Skip to main content

Universal Credit

Volume 652: debated on Monday 14 January 2019

Order. The hon. Lady is always ahead of herself. What she does at this stage is say, “To ask the Minister to make a statement on universal credit”. We will get her full blast in a moment.

As I outlined in the written statement tabled last Friday in the House, we have decided to replace the regulations relating to managed migration previously laid before the House with two new sets of regulations.

These regulations will allow a series of measures relating to universal credit to be put in place. The Government will seek powers in an affirmative set of regulations for a pilot of managed migration so that the Department cannot issue any more migration notices once 10,000 people have been awarded through the process. Those regulations will also deliver on our commitment to provide transitional protection for those managed migrated to universal credit. Separate regulations will put in place a severe disability premium gateway, allowing recipients of this benefit to continue to claim existing benefits until they are managed migrated on to universal credit.

In addition, my statement reported that we were bringing forward the necessary legislation to remove the planned extension of the policy to provide support for a maximum of two children in universal credit. This overall policy ensures that parents receiving benefits face the same financial decisions about the size of their family as those supporting themselves solely through work. We decided, however, that it would not be right to apply the policy to children born before it came into law on 6 April 2017, so we have cancelled that extension.

The benefits freeze up to April 2020 was voted for by Parliament as part of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. As a general point, any changes relating to benefits uprating will be brought before Parliament in the usual way.

On 6 January, it was reported in The Observer that the Government had decided to ask for powers from Parliament for a pilot of the managed migration of 10,000 people from legacy benefits to universal credit, rather than for a pilot of managed migration as a whole. However, on 7 January at oral questions, and the following day in response to an urgent question, Ministers failed to provide clarification of the Government’s plans. Then on Thursday, the Secretary of State told Sky News that she did not expect the social security freeze to be renewed when it came to an end in April 2020.

On Friday 11 January, the Secretary of State made a wide-ranging speech on social security, setting out her intentions in relation to managed migration, private sector rents, childcare costs and the two-child limit, but she did not make it in this House or give Members the opportunity to ask questions about those really important matters. On the same day, the High Court found in favour of four single mothers who had brought a legal challenge against the Government on the grounds that universal credit failed to take into account their fluctuating incomes after they were paid twice in a month because their paydays fell very near the end of the month.

How do the Government intend to respond to the High Court judgement? Does the Minister think that the two-child limit is fair to the children affected, and will the Government not scrap it altogether? Will they address the key concern with managed migration, which is that nobody’s claim for benefits that they are currently receiving must be ended until they have made a successful new claim for universal credit?

Will the Government make sure that the levels set for payments to people in receipt of severe disability premium who have already transferred to universal credit reflect the financial loss they have suffered? Will they take immediate action to ensure that no one has to wait five weeks to receive their initial payment of universal credit? Why are they not cancelling the benefits freeze now rather than waiting until April 2020, given that the Secretary of State says she believes that the reasons for it being introduced no longer apply? Finally, will the Government call a halt to the roll-out of universal credit?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. Very many people outside the House—many stakeholders —have welcomed the statements made in the House on Friday and what the Secretary of State said in her speech. I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not welcome the positive changes that have been made and are being proposed.

The hon. Lady talked about a number of issues, and I shall go through them. She mentioned the legal judgment on Friday; as she acknowledged, that judgment came out literally a few days ago. As a Department, we will consider it very carefully and then respond. On the two-child policy, we have of course made that change; as she will be aware, the regulations were laid on Friday. She talked about the overall two-child policy, and we do believe that the overall policy is fair. Ultimately, those receiving support in the welfare system should face the same sort of choices as those who support themselves solely through work. It is worth pointing out that if a family who supported themselves solely through work decided to have another child, they would not automatically expect their wages to go up. This is about sustainability.

The hon. Lady mentioned the pilot. We have made it clear that that will start in July 2019, and we are working with a wide range of stakeholders on it. She talked about the severe disability premium: those regulations have been laid. She also mentioned the benefits freeze. May I ask her to reflect on the reason why we had to make various policy choices in the past? It was the awful financial mess left us by the last Labour Government. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but she cannot get away from that point.

I have one final thing to say to the hon. Lady. She talks about changes to the five-week period. I have said this in the House before: if she is so keen on supporting claimants, particularly the vulnerable, as we on the Government Benches are, why did she not vote for the £1.5 billion of support that came in under Budget 2017 and the £4.5 billion of support announced in the 2018 Budget?

