I beg to move,
That this House censures the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Tatton, for her handling of the roll-out of universal credit and her response to the NAO report, Rolling Out Universal Credit; notes that the Department for Work and Pensions’ own survey of claimants published on 8 June 2018 showed that 40 per cent of claimants were experiencing financial hardship even nine months into a claim and that 20 per cent of claimants were unable to make a claim online; further censures the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for not pausing the roll-out of universal credit in the light of this evidence; and calls on the Government to reduce the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions’ ministerial salary to zero for four weeks.
The findings of the report “Rolling out Universal Credit” by the National Audit Office, published on 15 June, were damning: universal credit is failing to achieve its aims and there is currently no evidence to suggest that it ever will; it may cost more than the benefits system that it replaces; the Department for Work and Pensions will never be able to measure whether it has achieved its stated goal of increasing employment; and it has not delivered value for money and it is uncertain that it ever will.
The NAO report raised real concerns about the impact on claimants, particularly the delays in payments, which are pushing people into debt, rent arrears and even forcing them to turn to food banks to survive. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions took nearly a week to come to the House to respond to the report on what is the Government’s flagship social security programme and a major public project. When she did so on 21 June, on a Thursday when she knew that many Members would not be able to be here, she undermined the report rather than address the extremely serious issues that it raised.
Her approach was shockingly complacent. It was as though she was oblivious to the hardship that so many people are suffering. She referred to universal credit as an example of “leading-edge technology” and “agile working practices”. She said that it was
“a unique example of great British innovation”
“Countries such as New Zealand, Spain, France and Canada have met us”—
the Department for Work and Pensions—
“to see UC, to watch and learn what is happening for the next generation of benefit systems.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2018; Vol. 643, c. 491.]
I do hope that they will listen to the testimony given by our Members today.
I have listened to what the hon. Lady has said. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had the courtesy to come to the House to apologise. Mr Speaker accepted that apology. Has the Labour Front-Bench team the good grace to accept it, too?
Last week, on 5 July, following my question at Work and Pensions questions on Monday, the Secretary of State said that she had made an error and wanted to report it to the House—as reported in column 500 of Hansard. Why does my hon. Friend think that it took 48 hours for her to come to the House when a written apology, or an apology on the Monday or Tuesday, could have done the job? Was it because the National Audit Office published its report at 11 o’clock on Wednesday?
My right hon. Friend raises such an important point. I was as shocked as he was to hear the Secretary of State say that it was when she had left the Chamber that she realised her mistake. She should have replied that afternoon. He is quite right on that point.
The Secretary of State adopted the same approach at Work and Pensions questions, as has been noted, leading the head of the National Audit Office, Sir Amyas Morse, to take the extraordinary step of writing an open letter to her, taking issue with a number of claims that she had made in response to the report. The three key claims that he took issue with were, first, that the NAO report said that the roll-out of universal credit should be speeded up; secondly, that the report
“didn’t take account of changes made by the government in the Budget”;
and, thirdly, that universal credit is working.
Let us just think about the significance of this. The National Audit Office is an independent body that scrutinises public spending before Parliament. It is responsible for auditing central Government Departments. Its reports matter. I shall take each claim in turn.
On 21 June, the Secretary of State stated on several occasions that the report had said that the Government should speed up the roll-out of universal credit. She repeated that claim at Work and Pensions oral questions on 2 July, when questioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) and me. Of course, the NAO report does not say anywhere that the roll-out should be speeded up. In fact, it says very clearly that the Government should
“ensure the programme does not expand before business-as-usual operations can cope with higher claimant volumes.”
This is an incredibly important point. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as we are seeing 100,000 households rolling on to universal credit this year and 200,000 next year, with 40% in hardship, we are talking about millions of real people, real families, whose lives are being affected by the speed of this roll-out?
Does the hon. Lady accept that the NAO report does not take into account what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Department have done recently in line with their “listen and learn” approach with the roll-out of universal credit?
The right hon. Gentleman should go back and re-read the report.
On 4 July, the Secretary of State finally admitted that she had “inadvertently” misled Parliament in claiming that the roll-out should be speeded up. This matters not just because she admitted that she had misled Parliament, but, as I will explain later, because the Government have sharply accelerated the roll-out of universal credit since May and because, from next year it, they will start a managed migration of 3.9 million people on legacy benefits across to universal credit.
We have to put this whole debate on universal credit in context. In at least two general elections, the Government said in their manifestos that they would cut £12 billion off the national health service. What we have is a benefit system that is tailor-made for cuts and not for the benefit of the people who receive it.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am going to make some progress now because there have been so many interventions, although I am pleased that so many people are here today.
The head of the NAO said clearly in his letter of 4 July:
“Our report was fully agreed with senior officials in your Department. It is based on the most accurate and up-to-date information from your department. Your department confirmed this to me in writing on…6 June and we then reached final agreement on the report on…8 June.”
The Secretary of State refused to back down and said again in a letter to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier)—dated only yesterday that, although she had full confidence in the NAO and its head,
“that does not mean the Department will always agree with all of the judgements reached by the NAO.”
Will she tell us now, once and for all, whether or not her Department agreed the report with the NAO in writing on 8 June?
Will the hon. Lady give way?
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not a custom in this place, out of common courtesy, that when one hon. Member references another—either by name or by constituency—and that Member then seeks to intervene, the request is usually acceded to?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Thirdly, the Secretary of State claimed that universal credit is working. The head of the NAO said in his letter that this is unproven. The DWP’s own survey of claimants under the full service published in June shows that just under half of all claimants were unable to register their claim online unassisted, a quarter were not able to submit their claim online at all and 40% were falling behind with bills or experiencing real financial difficulties, sometimes even nine months into their claim. A recent freedom of information request revealed that a fifth of universal credit claims are failing at an early stage because claimants are not able to navigate the online system. These people are likely to be among the most vulnerable in our society, and this Government are failing them.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Precisely on that point—which I have raised repeatedly with Ministers, but to no avail—does she accept that the Government’s position of not allowing advice agencies to help people with their claims after they changed the implied consent rules is shown to be completely bankrupt when such a high proportion of people cannot get their claims sorted out online?
I have three minutes of my speech left, so I will take no more interventions.
The Secretary of State claimed that the NAO report did not take account of the impact of recent Government changes. However, there have been no recent changes to support people in making and managing their claim online, and we know that the Government’s universal support programme receives only limited funding. The payment delays that people are experiencing are shocking.
The DWP this week published figures on the length of payment delays for new claims due in February. The Library estimates that nearly 13,000 people were not paid in full on time and 7,500 people did not receive any payment on time at all. In December, two thirds of disabled people with limited capability for work were not paid in full on time, and last year 113,000 people—a quarter of new claims—were not paid in full on time. This is outrageous. Why were they not paid in full on time and what is the Secretary of State going to do about it? These are people on low incomes who often do not have any savings to rely on in these circumstances. The delays are causing real hardship for people, leading them to build up debt and rent arrears.
The Residential Landlords Association has made it clear that private landlords are increasingly reluctant to rent to people claiming universal credit. The National Housing Federation this week reported that nearly three quarters of housing association tenants in England claiming universal credit are in debt, compared with less than a third of all other tenants. The Government claim that no one should have to suffer hardship because advances are available, although, as the NAO said, the Government
“has not measured the impact on claimants or assessed how much hardship Universal Credit claimants suffer.”
Should it not be the Government’s duty to understand the effectiveness of their own social security system?
Advances have to be paid back, often on top of debts for utility bills and council tax arrears built up while waiting for the initial payment. One of the Secretary of State’s senior officials told the Public Accounts Committee on Monday this week that the average monthly repayment of £35 a week is “not eye-wateringly large”. Maybe not to him, but what about someone on very low income struggling to cope with basic household bills? I have received so much testimony from people up and down the country on this issue. I have heard stories of people being sanctioned because they have accompanied their mother to a cancer treatment session and stories of people with special needs not receiving the support that they should.
I put it to the Government that their policy of managed migration of just under 4 million people on legacy benefits across to universal credit that is due next year risks huge problems for the people who transfer. Although they will receive transitional protection, it will only last for two years, and the DWP’s current plan is that those people will have to make a new universal credit claim. This could bring chaos.
The NAO has made it absolutely clear that the Government should not expand universal credit until they are clear that the system could cope with higher claimant volumes. If the Government fail to get this right, there will be many people whose lives are made a misery by a benefit that is meant to support them. That is why the Secretary of State’s inadvertently misleading claim that the NAO report says that the roll-out should be speeded up matters so much. Will she give an assurance that the Government will not start managed migration until it is clear that universal credit and her Department can cope with it?
Universal credit was created to simplify the social security system. Clearly, its complexity is so often defeating both claimants and the staff administering it. It was meant to lift people out of poverty; instead it is pushing many into debt. The Government claim that the Opposition are scaremongering whenever we raise issues about the suffering of our constituents. Well, the Residential Landlords Association, the National Housing Federation, Citizens Advice, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have all raised major concerns about universal credit.
The Secretary of State repeatedly claims her Department is testing and learning, but this testing and learning is using people like guinea pigs. This is unacceptable. Where is the dignity? Her Government are causing hardship with scant regard for the devastation to families up and down the country. She must now take responsibility for the real suffering being caused by the roll-out of this flawed programme. She must call a halt to universal credit and put forward a credible plan to fix its many failings before many more people suffer.
Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for clearing that up—that we are discussing the Question as is on the Order Paper.
We are introducing a new benefits system to assist people into work in this new technological era—a system that will support people so that they can become more economically secure and progress in life. We are introducing universal credit to remove the problems of the old benefits system that we inherited and that put barriers in the way of people fulfilling their potential.
I will not give way just yet, but I will in a moment.
There used to be the 16-hour rule, which we all know about. That barrier was stopping people working more hours, and then they would have to go through the disruption of coming off benefit to start another benefit. People on employment and support allowance could be faced with a choice between financial support and work, although we know that thousands of them would have liked to work as well. Once people were in work, they were too often caught up by another set of rules and hours for tax credits. Do we not all remember and know all too well the problems with tax credits, given the hundreds of thousands of letters that we received?
Universal credit cuts through all of that by bringing the six different benefits together and replacing them with a single system whereby claimants receive tailored support to help them into work—a system whereby claimants only have to deal with one organisation and a system that ensures that it always pays to be in work. This is what we are doing. Let me relay again how many people we have now helped into work since 2010—over 3.3 million people, or 1,000 more every day, through the support we are giving. The roll-out is slow. Where we need to slow down we have done, and where we have needed to make changes we have done.
The Secretary of State will remember that back in 2013 I warned that this was not a benefit that was ready for wide-scale roll-out. In my Birmingham constituency, we have the DWP telling my constituents that they cannot apply for housing credit through universal credit. They get sent to Birmingham City Council, which then sends them back to the DWP. There is still a level of chaos on the frontline that meant that one of my constituents told me that not only could they not afford to eat, she could not afford to put socks on her children’s feet.
