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Universal Credit: Transition

Volume 652: debated on Monday 7 January 2019

1. What steps her Department is taking to support households transitioning from legacy benefits to universal credit. (908363)

The purpose of universal credit is to replace an outdated benefits system, ensuring that people are better off in work and that support is targeted to the most vulnerable. We recognise the challenge that this cultural shift represents. We currently provide advance payments and a transitional housing payment to claimants coming on to universal credit. Furthermore, we will spend over £3 billion on transitional protections for 1.1 million households as part of our managed migration regulations.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. I welcome reports that she is considering scaling back the roll-out of the migration to universal credit for those on legacy benefits while problems with the system are identified and resolved. However, we have seen from the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality—scandal that a letter from the Department is often not enough to stop even those who are not vulnerable from falling through the cracks. Why has the Secretary of State rejected the recommendation from her own social security advisory committee that legacy benefits claimants should be transferred to universal credit automatically? As a minimum, will she guarantee that nobody has their legacy benefits stopped without an application?

There was a lot in that question. I would like to reassure the hon. Lady that ensuring that the transfer from legacy benefits to universal credit is effective, fair and compassionate is absolutely central to the work the Department will be doing. The pilot announced some time ago, involving 10,000 people, will be taking place later this year. It will be absolutely central to ensuring that that is effective. I look forward to further discussions about that.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to her place. Her announcement is absolutely right. She knows the whole point of universal credit was the test and learn process, unlike, and learning lessons from, the mess of tax credits. Under tax credits, nearly 1 million people lost all their money. That will not happen under universal credit. I hope she will absolutely see the programme through.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his support and pay tribute to the incredible work he did to set up universal credit, particularly focusing on ensuring that universal credit helps people into work. We must remember that under previous legacy rates that took place under Labour, to which he rightly draws attention, there were marginal rates of tax of 90%. No wonder people were discouraged from going into work.

I am so confused. Might I ask the Secretary of State whether the best news we have heard since the benefit was introduced is in fact correct? Is she postponing the mass migration? Is she limiting it to the 10,000? Is she then going to see how those 10,000 are looked after in the transfer? If that is so, may I thank her and congratulate her, and say that it is a real pleasure that she has introduced so quickly a key recommendation of the Select Committee?

I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman is a little ahead in his fulsome praise for me, which I always appreciate. As I said to him in the Select Committee before Christmas, I will want to consider carefully when I bring to the House the vote for the 3 million managed migration, which is scheduled for 2020. I am still considering when to do that. I can reassure him that there will be a vote on that before it takes place. The 10,000-person pilot, which was announced some time ago, will, as always, inform us how we do that.

21. In Thirsk and Malton, some of my constituents get paid on four-weekly cycles. That means they can get paid twice in a month and can appear to be earning more than they actually do. What more can we do to ensure universal credit responds to such situations, so that people receive the right level of support at the right time? (908384)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has raised this issue with us before. He is right that we need to ensure that universal credit delivers on what it intends to do, which is to give real time financial support based on an actual month’s assessment. We have recently updated the guidance for universal credit so that work coaches can adjust to ensure that where the situation he describes occurs, appropriate adjustments are made.

22. On 12 December, Neil Wright from Plymouth, who is disabled, received 1p in universal credit to live on. He is not able to claim another payment until 14 January. He said he had just 77p to live on at Christmas. Can the Secretary of State understand the utter hopelessness and anger that situations such as Mr Wright’s cause? Will she agree to review his case, and, no matter the good intentions behind universal credit, will she admit that the system still causes misery and poverty for far too many people? (908385)

I am sorry to hear of the particular situation the hon. Gentleman raises. He must write to me, and of course I will take a careful look at it. However, I would just say also that I visited a number of jobcentres last Friday and was shown the work that a particular work coach had done to get three different people advances on the day of their universal credit application—the Friday before Christmas. We must not underestimate the good work that so many work coaches do to help claimants, which is in their interest and in ours.

The Labour party often talks about benefit cuts, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that when universal credit is fully rolled out, there will be £2 billion more going into the benefits system than there would have been under legacy benefits, thanks to the changes in the last Budget?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to clarify that. It is such an important point that by 2020 the total system will cost approximately £62 billion, which is £2 billion more than the £60 billion that would have been anticipated under the previous benefits, so we are investing in our benefits.

Just before I call the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), may I say to her—I think I do so with the support of the House—how sorry I was to see that her predecessor, an illustrious representative of the Bishop Auckland constituency, Mr Derek Foster, later Lord Foster, had passed away? He was well respected in this place and gave great service to it, and our sympathies go to his widow and the family.

Mr Speaker, thank you. I am sure all the people who live in Bishop Auckland will very much appreciate those sentiments.

The Secretary of State may know that five years ago 30,000 people were fined for wrongly claiming free prescriptions, but last year that figure was 1 million. That is because when people get their awards, they are not told whether they are entitled to free prescriptions. It is a simple piece of admin—will she sort it?