Order. On account of the fact that a prime ministerial statement is to follow and that we then have eight hours of protected time for the debate on the withdrawal agreement, I will seek to conclude these exchanges by 4.15 pm. I am sure that colleagues will want to factor that into their calculations.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and his Secretary of State on the progress that they are making on eliminating some of the obvious defects that have emerged in this otherwise highly desirable policy. Does he agree that the problem is that the details were designed by people who were well intentioned but too paternalistic in their attempts to introduce people to the disciplines and normal way of life of people in work? They were often dealing with people who were vulnerable and relying day to day on cash.

When it is affordable, after we have really recovered from the consequences of the financial disaster, will my hon. Friend address the five-week delay in the first payment, which does cause hardship and which I hope will be gone by the time the so-called migration comes to my constituency?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his support for the policies that we have announced. On the five-week period, we have ensured that people can get support through 100% advances from day one if they require it; two weeks of housing benefit run-on is also available. As part of the package that we announced in the Budget, additional run-on support will be available from 2020.

My right hon. and learned Friend is right: we need to make sure that throughout this process we support the most vulnerable, and that is exactly what the changes that have been announced have been all about.

First, I want to say how inappropriate it is for the Secretary of State to have made this statement on Friday outside the House and then not even to have bothered to come here today to speak for herself.

We in the Scottish National party welcome this U-turn from the Secretary of State, which vindicates what we, along with a range of charities, women’s organisations and faith groups, have been saying since the July Budget in 2015. However, none of us will be fully satisfied as long as the two-child limit applies to births after 6 April 2017: it must be scrapped now. The Secretary of State has already accepted the fundamental unfairness of the two-child limit, so why does the Minister feel that this policy, with its cruel and pernicious rape clause, must continue, even though it has been ruled unfair for other people? Does he not see that it creates a two-tier system in universal credit depending on when children were born? We cannot plan for everything in our lives.

Has the Secretary of State heard the evidence from Turn2us and the Child Poverty Action Group that the two-child policy is forcing women into terminating healthy pregnancies? Has she heard about the discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities? Does she know that most people claiming this benefit are actually in work, and does she know that in its first year of operation it affected 73,530 people? Where does the 15,000 figure come from?

Friday’s court ruling laid bare flaws in universal credit which many Members have been highlighting in relation to the timings of payments. High Court judges said that the DWP had wrongly interpreted the relevant regulations and, shamefully, had tried to justify that on cost grounds. What steps will the Secretary of State take to put that right, and will she stop wasting money in the courts rather than ensuring that our constituents receive what they are fully entitled to?

In its final year alone, the benefit freeze will cut £4.7 billion from the welfare budget, more than the amount that the Chancellor pledged for the work allowance for the next four years. Will the Secretary of State make the case to the Chancellor for scrapping the freeze, which is making life so hard for so many of our constituents?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for welcoming the changes that have been announced. She has referred to the Secretary of State. As the hon. Lady will know, the statement about the changes was made in my name, and the regulations were laid in my name. It is therefore entirely appropriate that I should come here and, quite rightly, answer questions asked by colleagues.

The hon. Lady talked about the non-consensual conception clause. Of course I agree with her that women who find themselves in such utterly awful circumstances must be given the help that they need, and that that must be done in the most compassionate way possible. We have discussed the point before, and she knows that it is purely a question of whether the circumstances that are described are consistent with those of someone who has met the criteria for the exception. The individuals who are dealing with this are third-party professionals who already have experience of supporting vulnerable women.

As I have said, we will consider Friday’s court judgment and respond to it.

I welcome the emphasis on helping people into work, and the idea that the implementation of the policy should be compassionate. With that in mind, may I ask whether there will be changes in the timing of benefit so that those who are most in need of it receive it earlier, and whether there will be a review of the housing element, which has sometimes caused trouble as well?

My right hon. Friend is, of course, right: throughout this process, we must provide support for the vulnerable in particular. As he will know, once universal credit is fully rolled out, there will be over £2 billion more in the welfare system than there is under the current legacy benefits. One of the changes made in the Budget was the uplifting of work allowances, which will help young parents and also the disabled.

Any improvements in this hideous programme are welcome, but there will still be thousands of universal credit claimants who are moved on to it this year as a result of natural migration, with no transitional protections. How many people will be pushed into poverty by that move and the Government’s lack of compassion in failing to unfreeze the benefits system?

As I have said previously in the House and as I said earlier this afternoon, we have put more money into the system to support the most vulnerable, which is absolutely right. As for the pilot phase, we will of course work very carefully with stakeholders to make sure that we get it right.

I warmly welcome this excellent move by the Department. Will my hon. Friend please pay tribute to the sympathetic, careful, diligent and effective manner in which the staff of the Jobcentre Plus in Haywards Heath carry out their difficult duties?

