Motion to Take Note
To move that the Grand Committee takes note of the Social Security (Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance) (Waiting Days) Amendment Regulations 2014. (SI 2014/2309).
Relevant documents: 9th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, I am substantially discomfited by the fact that sitting on my right-hand side is the chairman of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Next week she is chairing a seminar on how we deal with these orders, and I hope that she does not mark me down too hard.
These regulations are not new to us, and we as a Grand Committee have been considerably assisted in their consideration by the work done, as always, by the scrutiny committee, which identified—rightly, I think—that these amendment regulations raise issues of policy interest to the House. I am also indebted to the Social Security Advisory Committee, which—again rightly, in my view—engaged in a formal consultation on these orders. I think that that was the right thing to do. I am sure that, like me, colleagues have been able to read the orders carefully; they repay careful study, and a consultation was proper.
In passing, I would say that it is disappointing that we got advance notice of these regulations in 2013—I think it was in the Budget, or perhaps the Autumn Statement—and that was repeated in the Budget Statement 2014, but these regulations required some consultation if the policymaking was going to be done carefully, and there was a whole fallow year following their announcement with a flourish—and I am getting more and more nervous about social security announcements that are made with a flourish in Budgets. So, that time in the year 2013-14 could have been used to look at some of these things.
The evidence that the SSAC has uncovered is invaluable in the consideration of this policy. Indeed, as the Explanatory Memorandum says, the estimated saving is some £50 million in fiscal year 2015-16, and the savings will diminish thereafter. I guess that that is because we approach the introduction of universal credit in 2017-18, and I shall come back later to that important moment. The Explanatory Memorandum mentions the calculations done by the department, and these are useful for reference. Paragraph 3.10 of the SSAC report says:
“The … analysis indicates that for 2015/16, the number of new claimants likely to be most at risk of suffering financial hardship are around 245,000 in JSA and 35,000 in ESA … The estimated average loss of benefit to each claimant from this policy change is £40 for JSA claimants and £50 for ESA claimants”.
That is very helpful to know. The point that I want to raise more than anything else is the hardship that will be experienced by that client group—the 35,000 people on ESA and the 245,000 on JSA. That is the point of discussing this here today.
I am opposed to these changes. If I thought I had any chance of getting a Division that would successfully annul them, I would have tried that. I am seriously considering doing so, depending on what support I can garner from colleagues if restrictions such as waiting days are put on universal credit as we approach 2017. These are savings dressed up. They are pretty mean-spirited and hit the most vulnerable. They again concentrate cuts on the working-age population and take no account whatever of the environment of the past four or five years. A policy of this kind, if it were to be applied eventually to universal credit, would be much worse.
I therefore support the SSAC’s recommendations and need to continue the analysis. I understand and am grateful for the extra work that the department has put in as a result of the request from the Social Security Advisory Committee. The case for exempting ESA was strongly made but resisted by the Government, which is a shame. The case that the SSAC made for promoting short-term benefit advances as a way of trying to alleviate some of the hardship was discarded in a rather offhand way by the Government. Members of the ESA and JSA client group who are most at risk in 2015 and beyond will have to rely on STBAs because they do not have any other options to plug gaps in benefit. I clearly support the idea from the SSAC that communications must be absolutely crystal clear regarding what is happening to the client group so that they can understand the position in advance and get their claims in early. The recommendations of the committee were all well founded. I was pleased that the Government accepted some, but not all, of them.
I want to say a word about context because I get the impression that the department does not pay enough attention to the payment regime. The system of paying benefits to low-income households who operate on a weekly or fortnightly cash basis underestimates problem that some of these delays and reductions will bring. I remember the good old days before 1998, as will other colleagues, when benefits were actually paid weekly and everyone knew where they were. That changed in 2009 to payments fortnightly in arrears, and in 2018 we are facing the cliff edge of universal credit paid monthly in arrears. I do not think that the department fully appreciates the significance of the change in the method of payment. I point out the obvious fact that Social Fund crisis loans are no longer available and there is an uncertain labour market in which people are much more quickly churning in and out of benefits and work.
