completed until December 2018.
That brings us to the project assessment review reports and today’s motion. Five reviews on UC were carried out by the then Major Projects Authority between 2012 and 2015. As Members know, such reviews are independent ones that provide assurance to major projects. They contain in-depth analysis of the implementation of the project, including detailed assessment of the risks faced and the progress that has been achieved against the Government’s objective: to deliver their flagship social security programme, universal credit. Although these review reports have never been made public, the National Audit Office’s report on UC in 2013 stated that
“the Major Projects Authority’s project assessment review expressed serious concerns about the Department having no detailed ‘blueprint’ and transition plan for Universal Credit. In response to these concerns, the head of the Major Projects Authority was asked to conduct a 13-week ‘reset’ between February and May 2013”
In other words, it was clear that all was not well even then. The announcement of a “reset” was buried in the MPA annual report of that year, accompanied by a single sentence of explanation. This is how UC has limped on ever since.
To try to uncover the extent of the issues, freedom of information requests were submitted to the Government to access these project assessment reviews; but they were refused. The doughty campaigners appealed to the Information Commissioner, and on 30 August this year, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that this information must be disclosed by the Department in full, with the exception of the names of the civil servants named in the reports. The ICO’s judgment is important and worth reflecting on here.
My local authority, Wigan Council, was part of the pilot for UC, which subsequently caused rent arrears, payment delays and increasing financial pressures on the local authority. Does my hon. Friend agree that if these project assessment reviews had been released when the Information Commissioner ruled, the Government could have paused the flawed UC system, thus preventing undue hardship for my constituents?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes such as a good point. This is what we have been calling for all along. We need to have an in-depth understanding of what the real issues are. We have outlined a number of those, but it is clear that the programme contains deep flaws. If we are serious about resolving these problems—I believe the Secretary of State is genuine in his offer to do so—we must understand exactly what the extent of the problems are.
The hon. Lady referred to the decision of the Information Commissioner, rightly saying that there was a limitation in that the names of non-senior officials were not disclosed. However, there were two other things in that decision. First, there was an acceptance that it was reasonable to argue that routine disclosure of PAR reports would reduce their effectiveness. Secondly, and more importantly, it was stated that they were disclosed because six months had passed since the reports had been put together and therefore officials could feel that they had been able to give free and frank advice. But six months has not passed since the date of the reports that the hon. Lady has requested in this motion.
I make no apologies for raising this point repeatedly in this place. In a rural and remote constituency such as mine, the lack of ability for people to link up online is surely impeding any roll-out of UC. I am sure the hon. Lady recognises that, and the issue has to be taken on by Her Majesty’s Government. Meanwhile, it is of great concern in my constituency.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Again, we need to know the extent of the issues. I am sure the information system is one of those concerns. The Information Commissioner described the PARs as giving
“a much greater insight than any information already available about the Universal Credit Programme.”
I am going to finish this point. The ICO describes the programme as having
“been subject to a number of high-profile failings”.
In its judgment, the ICO weighed the public interest carefully and determined that the balance supports disclosure of these five reports, not least because UC could affect up to 11 million people, by the estimation of the ICO, with nearly 7 million relying on the programme once it is fully rolled out. The commissioner noted that the Department for Work and Pensions had not complied with the law in its handling of the original request for information and gave it 35 days to release this information into the public domain, with a failure to comply resulting in a written certification to the High Court. So we cannot underestimate the importance of this ruling.
Nobody is more interested than I am in universal credit and in its being a success. Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that even if we do get the reports, because the roll-out has been very slow—I am glad it has—some of them are really old and the system has been significantly improved since then? They might give us a window into the past, but I sense that they will not give the opportunity that she is hoping for to identify flaws in the system, because I think we have fixed a lot of them.
Well, where to start with that? First, unless the hon. Gentleman has a crystal ball and has been able to read the reports, I do not think he is in a position to say that they will reveal nothing else. Secondly, on the stats he mentioned, I think there is enough on the record to refute those points.
My right hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. We must have greater openness and transparency about this and other Government schemes. For universal credit especially, the effect it is having on people now means that we must do the right thing. As I said, the ruling must be complied with.
I am just going to carry on for a moment, if that is all right.
This is the second time in two years that I have brought to the House’s attention Information Commissioner rulings concerning the DWP that the Government have tried to thwart. The first time was when the Government refused to publish data on the number of people who had died after being found fit for work. Those data were shocking and vindicated those who had pushed for their release for several years. They gave cold comfort for the families and friends of those who had died and to those who were still going through the assessment process.
I appreciate that neither universal credit nor the project assessment review reports were initiated under the tenure of the current Secretary of State, but I do urge him to rethink and publish the reports forthwith. Taxpayers’ money must not be used to hide the Government’s embarrassment.
When the only impact assessment of universal credit we have seen was published five years ago this month, it committed to a post-implementation review within five years and said:
“A comprehensive evaluation programme is being developed for Universal Credit”
to inform and evaluate long-term policy. Are we not now trying to get some crumbs of the evidence the Government committed to providing five years ago and should have provided?
The hon. Lady is being generous in taking interventions. On the point about transparency, each and every single one of us can at any time visit jobcentres and talk to staff and claimants. I have done that three times and brought a Minister with me to visit, too. The overwhelming response I have had is that universal credit is positive and is making a genuine difference.
I thoroughly agree with the hon. Gentleman that our seeking the publication of these reports does not detract from the valuable work that jobcentre staff are doing under difficult circumstances.
The Information Commissioner’s Office found that
“the withheld information would provide valuable insight into the management of the UCP”—
universal credit programme—
“and allow for greater understanding of what the UCP did to identify and tackle the issues that it encountered.”
It found that the reports we are discussing
“provide a distinct insight into the governance of the UCP and allow for even greater transparency.”
That is in addition to the findings in National Audit Office, Select Committee and Office for Budget Responsibility reports.
The Government’s Budget announcements were a welcome step in the right direction, but not nearly enough. They still need to pause the roll-out of universal credit, not just slow it down, and they need to release the project assessment reviews so that we can fix the multitude of issues that still exist. The reports will help us to understand what needs fixing and how.
I am sorry, but I am going to continue.
If the Government are so sure that a slow-down will suffice, that they can continue to ignore work incentives, that no changes are necessary before Christmas and that a five-week wait is sufficient, why will they not publish their own workings, as the Information Commissioner has instructed? It is a clear matter of public interest that the Government abide by the ruling of the Information Commissioner and publish these five assessment reviews, and any others in the subsequent period. That will allow the House the proper scrutiny it deserves and shine a light on the implementation failures of the universal credit programme, which have caused so much hardship for so many. I call on the Government to abide by that ruling now.
Let me deal first with the motion. The challenge for any Government—and, one would think, for any aspiring Government—is to strike the right balance between transparency, and encouraging candid evaluation and debate. There is a reason why project assessment reports commissioned by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, and formerly the Major Projects Authority, have not been released by Governments. The Public Accounts Committee has already recognised that there is a need to protect information that is commercially sensitive, and for there to be a safe space for candid evaluation and debate. The assessments we are discussing represent an important period of reflection and, by their very nature, are useful only if everyone involved is able to offer their views freely and frankly to evaluate fairly the project on which they are working. Ultimately, this is about protecting the interests of the taxpayer.
Successive Governments have continued to improve project delivery. The PAC supported the creation of the Major Projects Authority, and its objectives of strengthening project assurance and improving the transparency of information on the costs, risks and performance of major Government projects. The PAC recognised the challenges that the Government face in improving project delivery within government. Supporting all that is the rigorous scrutiny of individual projects by the National Audit Office, with full access to all papers.
Parliament has consistently directed the Government to manage projects professionally, more efficiently and effectively, and with due consideration for commercial imperatives. Consequently, I hope there is a consensus that the disclosure of information beyond the existing well-established and robust transparency policy that the PAC supports must not undermine the integrity and validity of the review process, risk weakening our commercial negotiating position, or expose us to possible legal challenge.
The Secretary of State refers to the National Audit Office, which he will know at one stage characterised the universal credit project as having a “good news” culture in which staff were not allowed to acknowledge and draw attention to problems. Does he agree that that should not have prevailed? Will he reassure the House that that culture has been dealt with?
I very much agree about the importance of a culture in which problems can be identified and passed up the command chain, with that system understood across the board. Clearly, when that does not happen, something needs to be addressed. When I entered this House in 2005—the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister at the time—we were wrestling with the problems of the tax credit fiasco, which was causing misery for vast numbers of people. If Members want an example of a project that failed because there was not a willingness to identify problems early, that is it.
The Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s policy that review reports remain confidential is founded on the position that an effective and trusted system of assurance in government is in the public interest, and that the premature disclosure of review reports undermines that public interest. Those considerations must be balanced with the desire for transparency and parliamentary scrutiny. In exceptional cases, sharing information with a Select Committee, in confidence, can be appropriate.
The motion refers to a number of reports, many of which date back some years, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) pointed out. To disclose those papers without subsequent reports showing how well universal credit has progressed would give a partial picture. In line with the motion, I will provide, by the time the House rises for the Christmas recess, the reports directly to the Work and Pensions Committee. Let me point out to the shadow Secretary of State that her motion does not require us to publish these reports or to lay them before the House. Specifically, it says that those reports should be provided to the Committee. In those circumstances, it is acceptable for us to do so. As is customary, I will need to consider redacting any appropriate material, such as the names of junior officials and information that is commercially sensitive. I wish to emphasise that it is the Government’s view that this is an exceptional request that will be agreed to on an exceptional basis, and does not set any precedent for future action. Against that background, I shall provide the reports to the Select Committee on a confidential basis. In those circumstances, I hope and expect that the documents will not be disclosed further.
The Secretary of State has hit on a very important distinction between the motion that we are debating today and the one about Brexit documents. That motion said that the documents should be made available to the Brexit Committee and then laid before the House. Today’s motion does not say that; it says that the reports should be given to the Work and Pension Committee. We are not a Committee of Privy Counsellors. We have never been in a position like this before so, if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to develop this theme, because we are in totally new constitutional waters. The motion, which has now been accepted—we can all go home in a minute, or bring on the next business—is different, and puts us in a different constitutional position than the one that was outlined for the Brexit Committee.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I can only assume that those who tabled the motion worded it carefully. They chose its wording on the basis that it was about providing information to the Work and Pensions Committee. As I have said, I do believe that, in these circumstances and for the reasons that I have set out, the Select Committee will treat this matter confidentially, but he is absolutely right to draw attention to that distinction.
I thank the Secretary of State for pointing out the collective amnesia of some about the fiasco of tax credits, although I am absolutely sure that many Conservative Members have not forgotten it. I was told by my Jobcentre Plus staff, who have been training Basingstoke Jobcentre Plus staff, that this extremely agile system allows them to feed in impacts and changes, and to listen and to learn. The Government are doing this because it is right for everybody.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. That is exactly how we are rolling out universal credit, which is why we are able to make changes and why the process is being done gradually. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire pointed out, these reports go back some years, since when there have been a number of changes. At one level, I would love to be able to publish the most recent IPA report because it makes it very clear that we were right to expand the roll-out of universal credit in the autumn. I am not publishing it, however, so in effect, I am tying one hand behind my back, because I respect the principle that these reports as a whole should not be published. None the less, in accordance with the motion, I am prepared to provide the reports to the Select Committee.
The Secretary of State is very generous in giving way. He says that he is unhappy that he cannot publish the most up-to-date report, because it would give the Government—I am paraphrasing here—a glowing report card. I wonder what was assessed. Is he not aware that housing providers, housing associations and others say that every single one of their tenants who has moved on to universal credit is now in arrears or has increased rent arrears? Is he not aware of what is actually happening on the ground? I would like him to publish that report, because it would contradict everything that all of us on the Opposition Benches are seeing in our communities.
Let me turn to the substance of universal credit then. Universal credit is the biggest modernisation of the welfare state in a generation. The old system traps people in a cycle of benefits dependency, incentivising working only 16 hours or fewer a week and preventing people from reaching their potential. Universal credit frees people from those hours limits and lets them keep more of what they earn. Under universal credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the previous system. Once universal credit is fully rolled out, it will boost employment by around 250,000, which is equivalent to 400 extra jobs per constituency. It is improving the welfare system and the lives of those who use it.
My right hon. Friend was talking about transparency. One thing that we do know for certain is that, in each constituency, 400 people are able to go back to work when they are on universal credit. The new system helps people back into work. There is nothing more demoralising for people than to be told to lower their gaze, stay in line, stay on welfare, and not even to try to go for a job, because the risk is too great that if they try to secure a job, they might lose their benefit. If people lose their job, the palaver of getting their benefits back can be incredibly demoralising and time-consuming.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One problem with the legacy system is that it does not cope with those people whose hours might fluctuate below and above 16 hours. The difficulties of moving from one regime to another can discourage people from taking extra hours. That is why it is so disappointing that we do not have cross-party support for these reforms. The Labour party has consistently called on us to pause and fix universal credit. It has done it again today, but in doing so, it has, on more than one occasion, resorted to scaremongering. It is increasingly clear that when it says pause and fix, it means scrap and rewind to the failed system of the past.
If the Minister is so convinced of all the facts about universal credit that he claims, why does he not release the post-implementation review that the Department was apparently putting together and give us the full details of how universal credit is working, instead of relying on a study of a tiny sample of single people without jobs that was conducted more than two years ago, before the cuts, in order to make these wild claims?
What we have released is analytically robust. It enables us to compare with a matched sample, which becomes harder to do as there are fewer single people on jobseeker’s allowance. The reality is that the evidence points to universal credit getting people back into work quicker and ensuring that people are more likely to progress in work.
We have had a number of debates about the roll-out of universal credit throughout the autumn. Government Ministers, including the Secretary of State, said from the outset and subsequently that the system was working fine and going very well indeed, but they recently made a number of concessions. If everything was working so well, why did they make any concessions at all?
Is it not also critical that we send out clear and accurate messages? Can we put to rest the myth that if a claim is made today, it will not be possible to get benefits before Christmas? Is it not the case that advance payments mean that people can get the payments they need on time? This is a humane system.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. He highlights just one of the examples of what we have heard from the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. She said in The Times on 28 November that new claimants would not receive any money before Christmas, and that anyone claiming universal credit in 2018 would
“wait five weeks for any support”.
That is simply not accurate.
Under universal credit, any claimants can access support within days. Advances are currently available at 50%. They will be available at 100% in the new year, effectively providing a full payment within five days if that is what the claimant wants. Let us draw a contrast. If people were going on to jobseeker’s allowance, they might enrol several weeks before Christmas but receive no money until after Christmas.