Hang on, everybody.
The comments that are being made today are the comments that we had to check for accuracy, which were sent out to scare people just before Christmas. An email from the Labour party on 6 December said that
“40,000 children will wake up in poverty on Christmas Day”.
It also sent out a video—checking the accuracy here—saying that
“millions of people are faced with poverty, debt and eviction as a result of Universal Credit”
and asking us to pause and fix universal credit. This went to the UK Statistics Authority, which said:
“It is clearly important that statements by a political party should be fully supported by statistics and sources…We do not believe”
they were. As I am in a generous mood today, will Opposition Front Benchers take this opportunity to apologise? They have not so far. It took me two days to apologise. Would they like to apologise?
The answer is no, they will not be apologising.
As it is about apologies today—and, as I said, I made my apology straight away—let us go back to another apology. I was hoping that the shadow Chancellor would be here today, because I was waiting for years for an apology for the lynching comment against me. Of course, we never got that apology. As the Opposition spokesperson knows all about that campaign in Wirral West, perhaps she would like to apologise on behalf of her party.
So that is twice we have not had an apology from the Opposition.
I now move back to tax credits. Tax credits were introduced in 2003 with an error rate, I am told, of 10% to 14%. Some people call this Brown’s burden—or maybe it is just Labour’s burden. I offer this opportunity now: does anybody on the Opposition Front Bench want to apologise for those tax credits and the mistakes therein? Whether it is on scaremongering or on one of the reasons we brought in universal credit—the failings of the tax credits system—we see that nobody is prepared to apologise.
It is not that we cannot all make mistakes. We have all made mistakes on various scales. But for the only mistake I ever made in this House, I just apologised. Most people think you do that in everyday life, but in this House the Opposition do not apologise, whereas I am prepared to do so.
A constituent of mine recently asked when they would be able to move on to universal credit because they had heard very good things about the support and flexibility it could provide. Is it not important to continue to roll out universal credit to give more people the opportunity to go on to a better benefit?
My hon. Friend is quite right. She is referring to the real people who are going on this benefit who want an opportunity to have a chance. This is not about a politician who is here to oppose—and I understand that—but people who say, “We’d like to go on this new benefit and we’d like to have a simpler system.”
The motion on the Order Paper says that “20% of claimants” are
“unable to make a claim online”.
Well, I will break down the figures so that we all know what happened here. The claimants survey shows that 98% of people successfully make a claim online. Here are the figures that underpin that: 54% make their claim on their own; 21% had help from others, including organisations like Citizens Advice and family members; and 20%—I am assuming that this is the 20% the Opposition are talking about—had help from jobcentre staff. That is what this benefit system is about—people need help and support. We know that some of them might not be able to use IT. We have brought in this system because in this modern age where technology is vital, people can only get a job if they can go online. We are now going to provide that universal support to allow people to go online. We have put £200 million into local authorities to help and support people with budgeting and IT. I will offer Opposition Front Benchers the opportunity to apologise for putting out this information. Would they like to take that opportunity now? It seems they are not doing to be doing that now.
I go back to the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) about fact checks in the Department and what happened there. He is looking for the timeline. I left here having checked what was going on. I then asked the Department to go through the various bits that we did together and said that there were various elements within the letter. That night, I checked it again, and so it was Tuesday when I asked for permission to come to the House. The timeline on which I was allowed to do it—he is quite right—was 48 hours later, but actually it was Tuesday when I asked to come to the House. I then met Amyas Morse on Monday and we discussed the various elements of the report. As I said, I have faith in the organisation—of course I do—but that does not mean that you always have to come to the same conclusion—the same judgments—from a report. I am rather surprised—or maybe not—that so many Opposition Members talk about auditors in another way. People can look at different sets of facts and come to a different result, which is what we did.
I said it was unfortunate that the NAO could not have taken into account all the impacts of those changes; that was not anything against the organisation. Those changes came in in January, February and April, so the NAO could not have taken them into account. I was not casting any aspersions on the organisation. It is interesting to note that paragraph 2.34 of the NAO’s report says:
“It is too early to assess the impact of this change.”
It says that in the report. In that instance, which is what we were talking about, it was too early to have felt the impacts of all those changes, and that is the crunch of it. When I misspoke, I corrected myself, but the impacts of the changes could not have been felt.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way. What does she make of the evidence about people who have fallen off benefits and are not good on computers, one of whom is sleeping in a tent in a bin chamber on the Vincent Square estate in my constituency but now has to be moved on? These people have no help. They do not have what it takes for this difficult set of benefit rules.
If people have fallen on hard times, we reach out to and support them. If that person is not getting the support, I ask the hon. Lady to work with me. We can go to the local jobcentre to see what has happened, because that is not right, and ensure that he gets his support and that we get him into housing and get him the benefits he needs. Rather than someone standing up and saying those things, let us work together, across the Floor of the House, to help that person who needs it. Is she prepared to work with me to help that person?
I asked the hon. Lady if she would work with me. All I needed from her—I could not have said it in a more imploring way—was a yes or no, and she felt unable to say yes. She should have said yes.
We have been through what this benefit is about and how it is supporting people. It is about having a work coach. It is about personalised support. It is about having a universal support package. It is about getting more people into work: as I have said so many times, 1,000 more people into work every day since 2010. That is what it is about. The prize will be a cultural shift in welfare. The impact has got to be positive for each and every one of us. It has got to be about getting more people into work. It has got to be about a simpler benefit system. As we proceed with the roll-out, we look, we learn and we change. Even since January, I have listened and learned, whether that was about kinship carers, 18 to 21-year-olds or the latest change for the severe disability premium.
When we brought in the changes at the Budget—£1.5 billion-worth of changes, or thereabouts—to remove the waiting time and offer extra support through a two-week run-over and the advance, the Opposition voted against that. They would have denied vulnerable people £1.5 billion and all those changes. I will ask them now: do they apologise for that? No. Again, we do not have an apology for not wanting those significant changes for disabled people.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. She was talking about co-operation. Is she aware that in King’s Lynn, the DWP has moved into local council offices and now has a fantastic open-plan office that is a centre of excellence for service delivery? I visited last week, and every person I spoke to was 100% supportive of universal credit. They cannot wait for it to be rolled out. They have had nothing but good experiences in the offices around the country that they have visited, so they support the Secretary of State 100%.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comment.
This is what it is about, and I keep saying that. It is not about scaremongering. It is not about saying things even the UK Statistics Authority says is scaremongering. It is not about making people’s journey to claim benefit even more difficult. We want to make the journey to claim benefit easier for people. While the Opposition would not apologise for voting to stop that £1.5 billion-worth of support, we now have changes coming through to support people through the severe disability premium. I want to ask the Opposition: will they be voting with the Government to make sure we support those people, or will they take a stance by voting against? We have no answer again.
We are bringing in a new benefit system. We have helped 1,000 people a day into work since 2010. We have said that where we have got it wrong, we will change it and put it right, which we have done in instances where we felt it was wrong. The aim is to get people prepared for a modern technological age so that they can engage in work, and we will support people who cannot as best we can. That is what a compassionate party does—help people into work and support those who cannot work.
I will take that on board, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I thank you for your comments in this debate.
I should begin by welcoming the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) back to the DWP. Even though it contributed to his return to Government, there surely can be no one gladder of the Chequers version of “Deal or No Deal” than the Work and Pensions Secretary. For a few days, the pressure to fall on her sword was off her, as her extreme Brexiteer chums climbed the altar of vanity to fall on theirs.
But now we must return from the Brexit bubble theatrics to the real world, where we have this week another set of reports following hot on the heels of the National Audit Office report, all condemning the current incarnation of universal credit. The Secretary of State’s position has been called into question, not just because of the failings of universal credit, but also because of her tin-eared response to the externally and expertly provided facts and criticism. I listened carefully to her speech just now, and it appears that there is still little contrition.
We come to the Secretary of State’s response to the National Audit Office report, which is the subject of the motion before us. We know that the NAO report blew a hole as wide as the Clyde in the Government’s defence of universal credit. The Government say that universal credit is about getting people into work quicker and will lead to 200,000 more people in work. The NAO says:
“The Department will never be able to measure whether Universal Credit actually leads to 200,000 more people in work, because it cannot isolate the effect of Universal Credit from other economic factors in increasing employment.”
The Government say that universal credit will be cheaper to administer and reduce fraud. The NAO says that the DWP
“does not know whether Universal Credit is reducing fraud”
“It is not clear that Universal Credit will cost less to administer than the existing benefits system.”
The Government say they will save £8 billion from universal credit, but the NAO says that figure
“depends on some unproven assumptions”,
and that such benefits “remain theoretical”.
The NAO has directly contradicted the Government on the core aims of, and the central defences offered by the Government on, universal credit. It is therefore no wonder that the Secretary of State was so desperate to discredit the NAO on the Monday before last. For instance, in response to the question from the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) about the NAO recommending a pause in the roll-out, the Secretary of State said:
“The NAO made clear quite the opposite: it said that we need to continue with universal credit. It was also concerned that it was rolling out too slowly and said that actually we should increase what we are doing. So what the right hon. Gentleman says is absolutely not what the NAO said.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2018; Vol. 644, c. 8.]
Actually, the NAO report said that the DWP should:
“Ensure that operational performance and costs improve sustainably before increasing caseloads through managed migration. It should formally assess the readiness of automation and digital systems to support increased caseloads before migration begins, and ensure the programme does not expand before business-as-usual operations can cope with higher claimant volumes.”
These are not debating points; these are facts and quotes in black and white. We have a Work and Pensions Secretary who is either unable to grasp the facts or unwilling to accept them.
When the Secretary of State said that to me in the House, some of my constituents were watching the proceedings, and they believed that I was factually incorrect in my comments. The Secretary of State had an opportunity to apologise to me, but she has yet to do so in writing, and this was all before the NAO issued its report. The question for me, which I raised in my intervention earlier, is: why did the Secretary of State wait 48 hours to put the record straight?
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point. The honourable thing for the Secretary of State to do would have been to apologise directly to him for what might have been a slur on his character and reputation.
This is important, because we are talking about the central—the flagship—social security policy of this Government, which has been criticised in report after report for failing those it should be helping. We are talking about people who are living in poverty as a result. Getting the facts wrong—not just failing on a debating point, but misquoting what is there in black and white—is very serious whichever way we cut it. The House should remember that the last Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), recently resigned for something very similar.
The hon. Gentleman talks about facts, but is it not a fact that 83% of claimants are happier on universal credit, and they are more likely to be in a job within the first six months? Is it not a fact that universal credit is an opportunity for people to get back into work?
On the last point, the NAO entirely contradicted the hon. Lady’s point. One fact I would relay back to her is that the Government’s own figures—this is from the DWP—show that 40% of universal credit claimants are living in poverty and struggling to make ends meet. I hope she will consider that fact as we build towards the autumn Budget, when I hope we can form a coalition around calling on the Chancellor to invest in universal credit.
