Work and Pensions Questions

9th October 2017

Universal Credit

1. What progress he is making on the roll-out of universal credit. [901031]


5. What progress he is making on the roll-out of universal credit. [901036]


9. What progress he is making on the roll-out of universal credit. [901041]

The roll-out of universal credit is proceeding to plan, gradually and sensibly. People are moving into work faster and staying in work for longer. The most recent phase of expansion will only take the proportion of the forecast claimant population receiving universal credit from 8% currently to 10% by the end of January.

There is a great deal of support for the principles of universal credit. However, the roll-out has been characterised as

“operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving”.

These are not my words, but those of Sir John Major. If the Secretary of State will not postpone the roll-out—along with many other right hon. and hon. Members, I would like him to consider that again—will he consider two other remedies: to drop the waiting period, and to allow the benefit to be paid fortnightly?


Let me be clear: as I touched on earlier, the evidence so far shows that those who go on to universal credit are more likely to be working six months later than they would be had they been on the legacy benefits, and they are also more likely to be progressing in work. That is really important, and it is not something that I want to deny people. I believe that we should roll out something like this gradually and sensibly, and make changes as and when necessary, but that is exactly what we are doing.


Those of us who remember the chaos around the introduction of tax credits can see the good sense in a phased, gradual introduction to universal credit. However, I have to say to the Secretary of State that if we do not learn the lessons from the pilots, we frankly risk losing any advantage that we will gain. Some 57% of applicants for universal credit are having to borrow money before their first payment. Is not that alone enough to justify a pause?


The system of advances is an integral part of the system. It has always been there, but we want to make that properly available. Nobody who needs support should have to wait six weeks before they receive any support. What we are doing is making it clear that people can receive an advance of their first month’s payment, which is then deducted over the next six-month period. That is helping people deal with cash-flow issues in that first month, which I think is a sensible and pragmatic response.


A recently bereaved constituent of mine, a working single parent, has seen her income reduced by £300 a month since transferring to universal credit. For her, work does not pay. Will the Secretary of State urgently review the link between agreement to support payments and universal credit, and will he stop the roll-out until he has done so?


The hon. Gentleman says that work does not pay. Let us be clear: universal credit always means that it is worth working an extra hour and worth taking a pay rise. It is always worth working more under universal credit, which was not the case with the legacy benefits. That is why the evidence is suggesting that people do work more and do work more hours than they do under the legacy systems.


Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why more people have gone out to work this morning than ever before in our nation’s history is that we as a Government have not ducked the challenge of welfare reform, we do not let people languish for years on out-of-work benefits, and universal credit is an essential part of the welfare reform programme?


My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It has been the consistent policy of this Government—including under my predecessors, such as my right hon. Friend—to ensure that we have a welfare system that puts work at the heart of it. That is one of the reasons why we have record levels of employment, as he so rightly says.


No. 7, Mr Speaker.


No, the hon. Gentleman was standing up on No. 1 and he has a very similar question, so he can unburden himself of his important thoughts now.


7. My right hon. Friend is aware that I and many of my Conservative colleagues have pressed him on the issue of providing support for people during the six-week assessment and transition periods for universal credit. Will he confirm that jobcentres in Scotland will proactively offer such advances and support where needed? [901039]


My hon. Friend is right to highlight that point. As I said last week, we are refreshing the guidance to DWP staff to ensure that people who need support—who will struggle to get through to the end of the assessment period without financial support—have access to that money quickly. Increasing the eligibility for advance payments is one of the best ways in which we can address some of the concerns that have been raised and learn from that experience.


Although I believe that advance payments are treating the symptoms rather than the cause, I welcome the Secretary of State’s additional guidance to make sure that jobcentres offer them. Advance payments cover roughly two weeks’ worth of money: what support is in place for people waiting three, four, five, six or seven weeks?


The level of advance payments of 50% is, we believe, the right balance between getting support to people early in the process—they can get it very quickly—and ensuring a reasonable level of deduction for that advance payment in subsequent months. Clearly, this is an issue that we will continue to look at, but 50% strikes the balance. I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for that announcement.


Rent arrears, food poverty and in-work poverty have all rocketed in areas where universal credit has been rolled out. The third sector has united to join in our call for universal credit to be halted, and we know that pressure is mounting on the Conservative Back Benches for that to happen. Is not the Secretary of State’s apparent climb-down on crisis loans and advance payments an admission that universal credit is failing?