The Secretary of State has announced the partial publication of these reports. Of course, the fact remains that there is a live case from the Information Commissioner’s Office. Will he confirm whether he will release these reports to John Slater, who has campaigned for them for two years?
We will continue with due process on that. I have said today that I will comply with the motion, which requires us not to publish the reports, but to provide them to the Work and Pensions Committee.
Let me give another example of scaremongering. On Friday, The Daily Mirror ran a piece about a woman who had been scared by all the media and political attacks on universal credit. She was so worried about her universal credit payments being stopped that she felt that she would have to cancel Christmas. Thankfully, we looked at her case. It turned out that the family’s universal credit payment for December would be £20 lower than that for November, but that the family’s total income and earnings alongside universal credit would be higher this month than last month. The conclusion is clear: the Opposition’s irresponsible scaremongering is causing unnecessary anxiety for people who are getting support from the system as they should. Let me give another example.
I will come to that one.
The shadow Secretary of State has promoted the BBC “Money Box” piece that suggested that 100,000 people would lose their benefits over Christmas. The BBC subsequently apologised for the story and admitted that it was misleading. Will the hon. Lady do the same? I am happy to give way to her if she wants me to. She also suggested in The Times that only 600,000 people would receive the housing benefit transitional payment. I was clear in the House on 23 November that all of the 2.3 million people currently on housing benefit would be eligible. Will the hon. Lady therefore retract her assertion?
Let us not forget—my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has clearly not forgotten—that the Leader of the Opposition suggested that Gloucester City Homes had
“evicted one in eight of…its tenants”—[Official Report, 11 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 324.]
One in eight is 650 people. In fact, eight people on universal credit had been evicted by Gloucester City Homes, and all had significant debt arrears before universal credit was introduced. One had moved out of their property 18 months earlier and another had moved abroad. I hope that the shadow Secretary of State will take the opportunity to correct the record and apologise on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition.
We have had a number of conversations about the roll-out of universal credit, which in fact started in my constituency six or seven weeks ago when we first debated the issue. Some 148 claimants have gone through the system in my constituency. I speak to them regularly, and I also speak to everybody involved in dealing with vulnerable people around my constituency. So far, universal credit has been successful, and people very much welcome what was done in the Budget to ensure that as we change the system, it will be flexible, and something that looks after people positively and helps them to move back into work. I thank the Secretary of State for what he has done.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the experience in her constituency. Members of Parliament have a role in ensuring that people are aware of the advances system and the support that is available. That is the responsible role for us to play, instead of trying to scare people with concerns that do not necessarily materialise.
Since 2013—as leader of the Highland Council and then as an MP—I have been reporting the difficulties of rent arrears. Rent arrears with the Highland Council are now approaching £2 million, and a number of people have been put directly into rent arrears due to universal credit. We have invited the Secretary of State to come to Inverness to hear about this directly. In the light of what he said, will he now come to the highlands and hear about the experiences of rent arrears since 2013?
Let me assure the House that I visit many parts of the country to see how universal credit is operating. The response I get back, which is consistent with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), is that it is working on the ground, providing more support to people, and giving jobcentres better tools with which to help people into work.
Let me make a little bit of progress.
In the autumn Budget, the Chancellor announced a comprehensive package of improvements to put more money into claimants’ hands earlier and to ensure that there is extra support for those who need it most. This month, new guidance will be issued to staff to ensure that claimants in the private rented sector who currently have their housing benefit paid directly to landlords will be offered that option when they join universal credit. In January, we are making changes to advances by extending the recovery period from six months to 12 months, and increasing the amount of support a claimant can receive to up to 100% interest-free. In addition, from spring next year, we will be making it possible to apply for an advance online. From February, we are removing the seven-day waiting period. From April, we are providing an additional two weeks of payment to new claimants already receiving housing benefit as they transition on to universal credit, which, for the avoidance of doubt, will benefit 2.3 million people.
I know that I am beginning to sound like a stuck record, but the Secretary of State talks about doing things online. I am a new Member—I am not a Privy Counsellor; I do not go to these smart Committees—but I still have the problem that there are people in my vast and remote constituency who cannot go online. This is a big problem. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Scottish Government about trying to get broadband rolled out exactly where we need it?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about broadband roll-out, which obviously, as he knows, is not my responsibility. I understand that there are significant concerns about how that is progressing. It is the case that jobcentres provide the ability for people to complete forms, and they can also provide information about the availability of wi-fi.
My right hon. Friend touched on the measures announced in the Budget. Does he agree that this £1.5 billion has been found to prioritise help where it is most needed in our society? Given the pressures on the public finances, that demonstrates that this Government really care about getting this right for the people who really need it.
My hon. Friend puts it very well. We are determined to deliver this policy successfully and to ensure that it helps more people to have better opportunities. That is what universal credit is about. That is why we have allocated £8 million over four years to conduct a number of tests and trials to support the development of evidence about what works to help people progress in work—this is about not just getting into work, but progressing in work.
This comprehensive package responds to concerns raised inside and outside the House. Our clear objective is to ensure that as many people as possible get the opportunity to work and to maximise their potential to better their circumstances. This is Labour Members’ last Opposition day of the year, and what have they achieved?
We are not publishing reports, but we have been able to highlight the inaccurate scaremongering by the Labour party. We have underlined the benefits of the policies announced in the Budget. We have underlined the wholehearted support for universal credit among Conservative Members, and we have further confirmed Labour’s position as a roadblock to welfare reform—seeking not to pause and fix, but to scrap and rewind.
As the evidence builds that universal credit is positively transforming lives, it will become clearer and clearer that Labour Front Benchers are on the wrong side of the argument. So I say this to whomever had the idea for the debate: thank you, because I welcome the chance to argue the case for universal credit—a reform that puts work at the heart of our welfare system; a reform that increases opportunity; and a reform that will positively transform the lives of millions of our fellow citizens.
I will endeavour to abide by your request to be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I thank the Labour party for choosing today’s debate topic. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on her speech, and I am grateful to her for our discussions ahead of today’s debate. Of late, our parties have been united in our critical but constructive opposition to the UK Government’s roll-out of universal credit not just here but up the road.
To give credit where it is due, this is an excellent motion for a debate, and it has forced the welcome partial publication just announced by the Secretary of State. The only criticism I would make is that it should not just be the Work and Pensions Committee that sees the reports. I would have preferred to see at the end of the motion the words “for public consumption”. Why keep these reports private and just to the Select Committee? The UK Government reckon that this announcement in some way gets them out of hot water, but it changes nothing. The reports that are being requested by this House for public consumption are the DWP’s assessment of how the roll-out of universal credit is progressing. They are like the Department’s scorecard for universal credit.
Campaigner John Slater has been challenging the UK Government to release these reports for almost two years. In August this year, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that the UK Government had to release the reports. In its ruling, it said it agreed that
“the DWP is correct that section 36 of the Act is engaged, but finds that the balance of the public interest supports disclosure of the requested information.”
Absolutely, and I will be coming to the cost to the taxpayer later in my speech.
It is also worth noting that the ICO gave the DWP a rap over the knuckles for not replying to Mr Slater
“within such time as is reasonable”.
However, for me, paragraph 38 of the ICO ruling is the most important and sums up why the UK Government must publish the reports in full. It says:
“The Commissioner’s decision is that the balance of the public interest favours disclosure of all of the PAR reports. The age of the reports show that the need to protect free and frank advice is lessened…the reports provide a much greater insight than any information already available about the UCP…there are strong arguments for transparency and accountability for a programme which may affect 11 million UK citizens and process billions of pounds, which has had numerous reported failings in its governance. These arguments outweigh the need to protect advice provided in the now historic PAR reports.”
Essentially, the UK Government said these reports should be kept confidential to protect those who wrote them, but the ICO disagreed and said not only that the UK Government should publish, but that the names of the senior civil servants involved should not be redacted.
The ICO gave the DWP 35 calendar days from its judgment, which was on 30 August, or the Department would face being taken to court. The Secretary of State has essentially confirmed to me just now that it is his intention to take this matter to the High Court. Therefore, the position we are now in is that the UK Government are happy to see taxpayers’ money being spent to have this issue heard at the High Court. A Tory Government who say there is no money to properly fix universal credit find the money to go to court to stop the publication of reports on universal credit. It really makes me wonder what they are so desperate to hide.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that there is a worrying pattern? During a campaign led by myself and other hon. Members from Glasgow to save city jobcentres, the same Department refused to publish equality impact assessments on those closures.
Absolutely. The Department does not have a very good record in this regard.
If the reports were as glowing about universal credit as Ministers have been—indeed, just now—surely Ministers would have released them publicly. Perhaps we will find that, actually, the UK Government know just how bad UC is in its current stripped-back and cut-to-ribbons form. Perhaps the reports will confirm what all the expert charities and MPs from all corners of this House have been saying. Perhaps they will confirm the need for the UK Government to finally invest in universal credit and properly fix it.
The SNP is not opposed to the idea of universal credit—we have said that for a number of years. We gave universal credit a cautious welcome when it was first mooted: a welcome because the idea of simplifying the social security system was good, and cautious because it is a Tory Government in charge of social reform.
The “cautious” element has proven to be canny. The universal credit we see before us now is unrecognisable from that first presented in the early days of the coalition Government. Work allowances have been decimated, housing benefit stripped and child tax credits cut and given a disgusting two-child limit. The rape clause is surely the ultimate low of any social reform in these isles since the poll tax. The resulting campaign by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) deservedly saw her named as the best Scot at Westminster at the recent Herald politician of the year awards. Unison and some Labour MPs are now looking to pick up that campaign, in support of the work my hon. Friend has been leading for 18 months, and that is welcome.
All these cuts to aspects of universal credit have been compounded by the welfare cap and, of course, the benefits freeze. From expert charity after expert charity and think-tank after think-tank, every time we see a public report on universal credit, it is damning. Even now, the Government accept that universal credit is failing in its current form. The Chancellor accepted that when he made his Budget announcements on minor changes to universal credit—minor but welcome first steps to fix it.
The Government have taken pelters on this for months. The SNP Scottish Government, SNP MPs, Labour MPs and even Tory MPs have been calling for a pause and fix—and it is the “fix” part that is so important. Sadly, the well-trailed intervention from the Chancellor does not go far enough or fast enough. It does not address the main issues with universal credit, which are not just about payment delays but payment cuts. Universal credit was vaunted as the benefit to make work pay, and it could have gone some way towards doing that. However, work allowances—the money recipients can keep as they return to work—have been cut to ribbons. Coupled with this decade being the worst for 210 years in terms of wage growth, we clearly see that the UK Government’s narrative is a faint hope rather than any policy-driven ambition.
Universal credit is about making recipients pay—pay for the economic failure of this Government and pay for the failure of austerity. Making work pay is important. The stagnation of wages was cited by former Social Mobility Commission chair Alan Milburn as he resigned from it. He also said that the UK Government have been so preoccupied with Brexit that they do
“not seem to have the necessary bandwidth to ensure the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality”.
Recipients of universal credit are being let down by this Government as they seek expert advice and support. Citizens Advice Scotland is concerned about the removal of implicit consent for it to act on clients behalf on UC.
I have been working very closely with Citizens Advice throughout this whole campaign. Is it not true that Citizens Advice in Scotland and in England have both welcomed the announcement that was made in the Budget and said that it is an excellent improvement?
I just welcomed it, but I said that it does not go far enough and needs to go further. Citizens Advice Scotland is concerned about the removal of implicit consent for it to act on clients’ behalf on UC. Clients are now required to provide explicit consent and therefore to be present when their cases are being discussed. We, as MPs, have implicit consent—why has it not been extended to advocates like our local CABs? When I recently visited Airdrie CAB and spoke at its annual general meeting, it was concerned about its ability to represent its clients on universal credit in practical and in volume terms. We, as well as Conservative Members, get that feedback when we go to our local CABs and jobcentres.
It is not just the former Social Mobility Commission chair who has intervened in the past few days on universal credit. In Scotland, our Children’s Commissioner, Bruce Adamson, has suggested that legal action against the UK Government may be required to protect the human rights of children and to stop them being impoverished. Mr Adamson was damning in his criticism of universal credit, saying that there are
“a number of issues around the way in which Universal Credit is calculated and how it is paid. But this leads to a much, much deeper issue… We are talking about things like having a warm and secure place to live, having regular hot, nutritious meals and also the ability to access things like transport to get to school and to enjoy social and cultural activities that we know are so important to their development.”
He wants to avoid legal action, and said:
“We really need political leadership here and we need to make sure that we are never in a situation where children are going without the basics that they need.”
I absolutely agree.
Given Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner’s comments about the impact of universal credit on child poverty, we have to wonder what are in those DWP project assessment reviews, especially when the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported this week that 400,000 more children and 300,000 more pensioners are living in poverty now than five years ago. The JRF says that while there are still significant challenges for Scotland to face regarding poverty levels and the impact of poverty, levels of poverty are lower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. It also found that falls in poverty among pensioners and families with children have been greater and more sustained in Scotland than elsewhere. That shows that our approach is working. But imagine what we could do on poverty in Scotland if, instead of spending hundreds of millions a year on mitigating the effects of the bedroom tax and other Tory cuts, we spent that money on proactive anti-poverty measures or on the council tax reduction scheme, which has been shown today to benefit one in 10 Scots.
I am really pressed for time now; I do apologise. [Interruption.] I have taken interventions. Madam Deputy Speaker has indicated that I was to keep within 10 minutes.
When the likes of the Child Poverty Action Group, the Poverty Alliance and others predict that further roll-out of universal credit in its current form, coupled with the benefits freeze, will force even more children into poverty in the coming years, the UK Government need to wake up to the evidence that their policy choices make them an agent in rising poverty, as opposed to the Scottish Government, who are working hard to protect low-income families.
In conclusion, the reports may well be as glowing about universal credit as Ministers have been, but the Government’s desperate obstinacy and obfuscation over a period of two years would suggest otherwise. Given the intense pressure that has been put on Ministers in recent months by the Scottish Government, MPs from across the House and expert charities, I imagine that had the reports been positive, they would have found their way into the public domain to support the Government’s position. It is normally the cold light of day shining on harsh truths that forces people from their entrenched positions, so the Government should make these reports public. Let us see the DWP’s assessment of universal credit, and let us all come together to find a way to fix universal credit and help those who need help the most.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Universal credit is a vital reform for our country and for those who rely on the system to live. Universal credit enables people to get off that system and find the jobs they need to provide for their families and children in the long term.
