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Universal Credit: Five-week Wait

Volume 676: debated on Monday 11 May 2020

What assessment she has made of the potential merits of ending the five-week wait for universal credit during the covid-19 outbreak. (902423)

What assessment she has made of the potential merits of ending the five-week wait for universal credit during the covid-19 outbreak. (902443)

In these uncertain times, we would like to be absolutely clear that no claimant has to wait five weeks for a payment. Advances are available, enabling claimants faster access to their entitlement. Since mid-March, we have issued more than 700,000 advances to claimants who felt that they could not wait for their first routine payment, with the majority receiving money within 72 hours.

In Croydon, all our food banks have seen a massive increase in demand. In fact, the number of food banks and soup kitchens has quadrupled in Croydon since the covid crisis began, with organisations such as the British Bangladeshi Society and the Fieldway Family Centre stepping up to the plate. One of the main reasons they cite for this need is the five-week wait for universal credit. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of people forced to use food banks because of that five-week wait? I ask him again: why can he not replace the emergency loan with a grant, so that people do not have to pile debt on debt?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. Over and above answers to previous questions, I would stress that non-repayable advances could not be implemented without significant development of the UC system and would require measures that have been previously announced to be deprioritised. In the light of current events and the huge pressure on our system, the Department’s focus is firmly on ensuring that new and existing claimants continue to receive their payments on time. We do not have the capacity to look at that kind of structural system change.

Over the past seven weeks, the demand on Liverpool’s local welfare scheme for crisis payments for food and fuel has increased by 164% compared with this time last year. Will the Minister consider easing the plight of many living through this crisis by doubling child benefits and lifting the benefit cap, as requested by the Food Foundation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have increased the universal credit and working tax credit standard allowance by more than £1,000 a year, and we have increased local housing allowance rates, putting an average of £600 into people’s pockets. On the benefit cap, it is important to stress that those with sustained work records may benefit from a nine-month grace period. Exemptions continue to apply, and I feel many people would agree that the equivalent of £24,000—or £28,000 in London—is fair and reasonable.

From the 1940s on, we had a social security system based on handwritten forms that was capable of making the first regular benefit payment within a few days of a person applying; now, after the Government have spent several hundred million pounds on what we were assured was agile technology, that job takes five weeks. That long delay is the main reason why people on universal credit are so much more likely to need a food bank than people on the legacy benefits. Surely the Minister must recognise that that problem must be fixed.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, for his question. He knows that we introduced an agile, dynamic online system because the legacy benefits system, which was largely paper-based, was fraught with issues and errors. That is why we moved over. Notwithstanding the points that he has made, I stress that the previous, paper-based system, which relied on face-to-face contact, would not have coped in this situation. It is because of universal credit that we have been able to process more than 2 million claims since mid-March.