Yesterday I was made aware of a publication by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which reminded me that over the past four years we have been taking, and will take, £20,000 million out of benefit expenditure in every year of this Parliament. That is a huge amount and the vast majority is being focused on working-age benefits. In a wider context, although I might be out of order in terms of this debate, we need to think clearly about how the cuts are shared across any future attempts to reduce social security spending, 50% of which is now spent on the retired cohort of our population.
I want to say a brief word about the eight vulnerable groups who have been identified. I am sure that the categories are not new to any of us. They include 18 to 24 year-olds, the homeless, disabled people and prisoners—who are of particular interest to me as a non-executive director of the Wise Group. We have a Routes Out of Prison programme which tries to mitigate the fact that we send prisoners out on a Thursday morning from Barlinnie prison with £46 in their hands and next to no other support. Issues such as those contained in the regulations will make their lives and futures worse. Concerns about the vulnerable groups identified by the SSAC are all well founded, and we need to watch the impact of these regulations on these eight categories very carefully.
I want to make two other points. The so-called list of investments that we now have access to as a result of this £50 million saving being recycled was first adverted to by the Chancellor as part of the 2013 spending review. They are things like upfront work search, English language requirements, weekly work search reviews and annual verification. I may be missing something, but I thought all this happened anyway. If it has not been happening since 2013, I will be disappointed. I do not see that we can demonstrate clearly that these savings are going to make any difference whatever, which folds back to the point that I made at the very beginning—that this is actually a dressed-up saving. It is the departmental expenditure limit that will get the benefit of this £50 million and next to nothing else. This is why I want to press the Minister about evaluation. There is an undertaking here in the Explanatory Memorandum which talks about looking at the results of these new investments and how beneficial they will be. I am very sceptical about that and would like to hear a little more about it.
The SSAC report says that the statement in the Explanatory Memorandum that there was likely to be “no impact” on business or charities is “implausible”. It is being very polite. Anybody who knows anything about the 245,000 and 35,000 people in the client groups that we are dealing with realises exactly how important charities are to people in that situation. I do not think that the department is living in the real world. It is a laughable statement. This will lead to payday loans and all that they bring, which is potentially deeply regrettable.
With the funding available to local authorities also being reduced, these regulations are bound to increase hardship. It may not involve millions of people, but it will affect those whom it does affect severely. I want the Government, in evaluating how these regulations are implemented, to have very careful regard to the consequences and the effects on these families. I want them in particular to reflect very carefully about bringing forward similar regulations when it comes to introducing universal credit later in the next Parliament. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, for initiating this take note debate on a very important subject. I apologise if I repeat any of the points that he made, but they bear repetition because there has not been sufficient publicity about the implications of these important regulations. The SSAC, as we have heard, is very critical of them, especially of the lack of robust analysis of the costs and benefits. The impact assessment that the Government have produced in response is certainly an improvement. Whether it constitutes that robust analysis is another matter, but it does at least give us more information on those who are likely to be affected. I accept that it does give some credence to the original—unevidenced—claim that many affected would be,
“coming to benefits from relatively well paid jobs”,
as the lowest paid are more likely to have linked claims and therefore not be affected. Nevertheless, nearly two-fifths of JSA and three-fifths of ESA unlinked claims were from those earning less than £5,200.
The impact assessment makes much of the fact that about half JSA claimants in employment in 2013-14 have been paid monthly and they should therefore have a month’s wages to tide them over. However, it also has to acknowledge that those on lower earnings were more likely to have been paid weekly. In fact, the majority of those who earned up to £10,400 were. If we include “other”, which I guess is probably fortnightly, then it is the majority of those earning up to £15,600. As CPAG—and I declare an interest as honorary president—warned with some restraint:
“Claimants leaving low-paid jobs paid weekly or fortnightly will not necessarily have a large, in-arrears payment to cover them for seven days without income, especially with benefits being paid in arrears too”.