I thank the hon. Lady for drawing that to my attention. I am aware of the changes that need to be made and some of the things that have already been addressed, but I will write to her further to set out how we are addressing exactly what she raises.

The roll-out of universal credit is going well in my constituency. Work coaches have told me—[Interruption.] Jobcentre work coaches have told me how they value being able to give extra help to my constituents to help them into work. Will my right hon. Friend advise me what work she is doing to ensure that housing benefit payments reach the landlords of some of my most vulnerable constituents?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I know she shares my concern that we must ensure that universal credit addresses the needs of the most vulnerable and that, where it needs to be paid directly to landlords, it can be. It is right that we have tried to limit that, but it is also right that we do not have one system that does not take into account the particular needs of the most vulnerable in our society. As we have had the opportunity to discuss, I will be looking further at what else can be done.

16. It is good to get clarification from the Secretary of State about managed migration, but in the meantime, more people will move on to universal credit by natural migration than by managed migration, with no protection whatsoever from the huge drop in income. The Department has published no conclusive list of all the reasons for people having a change of circumstances and being moved on to universal credit. Will she commit to doing that at the earliest opportunity so that people are not transferred wrongly? (908378)

The hon. Lady is right that we now have 1.4 million people on universal credit and we expect another 1.6 million to move on to it during the next 12 months as part of natural migration. I am of course collecting information as we go to ensure that that is done fairly, accurately and efficiently, as I want it to be, but I will take her suggestion on board. I am very keen to ensure that everything we do is evidence-based.

Rugby jobcentre has quite a lot of experience with universal credit, having been a pilot centre since 2013 and on full service since May 2016. The staff there have had a hand in making the transition easier based on the test and learn approach. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the hard work of staff at jobcentres such as Rugby’s in making improvements to the universal credit system?

May I particularly thank the people in the Rugby jobcentre? I have had an opportunity to visit many different jobcentres since being appointed, and I find universally that the people who work in them are enthusiastic about universal credit and passionate, caring and compassionate about the claimants they work for. I urge Opposition Members not to underestimate the good work being done by work coaches in their constituencies to help the people most in need.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

Most people will have thought that the weekend’s announcement was perhaps the start of a major shift by the Government with regards to universal credit, but unless it is followed up with meaningful interventions, changes and investment, such as to the benefits freeze, the two-child cap or the sanctions regime, it will be meaningless. Can the Secretary of State confirm if it is her plan to use the delay to the managed migration vote to introduce any changes to universal credit before the summer?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the whole principle of universal credit is test and learn, and so we are always looking to make changes and improvements. This is a tremendously ambitious project, bringing huge benefits to claimants and helping them into work and to stay in work, and we are always ready to learn from new developments as we proceed with the roll-out.

By delaying the vote and bringing forward 10,000 guinea pigs to test the transfer from the legacy system to universal credit, the Secretary of State accepted that there might at least be some problems with universal credit, and yet she cannot come forward with any ideas or bring forward any changes. Does she accept that, unless she brings forward the changes being called for by Members across the House, the United Nations and expert charities and community groups, this exercise will be little more than kicking the can down the road?

I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. I am completely committed to the benefits of universal credit and to ensuring that it remains a force for good, helps people into work and does not repeat the terrible mistakes of the past under Labour and the legacy benefits. The new system will work much better for people, and, with the help of all Members of Parliament, people will find that their jobcentres are enthusiastic about it.

If reports over the weekend are true, it seems that the Government are finally waking up to the potentially devastating impact of their managed migration plans on claimants, over one third of whom will be sick or disabled. Therefore, will the Secretary of State now clarify the situation and what action she will take to address the central flaw in these regulations, which places all the onus on claimants to make a new claim for universal credit or risk losing support if they do not make an application on time?

I am grateful for a second opportunity to clarify the situation. As we announced last year, there will be a 10,000-person pilot this summer that will help us to learn how to be most effective in the managed migration. We have 1.4 million already on universal credit through natural migration and 1.6 million are expected to come on during the next 12 months. Making sure that the managed migration is effective, efficient and compassionate is absolutely central to the success of universal credit, and that will be coming forward in 2020.

Only about one third of households due to be claiming universal credit by the time it is fully rolled out were ever scheduled to transfer under managed migration and so receive transitional protection. Universal credit is being used as a vehicle for cuts to social security and is pushing many people into poverty, rent arrears and food banks. Will the Secretary of State now stop the roll-out?

I would ask the hon. Lady to think again about her approach to universal credit. It is doing a good job. I urge all Members who have not had the opportunity to visit their jobcentres and experience it for themselves—talk to the claimants and work coaches—and above all to compare it to the legacy benefits. If they do, they will see the confusion and complication that was there. Now, with our one simple system, it will be much more straightforward for individual claimants.