I have been listening with interest to the debate since it began, and I welcome the Minister’s decision to release the reports to the Work and Pensions Committee. As my right hon. Friend said, there is a balance to be struck between transparency—releasing everything into the public domain, or into the semi-public domain of the Select Committee—and ensuring that people in the forum of implementation can talk with candour, honesty and openness about the challenges that are coming.
By default, a project assessment review—I say this as someone who worked on this kind of thing as a project manager in industry for 15 years—is an assessment of the challenges in a project. It does not necessarily focus on the overall principle, which is very sound in this case. It does not focus on the successes, the targets that have been hit or the achievements that have been made. It focuses, rightly, on the challenges. However, my concern is that the tenor of this debate, and previous such debates that I have attended, suggests that some Members and some others outside the Chamber will not take the reports in that context or spirit. I fear that the focus will be on the challenges as the most terrible and outrageous things ever, and that there will be no recognition of the fact that there is a balance to be struck. I hope that hon. Members will reflect appropriately on that.
I do not understand why a request is being made for project assessment reviews that were carried out in 2012 when, by the common consent of everybody in this House, this innovation has changed dramatically and totally since then. Any project assessment review from 2012 will be completely archaic and irrelevant to any decision on what happens in 2017. That suggests to me that the intention of Opposition Members who are pushing this activity is to embarrass, rather than to be constructive in their criticism.
I noted that the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) stated on at least two separate occasions that universal credit had been acknowledged to be not fit for purpose. I am not aware of anybody on my side of the debate who has acknowledged that. Therefore, I can only assume that the Labour party’s intention is to push an incorrect narrative, which reflects the analysis in articles that have been written in The Guardian and elsewhere, and which does not accurately reflect the changes that have been made.
Let me be clear: I do not stand here today and suggest that universal credit is absolutely perfect. No Government Member is suggesting that. We recognise that in our complicated and difficult benefit system, which has been created over decades, there will be complexities, challenges and problems. I sat here on 18 October and listened to hon. Friends and Opposition Members speak in the first debate on universal credit during my time here. The principle behind universal credit is that we are fixing forward—we are assessing the problems, looking for ways to solve them and putting the solutions in place. That is exactly what the Chancellor did when he made his announcement two weeks ago.
I welcome the decision to release the documents to the Work and Pensions Committee. I hope that people who have an interest in the debate will take the documents in the spirit in which they were intended, although I fear that not everybody will do so. I welcome the Chancellor’s decision to make changes, and I hope that additional changes will be made, if necessary, to move our welfare system on. The system has not worked for decades, and it has kept millions of people on welfare and ensured that they do not go out to work.
I am dealing right now with constituents on legacy benefits who have given up work, or who are about to, because housing benefit does not pay and cannot cope with the kind of variability in their earnings. If universal credit can solve those kinds of problems, which is what I understand it will do and what my jobcentre tells me will be achieved when it is implemented, I welcome it coming to North East Derbyshire and the surrounding area.
I want to make three points. First, universal credit is not being introduced in isolation; it follows so-called welfare reforms that were made under the Labour Government, the coalition Government and this Government. The cumulative impact for many of my constituents has been destitution. We have made decisions in this House to pay for pensioner households rather than ordinary families.
I have being running constituency surgeries for 38 years. At the most recent surgery, just last Friday, for the first time ever a gentleman rose after we had spoken and I had to try to persuade him not to commit suicide. Such was his desperation at the future he saw for himself. I realised that the hand that shook my hand was wet, because he had been crying. The hand that shook my hand was the hand that had wiped away those tears.
On Friday, Feeding Birkenhead—a brilliant organisation, but one that ought to be unnecessary—reported a family coming in, a husband and wife and their young child. The child was crying with hunger. The family was fed. The father said that it had been a lucky week for him, because neighbours had taken pity and invited them to a funeral, so that they could finish off the food after the other guests had been fed. When their little boy was shown the shelf where the toys and lunch packs were kept, he chose the lunch pack. That is the background of growing destitution that I see in my constituency, and against which we have to judge universal credit and the debate we are having today.
Many DWP staff do not share the Secretary of State’s confidence in this benefit. Feeding Birkenhead is putting considerable food through schools, which get it home where it is needed. On Saturday we will be filling thousands upon thousands of Christmas hampers, and among the volunteers will be 146 DWP staff. They know where this benefit is going and they are unhappy. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is mumbling. Their inability to show their normal compassion by having discretion is an issue of such importance that we will return to it soon.
Against that background, we come to the request for papers. The Secretary of State and I have noticed that this motion is different from the motion on the Committee on Exiting the European Union. That Committee was to receive the papers and lay them before the House. This motion does not ask for that. I love being a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, but I can assure the House that we are not a group of Trappist monks and monkesses; people will naturally want to talk. Therefore, before any documents come to us, I will be asking for the Speaker’s interpretation of this motion, and what sense of secrecy or honour will bind the Committee when we receive the documents. Even if we only read them, that will surely affect how we pose questions. If they are all so good, surely we would have received them long ago.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an incredibly powerful and emotive speech, and I commend him for it. Does he agree that the partial publication, and giving the redacted copies to the Select Committee, leaves its members in an invidious position? As the Committee Chair, does he think that it would be far better for the Government to publish the reports in full and publicly, as the Information Commissioner recommended?
That is why I will seek the Speaker’s advice. It may partly be why Members on the Treasury Bench have accepted the motion: because it now shifts all the pressure from them to the Select Committee. As I said, we are thankfully not made up of Trappist monks and monkesses. We are all very active members of the Committee.
I will make my last and perhaps most important point. The Government and Government Back Benchers —a rather rude one to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) earlier—keep making assertions about the wonder of the benefit, for which there are no figures in the public domain. We do not know how the benefit affects work records, apart from those of the simplest claimants. We do not know from the Government the effect on rent arrears or on the use of food banks. We do not fully know the numbers of people who are waiting in our constituencies for more than six weeks—soon, thank God, five weeks, on which I congratulate the Secretary of State.
In the great spirit of openness, with which the Secretary of State has landed the Select Committee, I hope that we will shortly put before Parliament the data on the working of the new benefit, which will tell us whether the grand assertions that the Secretary of State and Ministers continue to make are true. I hope that they are true, but none of us has the data to back them up.
Before we do not vote on the motion tonight, I want to recall that the benefit is being rolled out for families of working age who have suffered multiple and cumulative benefit cuts. I described some of the effects. How does an MP give someone hope, when I do not have hope for them, that things will radically improve, and persuade them not to top themselves? What do we do to a family, who last year gave toys for our Christmas hampers, but have been so reduced in circumstances that this year, their little boy cries with hunger? That is the message that I want to go out from the debate.
We will receive the documents and advice on what we are to do with them, but I hope that the Secretary of State does not believe that releasing them—some of historical value—will prevent the Committee’s insistence on a proper publication of data, which allows us to hold the Government to account for the hunger in our constituencies.
I do not know where to start after that. I am humbled by the words of my good friend the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). No Governments are perfect, no benefit system is perfect and no debate or motion is perfect, but by God we will work together and make this better.
Select Committees are cross-party and they play an important role in scrutiny. Our Work and Pensions Committee is no different. I am sure that our focus on universal credit—I am sorry; I am not very good at this job, am I Mr Deputy Speaker?
I am amazed because, for the first time, I have been able to report publicly the events I described without weeping. I am so affected by them—I am as affected as my hon. Friend. That is the debate that we are really having: how do we represent here the desperation of many of our constituents when many of us feel that we cannot offer them hope? I fear that that may not have helped my hon. Friend, but it was meant to.
We have a job to do. I am sure the Select Committee’s evidence-gathering helped the Government to identify improvements and make universal credit better. We will continue that work.
No one should underestimate the poverty-fighting potential of universal credit. I believe that and mean that most sincerely. There is a reason why work coaches are so motivated by it. There is a reason why, when claimants are fully up and running on it, they move into work faster and stay in work for longer. That does happen. The old system of multiple individual benefits was no better than a game of roulette. What kind of reward was it when a determined claimant successfully gained more hours of work only to lose their benefits? On their way up, they were stopped in their tracks by a benefit trap set at an arbitrary and life-limiting 16 hours. No one should be proud of that and no one should want to sustain that.
Universal credit is totally different. It offers a wraparound support service to claimants. I am the first to admit that the roll-out has had more issues than it should have had. There are aspects of the system I wish had been fixed before we pushed the button to roll it out further. I understand, however, why the Government were reluctant to pause it. They were eager to offer that transformative support and its potential for a better future to more claimants. That is what the Government wish to do. I was pleased, therefore, when the Chancellor announced in the Budget a package of reforms worth £1.5 billion. Reducing the six-week wait, specifically asked for by the Work and Pensions Committee, was critical. I understand that banking system limitations meant that reducing the wait even further beyond five weeks was technically impossible, but the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Employment listened to our concerns regarding the risk of rent arrears and debt, which were real, and then made further—I believe arguably greater—concessions than taking an additional one-week delay away. They increased availability and doubled to 100% the size of advance payments, so that emergency funds would be available to claimants on day one. The payback period was also doubled to 12 months. This means that no claimant will be without money if they need it. No ifs, no buts—fact. If someone needs an advance today, they get it.
The most welcome addition, for me at least, was the automatic additional payment of two more weeks of housing benefit for all claimants currently in receipt. That is huge! That is an additional two weeks of housing money on top of universal credit monthly payment. This is the good that the Government can do. These are the actions of the Government I envisaged when I first heard Theresa May on the steps of No. 10.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and for her compassion for the misery that I know many of my constituents have faced as universal credit has been rolled out in Newcastle. I have spoken about that many times, but does she share my concern that the announcements in the Budget will do nothing for those families who have already been pushed into misery, debt, the use of food banks and, potentially, the loss of their house? Does she want the Government to use that ability to support those families, too?
No family should be going through that. People have more difficult lives than I am blessed to have ever experienced, but work coaches are there, and discretionary housing payments and advance payments are there. Work coaches should be offering a wraparound service. I do not have universal credit yet in my area, but I hope that work coaches are doing everything they should for the hon. Lady’s constituents. There is no reason for a family to be put into that level of debt. If that is the case, the work coach is not doing what they should.
Universal Credit is the biggest transformation of our benefit system in decades. The Government’s slow roll-out and test and learn approach is the right one. They have been able to make amendments because of this approach, meaning the improvements announced in the Budget will be in place before a significant uplift in claimants moving on to the benefit. As we have heard today, that is so important because these are real people’s lives.
Jobcentres have received absolute clarity on making advance payments available to all claimants. I know this to be true, because I heard it first-hand recently at a regional work coach event in the east of England. I am greatly relieved by these operational improvements and relieved to know the Government will keep the taper rate under review. I understand the challenges to our public finances, but I remain of the opinion that universal credit will never be the ultimate poverty-fighting machine it can be and was designed to be until either the taper rate or work allowances are restored to their pre-2015 levels. As inflation shows signs of volatility, I support the Government completely as they keep a watchful eye on the taper rate.
If universal credit does not deliver the transformative results it should, we will look at it again. Universal credit is both revolution and evolution. The Work and Pensions Select Committee, on which I am proud to sit, will continue to monitor progress every step of the way. I thank the Government for offering to share these reports. They are project management assessment documents, not policy assessment documents, so their value might be limited—I do not know, we will see—but as a member of the Committee, I welcome the opportunity to review them. They will form part of the Committee’s ongoing and dedicated review of the project’s progress.
On Wednesday 18 October 2017, 80 Members from across the House debated a motion calling for a pause in the roll-out of universal credit. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) said that she was touched by the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), but we had an opportunity to pause and fix the system then. We had a chance to say, “Hang on a minute. This isn’t really working as we thought it would. Let’s pause it and fix it.” The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) said we were “fixing forward”. I have no idea what that means. If something is broken, we fix it and then continue.
I can explain exactly what it means: when we discover a problem, we fix it as we go; we do not throw out the entire system. We are thinking about benefiting people in the long term. Nobody is saying the system is perfect, but the point of fixing forward is to improve as we go, which has been the principle since the beginning of the policy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I beg to differ. If I had a vehicle that failed its MOT, I would fix it before putting it back on the road. I would not say, “I’ll keep on driving and see what happens.”
The motion in October was passed unanimously—by a vote of 299 to 0. None the less, despite that unanimous motion to pause the roll-out so that it might be fixed, the Government have continued with business as usual, saying, “Nothing’s going wrong. Let’s carry on as we are.” Some of the issues we pointed out have been taken on board, and I am grateful for that, but the system is fundamentally flawed. We have asked for a pause so that it might be fixed. It is even more vital, therefore, that the Government come clean with their assessment of the risks involved and the implementation issues encountered.
Surely the hon. Lady recognises that universal credit is a transformational benefit for the vast majority of people going through the system. That is why staff are so passionate about it and feel empowered to make a difference to people’s lives. If we paused it, we would rob some of the most vulnerable people in society of the opportunity to improve their lives. Can she not see that it would be better to carry on making improvements as we go forward?
I thank the hon. Gentleman but, again, I beg to differ. The roll-out of universal credit started in my constituency on 15 November. The lady who manages my district advised me that the first payments would be received on 27 December, the day after Boxing day. We talk about changes, helping people and this being six benefits in one. We are saying to people, “For a period, there will be no money—but hold on, there is money. You can apply for it, ahead of time, and get up to 50%, but we will take that 50% back.” That is why we call it a loan. It is not as case of, “Here’s some money to help you now. When your money kicks in, you can carry on as you were.”
I put it to hon. Members that we are in a very privileged position. I do not take that for granted. I understand that not everyone is in my position. We are saying to people, “Wait five or six weeks. Oh yes, your gas and electric are on meters, which are weekly, and your money has run out, so you’ve got no electric, your fridge doesn’t work and you’ve got no food, but don’t worry, because we have food banks, although you can only go three times—but that’s fine, because, remember, it’s transformational.” That is unacceptable.
I recognise those points, but one of the principles is that those who go to work are often paid in arrears. Surely it is better to help people to adjust to that while having the support of the named work coach and access to advance payments. Surely it is better to make this an easier process, rather than blocking people from having the opportunity to work at a later point.
What I do recognise is that most of those people’s rents are paid weekly. I pay my mortgage monthly, and I was able to choose the payment date that would suit me on the basis of the receipt of my salary. Fortunately, I could also take advantage of a payment holiday if I got into trouble. That does not work for these people, unless we say to organisations such as utility providers, “Do not make them use their emergency payments and take all that money immediately, because they will have nothing,” or say to housing associations and councils, “Please can we make sure that they are not offered a chance to be evicted?” I say “offered a chance” because I am being polite, but people get a notice to quit.
