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Universal Credit

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 22 March 2017

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the roll-out of universal credit.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Rosindell, not least because I have been trying to secure a debate on this issue for several weeks, if not months, due to the sheer volume of universal credit-related problems that have been raised with me by constituents. It is no surprise that there is much interest in this issue from parliamentary colleagues; I thank all of them for coming along to the debate.

Before I expose these issues in more detail, I thought it would be helpful to set out some of the context of today’s debate. As all hon. Members are aware, universal credit is a new benefit that is being introduced to replace the means-tested social security benefits and tax credits for working-age individuals and families, including working tax credit, child tax credit, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income support, income-related employment and support allowance, and housing benefit.

By using real-time information on claimants’ circumstances, the aim of universal credit, which I am sure the Minister will also set out, according to the Library’s very helpful briefing note for this debate,

“is to simplify and streamline the benefits system for claimants and administrators, to improve work incentives, to tackle poverty among low income families, and to reduce the scope for fraud and error.”

Following years of repeated delays and false starts, the infamous reset in 2013 after the Major Projects Authority told the Government to go back to the drawing board, and concerns expressed by the National Audit Office that delivery of universal credit has been beset by

“weak management, ineffective control and poor governance”,

this new benefit is now very gradually and very painfully being rolled out across the country.

Indeed, as the Library briefing note also highlights, since the 2013 reset the Department for Work and Pensions has been developing and rolling out universal credit using a twin-track approach. The briefing note states:

“This involves rolling out Universal Credit using IT systems developed prior to the 2013 reset (the ‘Live Service’) while, simultaneously, DWP develops the Digital Service (now known as the ‘Full Service’) from which Universal Credit will eventually be operated.”

I hope that everyone is still following me.

As the Library briefing note states, this means that since spring 2016,

“Universal Credit is now available in all Jobcentres across Great Britain, but in most areas is only available for new claims from people with relatively simple circumstances…single unemployed people (or people with very low earnings) satisfying the ‘gateway conditions’”.

In a small but increasing number of areas that have full service universal credit, all new eligible claimants will receive universal credit, as will existing claimants of legacy benefits who report a change in their circumstances, which results in them being naturally migrated to universal credit. Just to clarify, I am using the DWP’s own terminology here.

Following the reshaping of the next phase of universal credit’s roll-out, which was announced in a written statement on 20 July last year, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions confirmed that the DWP would continue the roll-out of full service universal credit to

“five jobcentres a month to June 2017, expanding to 30 in July 2017. Following a break over the summer the Department will scale up to 55 jobcentres per month between October and December 2017. From February 2018 this will increase to 65 per month, finishing with the final 57 jobcentres in September 2018.”

As a consequence, universal credit should be available across the country to all new claimants and existing claimants with changed circumstances by September 2018. The final stage of the roll-out of universal credit, the managed migration of existing benefit claimants with no change in their circumstances, will commence in July 2019, to be completed by March 2022—some five years later than the original target.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Does she agree that part of the problem appears to be that the Government and the Department did not take sufficient account of the complexity of the needs of many of the claimants initially? That seems to be why the problem has escalated far beyond what we thought it was even three or four years ago.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point and one that I will go on to make in some detail. The Government were warned that it would not be straightforward.

I mentioned the timetable because it is very complicated. Everyone would like confirmation from the Minister when he responds to the debate about how it now fits alongside the proposals that the Department for Work and Pensions published in January to close an estimated one in 10 jobcentres and to merge or co-locate others. It is clear that the roll-out of universal credit is a hugely complex task and that hard-working jobcentre staff are being placed in an incredibly challenging situation. The Library briefing note states that it involves

“not simply the creation of a new benefit but development of entirely new administrative systems to support it. This includes development of the Digital Service, the online IT system via which claimants and DWP will manage awards, and training staff to administer a new conditionality and sanctions regime that imposes requirements on in-work as well as out-of-work claimants.”

Because universal credit requires a broader span of people to look for work than is the case with legacy benefits, for example by including those in receipt of housing benefit or child tax credit and the partners of universal credit claimants, there has been a marked effect on the claimant count in areas that have full service universal credit. There was a 25.5% increase in the claimant count in full service areas in the year to January 2017, compared with an increase of 0.1% across the UK as a whole.

There are numerous concerns about the impact of universal credit on existing claimants, particularly families with disabled children whose caring responsibilities prevent them from working. The charity Contact a Family estimates that such families could be up to £1,600 a year worse off after being transferred to universal credit.

Sitting suspended.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14) in accordance with security advice.