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Universal Credit Deductions

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2023

It is a little warm in here today, so if Members want to remove their jackets, that is perfectly allowable.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of Universal Credit deductions.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria. This is a matter of considerable interest and concern to me, as it will be to many other Members, each of whom will have busy caseloads from worried or despairing constituents, many of them describing how the universal credit system has worked for them or, more to the point, has abjectly failed to work for them.

In March last year and earlier this month, I questioned the Secretary of State on how many universal credit claims were having deductions taken from them in the most recent month for which data was available in each parliamentary constituency, what was the average size of sums deducted in each constituency, what was the total sum deducted from claims in each constituency, and what proportion of each sum was deducted to repay advance payments. The figures in the Scottish context were quite revealing to me. For example, I learned that in one month alone in 2021, 180,000 households in Scotland had an average of £60 deducted from their social security payments, and that between December 2022 and February 2023, the UK Government deducted £12.1 million a month from 206,000 Scottish households. The number of households affected by deductions and the sums being recouped seem to be increasing.

Those figures were disturbing but maybe not surprising. After all, last year the Work and Pensions Committee, of which I was then a member, published a report on the cost of living, which called on the Department for Work and Pensions to pause the deductions and restore them gradually only as the rate of inflation reduced, or when benefits had been increased to accurately reflect the rise in prices. The Government rejected the report’s recommendations, stating that pausing deductions is not

“necessarily in the claimant’s best interest.”

But claimants know that since then, inflation has remained very high, and the rise in the price of basic foodstuffs for the poorer has been ferocious. It is time to take a broader look at the problems with universal credit deductions. That is why I secured this debate.

I cannot tell my hon. Friend how many times a constituent has contacted me to tell me that, as a result of the universal credit calculation and payment cycle and the fact that their employment paydays are not exactly a month apart, they are trapped in an endless cycle of recalculation and financial hardship. Does he agree that it is clear the current assessment cycle is not fit for purpose?

I do agree, and I point my hon. Friend to the written answer I secured, which gives the statistics for every constituency in England, Wales and Scotland. She will see that the rate of deductions is around £60 in her constituency, but she will also notice that the number of households affected by deductions is increasing. She makes an important point about looking at an individual’s pay cycle and whether it is four-weekly or monthly.

Let us look at some examples of people affected by deductions. The Trussell Trust tells us that almost half of people referred to food banks in its network are subject to deductions from their benefit payments due to repayment of a benefit advance or a benefit overpayment. We will see that linkage repeatedly during the debate. The Trussell Trust goes on to remind us that

“The five-week wait for Universal Credit means many people have no choice but to take an Advance Payment to manage essential bills like rent and utilities”,

which immediately places them in debt and reduces their income below the standard allowance.

Deductions for overpayments, including tax credit overpayments, often take people by surprise because they are historical or are the result of DWP error. Like other deductions, they can be taken from people automatically at unaffordable rates. The standard allowance of universal credit does not provide enough income to cover the cost of life’s essentials, so any deduction taking people below that already low level will push them further into hardship. Key phrases are advance payments, overpayments that are historical or due to Department for Work and Pensions error, and the cost of living essentials. I will come back to each of those.

We then hear from the Trussell Trust about consequent mental health wellbeing, which is often impaired by people struggling to understand what they owe, and why, and how to access support. The Trussell Trust is not alone in making those observations. The organisation Feeding Britain has

“a vision of a UK where no one goes hungry”.

I should also mention Good Food Scotland, with which I do a lot of work in Glasgow South West.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter forward, and I will be making my own contribution to the debate. The Trussell Trust in Newtownards in my constituency was the first in Northern Ireland, and what it has to say about vision reinforces what the hon. Gentleman has said. According to Newtownards Trussell Trust,

“our vision is for a world where food banks, like ours, don’t need to exist.”

That is what we want to see, and I know the hon. Gentleman wants the same.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that intervention. As he knows, he has relatives of mine among his constituents in Newtownards. He is absolutely correct about our vision: we all want to see a world in which food banks do not exist. I know he is very supportive of my Food Poverty Strategy Bill, which is a private Member’s Bill that I recommend to all hon. Members.

Feeding Britain has talked to many people who are having to go hungry. In the days leading up to the debate, food banks in Brighton, Derbyshire, Leeds and High Wycombe reported speaking to individuals who all cited deductions as a key reason for referrals to them, and described some harrowing cases. For example, a client in Chichester has some £55 a week to live on after deduction of rent and other deductions for advances and loans from universal credit. The client received no prior warning or notice of the deduction, and even her work coach was unable to explain why the deduction had been made. That client is a lone parent with three children. She is worried that even if the deduction is found to be a mistake, she will be waiting until the next payment to receive the money that was deducted.

Feeding Britain has also told us of a client in Manchester who had £72 deducted for rent arrears. The first he was made aware of that was three days before payment when he accessed his payment statement. Living off the standard universal credit allowance is difficult as it is, but so much being deducted with so little notice makes it almost impossible. The website states that universal credit will place a note on the journal when a third-party debt deduction is about to start, but no such information about the debts—how much was owed or how long the client would be paying off the debt—was provided in that example; there was not even a note telling them how further information could be obtained by telephone. The closing comment from the Manchester office was that

“the most efficient aspect of Universal Credit is debt retrieval”.

In the report “UK Poverty 2023: The essential guide to understanding poverty in the UK”, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights that key design features of the social security system, including having to wait five weeks for the first universal credit payment and universal credit being deducted to pay off debts and arrears, directly lead to higher food insecurity and have contributed to the rise in food banks.

The Child Poverty Action Group has shown that across the UK the number of children living in households with debt deductions being taken from their universal credit has risen to more than 2.2 million, making up more than half—53%—of all children in households receiving universal credit. Those families are missing out on an average of £73 a month as a result. Every commentator seems to express similar views on where the system is failing, and there is much commonality on where they think the appropriate solutions lie.

The use of a predominantly online system has led to many cases being raised with my office. In particular, vulnerable constituents without consistent internet access or phone credit may be unaware that they have been sanctioned until the payment is made because they are not able to access their journal. Have the hon. Member’s constituents experienced that? Does he agree that DWP’s communication needs to be improved?