Should we not be saying, “We understand that there are issues”? I am not suggesting that it is negative to create a benefit that helps people to get into work, because I agree with the hand-up rather than the handout, but this is not a hand-up. Much like my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, I sit with constituents who are struggling because they have been put into this system and there is no way for them to obtain the finance that they need.
I sit with constituents who have mental health issues and whose work coaches can only say to them, “We suggest that you go to this place for help,” because they have no power to say, “We are going to refer you.” That is not their role. They have no power to say, “Let us stop this now, because we can see that you are not coping.” That is why we end up with constituents who are in the same position as those of my right hon. Friend. Work coaches have discretion, but they do not have the power to intervene and make decisions. They are not permitted to do that.
Sir John Major described universal credit as
“operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving”,
and those are the points on which I am focusing. I am not trying to knock the scheme. I am merely saying, “Please at least give us access to the documents so that we can speak to our constituents on the basis of knowledge, explain to them why they are in the position in which they have found themselves, and seek to assist them and make things easier for them.” My constituents who have been put on universal credit will not receive their first payments until the day after Boxing day. How can that be transformational in a positive way? I ask the Secretary of State to listen properly to what we are saying, and not to claim that the system is working without giving us any evidence to show that it is not hurting the people whom we seek to represent.
Earlier this year, having tabled an emergency motion, the shadow Leader of the House argued passionately for more Opposition day debates. She highlighted at least four topics that she felt needed urgent debate, including social security and the personal independence payment, NHS nursing numbers, the Swansea tidal lagoon, and higher education regulations. Since she made that speech four months ago, only two of those topics have been raised by Labour Members in Opposition day motions. Instead, they have used their motions as a procedural tool to seek access to documents from the Government, but I want to raise the question of whether that is the appropriate route for such requests. The Secretary of State has acceded to the request in today’s motion—I welcome that disclosure—but he made it clear that this was an exceptional case. A five-hour Opposition day debate is not, in fact, the appropriate route to make such a request, and let me explain why that is the case.
I will make some progress for the moment.
By means of today’s motion, the Opposition seek the disclosure of various documents to a Select Committee. There is a procedure whereby Select Committees can ask for such documents themselves under Standing Orders. When I asked the Library last night whether there was any record of the Work and Pensions Committee having asked for these documents, I was told that there was no such record. If there had been such a request, there might have been the opportunity for a discussion between the Chairman of the Committee and the Secretary of State about the basis of the request and the use to which the documents might be put—the very issues that have been raised in this debate.
Raising such matters can be achieved in various ways, including through written and oral parliamentary questions, urgent questions and debates. Again, I asked the Library whether the Opposition had availed themselves of any of those procedures with regard to this request. The only record that the Library had of any such request related to one parliamentary question tabled three years—two Parliaments—ago. In this Parliament, we have had six debates on universal credit, as well as two ministerial statements and one urgent question. On none of those occasions has the relevance of these documents been raised, and nor have they been asked for. If it were in the public interest urgently to disclose the documents, I would have expected Labour Members to have used one of those routes to request them through official channels over the course of this Parliament, but they have not done so. This is the first time the matter has been raised in this Parliament.
My question is whether it is appropriate to use an important procedure of this House to require the Government to produce documents when no prior official request has been made to obtain them through the usual procedures that are available to hold the Government to account. Is it appropriate to request important documents from the Government for the first time in a Opposition day motion when the contents of that motion were not known by the Government until yesterday?
Of course it is right for the Opposition to raise the problems of universal credit at every opportunity. Surely the hon. and learned Lady can understand that. I know that the additional 30% of people using food banks in my constituency understand it.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, as universal credit is an important measure. I endorse that point, which many Members have made today. Universal credit affects those who need help the most, and that is the issue that we should be debating, rather than the disclosure of documents that could have been asked for before, to which the Secretary of State has now willingly granted access. We do not need a five-hour debate. It is the issues that affect our constituents that need to be debated, not a procedural request for documentation. In the course of the Standing Order No. 24 debate on the need for more Opposition day debates, the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) stated that such debates were important as
“the key means in this House of raising issues of concern to our voters.”—[Official Report, 17 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 616.]
I am sure that my voters care about universal credit, and I am sure that they care about getting people into work, but I am not sure they would welcome a day-long debate about a request for documents that could have been made, and granted, through the ordinary procedures of this House.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I welcome the concessions that the Government have been forced to make on universal credit, but I do not believe that they go anything like far enough to relieve the hardship and stress that this roll-out is causing, and will continue to cause unless and until the Government take on board the concerns and take further action. There are so many issues with universal credit that it is essential that the full extent of all project assessment reviews that the Government carry out are placed with the Work and Pensions Committee. The Government must come clean about their assessments so that the risks can be identified and scrutiny can be provided by the Committee.
I know that many Members across the House share my concerns about the roll-out of universal credit. It might be convenient for the Government to ignore the views of those on the Opposition Benches who have expressed legitimate concerns on behalf of their constituents and, in the case of the Secretary of State, to pass them off as scaremongering. However, the Government should not ignore the concerns shared by many outside this House, too—by organisations at the forefront of supporting people through difficult periods and supporting those who are most vulnerable. These organisations include Community Housing Cymru, which acts as an umbrella body for housing associations across Wales, and Citizens Advice, Shelter, and the Child Poverty Action Group. Does the Secretary of State consider these organisations to be scaremongering, too? These organisations know the pressures and hardship that UC is causing, as they are picking up the pieces when people’s lives are turned upside down due to the debt and anxiety caused by issues created by the roll-out, and the Government should take note.
Recent research undertaken by Cardiff Metropolitan University has highlighted the fact that one in five claimants is not receiving their full entitlement on time, with some facing a delay of four to eight weeks. The Government should address the waiting time as it is what causes most hardship. Many people do not have savings or money set aside to cover day-to-day living expenses during this period. The Government have taken away the seven-day waiting time, thus reducing the period to five weeks, but this is still too long for people to wait. We should also note that this is a minimum waiting time, and many people are waiting longer, leading to arrears and claimants needing to use food banks, increasing their debts and living in poverty.
We know that food bank use is increasing. A recent Trussell Trust report shows a 30% increase in people using food banks in areas where UC has been rolled out. Perhaps the Secretary of State thinks that report is scaremongering, too.
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard that I welcomed those concessions earlier this afternoon, but, as I also said, they do not go far enough. I was with the Trussell Trust last weekend, collecting for the food bank in my area, because I know, as many other Members do, that that need is growing rather than reducing.
It appears that there are the same issues everywhere UC has been rolled out, and in my view it stands to reason that, with a hastened roll-out, these issues will only increase. We need a pause and fix. In Wales, as of October 2017 almost 25,000 people were in receipt of UC, meaning that the roll-out is just 6% complete; full roll-out is expected by November next year. I do not understand why the Government cannot see that hastened roll-out will lead to increased hardship, and why they will not act to pause and fix, to avoid families being subjected to undue stress and hardship.
There is not much evidence of any festive spirit coming from the Government on this issue, and talking about the Christmas period that is almost upon us, the news that thousands of low-paid people on UC will receive reduced payments or none at all over Christmas because they are paid weekly and their income
“will likely go over the universal credit limit”
is extremely worrying. A similar problem will re-occur in other months that, like this December, have five paydays, because UC is calculated on a monthly basis.
The Government must realise that Christmas puts huge pressure on family budgets and this situation will massively increase hardship. When people have five weekly earnings payments within an assessment period, their income might be too high to qualify for UC in that month, but the official advice is:
“You can re-apply the following month as you should only get four wage payments in your assessment period then.”
I am sure that will really help families through the Christmas period!
This flaw needs to be addressed and a fix found; it cannot be that difficult. Those paid weekly will find four times in a 12-monthly cycle that this “apparent” overpayment happens, and that could either reduce or cost them UC. Surely a mechanism can be found within Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. This is yet another glitch among a growing list that have beset UC.
We have heard today, and will continue to hear, the evidence that this roll-out is causing significant hardship and undue stress. The Government must listen to these very genuine concerns, and act to avoid further hardship.
I was glad to hear the Secretary of State’s comments, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on introducing this motion.
We are discussing universal credit, and “universal” is an important word, because I think we universally agree in this Chamber that the previous system was a failure. People were stuck on the old system for far too long, and there was no incentive for them to get back into work. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) said that the old system was like a game of roulette, and we can all agree on the benefits of the current universal system. My hon. Friend also said that universal credit has poverty-fighting potential, and we can all agree on that because both Opposition Members and Government Members agreed with the general principles of universal credit. It is important to remember that there is cross-party support for what we are trying to achieve with universal credit. There may be divergence of opinion in certain areas, but the system is necessary and is supported across the Chamber. People on universal credit are more likely to find and stay in work, and they are more likely to earn more money while in work, which is an important message that we cannot forget in these repeated debates in the Chamber.
Our cautious welcome for universal credit at the time was not unconditional. For us to make an assessment of how universal credit is going, we need to see the DWP’s assessments. The Government are going to make those documents available to the Work and Pensions Committee, so why can they not publish them more widely?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing me on to what is going to be published. The Government have agreed to exactly what is requested in this Opposition day motion, and I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State confirm at the Dispatch Box that he will ensure that everything that has been asked for will be delivered.
I listened most intently to the emotive speech of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), but he went on to say that he was not particularly happy with the Government agreeing to everything in the motion and, indeed, that he will be raising the contents of the motion with Mr Speaker. I politely suggest that it may have been more useful for him to raise that concern with the Opposition Front-Bench team, because this is a Labour motion that the Government have accepted. The papers will be published, and any differences of opinion that the right hon. Gentleman now wants to raise with Mr Speaker should have been raised more promptly with his own Front-Bench team, because what they have asked for will be delivered.
But stories start somewhere, and the right hon. Gentleman could have started his story with the Opposition Front-Bench team, because he seems to be most critical of them for not asking more of the Government.
I accept the useful point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), who suggested that Labour now wants more given that the Government have accepted what was requested in the motion. However, the information is extremely dated, so we have to question its merit and benefit given that the system has developed considerably. We have had four debates in the Chamber, and the policy has been developed since the Chancellor gave his Budget and will continue to be developed as we go forward.
Speaking of the Chancellor and his Budget, I welcome the £1.5 billion to address concerns around universal credit. [Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) say, “That is not enough.” I listened carefully to his speech, in which he could not accept that the Government have done anything good, saying that this Government must be bad when they talk about universal credit and that he was not happy with the proposals in the Budget. I would therefore like to know what he thinks about Citizens Advice Scotland, which welcomed the changes to universal credit in the Budget, saying:
“Taken together, these measures will make a real difference to those claimants who are currently experiencing hardship.”
That is the sort of response that we should be getting from the Opposition parties.
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.
The changes in the Budget will have a real impact. I have already mentioned the £1.5 billion that will address some concerns, but the removal of the seven-day waiting period for new claimants will mean that no one waits six weeks to receive their first universal credit payment.
I am sorry, but we are on a time limit.
Claimants who need support can get advance payments of up to 100% of their estimated monthly entitlement, effectively removing the wait for first payments altogether and going further than anyone on either side of the House and many external commentators were asking for. The Budget changes show that this is a Government who are listening. This is a Government who accept concerns raised by Members on both sides of the House and who want to make changes to improve a system that is designed to improve many people’s lives.
Because of those Budget changes, we have also seen a reduction in the pace of the roll-out in Scotland. In my area, Moray Council will now not see the roll-out until June 2018, which will allow council staff and DWP staff to work to enact the positive changes that we saw in the Budget.
I am delighted that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) has returned to the Chamber, as in both his interventions he addressed the impact of poor broadband on universal credit. The Secretary of State is correct that the problem of broadband is not for the Department for Work and Pensions. It is actually a problem for the Scottish Government, who are failing in the broadband roll-out. [Interruption.] SNP Members do not like it. They are shouting across the Chamber because they are failing to deliver broadband in Scotland, which is why this Conservative Government are correct to bypass the Scottish Government in the next roll-out to ensure that we can have effective broadband across Scotland, addressing the concerns so ably raised by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.
This Conservative Government are introducing transformational change. This is a system that had to be corrected because of the failures of the Labour party and of a system that did not help people into work— indeed, the system kept people out of work. With such major transformational changes, there will have to be improvements along the way. I am pleased that this Conservative Government have listened and have reacted to concerns but are continuing with a system of universal credit that wants to help people back into work, rather than ensuring that people cannot get into work and stay out of work. By doing that, we not only improve the lives of individuals who get back into work but we improve life for our communities, which we should all support.
Universal credit has been rolled out in my constituency for some time, and my office has seen its effect. Universal credit is pushing people into poverty and making life harder. Across the House, we must agree to do everything that can be done and to release any information that can help us better understand the situation and fix it.
I have local examples of how universal credit is affecting my constituents. I have a constituent who sustained life-changing injuries while serving in Iraq. He was medically retired by the military but has had to go for further universal credit assessments, which have caused him further stress. Why is my constituent having to go through that, and why are the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions not joined up?
I have previously spoken in this place about a single mother in my constituency who is on universal credit but, because of the way the system works, is not able to pay for childcare, so is having to consider giving up work. Again, why is a system that is supposed to help people into work making single parents have to choose between looking after their children and work?
I have heard a lot today from Conservative Members about how no one on universal credit has to wait the full six weeks, which is not true. Just two weeks ago, a constituent came to my surgery and told me he applied for the advance payment but was denied. It is called an advance payment, but it is a loan. I have contacted the Department for Work and Pensions and my local jobcentre to find out why he was refused the advance payment—I have been told time and again that no one is refused—but I have not had an answer. So, again, I would like an answer. If somewhere in these documents I can find an answer to that—some working to show why the Department has come to its decision—that has to be released and it is in the public interest for that to be done.
These households are getting delays in receiving advance payments and are racking up huge amounts of debt, so does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to release the assessment on the levels of debt of these households?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that. There are many reasons why this information must be released.
Another issue I wish to raise is the fully digital aspect of the system. Many constituents have come to me because they are vulnerable, elderly or disabled and they are simply not able to use the digital aspect. They have not been able to get out of their house to get to a jobcentre—of course, these are being closed across Scotland—to get this support. Again, do these documents contain an answer on that? Will something in them tell us why this decision has been taken? Will something show the working of the Department on why it has reached its decisions?
The third thing I am concerned about is the reputation of this place. After our debate and vote on UC, constituents have come to me saying, “Fantastic. You’ve been helping me because I am struggling under this system, but now of course it is going to be paused and fixed because you had a vote on it. I followed that and am very grateful to everyone who voted on it.” I had to say to them, “Well, you’re right that we had a vote and we won it, but no action has been taken, and we did not see any tangible measures in the Budget that would address the issues we have raised. The Chancellor refused to pause and review universal credit.” People have therefore rightly asked me how this can be allowed: how we can have a vote and yet not see any action taken.
