Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West) (Lab)
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement.
Universal credit was meant to simplify the social security system. In fact, it is deeply flawed, and has caused real hardship to so many people across our country.
In March, the Secretary of State shockingly announced her intention to pilot managed migration even before she had secured approval from Parliament. Now she has left it to the eleventh hour to bring these regulations to Parliament. Managed migration is deeply controversial. The Government’s original intention to send nearly 3 million people a letter saying that their benefit would stop on a particular day, and that they would have to apply for universal credit, shifted the responsibility for securing essential support for millions of people from the state to the claimant. In so doing, the Government would have risked catastrophic consequences for many of the most vulnerable in our society. Understandably, the plans were met with outrage from many sections of society: how could a Government visit such a plan on the people?
It really is important for these important regulations to be debated on the Floor of the House. The Government committed themselves to doing that on 8 January, when the Minister for Employment, the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), said:
“We will…ensure that the start date for the July 2019 test phase…is voted on.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 175.]
Can the Secretary of State therefore guarantee today that the regulations will be debated in full, and voted on in the House? To do any less would be an absolute disgrace.
It is hardly surprising that universal credit is so controversial, given that it has caused so much misery. During the geographical roll-out, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of people where it has been introduced going to food banks. That is a source of shame for the Government. It cannot be right that in one of the richest countries in the world, children are going hungry and their parents are having to seek help from food charities.
In its report “The next stage of Universal Credit”, the Trussell Trust says:
“Benefit transitions, most likely due to people moving onto Universal Credit, are increasingly accounting for more referrals”
to food banks.
In a report published last month entitled “Universal Credit: What needs to change to reduce child poverty and make it fit for families?”, the Child Poverty Action Group says:
“The DWP stated in response to the Social Security Advisory Committee…report on managed migration that”
“would ‘explore options’ to remove the need for a new claim, so it is disappointing that the regulations put forward for the managed migration pilot do not allow for this by giving the department the power to create claims.”
So can the Secretary of State enlighten us: do the regulations she lays today address that?
The Child Poverty Action Group goes on:
“We understand that officials are reluctant to go down this route but we believe that their concerns are surmountable and do not justify the risks involved in the current proposed approach: that people will be given a deadline for claiming universal credit and will have their legacy benefits terminated if they do not manage to do so on time.”
The Secretary of State says in her statement that the Government do not intend to stop the benefits of anyone participating in the pilot; intentions are all very well, but the regulations we have seen thus far show Government giving themselves the power to do just that, so will she guarantee today that no one will have their benefits stopped?
The Secretary of State says that the Government have revised their approach to claimants entitled to severe disability premium, and that the regulations she is laying today will enable the Government to begin to provide support for claimants who are entitled to severe disability premium and have already moved to universal credit. These are severely disabled people who have had vital financial support cut by this Government, so why is it only now, after months on end, that the Government are going to begin to provide support? What thought has she given to the hardship her lack of action has caused? What assessment have the Government made of the hardship that severely disabled people may have been suffering because of their loss of income? What assessment have the Government made of the impact on the children of the severely disabled who may be asked to take on additional caring responsibilities because of their family’s loss of income? What would the Secretary of State say to the Disability Benefits Consortium, which wrote this month:
“Many disabled people have not yet felt the full extent of the cuts made to welfare benefits, as many have not yet moved on to Universal Credit. When that happens, there will be dramatic increases in the levels of poverty among people who are already at crisis point. It is a disaster waiting to happen”?
The role of any pilot is to justify the whole, yet we know the flaws in universal credit are causing real hardship; the five-week wait and the insistence on making and managing a claim online build in disadvantage to the millions who are deeply disadvantaged already through low literacy levels or lack of access to IT. I note the Secretary of State’s comments on support during the pilot, but that will do nothing to help subsequent claimants. There is also the requirement of monthly assessment periods for the self-employed while their tax assessment period is annual, creating additional expense and administrative costs for that group. The abject failure of the Government on irregular payments means the issue remains unaddressed too, and the stories of people having all their benefits stopped because they are paid twice in one month through no fault of their own are going unheard. The two-child limit is penalising families despite the horrific child poverty statistics, with over 4 million children going without sufficient food, shoes that fit and the security of knowing their families have enough. It is vital that these regulations are debated on the Floor of the House so that all these issues can be addressed.