Yes, I do agree. My hon. Friend is right again about the lack of information in journals. The example I gave of the individual in Manchester is typical of what happens to universal credit claimants who get caught up with deductions and other aspects of the social security system that I want to see resolved. The Government have recognised some of the problems and have reduced the rate of deductions by lowering the cap and extending repayment periods, but that is not enough; significant reductions to already low incomes remain, and there is no affordability assessment to ensure that people can afford the payments.

What action can we take? Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that support has eroded over decades, and that universal credit standard allowance is now at its lowest ever level as a proportion of average earnings. Together with the Trussell Trust, it is calling on the Government to implement an essentials guarantee to ensure that the basic rate of universal credit at least covers life’s essentials and that the support can never be pulled below that level.

Rather than offering one-off payments to shore up the incomes of struggling families, the UK Government should reverse the damaging policies impacting on our most vulnerable, including by reinstating the universal credit uplift of £25 a week, removing the benefit cap and the two-child limit, and halting punitive sanctions regime, which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) outlined. In addition, the Scottish National party recommends that the Government immediately introduce an amnesty on deductions resulting from the Department of Work and Pensions’ own errors. Advance payment loans should be turned into non-repayable grants after a claimant has been deemed eligible, as the Work and Pensions Committee recommended in our report. Too often, we hear that advances are not loans, but if someone is paid money and is expected to pay it back, that is indeed a loan, not an advance.

We are also arguing for the cap on the monthly rate of deduction to be lowered, and for the widespread use of sanctions to be stopped, as there is clear evidence that they do not work. A London School of Economics study found that the impoverishment of larger low-income households has helped few parents to get a job, and is instead pushing families further into poverty and damaging their health.

I said at the start that I will intersperse my contribution with comments, examples and solutions from Scotland, so here are some. Social Security Scotland can take deductions from some benefits—the adult disability payment, the child disability payment and the Scottish child payment—to pay back an overpayment, but when overpayments occur, it engages with clients to discuss their circumstances and agree a payment plan that takes them into account. Its debt management strategy states:

“Where the repayment method is voluntary deductions from benefits, we will mutually agree a value with client as part of Affordability Assessment. Where enforced deductions are applied due to client not engaging with us to agree a payment plan, a maximum deduction of 10% of Scottish Benefit Entitlement will be applied unless the overpayment is due to Fraud, in which case a maximum of 15% will be applied.”

That social security philosophy and those actions work.

The Scottish National party believes that social security is an investment in the people of Scotland and a key part of the Scottish Government’s national mission to tackle child poverty. It continues to do everything it can with the limited powers and fixed budgets it receives from this place. That includes investing £5.2 billion in benefits expenditure in 2023-24, supporting more than 1 million people. I have stated clearly that we need to tackle child poverty. The Scottish Government’s tackling child poverty delivery plan estimates that 90,000 fewer children will live in relative and absolute poverty this year, as a result of the policies of the Scottish Government. However, the Scottish Government should not have to pick up the broken pieces left by this place, or keep using their limited powers and fixed projects to mitigate damaging Conservative party policies.

With every day that this Government fail to fix the known problems of universal credit and the social security system, and fail to use their reserve powers to tackle the rising cost of living adequately, they demonstrate that independence is the only way for Scotland to boost incomes and build a fairer society. The rest of the United Kingdom needs to fix its broken social security system; Scotland is already determined to do so.

I remind Members that they need to be here for the full debate if they are going to take part. I was also going to ask Members to bob if they want to take part; I thank Members for doing that. I call Jim Shannon.

My goodness! Thank you, Dame Maria. That threw me off. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the second day running. It has come to the point when you and I are in Westminster Hall almost as much as each other. Well, maybe that is an exaggeration. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who rightly brought forward this topic. We met on the Terrace this morning and he said, “Jim, will you come and do your bit?” and I said, “Does the Pope have red socks? Absolutely, I will be there. There is no doubt about it.” I am here to endorse what he said. A person from the food bank wrote me a letter, and I will quote the best part of it. He illustrates very well what happens, and why it is important.

I can well remember the fear at the outset of universal credit—the fear that people would be worse off, and that families would struggle. Boy, do they struggle. I am sorry to say that, but they do, because I witness it every day. I witnessed it on Friday in my office, with a person who had the same problem with universal credit. We were able to sort it, by the way. I find it incredibly hard to understand how universal credit works, and I am far from stupid. Once through the technical details and the machinations of the whole thing, one has to ask, “How on earth does anybody follow this?”.

For some, this fear has become a real struggle, and the deductions from an already sub-par universal credit is enough to push some families over the edge. I have seen that in my constituency office. My staff have a continuously good relationship with the social security offices round the corner. I have to put on record that they are brilliant. The number of problems that they have sorted out when my staff speak to them illustrates that they have grasped how the system works and how to get through it, but the ordinary person cannot do that. I have struggled to understand it as well.

It should be remembered that those who are unemployed or unable to work have a set rate that remains pretty stable. However, self-employed people have different work weeks, and the flexibility that universal credit was supposed to offer has resulted in deductions from overpayments. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West mentioned that, and I endorse it. The deductions are so hard to work out that families are left not even understanding how they owe money. It is incomprehensible.

The Minister understands. I am no different from anybody else here. Whenever we approach the Minister and explain the issues, he always tries to respond in a positive fashion. I appreciate that, and want to put that on record, because it is good to have a Minister who really wants to do things and help out. We are all working in our constituencies, advocating for our constituents, and we know well the issues that the hon. Member for Glasgow South West outlined.

I was contacted last week by the phenomenal manager of the local food bank, a man with the largest heart for helping families and vulnerable individuals. I want to read out his comments, as time permits. My speech is his letter to me, because it illustrates the issue really well. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West has friends and relatives in Newtownards. I know them—and think they vote DUP, by the way, so maybe they are not nationalists.

I think they do; he does not know them as well as I do. The letter states:

“As a food bank operating in Newtownards, we are writing to you to raise our concerns about rising numbers of people in our community who are needing to turn to food banks, like ours, because they cannot afford the essentials we all need to survive.”

These are his words: “This is not right”. I say amen to that.

“In the last financial year we saw a 30% increase in clients coming to the Newtownards Foodbank compared to the previous year. We are aware that our summer has started really busily with an average of 24 different families attending each week since June in what is normally our quieter spell.

Many attendees are struggling with the inability to feed there families and provide fuel for their house needs. A significant proportion are actually working but their outgoings outstrip their income. Those on benefits clearly don’t get enough to match their basic needs.