I have asked numerous written questions to the Department, but the reply to them all has been that the information cannot be obtained or that my constituency is in a larger area with different constituencies that do not yet have the roll-out, so there is no information to be given. No wonder there is large public mistrust of this system; it seems so opaque; we cannot get the answers we need; and now there are secret documents and they are not going to be released. If they are released, it will be to the Select Committee and not to the House and to the public. I want to know why these project assessment reviews will not be released, because I desperately feel that, having many constituents come to me with grave issues, I need to know what these problems are.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) for giving such as passionate speech earlier and disclosing some issues. I have two constituents who have taken their own lives, both of whom were on UC. They were both very desperate and both had been to my local citizen’s advice bureau for help, as they had no money. I will not cry for them in this place, because their memory deserves not tears but anger and action. I want these papers to be released, so that I can find some answers to these questions and give people in my constituency the certainty that they deserve.
I welcome the Minister’s statement on making available the reports requested by the Labour party. I am pleased to speak in this debate and to challenge the belief among some Opposition Members that helping people into work and away from relying on state welfare is just too difficult and too complicated. I accept that our work as MPs is not easy. We all do our best for our constituents, and I accept that most often they come to us in the last resort and expect our help. But the privilege of being elected as an MP is to take on and tackle sensitive subjects and to unravel bad policies which hold people back, regardless of how complicated they seem.
I do not need to reference emails and surgery cases to know that the only way to help people out of poverty is through work. I grew up in social housing, where families had not worked for two or three generations, with households in which children had never seen their parents go out to work, and where they were told—where I was told—time and again to “lower your expectations and stay in line for welfare.” Aspirations to work were met with cliff-edge drop-offs and the loss of benefits. Why would someone take a risk to secure a job that may or may not work out when that is weighed up against losing benefits and the drama it takes to get back on to welfare to make sure they have a home? For too many people, the risk is too great. That is why universal credit works. It tapers as a person secures more work and does what welfare is meant to do: it provides a hand up and a safety net.
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. There are now more people with better opportunities—whether children going to better schools, more working-class kids going to university or people on lower incomes taking more of that income home to support their families. I grew up in a Labour stronghold where I was told repeatedly to know my place, which was to remain on welfare like everybody else in my community. That is why the Conservative party introduced universal credit, and why it is so important that we ensure that it is successfully delivered. Universal credit is founded on the belief that work should always pay, and it encourages people to find work and not stay trapped in the vicious cycle of the benefits system.
The request for the publication of the reports in the motion has been granted. I am, though, a little perplexed about why we need to see reports on assessments from back in 2012 when we have facts and figures that we can rely on today. I hope that the Minister can shed some light on that. Here is what is already in the public domain. Critics should welcome the fact that each person on universal credit is treated as an individual and provided with tailored support, working around their personal needs. For the first time, people have a named work coach. This is the first time that their personal requirements and unique needs are being assessed. It is the first time that their childcare, housing or work support is being assessed. More importantly, this will be the first time that many people from my community have had real support that tackles their needs and supports their aspirations to improve their and their families’ lives. They are no longer just a number to be told to get to the back of the queue.
Let us not forget that the previous welfare system created cliff edges, discouraged people from working for more than 16 hours a week and, most damning of all, trapped 1.5 million on out-of-work benefits for nearly a decade. I challenge anyone who would disagree that those people had been failed by the system.
I have wanted to make a comment for some time, so I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way.
On the supposed blocks in the previous system, I have been contacted by constituents who were previously nursing students in receipt of a nursing bursary and, under the old system, tax credits. Because that bursary was not considered an income, they were still able to get tax credits, so they could continue to pay their rent, bills and so on. Now, under universal credit, someone is doing a teaching degree and is in receipt of student finance, which counts as an income, so they are not eligible for any other benefits and they are already three months behind on their rent. Is that a demonstration of somebody being able to move on?
That is where the work coach should be able to help. The hon. Lady should be challenging the work coaches in that community. People are moving on: they are able to get a loan to get an education and change the life choices available to them.
With its one simple payment and gradual introduction, universal credit is flexible enough to respond to any technical issues. Previously, the existence of six different benefits was an overbearing and bureaucratic mess. The system was expensive to administer; it was confusing to understand; and, most of all, it was demoralising to boot. The results so far show that universal credit is working: people claiming universal credit are 13% more likely to be in work than people claiming jobseeker’s allowance, and they are earning more money and are more likely to take on a job.
Such drastic reform will always come with complications, and over the past four years, imperfections have been uncovered and brought to light. I am pleased that the Government have listened and acted to improve universal credit, by ensuring that it achieves its original goals. The £1.5 billion package to address the delivery concerns will be welcomed across the country in places where universal credit has yet to be rolled out. The removal of the seven-day waiting period will mean that applicants will be entitled to receive universal credit from the first day of application. Those who need it can also now access up to a month’s worth of universal credit within five days via an interest-free advance. I cannot be the only Member of Parliament who has struggled to deal with constituents who have been made to feel insecure and afraid to access the welfare to which they are entitled, because they are made to feel that, somehow, it will work against them. The free support phone line is also welcome. These important changes mean that we are not letting down those who need our support the most.
Universal credit is committed to helping people into work, and, once in work, to help them progress and increase their earnings, providing security and opportunities for them and their families. It is important that the Government are fully committed to the gradual roll-out, giving the ever reducing numbers of unemployed people a greater chance of the security that only a job can provide. We must not revert to the old failing system where 1.5 million people were trapped in out-of-work benefits for a decade.
If people are not convinced by my arguments, let me quote the chief executive of St Mungo’s:
“We have been calling for a new strategy to tackle homelessness. I welcome the opportunity to work with the taskforce to end the national scandal of rough sleeping altogether. We are also pleased to see a number of changes to Universal Credit that St Mungo’s had been calling for, particularly the removal of the seven day waiting period and the extension of the repayment period for advances to 12 months.”
I will end by quoting someone from Citizen’s Advice, because we all reach out to them when we are dealing with difficult constituency work. The chief executive said:
“The £1.5 billion package for Universal Credit announced in the Budget last week will directly help millions of the most vulnerable people.”
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this afternoon’s debate, and I want to support the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). I also wish to thank the Secretary of State for his concessions today. Although I welcome them, they are, sadly, not nearly enough to address the very many serious flaws of this failed benefit.
I wish to address my remarks to the situation in my constituency of Reading East where universal credit is rolled out tomorrow, on 6 December. Tomorrow, 10,000 of my constituents will be hit hard by this failing programme and many—I wish to point this out to the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) and others—are families in work; some are disabled; and some are people in all kinds of desperate need. We have 10,000 people facing the possibility of a Dickensian Christmas in a relatively wealthy town in one of the most prosperous regions of the country in 21st century Britain. Is that acceptable to any of us? I do not think so.
The delays in the roll-out—it could be several weeks—mean that it is unlikely that many of those 10,000 people will be able to enjoy the benefits in time for Christmas. Indeed, many will only be paid universal credit in January 2018. Just like the family of Tiny Tim in Dickens’s “Christmas Carol”, there will be no Christmas in these households. For those who are not familiar with that situation, it is important to consider that those families will be struggling to find any sort of Christmas dinner, any sort of presents and any sort of celebration.
I note that the Secretary of State has now allowed a greater level of loans for families in receipt of universal credit. However, until January, loans of only 50% are available, so I ask Conservative Members to consider what it would be like to be one of the working poor in Reading, struggling to get by with 50% less income from benefits to cover their Christmas expenditure. That is half the payments they would have had this time last year. Is not Christmas hard enough already for these families? This is not only a sadly mistaken policy, but actually wrong, and the roll-out, in its current form, is failing deeply.
I appreciate that some changes were made in the Budget. However, deep flaws remain—not least the long wait and various other points made by hon. Members. I will run through some of the effects of the budgetary changes on my constituents that many have overlooked today. For the areas where the roll-out is taking place in December, it is irrelevant that the seven-day waiting period is being changed. It will be too late because it happens in February. The period over which advance payments are recovered is being extended, but this is also too late, starting in January. The interest-free advances are too late, as they start in 2018. On and on—these late interventions will not help families who will have a terrible Christmas this year.
It is quite clear that universal credit is, quite simply, a failing programme. The Government are refusing to release key documents, and the changes set out in the Budget fail to meet the needs of families. Given these fundamental flaws, the failure in delivery and the Dickensian misery being forced on families, surely the Government will admit that it is time to pause and fix this benefit.
Our welfare system has historically been the victim of criticism from both sides of the House. Colleagues, their views often stoked by the media, take opposing rhetorical positions that rarely lead to improvements in the system and certainly do not help individual constituents. I thank the Secretary of State for making exceptions and publishing the extra information for the Work and Pensions Committee. I hope that it will help with the Committee’s work. In the future, I hope that we will have more up-to-date analysis that will help to guide that work in a more meaningful way.
In previous debates on universal credit—we have had a few—Members of all political stripes in this House have accepted that universal credit is a positive and transformational reform, and that it is a real attempt to change the culture and improve results for those hoping to get into work. Everyone will recognise that the roll-out has encountered challenges, but I hope that most Members would accept that, with a nine-year roll-out, the Department for Work and Pensions has reacted to concerns raised. It should not be forgotten that most major Government welfare programmes encounter difficulties, as the last Labour Government did when they made £2 billion of erroneous payments of tax credits, forcing working families and single parents to pay back money that they had already spent. This is not party political; it is about the difficulties of being a responsible Government.
In my constituency, there is one jobcentre, which is in Alloa, where universal credit went live with full service in June 2017. The jobcentre in Perth, which is just outside my constituency but also serves my constituents, will have full service in 2018. I have been into those jobcentres. I have worked for a day in the Alloa jobcentre, sitting in with the new cohort who were transitioning on to universal credit, and even with individual claimants who were coming in for the first time to apply for universal credit. I saw how beneficial and transformational universal credit can be when properly applied.
I want to pick up on some of the comments made by the Opposition, particularly by Members on the Labour Benches, and to look at the reasons why people are having more difficulties and going to food banks. I asked my office to analyse all the people who have come to my office with universal credit concerns. Two of the key issues were waiting times and limited information such as not knowing how to access advances. I have fortunately been able—through this place, thanks to the Minister—to push for extra training in jobcentres in Scotland to ensure that advances are now proactively offered to claimants across Scotland. Thanks to the dedication of my constituency team, 80% of our universal credit cases have been satisfactorily resolved in a very short period of time. They were fixed because this is a new system, and I pay tribute to my team for all their work.
I must mention some of the rhetoric on the Opposition Benches, specifically from the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), who referred to people having a Dickensian Christmas. With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have lived in developing countries such as China and Thailand, where I really saw harrowing inequality. People with no limbs had to beg on the street because there was no welfare system and they had no protections whatever. It is completely unfair of him to cast the same aspersions on this Government and our country.
One of the reasons I gave for why my constituents are struggling to access universal credit was limited information. Many of them have come to me because they are nervous about what they see in the media, and they believe they cannot access universal credit and advances.
I welcome criticism. To be fair, SNP Members have criticised universal credit and, as I will explain in a moment, many points have been addressed as a result of that criticism from them and from the Conservative side too. However, we have to be careful about the rhetoric we use, because it has real implications for people in our constituencies.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am sorry. I am going to make a little more progress.
Quite rightly, Conservative Members—I have been one of them—have made criticisms of universal credit. I have written to Ministers, as have many other colleagues, and issues have been raised on all Benches throughout the debate.
The criticisms that have been raised include concerns about the seven-day waiting time, advances and paying landlords. Well, the seven-day waiting time is being removed. On the concerns about paying landlords, we have the offer to pay them directly, and we have the landlord portal to make sure they have the right information. On the concerns about advances, we know that those can be settled within five days or even on the same day. On those issues, therefore, I would ask Members to make sure we are giving the right information to our constituents so that they can access the advance they are entitled to and no one faces any hardship over Christmas.
The Opposition also say that universal credit and some of the hardship I have seen first hand are down to some sort of ideological Tory austerity. Yet, the changes that have been pushed forward mean that there has been an extra £65 billion in spending on welfare, which is the cost of all these changes since 2010. So if we are trying to do these things just to save money, we have done a pretty poor job.
Changes have been made to universal credit; it has been improved. There has been a nine-year roll-out. I still have concerns about universal credit.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, for people in my constituency, which started the universal credit roll-out on 1 November, these changes will have no impact, and people will face the same problems that all of us have acknowledged in our previous discussions? It would be great if the Government could make some progress to ensure that those people in my constituency have a better Christmas than they are expecting.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Some of the changes that were previously announced by the Government—especially on advances, guidance and making sure people get payments within five days—will benefit her constituents. The measures put forward in the Budget will obviously come in the new year, but the advances the Government previously announced are in place, and people can benefit from them now. I hope she will help with offering them.
As I was saying, I still have concerns, especially about those who are already in debt who transfer on to universal credit. I would ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to look in more detail at what can be done with some of the budget financing schemes and about the knowledge and availability of them for constituents who are in debt. There are also those people who are on variable incomes and those who are self-employed. Also, in terms of single household payments, we need to make sure no one is disadvantaged by their sex, relationship or circumstances.
One issue I hope to work with SNP colleagues on is the split payment system in Scotland, where we have the devolved Administration. Evidence suggests that that system is not as beneficial as we originally thought. Hopefully, we can work together to improve that. [Interruption.] Vis-à-vis the northern Irish scheme, it is more disadvantageous.
I hope the Government will remain focused in delivering this reform, will continue to improve the system and will show the flexibility to fix cases where mistakes have been made. We can work together constructively to boost employment by the 250,000 we expect and to make sure we help the 1.5 million who were previously trapped in poverty and benefits.
I would have thought that if Ministers were so confident about the success of universal credit, they would release these reports in full and in public. The people deserve to hear if the experience in those reports matches that of those who have endured the failings of universal credit in our constituencies where it has had an impact. As my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) pointed out, there are many and manifest failures with the system that have been reported many times.
When the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) told us of the experiences in his surgeries, it brought tears to the eyes of Members, but this is not the first time that universal credit has brought tears. I remember, just after being elected as an MP, meeting members of the local citizens advice bureau, and there were tears as they talked about the trials and tribulations of people who were going through in their office. Elaine Donnelly, who works with Macmillan Citizens Advice Partnership, was one of those people in tears. She came to my universal credit summit—Ministers did not attend, although they were invited—and told us of the experiences that she had with people who are terminally ill. Crucially, she says that she no longer cries, because she has heard so much about this that she is now battle-weary. She is numb. It does not hit her in the same way any more because so much has been going on.
