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Universal Credit

Volume 801: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2020


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place on the extension to the universal credit implementation date. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State and I informed Parliament yesterday that we have revisited our forecast for universal credit and are extending its completion date to 2024. Our planning for universal credit relies on assumptions about the number of people whose circumstances will change each day, thereby naturally migrating. Our forecasts to date have relied on 50,000 households experiencing a change in circumstances each month. Based on this, we had predicted that the process of natural migration across to universal credit would be completed by December 2023.

However, the information collected on changes to people’s circumstances suggests that natural migration is happening less frequently than we expected. This suggests broad stability in people’s lives and can be attributed to a number of reasons, including the robustness of the labour market. We now estimate that 900,000 fewer households will naturally migrate between now and December 2023 than we had forecast. Given that we expect to manage around 100,000 households to universal credit each month, it necessarily follows that if we are to protect the interests of claimants and move them to universal credit safely, it will take a further nine months to complete the implementation of universal credit.

I can assure colleagues that claimants will not lose money from their universal credit award due to this forecasting change. We will always put the best interests of our claimants first and, as we move into the managed migration phase, protecting the vulnerable will be our utmost concern.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. Universal credit should have been rolled out by April 2017. It will now be September 2024—seven and a half years late. There have been many delays. After each one, Ministers normally get up and say something like: “We’d rather be right than on time.” At this stage, I would settle for either. We are not very close to either of these happening.

We were told in the Statement and the noble Baroness’s letter that the reason for the delay this time was that fewer people had had a change in their circumstances that meant they moved across to universal credit early rather than waiting for their benefits to be shut down. That was due to good news, like the labour market. Alongside the official Statement, yesterday the BBC—which is filming in DWP for a series on universal credit—filmed the director-general in charge of universal credit, who said this:

“We’ve got a lot of anecdotal evidence of people being scared to come to universal credit.”

This is another way of thinking about the delay.

People are scared, but in the Commons today the Minister blamed the Opposition for scaremongering, which I find disappointing. I am relieved to be in the House where I know the Minister will not try out a line like that. People are scared because universal credit is full of problems. They are especially scared because you wait five weeks for your first payment. You can get an advance, but that is just debt that gets taken off your universal credit week by week. People can only live on it as it is, so they are scared of that as well. I have only one question for the Minister: will the Government please abolish the five-week wait in universal credit once and for all?

My Lords, the five-week wait is a cause for concern for many people; I am not denying that at all. I have been out on visits and spoken to various work coaches and Jobcentre Plus staff, and I am assured that if people come with the right paperwork—I accept that some do not—and need an advance there and then, they will get it. I accept that it has to be paid back. At the moment, many people are raising the five-week wait. I hope all noble Lords believe that we are listening. We are aware of the vulnerability of the client group, but our work coaches are doing a great job. We are listening and hearing.

My Lords, I do not know whether Ministers are aware, but Macmillan Cancer Support has observed that the five-week wait is preventing cancer patients taking up their entitlement to universal credit. It is not that they would not have a loan—of course they would—but, as a result of their circumstances, they do not have the savings and resources to pay the money back when they have to. People lose a lot of money when they have cancer. They would like to know what the Government will do to look into the causes of this delay, what they will do to look into the five-week wait, what evidence they will provide us of the need for it, and what analysis has been done on the rollout of the universal credit managed migration period altogether. I would be grateful for her answers.

I accept that people with cancer have enough on their minds without having fiscal worries. If the noble Baroness could give me the details of someone at Macmillan, the best I can do is invite them to the department to have a full and frank discussion about the issues. We will incorporate the remaining questions that she raised. All I can say again and again is that the department is reviewing these matters daily. I know that it cannot come quick enough for people, but we are listening and really researching the points the noble Baroness made, which are valid.

My noble friend said that those seeking a loan have to bring the appropriate papers. Would my noble friend be good enough to say what those papers are?

I am not able to give my noble friend a list off the top of my head but I am very happy to write to him. If people do not have the paperwork, they are not just sent away to get it—the work coaches actively try to help them to get it.

My Lords, the Minister’s helpful letter to Peers ends by saying that the Government have always said they will proceed with each new phase of universal credit only when it is safe to do so. Civil society organisations working with claimants are clear that it is not safe to proceed further with natural migration because of the recurring problems with it and with universal credit itself, which might explain reports that many people are scared to move to UC. Will the Minister, who I know does listen—I am grateful to her for listening to me this morning—take the message back to the department that it should be using this delay constructively to pause, address these problems and, if necessary, delay further in the best interests of claimants to get it right?

The noble Baroness knows that I will certainly take that point back to the department. However, I would like to share something with noble Lords. I have been making lots of visits and meeting lots of clients, not just work coaches. We know there are issues with resolving universal credit. That is why we are extending the period, because we are not in the business of going full blast ahead with something that will go wrong and make life more difficult for people. However, one of the things that comes up time and again—I promised that I would say this to noble Lords when I got the chance, but I did not realise that I would get it so quickly—is that work coaches are saying to us that, while there are issues, a lot is going right with universal credit. It is making a difference to people’s lives and getting them into work, it is personal and one to one, and it is really doing well, so please can you help by trying to balance the observations made about universal credit? As to a further delay—I never thought I would get that today—it is best to say that I am unable to commit to one and I jolly well hope that it will not be necessary.

My Lords, can we honour the DWP staff for allowing the BBC in? Many of us look forward to seeing what comes out. They have been very brave; many departments do not do that. I understand that the Minister does listen but some of these things have now been going on since the system’s very inception. Yes, many people at food banks and people who talk locally say that the work coaches are doing a wonderful job. That is great, but it is the most vulnerable who are suffering. Could we please listen to their voice and make some changes very rapidly?

I can give a commitment that we are listening to the most vulnerable. We will make changes as soon as we can, once they have been agreed. There is nothing in it to delay things or to make life worse for people. I certainly do not want to be a Minister who is known for that.

On food banks, I have no doubt, and the previous Secretary of State confirmed it, that usage of food banks was up due in part to universal credit. I do not run away from that point. Last Thursday I sat down in a food bank in Hastings called The Pantry. I will arrange it for any noble Lord who wishes to go there, because it is a most dignified example of a food bank. I asked them: “Why do people use it?” Relationships break down, or people’s priority is to fund their addiction. When their money comes through from universal credit, they are at the cashpoint at 1 am or 2 am to get the next fix or the next drink. One person left a job on a Friday, went to a new job on Monday and by Monday evening it was all over. He found himself in a very difficult position. All credit to the food banks for what they do, but please, do not lay the increase completely at the door of universal credit.

My Lords, are we collecting any central statistics on the increasing rent arrears for some people on universal credit? There is a real challenge, particularly for people in London, where rents are high in relation to universal credit. We are very concerned that some people are going without food in order to pay their rent.

I thank the noble Baroness for raising what is another very valid point. Rent arrears is a problem, but the majority of arrears were incurred with the legacy benefits. It is not just universal credit. I am not saying that there is not a contribution, but 12% of social-rented households are on universal credit. It cannot be laid entirely at that door, but the issue is live, and we are on it.