Universal Credit Assessment Reports

5th December 2017

David Gauke responds to a debate on the Government’s project assessment reports into universal credit.

Let me deal first with the motion. The challenge for any Government—and, one would think, for any aspiring Government—is to strike the right balance between transparency, and encouraging candid evaluation and debate. There is a reason why project assessment reports commissioned by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, and formerly the Major Projects Authority, have not been released by Governments. The Public Accounts Committee has already recognised that there is a need to protect information that is commercially sensitive, and for there to be a safe space for candid evaluation and debate. The assessments we are discussing represent an important period of reflection and, by their very nature, are useful only if everyone involved is able to offer their views freely and frankly to evaluate fairly the project on which they are working. Ultimately, this is about protecting the interests of the taxpayer.

Successive Governments have continued to improve project delivery. The PAC supported the creation of the Major Projects Authority, and its objectives of strengthening project assurance and improving the transparency of information on the costs, risks and performance of major Government projects. The PAC recognised the challenges that the Government face in improving project delivery within government. Supporting all that is the rigorous scrutiny of individual projects by the National Audit Office, with full access to all papers.

Parliament has consistently directed the Government to manage projects professionally, more efficiently and effectively, and with due consideration for commercial imperatives. Consequently, I hope there is a consensus that the disclosure of information beyond the existing well-established and robust transparency policy that the PAC supports must not undermine the integrity and validity of the review process, risk weakening our commercial negotiating position, or expose us to possible legal challenge.

The Secretary of State refers to the National Audit Office, which he will know at one stage characterised the universal credit project as having a “good news” culture in which staff were not allowed to acknowledge and draw attention to problems. Does he agree that that should not have prevailed? Will he reassure the House that that culture has been dealt with?

I very much agree about the importance of a culture in which problems can be identified and passed up the command chain, with that system understood across the board. Clearly, when that does not happen, something needs to be addressed. When I entered this House in 2005—the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister at the time—we were wrestling with the problems of the tax credit fiasco, which was causing misery for vast numbers of people. If Members want an example of a project that failed because there was not a willingness to identify problems early, that is it.

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s policy that review reports remain confidential is founded on the position that an effective and trusted system of assurance in government is in the public interest, and that the premature disclosure of review reports undermines that public interest. Those considerations must be balanced with the desire for transparency and parliamentary scrutiny. In exceptional cases, sharing information with a Select Committee, in confidence, can be appropriate.

The motion refers to a number of reports, many of which date back some years, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) pointed out. To disclose those papers without subsequent reports showing how well universal credit has progressed would give a partial picture. In line with the motion, I will provide, by the time the House rises for the Christmas recess, the reports directly to the Work and Pensions Committee. Let me point out to the shadow Secretary of State that her motion does not require us to publish these reports or to lay them before the House. Specifically, it says that those reports should be provided to the Committee. In those circumstances, it is acceptable for us to do so. As is customary, I will need to consider redacting any appropriate material, such as the names of junior officials and information that is commercially sensitive. I wish to emphasise that it is the Government’s view that this is an exceptional request that will be agreed to on an exceptional basis, and does not set any precedent for future action. Against that background, I shall provide the reports to the Select Committee on a confidential basis. In those circumstances, I hope and expect that the documents will not be disclosed further.

The Secretary of State has hit on a very important distinction between the motion that we are debating today and the one about Brexit documents. That motion said that the documents should be made available to the Brexit Committee and then laid before the House. Today’s motion does not say that; it says that the reports should be given to the Work and Pension Committee. We are not a Committee of Privy Counsellors. We have never been in a position like this before so, if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to develop this theme, because we are in totally new constitutional waters. The motion, which has now been accepted—we can all go home in a minute, or bring on the next business—is different, and puts us in a different constitutional position than the one that was outlined for the Brexit Committee.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I can only assume that those who tabled the motion worded it carefully. They chose its wording on the basis that it was about providing information to the Work and Pensions Committee. As I have said, I do believe that, in these circumstances and for the reasons that I have set out, the Select Committee will treat this matter confidentially, but he is absolutely right to draw attention to that distinction.

I thank the Secretary of State for pointing out the collective amnesia of some about the fiasco of tax credits, although I am absolutely sure that many Conservative Members have not forgotten it. I was told by my Jobcentre Plus staff, who have been training Basingstoke Jobcentre Plus staff, that this extremely agile system allows them to feed in impacts and changes, and to listen and to learn. The Government are doing this because it is right for everybody.

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. That is exactly how we are rolling out universal credit, which is why we are able to make changes and why the process is being done gradually. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire pointed out, these reports go back some years, since when there have been a number of changes. At one level, I would love to be able to publish the most recent IPA report because it makes it very clear that we were right to expand the roll-out of universal credit in the autumn. I am not publishing it, however, so in effect, I am tying one hand behind my back, because I respect the principle that these reports as a whole should not be published. None the less, in accordance with the motion, I am prepared to provide the reports to the Select Committee.