The noble Lord also made this point.
The impact assessment also shows that only 36% of unlinked JSA claimants had savings of £100 or more to tide them over. The majority had less than £100 and, in the DWP’s own words,
“could be deemed to be less resilient in a vulnerable time just after losing work”.
Never mind, that is not going to deter the DWP. We are not told what proportion of those affected is likely to be in arrears or debt when they lose their job. Given the high level of debt and arrears and the high level of in-work poverty, I would have thought that that might be relevant. Can the Minister give us that information now?
Notwithstanding the Government’s soothing words, in response to the SSAC, that they believe it is,
“reasonable to expect the great majority of ESA and JSA claimants to support themselves during the first seven days of sickness or unemployment”,
they acknowledge that the change “may” cause hardship for some individuals and families, including, according to the evidence presented to the SSAC, homeless people, people with mental health problems or learning difficulties, ex-prisoners and domestic violence survivors.
What options are open to those who cannot afford to lose this money? The Government consider that short-term benefit advances provide sufficient mitigation, but they do not accept the SSAC’s recommendation that they should be proactively and consistently signposted. Research into why people use food banks published today by CPAG, the Church of England, Oxfam and the Trussell Trust, which I will come back to later, demonstrates the importance of this recommendation. It found low awareness of the advances among those who needed help because of benefit delays, practical barriers to making a request including lack of access to a telephone or being advised by Jobcentre Plus to use other emergency support, including the food bank, instead, and refusals of STBA claims that were shown to be legally incorrect. Will the Minister now commit to reviewing the administration of STBAs, in the light of this evidence, and reconsider the Government’s rejection of the SSAC’s recommendation? The SSAC points out that, even for those who get them, these advances have to be repaid at a high payback rate. The SSAC says:
“For those struggling with existing debts, it may generate a further downward spiral of accumulating indebtedness”.
The fear is that the same will happen without an STBA, if claimants have to turn to payday loans or loan sharks to fill the gap.
The SSAC also points out that local authorities are unlikely to help. Some only extend help to those already entitled to benefits. This is a Catch-22: until you are entitled, you cannot ask for help. Moreover, the Local Government Association found that three-quarters of local authorities expect to scale back or scrap their local welfare assistance schemes if separate identifiable funding is ended, as is threatened. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, the SSAC shares the scepticism of many respondents about the statement, in the original equalities impact statement, that the change would not have any impact on charities. Is the department not aware of the extent to which benefit delays are cited by food banks as a reason for people turning to them?
As I said, this morning I attended the launch of a report into why people use food banks. It was very moving and it is a pity that the Minister’s colleague, Mr Webb, who was supposed to speak at the launch, decided not to at the last moment. I think he would have learnt something from listening to people talking about the shame they feel going to food banks. One woman was practically in tears, and indeed the researcher said that the evidence was so harrowing that the transcriber rang her to say, “I do not think I can carry on doing this”. It was an opportunity missed for the department to actually hear what is happening on the ground. The research has found that benefit delays account for almost one-third of those turning to food banks, and in some places it is more like four in 10 cases. What came out of the launch is that even very short delays can be the tipping point for some people—so food bank providers should beware.
As the noble Lord has said, the impact assessment states that the savings generated by this change will decrease as universal credit is rolled out, but that is only because the savings are transferred to universal credit itself, and will be considerably larger because that rolls up the children and housing components. The TUC has drawn attention to the even greater hardship that this is likely to cause, and I would be grateful if the Minister could write to me with the department’s response to the TUC recommendations. I would also ask him to give serious consideration to the recommendations made by the CPAG that under universal credit, housing costs and payments for children should be exempted. That would not sacrifice the policy intention of the change we are debating today. Better still would be if the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, managed to get any subsequent regulations around universal credit not passed—I will see him on the barricades.