While the cost of living crisis and the pandemic have placed additional pressures on incomes, this year’s rise is part of a longer-term trend in levels of need. Support has eroded over decades and the basic rate (‘standard allowance’) of universal credit is now at its lowest ever level as a proportion of average earnings. Alarmingly, the number of parcels provided this year is more than double the amount distributed five years ago.”

I will say that again, because that is an important line:

“Alarmingly, the number of parcels provided this year is more than double the amount distributed five years ago.

No one should be forced to turn to a food bank because they cannot afford essentials, including food. We provide immediate support to people in our community when they are struggling the most, but our vision is for a world where food banks, like ours, don’t need to exist.”

I said that in an intervention on the hon. Member for Glasgow South West. That is his vision, mine, the vision of every Opposition Member and, I hope, of the Minister. The letter also says:

“Research by the Trussell Trust shows that inadequate social security is the main driver of food bank need and there is a known link between issues with the benefits system and food bank use. This can and must change.

Alongside the Trussell Trust, we are calling for our social security system to Guarantee Our Essentials by making sure that the basic rate of Universal Credit is at least enough to afford the essentials we all need, such as food, energy and basic household goods – and that deductions can never pull people below this level.”

He asks me:

“Will you support the principle that, at a minimum, Universal Credit should always protect people from going without the essentials?”

That is Richard’s letter to me this week. I will say on the record that I fully support what he said.

My hon. Friend has succinctly summed up the issues in the letter from his constituent. Does he agree that faith-based food bank providers in my constituency, his and others are doing excellent work, and that most people in society, including universal credit recipients, support the principle of the universal credit system, which is to encourage people back into work? The problem is that when there are deductions, and almost a penalistic regime, people suffer. That problem must be solved in our society, because people are being driven further into poverty, rather than lifted out of it.

My hon. Friend has succinctly made his case in his intervention. The key issue for the Minister—this is from me, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, who set the scene very well, and, I suspect, everybody on the Opposition Benches—is that there is a delay in the system, and difficulty understanding the system. Whenever we go to the local office, the office manager and staff can respond, but there are many people other than those who come to us—and there are many who come to us, by the way; many come to the office with this issue, because they still cannot understand it. We are asking the Minister for the extra help that is quite clearly needed. There is also the five to six weeks’ delay that many people seem to have. Whenever they earn more money, they fall back down again. They are often sick, and their housing benefit is so complicated; it is almost hard to try to comprehend it.

The hon. Member has talked about budgeting. For many, short-term budgeting is a necessity. The housing element of universal credit is paid directly to claimants, not landlords, which contributes to an entirely foreseeable problem. Does he agree that, especially given soaring living costs, it would help claimants budget if we removed the direct payment of this element to claimants?

The hon. Lady has demonstrated clearly the complications of this system, and others will, too, because they have the same knowledge and interpretation of it as I have.

I will finish with this. My answer to Richard, the manager of the food bank, is clear: yes, I support what he said. I hope that his letter has clearly illustrated what is needed. Will the Government support that, make things easier for my constituents and do things differently? I hope that the answer to that is also yes; I am sure that it will be. Families—my constituents in Strangford, constituents across the whole of Northern Ireland, and constituents across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—must be able to depend on their Government, rather than their local food bank. That is my story today.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing a debate of such enormous importance to our constituents. It is good to see the Minister in his place. I hope that in his remarks he will do away with the prevarication and tired excuses that we so often hear from the Dispatch Box on this subject, and that he will have the courage to confront head-on the disastrous consequences of this Government’s cruel and pernicious benefits regime for millions of people across this country.

The design and roll-out of the universal credit system have proven to be a catastrophe for the worst-off in our society. In my constituency of Birkenhead, nearly 14,000 people are in receipt of universal credit. With the exception of housing, there is no issue that constituents come to me about as frequently as the inadequacy of universal credit payments during the cost of living crisis, the questionable and often downright wrong reasons for which deductions are made, and how the five-week wait is forcing many people even deeper into debt.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that this is a nationwide crisis. The basic level of universal credit now stands at its lowest level as a proportion of average earnings, and 90% of low-income households on universal credit are going without essentials. When we talk about people who have deductions made from their payments, it is important to acknowledge that most claimants struggle to survive even when they receive their payments in full.

We should also remember that a significant proportion —around 40%—of the people we are talking about are already in work. Although Ministers talk about deductions being a necessary incentive to ensure that claimants fulfil their obligations under the scheme, the vast majority of deductions are in fact debt repayments, either to the DWP or to third parties.

Universal credit deductions are now one of the leading causes of destitution in this country, and the most vulnerable are paying the price. Families with children, and families in which somebody is unable to work because of illness or disability, are significantly more likely to have deductions to their universal credit payments, and 2.2 million children are growing up in households in which deductions are routinely made from universal credit payments. Although it has been reported that the average reduction amounts to 15%, nearly half of all households with a deduction have over 20% of their basic allowance deducted.

Yesterday, I met Victoria Benson, chief executive of the charity Gingerbread, which provides invaluable support to single parents, to discuss the impact of the two-child limit and universal credit deductions on single-parent families. She explained that single parents are disproportionately over-represented among universal credit claimants. Some 70% of single-parent households are in receipt of universal credit, and that figure is likely to rise to 90% by the summer of next year as a result of the managed migration from legacy benefits.

The struggles of being a single parent—raising children on one’s own, trying to make ends meet and searching, often in vain, for affordable childcare—are very real. Now, many single parents are also forced to grapple with deductions that leave them with an uncertain income each month and unable to afford the essentials for either their children or themselves. The result is parents going without food so that their children can eat, and falling even deeper into debt.

We are all entitled to a basic level of comfort and dignity. If the universal credit system is not guaranteeing that to the millions of people who rely on it as a lifeline, it is simply not fit for purpose.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria, and to speak in this debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens)—sorry, the hon. Member, though I am sure he will be right hon. at some point—on securing it.

I did have a much longer speech. However, I cut it quite severely for this debate, thinking that there might be a mass of Conservative Back Benchers here to defend their Government’s policy. Clearly, I was mistaken. Given First Minister Mark Drakeford’s statement last night that Welsh Labour would oppose cuts and stoppages to universal credit, I had rather hoped to see a mass of Welsh Labour MPs here as well. I confess that cannot spot a single one, though I commend the three Labour Back Benchers who are present, and look forward to their speeches.