My right hon. Friend has highlighted a very important point. He has talked of the incredibly hard-working DWP staff in the Haywards Heath jobcentre, but the Secretary of State and I see the same hard work as we go up and down the country talking to our colleagues in jobcentres. They are all incredibly committed, and they see the benefits of universal credit in helping people and ensuring that claimants have the one-to-one support that was not in place before.

I also welcome these modest steps in the right direction, but why did the Secretary of State and the Minister both deny a week ago the change that the Minister has now announced about the separate regulations for the 10,000 migration? Will the Minister respond to the point made by the Father of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke)? The five-week delay is indefensible; it is forcing people to rely on advances, putting them into debt right at the start of their claim.

I know that we have had this exchange before, and I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman feels that I repeat myself. Of course it is important that we get money in people’s pockets early. There is no question about that, and that is why we made the changes when we said we would make sure that absolutely anyone who needed it could get up to 100% of their advances up front. I have talked about the two-week run-on for those on housing benefit, which does not have to be repaid, and as the right hon. Gentleman knows in the last Budget we also announced that from July 2020 those on out-of-work DWP benefits will also get a two-week run-on.

The manager of the Jobcentre Plus in Redditch said that this is the best system she has seen in 30 years; she has been on the frontline. Does the Minister welcome the fact that today the Resolution Foundation has pointed out that it is those on the lowest end of the income spectrum who are getting back into work, so this is a truly progressive benefit? It is great to see these reforms.

My hon. Friend highlights an important point. I was at the launch of the Resolution Foundation report this morning, which highlighted precisely the point she has raised. I encourage all colleagues on both the Government and Opposition sides to go to their jobcentres and talk—[Interruption.] No, if they would talk directly to the people responsible for providing that advice, I think they would find that the system is working.

The Minister should not patronise the Opposition by pretending that somehow we do not all do our constituency duty and we have not been to visit our local jobcentres. I can assure him that we have, and the problem with this benefit is that it was introduced to save money. Large cuts in welfare systems and payments were made. The Minister has put a little bit back, which has got to be welcome, but he has not put back what was taken away, and what was taken away is leaving my constituents relying on food banks with not enough to eat. He needs to recognise that reality.

May I suggest that if the hon. Lady has time she and I should talk directly to colleagues in the jobcentre in her area? Let us have a discussion with them and see how we can support her constituents even better.

Surely everybody in this place will want to help people on benefits but ultimately transfer them so that they have the opportunity to work and then pay more into the essential public services that they, and indeed we all, need to get by. Given that we have record employment and also record low unemployment, surely this policy must be doing something right to those ends.

The policies we have put in place since 2010 are working; we can see that in the jobs figures. When we came to power in 2010, some 1.4 million people in the country had been on out-of-work benefits for at least nine of the previous 10 years; that is not a legacy that the Opposition should be proud of.

Yes, universal credit does help Jobcentre Plus workers who are trying to persuade people to go into short-hour jobs and zero-hours contracts where their hours of work fluctuate. We welcome the very small changes to this that will help a few thousand people, but what will the Government be doing to help the thousands on universal credit who were paid a few days early over the Christmas period, then received absolutely nothing for their December-January payment of universal credit and are now suffering arrears of rent and childcare payments because of that which the High Court has just ruled against?

We will of course respond on the High Court ruling. I am pleased the hon. Lady raised the point about what sort of jobs have been created: just to put it on the record—these are not Government figures; they are from the Office for National Statistics—since 2010 some 75% of all the jobs created are full time, are in high-level occupations and are permanent. That is something I wish Opposition colleagues would acknowledge.

I commend the Minister for these announcements, especially the one on the two-child limit. He appears to have accepted the recommendations of the Select Committee within hours of its making them. On that theme, if he is looking for ideas, perhaps he missed some of the previous recommendations. For example, in the managed migration that he is now trialling, will he look at moving people on existing benefits over, rather than asking them to make a new claim? That would be a far more effective system, and far better for the claimants.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend feels that we were able to react in a matter of hours to the recommendations of the Select Committee. I think he is talking about a process of pre-population, and we will of course work throughout the pilot phase. We have responded to the Social Security Advisory Committee with some of the plans that we have. I would point out, however, that when we had the move to employment and support allowance, we underpaid people as a result of having incomplete information.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to reopening the Wallasey jobcentre in order to meet the commitment that he has just made to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle). It is five years since the Government began to impose universal credit. Does not this latest change underline the fact that it has failed in its three aims? It is overdue, over budget and overly complex. Should not all the roll-out be halted until all the fundamental flaws are fixed?