To conclude, what is the rationale of the policy intention? It is partly to discourage short-term claims, but as the SSAC noted, some have suggested that this could be counterproductive. If a family is in financial hardship during the waiting days, looking for work, which in itself can incur costs around transport and so on, might not be an immediate priority. The second rationale, as we have already heard from the noble Lord, is saving to spend. The Explanatory Memorandum to the regulations states that the Secretary of State decided that the potential risks of the policy,
“were outweighed by the benefits that could be derived to claimants from reinvestment of the financial savings”.
The SSAC asked for evidence to identify more clearly the cohort of people who would gain from this reinvestment. For example, will those who lose benefits through this change expect to receive specific and additional help to return to work more quickly than they otherwise would have done? Unless I missed it, I have not seen an explicit answer to that question, so perhaps the noble Lord could provide the answer now. Moreover, it seems that the reinvestment is really about more sticks to get people into work, however helpful some of them may be, and no carrots in sight—unless they are provided by a food bank.
The SSAC concluded that, on the basis of the evidence to date, it was sceptical that the case had been made. I cannot speak for the committee, but despite the further evidence supplied as a result of its helpful report, I also remain sceptical.
My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kirkwood for giving us a chance to talk about these regulations, and I really do not think he needs any lessons from my seminar about how to do these things. He is an old hand at regulations of all kinds, particularly DWP ones. I fear that I shall echo much of what he and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, have said, although I do have a few further points to add.
As we have heard, the main recommendation from the SSAC is that a robust analysis of the costs and benefits should be undertaken and published before the regulations are proceeded with and ESA claimants should be taken out of the new rule. I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, first by pointing out that although the Government say that they have complied with the first recommendation, it is not what any of us would call robust. Their main contention is that the numbers adversely affected by this change are comparatively small, although they do admit that it is not possible to establish the numbers or levels of hardship for specific vulnerable groups—for example, those who are homeless or have mental health problems. I shall come back to that in a moment. They also admit that there will be financial difficulties for these groups. As we know, if 82% of JSA claimants and 74% of ESA claimants are not on HB and 50% of JSA claimants are paid monthly, this still leaves a large number of claimants who are receiving housing benefit, possibly passported from JSA, and who are not paid monthly. These people are often on low incomes, paid weekly and have no savings. For them an increase in waiting days will make a significant difference with knock-on effects elsewhere in the welfare system, and I do not think we hear nearly enough about knock-on effects.
I am particularly concerned about those on ESA, even though this will only be 40% of ESA claimants. The Government’s reason for not excluding them from this change in the waiting days is that they say there is no evidence that those on ESA are at a greater risk of financial hardship than those on JSA and they do not want to encourage claimants to try to move from JSA to ESA. This surely will impact disproportionately on many disabled people, who are less likely to be claiming ESA through having left work and thus will not have a final salary to fall back on. In any case, disabled people take longer to secure work and move off ESA. They are also likely to be on fixed budgets and have few savings, so for them this change simply means a loss of benefit. Their only comfort is that we are told they can apply for this short-term benefit advance. However, I am absolutely horrified by the Government’s statement that disabled people could use their disability living allowance, if they receive it, during a temporary disruption to other income. This tightens the screws still further on disabled people and should not have been put forward. DLA or PIP is designed to help living with a disability, not day-to-day living expenses.
Here I want to mention another reason the department ought to be very careful before implementing this particular policy as it applies to ESA claimants. It was on the news at lunchtime that there is evidence that the DWP has carried out 60 reviews into suicides linked to benefit cuts in the past three years. This very serious matter has been uncovered by John Pring of the Disability News Service and I think we ought to hear more about this in the coming weeks. As for this amazing statement in the original impact assessment that changing from three to seven waiting days will not impact on local authorities or charities, I want to reiterate what the noble Baroness said about food banks. I suppose the Government tick a box without really thinking about it when they say that this will not impact on charities, because nothing could be further from the truth. Of course more people will turn to charities such as the Salvation Army.