The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. When we talk about getting people back into work, we lose track of the fact that people who have serious illnesses and will never work again are facing delays in their personal independence payments, but nothing seems to happen about it. I have a number of cases like that, and if the Secretary of State wants, I will send them to her so that she can see this for herself.
The hon. Gentleman makes some very fair points. We of course know from the recent statistics published by the DWP that 59% of claimants impacted by the two-child policy on tax credits and by universal credit are already in work. These are facts, and the Government should be considering them.
This is not of course the first time that this Government have tried to dismiss evidence placed before them showing the failures of universal credit. When the Trussell Trust said that food bank use was higher in areas where universal credit had been rolled out, UK Ministers described its evidence as “anecdotal”. In actual fact, the evidence came from 425 food banks across these isles, delivering 1.3 million three-day food parcels a year.
This week, the four housing association federations of these isles have called on the UK Government to fix the “fundamentally flawed” universal credit system. With colleagues, I met the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations this morning, and it revealed the scale and linkage of debt with universal credit. It is startling, and it is evidence-based. Ministers have replied that issues with debt were complicated and could not be linked to a single source, in spite of the evidence in front of them saying that nearly three quarters or 73% of tenants on universal credit are in debt, compared with less than a third or 29% of all other tenants.
Does the hon. Gentleman see, as I do, a pattern of reluctance on the part of this Government to collect evidence and information precisely so that they can deny the effects of universal credit, and somehow pretend that the evidence that is accumulating is anecdotal?
I said that that was the last intervention I would take.
The evidence is there—it is in black and white—with the clear researched correlation between universal credit and housing debt. It is not even close; any responsible organisation, never mind a Government, would look at that type of key performance indicator and say, “Right, how do we fix this, because it’s failing?” Why are this Government so determined to push back, ignore the evidence, plough on in the face of the evidence and pile more misery on more families? That is what is behind these statistics—people and families, such as the two constituents in tears at my Airdrie surgery a week past on Friday. For some reason, on universal credit this Government ignore the evidence and the lived experience, but are happy to deceive and never accept responsibility.
It is to responsibility that I turn in directly addressing the thrust of Labour’s motion. Labour has suggested that it tabled this motion to stop the Secretary of State’s salary for a month to replicate the experiences of people on universal credit who are sanctioned and, I suppose, so that the Secretary of State had a chance to make the same choices as those on whom she inflicts her policies, to paraphrase the right hon. Lady. The universal credit sanctions regime is utterly punitive, and in the words of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is akin to “destitution by design”. I was therefore hesitant last night, when contemplating the motion, about whether we should support it or rise above the deplorable conduct of the Secretary of State’s sanctioning regime. For the reasons I have already outlined, however, I think the Secretary of State should be considering her position.
Of course, a new Secretary of State will not necessarily fix the problems with universal credit. Perhaps the right hon. Lady could redeem herself by honouring the original concept of universal credit on which she worked, in a previous role, with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). He of course resigned because the Treasury was cutting universal credit to ribbons. In spite of this motion, I reiterate the calls I have made in the past about working with the Government to improve universal credit. I am sure all Members on both sides of the House would take such an opportunity should a genuinely listening ear be afforded to us.
Of course, the Government are not short of suggestions from expert agencies and the third sector. We have already heard about the suggestions of the NAO, which I have not actually heard the Secretary of State comment on or respond to. Those include improving the tracking and transparency of progress towards universal credit’s intended benefits, and working with delivery partners to establish a shared evidence base on how UC is working in practice, as the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned.
Housing associations have talked this week about issues, on top of the process improvements, that the Government could easily sort out, such as getting payments on time or allowing housing associations and other advocacy organisations to negotiate on behalf of recipients. Housing associations want implicit consent restored and the two-child limit and benefit cap to be scrapped, and they also want to see work allowances restored and the self-employed protected. At my meeting with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations this morning, I was reminded of just how unusual it is for the four federations to campaign collectively on such an issue, given the devolved nature of housing policy. That is how seriously they see the threat of the further roll-out of universal credit without significant changes.
We in the Scottish National party have talked about allowing people the choice of split payments, restoring work allowances to honour the founding principles of UC and sorting out the disability elements. This call has been echoed by Scope, which wants disability premiums to be restored. It says that, once the Government transitions run out, a single disabled person who receives the severe disability premium and is in the ESA work-related activity group could lose up to £4,745.40 a year on universal credit.
The point of universal credit was to make social security easier to navigate: it does not. It was supposed to be easier and cheaper to administer: it is not. It was supposed to make work pay: it does not. In reality, the cuts being made to universal credit may be saving the Treasury on the DWP budget line, but they will be costing it significantly more in other areas. With worsening mental health, it is costing NHS services. In increased requirement for conditionality and cuts to income, it is costing our local authorities in welfare rights officers and rent arrears. In allowing children to go hungry, it is costing our education outcomes.
Rather than working in silos, we need a new cross-departmental and cross-party approach, and we need that before universal credit reaches our largest cities, such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, which are due to be migrated soon. The NAO stressed its concern about any further roll-out until the issues it raised are addressed. We agree. We have been saying so for years. So my appeal to the Secretary of State is to work across the House and with the third sector to take a strong coalition to persuade the Chancellor to invest in universal credit at the autumn Budget.
The only things that actually matter today are the life chances of people who have been failed for decades by the benefit system. People who have been trapped out of the workplace do not care two hoots for the politics on display here today.
In a previous life, I worked to support working-age people who had little or no opportunity of getting anywhere near the workplace and satisfying employment. Even those who had abundant talent and wanted to work dared not do so. They were locked out of paid work by the complete disruption getting a job would cause to their benefits, with weeks of no payment whatever until they were reassessed.
My hon. Friend is right. I went into that work because in west Cornwall we have a significant number of people who could be described as vulnerable, some with severe learning disabilities, and who deserve the support and help that they are beginning to get today.
Under the benefit system that universal credit replaces, potential employers were encouraged to offer placements and pay people a pitiful £4 a day so as not to upset their benefit payments. For years, the welfare system demonstrated loud and clear that large numbers of people had nothing to offer. It was not thought worth the effort to help them into work and they were abandoned indefinitely.
I accept that the roll-out of universal credit has had some significant challenges, which is no surprise, given the complexity of the benefit system it replaces. It is clear that more must be done. I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her Ministers for the way they have engaged with Members who have taken specific cases to them. Ministers have engaged with those cases and worked hard to deliver them.
I secured a debate in Westminster Hall some time ago in which I asked the Government to look at the role of voluntary groups on the ground—they are at the coalface helping people—and, as a result, the dynamic purchasing system was introduced. I ask the Secretary of State to look at how well that is helping the charities that are working with those vulnerable people.
When individual cases go wrong, of course they should be fixed. At a time of record low unemployment this country spends some £90 billion a year on working-age benefits—as it should—but to put that in context, that is more than double what we spend on schools. In those circumstances, does my hon. Friend agree that the suggestion that somehow resources are not being applied is wide of the mark?
I agree, and I know from my experience of working with some of those vulnerable people that they have untapped talents and skills. Employers want access to those skills, but all sorts of barriers have existed. They are beginning to be broken down now, enabling people to move away from the support my hon. Friend describes and giving them much more control over their lives.
More must be done to improve the roll-out and support families towards achieving greater independence, but the truth is that when the transition from the old system to universal credit is completed, many of the people I meet and have met much prefer the new system. I will continue to support my constituents to transfer to a benefit system that gives them greater control over their finances, and better and smoother opportunities in work and life chances.
My ask of the Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is that they ensure that local authorities and jobcentres use the resources they have, including the dynamic purchasing system, much more effectively to help all people who for so long have been locked out of the life chances that we want them to have.
An apology: I was in the House when somebody repeated that campaign phrase against the Secretary of State. I was stunned by what was said, and I hope that she will forgive me for not getting up immediately to object to it. I apologise for my total failure to respond as a human being when that was said, and I hope that she forgives me if I do not actually recite what was said, because such nastiness and evil is not directed just at her; it is directed at my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), the neighbouring constituency to the one that the Secretary of State fought. What is occurring is a disgrace. How we stop it, I do not know, but we can at least apologise when it occurs. I am grateful that the right hon. Lady raised it today so that my saying that would be in order.
I know those words are heartfelt, and I accept that apology. It took a long time for people to come forward. I would have liked those on the Opposition Front Bench to have done so, because they represent the Labour party, and I know that such a thing is not at the heart of the Labour party.
We started off with a ding-dong in the Chamber today. I do not necessarily think that we are at our best in Parliament when we have a ding-dong like that. People watching outside do not understand the real reasons why we, on both sides of the House, came into politics. I put this on the record now: let us work cross-party to get universal credit right. Let us work with third sector organisations to get it right. Let us reach out and get it right, because it affects so many millions of people. We are doing our best, and lots more people are in work, but we can do more. Let us do it together.
One last point: Back Benchers can apologise only for our own action or inaction. That is my apology.
In this debate, one wonders what truth is and what facts are. When reading the NAO report, I reached totally different conclusions to the Secretary of State. I thought the message was that the Comptroller and Auditor General was perplexed beyond belief that he could not recommend to go back or to go forward. There was a clear recommendation that we should pause, and I ask the Secretary of State for that pause—not never to resume the roll-out, but to at least to ensure that we are not inflicting unnecessary suffering, horror and hunger on our constituents, which Opposition Members have certainly registered, and which must have been registered by Members on the other side of the House.
The Secretary of State said that this was a new benefit that was helping people into work. In my London borough of Hounslow, we have had full service roll-out for two years and three months, and three quarters of claimants are in work. It has caused huge problems. Many families have lost their homes and jobs, and many have been threatened with losing their children. Does my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee agree that a pause should have happened a long time ago in order to address the problems that were more than relevant and apparent in Hounslow?
Yes, indeed, but I am really anxious to respond to the Secretary of State’s wish that we work together. The building block of working together is to take that key sentence from the NAO report, whatever else it said, about a pause—not to scrap universal credit, but to have a pause—to make sure that in three respects we are not party to inflicting untold misery, horror and hunger on our constituents.
The first is that we do not continue the roll-out until we have universal support. We do not have universal support in the way in which all of us understand the word universal.
Secondly, on real-time information, the experience in my constituency—it must be the experience in other constituencies as well—is that real-time information is neither real nor on time. That is causing the most incredible problems with people’s claims. Might we have a pause until we make sure the Revenue can service the Secretary of State’s Department in a way that we need for a successful continuation of the roll-out of universal credit?
Thirdly, on debt, on which the Secretary of State could decide today, debts of yesteryear are being found and charged to people on universal credit. The repayment of those debts is overwhelming people. I am not saying that people should not pay their debts, but do we not think that feeding one’s children, and ensuring the rent is paid and the heating is on, ought to be at least equal in importance to the repayment of debt? Might I therefore make a plea to the Secretary of State that she looks at the rules—not to scrap the repayment of debt, but the amount that is reclaimed—on debts that most of us will have forgotten?