Members such as the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) talk about the rhetoric that goes on, using words such as “scaremongering”. Not only have all Conservative Members been invited to my constituency to hear about these experiences, but so have Government Front Benchers.
The hon. Gentleman recently visited my constituency on the subject of universal credit. I was very grateful that he visited the beautiful constituency of Stirling. Which aspects of universal credit—its principles—does he support? Every speech I have heard him make in the House has been an undiluted torrent of negativity about universal credit. It is accepted that the system is not perfect, but can he tell us which parts work and which he supports?
I am very glad to answer that question. To repeat the statements that I have made and that my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts has made today, SNP Members have never opposed the principle of universal credit. We have always supported the principle of simplifying the benefits system so that people can get social security in a simpler and more effective way, but—this is where Conservative Members really need to open their ears and listen—the experience of people applying for universal credit is not that the process is simple. It is, for many people, hard and devastating. For a lot of people, it can really have an impact on not only their family lives, but their health.
I am going to make some progress, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman because I do want an answer to this.
We hear about rhetoric and scaremongering, but do Conservative Members also challenge organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Welfare Scotland, Citizens Advice, Macmillan, Marie Curie, Gingerbread, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Resolution Foundation, the Trussell Trust and Shelter, or all the cross-party local authority bodies, churches, faith groups and more? Are all those people giving empty rhetoric and scaremongering? No, they are not—they absolutely are not.
Since 2013, I have been raising the fact—yes, I will repeat it—that this has brought misery on people in my constituency from the pilot, through to live service, through to full roll-out. For Conservative Members who have had that delayed—lucky you. It is coming your way, and you will soon understand what happens with it. This has been a real problem. As I have said many times, since my election to the House in 2015, and prior to then, as the leader of the Highland Council, we have seen problems arising in Inverness and the rest of my constituency. We have reported them. We have requested changes. We have demanded changes. We have cajoled. We have even begged for changes to be made, yet there has been little or no movement. We have had platitudes and dogma, but there was never an understanding or a willingness to change, until very recently in the Budget, as my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts pointed out, there was a final admission that the system is broken.
The hon. Gentleman and I have been involved in politics and campaigning for a few years. Does he accept that there have been issues with a lot of welfare reforms? Benefit sanctions were a big issue at the 2015 general election, as the SNP has rightly mentioned. He said that he made demands for changes. Can he list the demands that have not already been answered by Ministers?
I would be absolutely delighted to answer that question, and I am genuinely grateful for that intervention. Since 2013, universal credit has driven up poverty and misery in my constituency, as is evidenced by a dramatic increase in food bank use. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire says that that is not the case, but he is not letting me get to the full explanation.
Once upon a time, the hon. Gentleman and I served on the Highland Council. Does he agree that one of the unwanted side effects of all this was the impact on the council’s budget? He and I had to put money aside to advise constituents about their problems, and that cut into the vital services that we were trying to deliver.
Indeed it did, and that is one of the manifest problems that I was going to come to. Universal credit is fuelling debt by default, leading some people to be evicted from their homes and placing others under stress due to the threat of eviction. Here is a list of the problems. There are delays, missed payments, poor communication, wrong payments, incorrect deductions, people left without money, people who do not know what is happening, and people who cannot work their way through the system. Universal credit hits the working, the low waged, the self-employed and the disabled, as well as those who are seeking work. At the universal credit summit that we held, we heard all those problems and more.
In the limited time that I have left, I want to make a few more points. The CAB-Macmillan partnership said, of people with terminal illness:
“We’ve not seen anybody fast-tracked through for an earlier payment. In fact we have seen people who are terminally ill dying before their Universal Credit is processed”.
How is that for a problem with universal credit? I have got pages of the stuff here, and I could, if I had the time, give lots more evidence about why universal credit is failing.
This debate is about the information, however. The project assessment reviews are detailed assessments of the implementation of universal credit. As has been said, the Information Commissioner’s Office
“finds that the balance of the public interest supports disclosure of the requested information.”
I pay tribute to John Slater for his tenacity. He deserves the right to access this information. The least the Government can do is to publish the information, but so far they have failed to do so. The justification for why publication is not in the public interest is beyond me, if the Government are so confident about it. The ICO notes that
“the reports provide a much greater insight than any information already available about the UCP, there are strong arguments for transparency and accountability for a programme which may affect 11 million UK citizens and process billions of pounds, which has had numerous reported failings in its governance.”
It is about time that people got the full story about universal credit. I can tell hon and right hon. Members whose constituencies have not experienced a lengthy period of universal credit that they will be glad to get that information before universal credit hits their constituents.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and it is always good to discuss universal credit in the House. As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, I want to make a minor point before I go on to more substantive arguments. The first I knew about the Committee’s involvement in the motion was when I saw the Order Paper this morning while I was having my breakfast. I understand that we are all politicians here, and that the Opposition do not want to give anyone unfair notice, but it would be a simple courtesy to give members of any Select Committee some advance warning that their Committee is being involved in such a motion. I am not asking for much—notice could be given even an hour before the Order Paper is published. We were all here until 1 o’clock this morning, but there was plenty of time to send an email. That is just a general point for this sort of debate, which the Opposition are absolutely entitled to call.
I would like to put it on record that I am very happy with the Secretary of State’s response and pleased that these documents will be shared with the Work and Pensions Committee. I certainly take it on agreement that we will receive the documents in confidence—I understand that we will not publish them ourselves—which I think is quite right. That said, I think that my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) made a good point when she said that the analysis in the reports is now slightly out of date. Opposition Members who are hoping that it will cast brilliant sunlight on the workings of universal credit will be disappointed.
There is a broader point, which has been raised by a number of Opposition Members, about whether the documents should be published. There is a live freedom of information request, so people have requested the documents and the DWP has declined to give them. The Information Commissioner has said that they should be handed over and the DWP has appealed, as it is fully entitled to do. If that ruling is upheld, the documents will be published; if it is overturned, they will be kept out of the public eye. The House should abide by that well-respected and well-established process—it was established under a Labour Government—which is tried and tested. This debate is really about greater transparency. I believe that we should always call on policy makers to reach for greater transparency, and it is the job of this House to hold them to account. That goes for policy makers on both sides.
We saw a very big investment in universal credit in the Budget—£1.5 billion. The Select Committee was delighted by and welcomed the arrival of that money. As the Red Book shows, it has been raised by reducing opportunities for tax evasion and avoidance—money well raised; money well spent. The shadow Secretary of State has said twice in this House that she thinks that that additional £1.5 billion represents just £1 in every £10 that has been taken out, and she strongly implied that she would like to put the rest of that money back. By my calculation, that is £13.5 billion that she would like to put into universal credit. I am all for putting more money into universal credit, as my colleagues and friends know, but I always like to know where the money will come from.
The Labour party has set itself a fiscal credibility rule, which means that if it gets into government it intends to balance day-to-day expenditure and borrow only for investment in infrastructure, homes, railways, roads, renewable energy and new technology. Anyone remotely familiar with the DWP budget will know that the Secretary of State does not have £13.5 billion in a jar on his shelf. There is no slack to be found there, which means the money would need to be found elsewhere. Those familiar with the Red Book will know that £13.5 billion is not easily found elsewhere either.
If the Labour party were to stick to its own fiscal credibility rule, it would have to raise £11.5 billion. Its manifesto commits £2 billion to universal credit, which it says is accounted for—the Institute for Fiscal Studies has a different view—which means that £11.5 billion is unaccounted for. I will happily take an intervention from any Opposition Front Bencher who can tell me where that £11.5 billion will come from.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman, being new to this House, does not appreciate that mistakes made in one Department can often have financial consequences in another. Let me tell him the story of a constituent of mine who went eight weeks with no income—
My constituent had eight weeks with no income and three months with no rent. She was back on anti-depressants after five years of recovery. The consequences might not have been grave for universal credit, but they were huge for the health services in Wales and the local housing authority, and my constituent’s health was destroyed. If we get things wrong in one Department, there are consequences for others.
I fully understand the hon. Lady’s point because of course there are knock-on consequences. I am also very sorry to hear that her constituent waited eight weeks for money, but we know that that should never happen when advance payments are available and people can receive money on the same day. The seven waiting days have now been removed. The process of test and learn shows that we can make changes and improve outcomes for people on universal credit.
If we listened to Opposition Front Benchers, we would find an £11.5 billion black hole in the spending plans for universal credit. That shows that, rather than a fiscal credibility rule, the rule is that Labour has no fiscal credibility.
It is important that we increase transparency. I would welcome a little more transparency when Select Committees are cited in motions. I believe in the Information Commissioner’s transparency processes, and I am sure that we would all welcome a little more transparency on how the Labour party would fill the epic black hole in its finances.
Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and the Labour party on securing the debate.
I am delighted that the Secretary of State will provide the assessments to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions and to the Committee. That will be valuable, though it would probably have been more helpful to provide them sooner because I suspect that many of the issues that the Secretary of State’s predecessors saw coming—certainly some that I flagged up when I was on the Work and Pensions Committee between 2010 and 2015—appear in the assessment documents. If that is the case, and the documents contain some of the issues that have caused so much difficulty that the Government have had to U-turn on them, I ask Committee members who are in the Chamber, and certainly the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), to point them out very directly to the Government. It would be ridiculous if some of the problems that I and the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth put to the then Secretary of State when I was last in this place have come to pass. If they were in the assessment documents and ignored, I would be extremely disappointed.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s intervention because it gives me the opportunity to remind the House of the numerous times on the Select Committee that I pointed out to the then Secretary of State that if he did not change things around the auto-payment default to landlords and the six or seven-week delay, the policy would be a disaster. Explaining why I still went through the Lobby leads me to the Government’s most disastrous mistake on universal credit. In 2015, the then Chancellor gutted universal credit on the work allowance by £3 billion per annum. That shattered the making work pay principle. I see in the Budget that the Government are taking some lessons from our reminding them that the whole process was undermined.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the previous Chancellor. The problem we have with universal credit, as with other benefits, is that the Government have a target of cutting £12 billion from the benefits budget. That is why we have an imperfect system. They are trying to make the system work, but they are making a bad job of it.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and he is quite right. My theory is that the then Chancellor expected the Liberal Democrats to do a little better in 2015, because he knew that we would not have allowed that £12 billion cut. However, we were not there to stop the Conservatives being absolutely idiotic on universal credit, and, frankly, on penalising the poor. The £12 billion cut gutted universal credit, but they continued with its introduction. We would have stopped both.
Let me return to the Budget. Apparently, the Budget was “listening”. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made representations to the Chancellor, because even the Conservatives began to realise that the fault lines in universal credit were causing the most shattering problems for our constituents. A number of hon. Members from both sides of the House have spoken very eloquently about the really quite appalling experiences that people are going through.
My key issue is this. The one reason why I supported universal credit, through gritted teeth and despite making constant representations when I was a member of the Select Committee—I know the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth agreed with me about some of the clunky elements—was that the work allowance would make work pay. As I said, in 2015 the then Chancellor took out £3 billion a year. The current Chancellor obviously recognised that the work allowance had been slashed so much that it barely washed its face and certainly did not make work pay, so—I got this from the Local Government Association—the Budget allocated an extra £8 million to trial innovative approaches to help individuals on universal credit to earn more at work. That is a ridiculous amount—£8 million is 1%—when £3 billion was taken out every year for the next five years. I am looking at the Conservative party, which is allegedly the party of aspiration. Its Chancellor of the Exchequer put in £8 million. That is a recognition that universal credit is not working from the perspective of making work pay. It also shows the Conservative party’s utter bankruptcy with regard to really trying to put in place what could ultimately be a very good credit and benefit system. They are instead retaining its failings and not doing what is necessary to make a real difference. It really is very, very disappointing.
I have also heard from the Conservative party, “Obviously, we can’t really make the changes because technically it’s too difficult on the six weeks-five weeks.” Well, first they moved down a week, so that was a bit different from what they said a few weeks ago. The other point—there are no Democratic Unionist party Members here, but let me share this with other hon. Members—is that the DUP got an agreement a few years ago for universal credit to be paid every two weeks and for there to be a default to the landlord in private rental. Perhaps the DUP has a different computer. Does the Secretary of State know whether they have a completely different computer in Northern Ireland? Is it somehow a special DUP computer, or is it all based on the same system? My understanding is that it is based on the same system. If the DUP can ensure that payments are made every two weeks—this has been happening for years, even before they crept in to prop up this absurd Government—why is it impossible for us to have it in Britain, considering some of the absolutely desperate situations people have been suffering as a result of the long delays? Yes, there have been changes to advance payments, but my God we had to drag that out of the Government like we were pulling teeth.
Frankly, if the Government had actually listened over a year and a half ago, maybe even a few years ago when I was on the Work and Pensions Committee, we would not have gone through the elements of universal credit that resemble a moving car crash, and more importantly—this was put so eloquently by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead—some of our constituents would have avoided the searing pain, hurt and frustration that they are currently experiencing. That was all because the Government were ideologically determined not to listen on some of the elements of universal credit that we knew did not work and—back to this again—because of the appalling gutting of universal credit work allowances by £3 billion per annum.
I will say one other thing. This, combined with the benefits freeze, is affecting real people. The Child Poverty Action Group told me a few weeks ago that on average the 2 million single parents in this country will lose £2,380 per annum. That is too much money. We are all on good salaries in this place, but I would notice if two and a half grand was taken out of my salary—I really would. It is a scandal that a single parent on a low income is going to lose on average—some will lose more—£2,380. It is a scandal and cannot proceed. I urge the Secretary of State to go back to the Chancellor on the work allowances and the benefits freeze and, most of all, get universal credit right so that it can be the good benefit it was originally proposed to be, before you gutted it and cut it.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I will make two points. First, a great many people are using the word “you”. When one is in the Chamber and addressing the Minister, it is “the Minister” or “the Government”. “You” means the Chair. I have to say this most emphatically, because so many people are making that mistake. Secondly, there have been lots of interventions, so we are running out of time and I have to reduce the time limit to six minutes. I call Mr James Cartlidge.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), because he gives a certain nuanced view on the coalition. In my view, the Government should seek to reduce the benefits bill. It is not a badge of honour if a Government preside over ever-spiralling welfare bills, and I am proud that we have brought them under control, but I accept entirely that welfare reform has consequences.