Arfon is one of the poorest constituencies in the UK, as the Minister will know, having stood against me there some time ago—but we will not go into that. For the poorest of the poor, the outlook is very bleak. In February this year, 4,500 people claimed universal credit in Arfon, and 2,100 of them, or 48%, were subject to deductions—nearly half of them. The average deduction was £59. The total deduction taken from the very poorest people in Arfon every month is £125,000; grossed up, that is £3 million a year. Every year, therefore, the poorest people in Arfon are returning £3 million to the Treasury. They cannot afford that. They are on universal credit—a sum assessed to be the very minimum needed to live. I could not live on universal credit, and certainly not on universal credit that is reduced by £59 every month. I have a straight yes/no question for the Minister: could he live on universal credit that has been cut every month by £59?

I did a surgery specifically on universal credit some time ago, and did a budgeting exercise with a constituent of mine from a housing estate on the very edge of town. She knew exactly how much she had to spend. There was nothing spare at all. Looking at the figures, I said, “ Look, you’ve got a pound spare.” She replied, “Once a week, I take the bus home with heavy shopping, rather than having to walk the whole way every time.” I do not know exactly how much I have to spend every month. Does the Minister know? My constituent did. She is an expert. It is unlike the picture that is often conveyed of people on universal credit—that they are somehow feckless.

In Wales, in February, 114,100 children lived in families who are on universal credit and paying deductions. The percentage of Welsh children in universal credit households paying deductions was 57%. Three of every five children are in families on universal credit living below the minimum sum assessed to meet their needs. That is the level of deprivation that the system causes. The Trussell Trust has been mentioned several times; it is no surprise that people on universal credit are being referred to its schemes in Wales. Over half of them are also paying deductions. It is quite clear from the evidence where the problem lies: with deductions for half of people on universal credit.

The monthly deduction from universal credit households with children in Wales was £4,208,000—over £50,496,000 every year. Wales is a poor country. Other parts of the UK are poor as well, such as north-east England and Merseyside, but I can say this for Wales as a Welsh MP: our poorest people cannot afford to lose £50 million in income every year. We cannot afford this Tory Government. Indeed, we need a coherent Welsh benefit system, among other things, starting of course with the devolution of benefits administration—that is my party’s policy.

On 24 April of this year, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), a very straightforward question:

“Have the two-child limit and the benefit cap increased child poverty?”—[Official Report, 24 April 2023; Vol. 731, c. 491.]

Now, I would imagine that most people here know the answer to that. The Under-Secretary of State, however, replied with 88 words of evasion but no answer. Put simply, that answer is of course, “Yes”.

The two-child limit affects nearly 19,000 families in Wales, and abolishing it would give each child an extra £3,235 every year. On a UK basis, it has been calculated that this change would cost £1.3 billion. To put that in perspective for hon. Members, the most valuable premier league squad is Manchester City, which is valued at £895 million. But let’s not be too ambitious! The fifth most valuable is Man United at £645 million; for the value of two Man United squads, we could take all of these children out of poverty. This Government will not do it, but for pity’s sake, what about the official Opposition angling to be the next Government? Are the lives of children blighted forever by poverty not worth two football teams? Would that not be better on day one of a new Government—better than scrambling to balance the Tories’ books?

The shadow Minister should consider the words of Raymond Williams, one of the giants of socialist thought in this country in the last century—although a member of my party, not his—who said something very striking, with which I will finish:

“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”

It is a real honour to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I thank my good friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), for securing this important debate and for his excellent speech, and other hon. Members for their fantastic contributions.

The DWP has the power to make direct reductions from benefit payments to pay certain debts and costs owed by an individual. This can include money paid to the Government due to a benefit overpayment, or a loan to a third party such as a landlord, utility provider, local authority or the courts. It is worth noting that the majority of benefit deductions are for DWP debts, including those related to universal credit advance payments, overpayments and budgeting loans.

I want to draw attention to several factors of universal credit deductions that seem to be having an extremely negative impact on my Liverpool, West Derby constituents. First, many new universal credit claimants now take out an advance while they wait for their first payment, and the advance is usually recovered by deductions of equal instalments over a period of 24 months. The pain that our constituents are facing right across the UK has been outlined today, but taking out that advance payment seems to be actively encouraged by the DWP. Secondly, when someone moves on to universal credit, any outstanding tax credit debt is now transferred to the DWP, allowing it to recover the debt through any of the methods available to it, which are far more extensive than those available to His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Universal credit rules allow the DWP to make deductions for overpayments caused by DWP error, which was not the case with legacy benefits.

A major area of concern with deductions is the basic premise of affordability. It is staggering that there is no requirement for the DWP to determine whether someone can actually afford a deduction, or to consider what that deduction would do to their and their family’s life. From the weekly emails I receive from desperate Liverpool, West Derby constituents, and from speaking to people in my surgeries, it is plainly clear that many simply cannot afford the deductions enforced on them The levels of universal credit deductions faced by far too many of my constituents, including extremely vulnerable people, are causing them to struggle to pay for essentials such as heating, fuel, food and toiletries—the very essentials of life. It is driving them into absolute, abject poverty.

At the mobile food pantry that we run in Liverpool West Derby every Friday with Fans Supporting Food Banks and St Andrew’s Community Network, I hear many stories of people being forced into using emergency food aid as a result of DWP deductions. This is replicated across the city at the other five services that we run, and the pattern repeats across the UK, as we have heard from Members today. The Government argue that their deductions can help claimants to better manage their finances, but in December 2022 the Trussell Trust reported that more than half of all universal credit claimants who experienced deductions in their benefits had one day when they could not afford to eat at all or only had one meal because they could not afford to buy enough food in the previous 30 days. We need to remember that we are the sixth richest country in the world, and to drive people into these circumstances is completely immoral.

The Trussell Trust highlighted new research showing that 47% of people referred to food banks had faced deductions to their or their partner’s benefits income to pay back a benefit advance, benefit overpayment, DWP loan, or any other debt or fine. That rose to 57% among those referred to food banks who were in receipt of universal credit. In its June 2023 report, “The welfare debt trap: Adjusting the level and priority of deductions from benefits to prevent hardship”, Citizens Advice found that the deductions have created hardship and are applied disproportionately to households in which someone has at least one long-term health condition or disability and to households with children, which are also more likely to have deductions applied at a higher level. Those people are the most vulnerable.

