Skip to main content

Universal Credit

Volume 794: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Employment. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, universal credit is a vital reform that overhauls a legacy system that trapped people out of work. With six different benefits administered by three different government departments, it was utterly confusing for claimants. All new claimants now receive universal credit. In the future, we will move claimants who have not changed circumstances from legacy benefits to universal credit in an approach known as managed migration.

It is right that the Government should seek to align provision for all, in order to eventually operate one welfare system. The department has long planned to initially support 10,000 people through this process, in a test phase, before increasing the number of those migrated. This first phase will give us an opportunity to learn how to provide the best support, while keeping Parliament fully informed of our approach.

Universal credit is proceeding as planned, with no change to the timetable of completing managed migration by December 2023”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. I woke on Sunday to news suggesting that universal credit rollout was being delayed. Joy, I confess, was unconfined in Sherlock Towers and doubtless all around the land. But it was not so. It seems that the Government are pressing ahead with the 1.4 million people currently getting universal credit, and another 1.5 million people will join them in the next year. So any delay seems to relate only to the regulations on managed migration, which Ministers had told us were incredibly urgent. These are very controversial because, rather than transferring people across to universal credit, in practice the DWP will simply end legacy benefit claims and invite people to apply for the new benefit. The DWP was to pilot it this summer and roll it out to some 3 million people from next year.

Our Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee urged Ministers to take only the powers and regulations to run the pilots and then come back to the House before going for the full rollout—so I hope that maybe that is what the Government are doing. But Ministers down the other end could not confirm this at all.

I do not want a general bit of debate or flannel: I just want to know what is being delayed and until when. So will the Minister tell the House whether the Government are delaying consideration of the managed migration regulations until after the pilots have been evaluated? If so, how will they get the powers to run the pilots and introduce the concession they have made on the severe disability premium? If they are not doing that, what on earth is going on?

I will respond by saying first that perhaps we should ask the press what on earth is going on. The news that there is a delay is wrong. The Government previously committed to hold a debate on the affirmative regulations in relation to managed migration, and that will happen in due course on the Floor of the House. We will debate them as and when parliamentary time allows, but we will also make sure that we meet our commitment to severe disability premium recipients. To ensure a start date from July 2019 for those 10,000 people, we have long said that we will work with a test-and-learn process.

The noble Baroness talked about a pilot. We have always called it a test. It is perhaps just different terminology. In my response to a debate put to the House by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, on 1 November, I made it very clear that we were always going to have the test-and-learn phase starting at the end of July 2019, whereby we would manage-migrate only 10,000 people through the following 12 months. A debate will be held on the regulations to allow for the managed migration.

My Lords, I welcome this change in so far as it separates the regulations in the first phase to do the testing and learning. It was argued for very forcefully by the scrutiny committee and others. I welcome the Government paying attention to that. However, a timing issue flows from it, because if we do not get the evaluation of the test-and-learn phase in time to be useful when the comprehensive spending review comes around later this year, we are going to be short of money. If we are to learn anything between now and July, time is very short, so the managed migration regulations need to be laid and they need to be evaluated in time to be useful to get resource put into universal credit in the longer term for the future.

I very much take on board what the noble Lord said. This has been very much part of our thinking in the department. It is very important that we make sure that we have an opportunity to debate the managed migration regulations prior to the end of July 2019 and the pilot phase—as it is now popularly referred to, rather than, as we have called it, the test and learn phase—whereby we will be co-designing the whole system with 70 stakeholders working with us to make sure that we get this right. So there is no question of us not being very cognisant of the fact that we want to ensure that we protect recipients of the severe disability premium so that they do not in any way have a gap in receipt of their severe disability premium. We want to make sure that that happens as soon as possible.

My Lords, in the debate at the end of last year, I asked the Minister specifically about those with mental health illnesses who are struggling with the complexity of the system. In the light of recent changes, can my noble friend say a little more about the specific support that will be available to those struggling with mental health conditions, and how they will be helped to manage their way through this process?

I thank my noble friend for this question, because of course our focus is very much on all claimants. Each claimant has a different bespoke need. The reality is that they have a work coach and a caseworker supporting them in a bespoke way that never existed under the legacy system. In relation to those who are particularly vulnerable and have particular mental health issues or disability needs, we are committed to gathering better data to support those claimants and to prioritise this as part of the wider Work Programme for universal credit. Anything we do will be introduced incrementally and could cover a broad range of complex needs rather than focusing on one particular group.

We have been focusing very much on training staff and increasing the number of staff. For example, we have introduced a function to pin key profile notes so that they are instantly visible to all staff helping a claimant. After a small trial, this feature was rolled out in September last year. We are thinking all the time about how we can help people in a bespoke way. A number of Peers who joined me at the Department for Work and Pensions at the end of last year saw for themselves the work that we do and how we focus to the best of our ability on what will be 8 million people when the whole system is fully rolled out, each and every one of them having perhaps a slightly different issue but being part of the system that works for everyone.

My Lords, perhaps I may go back to my noble friend’s question. We will be debating exactly the same regulations that were laid last year, with their sink-or-swim approach that has been widely condemned by the Social Security Advisory Committee, any number of parliamentary committees and all the voluntary organisations on the ground. The only thing that has changed is that the regulations that we were told had to be agreed by 12 December have disappeared.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is wrong to say that the regulations have been widely condemned. Why do 70 different stakeholders want to work with us if they condemn what we are trying to achieve? I feel very strongly about this. The noble Baroness herself came to the department to see the fantastic work done by our work coaches. She may laugh at what our employees do day in and day out, 24/7, to help benefit claimants in a far better way than ever happened under the legacy system where, frankly, people were left to—

I am sorry. Under the legacy system people lived, as it were, in the shadowlands of dependency. We are lifting people out of poverty and encouraging more people into work. The universal credit system is working but we want to make sure that, prior to the volume migration of those on legacy benefits, we work carefully and slowly with the 10,000 people who are coming forward so that we do it correctly. It is also important to make sure that we protect those with a severe disability premium.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the time that she has given to a number of us. The session that we had at the DWP was very informative and helpful, and I thank her for it. However, I am still confused as to why, when we met the Minister, we were told that these regulations had to be dealt with before Christmas, yet we are still not clear exactly what regulations we will be asked to debate. Can she please clarify that?

My Lords, I am trying to clarify it to the best of my ability. The reality is that, as I have already said, we want to make sure that we protect those with a severe disability premium and we need to do that by the end of this month. I think that noble Lords will accept that at the moment we are in an unusual place when it comes to the parliamentary system and the timetable, but I am absolutely clear that, when parliamentary time allows, we will debate on the Floor of this House affirmative regulations for managed migration.