That is wonderful news, but after the right hon. Lady has considered debt and decided on it there is the business about real-time information. This is not under her control as the information is supplied to her by another Department. It is not real and it is not on time, so perhaps she could look at that as the next item on the list. There is also the crucial business of universal support. I tried to claim, but I could not do it in the time. A lot of us need that support to make sure we can make a claim successfully. If we are going to work cross-party on this, there has to be give on the other side as well as on this side.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who has done so much over many years to advance the cause of people on welfare.
There has been recognition over a great many years about the complexity of the system that people need to access for the support they need. In 2010, the then Secretary of State asked for an estimate of how many benefits there were. The estimates ranged from 50 to 60 different benefits. When people are trying to access support, that complexity puts people off. It makes it more difficult for people to access the benefits and support they need. I welcome the sense of “hiding the wiring” with universal credit to enable people to get that support.
The idea that work always pays is absolutely critical. The 16-hour rule is a perverse disincentive to people taking on more work. Not taking on more work means that individuals do not get the experience they need. Not taking on more work means that people will not receive the training that someone working 24 hours or 30 hours would receive. Training is an investment by the business in the individual, and getting extra hours enormously improves the chances of that individual receiving training. Better prospects mean that people will get better jobs and better pay, and have more job security.
Two jobcentres in my constituency serve my constituents. Both are pleased—delighted, in fact—to have had the roll-out of universal credit locally, because they find that they can more effectively serve the people they are there to serve. The barriers between the people gaining support and the people delivering that support have come down. It is incumbent on everyone participating in the debate to send out a clear message that increased support is there for people who need it most. The barriers have come down and people in jobcentres are far more able to offer and give that support. We need to tell people who need that support, “Go. Get that support, because it is there.”
I realise that today’s debate is very popular, and that shows the importance of universal credit and of this debate. The Secretary of State should carry on the good work she is doing. My constituency office team does a great deal of work with people in the welfare system. The work of all our constituency offices ought to be recognised, because they provide tremendous support to so many people.
Universal credit was a good idea, but the problems we are seeing in our constituencies are very significant. The Trussell Trust told us in its briefing for this debate that when universal credit is fully rolled out in an area, demand for food banks in that area goes up by 52% in the following year compared with 13% in areas where universal credit has not been fully rolled out. I noticed that the National Audit Office looked specifically at what the Trussell Trust said about demand for food banks where universal credit has been fully rolled out. The NAO states that its analysis
“aligns with the Trussell Trust’s.”
Indeed, the Department’s own analysis—the survey that the Secretary of State referred to, which was published last month—makes the point, as the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) has told the House already, that four out of 10 claimants in both the survey’s waves that were looked at were experiencing difficulties keeping up with bills. That is a much higher proportion of people facing hardship than has been the case with the previous system.
Why is universal credit causing much greater hardship than the previous system? Above all, it is for the very straightforward reason that people have to wait for five weeks before they are entitled to anything other than a loan once they have applied. A lot of people—I think we can all understand why—struggle to survive during those weeks. The theory was this: someone who has just left their job has a month’s salary in the bank that will see them through for a month; and after the usual waiting days, their money will start to come in. But a very large number of people do not have a month’s salary in the bank. There are a lot of good reasons why that is the case, but the most obvious is that people are often paid weekly. A very large number of people are paid weekly, but Ministers—I asked the former Secretary of State about this some years ago—have never had an answer to how those people are supposed to survive. I am grateful that the Secretary of State has told the House that she is listening and that she wants to work cross-party to fix these problems, and I very much welcome the fact that last October the delay was reduced from six weeks to five, but a gap of five weeks is asking too much of people who very often have virtually nothing in the bank when they make their claim.
Ministers have been saying that the advance payments solve the problem of the long wait, but the evidence we are getting from the Trussell Trust, among others, is that the high rates of repayment of those advances mean that they do not solve anything, but just prolong the debt that people are in.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If people are forced to depend on an advance right at the beginning of their claim, they are by definition plunged into debt right at the start. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has I think told us today, in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), that she will look at the repayment periods and, hopefully, offer a less demanding repayment schedule than is the case at the moment. However, just plunging people into debt at the beginning of a claim is a very serious problem.
The Trussell Trust, which I have referred to, said that we should pause the roll-out of universal credit to fix the problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) made that plea from the Opposition Front Bench, as she has done repeatedly and rightly. The Secretary of State can perhaps discount those representations, but she should weigh carefully what the National Audit Office said, to which attention has already been drawn today. Its report said that the Government should
“ensure the programme does not expand before business-as-usual operations can cope with higher claimant volumes.”
I very much hope that the Secretary of State and her fellow Ministers will weigh that cautionary note very carefully indeed.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who speaks with great experience on these matters. One of the burning questions this afternoon is whether the Labour party’s official position is to continue to support the principle of universal credit. Every time that Labour has the opportunity to endorse universal credit, it dodges doing that and seeks to tear it down from within.
The hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench, may be interested to hear the observation of one of the senior managers in my local jobcentre in Blandford Forum, which I visited a few weeks ago. He told me that he had been advocating and urging something like universal credit since he joined the service way back in 1986. This simplified approach, making it easier for people, is absolutely the right way. Likewise, the approach of roll-out, pause, reflect and revise that the Government and the Department have adopted is absolutely the right one. That is in sharp contradistinction to the dramatic roll-out, to trumpets and drums, of the tax credit system, and look at the absolute disaster that that was. The Department’s approach is the right one.
The shadow Minister, of course, has form on these matters. In a debate on the national health service in January this year, she told us:
“Let us have no more talk about taking the politics out of the NHS. The NHS is a political entity.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 373.]
I chastised her on that. She likes to come forward with crocodile tears, synthetic concern and outrage. Labour Front Benchers merely use this to prey on the concerns of very vulnerable people for what they believe to be cheap political advantage.
The hon. Lady may be interested to hear an email from a constituent of mine—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) wants to intervene, he is very welcome to.
Thank you for that. Let me quote from a constituent of mine:
“I went in great fear of UC. I thought it would be too difficult and cruel. I thought things would be made hard for me and my family. But I applied. It was easy and far simpler than I thought.”
He said that the only mistake he made was that he had listened to Labour and that it was Labour that had made him afraid of the process. That is the legacy of the approach.
In closing, I invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider—the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) and I have discussed this—the role and effectively the right of audience that those who work for the CAB have in this process. There seems to be some confusion. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that she convene, at a moment of her convenience, some form of roundtable to establish some form of protocol for those in the CAB who do valiant work for our constituents.
Members on both sides of the House have mentioned that, so I will answer my hon. Friend. I met the CAB the other day. In terms of what we are putting forward, I think what he is suggesting could be in my mind, too. We will be working on something that I can announce pretty shortly; we will be working together to help benefit claimants.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. That underscores the approach that she has outlined of listening and engaging. In that spirit, I urge her and her Department to issue—this may not be the right phraseology—some form of national guidance to all CAB offices and to all Members across the House on what the role of the CAB is. I take my hat off to them; I have two CAB offices serving my constituency. They often deal with very complex debt issues, which I am certainly not qualified to deal with. We owe those volunteers, who give up so much of their time, a huge debt of thanks. As I said, the hon. Member for Oxford East and I have discussed this. We came to different views on the advice that we had been given, so such guidance would be very welcome indeed.
Let us not forget the value of work and what should always be the temporary nature of state support for people with regards to welfare. It is not a way of life, but a helping hand. It is a safety net to self-determination, self-reliance and support for family. I am convinced that universal credit will deliver that, and it has my support.
The Secretary of State started the debate by asking for an apology about words used towards her by a senior member of my party. I add my apologies to those she has already received from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). I am very conscious of the plaque that is right over my shoulder. The language of violence and threats to people has no part in our party or our politics, but the context of today’s debate is the Secretary of State’s inaccurate statements, which she has admitted were misleading.
This Government have misled the whole country about universal credit. They have claimed that it is on time. Its delivery to millions of people was meant to be finished in October 2017. We are about 12% of the way through. They claim it has public support, when one nickname locally in Southwark is “Universal Dread-it”. They claim that it supports people in work, when the Secretary of State is meeting a constituent of mine who was self-employed and made homeless as a result of universal credit. They claim that it is on budget, when it costs three times as much to administer a decision on universal credit as the legacy benefits, and it has cost £1.9 billion to get 800,000 people on to universal credit. The general public get that, even if Ministers still want to try to peddle misinformation, and people certainly get it in Southwark, which is a full service area and an early adopter.
In Southwark, the claim that it is a better system has been completely blown apart. The council is owed £5 million in arrears from universal credit recipients alone, and the average arrears are now £1,800-plus. The Government claim that those people were in arrears before, but that is simply not true. With a legacy benefit such as housing benefit, the average council tenant is £8 in credit—they have no arrears at all. For those who are on legacy housing benefit and in arrears, the average figure is less than half the average for those on universal credit.
The Government claim that universal credit is working well. Tell Citizens Advice: 50,000 people a quarter are going to Citizens Advice up and down the country for information and support on universal credit. Tell the food banks: Southwark food bank alone gave out 4,227 three-day emergency parcels last year, including to more than 1,600 children, the single biggest reason being universal credit. The Government also claim that most people get the right support quickly, so everything is hunky-dory. The NAO said that this year alone, more than a quarter of a million people will get payments late. That is completely unacceptable. The Department is ignoring those real problems and making increasingly desperate excuses and outlandish claims about universal credit.
We are here today because the Secretary of State made a false or misleading statement about what the NAO said. Actually, she has claimed multiple times, including this week, that universal credit gets more people into work. The NAO said:
“The Department will never be able to measure whether Universal Credit actually leads to…more people in work, because it cannot isolate the effect”.
It also said:
“Both we, and the Department, doubt it will ever be possible for the Department to measure whether the economic goal of increasing employment has been achieved.”
That is what the NAO said, so enough of the Trumptopia—enough of blaming, scapegoating and distraction through disinformation administered by a Department that is failing from bottom to top.
It is a pleasure to follow my colleague from the Work and Pensions Committee, the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), particularly after the remarks he made at the start of his speech. I very much welcome the offer that the Secretary of State made today to work cross-party to help to improve universal credit. I happen to think that that attitude has been prevalent in the Department for some time. That is what, quite frankly, led to its accepting a number of recommendations that the Committee, headed by my friend, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), made last year. It led to the reforms that we saw in November, which are now being implemented.
I do not want to go over this again, because this is the third time that I have to say this in the past week in the House. However, the NAO report, which raises some important issues, does not take account of the changes that were implemented at the start of the year. Its survey period was from March to September last year. It is a fact that test and learn, as implemented by the Department, has allowed the system to evolve in response to reports that our Committee made last year.
This is test and learn in action. It is a sign of a system that is capable of evolving and responding as we find out more about how it works. While there is always room for improvement and there are many things we can do to improve the system—I am particularly pleased to hear the Secretary of State say she will look at repayment periods, and I know the work she is doing on universal support to ensure that people can get out of debt—it is important to have a system that enables those changes to be made, and I take some solace in the fact that that exists.