The current system of deductions clearly targets our most vulnerable citizens and is driving millions of people into poverty. It is supposed to be a safety net. Let us be crystal clear—amazing, I can see the Minister puffing his cheeks— that the current universal credit deductions system is not fit for purpose and needs fixing urgently. Where do we go from here? I urge the Minister to take the following measures into consideration for the benefit of the huge number of people, many extremely vulnerable, who are suffering as a consequence of these actions. The DWP must place affordability at the heart of deductions and prioritise the reduction of the total amount being deducted from households. At the heart of the calculations must be the basic human right every citizen should have: to be able to afford food, water, shelter, clothing and heating. The DWP must not be allowed to push people into abject poverty.

The Government must provide immediate breathing space for low-income households that are under extreme pressure due to the cost of living crisis. The priority order for deductions must be changed to put greater emphasis on debts where non-payment has the most serious consequences and less emphasis on debts to the Government. The Government must get serious about helping people not to accrue debts in the first place, especially through the use of advanced payments or loans. Deductions for overpayment owing to DWP error should not be made. Minister, my door is always open to discuss how a right to food could be implemented to tackle the scourge of food poverty, which we see across all our communities and have heard about so bleakly today. The ball is firmly in his court.

Thank you, Dame Maria, for allowing me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I want to congratulate my friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), on securing this very important debate.

The UK is a country shamed by the poverty of millions of its people, yet this Government sadly seem endlessly able to find ways to penalise and humiliate people for being poor. There are 14.5 million people in this country living in poverty, with many of them claiming universal credit, and in the middle of a cost of living crisis, the DWP is making deductions from a staggering 45% of claimants. My constituents in Leicester East face deductions significantly above the national average. As we have heard, around half of the deductions imposed on claimants are for advanced payments, which they are forced to request because the universal credit system is constructed to deprive claimants—already in need—of support for at least the first five weeks following their claim.

A survey by the TUC found that 86% of universal credit claimants had been put into financial difficultly because of the mandatory waiting period. Those are figures from 2020, before the current cost of living crisis. Financial difficulty has caused “immense misery”, resulting in

“many being forced into debt, relying on food banks or going without food. Many said it had impacted their mental health through stress and anxiety and that they had felt degraded by the process.”

Claimants in need are then forced to pay back advance payments at a rate of up to a quarter of the already meagre support that they receive through universal credit, prolonging and intensifying their hardship. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South West for tabling his important written question. In his answer, the Minister claimed that the payments are “not a debt”. The deduction at source from a paltry benefit—just £747 a month on average based on the figures provided by the Minister—certainly makes it look like a debt, handled in just the same way as debts to other bodies.

The Government appear to have decided to structure the benefit in that way with the help and for the convenience of the DWP, simply because they can, putting people into hardship. That is an act of class warfare and a clear abuse of power. Advance payment deductions amount to about half the total monthly deductions from universal credit payments, exposing the fundamental, structural unfairness and harshness of the universal credit system.

To make a bleak picture even worse, the data provided by the Minister in his 4 July response to the written question asked on 29 June 2023 by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West shows that the amounts deducted do not include sanctions under the draconian conditionality regime. In the same period as the one covered by the Minister’s response, the latest official statistics report that 6.18% of claimants were under sanction, with 44,000 new adverse sanction decisions in a single month and a year-on-year increase of 2.5%.

As well as the directly inflicted hardship of applied sanctions, just under a third of claimants are in conditionality regimes and under the threat of sanctions. The regime means that tens of thousands of people, already struggling, are facing unbearable hardship and the abject terror that they could suddenly become penniless. However, last year, the Government blocked the release of data from an academic study to find out whether such deductions were linked to ill health, poor mental health, suicide or attempted suicide, despite having previously promised to provide it.

The evils of the current system are clear and beyond any reasonable dispute. This is class war; it is neoliberalism writ large. The aim is to punish and control working-class families, targeting the most vulnerable through increased social and material losses. To coin the term of Friedrich Engels, it is actually “social murder”. Advance payments that have to be repaid—which are a debt, whether or not the Minister chooses to term them as such—must urgently be replaced for those in dire need and in destitution by a system of non-repayable grants, to alleviate at least some of the onerous burden that the Government have placed for too long on the shoulders of those least able to bear it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I thank my very good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), for securing this timely debate. I say “timely” because it is almost a year to the day since I raised a similar issue in the Chamber. With that in mind, it is incredibly worrying that the situation outlined today has not improved. Instead, it has continued to spiral out of control, thanks to the British Government’s inaction.

I have listened with great interest to the contributions made this morning. Given the announcements this week, there is no better time to stress the damage that has been caused by this fatally flawed universal credit system. Last week, Citizens Advice published new data showing that families are operating in negative budgets, which means that their income no longer meets the basic costs of covering food, energy and housing. According to its latest analysis, two in 10 households have £100 or less after paying for monthly essentials, and of the 40,000 people who Citizens Advice sees with debt problems, over half cannot be helped, as they have already cut back so much on the bare essentials.

This all comes as a result of an austerity agenda pursued by the British Government—a Government who refuse to make the necessary change to universal credit deduction rules, despite households facing severe financial destitution and uncertainty. As we have heard today, the impact of deductions is significant and all the more pertinent to our constituents as they continue to be gripped by the cost of living crisis.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West said, the average Scottish household has had £59 deducted from their universal credit. In a cost of living crisis where every single penny counts, that is the difference between putting food on the table and having to go hungry. As he outlined, the deductions affect almost half of Scottish households on universal credit, with the DWP clawing back around £12 million a month. Nearly half of those deductions are to pay back universal credit advance payments because struggling households cannot wait five weeks for their first payment. This is a system that is fundamentally flawed.

It is therefore no surprise that since January this year, 60% of universal credit claimants whom citizens advice bureaux have helped with deductions have also required help accessing food bank or emergency charitable support. Trussell Trust data indicates that people with deductions were around twice as likely to go without food, toiletries and utilities as those on universal credit without deductions, and over two thirds of people in Scotland who were referred to food banks in the Trussell Trust network in receipt of universal credit were facing a deduction.

Furthermore, the latest statistics from Citizens Advice show that, of the 84% of people who had their benefits deducted, 43% have had to borrow money to cover the essentials. In addition, the Child Poverty Action Group reported that more than 2.2 million children are living in households with debt deductions from their universal credit. I know from speaking to constituents in Parkhead, Shettleston and Tollcross that the uncertainty of how much a deduction is or when it will be taken causes significant and, most importantly, unnecessary hardship for claimants.