Not at all. I come back to the point that universal credit is giving more people the opportunity to get into work and progress in work. The personalised support that is provided by jobcentres where universal credit has been rolled out is proving to be effective. To those people who call on me to stop the process, I say that once fully rolled out, universal credit is likely to mean that 250,000 more people will be in work than would otherwise have been the case. I will not deny those people that opportunity.


The Secretary of State is either desperately deluded or ignorantly incompetent. In one of the areas in which universal credit has been rolled out, East Lothian Citizens Advice reports that more than half of its clients on universal credit are worse off by an average of £45 a week. The just under a third who are better off have gained just 34p a week. How much more evidence of social destruction will it take for the Secretary of State to have the strength to halt the roll-out?


Universal credit is adding to what the Government have already been doing—ensuring that work is at the heart of welfare. That is why we have 3 million more jobs than we did in 2010. Welfare reform is part of the reason for that, and it is part of the reason why we will continue to press on with reforming the welfare state to encourage work and help people to progress in work.


May I warmly welcome advance payments within five days and immediate needs payments the same day as a definite step forward? Given the reasonably high levels of adult illiteracy and poor computer skills in some areas, can the Secretary of State say something about how volunteers might be able to work alongside personal advisers to help people fill in the application form in the first place?


It is important that people filling in forms receive the necessary support, but jobcentre staff provide that support. Voluntary organisations may be able to assist, but Jobcentre Plus staff are already giving the intensive support necessary to help people to complete the applications.


Given the Secretary of State’s confidence in the roll-out of universal credit to another 150 Jobcentres Plus, can he give the House a guarantee that none of our constituents will face hunger or near destitution through lack of money over the Christmas period?


Universal credit is about ensuring that our constituents are in a stronger financial position. That is what we are trying to deliver by enabling them to work and providing the support they need. As I said earlier, if we look at where we want to get to by 2022, 8% of claimants are already on universal credit and by January it will be 10%. The process is gradual and measured, and that is enabling us to learn from the experience and make improvements, which we will continue to do all the time.


I support universal credit and its roll-out, but I am concerned about applicants with zero savings who, if they lose money for one or two weeks, have nothing to fall back on. Will the Department consider the possibility of jobcentres writing supportive letters to landlords to explain the situation in which benefit claimants find themselves, because the worst outcome for applicants is that they lose their home?


My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There is an obligation on social landlords, given the source of income through universal credit, to work constructively with tenants. If a tenant has a reasonable expectation of receiving housing costs as part of their universal credit payment but has not yet received them, the landlord should not take action and the tenant should not face risk of eviction.


As we have heard, universal credit is causing debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness up and down the country, with many claimants already in work. Given that housing associations are saying that over 80% of rent arrears are down to UC, and that the Mayor of Greater Manchester is predicting that rough sleeping will double as a result of UC roll-out, how many more families does the Minister estimate will be made homeless this winter as a result of the Government’s refusal to pause UC roll-out?


Let us be clear: no one needs to go six weeks without financial support when there is a system of advances in place. I make the point to all right hon. and hon. Members that if they are aware of constituents who have not received an advance, they can make it clear to them. Let us be realistic: the fact is that we are now moving towards a welfare system that does not put in place barriers to work and does enable people to make progress. It is no good Labour Members saying they are in favour of the principles, but then trying to obstruct the delivery of a reform that will give 250,000 more people a job.

Universal Credit

6. How many new claims for universal credit have been paid on time since its introduction. [901037]


Payment in arrears has been in the design of universal credit since 2010, and was implemented by the coalition Government in 2014. Our latest data show that more than 80% of new claimants are being paid in full and on time, which is a significant improvement on the position earlier this year, and that more than 90% receive some payment before the end of their first assessment period.

Universal credit is due to be rolled out in Torbay in May 2018. What further assurances can the Secretary of State give that resources will be made available to ensure that people in my constituency who make claims under the scheme will receive their payments on time?

We are ensuring that sufficient resources are available in jobcentres. It is worth pointing out that we have made significant progress on universal credit timeliness this year—as I have mentioned, more than 80% of new claimants received their full payment on time, and more than 90% received part of their payment—and we expect to build on that positive trend. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming universal credit roll-out to Torbay next May.