I have had universal credit in my jobcentre since November. My office is in frequent contact with it, and in my area at least—I can only speak for my area—things are going very well: the work coaches are extremely pleased with the system and the claimants I have spoken to have been extremely pleased with the service they have received.
Today’s motion brings a personal censure against the Secretary of State. The House will remember that the Secretary of State has been in post since the start of the year, since when she has reinstated housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds, introduced new support for kinship carers, discontinued PIP legal appeals and introduced protections for people with severe disability payments. That is what she has done in the past six months. I just say to the House that we are not at our best when we make matters personal, rather than about policy, and it would be better if we did not cross this grubby line again.
It is hard to overstate the rolling catastrophe that is universal credit and the abject misery and hardship that it represents not only to my constituents but to those of many other right hon. and hon. Members. As page 19 of the NAO report demonstrates, the system is so beleaguered that, while the original plan was for more than 7 million households to be on universal credit by now, the latest figures show that just 660,000 households were on it by the end of last year. The system is already six years late and there is no guarantee that it will ever arrive at the destination originally envisaged, yet the NAO estimates that the system has currently cost £2 billion to implement and is costing an astonishing £699 per claim.
The proper response to the huge problems with universal credit in the Department should be a commitment to improve and an acknowledgement of the undoubted weaknesses and design flaws that have been revealed. We have not had enough of that response. We have had ministerial denial and dissembling. Whatever dubious assertions the Minister may make about the merits of the system in response to today’s debate, the lived experience of my constituents in Wallasey contradicts them. It started to be rolled out in Wallasey in November 2017, and many of my constituents have been struggling ever since. As a result, many families have been placed under increasing pressure and hardship through no fault of their own.
Experience demonstrates that food bank usage increases by 30% in areas where there has been a full service roll-out. In Wirral, the increase was 35% in the first five months of 2018, as more and more families were forced to move on to universal credit. In the first five months of this year, 50,000 three-day emergency food packages were given out, nearly 15,000 going to children. In my constituency, the introduction of universal credit was 13% complete in December 2017, yet almost every day my constituency office receives new cases from people struggling with the system.
I have a constituent who suffers from a condition that leads to episodes of multiple seizures. She was attending a medical assessment as part of her claim when she suffered multiple seizures in front of the doctor. Not only was there a lack of understanding and sympathy about her condition; they refused to accept the medical evidence and what they were witnessing and shockingly told her that she had to come back the next day at 9 am to be re-examined. She has still not had her claim processed and is now frightened to leave the house for fear of being accused of being a benefits cheat.
Claimants are being given insufficient advice and guidance from their jobcentres, and local advocacy services have been decimated. I have constituents who have been sanctioned and have no other income. We know that this is not working. We have to make it work. It is not working at the moment.
I suspect that everybody in the House became an MP because they wanted to make a difference—I most certainly did, and I know the Secretary of State did too—so I find the motion to be nothing other than an unacceptable personal attack on her. Perhaps President Trump’s visit to the UK this week can serve as a reminder: they go low and we go high.
I have yet to talk to any organisation with deep knowledge of our benefits system past and present that does not agree that universal credit is a vast improvement on legacy systems. Everyone who cares about alleviating poverty and improving the life chances of the vulnerable wants universal credit to succeed. I could look back and say I wish we had had more ministerial stability at the Department, that the roll-out in the last 12 months could have been slower or that the £1.5 billion in the Budget last year could have come a bit sooner, but since she has taken the reins at the DWP the Secretary of State has listened, just as her predecessor did. Deciding not to pursue the court challenges over PIP, and the severe disability payments, which we have heard about today, were both the right things to do. I am confident that when those of us who have constructively assessed the system tell her what more we can do, she will listen.
Let us start with the current system. We need to upgrade universal support to Martini status. Given that just 54% of claimants can enrol for universal credit without assistance, we need to ensure that universal support is available anywhere, everywhere and at any time. This means a full service specification with quality standards that can be monitored. It needs to provide more than was originally envisaged, including debt advice, which should be available through a trusted provider and to every claimant who needs it. I would suggest contracting it out to Citizens Advice, housing associations or some other such organisation.
The universal credit system as a whole needs quality indicators. What does good look like? What payment timeliness are we aiming for? What about accessibility, advanced payments and debt monitoring? Let us think of claimants as valuable clients, as citizens and taxpayers who deserve excellence in their interactions with the DWP. I want us to focus on the most vulnerable claimants—those at risk of ending up in our surgeries and food banks—such as victims of domestic abuse and modern slavery, those with mental health issues and the disabled.
Let us treat them as a special set of customers—platinum customers—and make it our mission to ensure they do not fall through the net. Let us think about fast-tracking them through the system and treating advanced payments as first payments, not loans to be collected back in. Since we pay universal credit in arrears, that advanced payment should be collected right at the end, when, all being well, the customer, with all the positive support of universal credit and the skills and passion of their work coach, has moved into good sustainable employment.
My hon. Friend mentions work coaches. I was disappointed that the Opposition spokesperson expressed no gratitude to the incredible men and women all over the country working on the frontline of our jobcentres with some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Does she agree that they deserve our support?
Absolutely, and they care deeply. I have spent time with work coaches all over the country in different jobcentres. They are proud of what they do and deserve our support. Working with them, we need to identify every crack in the system and ensure that our most precious customers—our platinum customers—do not slip through them. In that regard, I am pleased that the Chancellor has agreed to keep an eye on the taper rate.
None of my asks so far would incur big financial costs, but there is one we should ask the Chancellor for: we have to release working-age claimants from the benefits freeze. Universal credit can be the most positive and efficient system in the world, but if people cannot afford to live on it, it will not matter a jot. Furthermore, all this has to be sorted out before we push the button for managed migration. This is important, because when we do that, about two thirds of the claimants who will move across will be ESA claimants. They are our platinum customers and everything has to be perfect for them before we move them across. I will need to be reassured of that before I can vote for that legislation.
Conservative Members want universal credit to work. It is brilliant that we will be working with Citizens Advice, the Trussell Trust, Save the Children and others as they are desperate to engage positively and collaboratively. Getting universal credit right and, in doing so, helping millions of people in this country—that is a motion worth supporting.
I too want universal credit to work, but yet again the Secretary of State has come to the House, in the face of evidence and feedback from the NAO, CABs, food banks, housing associations, local government and others, and just appears to want to ride it out and brazen it out. That is deeply worrying and disappointing for my constituency because Newport has only had about 10% roll-out so far, and those are the easy cases—new claimants, single people without children, families with no more than two children. Yes, some people will have managed to navigate universal credit, but, as the NAO report says, for a “substantial minority” that is not the case. We need to address the problem as a matter of urgency before the roll-out reaches the more complicated cases. involving moving people from legacy benefits and people with larger families.
During this limited roll-out, we have also seen the problems documented by the NAO report reflected locally, and alarm bells should be heard. There have been problems with the initial claims: for instance, one family were inadvertently moved to universal credit and had to be returned to legacy benefits. It took 99 days for the lost tax credits to be fully recovered. According to the report, one in five claimants do not receive their full payments on time, and on average those claimants have been paid four weeks late. That means that many people do not receive their full payments for eight or nine weeks—and they are often people with no savings on which to rely. Some of my constituents have to resort to using food banks. One local food bank reports giving out 300 extra parcels every month over and above the increase that it anticipated. Other constituents do not want the advance payments because they do not want to go into debt, and are borrowing from loan sharks or from family and friends instead.
I agree with all the points that have been made about the online system, but let me add one more. People who have no individual ID, such as a passport or driving licence, now face a longer wait for an appointment before they can get into the system into which the delay is built. Those are often the most vulnerable people, and that too needs to be addressed.
Advice services such as citizens advice bureaux are seeing more and more people, and Newport CAB tells me that most of the problems involve initial claims. Arrears and debt problems do not just go away, as is shown by the Government’s own full service survey. Housing associations and local authorities are picking up the extra costs. Rent arrears alone are costing housing associations in Wales more than £1 million.
Let me take this opportunity to thank the hard-working DWP staff out there. According to a survey conducted by the Public and Commercial Services Union, 80% felt that there were not enough staff to manage the workload. I know that they are doing their best with the resources that they currently have, and I thank them for what they are trying to do.
I absolutely agree. I believe that they are doing the best they can with the tools that they have been given, but they need far more resources.
I hope that the Minister who winds up will adopt a more conciliatory tone. It is not enough to say that the delays can be solved by advance payments, or that it is too early to assess the impacts. The evidence is plain to see in our constituencies. The Government have been forced to change parts of this policy, and it is now time for them to pause and listen. If the roll-out speeds up and takes on the more complicated cases, we will, I fear, see only more debt and hardship among those who need the system to help them into work, or to support them if they cannot work.
Let me start by welcoming my near neighbour and old friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), back to his place on the Front Bench.
Today there was a fantastic opportunity for the Opposition to hold a debate on one of a range of very topical issues, many of which arise this week: the future of NATO, the way forward for the western Balkans, our security partnership with the United States, or the revised economic growth figures and the potential impact on savers and borrowers.
Or, indeed, the World cup. Unfortunately, however, the Opposition chose none of those issues, and have fallen rather than risen to the occasion by tabling a motion containing two censures and a personal attack, in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, in relation to something for which the Secretary of State has already apologised.
I am here today for a straightforward reason: to remind the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood)—who is not paying a huge amount of attention—that it is a mistake for the Opposition to throw stones from very fragile glass houses. Let me explain why. On 11 October last year, the Leader of the Opposition said, at Parliament’s peak moment, during Prime Minister’s Question Time:
“The last Labour Government lifted a million children out of poverty. Gloucester City Homes has evicted one in eight of all of its tenants because of universal credit. The Prime Minister talks about helping the poorest, but the reality is a very, very different story.”—[Official Report, 11 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 324.]
Let me remind the House that the reality was indeed a very, very different story. The actual figure was not one in eight—which would have meant 650 out of 5,200 tenants in my constituency—but a total of eight, one of whom had left the property 18 months earlier and another of whom had left the country. That is a very, very different story indeed. It would have been fitting for the Leader of the Opposition to apologise, and to have expressed some form of recognition that he had slandered the city of Gloucester, Gloucester City Homes—which is an excellent housing association—and, indeed, all of us who try to engage in a rational, measured, objective debate on universal credit, which is what we did in the Select Committee when I was on it. My point is that we should avoid these motions of censure, stop criticising people personally, and focus on the facts.
Before I run out of time, let me offer some recommendations to the Secretary of State. First, the trusted partner programme is working very well, and housing associations such as Gloucester City Homes benefit from it. Please may we have more of it for more housing associations? Secondly, the Secretary of State is right to focus on debt, and I should love to know more about why people go on to universal credit with so many debts.