In their reports, charities refers to universal credit deductions as “wiping out people’s finances” and

“trapping them in a spiral of debt”.

“Trapping” and “spiralling” are words that I would never wish to associate with a social security system, yet the system that this Conservative Government have designed and presided over continues to push individuals into a never-ending cycle of debt and financial insecurity. As a number of Members have stressed, the British Government are subjecting vulnerable people to heinous deductions that push them into further debt and destitution. Debt, in and of itself, has a profound impact on the cost of living, and that is only exacerbated by this broken system, which is forcing people to make impossible choices that amount to their being unable to even meet the most basic needs.

When the root cause of the issue is poor system design, it is astounding that the Government continually refuse to make the necessary changes to rules around deductions. We are faced with a British Government in denial, who do not believe

“that pausing deductions by default is necessarily in the claimant’s best interest.”

What is it about being unable to afford basic food, buy household essentials or heat their home that is in the claimant’s best interests? People are already diverting limited resources towards debt repayments and that is only compounded by unexpected deductions.

Despite continued and constrained resources, the Scottish Government are doing what they can to mitigate the impact of this broken system, but the root cause undeniably starts here in Westminster. We know the Government can make solutions and immediate changes today that would make a huge difference to those struggling the most and make our constituents’ lives somewhat more manageable, as so many continue to face impossible household budget decisions. Those changes need to be made sooner rather than later, as millions face food insecurity, soaring debt and unnecessary hardship.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. We must ask the Minister to consider the need for some discussion between claimants and the DWP, particularly where the DWP’s own errors are causing the deduction. Does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be a discussion about an affordability assessment between the claimant and DWP in future?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. When the permanent secretary of the DWP gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, I raised the issue of the recovery of some of the payments. The permanent secretary acknowledged at the time that despite the heavy-handed wording in the DWP’s letter, there was scope for a discussion between claimants and the Department. The fact that the Department has not been willing to amend the text of that rather hard-hitting letter makes the point.

We have a broken social security system that is perpetuated by the UK Government. Moreover, I say to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), that there is no point in his party winning the election and coming into Government but continuing the policies of this Government. He and his party should be thoroughly ashamed of being thirled to a two-child policy and an associated rape clause that is the very opposite of what the Labour party should stand for. The hon. Members for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) are good socialists who are appalled by the policy. If the hon. Member for Reading East wants to stand up and take the opportunity to apologise for his party pursuing a policy that is tantamount to social engineering, I will be happy to hear that. If he does not do so, my constituents will conclude that the only way to ensure we do not have disgraceful social security policies is with the powers of independence, because this lot clearly have nothing different to say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing today’s debate. The issue of deductions is both incredibly important and sadly often neglected. We often discuss the adequacy of social security as if it were simply a matter of looking at the value of benefits, which has fallen in real terms since 2010 as a result of below-inflation uprating and freezes. However, that is only part of the story.

As we have heard today, we cannot assume that people are even getting the amounts set out in benefit rates. About 2 million households, or about 42%, on universal credit have their benefits reduced below the standard rates every month to repay debt to the Government. Deductions and debt to the Government are at a scale we have never seen before and have become a routine aspect of social security administration under the current Government, and I am afraid to say that that major change to the benefits system has largely escaped scrutiny.

The official Opposition are not opposed in principle to deductions, but the problem is the scale. There will probably always be a need for benefit deductions in social security. For a start, it is unlikely that any system will ever completely eliminate incorrect benefit payments, and taxpayers expect overpayments to be recovered wherever possible. There is also—views differ on this—a role for repayable loans to smooth out the pressure of unpredictable costs, as other hon. Members have said.

We need to recognise that deductions cause hardship for many families that, by definition, are on very low incomes. The Trussell Trust reports that 57% of universal credit households that use food banks face deductions—we have heard accounts of that today. Its evidence shows that 50% of people on universal credit with deductions have had more than one day in the previous month either having only one meal or having gone without eating altogether. That compares with 26% of those without deductions. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust has shown that decisions particularly hit families with children and people with limited capability for work, more than half of whom face deductions.

There is little doubt that, in the middle of the worst cost of living crisis for decades, benefit deductions are pushing families that are already struggling into destitution, as hon. Members have said. I hope Members from across the House agree that, as far as possible, the Government should aim to minimise deductions, but unfortunately the opposite seems to be happening. Nearly half of all universal credit households face deductions each month, so we need to recognise that the system is not working as it should.

One of the main reasons for that is the timing of universal credit payments—a problem that the Government were repeatedly warned about at the design stage of UC. Families have to wait five weeks for their first universal credit payment, and somehow the Government persuaded themselves that that would not be a problem for the great majority of families claiming because they would have a pay packet or savings to tide them over. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, about 60% of people making new claims for universal credit have had to take out an advance, and as of February this year, 732,000 households were paying off new claims advances.

In addition, more than 900,000 universal credit families are facing deductions for budgeting advances. In other words, nearly one in five of all UC households have had to take out a loan to get through the month. We were promised that universal credit would deal much better with fluctuations in income and need than the benefits it replaced. The fact that so many people need to take out budgeting alternatives shows that that is unfortunately far from the case.

Although deductions may be a necessity, there is no excuse for using them as a default mechanism to deal with problems that the Government have failed to address. Ministers should be trying to minimise deductions by addressing those problems at source, but that is the opposite of what the Government have actually been doing. Where deductions are unavoidable, the Government need to manage them much more sensitively, as we have heard pleas for today, and take into account households’ circumstances.

Qualitative research by the Trussell Trust states:

“Many people who have experienced government debt repayments were not supported to understand the situation they were in”—

that is a crucial point.

“They didn’t know why the money was owed, they didn’t know how much they needed to repay, and they didn’t know how long the repayments were going to last. Of particular concern was that they also didn’t know what—if any—options or choices were available to them.”