Universal credit has now rolled out across the country, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, and we will of course continue to proceed with it. He is right to say that we need to get this right for everyone, and that is precisely what the changes are about. Universal credit does work for the vast majority of the people who claim it, but it is absolutely right that we provide support, particularly for the most vulnerable.

Can the Minister confirm that the spending on universal credit when it is fully rolled out will be some £2 billion a year more than on the existing legacy benefits, and that this could be worth an average of up to £300 per universal credit family?

My hon. Friend is right to say that there will be more money in the system. I should point out that, under the legacy benefits system, there is £2.4 billion of unclaimed benefits. That will change under universal credit, supporting an estimated 700,000 households who will get paid their full entitlement.

Many Opposition Members take representations from trade unions. They are the voice of the DWP workforce, but it often falls on deaf ears in the Government. Is not the reality that the final year of the benefit freeze absolutely undermines any changes that Ministers are trying to make to the benefit system? Will he tell us what representations he and his Department are making to the Treasury to scrap the final year of the benefit freeze?

I am not going to apologise for repeating that the reason we made so many difficult decisions when we first came into office and in subsequent years was the record deficit left by Labour—[Interruption.] There is no getting away from that. I have already made it clear that when it comes to issues around uprating, these will be announced in the appropriate way to Parliament.

Order. Mr Campbell, it is very early in the week. I cannot put this down to the effects of hot curry, because I doubt that you have consumed any thus far. There are several days to go, and you need to remain calm. You are a very great figure in the House, and I am concerned for your wellbeing.

We have been warning Ministers about this problem of the dates for months, so will the Minister now rule out—what is the word? [Interruption.] No! Will he rule out appealing against the court decision?

Let me repeat this once more. The judgment to which the hon. Lady refers came out on Friday and we are going to have to consider it carefully. We will respond in due course.

I applaud the Government for listening and for making essential changes based on evidence brought forward by those on both sides of the Chamber of the House of Commons. Can the Minister assure me that if further evidence comes to light requiring further changes, the Government will continue to listen and make changes as necessary?

I hope we have shown over the past couple of years that we do listen and that we do make changes. Of course we will continue to do so where that is appropriate.

Sometimes it can be hard to understand what the Minister is really saying to us. Most people call non-consensual conception rape, and that is what we are talking about. Most people in this country would call picking and choosing between the children we choose to support discrimination. The next time they Minister has to come to the House, as he undoubtedly will, to tell us about a policy change in relation to the two-child policy, will he commit to telling us exactly what the characteristics are of the kids that our Government will no longer support?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady feels unable to welcome the changes. The previous two Budgets have included additional support and, as I just said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), we will see what more we can do where that is appropriate.

Universal credit was rolled out in my constituency almost two years ago. The roll-out was largely successful, but there are issues, particularly with payment frequency. Will my hon. Friend commit to continue to listen, learn and make adaptations where necessary?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, because several of the other issues announced by the Secretary of State relate to looking at more frequent direct payments to private landlords and at alternative payment arrangements, including offering them proactively.

I welcome the fact that the Minister will disapply the policy for 15,000 children and families, but will he confirm whether he will still take more than £2,500 from 640,000 families? What is fair or compassionate about that?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the policy will support 15,000 families, but we anticipate that 77,000 families and 113,000 children will benefit over a five-year period. It is important that we provide support, but ultimately, as he will know, the overall policy was tested in the courts and was found to be sound.

Universal credit is now being rolled out in my constituency and across Edinburgh, and I have been meeting those who specialise in advising my constituents on the problems that they encounter in the benefits system. The Community Help and Advice Initiative wants to know why the Government are not halting the roll-out until all universal credit’s flaws are properly addressed.

I think the hon. and learned Lady will find that universal credit has already rolled out in her local area, because the last roll-outs were in December. In terms of providing support, she will be aware of the partnership we now have with Citizens Advice, which will make a difference and help the most vulnerable in particular.

I welcome the changes that the Minister has proposed, but universal credit has created incredible problems in my constituency, including delays and reductions in payments. Will he outline what will be done to assist those who are already in the universal credit system and not on the pilot scheme?

The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed universal credit before and, as I have said, my door is always open. If he has specific cases, I will be happy to review them.

Over 100 MPs supported the cross-party campaign to scrap the two-child limit policy, including the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). However, some 3 million children will still be affected by the policy, even though the Government have decided to relax it somewhat. Will the Minister heed MPs’ advice and scrap the policy altogether?

