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Universal Credit

Volume 793: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2018


My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to Baroness Hollis of Heigham, who was a Minister in this House from, I understand, 1997 to 2005. Baroness Hollis was a formidable Minister—I know because I was a shadow Minister for Social Security during some of that time. I remember her as a fantastic champion of the welfare system, women’s rights and in particular women’s pension rights. I feel privileged to have known her.

By leave of the House, I shall repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Employment.

“Mr Speaker, I note the precise wording of the Urgent Question from the right honourable gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect. I know he cares deeply about welfare matters and is an excellent chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee. Of course he, his committee and the whole House have a right to hold the Government to account, and that includes the Department for Work and Pensions. I do not wish to be unhelpful in my response. However, some of the matters that he may be alluding to are the subject of speculation in the media. There has been a great deal of speculation around universal credit in the last few days. I cannot comment on speculation.

When it comes to rollout, we have long said that we will take a slow and measured approach to managed migration. That is why we will continue to take a ‘test and learn’ approach, acting on feedback and improving the system as it rolls out. By December 2018 universal credit will be in every jobcentre in the country. People who are making new claims to our benefits system now apply for universal credit rather than being put on the old system. Next year we will start the wider process of moving people from the old benefits system on to universal credit. The process will begin later next year in a measured way with no more than 10,000 people moved over, to ensure that the system is working well for claimants and to make any necessary adaptations as we go. We have said for a long time now that the managed migration process will take place from 2019 to 2023.”

My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for her kind comments about my erstwhile colleague Baroness Hollis. It is with regret that we have the absence of her voice for our deliberations today. She had unparalleled experience on universal credit. She was determined, she was passionate, and her oratory rang out across this Chamber. I fear that we will not see her like again.

Universal credit is causing severe hardship for many people claiming it. Over the past two weeks, conflicting statements from the Government have caused real confusion about the impact it will have on people who are required to move across to claim it in the next phase. First, we were told that austerity was over, then that families on low incomes are in danger of losing up to £200 a month as a result of transferring to universal credit. Next, the Prime Minister said that nobody would be worse off, but the Secretary of State contradicted her the following day. This morning, we had the BBC report—I understand the Minister’s position on that—saying that the Government are planning changes to the universal credit system that will include the end date for the rollout being put back by a further nine months. This is the sixth time since 2013 that this benefit has been recalibrated.

Is the reported delay to the start of the next phase the result of the warnings that the Government have received from right across the voluntary sector and expert organisations that their draft regulations are simply not fit for purpose? Will they now publish their impact assessment of that next phase? How will the changes reported by the BBC affect the savings that universal credit is expected to make for the Treasury? How many households currently claiming legacy benefits will be worse off between now and 2023 as a result of making a new claim for universal credit? Together with dozens of disability and advice organisations, we call for a halt to the rollout of managed migration until it is fit for purpose.

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord’s questions. Let me say straightaway that we have not been recalibrating anything. He will be aware that there have been a number of PQs in the past few months. There was a Written Ministerial Statement in June this year, wherein we set out very clearly that from the beginning of next year, we want to move to managed migration in a very slow and careful way. We want to be sure that we get it right, that the right systems are in place. As we also made clear to the Social Security Advisory Committee, we will not begin to introduce managed migration, which is those who are on existing benefits—the legacy system, as we call it—rather than those who are new to the benefit system who are going on to universal credit, until July next year. That has long been the case.

We are now waiting for the end of the rollout of the system into every jobcentre by the end of December this year. We are also now in receipt of some important recommendations made by the Social Security Advisory Committee as a result of our proposals to it with regard to managed migration regulations, which we hope to lay before the House in the near future. We are now considering those recommendations very seriously and I will report to this House in the very near future.

The most important answer that I must give straightaway is that a key point for the managed migration regulations, which we will bring forward, is to protect the most vulnerable. We are not halting any rollout. Our concern is to protect the most vulnerable— those who cannot work, those with severe disabilities—through the severe disability premium and careful full transitional protection through migration on to universal credit.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. I concur with her tribute to Patricia Hollis. She was an integral part in the creation of this legislation and delivered a complete masterclass in parliamentary scrutiny in the 2012 committee which I was privileged to share with her. She will be missed.

Can I confirm that there will be no delay in the publication of the managed migration regulations and that the Social Security Advisory Committee report will be published in due time? There should be no delay in either of those two things. Some of us are a little surprised that the recent controversy about the cuts has suddenly blown up, because it has been painfully obvious since 2012 that a moment would come when these things would bite and things would get really tough in terms of financial hardship for low income families.

I will make two points. First, I am now really worried about the requirement for managed migration people to have their benefits turned off and then to make their own application. We need to seriously look at these regulations to make sure that there is automaticity of transfer to universal credit, and then we can sort out the difficulties afterwards. Otherwise, hardship will be exacerbated.

The other thing I will say strongly to the Minister is that Church Action on Poverty has produced a very interesting report indicating that the safety net that was available in 2012, according to its research, has been slashed. Community care grants and crisis loans totalled more than £200 million a year, and we are now at the stage when the Government have just announced £37 million as the total amount of money for universal support across the country. Frankly that is not enough to prevent hardship occurring in ways that will hurt families in the future. The House will need to turn its attention to these things during consideration of the managed migration regulations.

I thank the noble Lord and say straightaway that there will be no delay to the publication. Indeed, because we have to see these regulations on the statute book by the end of this year, it is very important to ensure that they are laid shortly and that we can debate them in your Lordships’ House. We very much hope that, unlike the package of £1.5 billion in extra support for universal credit that was introduced in another place following the Budget last autumn, the managed migration regulations will not be rejected, as the package was last autumn.

It is important to remember that we introduced a package that made advance payments quicker and easier for people to access. They could have a 100% advance up front for their first month’s claim, with no interest to repay for 12 months. We scrapped the seven-day waiting period and introduced a two-week run-on for people receiving housing benefit, with a cash payment that was not repayable. We are helping more than 500,000 people by protecting severe disability premiums.

That package was rejected in another place. Let us hope that this managed migration package will be supported in another place and in your Lordships’ House, because we want to protect the severely disabled, those with health conditions and those who genuinely need our support. We, too, are surprised by the recent controversy, because we are trying to do the right thing to support the right people. Benefits will not be turned off. We will be very careful to ensure that there is a transfer. That is why we will introduce the system slowly and carefully. We are using six months of next year to try to get this right.

My Lords, I echo what has been said about my noble friend Lady Hollis. She was an inspiration.

This morning, at a meeting of the APPG on universal credit, organisations working with claimants around the country were unanimous that so-called managed migration—as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, made clear, it will not be managed on behalf of claimants—should not go ahead until UC’s design flaws are rectified, especially inflexible monthly assessment, which is creating huge problems. Will the Minister undertake to look at these problems as a matter of urgency? UC needs to be recalibrated.

My Lords, I do not recognise the word “inflexibility” when it comes to universal credit. The whole point of the system is to take six different benefits and put them into one simple one that tracks people’s circumstances on a monthly basis, rather than leaving people with no contact, sometimes for literally years, under the legacy system. We are spending £3.1 billion on transitional protections for 1.3 million claimants to ensure that no one loses out at the point of transition. This will ensure that no families receive less money than they do today. We are spending an additional £1.4 billion on protection for 500,000 disabled people receiving disability premium.