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Universal Credit: Food Bank Usage

Volume 633: debated on Monday 18 December 2017

6. If he will make an assessment of the effect of the length of waiting time to receive universal credit on levels of food bank usage. (902983)

15. If he will make an assessment of the effect of the length of waiting time to receive universal credit on levels of food bank usage. (902992)

There is no reason for people to go without support while they wait for their first UC payment. New benefit claimants starting on UC today will be able to access an advance. This is normally paid within five working days, but can be delivered in a day if needed. Changes announced in the Budget will allow claimants to receive larger advances and for advances to be recovered over a longer period.

Given the waiting period for universal credit, people face a choice: they can have no money to buy food, so either use a food bank or starve, or they can get a loan, as the Secretary of State says. Does he agree that pushing people who are already on a low income because they are on a benefit into debt in this way is totally unacceptable?

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s categorisation at all. The complaint that has been made about universal credit is about the cash-flow point—that people have to wait a period of time before they get their first payment. To address the cash-flow point there is a system of advances in the universal credit system so that people have the flexibility to receive the money earlier. It is an advance, they get it paid earlier—they do not get it paid twice, I accept that, but they get it paid earlier—and it is a perfectly sensible way to address a cash-flow issue.

The Peabody Trust estimates that 60,000 households will have made a new universal credit claim in the six weeks before Christmas and will not receive their first payment before the holiday period. The need is already being felt in my constituency, where last week Norwood food bank provided food for an extraordinary 128 people in a single session. What is the Secretary of State’s advice to families who are trying to provide a happy Christmas for their children without the means to afford even basic necessities?

We should be clear: if people need cash before Christmas, they are able to get it under the universal credit system, which is designed so that they can do that. People trying to discourage claimants from taking an advance, which I am afraid is the tone that we hear too often from the Labour party, are causing unnecessary anxiety for claimants.

The chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority has recently warned about high levels of debt among young people incurred just by their covering basic household bills such as rent. Young people aged 18 to 21 are not entitled to housing support under universal credit. Why did the Government ignore a Social Security Advisory Committee recommendation that young people on the edge of care should be exempted from that?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, there are a whole host of exemptions that do allow 18 to 21-year-olds to access housing benefit, if those exemptions apply to them. I have to come back to this point, which the Labour party does not seem to accept: the best way in which we can sustainably lift people out of poverty is to have a welfare system that encourages them to work and to progress in work. That is what universal credit does and it is what the legacy system failed to do, which is why we are making these changes.