Altogether I find the Government’s rationale for this change pretty thin. They say that they want to encourage claimants to look harder for work but claimants have to do this anyway. They do not appear to know how this change will work with UC or how it will impact on housing benefit. We are told that the savings generated by this change will be ploughed back into labour market measures to improve the English language skills of claimants. That is one thing I very much approve of. My noble friend said that I never say anything nice to him on these sorts of occasions. Well, here is one tiny crumb of comfort. If the money is spent improving free English language teaching, I shall be very pleased. The other thing it is supposed to do is to provide more resources to support lone parents to return to employment. I echo the point made by the noble Baroness that we would like to hear more detail about these measures.
It may be very tempting for the Government to say that their aim with this policy is further to weaken the culture of dependency because that is a popular message—we have to be honest about that. However, they must make sure that in so doing they do not cause considerable hardship to many thousands of people, with knock-on effects they have not even tried to factor in. The party opposite flirted with this policy some years ago but changed its mind and did not implement it in the end. I hope that the same will be true of this policy.
My Lords, I, too, thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, on moving this Motion which allows us to elaborate further on this pernicious policy. Like many others, I am still waiting for the rationale behind what the noble Lord described as a mean policy. I do not get the stated—or, rather, not yet stated—rationale behind it.
I would like to repeat some of the comments made by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. It stated:
“DWP estimates that this change will generate savings of approximately £50 million in 2015-16, although these will decrease in subsequent years as Universal Credit is rolled out”.
Can the Minister say whether there has been any change in that estimate? If that is the case, I would like to hear what it is. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee also says:
“DWP states that these savings will be invested in new measures to support people into work”.
Therefore, work must have been done on allocating money to these new measures to support people into work. I would like the Minister to indicate what new measures are planned and their estimated benefits.
The Social Security Advisory Committee has issued a report on this measure, which, again, has been referred to. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee states:
“An Impact Assessment is now attached to the instrument which indicates that approximately 70% of JSA claimants and 40% of ESA claimants will serve waiting days ... reducing the value of their first benefit payment by an average of £40 for JSA claimants and £50 for ESA claimants”.
I fully understand why the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, described this measure as mean. There is no doubt that the country faces a difficult situation caused by the downturn initiated in America in 2008 to 2010 and that difficult decisions would have to be made by whoever was in authority. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, mentioned the Labour Party. We have repeatedly expressed concern about how the administration of universal credit will impact on those on low incomes. The reform represents a significant change in the rhythm of social security payments for a group for whom this is a main source of income and whose well-being will be profoundly affected by any delays or problems experienced in receiving it.
My noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, both referred to the role played by food banks and charities. Like many people, I am outraged that food banks have had to be established to deal with the society that we live in. This measure has not taken into account the dire straits that some people will find themselves in when trying to deal with it. The Labour Party convened a universal credit liaison committee which reported in June 2014 and made several recommendations on the payment of universal credit which we believe the Social Security Advisory Committee should have considered, including one on the scope of the regulations.
I ask the Minister whether consideration was given to making the first payment of universal credit earlier. If that was the case, it should be widely publicised. The cost of allowing claimants that choice of payment date, as with direct debit payments, should also be looked at. Has that happened or was any consideration given to it? Did the Government ever seriously consider implementing it?
In order to mitigate any hardship that may arise from the recommended move to a seven-day waiting period, we asked that sufficient attention should be drawn to the recourse available to claimants through short-term benefit advances. Noble colleagues have mentioned this aspect. In fact, the Social Security Advisory Committee itself recommended that the DWP should:
“Strengthen the existing process for highlighting the availability of STBAs and ensure that they are proactively and consistently signposted. In particular, it will be important to ensure that staff (through training and appropriately worded scripts) are encouraged to identify potential hardship and, where it has been identified, explain the process to the claimant. It is also important that the Department ensures that all supporting information channels, such as GOV.UK, highlight the existence of STBAs”.
Will the Minister give the Government’s response to that view and say whether they have given any consideration to implementing it?