The Secretary of State is very generous in giving way. He says that he is unhappy that he cannot publish the most up-to-date report, because it would give the Government—I am paraphrasing here—a glowing report card. I wonder what was assessed. Is he not aware that housing providers, housing associations and others say that every single one of their tenants who has moved on to universal credit is now in arrears or has increased rent arrears? Is he not aware of what is actually happening on the ground? I would like him to publish that report, because it would contradict everything that all of us on the Opposition Benches are seeing in our communities.

Let me turn to the substance of universal credit then. Universal credit is the biggest modernisation of the welfare state in a generation. The old system traps people in a cycle of benefits dependency, incentivising working only 16 hours or fewer a week and preventing people from reaching their potential. Universal credit frees people from those hours limits and lets them keep more of what they earn. Under universal credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the previous system. Once universal credit is fully rolled out, it will boost employment by around 250,000, which is equivalent to 400 extra jobs per constituency. It is improving the welfare system and the lives of those who use it.

My right hon. Friend was talking about transparency. One thing that we do know for certain is that, in each constituency, 400 people are able to go back to work when they are on universal credit. The new system helps people back into work. There is nothing more demoralising for people than to be told to lower their gaze, stay in line, stay on welfare, and not even to try to go for a job, because the risk is too great that if they try to secure a job, they might lose their benefit. If people lose their job, the palaver of getting their benefits back can be incredibly demoralising and time-consuming.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One problem with the legacy system is that it does not cope with those people whose hours might fluctuate below and above 16 hours. The difficulties of moving from one regime to another can discourage people from taking extra hours. That is why it is so disappointing that we do not have cross-party support for these reforms. The Labour party has consistently called on us to pause and fix universal credit. It has done it again today, but in doing so, it has, on more than one occasion, resorted to scaremongering. It is increasingly clear that when it says pause and fix, it means scrap and rewind to the failed system of the past.

If the Minister is so convinced of all the facts about universal credit that he claims, why does he not release the post-implementation review that the Department was apparently putting together and give us the full details of how universal credit is working, instead of relying on a study of a tiny sample of single people without jobs that was conducted more than two years ago, before the cuts, in order to make these wild claims?

What we have released is analytically robust. It enables us to compare with a matched sample, which becomes harder to do as there are fewer single people on jobseeker’s allowance. The reality is that the evidence points to universal credit getting people back into work quicker and ensuring that people are more likely to progress in work.

We have had a number of debates about the roll-out of universal credit throughout the autumn. Government Ministers, including the Secretary of State, said from the outset and subsequently that the system was working fine and going very well indeed, but they recently made a number of concessions. If everything was working so well, why did they make any concessions at all?

Before any of the policies we announced at the Budget, universal credit was a better system than the legacy system. I am delighted that we are going even further to ensure that universal credit becomes a better system, and we will continue to do so.

Is it not also critical that we send out clear and accurate messages? Can we put to rest the myth that if a claim is made today, it will not be possible to get benefits before Christmas? Is it not the case that advance payments mean that people can get the payments they need on time? This is a humane system.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. He highlights just one of the examples of what we have heard from the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. She said in The Times on 28 November that new claimants would not receive any money before Christmas, and that anyone claiming universal credit in 2018 would

“wait five weeks for any support”.

That is simply not accurate.

Under universal credit, any claimants can access support within days. Advances are currently available at 50%. They will be available at 100% in the new year, effectively providing a full payment within five days if that is what the claimant wants. Let us draw a contrast. If people were going on to jobseeker’s allowance, they might enrol several weeks before Christmas but receive no money until after Christmas.

The Secretary of State has announced the partial publication of these reports. Of course, the fact remains that there is a live case from the Information Commissioner’s Office. Will he confirm whether he will release these reports to John Slater, who has campaigned for them for two years?

We will continue with due process on that. I have said today that I will comply with the motion, which requires us not to publish the reports, but to provide them to the Work and Pensions Committee.

Let me give another example of scaremongering. On Friday, The Daily Mirror ran a piece about a woman who had been scared by all the media and political attacks on universal credit. She was so worried about her universal credit payments being stopped that she felt that she would have to cancel Christmas. Thankfully, we looked at her case. It turned out that the family’s universal credit payment for December would be £20 lower than that for November, but that the family’s total income and earnings alongside universal credit would be higher this month than last month. The conclusion is clear: the Opposition’s irresponsible scaremongering is causing unnecessary anxiety for people who are getting support from the system as they should. Let me give another example.

Gloucester City Homes.

I will come to that one.

The shadow Secretary of State has promoted the BBC “Money Box” piece that suggested that 100,000 people would lose their benefits over Christmas. The BBC subsequently apologised for the story and admitted that it was misleading. Will the hon. Lady do the same? I am happy to give way to her if she wants me to. She also suggested in The Times that only 600,000 people would receive the housing benefit transitional payment. I was clear in the House on 23 November that all of the 2.3 million people currently on housing benefit would be eligible. Will the hon. Lady therefore retract her assertion?

