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Universal Credit: Debt

Volume 656: debated on Monday 18 March 2019

9. What assessment she has made of the effect of the five-week wait to receive universal credit on claimants’ levels of debt. (909837)

No one has to wait five weeks for the first part of their benefit because, as the hon. Lady is aware, they can get an advance of up to 100%, and 60% of people do that. We have also introduced a two-week run-on of housing benefit, and from next year a further two-week run-on of employment and support allowance, jobseeker’s allowance and income support will be available. Those payments are in addition to each claimant’s universal credit benefit award.

I am afraid to say that the five-week wait issue is not going to go away until the Government recognise that it is driving some people to food banks. I was in Glasgow on Friday with the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), and we will continue on our tour of the UK, taking a camera crew with us and shining a spotlight on poverty until the Government change their mind on this. For the most vulnerable in society who have zero financial resilience, the four-week assessment period makes no sense at all—they have to wait four weeks to prove they have no money. I have suggested that there is a need to identify the most vulnerable claimants—those with no financial resilience—and hand-hold them through the system, and either make the assessment period start at minus four weeks or make those advance payments non-repayable grants, not for everyone but for the vulnerable.

I am always willing to look at suggestions for how to improve universal credit. The hon. Lady is well known for bringing forward a lot of suggestions for us to look at. However, we need to be careful not to create incentives that are counter to our intention to help people into work. I do believe that advances work well, and the work coaches I talk to—I also go around the country talking to people about it—do tell me that they make a significant difference.

A constituent of mine, a working mum with two little girls, had to wait the five weeks for her universal credit claim and then a further month for assistance with childcare costs because the Department insists on paying childcare in arrears. We all know that, in the real world, nurseries have to be paid in advance, so why cannot the system recognise that simple reality?

We have acknowledged that issue. I have announced that work coaches now have access to the flexible support fund so that they can give that money in advance and do exactly what the hon. and learned Lady is suggesting—giving that money to the people who need it when they are ready to pay for childcare to get into work.