The claimant should be made fully aware of budgeting advances and more discretion should be shown in order to mitigate any hardship that may arise from the recommended move. Attention should be drawn to the existence of budgeting advances and, in certain circumstances, we hope that discretion is given to advisers to waive the eligibility criteria whereby claimants need to have been in receipt of benefits for a period of six months in order to apply for an advance. I ask the Minister to respond and indicate what consideration was given to the measures that I have outlined or other measures from a variety of sources. The Minister has an overriding duty to explain the rationale behind the measure and go into detail about its implementation.
I thank noble Lords for their many helpful contributions to the debate. It is clear that this measure has generated a great deal of interest, not just within this House but outside among voluntary and public organisations, which have also presented their views to the Government. The principle behind this extension from three to seven waiting days is that benefits are not intended to provide financial support for very brief periods, for instance when someone is between jobs or during a short period of illness. This measure will generate savings of £125 million over five years. It is money that, as noble Lords have touched on, will be reinvested to help those most at risk of long-term welfare dependency. As noble Lords know, the measures will fund schemes including additional support for lone parents and improving literacy and numeracy skills.
To pick up the question from my noble friend Lady Thomas about any change in those estimates, they were based on departmental forecasts which themselves were based on OBR economic assumptions at the Autumn Statement 2013 and in Budget 2014 and there have not been any updates to this analysis since then, although we are, of course, awaiting another financial event quite shortly.
On the related question from my noble friend Lord Kirkwood and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, about what and where these investments are, we are expanding on measures that are already in place. They will introduce more rigorous scrutiny on the hardest-to-help claimants. The English language provision is new and will ensure that claimants have the language skills for the workplace. Those methods should enable the claimants to enter the workplace sooner than they otherwise would, which means that they will be earning sooner and not receiving benefits.
Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord the question raised by SSAC. Is it likely that the people who are going to be adversely affected by this change will be the people who will be helped by these measures?
Yes; I thought that I had made that clear—that the intention is to focus on the people with longer-term difficulties. So, yes, the intention is that it will be those people.
This measure means that many people who make a new claim for jobseeker’s allowance and ESA will see a reduction in their first benefit payment. However, we have measures in place through exemptions and the offer of advances and signposting advice to ensure that claimants who are most in need will continue to be protected.
I hope that I can pick up all the points that have been raised. On the point raised by my noble friends Lord Kirkwood and Lady Thomas on the exemption of ESA claimants, if there had been a differentiation between the two types of claimant there would have been a perverse incentive for people to self-certify sickness for a week and claim ESA rather than JSA in order to get an additional four days’ benefit. There is no evidence that ESA claimants are at greater risk of financial hardship than JSA claimants. Furthermore, to exempt ESA claimants to make that differentiation would be inconsistent with future proposals for universal credit, where our intention is that all ESA-type claimants will be placed in the all work-related requirements group and therefore subject to waiting days. Clearly, waiting days themselves have been a feature of ESA since its introduction in 2008. This measure has simply extended that existing provision for those who do not qualify for an exemption.
The point that my noble friend made about exempting vulnerable groups is clearly one into which we put a lot of consideration, particularly around care leavers, sufferers of domestic violence and ex-prisoners. Bluntly, they were exempted on grounds of practicability. It would have introduced an unworkable, three-tier system and these groups are already required to serve three waiting days, so the only other option would be a full exemption which would go beyond the scope of this change. Despite what my noble friend said about the UC provisions in this line, we are able to make an exemption for these groups in the UC-equivalent provisions. Perhaps that will leave my noble friend somewhat more relaxed about those.