We have listened. In November, I spoke to the hon. Lady and other colleagues about the policy, and we have changed its retrospective nature. However, I point out that the overall policy is about fairness not only to those who receive welfare but, of course, to taxpayers.

This Government have finally recognised the risk to women and children of giving universal credit to just one member of a household. Will the Minister now explain how the DWP will identify the main caregiver in a household and what other steps will be taken to protect women and children from domestic abuse?

Payment to a single person in a household is not a unique feature of universal credit, and such payment also exists in the legacy benefits system. The hon. Lady is right that, right now, 60% of all universal credit payments go to the female’s bank account. The Secretary of State has announced that we will look at what more we can do to enable the main carer to receive universal credit, and very often that will be the female in the household.

We have been back for only seven days and this is now the second urgent question on universal credit. Is it not time for the Secretary of State to come to the House and make a Government statement on what she intends to do about the mess of universal credit?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady is so unhappy. I would have thought that she should be welcoming all the positive changes we have been making. Indeed, the Secretary of State was before the House just last week at Work and Pensions Question Time answering questions on universal credit and other policies.

When are the Government going to do something about the long-winded, cumbersome and complicated process of applying for universal credit? I have a constituent who applied in September and has received only one payment—we are now in mid-January—mainly because of mistakes made by officials in the Department. When are the Government going to do something about this?

If the hon. Gentleman has a specific case, I would be very happy to look at it. The timeliness of payments has been increasing under universal credit, but one reason why we may not be able to make full payments to people is that we are waiting to verify some of their costs, which may relate to childcare, rent or whatever. I am very happy to talk to him about the case he raises.

I know from my private conversations with the Minister that he genuinely wants this system to work, and I welcome the changes he has made. May I suggest that, when it comes to migration from existing legacy benefits, instead of requesting that the applicant provides the information, the Department uses the information already available to work out what payments should be made to the applicant?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words. Again, he raises the issue of pre-population. In our response to the Social Security Advisory Committee, we have set out what we plan to do, but the key thing is that we need to make sure that we get all the information so that we can pay people the full amount they are due.

Last year, several newspapers carried harrowing accounts of women who were forced to seek abortions simply because of the two-child limit policy. I hear what the Minister says about retrospective changes, but how will the proposal help women who wish to go ahead with an unplanned pregnancy?

As the hon. Lady will know, we already have a set of exemptions in the policy. We recently announced two further exemptions, but the overall policy was tested in the courts last year and was found to be sound.

When will the British Government extend the much-needed transitional protection to people who are migrating naturally through a change of circumstance?

The best way the hon. Gentleman can make sure we provide support through transitional protection for those who migrate is by supporting the regulations when we vote on them under the affirmative procedure.

Sixty bishops wrote to the Government last year condemning the two-child limit. Does the Minister counsel those bishops to advise members of their flock who are considering having a third child to exercise more social responsibility?

When I met parliamentary colleagues to discuss the two-child policy, the meeting was chaired by the Bishop of Durham. We have made changes to the policy but, overall, this is about being fair to the taxpayer while being sustainable at the same time.

Some EU citizens are now being refused universal credit as they cannot produce proof of their residency rights. This particularly affects women in caring roles who have worked less and paid less tax. I welcome the Secretary of State’s wish to reduce universal credit’s impact on women, so will the Department review this scandal before it becomes a new shame on universal credit?

A clear set of criteria determines whether someone can claim universal credit. If the hon. Lady has a specific case or specific sets of cases, she should come to discuss those with me.

A good choice, Mr Speaker.

Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), has the Minister assessed how many EU citizens who have made their lives here are now routinely being turned down for universal credit? I am thinking of people such as my constituent Laura Nani. Until we got the decision overturned last week, she would have been evicted for rent arrears, and left homeless and penniless. When will the Minister look into this? Will he apologise to my constituent for the DWP getting it wrong? I note that the Prime Minister is sitting next to him, and when I raised this matter at Prime Minister’s questions, she dismissed it out of hand.

Let me be absolutely clear: when we get something wrong in the Department, we apologise, and I write to apologise to individuals and colleagues. Where there are specific cases to raise, I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleague.

You are saving the best for last, Mr Speaker.

For nearly six years, from pilot through to full service roll-out, my constituents in Inverness and then in the rest of my constituency have been suffering and reporting the flaws of universal credit to the Government. Now that the mistakes have been admitted to and the flaws have been acknowledged, what will the Minister do to compensate the people who have endured that suffering?

Overall, the universal credit policy is absolutely working. It is getting more people into work, which is ultimately what the welfare system is also about. As the hon. Gentleman knows, if he has individual cases, I am happy to take those up with him and to discuss them.