I want to focus on the difficult subject of food banks. Two weeks ago, the Suffolk Free Press, my main local paper, ran a piece saying that since the introduction of universal credit in Sudbury on 18 October—the full service roll-out—there had been an increase in the number of referrals to food banks. I received an email from the jobcentre just before this debate, so I feel that I should quote it at length. It is the jobcentre’s stance on the suggestion of an increase. It states:
“It is true that there has been an increase in referrals to Sudbury Food bank with 17 people being referred from the Jobcentre since Universal Credit Full Service rolled out… This is definitely more than we would have expected to have referred under the previous version of Universal Credit, known as Live Service, or previous benefits. While some of this might be because of the longer initial wait for payment there are other factors as well. The Full Service version of Universal Credit introduces a more diverse range of customers with a higher proportion of vulnerable groups – Live Service was only for single claimants who were often young and living with parents.”
Importantly, it also points out that it has itself been giving out vouchers for food banks, so it is no surprise that people would be visiting them.
On the measures in the Budget, the jobcentre concludes:
“It would be hoped that the recent budget announcements reducing the waiting time for the first payment by one week and increasing the amount of advance payment to 100% of their expected first payment will help reduce the number of people that need to be referred to the food bank.”
That is the unvarnished truth, as it were. We all know that the people claiming these benefits are not wealthy. That is the whole point; they are not supposed to be. They are experiencing difficulties. Wages have been compressed across large parts of the western world—I do not pretend otherwise. The key for us is to come up with a system that ensures they can break out and go on to earn higher wages and attain a sustainably better standard of living.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. However, the number of workless households in the United Kingdom is at an all-time low, and there is no single greater indication that poverty is being beaten than a reduction in the number of workless households. We have made incredible progress. This is not a Dickensian Christmas; it is the Christmas when we have reached the lowest level of unemployment since before I was born, in 1974. [Interruption.]
The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) is trying to intervene from a sedentary position. Let me simply say to her, as I have said in a previous debate on this subject and many times before, that I do not speak theoretically. Like other Conservative Members, I ran a small business before coming to the House. The hon. Lady talks about the effect on pay, but some members of my staff declined pay rises because they would lose so much in tax credit, and refused to work more than 16 hours a week. That was a huge problem, and it brings me to the main point of the debate.
If you want to reform welfare, you have to have a system that deals with inherited problems, particularly the 16-hour issue. The only way to do that without creating much more poverty, and much more dependence on food banks and the like, is to do precisely what I think we are trying to do, and give people incentives to earn more through work. If we give them universal support, they will have the encouragement and the skills to do better in the workplace. The other point about my local jobcentre is that it has been incredibly positive about that experience. This is a joined-up programme that does not just make work pay, but enables people to get more from work and to build a career.
May I amplify the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd)? Perhaps all Members on both sides of the House are uncomfortable, even within themselves, about the concept of food banks. When I was growing up, there were no food banks because we did not need them. Surely, ultimately, we all agree that they are an evil sight and we would rather it was not there.
The hon. Gentleman speaks as if he wanted to abolish food banks. They are run by a charity that is helping people in need, and I have no problem with that. I accept that even in the wealthiest districts of the wealthiest countries in the world there will be people who are struggling for one reason or another, and it is good that there is that sort of provision. The duty of the Government is to build broad policy that encourages people to improve their position in life, to earn higher wages, and to get on.
As has been acknowledged several times in the House, just over 1.1 million people in the UK used food banks in the last year. In Germany, where pay and benefits are higher, the figure is 1.5 million every week. Although there may be some individual cases, food bank usage is a structural issue. It is not solely down to universal credit.
My hon. Friend has made a good point. As I said earlier, the issue of the compression of wages in certain parts of the economy is a global phenomenon. It has been seen in the United States, in particular.
Let me end by raising an important issue that I have not heard a single Opposition Member mention in all our debates on this subject. The purpose of welfare reform is not to pay out more in benefits; it is to help people into work, and that is something that we should be thinking about.
In Suffolk, we have a real problem with finding people to pick fruit in our local growing sector, and I understand that in Cornwall fruit is rotting in fields because EU workers are going home and there are not enough people to pick it. Although unemployment is very low—and I am proud of that—more than 10,000 people are unemployed in Suffolk and Cornwall, yet we say that there is no one to pick our natural abundance. I do not understand why not a single Opposition Member, at any point during any debate on welfare, ever comes up with a way to reform the system, to encourage work, and to incentivise people to go out there and get it. Moreover, I am afraid that we should consider the other side of the issue: sometimes we need stick as well as carrot. There are people who are not taking work that is available, and in my view they should be.
The hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friend, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith)—who designed universal credit—has said that work allowances need to be restored to retain an incentive to work as part of universal credit. Does he not accept that?
I think that the benefits system remains extremely generous. The difficulty for the Government is that they inherited a system in which millions of people have been taken through tax credit and made unnecessarily dependent on benefits. It is incredibly difficult to wean people off that dependency, and you do not do it by paying out more and more in benefits; all that you do is get the country into ever greater debt. I am proud that we have made the progress that we have made, but it is a difficult issue.
I am trying to focus on the fact that we are starting to see labour shortages in areas where we have 10,000 unemployed. What is going on? What malfunction is occurring in our so-called social security system? For me, the answer is not a softening of the welfare system or the increase in benefit payments that the Opposition are calling for, because that would create even less incentive for people to go out to work. We need to understand how we are going to fill those positions as we head into Brexit and turn off the tap of cheap labour from abroad. How are we going to fill those positions with people from this country? We will have to take some very difficult decisions in regard to the economically inactive and those who remain on unemployment benefit. If the Opposition cannot see that, it shows that they did not learn any lessons when they were in government. They left us with the deficit that caused the whole mess to start off with, and they need to start understanding that welfare is not just about paying more benefits. It is about encouraging people into work and reforming the system.
I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who is not here at the moment, for speaking so openly. This is 2017. How can stories like that be commonplace? As we have just heard, universal credit is a perfect example of how this Government can detach themselves from the very real suffering that they have inflicted on their citizens, through the blinkered belief that they know what is best. Their main argument is to discredit the previous tax credit system, saying that it encouraged people not to enter work. As someone who had to rely on that tax credit system, I believe that I am somewhat more qualified to tell the Government about some of the real problems in the system. They include low wages, high childcare costs, huge rental expenses and extortionate bills.
The Government set about trying to label people like me as scroungers or shirkers. They should try hearing every day how people like me should not have children if they cannot afford them. Single parents, the sick and disabled are penalised by a Government who think it is okay to demonise those who are struggling, while the people controlling the system avoid paying taxes and get richer and richer. And when we call the Government out, they tell us we are scaremongering. That is their rhetoric, but this is life.
Universal credit is a system that supposedly incentivises people to get back into the workplace. Do the Government actually know what that looks like? I say to Government Members that people have no choice but to take jobs on zero-hours contracts or temporary work that could cease at any moment. They have to rely on that insecure work, while private landlords will not touch them with a bargepole. If the Government prioritised creating secure jobs with decent pay, helping families to get into safe, secure and affordable housing and helping parents practically with childcare costs, they would soon find that they had a more productive workforce and that the economy grew.
My constituency of Crewe and Nantwich had full universal credit rolled out in July this year. I will share some of the so-called success stories that have come into my office. I have a constituent who is a single parent with two children. She went to university and now works full-time in the prison service. She has to put both children into full-time childcare, but the childminders require payment up front, so the week she started her job, she had to get an overdraft to pay the childminding fees. She made an application for universal credit, but before her first payment was even received, she had to pay for the childcare again, which was the equivalent of her take-home wage. At that stage, she had nothing. She had no wages left and no overdraft to dip into as it was totally maxed out. She was taking out loans just to feed her children, and by the time her payment came, it was only two weeks before the childcare fees were due again. She went to university to better herself and to provide for her children, but the system has plunged her into poverty and made her reliant on high interest payday loans. We put in a food bank referral for her, but she struggled to collect the parcel because of her work commitments. Thankfully, my office was able to arrange for it to be delivered; otherwise, her family would have gone hungry.
Another example is Cornelli, a self-employed mum with a child of two and a new addition on the way. She is building a photography business. With her previous child, she was able to claim tax credits alongside maternity allowance. However, under universal credit, her maternity allowance will reduce the amount of universal credit she receives, pound for pound, as it is considered a benefit. If she were not self-employed but in normal work, she would receive statutory maternity pay, which is treated as income. Under universal credit, she will be £600 a month worse off than she would be under the tax credits system. This Government are unfairly penalising the self-employed. In addition to deducting all of her maternity allowance, they have lost out on her partner’s disability premium under the new system.
Finally, another example of the Government’s “success” is the situation faced by Mr Rodgers, who had issues with his previous employer, who paid him for three months’ work in one lump sum. Despite him uploading the wage slip to that effect on his journal, those administering universal credit now think he earned much more money in one month than he did and as such is not entitled to universal credit for that month. Had he been paid monthly, he would have been entitled to a payment each month.
Universal credit is not tailored to meet the reality of the UK economy. It needs to be adapted to be able to deal with changes in circumstances as and when they happen. Given the Government’s refusal to pause and fix universal credit despite a unanimous motion in this House supporting a pause, it is even more vital that they come clean with their own assessment of the risks involved.
I stand here as a voice for my constituents, who are living and breathing this flawed system, and ask again: listen to them, please—this simply is not fair.
First, I want to comment on what was said by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). Having been in a similar position as a staffer for a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I well understand how a situation like the one he described can affect people. I also want to associate myself with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) regarding the awareness of Work and Pensions Committee members of the Committee’s involvement in today’s motion; it would have been nice to have been alerted of our involvement, but we will let that go.
This is the fourth time we have spoken on universal credit since the election. As I said in my last contribution to the debate, that is a not a bad thing given how important and wide-ranging universal credit is, and how much impact it will have across the country. However, unlike on previous occasions, today is the first time we have heard from at least some on the Opposition Benches a partial acknowledgment of the good work being done by this Government.
As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, I am extremely pleased that the Government have listened to our recommendations and removed the seven-day waiting period at the beginning of the process, extended the repayment timetable for advance payments, and carried housing benefit across for two weeks, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen), who is not in her place, said, is tremendous.
Today, however, we are debating the publication of the project assessment reviews. As the Secretary of State set out, there is a need, recognised by the Public Accounts Committee, that confidential sensitive data must be protected for commercial and other reasons. I do not think anybody with any reasonable sense would deny that. This is in the public interest, but, as has also been said, there has to be a balance, so I welcome the announcement that the Government will agree to publish the papers to the Select Committee of which I am a member, and I am looking forward to my Christmas recess reading.
We have come a long way with universal credit, and I pay tribute to my colleagues on the Committee, who have been persistent but, I believe, constructive in moving this debate forward. I also pay tribute to the Secretary of State and the Department for showing by their actions a willingness to listen and move on issues that it is agreed need to be moved on. The most responsible way for the Government to proceed now—as they are—is to take the roll-out at a steady pace and to stay the course, minimising uncertainty. This policy has been a long time in the making, and the Government are taking the right approach: rolling out universal credit slowly, listening to Members on all sides of the House, to the Work and Pensions Committee and to DWP staff, and making changes to address issues as and when they emerge.
I think everyone agrees that in a perfect world the five-week waiting period would be reduced to four weeks, which would then mirror the way that most people are paid—monthly in arrears. The issue here is not a political will or ideology, but is a technical matter which would be faced by any Government. However, the Government are compensating for this practicality issue with not only the lifeline of advance payments, but the housing benefit carry-over. The seven-day waiting period has been scrapped, the taper rate has been cut, the phone helplines are now free, advance payments are substantial and easy to receive, and people are significantly more likely to move into work than those on the old system—a system under which it made sense to work for only 16 hours a week, trapping people in the benefits system.
I find it difficult to believe that the Opposition want to see the documents simply to make constructive, realistic proposals to improve the policy. It could be that they are searching for headlines and to make political capital when the Government are pressing ahead, slowly and in a listening mode, with a policy that will affect many lives for the better, and building a welfare system that works and will help support all our constituents who are in need of it. Announcing today that the project assessment reviews will be published to the Work and Pensions Committee is yet another display of the constructive approach being taken by this Government to this incredibly important policy.
On Monday last week, I spoke in the Chamber to propose a ten-minute rule Bill to try to tackle some of the organisational and administrative issues that have made universal credit worse. The most important thing that has been discussed in all these universal credit debates is obviously the waiting time and, like others, I welcome the Chancellor’s reducing it to five weeks. However, contrary to what was claimed by the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), 25% of universal credit claimants are waiting longer than six weeks now. That is a DWP figure, so it is simply not the case that no one is waiting longer than five weeks. I also welcome the increase in the advance loans to 100% and the stretching of the payback to a year, but those changes do not come in until next year. People in my constituency, which was hit on Budget day, will face exactly the same set-up that has been discussed repeatedly today.
Last Monday, I proposed some of the flexible options put forward by the Scottish Government, such as fortnightly payments and direct payments to landlords, and I call in particular for separate payments. While the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) said that they are not any use, separate payments are being promoted by women’s charities as a way of avoiding financial control and manipulation. However, a ten-minute rule Bill can only discuss the things around the edges, and universal credit has major underlying problems. It is often described as simple, but rolling so many different types of people on to one benefit has proven difficult. The majority of people on universal credit includes working people who will be receiving child tax credits and working tax credits through universal credit. As has been said, the benefit will eventually be collected by 11 million people, so it is important to get things right before it reaches that scale.
One of the main issues is the benefit freeze until 2020. Inflation is already over 3% and is expected to climb due to Brexit. The average loss of earnings for unemployed people will be £500 a year, but the figure for employed households is £1,200 a year. Of that loss, 57% is due to the change in the work allowance. If the Government want to make work pay, they should return to what was proposed in 2013 and fix the work allowance. The grotesque rape clause has been well aired by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), but it is simply an exemption to another big issue: the two-child limit on tax credits. Three-quarters of a million families with three children or more will lose more than £2,500 a year, and that includes a quarter of a million one-earner families who will lose more than £3,800 a year. With the kind of income that such families have, that loss is enormous. We have already seen the number of children living in poverty increase by 400,000, and any medic or social scientist will talk about the impact that the change will have on children’s lives and how it will cost more in the long term.
The Women’s Budget Group has shown that 86% of all the cuts made over the past seven years have been felt by women, who tend to be at the lower end of the income scale, and by black, Asian and minority ethnic women in particular, which may be aggravated by cultural factors because they may have three or more children. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) talked about family planning, and no one can predict the moment at which life can change. People cannot suddenly put their child in a bin because their circumstances have changed or they have been made redundant—that is ridiculous.
