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Universal Credit: 2017 Budget Changes

Volume 641: debated on Monday 21 May 2018

I would like to start by thanking my hon. Friend for his support in securing the Budget changes. We have increased advances, so claimants can receive up to 100% of their entitlement within days of a claim. We have removed waiting days, so the time to the first full payment is reduced, and we have given claimants an additional two weeks of housing benefit to provide extra support when they transition to universal credit.

I campaigned hard for those changes, along with Members on both sides of the House, and I am delighted that the Government listened and delivered. Does the Secretary of State have any information or feedback on how those changes are helping claimants on the ground?

People are moving on to universal credit now with a smoother transition. When on universal credit, they are getting into work quicker, staying in work longer and looking for more opportunities in work. They are also getting more personalised support through the claimant commitment, which is helping them whether they are in debt or need IT support. This is about developing universal credit to respond to people’s needs.

The modest changes in the Budget were welcome, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State has seen the recent research showing that food bank demand is growing much faster in areas where universal credit has been fully rolled out than it is elsewhere. Does she have substantial proposals to solve the very serious problems with this new benefit?

They were not modest changes; they were quite significant changes, made after listening to what people said on the ground and meeting various action groups on the ground to see what was needed. We listened and we changed, and that is why we have done a very slow roll-out. I meet some of the poverty action groups across the country on a weekly basis to ask what else can be done. All have welcomed the changes we have put in place and the record number of people we have now got into employment, but of course where we need to give debt support or advances, we will continue to do so.

With universal credit being fully rolled out in Erewash, can my right hon. Friend state how universal credit can impact the claimant count numbers and what can be done to explain like for like?

My hon. Friend asks a pertinent question. Employment is going up and unemployment is going down, which is reflected in the numbers, but because this is a brand new benefit that takes on people in work and people out of work, we are seeing the number of people claiming double. We are now giving support and career progression to people in work, so we will see the claimant count increase and, in some areas, double.

Increased debt, job insecurity, rising stress, housing insecurity and unpredictability of income are all highlighted by Gingerbread as issues raised by single parents in receipt of universal credit, and it states that the Government need to go further. How does the Secretary of State plan to address those problems and the estimated 165,000 single parents of pre-school-age children who are highlighted by Gingerbread’s report as being at risk of poverty and debt from new universal credit conditionality?

As it is a brand new benefit, we are providing extra childcare support, which is needed by people with children and lone parents. We are also giving tailored support. The claimant commitment and the one-to-one relationship that people have with their work coach is about really understanding the needs of the individual. That is what we are doing to help people to get into a job, get a career and fulfil their job ambitions.

The Department for Work and Pensions has been forced recently to reveal that a fifth of universal credit claims are being turned down because claimants are not managing to negotiate the complex application process, meaning that thousands of people are falling out of the system. Claims must be made and managed online, even though, according to an OECD study, 40% of unemployed adults in England have low basic skills. Meanwhile, one in 10 jobcentres are being closed, removing face-to-face support from communities, and the Government are speeding up the roll-out of the full service yet again. What action are the Government taking to identify the factors leading to such a high level of failure?

Obviously, this benefit is not failing. That is why we are seeing extra support and why we are seeing record numbers of people in employment and record low unemployment. However, the hon. Lady is right to talk about the low IT skills that people have. Part of the universal support we are giving is to educate and to enable people because the IT skills they need to claim a benefit are the same IT skills they need to get a job and to get cheaper deals online. That is what we are providing. Again, if they are in debt, we are providing that personalised support. As we close some of the jobcentres, most important is the outreach work that we do. As we seek to help more people and some of the most difficult to help into work, we are doing outreach work through the flexible support fund.