Given that deductions cause genuine hardship for so many families, we should expect the DWP to adopt a high standard of customer service. It should proactively contact claimants—I hope the Minister will address that point—take into account affordability and ensure claimants are fully aware of the scale of debt and the options available to them, but improving customer service can go only so far. Debt and deductions are playing a much bigger role in social security than they have in the past, largely because of the failure of universal credit to live up to the claims that were made for it. We should not welcome that situation at the best of times, and certainly not in the middle of the worst cost of living crisis in a generation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens)—my good friend, and I apologise for calling him that, as I realise he will get some opprobrium for it, but we are friends, albeit our views differ—on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to answer on behalf of the Government.

We recognise the importance of supporting claimants to manage their financial obligations, and the deductions policy in universal credit provides a co-ordinated approach to providing that support. There is much that I want to address today, but I will start with the basics: employment is up, vacancies are down, economic inactivity is down and we are pleased to see that inflation has fallen today.

The Government believe that we should continue to have a sustainable, long-term approach to tackling poverty and supporting people on lower incomes. The primary aim of the universal credit deductions policy is to protect claimants by providing a last resort repayment method for arrears of essential services, and to ensure obligations are enforced. It is important to strike the right balance between ensuring protections are in place and allowing claimants to retain as much of their benefit as possible for their day-to-day needs, while understanding that although the taxpayer expects us to recover overpaid benefit debt, that must be done without causing undue hardship.

It is worth remembering that people who are on disability benefits and pensioners have never been more supported. Welfare has never been more supported. Colleagues will be aware that state pensions and benefits were uprated by 10.1% in April this year, the national living wage was increased by 9.7% to £10.42 an hour, and other support includes the energy price guarantee, the household support fund and the various cost of living payments, which I will go through in a little more detail. It is not right to look at universal credit through the prism of what it provides because, for those who require extra support, there are the cost of living payments—£94 billion over 2022-23 and 2023-24—as we continue our support for the most vulnerable households.

Over 8 million UK households on eligible means-tested benefits will receive additional cost of living payments totalling up to £900 in this fiscal year. The first £301 payment was made in April and May this year. Two further payments of £299 and, I believe, £300 will follow this autumn and in spring 2024. That is £900 additional support over and above the universal credit support that is provided.

In addition, 6.4 million people on eligible extra costs disability benefits have also recently received a further £150 disability cost of living payment. In 2023-24 we will spend £276 billion on Great Britain’s welfare system, including £124 billion on people of working age and children. Much criticism was made in the debate, which I have taken on board, but those sums have never been higher.

There is also approximately £30 billion for supported housing. Again, a criticism was made that we do not provide enough for that. I remind colleagues that 1.4% of GDP goes on supported housing. That is by a significant margin the largest sum in the OECD—the next highest is 0.9%. Those are the consequences of decisions made to support individuals on an ongoing basis.

Much was made of the deductions policy, which I will try to address.

The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) referred to the deductions and the data he had received for England, Scotland and Wales. He had asked for the same information on the deductions in Northern Ireland, but for whatever reason that was not available and I do not understand why. Can the Minister use his powers to enable us to have that data?

I can hardly turn down a man who ambushed me with cake not once but twice in Newtownards on my two visits to Northern Ireland. It was a pleasure to join the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues there. I saw not just a thriving business, but some of the difficulties and complexities of life in Newtownards and the work that he and the local support organisation to which he referred very favourably, and rightly so, are doing.

On the Northern Ireland statistics, I am 99% sure that those are due to the changes in Government and the current difficulties in relation to Stormont, but I will do everything I can. I will write to the hon. Gentleman individually—[Interruption.]—and to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, of course. I will probably refer the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland, with a view to ascertaining the specific data that he seeks. He will be aware that, as we discussed when I visited his beautiful constituency by the lough, I as the individual Minister do not control individual jobcentres or the policy in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman raised a couple of points, which, as he intervened on me, I will try to deal with. One of the points—a general criticism of the roll-out of universal credit—was also raised by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley). I respectfully reject that point. Disregarding what one thinks of this Government, under no circumstance could the legacy benefit system have coped with covid. Under no circumstance could it cope with and support the cost of living support that we are rolling out on an ongoing basis. Under no circumstance could it allow for the universal approach that we are able to manage because of universal credit. The hon. Member for Birkenhead has a very illustrious predecessor, to whom I send best wishes, because I know he is not in good health. Lord Field would very much have made the case that universal credit was the right thing to do and that it was right to reform, albeit that the roll-out has been a long-term situation.

The managed migration of tax credits was also discussed. With respect, that is an ongoing policy, and there is transitional protection for people moving from tax credits to universal credit. I respectfully invite colleagues to be aware that the migration is going well and that there are ongoing protections.

The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) raised many points. It is not really for me to get into the disastrous state of Labour policy, whether it is that of the Welsh First Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, colleagues on the Opposition Back Benches or the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), who chose to present the Opposition’s policy. The best comment I heard was from the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe), who has left—or perhaps the Labour party left her. She quoted Engels, and I think also Marx, in support of her policies. When Marx was talking about the division of labour, I did not know he was actually talking about the Opposition party. The long and short of it is that in Labour-run Wales employment is down, as compared with the rest of the country, where it is up. We could compare and contrast the health service in Wales and in England; the constituents of the hon. Member for Arfon, even on the Llŷn peninsula, are travelling to England for operations.

I believe that I have the time briefly to say that I remember well the summer of 2005, when the hon. Member for Arfon and I were both younger, fitter and probably better looking—[Interruption.] He did not have much hair even then, I have to say. We were both standing for the seat of Arfon and the Llŷn peninsula, as the constituency then was, I believe. The hon. Gentleman was exceptionally courteous to this young whippersnapper, who was representing the Welsh Conservative party, particularly when we attended a hustings event that was conducted entirely in Welsh. Although I can say diolch and many other things, can order two beers in Welsh, and have a mother who is a Llewellyn from the Tywi valley, it was an ordeal I will never forget: spending two hours conducting the whole meeting in Welsh, with some rather large headphones for the translation.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raised affordability assessments. I will come to that, if he will bear with me, but it is unquestionably the case that changes have been made to the universal credit deductions policy following representations made by a Select Committee and others, and it is right that I try to explain where we are with that.

In April 2021, the cap on the standard deductions was reduced to 25% of a claimant’s universal credit standard allowance. That followed a reduction from 40% to 30% several years earlier. At the same time, we doubled the new claim advance repayment period to 24 months. The consequence of that was that hundreds of thousands of universal credit claimants retained more of their award. The reduction in standard cap was warmly welcomed, and we believe that it maintains the right balance.