My Bill called on the Government to carry out cumulative impact assessments that consider gender and race. We have been calling for the roll-out to be paused and fixed, and we have heard in the past week that it will be paused, but it will be paused between February and April. Good luck to those whose constituencies will not be hit, as mine is, going into the Christmas and new year period, but why is the roll-out not being paused now so that, as we go through the hardest bit of winter, the reforms agreed by the Chancellor can be enacted? The roll-out needs to be changed, and the pause should be now, not next February.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s response earlier this afternoon, not least on the release of the project assessment reports on which the motion focuses.
The Secretary of State addressed the need for transparency and scrutiny, and he highlighted how the Public Accounts Committee and others have scrutinised universal credit. I am sure universal credit will continue to be scrutinised both in this Chamber and in Committee as we continue with the roll-out, as is right and proper. He also mentioned the importance of not weakening any commercial negotiating position, of protecting information, as appropriate, and of making sure that we maintain an effective system in the public interest. It is important that the right balance continues to be struck in our deliberations.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement that he will provide the papers to the Work and Pensions Committee; as he said, it is important to recognise that this is an exceptional request. The assessments will be provided subject to redaction and on a confidential basis, but their release gives the Select Committee the opportunity to see the information.
I have contributed to previous debates on universal credit, which is fundamentally about creating a welfare system that helps people into work and supports those who need help while being fair to those who pay for it. We introduced universal credit to ensure that work always pays. Merging six benefits into one simpler, fairer system makes sense. Jobseekers are able to spend more time looking for work. They are more likely to consider jobs and, compared with the old system, they are taking on more jobs or hours.
At the heart of universal credit is a system that makes work pay and helps people into work. One of the fundamental things it does is give people more support in their local jobcentre.
Since the start of the roll-out of universal credit, this Government have continued to listen and have continued to review the programme. In many circumstances, new projects and new programmes have to be continually reviewed as they go along, and this Government are doing exactly the right thing.
When it comes to getting people into work, alongside having people to help and support them through that process, a good education is fundamental. We must not lose sight of the fact that, under this Government, there are more than 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools, and standards are rising. The number of children in workless households is now at a 20-year low.
We have created more than 3 million apprenticeships since May 2010, and we have committed to delivering 3 million apprenticeships between 2015 and 2020. Those apprenticeships are developing skills for the workplace. They are helping people into work, helping people stay in work, helping our businesses to develop for the future and helping to develop our economy. Whereas under Labour the number of young people not in education, employment or training went up by a third, unemployment is now at its lowest since 1975. This Government are creating the opportunities for young people. When there are jobs and apprenticeships, that also helps jobcentres to get people into work.
Reforms to the skills and education system are also important in making sure that young people are equipped to get those jobs. We need to invest in technology and in skills that will help and support people, and help this country thrive in new and emerging economies. It is this Government who are helping people, which is why I am disappointed to have sat through a lot of this debate and heard scaremongering stories from Opposition Members. I do not think that helps anybody. It does not help those people who on benefit or those who may be needing to go on to UC. We should be working constructively, working together to create those opportunities for everybody to benefit.
In my constituency, we do not yet have UC, but a lot of preparation is already going on in advance of the roll-out. It is being done through our jobcentre, which I visited a few months ago, when I was really impressed by the hard work and effort the people there were putting in to get ready for the moment of roll-out next year. I was impressed at how they were already starting, through their systems and their local knowledge, to identify the people who might need that little extra support to find their way through the new system—that is important. Our local housing association, Walsall Housing Group, is already starting to make preparations and look at helping people through this transition period. So let us not lose sight of that. There are always sad cases and people who get into difficulties, and the system has to be there for them, but let us also not forget that, despite the protestations from Opposition Members, there are many positive stories. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) is not in her place, but she has had the roll-out in her constituency and she can see the benefits it is bringing.
Time is short, so I am going to end on one important quote from the Trussell Trust. On the Budget, it said:
“We welcome the Chancellor’s announcement today of a package to address concerns around the operational delivery of Universal Credit. Cutting the waiting time by seven days, modifying the advance payment system, and ensuring that people will continue receiving housing benefit for two weeks after moving onto the new system, will ease the pressure on thousands of households”.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for securing this debate and pursuing this issue. This is probably going to be the last time I speak in this place on this issue before UC is rolled out in my constituency on 13 December. That is a daunting prospect, not because I have just made things up or because I am scaremongering, but because of everything that every advice and support agency in my constituency has told me about this system.
I also want to refute some of the things that have been said by Conservative Members. This is about people in work. They talk about people getting into work quicker, but more than 50% of people on UC are in work, so this is a problem for those people. I refute the idea that this is not about austerity, because the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that by 2022 £12 billion will come from the welfare budget. If that is not about austerity, I do not know what is. Before campaigning on an issue, you must be sure you are doing it in the best interest of all your constituents and that it is something important to them. I am absolutely convinced that UC is one such issue.
It is right that we separate the delivery of this system from the design, because the people in jobcentres could not be working any harder to prepare for this roll-out. The idea that when jobcentre staff get a visit from a Member from the ruling party they are able to sit down and tell them, in all its glory, about the difficulties and the problems they are facing just completely ignores the power dynamics between that member of staff and somebody from this place.
I am not going to give way, so Conservative Members should save their energy.
Colleagues on the Opposition Benches have conveyed their deep unrest at the system, not to score political points but to try to get the Government to see what we see: people in work and out of work enduring what is essentially an ill-thought-out experiment. It is an experiment built on deeply flawed assumptions about what causes worklessness and what creates low pay. It is based on a deeply flawed model of what traps people in a cycle of debt and financial crisis, and it is a deeply flawed ideology that labels workers and people unable to work with the worst of motivations rather than the best, created by people who, if I am honest, know little or nothing about poverty and what it means to struggle in that poverty.
Leaving aside the ideological differences, the practical issues are enough to go on alone. We have listed them in this place time and again. We have had meetings with the Secretary of State. We have written letters and held evidence sessions. We have listened cumulatively to thousands and thousands of people, from claimants to advice agencies, about the chaos the system brings, and we have witnessed the fear that people are experiencing or anticipating.
Let me say what is still wrong with the system: the wait is still too long, the advance payments are still a loan, the disability premium remains removed, explicit consent is still a barrier and universal credit still penalises people with fluctuating wages. There is still uncertainty about claimants’ entitlement to free school meals, prescription exemptions and Healthy Start vouchers. Private landlords are still wary about having universal credit claimants as tenants and housing associations are still anticipating arrears. So, I was not cheering and whooping at the Chancellor’s announcements. On all the things we raised that the Government conceded on, there was originally no acknowledgement that there was a problem.
On behalf of my constituents, I would like to know why the Government are rolling out this system in Consett and Crook jobcentres on 13 December. Who thought that was a sensible idea? Who on earth signed it off? I still do not have an answer to that. At a time of year when people quite rightly take leave and endure increased costs because of all the difficulties of winter, who signed that off?
The Opposition, backed by some brilliant campaign groups, have won victories against the Government, including concessions on phone-line charges, the increase in advance payment entitlement and the repayment schedule, and the removal of the seven-day waiting period. But let us be under no illusions at all: the Government would not have conceded on any of those points were it not for the political pressure and the activism of those groups. We need more popular resistance to this Government, who have repeatedly told us that everything is fine. Everything is fine, until they concede on another wholly inappropriate part of the universal credit system, so to find out that they have been withholding the publishing of papers—reports that potentially give us the facts to support everything that we know and have been saying is already going on—feels like a betrayal.
I want to see the papers and I want the Work and Pensions Committee to see them in time, before universal credit is rolled out in my constituency on 13 December. The Select Committee will not have time to analyse the information before the system is rolled out. I do not think any of us can buy the argument that the content cannot be shared while retaining the anonymity of those surveyed. Of course these assessments can be published. Let us be honest: the Government are embarrassed. The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) said earlier that the Opposition were trying to embarrass the Government; no, the Government are embarrassed about this system. They are hell-bent on continuing the roll-out of this system, irrespective of the evidence. As I have already said—
I am not giving way to Government Members. I have heard enough of their contributions about my community. I have sat here for hours. I want to say my piece and then continue to listen to the rest of the debate.
The Select Committee will not have time to analyse the evidence. The announcements that were made by the Chancellor will not take effect until next year, so they mean nothing to the people in my constituency. I beg this Government to please pause the roll-out in North West Durham.
I am pleased to follow the “to the barricades” speech of the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock). I can assure her that if she joined me in visiting DWP staff at Randolphfield, Stirling, she would find that they are far from supine, as she alleges. They will absolutely tell me what is going on, and I count on that and am grateful for it.
To suggest that DWP workers, who work with such integrity and courage in Tonbridge and other areas around my constituency, do not speak out when they are asked is to malign them. These are people with integrity and courage who work incredibly hard.
Order. That is not a point of order. If the hon. Lady wishes to make that point, she will have to intervene on the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), who currently has the Floor. Whether or not he takes her intervention would be a matter of great interest.
I can assure the House that the professionalism and dedication of DWP staff are not in question. I especially pay tribute to DWP staff in Stirling, who are doing a magnificent job in delivering this radical change—there is no question but that it is a massive change. That is why the Government are taking their approach to rolling it out, for which I applaud them.
I also warmly welcome the changes that were announced in the Budget. They went a very long way to meeting the concerns that I and other Members have expressed to the Government. I welcome the Secretary of State’s speech, and I also compliment the Minister for Employment for the detail that he continues to give to all of us who have a genuine interest in the success of universal credit. It is a major reform and it is long overdue. As we have rehearsed so often in these debates, it is a programme that encourages and facilitates a return to work by mirroring the world of work through its processes.
Of course problems arise when there is such a dramatic change, especially when it comes to the vulnerable in our society. When we try to encourage people to cope with making their own decisions and to stand on their own two feet, it is not easy, but that is the whole essence of welfare—to help people to help themselves. Surely that is a noble objective to which we can all subscribe.
Time is against me, but I want to mention some specific points that I would like the Minister to consider. DWP staff used to have a database of people— I believe that it was called the Apollo list—whom they could speak to about a specific case, but that ceased to exist in June. One of the main problems that remains is the capacity of DWP staff to talk to individuals—I am thinking about more than one for a particular case. I ask that this list of accredited and trusted partners is reinstated so that DWP staff can talk to a wider range of people, whom I would describe as being in the circle of concern for claimants, particularly those who struggle, who have learning difficulties or disabilities, or who, frankly—I say this with the greatest of respect—lead what can only be described as a chaotic lifestyle and need additional help.
Secondly money can be recouped from universal credit payments for a variety of bona fide reasons—council tax arrears, rent arrears, sheriff court fines or whatever. That is all well and good, but there has to be closer scrutiny of the minimum amount that people can be left to live on, otherwise we can cause unintended hardship. I would like to see a little more discretion in how those deductions are made.
Thirdly there have been some instances of universal credit overpayments. In such cases, there are attempts to recover the money, which is right and proper, but it feels as though DWP staff had more discretion in the past about how they went about recovering money. I would like the DWP to consider how it organises its staff and how they operate in front of claimants.
Fourthly, there is the issue of overpayments relating to local housing allowances. In some cases, payments have been made on the basis of full rent, but then there has been a reference to the local housing allowance, and it is discovered that there have been overpayments. There is then a request for a refund. Frankly, the process gets rather messy, because people have usually either spent the money, or paid it in rent. Perhaps these things could be addressed more directly and quickly if there were a circle of concern and a greater possibility of intervention by accredited partners.
Another concern I will add to my list is about the DWP’s capacity to provide visiting officers and outreach in rural areas. It is undoubtedly the case that applicants from rural areas face difficulties when they are required to attend jobcentres for interview, ID verification or ongoing appointments. The whole experience of going into DWP offices can be too much for some people. I am only talking about small numbers, but if the programme is to be a success—I ask Opposition Members to stop trying to pull this whole thing down—we need to be attentive to the needs of the most vulnerable.
I refer yet again to my vast and very remote constituency. I wholeheartedly endorse the hon. Gentleman’s point, because I have visited DWP staff in Wick in my constituency. I recognise how hard they are working and that they are doing their very best, but travelling to meet clients—if that is what we call them—in the far north-west of Sutherland is an almost impossible task.
That is one dimension. Another aspect that I am trying to highlight is the fact that some people need to be visited in their homes, but the DWP does not have the capacity to do that. For example, there are only two people who make such visits in the whole Forth Valley area, and they are overworked.
The process when someone is required to present themselves to provide ID verification can get a bit messy, as people do not always have the ID that they need. Not everyone has a passport or a driving licence, so further interventions are required from other agencies. It is logical for a patient to ask their GP to verify their ID, because surgeries can produce documents, but GP surgeries in my constituency are saying, “Hang on, that’s not our job. We’re not going to give you this information because it is really the DWP that should be talking to us about your identity.” The suggestion that some GP surgeries might begin to charge for such services causes me grave concern.
Time is against me, so I will conclude on the issue of joint claims and split payments. I have concerns about the way in which these payments are being handled. I have spoken to a number of women’s charities, such as Stirling and District Women’s Aid, that have explained why we need to adopt a more flexible approach to split payments. For example, payments for joint claimants should made into either a joint bank account or separate bank accounts. That would protect the most vulnerable people in society—women with young children who are on the receiving end of a rather brutal existence at the hands of some miscreant men.
Finally, we should not be afraid of measurement and reporting, so I welcome the Government’s approach to that. When performance is measured, it improves, and when that performance is reported, the rate of improvement accelerates. That cannot be a bad thing.
It was the former hon. Member for Foyle, Mark Durkan, who is sadly missed in this place, who once referred to Opposition day debates as being like a silent disco: the Opposition talk about the motion on the Order Paper, and Government Members talk about something that might have a tenuous link to the motion on the Order Paper. In this debate, some Conservative Members— rather naughtily I thought, Mr Speaker—have questioned occupants of the Chair as to whether the motion is actually in order. I should have thought that the fact that it is on the Order Paper would suggest that it is in order.
Given that this is pantomime season, we have seen a competition on the Government Benches as to who their top pantomime villain is—[Interruption.] Well, he was pulled up. We almost, but not quite, had the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) suggesting some sort of corporal punishment for the unemployed when he was talking about using the big stick. I thought that that was completely and utterly outrageous.
I was simply saying that, when we have a massive lack of labour—for picking fruit, for example—and thousands of people unemployed, we have to ask ourselves what is wrong in the benefit system that we are not getting people to fill those positions. That is not calling for corporal punishment; it is a perfectly fair thing to ask for.