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Universal Credit: Highlands

Volume 623: debated on Monday 20 March 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the universal credit full service roll-out in the highlands. My constituency was a pilot area for the programme before it went to full service, and at the time I was very wary of the prospect. I was told that that would provide an opportunity to iron out all the problems and difficulties to make sure there were none when it came to full service roll-out, but I am afraid that that has not been the case. The problems have not been ironed out, and the situation is causing pain, anxiety and hardship for people in my constituency.

The aim of the debate is to highlight the problems, to offer solutions to the Minister and, I hope, to get him to accept the need to pause this harmful roll-out. I am sure that the intention behind universal credit was not to cause this type of difficulty, and I am also sure that the Minister is not intent on punishing people by continuing with the programme as it is. I hope that an outcome of the debate will be an understanding by the Minister of the problems that exist and his commitment to take action.

I was grateful to the Minister for a letter that he wrote to me on 14 March in response to my very detailed letter to him. It is important, in the interests of clarity, that I refer to a number of points in that letter. He wrote:

“We are building and developing the universal credit service all the time.”

By definition, “building and development” means that the process is not completed—it is incomplete. In fact, I contend that at the moment the system is unfit for use. During the period in which we were building and developing a house, we would not allow somebody to live in it. That is tantamount to what is happening to my constituents just now—this is dangerous to their health.

My constituency office alone has seen more than 100 cases involving issues with universal credit. That is just us—the number does not include the other agencies involved. The number does not cover the countless many, many more people who are not getting any help at all because they do not know where to turn. One constituent of mine who contacted us is called Ian. He waited for six weeks without any money. He had to eat at a food bank and to go for days without electricity, all with a two-year-old living in his house. That is not acceptable, and he did not even get any explanation of why that happened.

The Minister said in his letter:

“I recognise that Inverness Jobcentre Plus covers a large geographical area, and many claimants live some distance from the Jobcentre. Claimants are required to submit their evidence, for example childcare cost receipts, to the Jobcentre before the end of the Assessment Period.”

Submitting evidence is not that easy, as we found out when another of my constituents, Jane, had to travel from Grantown-on-Spey to Inverness to hand in her childcare vouchers. That is a journey by public transport of an hour and a half each way—a three-hour return trip. It would have been bad enough if, after she had put in her childcare vouchers, that had been the end of it, but the jobcentre lost the data and Jane had to make several more trips. The matter is still not resolved—that is not acceptable. People are not able to upload the information online; they actually have to hand in the vouchers at the jobcentre. Why is it not possible for them to go to another local authority location to take care of the business? There should be far more flexibility in the system.

The Minister went on to say:

“Universal credit is designed as a digital service to be accessed online”—

as I have just pointed out, that aspect of the system is not complete—and that if people were having difficulty, they could use an 0345 number. He said further that operators

“will offer to call a customer back if concerns are raised over the cost of the call.”

If we look at the issue of digital by design, we find that there is a big gap. Some 17% of people in the highlands have never used the internet, and there are other big areas of digital exclusion.

My East Lothian constituency was the first in Scotland to implement the full service roll-out. Has my hon. Friend had the same experience as us that because so many clients either lack access to IT equipment or are inexperienced at using it, they have to seek help from the citizens advice bureau, local library staff or local social security staff? That has the result that full service roll-out can be implemented only with the addition of massive amounts of staff time from all those bodies?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I shall provide some further examples in a few moments.

For people who suffer from digital exclusion, that is not the end of the problem, because that 0345 number is, in effect, a premium phone line. Another constituent, Claire, was in tears in my office because she had used her last £20 of credit for her mobile phone while being held on the phone for 30 minutes waiting to get through. When her call was eventually answered, after she had used up all that credit, she was promised a call back—she was looking for money to feed her children, by the way—but that call back never came. Two days later she appeared in our office, and when we phoned, it took 34 minutes to get through so that we could get an answer on her case.

The Minister said in the letter:

“Our latest data from February has shown a speed of answer time of between 8 and 9 minutes and I can reassure your that more resource is planned”—

I can tell him that more resource is definitely required. That is a big change from what I was told in a written answer that I received, and it is as an admission that the length of time is increasing, even if the Government’s figure is not accurate. On 16 December, when I asked the Minister what the average call time was, I was told that it was three minutes 27 seconds. That is clearly not correct, even according to the Minister’s letter. Citizens Advice and my constituency office decided to undertake an experiment in which we timed the calls, so the Minister does not have to take just my word for it. It took 28 minutes on average to get through to that line. There is a requirement for a free 0800 support line, and I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

In response to my claim that there was no support line for agencies or MPs, the Minister’s letter said:

“As I mentioned earlier Universal Credit is designed to be accessed online”,

and that there is a “once and done” service. It might be “once and done” for the DWP, but it is certainly not “once and done” for my constituents who are under pressure.