Colleagues have raised many specifics about deductions, but one must remember, for example, that well over 150,000 individuals have child maintenance deducted in respect of children for whom they are responsible. I could add more detail about individual deductions and the different types of deduction, but the child maintenance deduction in particular is one that concerns the Department because it is the state’s obligation to ensure that parents are responsible to some degree for the children they have. Some of those deductions—well over £2 billion—are made in respect of child maintenance, and scrapping all deductions policy, which some have called for, would have a massive impact in that regard.

There are obviously budgeting advances, which help to finance intermittent or unforeseen expenses—for example, essential household items. Those advances ensure that low-income families with an emergency financial need who do not have access to adequate savings or a loan can access funding.

Several hon. Members have mentioned their food banks. I put on the record my support for the Miner’s Lamp food bank in Prudhoe, which I visited again recently and supported with a donation. In respect of loans, credit unions up and down the country are doing a fantastic job and should be supported by Members. I was proud to set up the Northumberland Community Bank, which is the fastest-growing credit union in the north. I am not involved with it now, which is probably why it is the fastest-growing credit union in the north, but it was very much set up with the Church of England and with local communities to try to provide low-cost savings and loans to support individuals and keep them out of potential difficulties.

We believe that we have reached the right balance on the level of deductions from benefits, but we are committed to supporting those who might be struggling. I want to try to address that situation. It was asserted by various colleagues that there is no fall-back position. I do not accept that. We strive to set affordable and sustainable repayment plans, and encourage customers to contact the Department if they are unable to afford the proposed repayment rate. When a customer makes contact, we might be able to reduce the rate of repayment or temporarily suspend repayment, depending on the customer’s financial circumstances.

The review period for customers with a negotiated affordable repayment rate has also been extended from six months to two years. However, customers may contact us at any time to renegotiate affordable repayment terms.

I will give way to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). The hon. Member for Reading East has had his say.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. It is important that information is communicated slightly better to claimants. As an action point, will he undertake to go away and look at how information could be better cascaded to claimants so that they are aware that there is a bit more flexibility? I would appreciate that.

I certainly will do that, and I will also have a look at the individual letters that apply in those particular circumstances. All such letters, as the hon. Gentleman will know having done the pensions job for five long, lovely years, are kept under review, and there is the opportunity to do that.

The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) is no longer in her place—I know she has to be elsewhere—but she raised in particular the issue of access to a journal for those who do not have the internet. Again, we need to make it clear that, obviously, an individual claimant can attend a jobcentre, which has computers that claimants can use to access their universal credit claim and their individual journal, or they can speak to a member of staff who can support them through the process.

Bear with me. I might give way, but I am going to keep trying to make progress. The hon. Gentleman had 20 minutes and will have more time soon.

Much criticism was made of DWP staff, particularly by the hon. Member for Leicester East. She used various expressions that I utterly reject. I will not dignify them by repeating them, but I want to make it utterly clear that I am proud to work with the 25,000 men and women who work in our 700-plus jobcentres up and down the country. They do a fantastic job in trying to assist everybody. When she impugns the individual character of DWP staff, I am afraid she is utterly wrong. She should reflect on that and visit her local jobcentre.

No, I will not; I am so sorry. I do not think I want to dignify the hon. Lady with any further comment in this debate.

The practical reality of the situation is that we believe very strongly that individual claimants have the ability to receive support. I could go on about various points in respect of advances and the five-week wait. During their first assessment period, a new claimant can receive a payment up to the expected amount of their UC award, which can then be repaid over 24 months. It is not possible to make a payment as soon as a claim is made, and colleagues should understand that. The assessment period must run its course before the award of UC can be calculated. It would not be possible to accurately determine what a claimant’s entitlement will be in the month ahead. The process ensures that claimants are paid their correct entitlement, which is something we all wish to see, and prevents significant overpayments from occurring.

I welcome today’s debate, and I understand and share the concern of the hon. Member for Glasgow South West that we should ensure that we support the most vulnerable in society. I want to finish on a couple of key points. Much criticism is made of the situation in respect of long-standing poverty, but it is a long-standing principle of the Government that the most effective and sustainable way to tackle poverty is by supporting people into work and to progress. In 2021-22, working-age adults living in families in which all adults were working were seven times less likely than working-age adults in workless families to be in absolute poverty after housing costs, and we have made progress. In 2021-22, there were 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty after housing costs than in 2009-10, including 400,000 fewer children, with 1 million fewer workless households than in 2010.

Support exists on an ongoing basis and, as I say, there has never been a larger sum spent on those who are most vulnerable. The cost of living support continues into 2024, and I commend the Government’s approach to these issues.

I think the Minister said I had 20 minutes to sum up, but you might have something to say about that, Dame Maria. I thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Arfon (Hywel Williams)—as I was reminded by him, he has a sophisticated electorate, given its electoral history—for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe). I also thank the Front Bench spokesmen.

I thank the Minister for his kind words in referring to me as his good friend—that will probably get me deselected during the summer when I seek to secure selection again. I also thank him for mentioning the great Frank Field. Frank was at an event in Parliament this week, alongside Feeding Britain and Good Food Scotland, and he told me that he agrees with me on universal credit deductions. I hope the Minister will take that on board.

In reply to the Minister, it starts with a five-week wait, and the Government will really have to deal with this situation whereby we are handing out loans. They are not advances; they are loans. I ask the Government to look at how quickly they can pay a benefit as soon as someone hits the eligibility criteria.

As the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) says, the real issue is the scale and the number of deductions now taking place. Like others, I ask the Minister to look at what happens when there is a departmental error. The Department really needs to look at the information that has been provided on the online journal and have that discussion. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who is a good friend—that will not get him deselected—rightly said that the Minister said he would look at the communication. That also needs to be about the information given to claimants, and I ask him to look at that and come back to us. Affordability assessments should be standard practice.

The Minister did not address the crucial point: since the Government have eased the deductions and made their changes, there has been a cost of living crisis. That is why we are asking him and the Government to look again at easing the rate of deductions, which we think will help the situation.

Every single Member has spoken about food poverty and has given examples of how deductions are causing it. I am on a crusade—a mission—to end food poverty across these islands, which is why I have introduced a private Member’s Bill to that end. One way to end food poverty is to address the universal credit deduction situation. I hope that the Minister will do that during the summer, because if he does not, we will be coming back and having another debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of Universal Credit deductions.