I came to the House to stand up for the most vulnerable, and for those who need a better deal from their Government, in Holyrood and in Westminster. Those people are public sector workers, single parents with families, people with disabilities, and refugees who are making new lives for themselves. They are people, including parents, who are doing two or three jobs just to survive, pay the bills and fill the fridge. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for a spirited defence of working-class people who are dealing with the harsh decisions of a bad Government.
Just last week, we saw the head of the National Audit Office call out the Secretary of State on a number of claims that she had made in response to its recent report on the roll-out of universal credit. It is worth noting that he was forced to send a letter to the Government after the Secretary of State would not sit down to discuss the issue with him. That reeks of a Government who are sitting down with their fingers stuck in their ears. And why are they sticking their fingers in their ears? Because the NAO report was damning. It was stinging in its clarity about the fact that the Government’s flagship social security reform programme is not meeting the aims that were set out, and there is no evidence that it ever will.
Just last month, the Department for Work and Pensions itself published a survey that showed that 40% of claimants were still experiencing financial difficulties nine months into their claims. In my constituency, 21% of children live in low-income households. North Lanarkshire Council has recognised that people are finding it tough, and have introduced a properly funded free school meals programme. I pay tribute to my colleagues on the council, led by Councillor Frank McNally, for that and for all the work they do to support families. The introduction of free school meals every single day of the year—yes, 365—shows that decisions can be taken to support families who are finding it tough. I also pay tribute to my colleague Elaine Smith MSP, who revealed this week that warrants for council tax arrears in Scotland have soared by 40% in the last five years. As Monica Lennon MSP has said, too many Scots are struggling with the basics.
People in our country, and particularly in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, are finding it tough, and we need to think again. I hope that the Government will soon recognise that things are not going as planned—that Tory universal credit is not the answer that they thought it would be, and that it is time to call a halt and think again.
When the Government first announced their intention to implement universal credit, it was past the time when we should have grasped the nettle of welfare reform. The existing system was simply failing claimants. It was difficult to navigate—people missed payments to which they were entitled because of the complexity and the myriad different benefits—and it created perverse incentives that locked people out of work. It was truly time for change.
Universal credit was introduced to do several things. First, it was intended to simplify the complex system of different benefits, allowances and tax credits that had preceded it. Streamlining services will not only make them easier to administer, but, crucially, will make the system much more transparent for the user. That is further reinforced by the Government’s decision to invest £200 million in budgeting and digital support to help claimants, as we heard earlier from the Secretary of State. I am sure nobody ever intended to create the strong disincentives to work which ended up being baked into the previous system; it was simply very difficult to keep track of how many different welfare systems would interact with each other in the real world and over such a long period of time.
Creating a system that makes sure that work pays was the second goal of UC. I hope Members on both sides of the House agree that it was not right that some of the poorest people in our society faced some of the highest de facto marginal tax rates as a result of the previous system. Nobody should have to face a pay cut to move from welfare into work. A good job is about so much more than money: employment boosts our independence, our self-respect and our mental health. All claimants deserve the best possible chance of fulfilling their potential and building a strong, long-lasting career.
I am pleased that the Government have recognised that implementing such sweeping reform is a complex and sensitive task, and have adopted an incremental approach that allows Ministers and civil servants to adjust the roll-out—recalibrate at certain times—based on the feedback on the ground. That stands in sharp contrast to the chaos, which I remember from having worked in consumer affairs in the early 2000s, of the sudden “big bang” of tax credits. It is to the Secretary of State’s credit that she has listened since coming into office and has made so many crucial changes.
To sum up, UC is a fantastic idea and the implementation is coming along—we are getting there. We understand that not everything is perfect, but we are making the effort, and we need Members in all parts of the House to recognise that the system is crucial to moving people from a dependency culture into the world of work, not just for them, but for their families and our society.
I want to raise two key issues to do with UC that affect my constituents: first, the associated decisions that compromise the Government’s stated aim of helping more people into work; secondly, some adjustments that my constituents are asking to be made to ensure that the programme is fit for purpose for families with childcare needs.
One of the more reasonable aims of UC is to try to get more people into work, yet the Government seem to fail to account for how decisions taken elsewhere by the DWP will affect the outcomes of the policy itself. Many have talked today about the top-slicing of UC, the bedroom tax, and the changes to disability payments, but in my constituency a particularly damaging development has been the closure of jobcentres. Many of those affected have contacted my office saying they are being pushed ever further into crisis due to the added travel distance and the cost of travelling to the remaining centre in the borough. House of Commons Library figures show that 60% of the legacy benefit claimants in my area were served by the Jobcentre Plus in Kilburn. There is now a significant gap in support for vulnerable individuals; they will miss out on vital employment support as they have little or no funds to pay for that commute. To add insult to injury, these changes were made with little or no prior consultation and, as far as I am aware, there was no equalities impact assessment before they were confirmed.
The closures undermine the Government’s rhetoric about helping people into work. For all the good intentions of DWP Ministers, they are being betrayed by the reality of their own policies on the ground. I hope the Minister in summing up will explain how the DWP will support the local council with the funds and resources necessary to ensure employment support is truly available to this community. The Public and Commercial Services Union and the Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group have long called for proper consultation on what employment support in the area looks like, and I hope the Minister will respond accordingly today.
As the chair of the all-party group on childcare and early education, I am very conscious that this policy will also have consequences for parents across the country, and of course in my constituency. Paola is just one of the single parents from West Hampstead who have asked that I raise specific concerns about UC today. She has demanded better access to fortnightly payments and for the Government to offer flexibility for those managing fluctuating incomes. Similarly, she has raised concerns over the new job-seeking requirements for parents of three and four-year-old children. Making adjustments on these points would be a huge support for single parents who are self-employed, or who face huge childcare costs, and often both. The pressures on single parents are running in tandem, with many more families claiming UC and having to pay monthly childcare bills up front.
I hope the Minister will address these issues in summing up. If the Secretary of State is truly being honest about wanting to make this work and wanting to work together, she must take into account that fact that there are parents with childcare costs for whom UC is not currently working.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq).
When I first saw the motion on the Order Paper I was dismayed by the wording and the personal attack on the Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey). It was very good of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) to stand and give their apologies, and I give a heartfelt welcome to that. I hope they will call on their colleagues, particularly the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), to stand in this Chamber and repeat their words, because the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark is absolutely right to say we have more in common when we work together, and we should put that hatred aside once and for all; the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead are great examples of that.
I want to focus on an aspect of UC that we sometimes do not focus on enough. I come at this from my background in software and systems and technology. The Secretary of State has explained that UC is an agile test and learn system, but what does that really mean? In the words of the jobcentre staff in Redditch, it means that every claimant is an individual and they have support tailored to their unique circumstances. Those circumstances are not static at one point in time; they might change—their income might go up or down, their family situation might change. That is why what we are discussing is so important. The calls to pause UC often unfortunately fail to grasp the nature of an agile test and learn system; if we pause a system, we cannot have that feedback put into the system to improve it. We want the system to be improved in order to be able to improve people’s lives. As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) has said, this is not just about economics; this is about human potential—people’s human potential to give to their society and to provide for their families, which is what we all want to see.
I have experience of the full service in Redditch; it has been rolled out there. There are always things to improve, and I will focus on one area in the NAO report: will the Department ensure it sets out the goals more clearly and tracks the progress towards them? That is very important in any complex system, which this is.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton is a learning and listening Secretary of State. I commend her on the work she has done, and I am sure she will continue to work in this way.
Lincoln saw the full roll-out of UC in March. It is about hardship; it is about poverty; it is about debt—that is the reality. This month over 600 claimants in my constituency need to apply to be transferred over to the full service. It is causing havoc and deep concern—it genuinely is. Prolonged delays have set in motion a damaging cycle of debt, rent arrears and even eviction and homelessness. In Lincoln, arrears in 264 council houses total over £80,000 of debt since UC was rolled out. My constituents who are forced to wait for UC payments are unable to cope with household budgeting—they just cannot do it on that kind of income—and their physical and mental wellbeing is affected as bills and debts pile up.
We shall take as an example what has happened to Anna, one of my constituents. Anna has been passed from pillar to post as she has tried to navigate through slow and complex bureaucracy. The delay in receiving her payment has forced her to sell everything she can, including her car. Despite help from my office and Lincoln’s Labour-led city council, Anna has fallen into arrears and has been understandably anxious regarding the lack of progress in her case; even my staff member who supported her got really upset about it—the House has to listen to this.
The chaotic roll-out of universal credit means that thousands of people like Anna are facing a nightmarish situation. We are not making it up. In my constituency, I have supported people who are either waiting for or receiving universal credit. They cannot even afford to feed themselves and their families and they have to rely on food banks to survive. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everybody who works in Lincoln’s food banks supporting those people. They are doing a tremendous job against the odds.
The Secretary of State made three inaccurate statements, but she has apologised for only one of them. I might be new here, but by my reckoning that still leaves two that have not been apologised for. There has been a lot of talk today about working together. May I appeal to the Secretary of State to pause and fix universal credit, and to listen to what we are saying before more families are plunged into debt and poverty and risk suffering the indignity of using food banks?
This is a petty and mean motion. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is doing a first-class job, and I have only the utmost respect for her and for what she is doing. There is no more passionate an advocate for the principle of work and the eradication of poverty than my right hon. Friend. Her team are attentive, listening and committed to the task, which is to ensure that people are always better off in work than on benefits.
We have had full service universal credit in Stirling for over a year, and I would like to share some observations and suggestions based on our experience. First, is there a way—I think there might have been a suggestion earlier that there is—in which the DWP could extend the concept of trusted partner status to organisations such as Citizens Advice? That would allow Citizens Advice volunteer advisers to have access to named DWP contacts in order to support the resolution of client queries, which would go a long way to making things simpler and resolving things quickly. The second point is on the need to secure mental health training for DWP staff dealing with the migration of legacy benefits. The legacy benefits issue has been well documented, and with more vulnerable clients coming into the system, we need to ensure that DWP staff are well supported when supporting their clients.
Thirdly, there needs to be increased decision-making discretion at local level on reassessment, and particularly on mandatory reconsideration. When clients are well known to the DWP, it is my view that the mandatory reconsideration process is redundant. More than 90% of medical assessment decisions are upheld at that stage, but three quarters are then overturned on appeal. Giving more discretion to local staff on this matter would make the system more efficient and make better use of the working knowledge that staff have of their face-to-face clients.
My fourth point relates to an anomaly in universal credit deductions. When the DWP makes a deduction from a payment, that might not be the only deduction that is coming off that payment. There might also be court deductions or deductions from the local authority. This can often take claimants below the minimum payment level and leave them without anything to live on. That is a real-life experience.
My final point relates to women’s refuges. When a woman goes into a refuge, only one benefit should stop, and the woman should continue to receive payments. In the experience of our local women’s refuge in Stirling, both payments have stopped, and that is unacceptable. That situation needs clarity.
Absolutely. The test of this system is how we take care of the most vulnerable people that are touched by it. That point is well accepted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her team.