My noble friends raised the issue of hardship. Short-term benefits may be available. We are paying more first benefits on time than we used to: it is up to 92%. We can signpost to local welfare provision. We provide financial support to credit unions which are a source of relatively low-cost finance to those who might otherwise be excluded. We are, of course, putting an enormous amount of energy into getting the credit union movement enlarged. Because of the linking rules, many claimants are already exempt and they tend to be the ones in the more vulnerable positions. So 60% of ESA claimants are actually exempt because of the linking rules and the equivalent number of JSA claimants is 30%.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked about the number of people, when they had their last payments and the state of their savings. Some 70% of JSA claimants are subject to waiting days, 30% having been exempted because of linking rules. Of that 70%, it is estimated that half have been in employment within three months prior to their claim and 30% are in a benefit with savings of greater than £100. For ESA claimants, 60% of whom are exempt, the equivalent figures are that around half of the other 40% were in paid employment immediately prior to their claim and 38% are estimated to be in a benefit with savings of greater than £100.
I am sorry to intervene on the Minister. I was not asking about savings, because that is in the public sphere. My question was whether there was any information about people who come out of work in debt or arrears?
I was coming on to that. The noble Baroness asked a series of questions. We do not currently have the information on the proportion of people coming on to benefit who are likely to be in arrears or debt. I am not aware of any published analysis that would allow us to estimate this quickly. All noble Lords who spoke raised the question of short-term advances. SSAC recommended that communications about them should be strengthened.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
A number of noble Lords raised the communications issue around short-term benefit advances. We have taken the recommendation of the committee and issued communications to all staff to improve staff awareness of benefit advances and to remind them of the circumstances in which an advance can be considered.
On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, on the report on food banks, I was not at today’s press conference but no one takes the decision to use a food bank lightly. The factors driving food-bank use are many and complex, as today’s report recognises. The report said:
“The immediate income crisis that predominantly led to food bank use was often one incident in a complex life story, in which several other factors had combined to leave people vulnerable and less able to cope with dramatic changes”.
I agree that we are talking about very difficult lives here, but it is very clear from this research, which is not a huge study but it is from a number of different places using a number of different methodologies, that benefit delays were a very important factor. Given that, does the noble Lord not accept that this measure could well make it worse?
My Lords, I would be the last person to say that the current benefits system was easy to navigate. One of the things that has been driving the reform that we are introducing, universal credit, is the production of an in-work and out-of-work benefit that is easy to navigate. I started researching this area in some depth in 2006 and the irony is that benefit delays under the existing, rather complicated system have actually been improving. That is why I revert to the point that this is a complicated matter, as is acknowledged in today’s report and in other reports. That is the only point I want to make.
There was a series of questions on universal credit and the noble Baroness raised the point about TUC concerns about the length of time claimants have to wait for payments under universal credit. Clearly we have an advances process built in, but probably more important is the system that is now developing of universal support delivered locally, which is designed to work in the local community, both with councils and with voluntary organisations, to bring the support that is specifically required by vulnerable people. The estimated saving from increasing the waiting days in universal credit is £200 million per annum once it is fully rolled out, but this figure will be reviewed and updated with the Autumn Statement. I have talked about exemptions within universal credit.
The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, asked about our consideration of whether we add waiting days to the assessment period in universal credit or whether we have partial periods of universal credit. We spent a great deal of time considering that issue. Universal credit is an in-work and out-of-work benefit, paid on a monthly basis. That monthly basis is designed to help households to budget on a monthly income and eases the transition from and back into paid work. The one-month assessment period is therefore central to universal credit, and the waiting days in universal credit are days of non-entitlement. I need to remind noble Lords that because universal credit is an in-work and out-of-work benefit, one might not experience waiting days anything like the same number of times as, especially if one is moving from low-paid work to being out of work, one is likely to be consistently on universal credit. That is one of the safety features of universal credit in this regard.
With that I think I have dealt with all the questions raised today and thank my noble friend—
I may have missed it, but I do not think I did. Does the Minister have any response to the point made by the Social Security Advisory Committee about short-term benefit advances?
Yes, we have accepted the communications issue there and have already, on the basis of that recommendation, issued communications to our staff to improve awareness of the availability of short-term advances and remind them of the circumstances in which those advances can be considered.
As I say, I think I have dealt with everything. I thank my noble friend for the opportunity to discuss this important topic and to address all the concerns and matters that have been raised.