Last week, during the joint meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee and Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee, a representative of Inclusion Scotland said that the Department for Work and Pensions had a “digital by default” approach to universal credit. That approach penalises people with sensory impairments and learning difficulties, quite apart from those who are not computer-literate. Does my hon. Friend agree that it should be possible to contact the DWP by whichever means is most appropriate to claimants’ circumstances?

Hear, hear. As I said, I believe that the “once and done” approach applies to the DWP, not the outcomes for constituents. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.

The Minister’s letter states:

“The Department feels that a support line would cut across this relationship and create delays and confusion.”

I have news for the Minister: there is already a great deal of confusion and an awful lot of delays, which are causing people problems.

On arrears, the Minister’s letter states:

“This is a complex issue and our research shows that many people are coming onto Universal Credit with pre-existing arrears.”

Perhaps the Minister could tell that to John, a constituent of mine, who lived in the same house for three years. When he was transferred to universal credit, he found that he was waiting for 12 weeks—three months—for support. That was too long a wait for his landlord, and he was served with notice of eviction. The landlord was nice to him about it, but explained that she could not possibly wait because she in turn was getting into financial difficulties.

Landlords are waiting for an average of 10 weeks, and many are losing patience. Many are now saying, in signs in their windows and in their advertisements, “No universal credit”, because they do not want to take the risk. The proportion of tenants of Albyn Housing Society, a housing association, who are not receiving universal credit and are in arrears is 22%, whereas the proportion of its tenants on universal credit who are in arrears is nearly 100%. The average universal credit claimant arrears amount in the highlands is £900. Highland Council’s arrears through universal credit have risen by 82% since September and now amount to nearly £1 million. Just in case the Minister is wondering, I should add that the council deducted previous arrears from that. The increase is 100% due to universal credit. Services will be affected unless something is done.

The Minister said in his letter:

“We have taken a number of steps to…prevent claimants from falling into arrears.”

The six-week minimum wait puts claimants in arrears by default. By definition, someone who is waiting for the money to come through will not be paying rent and will already be in arrears. My constituent Gavin’s rent is £175 a week. Under the old system, he received £168 a week in housing allowance, which meant that he had to find £7 from his other entitlements. That was not an easy job for someone on benefits, but it was do-able. Now, under universal credit, he receives £60 a week. Even if he does not eat or turn on the power—even if he does nothing and sits still—he cannot pay his rent. He is automatically in arrears.

The Minister’s letter advised me to look at

“details about the payments process”,


“can be found in the Third Party Creditor/Supplier Handbook”.

The date of the handbook is March 2015, two years ago. It is out of date, as is the information that the United Kingdom Government are obtaining to defend their position.

There are other issues, and I could spent a great deal of time giving more examples. I hope that the Minister will accept one of the many invitations he has received to visit my constituency and hear for himself, from people and agencies, the travails that are being experienced. However, one issue that I think is particularly damning was raised by Macmillan Cancer Support. Sometimes people who are terminally ill choose not to have their diagnosis given to them directly, because they just do not want to know—they want to live out their lives as they choose. However, universal credit forces claimants to declare themselves to receive their entitlement, which means that they must be told in order for them to make their claim and be put into a work group. Two things are wrong there. First, it is wrong that they should have to do that, so I hope the Minister will take early action to sort that out. Also, why would they be put into a work group? There is no need for them to go into any work group.

So what needs to be done? The Scottish Government will use their 15%—a very small amount—of devolved power for the welfare system to bring about fairness and dignity, but they have no control over this. All the Minister can ask them to do is to put in more money to cover UK Government issues. Citizens Advice asked for an additional single non-refundable payment to bridge the six weeks of hardship between going off the standard system and on to universal credit. It wants the UK Government to give a choice on the housing element, so that it can be paid direct or as part of a single payment. It, too, is calling for 0800 free helplines, and it wants jobcentre support for those lacking computer skills.

The roll-out of universal credit can only be described as shambolic. It is punishing families, the disabled, the unemployed and the most vulnerable. There is a damning litany of failure, confusion, heartache and indignity, and a crushing drive towards increased poverty under the universal credit system. The problems include long delays to payments, short payments, lost sick notes and childcare receipts, misplaced documents, failures to respond, and confusion between departments.