Those are the five points that I wanted to make, and I would like to see some movement on them, to help to continue to roll out a fair and improved system that meets the promise of encouraging work and also protects the most vulnerable in society. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I am slightly concerned that the Secretary of State feels that highlighting the fact that it appears that the House has been misled is now turning into a personal attack, because that is certainly not my intention. My intention is to raise awareness of what is really going on in our constituencies and what people are coming up against. I understand that this is a censure motion, but that is because we would like a vote on it, and the reason why is that our constituents are affected by this. It is not all goodness and light and a bed of roses with people doing well.
The hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) talked about “test and learn”. I have no issue with that, but we need to learn from the tests. If we roll out a test and get negative feedback, we need to pause and fix it, and then carry on. We should not continue with business as usual when we know from the test that certain aspects are failing. For example, we know that there is a negative impact on our disabled constituents. They are not a forgotten class; they are as important as everyone else. We are asking for a review of the policy. If universal credit has faults, let us fix them rather than rolling out a faulty system.
I like the tone of the hon. Lady’s remarks, but does she accept that her moderate tone does not reflect the motion on the Order Paper? Does she agree that arguing about technical tweaks relating to universal credit is not quite what the Labour party is doing today?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I do not accept his comments. I am seeking to convey my points in this tone because people are at the centre of this discussion. This is not about politics that are devoid of compassion. That would make this place just a debating chamber, and that is not what it is about. We are seeking to help the individuals who need this assistance. People who need help are being told, “We have weighed everything up and we think this is the minimum you need to get by, but we are going to hold that back. We are going to sanction you.” One of my constituents, who is called Holly, contacted the DWP about what she perceived to be an overpayment. The DWP said, “No, there’s no overpayment. You can continue. The money is yours.” It then decided that there had been an overpayment. She has now been sanctioned and is not entitled to any money until she has repaid £1,500. These are the people we are here to talk about.
Would my hon. Friend be surprised to learn that there is a glitch in the system that seems to be putting people into debt? Someone in my constituency has been able to apply for advance payment seven times; because of that glitch, they now have £1,700 of arrears. Is that what the system was designed to do?
I do not believe that that is what the system was meant to do. That is evidently a glitch that needs to be rectified. This goes back to what I was saying about test and learn. If we can see that there is a problem like that, why would we not pause and fix it before continuing the roll-out? It is almost like still driving a vehicle with a punctured tyre—we are running on the rim and the wheel is being damaged, but we keep on going. We need to pause and say, “Hold on, we’ve been made aware of this. We are not just hearing about these problems but listening, and this is what we are going to do. We are going to pause this, and then we will roll it out. That will be more effective.”
Seeking to help people into work is a good thing, not a negative thing, and we want to give people a hand up, not a handout. However, my worry is that we are not properly serving many of the people we are here to serve if we do not stop and say, “Hold on a minute. We hear what you are saying and we are listening.” We should be listening to the disabled individuals who are not getting the money to which they are entitled. We should be listening to the people who find themselves sanctioned and have to live hand to mouth, or to wait weeks to get more money after their electricity has run out. We should say, “We’re listening to that and we don’t want you to be in that position.” No one cares how much we know until they know how much we care. Let us pause the roll-out and fix this.
I want to talk about three areas: the first relates to the motion and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; the second is the experience in Somerset, where some of the first 15 councils to transition to universal credit nearly two years ago are located; and the third is about what might be left to do.
The speech of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) was one of the more constructive to come from the Opposition Benches, but it is impossible to say that this is not a personal motion that confuses real issues around the roll-out of universal credit with an attack on the Secretary of State. I was in the House last week when she did apologise, and she has done the right thing since she initially spoke incorrectly.
The two district councils in my constituency, Sedgemoor District Council and Mendip District Council, transitioned to universal credit on 25 May 2016 and 27 July 2016 respectively, so the Wells constituency has a lot of experience of universal credit. To be honest, when it first arrived, that experience was not very good at all. A report produced by Sedgemoor District Council in January 2017, after about seven months of dealing with universal credit, said all the things that Opposition Members are saying now. People were being left without money for too long, which was reflected in my case load, and an awful lot of people came to see me for help. Local food banks said to me exactly what they have said to other colleagues and in the media: they were seeing a real uptick in referrals.
I would therefore never argue that the roll-out of universal credit has been smooth and that everything has gone swimmingly. However, now that we are two years into the process of Wells residents transferring to universal credit, things have massively improved. People are now transitioning much more smoothly. The number of people seeking my help because they have experienced difficulties has reduced significantly. Jobcentre Plus staff tell me that they see great merit in universal credit and think that it is achieving all the things that it should achieve to help people into work.
My hon. Friend is making a constructive, sensible point. Does he agree that the principle of universal credit must always be that it will pay to get people into work and to simplify what was an overcomplicated and over-bureaucratic system?
My hon. Friend is right. That is absolutely the principle of universal credit, and that is exactly what people in my constituency are experiencing now, because so much has been improved over the two years in which universal credit has been operating.
The Department for Work and Pensions is to be commended for how it has responded to feedback. The skills of DWP staff in call centres around the country, their understanding of the system and their ability to help our constituents when we go to them with casework are all much improved. Frankly, it is wrong to suggest that we should pause or stop something that is now well in train when so much has been learned and so many improvements have been made. That is why I am glad that the Government are keeping on course and maintaining the pace of delivery of universal credit.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate and to present the concerns of many of my constituents, whom this failed public policy is supposed to help. The root of the problem for many is that applications are processed solely online. That causes enormous problems for people who are digitally excluded, those who do not have a smartphone or a computer at home, and those for whom English is a second language. The support provided by the DWP is inadequate and jobcentres are simply not set up to provide the necessary level of IT support. The National Audit Office report supports that view, and the Department’s own survey found that nearly half of claimants were unable to make a claim online unassisted and a fifth of claims fail at an early stage because claimants are not able to navigate the online system.
I am grateful for the work of my constituency staff and several local support and advice organisations that work tirelessly to plug the shortfall and help to process claims in the absence of adequate DWP support. Without those organisations, to which I pay tribute—they include Reading citizens advice bureau, Woodley citizens advice bureau, Reading community welfare rights unit and CommuniCare—hundreds of people would be falling through the cracks. I visited one of those organisations recently and, in the bright sunshine, I was shocked to find that more than 10 people were queuing at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning. They were waiting in line, desperate for help. This simply is not good enough.
I urge the Secretary of State and my Reading colleague, the Minister for Employment, to see these problems for themselves and pause to fix the roll-out of universal credit.
As we have heard, universal credit replaces a complex web of payments with a single monthly sum. Not only that but it actively encourages people to work by ensuring they do not end up worse off by taking up part-time work.
Under the previous Labour system, people could lose up to £9 of every extra £10 they earned. We are talking about apologies, and I cannot understand why the Labour party will not apologise for punishing people who wanted to work and to provide for their family.
About 60% of those in work who are receiving universal credit want to increase their hours. Figures show an overall increase in earnings of £600 and a fall in the proportion of those making less than £10,000. That is the reality, not the scaremongering from Opposition Members, which only creates anxiety among those who need the very help that universal credit provides.
One example of that scaremongering is the food bank survey, which has been mentioned a number of times in this debate. The sample for that survey was 0.04% of those on universal credit, and it was carried out prior to the changes that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has implemented. That is not a true reflection of the picture throughout the United Kingdom.
I have heard the concerns expressed by Members, the devolved Administrations and third parties such as charities about the roll-out of universal credit, which is why, both before and since the roll-out began, I have liaised closely with the DWP and jobcentre staff in my Angus constituency.
When I visited the jobcentre in Arbroath earlier this year, its staff made it clear to me that universal credit is a vast improvement on the previous chaos of various benefit payments, which could leave people confused. When there have been occasional issues in transferring constituents from the old system to the new, I have been struck by the DWP’s willingness to listen and to correct errors. In fact, the National Audit Office’s report confirmed my local experience by observing good relationships between work coaches and claimants, which I hope the Opposition will welcome. Indeed, I will return to my jobcentre throughout the summer months because we fix things by learning what the issues are and ensuring that we can help our constituents.
No national roll-out is ever straightforward, and it is always challenging to bring together a vast array of benefits into a single system, but the benefits of universal credit are clear: more people in work, and more people on the lowest incomes with more money in their pockets. That is why I am here to oppose the Opposition’s motion.
I am grateful to be able to speak in this important debate. I fully understand why tempers are high, given the terrible impact that universal credit has had. Ministers’ assurances about mitigating the impact of universal credit do not square with many people’s experience. Indeed, the Department’s own surveys have found that 40% of claimants are experiencing financial difficulties, that 25% cannot make an online claim—I think the rate is higher in Easington—and that 20%, or one in five, are not paid in full on time. Despite the Secretary of State’s assurances, the Department cannot measure the exact number of additional people in employment as a direct result of universal credit.
In my limited time, I must thank the charities, advice groups and campaigners who are supporting my constituents to get by on universal credit. In particular, I thank the East Durham Trust’s Malcolm Fallow, its excellent team of full-time support workers and its exceptional volunteers. Without their advocacy, and benefit and debt advice, many families in my constituency would not have a roof over their heads, or electricity and gas on the meter. Through the East Durham Trust food bank, people have been able to put food on the table to feed their family.
Thousands of people will be waiting for health assessments for UC or ESA, so I have some practical advice, as the Secretary of State said she wanted some suggestions. While the current system remains, claimants must take steps to protect themselves. In a written answer I received on 28 March from the Minister for Disabled People, I was advised:
“Anyone who is called for a work capability assessment as part of their claim for Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit, receives an information leaflet about the assessment process. This leaflet includes details of how they can request that their assessment is recorded.”
I would advise anyone undergoing an assessment to get it recorded. I have dealt with cases where individuals have gone from zero points to 15 points, and without the recording it would not have been possible to challenge the original decision. In addition, the health assessor commissioned by the Department should provide recording equipment and answer any questions that a person has. Unfortunately, although the Department claims to be digital by default, claimants who want to make a recording of the PIP assessment have to provide their own recording equipment. That is absolutely ridiculous. I am in little doubt that that is a deliberate barrier to prevent people making claims. I urge Members to support the motion.
In a week when chaos reigns in this Government, it seems only fitting that we talk about the policy most in chaos—universal credit. I must say to the Secretary of State that if one of my constituents went into Shettleston jobcentre and lied to their work coach, they would find that they had been sanctioned and the Government would then come down on them like a ton of bricks. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) talked about us recognising work coaches, but my problem is not with them—they do a fantastic job—but with the ideology that comes from the Department for Work and Pensions, which is taken forward by the work coaches on behalf of the Government.
The sheer misery of full UC roll-out is due to be unleashed in Glasgow later this year, so my message to the Secretary of State today could not be clearer: halt the roll-out of UC in Glasgow and fix it now. This callous Tory Government cannot sit idly by and watch as UC continues to cause social destruction within our communities. The evidence from charities, stakeholders and constituents is overwhelming: universal credit is pushing people into crisis, and crisis appears to be the new normal. Indeed, under this Government, food banks appear to be the new normal. Data from the Trussell Trust shows that where full UC roll-out is in place, the food banks have seen an average increase in usage of 52%. Glasgow North East food bank in my constituency is already at breaking point, and that is before this Government have even moved to full UC roll-out.