The problem is that “on time” means after a six-week delay, and that delay, as the Secretary of State knows well, is causing immense hardship up and down the country. Last week I met Maria Amos, who came within an inch of suicide because she had to live literally on nothing but water for six weeks, irreparably damaging her health. The Secretary of State can choose to ignore organisations such as Citizens Advice, but will he at least take some notice when Sir John Major calls for a pause?


What I would say—this is exactly the point I made earlier—is that I do not believe that anybody should be left without any support for six weeks when they do not have savings or an alternative source of income, which is why it is important that advances are available within the system. The majority of claimants now make use of advances. We need to ensure that that is properly communicated to claimants. I will certainly do that, as I am sure will all Members of this House.


My constituency was one of the first to introduce universal credit, and it went on to full service in 2016. Staff in my constituency tell me that they are very familiar with the new system. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to ensure that what we have learnt from the pathfinder jobcentres is quickly rolled out to those now taking up the new system?


We must constantly learn from experience—this is about testing, learning and improving. We must ensure that awareness of the advances system is high, and clearly that has increased in recent months. My hon. Friend makes a point about jobcentre staff, and my experience of meeting such people up and down the country is that they are enthused by what universal credit can do for claimants to help them to get into work.


Twenty-four per cent. of new universal credit claimants wait longer than six weeks to be paid in full. Only one advance payment is allowed for a new universal credit claim, and the maximum award is 50% of the claimant’s estimated benefit, so how will advance payments really prevent families from getting into debt while waiting for their first universal credit payment?


The timeliness of payments has improved since the figures that the hon. Lady cites were compiled, and we continue to improve it. As I have said, 90% of claimants receive some support within the six-week period. Advances are an important part of the system to ensure that people get the support they need. It is incumbent on all of us not to worry people that they will be left without any support whatsoever, but to draw their attention to the fact that they can access funds when they need to—generally waiting no more than five working days or, if necessary, receiving them straight away.


According to the Trussell Trust, food bank referrals have increased at more than double the national average in areas where the universal credit full service has been rolled out. Does the Secretary of State agree that the social security system should prevent people from having to visit food banks, rather than exacerbating need?


We are very keen to ensure that the advances system means that people can access funds so that they do not have to visit food banks. In recent months we have seen an increased use of that system, because we have done more to publicise it, and I want to go further on that. I think that is an important part of a system that, when we step back and look at it, is ensuring that more people are able to work and to progress in work, and that should not be forgotten.

Topical Questions

T2. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [900946]


We are delivering our promise to reform welfare provision in this country. Universal credit replaces the outdated and complex benefits system of the past, which too often stifled people’s potential. Universal credit is a flexible and personalised system that offers unprecedented support. It ensures that people are always better off in work, with payment gradually reducing as earnings increase. It is working: under universal credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work for longer. We are fully committed to the scheduled roll-out for universal credit full service. It will be expanded throughout the country to the planned timescale, delivering a simpler system that encourages work and supports aspiration.


Several of my constituents have raised with me the importance of ensuring that assessment centres are as accessible as possible. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that, on an ongoing basis, accessibility is checked regularly and improvements are made where necessary?


My hon. Friend makes a good point. DWP officials visit assessment centres to check them against accessibility standards. He flagged up concerns about the parking drop-off points at the Peterborough centre; following his raising of those concerns, improvements have been made.

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T7. Data for my constituency, Lewisham West and Penge, show that the number of claimants aged 50 or older who are seeking work has increased by 15.5% in the past year. In closing Lewisham jobcentre and migrating to a more internet-based system, how exactly is the Department going to help those with limited access to computers or limited computer literacy, or indeed those who will have difficulties travelling to a jobcentre that is further away? [900951]


On jobcentres, the Department is sensibly making use of the fact that a contract has ended to make a number of improvements to the service provided. Yes, that does mean that some jobcentres will close, but it also means that the provision of services throughout the country will be done in a modernised and effective way. On employment, the fact is that more people are employed than ever before, including older members of the workforce.


T9. Universal credit is to be introduced in my constituency on 14 December, which, in my view, is indecent. The introduction should be delayed, as it will be a catastrophe for many children at Christmas. As the Secretary of State believes the opposite, will he accept my offer now of a visit to my constituency the week after its introduction, in the run-up to Christmas, to see whether I am right or he is right and what the impact will be? [900953]

I visit jobcentres all the time and what I hear is that universal credit is providing a more personalised support that is helping to get more people into work and that it is an important reform. Those who stand in the way of it are failing to help the people who need support.