The universal credit full service roll-out should be halted until it is fixed. The UK Government must bring in additional flexibility so that people are able to receive what they need in order to survive. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the situation, and an effort to fix and compensate for the Highland Council rent arrears that have been run up to date.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) on securing a debate on this important matter and bringing his feedback and critique to the Floor of the House today.

I recognise the concerns that have been raised, and I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that work is already well under way to improve delivery. Today’s debate presents an opportunity to share some of the ways in which the Department has sought, and is seeking, to resolve obstacles to this ground-breaking project.

There are now 470,000 people on universal credit, 2,400 of whom are in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As we would expect of a full-scale reform programme of this magnitude, there have been challenges along the way, but I assure hon. Members that we are working quickly to deal with them to ensure that UC is delivered safely and securely. I recognise specifically that the hon. Gentleman has encountered a number of universal credit claimants who have had issues with the service, and I am aware that he has already been in discussion with the Department for Work and Pensions district manager for the north of Scotland, who has invited him into the local jobcentre to assist in mutual understanding of the issues. I also acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman says in outlining occasions where things have gone wrong—if something has been mislaid and so on—and, of course, for those occasions I am sorry.

I commend what the hon. Gentleman is doing both for and with local organisations and his constituents. Bringing together local stakeholders, trying to address the details, and helping people to solve problems is important to ensuring the safe delivery of this historic reform. The hon. Gentleman has spoken, too, of the diligence, commitment and work ethic of our key stakeholders, local partners and staff, and I echo that.

Looking ahead to other highland areas that are due to roll out the universal credit full service, our implementation strategy is under way and we will soon be having conversations at a more local level. The remaining jobcentre sites aligned to the Highland Council area will roll out in July 2017 and, as part of the implementation activities, we have an external plan to ensure that all involved have a proper overview of universal credit before it arrives at the jobcentres.

I welcome the Minister’s words in recognising the issue, and I think that is the right thing to do. Before the roll-out continues into the rest of the highlands, will he take up my offer of coming to visit, to speak to the organisations locally and understand directly what is happening to claimants in my constituency?

Let me thank the hon. Gentleman for that offer. I welcome the opportunity to speak to local organisations throughout the country. My most recent visit to a jobcentre was this morning, and I plan to make another on Thursday. There are several hundred jobcentres throughout the country, and my aim is to get representative feedback and critiques to help our understanding of these issues. I also welcome the communication that I have had from and with the hon. Gentleman in that regard.

I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

We have established a dedicated team of employer and partnership staff, who are deployed to engage directly with stakeholders, including local authorities and landlords, to ensure that there is a joined-up approach to supporting universal credit claimants.

I know that housing arrears are an area of concern, which is why that is a regular subject of discussion in our Highland operational forum. Discussing the issues in this way has led to the introduction of some effective troubleshooting measures. To begin with, we are embarking on a specific piece of work to monitor Highland Council cases involving housing costs, to try to establish the root causes of any delays in the process. I appreciate the concerns over rent arrears. I know that it is an issue that matters to a lot of people, but the reality is that a lot of complex, overlapping factors are at play. The roll-out of universal credit is by no means the sole factor contributing to arrears. Let us consider for a moment that, according to the latest report published by the National Federation for Arm’s-Length Management Organisations, over three quarters of its ALMO tenants who have fallen into arrears were already behind with their rent before commencing their universal credit claim.

Some of the rent arrears are clearly attributable to the charging policies of landlords that can create book arrears from the outset of a tenancy. This is a simple definitional point. A landlord who previously charged rent on a weekly basis will of course appear to be missing rent payments under the new system, which pays claimants’ housing costs on a monthly cycle in arrears. We have been clear about the reasons for this change. The key motivation is to create a welfare system that more closely mirrors the world of work. Our research shows that the majority of UC claimants are comfortable managing their own budgets. Furthermore, we know that after four months, the proportion of UC claimants who were in arrears at the start of their claim fell by a third.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make sure that I cover all the points, but if there is still time afterwards, I will of course give way.

Ultimately, the fact that many people are coming on to universal credit with pre-existing arrears is contributing to the overall rent arrears issue. Please let me reassure the House that there are safeguards in place for claimants, including advances, budgeting support and alternative payment arrangements, and research shows that claimants successfully reduce their arrears over time.