I want to briefly turn to the issue of housing and the impact that UC has on our housing associations. I am incredibly fortunate to have a strong network of small, local housing associations in my constituency—my biggest challenge is getting round to visit them all. If one message they give me is crystal clear, it is that UC is pushing tenants into rent arrears and putting financial pressure on our housing associations. I have repeatedly invited the Minister for Employment to come to my constituency to see and hear at first hand the concerns of housing associations in Greater Easterhouse about full UC roll-out. I am told that he is coming to Scotland soon, and I wonder if he might even be willing, when he sums up, to put on record when he will be coming to Easterhouse to speak to the Easterhouse Housing and Regeneration Alliance and listen to its concerns. I am sure he does take them seriously.
I am conscious that colleagues want to speak and as I do not want to be a tadger by taking up too much time, I would just say that UC’s credibility lies in tatters, as does the Secretary of State’s reputation, so she should do the right thing and resign.
I hope that everyone on both sides of the House would agree that a Secretary of State with responsibility to all the people of this country should at the very least be listening to the NAO’s advice, to the evidence from the Department’s widespread survey and to the mountains of evidence from third parties of overwhelming hardship and suffering under UC. The DWP’s own survey showed that 40% of claimants were in hardship after nine months on UC, including more than half of disabled claimants, so it is hard to the disagree with the NAO, which said that the DWP has not shown a
“commitment to listening and responding to the hardship faced by claimants.”
The head of the NAO said:
“Maybe a change of mindset will follow the publication of the claimant survey”.
Unfortunately, so far, in the Secretary of State’s statement and DWP questions last week, we have not seen that change of heart, but I hope that, in the spirit in which she has responded today, we will start to see some listening and some learning.
A false claim about the speed of the roll-out was made not once but multiple times. When I asked the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), about the level of hardship among those on universal credit, I was told that
“the close and constructive relationship between work coaches and their clients should enable them as a team to get through any hardship that arises.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2018; Vol. 644, c. 10.]
That shows a staggering lack of listening among Ministers to what is going on in the evidence before them. As work coaches are due to see their claimant numbers increase from 85 clients per work coach to 373 clients per work coach, it will be impossible for them to have any sort of close relationship. We need a system that works.
The Secretary of State told the Select Committee this morning that she wants to listen to claimants’ experiences and to learn and said that the most disabled people will be better off under universal credit. I look forward to both those eventualities. Before coming to the House, I worked to support people on tax credits and universal credit. I set up the all-party group on universal credit to work across party lines to make the changes that are needed to really support people who can work and those who cannot. I look forward to working with the Secretary of State and the DWP team to make sure that we see those changes happen before universal credit is rolled out to 10 million adults and half of all children.
It has been interesting to hear Government Members talk about tweaking, making adjustments and listening and so forth, because universal credit is nothing new for some people. My constituency has been suffering from it for more than five years, from pilot through to full service roll-out. I was leader of Highland Council when the pilot was unveiled, and we noticed the problems, particularly with housing, right away. We wrote letters to the DWP and spoke to Ministers in meetings, telling them of the problems. We made suggestions and cajoled and pleaded with them to listen to us.
I was looking back and found that since 2015 I have spoken in 35 debates about universal credit, asked dozens of oral and written questions about it and signed 13 different early-day motions on it. I led the Scottish National party Opposition day debate on universal credit, in addition to securing two Adjournment debates on the impact it has had on my constituents—the pain and suffering it has caused and its impact on disabled people and the low-waged. Unfortunately, not everyone has sought help because some people have not known how to do it, but those who have come for help have seen extraordinary difficulties.
I invited all Government MPs to come to a summit in Inverness and hear at first hand from the agencies and the people involved about the pain that they were going through, but that was ignored. After this period, I have come to the conclusion that the Government do not want to listen. They are determined to make sure that austerity falls on the backs of the low-waged and the disabled—those people who are most vulnerable in our society.
My hon. Friend is right that the Government clearly have not listened. Did the changes that the Secretary of State brags about not come about only because the Government were defeated in the High Court when they were infringing people’s human rights?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. As I have said, we have been through the pilot and the pain of live service to the absolutely crushing delivery of full service. Resources are stretched; the jobcentre is open seven days a week; the Highland Council welfare team is stretched to the limit; staff at our constituency office are working outside hours to try to cope with the excess of inquiries; and the citizens advice bureau is under extreme pressure. All have struggled with universal credit. The Highland Council housing team has tried desperately to deal with a broken landlord system, and Highland Council rent arrears are now in the millions of pounds.
We have seen evictions, people unable to feed and clothe their children, families made destitute and poverty driving people into mental health difficulties. What is the Government’s response: “You’re wrong. They’re wrong. It’s not happening. You’re scaremongering.” Well, that is the reality for people on universal credit; that is what is happening to them. People are suffering unimaginable hardship at the hands of this Government’s policies, and it has changed and damaged our community.
Earlier, the Secretary of State said that universal credit makes people more economically secure in life. Let me tell that to John who had 42p to last a fortnight, or to Gavin who was given £60 for a £175 rental bill. He had nothing else; he was in debt already. He cannot even eat, let alone turn on the power or do anything else. What about Ian and his two-year-old who had to rely on food banks and go for days without electricity? A woman from Grantown-on-Spey had to travel to Inverness to hand in childcare vouchers. It was an hour and a half each way on public transport—three hours on a bus—and the jobcentre then lost her claim. What do we say to those who are terminally ill who are asked to report to work coaches?
This affects people. More and more people are falling into poverty. Food banks are becoming a necessity rather than a helping hand. I have seen self-employed people lose their payment because their annual income has been counted as monthly income. The problems go on and on. The Secretary of State, from what she has said over the past week, has been at her worst. She should go, as should this failed, miserable system.
Despite being new at the Dispatch Box, I am under no illusion about the fact that people inside and outside this Chamber may shortly have plans to watch something other than my response to today’s debate. I will seek to respond in a manner that is timely, but that also does justice to the many thousands of people for whom the realities of universal credit are more than just a game—they are an everyday injustice.
Regardless of the result tonight—and I wish my team England well—we can all appreciate the manner in which Gareth Southgate has taken over an underperforming team and turned it around. If only those in charge at the DWP had a similar approach to leadership and accountability. Over the past week, we have seen a Secretary of State who, when called on to show leadership and humility, chose to lecture rather than to listen, to sow division rather than to build consensus and refuse to make a thorough apology at every point.
In fact, the Secretary of State’s attempts to explain away a number of misinterpretations of the National Audit Office facts were so fantastical that they reminded me of an episode of the children’s programme “Jackanory” or of Trumpisms, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) would phrase them. I am talking about a world where pause and slow are fast; where failure is success; and where sign-off is tune out, forget and denial. It is a place where the trusted and respected National Audit Office, armed with empirical data and facts to give good counsel, is almost dismissed as an agent of fake news.
We have the evidence and facts that were signed off by the DWP on 8 June. Here are some of the facts: 113,000 claimants paid late and two thirds of disabled people with limited capacity to work not paid on time. Then there is the continual claim, well documented by Members in the House, that 200,000 people have been put into work, which is not evidenced and not proven.
The contributions today show just how important it is that this Government radically fix and pause universal credit. We are not short of evidence that the current system is failing. The current impact of the roll-out of universal credit has united housing associations across the UK. They are clear that this policy is causing debt, suffering and hardship for the families they house. The Child Poverty Action Group’s early warning system is pointing towards what it says is likely to be a systemic problem.
The Secretary of State may have struggled to accept the NAO’s criticism last week in its unprecedented open letter, but there can be no room for misinterpreting what we have heard today from many MPs across the Chamber: tale after tale of delays, refusals and mistakes, causing suffering, hardship and misery to the very people this policy is supposed to support.
Last week, the Secretary of State went to great lengths to defend this policy, by explaining how universal credit must be judged on the most up-to-date information. Well, it was, and the Department signed it off. The cases and experiences that have been raised today show what is happening here, out there and now. We are talking about real lives, real time and real people—not crocodile tears. It is time to stop. It time to pause. It is time to fix it.
I believe that each of us in this House, whatever our political persuasion, came into politics to help build a fairer society. Indeed, that sense of fairness is part of the very DNA of the British people, and the desire for fairness extends to our welfare system—a system where we support the vulnerable, those looking to get into work and those wanting to increase their hours. That is precisely what universal credit does. It takes a complicated benefits system and simplifies it. Under this system, the claimant is provided with one-to-one support for the first time by their work coach. This support is making a real difference to progress into employment and is increasing people’s earnings.
We have published research that shows that, once people are on universal credit, they get into work fast and stay in work longer and that they will be earning more. Just last month, we published a survey that showed that the percentage of those in employment almost doubles between the point of making the claim and nine months into universal credit. For every extra hour worked, people get to keep more of their own money. Under universal credit, work absolutely pays.
The Opposition have said that we are ploughing ahead with the universal credit roll-out. This argument simply does not hold water. We are listening, learning and improving, getting the delivery of universal credit right, with a roll-out taking place at a measured rate. Let me give an example. In the autumn Budget, we announced a £1.5 billion package of extra support for claimants. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set out precisely what was in that package. We listened; we acted; and we helped claimants.
I will not give way.
What did the Opposition do? They cynically voted against the regulations that allowed the £1.5 billion of support to be made available to claimants. I get that the Opposition are there to oppose, but that should not be at the cost of helping the very people they claim to represent. Opposition Members have raised individual cases of claimants who have been suffering hardship. How many of those hon. Members have looked those individual claimants in the eye and explained why they voted to deny them the help and support that they needed? [Interruption.]
Let us talk about the help that the work coaches are giving. The NAO report says:
“A survey of live service claimants found that claimant satisfaction levels were similar to those on legacy benefits and in our visits to jobcentres we observed good relationships between work coaches and claimants.”
The support is available, and it is working and helping people to get into work.
No, I will not give way.
Thanks to the policies of this Conservative Government, we are at record levels of employment. Once universal credit is fully rolled out, we will support another 200,000 people into work. The tone and the wording of Labour’s motion today has been disappointing and, frankly, ill-judged in personally attacking my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
My right hon. Friend set out in her speech some of the positive changes that she has made, with the support of the whole brilliant DWP team. She has instigated these changes since coming into her role. Labour Members should actually be thanking her for her proactivity, not seeking to censure her today. They have offered absolutely no solutions today—just scaremongering. Their only answer appears to be to let people languish in a legacy system that effectively washes its hands of them.
When we go forward with universal credit, of course we are going to listen. But at the heart of universal credit there lies a very simple but incredibly powerful idea—that we should help people to achieve their full potential, and that is precisely what this Government are going to do.