T10. As universal credit comes to Eastbourne, my constituents face the double horror of a 10-week delay for their first payment and no hope of benefit increases in the years ahead. Now that the latest research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warns that the benefits freeze will push a further half million people into poverty by 2020, will the Minister commit to lifting the freeze, thus avoiding the severe poverty trap that will affect my constituents and hundreds of thousands of people around the country? [900954]


The benefits freeze was a measure that this Government took to contribute to reducing the deficit. On the point about people having to wait 10 weeks before receiving universal credit, 80% get paid in full and on time after six weeks. The system of arrears is inherent in universal credit because the payment is based on how much a person has earned over the previous month. That has always been part of the design, and it was part of the design that, presumably, the hon. Gentleman voted for when the coalition Government passed the legislation.

On 12 July, universal credit was rolled out in York. Many of the families affected also receive free school meals and therefore had a devastating time of food poverty over the summer. Will the Minister learn lessons from the pilot scheme and ensure that universal credit is not rolled out in advance of school holidays?


Universal credit was rolled out in 29 job- centres in July. It is important that we continue to make progress in the roll-out. We are doing it gradually and sensibly, but we are moving towards a system that helps more people get into work. Of course we are constantly learning lessons and finding ways to improve things, but it is a system that is helping to deliver more people into work.


I am grateful to the Government for the assistance given to my constituent, who had to leave Dominica because of the terrible damage caused by the hurricane. But on her return back to this country with her 22-month-old son, she has discovered that she is not entitled to any benefits whatever for three months. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can ensure that we have a right and proper system to make sure that people in such circumstances really are entitled to benefits?


I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point. We will certainly look at it and ensure that she has the opportunity to meet us to discuss it.


East Lothian is a pilot area for universal credit, and the third sector—particularly the citizens advice bureau and East Lothian’s local authority welfare service—has kept universal credit going by supporting a very high percentage of applicants. Will the Minister confirm when there will be additional funding for the third sector, so that it can carry on supporting the DWP with universal credit?


We obviously continue to engage with the voluntary sector. I know what the CAB was campaigning for, but it did welcome what I said last week about advances; indeed, I am meeting the CAB later this week to further discuss how we can work together to deliver a very important welfare reform.

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While the increase in advance payments is welcome, does the Secretary of State not share my concern that the CAB has said that, on average, claimants have only less than £4 a month to pay back creditors? Therefore, advance payments are simply storing up problems for the future. Will he commit to giving the House a statement on the numbers who are coming into universal credit, the time it takes to pay them and the numbers who are forced into debt, rent arrears or hardship because of this policy?


We do update the House on information, as we have it, about the number of claimants for universal credit, the timeliness details and other details, and we will continue to do that. When it comes to advances, there is a concern across the House that people are left six weeks without receiving any support. Ensuring that advances are there and that they are made known to people is really important, and I hope all Members will do that.


A constituent who relies on agency work from the shipyards finds himself in rent arrears of over £900 as a result of being on universal credit. Does that not show that the concerns of social housing providers should be listened to, or does a social housing provider have to go under before its concerns are addressed?


The DWP has been working closely with social housing providers on putting in place what is described as the landlord portal, which enables information to flow between social landlords and the DWP. It has already been piloted and will be in operation later this month. That is one of the things we are doing to ensure that this process is constantly improving and that we can verify identity and get the right money to the right people as quickly as possible.

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I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. Apart from shocking delays, Citizens Advice highlights two big problems with universal credit. One is that it is too complicated; people cannot understand it. The second is that when there is a problem, there is nobody there to help people. I am glad that the Secretary of State is meeting Citizens Advice, but will he have anything to say to them on those two specific problems?

The personalised support available in jobcentres to people claiming universal credit is much more advanced than that which we have had in the past. In terms of complexity, universal credit is a much simpler system than that which has existed up to now, with six different benefits, leaving us in the absurd position in which people were unwilling to take a job that required them to work more than 16 hours because they would move from one benefit system to another, knowing that their hours might fall in the future, so they would move back to a different system. That complexity has discouraged people from working more hours and we should all seek to tackle that. That is exactly what universal credit does.



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