This work goes hand in hand with our work on improving the number of claims put in payment by the end of the first assessment period. This includes refining the customer journey, improving the payment of housing costs, improving communications to landlords and local authorities, and streamlining the way in which information is verified. Those in the project team regularly monitor the timeliness of payments, and if they identify delays, they quickly take action. I can confirm that there is a positive trend in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, with significant improvements in timeliness month on month.

I recognise that rural areas such as the Highlands might face particular challenges. Indeed, concerns were raised by colleagues regarding the pace of roll-out. We listened to those concerns and, in tandem with a buoyant local labour market, we made the decision to adjust the roll-out schedule at remaining Highlands sites. We have moved the target roll-out date for remaining Highlands sites—Dingwall, Fort William, Invergordon, Portree and Wick—back from November 2016 to July 2017.

I am also aware that some claimants have reported that they face increased travel times to meet their work coach and hand over documentation. In response to that, we have made changes to the design of the universal credit digital service so that, before the end of this year, claimants will be able to upload certain evidence to the online system. I should also mention that claimants can deliver evidence at any time during the monthly assessment period. This gives claimants valuable leeway to find a convenient time to visit their local office or to make use of the postal service to deliver evidence. Although universal credit is oriented around claimants making use of the online service, claimants can also telephone their service centre for help and support or to exchange information. I reiterate that the service does not involve claimants having to dial a premium rate number. Ofcom regulations require all phone providers to treat calls to 03 numbers the same as a call to a normal home or business landline. If claimants remain concerned about the costs of calling, they can, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, ask to be called back.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have also reported excessive wait times on such calls. We recognise that improvements can be made in that area, which is why we have committed additional resources to reducing waiting times. The latest data show that claimants are now waiting a maximum of eight to nine minutes before their call is answered. With even more resource being invested throughout March to support telephony service levels, I feel confident that the long wait times reported in the local area will become a thing of the past.

I was also pleased to know that an agreement has been reached at a local level—I believe to the satisfaction of the hon. Gentleman—in connection with the case of one of his constituents experiencing particular problems with delivering evidence to the Department about childcare costs, involving that constituent posting verification direct to Inverness jobcentre and also sending things by email.

Several hon. Members have previously expressed concern about the procedures under universal credit that determine whether a Member of Parliament can access the personal details of their constituents. If they are not already aware of it, I draw hon. Members’ attention to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on 13 March, in which he agreed that the implicit consent arrangements that exist in legacy benefits can continue for MPs within universal credit. That will ensure that MPs are able to act quickly on the behalf of their constituents. I hope that hon. Members will also feel reassured about that helpful change.

First, on the subject of avoiding arrears, I have given a couple of examples of where debt by default, not digital by default, is happening with universal credit. What is the Minister going to do to tackle that? Secondly, on the ability of Members to contact somebody on behalf of a constituent, that may be what has been said in this Chamber, but the reality is that that message has not reached the people on the ground. There is confusion every day about who can access what information at what stage.

Of course I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says about the need to continue working on the housing issues that we have been discussing. That is a matter of ongoing work. The change on implicit and explicit consent is quite recent, but I will endeavour to ensure that it is clearly understood in the Inverness jobcentre.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the freedoms afforded to the Scottish Government under our devolution arrangements. We continue to work closely together with Scottish Government colleagues to implement the Scottish flexibilities that have been agreed. We have listened to Scottish Government colleagues who said that they needed action earlier and, in response, we introduced the alternative payment arrangements easement in April 2016, which pushed back the APA claimant review date to 24 months. Discussions with the Scottish Government are progressing well, and DWP officials continue to work positively, openly, and collaboratively on the detail of the administrative flexibilities.

Let me be clear, though: under the universal credit Scottish flexibilities, the Scottish Government have the power to pay the UC award fortnightly instead of monthly, to implement alternative payment arrangements for 100% of cases, and to pay the housing element of universal credit direct to the landlord. Although we do not think that is the best approach, we fully accept their right to do so and look forward to them actioning these matters quickly. We further acknowledge that they have the powers to create new benefits, to top up existing benefits, and to provide discretionary payments in any area of welfare. Again, we look forward to them speedily delivering on and making full use of those powers.

I recognise that there are areas for improvement in the service, but with every release of new software and every new office that goes live with the full digital service, enhancements are made that improve the experience of using the service for staff, claimants, landlords and our delivery partners. The hon. Gentleman has seen for himself the drive, commitment and passion that so many of our staff, stakeholders and people across the programme have. They want to see this revolutionary welfare reform through, and I am certain that they will.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.