Skip to main content

Universal Credit: Food Insecurity

Volume 654: debated on Monday 11 February 2019

May I join you, Mr Speaker, in wishing a happy birthday to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner)? I hope he finds it a cheery occasion, as the rest of us do.

We are committed to having a strong safety net where people need it. It is clear that there were challenges with the initial roll-out of universal credit, and the main issue that led to an increase in food bank usage could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough. We have made changes to accessing universal credit, so that people can have advances and so that there is a legacy run-on after two weeks of housing benefit, and we believe that that will help with food insecurity.

The Secretary of State may be aware of the cross-party children’s future food inquiry that I am co-chairing. Over the past year, I have heard from charities, families and, most importantly, young people themselves about their experiences with food insecurity. The matter is complex, but they tell me that universal credit is making their situation worse. Will the Secretary of State join me in April for the launch of the report, and will she tackle children’s food insecurity as a matter of urgency?

I can reassure the hon. Lady, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on school food, which I briefly co-chaired some while ago, that I am as committed as she is to addressing food insecurity, particularly for children. I believe and hope that the changes we have made in terms of access to early funds will have reduced food insecurity, but I will of course take an early interest in the report that she is producing. I look forward to seeing it.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that someone on benefits moving into work under the legacy welfare system that we inherited from the Labour Government could have lost up to £9 of every £10 they earned? There was no incentive to work whatsoever.

My hon. Friend draws attention to a real failing of the previous system. There was such a high rate of tax—sometimes up to £9 out of every £10—that there was no incentive for people to get into work. I thank him for reminding us that universal credit adjusts to such situations and ensures that work will always pay.

The Secretary of State is, no doubt, right that delays in payment were part of the problem, but does she recognise that the fact that people are not entitled to any money for the first five weeks makes a big contribution to the problems that we are seeing?

I have acknowledged that people having difficulty in accessing money on time was one of the causes of the growth in food bank usage, but we have tried to address that. One of the principal ways of doing so is to ensure that every applicant can receive advance payments on the day that they apply. In fact, I visited a jobcentre just before Christmas and was told about a number of claimants who came in for the first time on the Friday before Christmas and got those advance payments.

One recent change has actually made things worse. A bunch of my constituents, who were merely changing address with the same social landlord and who were covered by the alternative payment arrangements, suddenly found that they were 10 weeks in arrears on the housing benefit element when the bulk payments element was brought in, putting them in even worse debt. All the things that the Secretary of State is talking about today have made things worse in recent weeks, so I hope she will look at the matter.

Of course I will take a look at any particular cases that the hon. Gentleman brings to me. I have addressed the issue of direct payments of rent to landlords being made more frequently by saying that alternative payment arrangements should generally be more available. The fact is that universal credit is a more effective, more transparent system than what it replaces. One of the best ways to ensure that that is actually delivered on the ground is for MPs to engage with their jobcentres to make sure all that information is available.

We know from a series of academic and stakeholder reports that the rise in food insecurity can, at least in part, be put down not just to the implementation but to the value of social security benefits. The Secretary of State has acknowledged that, I think for the first time, this afternoon. We also know from Library figures that higher than expected inflation means that the benefits freeze will save an extra £1.2 billion in the coming year. Does the Secretary of State agree that those low-income families who are being driven into food poverty deserve a break and that the benefits freeze should stop this year?

May I just point out to the hon. Gentleman that, by 2020, payments made under universal credit are expected to reach £62 billion, compared with £60 billion under the previous system? [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the amounts, and I am merely pointing out to him that, with the changes in place, the amounts are larger under universal credit than they would have been under the previous system.[Official Report, 14 February 2019, Vol. 654, c. 10MC.]