Let us not forget—my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has clearly not forgotten—that the Leader of the Opposition suggested that Gloucester City Homes had

“evicted one in eight of…its tenants”—[Official Report, 11 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 324.]

One in eight is 650 people. In fact, eight people on universal credit had been evicted by Gloucester City Homes, and all had significant debt arrears before universal credit was introduced. One had moved out of their property 18 months earlier and another had moved abroad. I hope that the shadow Secretary of State will take the opportunity to correct the record and apologise on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition.

We have had a number of conversations about the roll-out of universal credit, which in fact started in my constituency six or seven weeks ago when we first debated the issue. Some 148 claimants have gone through the system in my constituency. I speak to them regularly, and I also speak to everybody involved in dealing with vulnerable people around my constituency. So far, universal credit has been successful, and people very much welcome what was done in the Budget to ensure that as we change the system, it will be flexible, and something that looks after people positively and helps them to move back into work. I thank the Secretary of State for what he has done.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the experience in her constituency. Members of Parliament have a role in ensuring that people are aware of the advances system and the support that is available. That is the responsible role for us to play, instead of trying to scare people with concerns that do not necessarily materialise.

Since 2013—as leader of the Highland Council and then as an MP—I have been reporting the difficulties of rent arrears. Rent arrears with the Highland Council are now approaching £2 million, and a number of people have been put directly into rent arrears due to universal credit. We have invited the Secretary of State to come to Inverness to hear about this directly. In the light of what he said, will he now come to the highlands and hear about the experiences of rent arrears since 2013?

Let me assure the House that I visit many parts of the country to see how universal credit is operating. The response I get back, which is consistent with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), is that it is working on the ground, providing more support to people, and giving jobcentres better tools with which to help people into work.

Let me make a little bit of progress.

In the autumn Budget, the Chancellor announced a comprehensive package of improvements to put more money into claimants’ hands earlier and to ensure that there is extra support for those who need it most. This month, new guidance will be issued to staff to ensure that claimants in the private rented sector who currently have their housing benefit paid directly to landlords will be offered that option when they join universal credit. In January, we are making changes to advances by extending the recovery period from six months to 12 months, and increasing the amount of support a claimant can receive to up to 100% interest-free. In addition, from spring next year, we will be making it possible to apply for an advance online. From February, we are removing the seven-day waiting period. From April, we are providing an additional two weeks of payment to new claimants already receiving housing benefit as they transition on to universal credit, which, for the avoidance of doubt, will benefit 2.3 million people.

I know that I am beginning to sound like a stuck record, but the Secretary of State talks about doing things online. I am a new Member—I am not a Privy Counsellor; I do not go to these smart Committees—but I still have the problem that there are people in my vast and remote constituency who cannot go online. This is a big problem. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Scottish Government about trying to get broadband rolled out exactly where we need it?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about broadband roll-out, which obviously, as he knows, is not my responsibility. I understand that there are significant concerns about how that is progressing. It is the case that jobcentres provide the ability for people to complete forms, and they can also provide information about the availability of wi-fi.
My right hon. Friend touched on the measures announced in the Budget. Does he agree that this £1.5 billion has been found to prioritise help where it is most needed in our society? Given the pressures on the public finances, that demonstrates that this Government really care about getting this right for the people who really need it.
My hon. Friend puts it very well. We are determined to deliver this policy successfully and to ensure that it helps more people to have better opportunities. That is what universal credit is about. That is why we have allocated £8 million over four years to conduct a number of tests and trials to support the development of evidence about what works to help people progress in work—this is about not just getting into work, but progressing in work.

This comprehensive package responds to concerns raised inside and outside the House. Our clear objective is to ensure that as many people as possible get the opportunity to work and to maximise their potential to better their circumstances. This is Labour Members’ last Opposition day of the year, and what have they achieved?

We got what we asked for—the report published.
We are not publishing reports, but we have been able to highlight the inaccurate scaremongering by the Labour party. We have underlined the benefits of the policies announced in the Budget. We have underlined the wholehearted support for universal credit among Conservative Members, and we have further confirmed Labour’s position as a roadblock to welfare reform—seeking not to pause and fix, but to scrap and rewind.

As the evidence builds that universal credit is positively transforming lives, it will become clearer and clearer that Labour Front Benchers are on the wrong side of the argument. So I say this to whomever had the idea for the debate: thank you, because I welcome the chance to argue the case for universal credit—a reform that puts work at the heart of our welfare system; a reform that increases opportunity; and a reform that will positively transform the lives of millions of our fellow citizens.

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Surgeries

David holds regular surgeries at various places in the constituency, including Rickmansworth, South Oxhey, Berkhamsted and Tring. 
 
Forthcoming dates:

2018
12th January - Berkhamsted
2nd February - Rickmansworth
9th February - Tring
23rd February - South Oxhey
9th March - Berkhamsted

Call 01923 771781 to make an appointment.

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