Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
Before I call the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to open this emergency debate, I should advise the House that it can last for a maximum of three hours and that a very significant number of colleagues—in excess of 25—wish to speak. There is of course no time limit on Front-Bench speeches, but I would be grateful if Front Benchers would tailor their contributions to take account of the interest of their Back-Bench colleagues.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government’s response to the decision of the House on pausing the Universal Credit full service roll-out.
Once again, Mr Speaker, I thank you for granting this emergency debate, which is so important to the people we represent. It is very important that we have this opportunity to return to the roll-out of universal credit, following last week’s Opposition day debate. Just to refresh everyone’s memory, the motion calling for a pause to the programme was unanimously approved by 299 votes to zero. Since then, we have heard nothing from the Government about what they intend to do, in response to the concerns raised last week, to fix universal credit. I always welcome the Minister for Employment to his place, but why is the Secretary of State not here to answer? Obviously I understand that emergencies do happen, but I did not get a satisfactory response from his office when I rang earlier, and apparently Downing Street is none the wiser either.
The press has reported that the Government are considering reducing the six-week wait for the first payment after making a claim. Will the Minister confirm whether that is correct and, if so, when will it happen? Will he also explain why his Government deem it acceptable to brief the media but not to make a statement to this House? Does he recognise the constitutional implications of his Government’s inaction to date?
Did my hon. Friend notice that virtually every Conservative, or Conservative representative of the Government, who spoke on this matter over the weekend seemed to suggest that the problems with universal credit were to do not with the policy but just its implementation? However, the six-week delay is actually a policy decision that was in place from the very beginning, and that is what is causing the poverty and the problems.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. To be fair, some Conservative Members, and indeed a Conservative Assembly Member, have recognised the real problems with the structural design of universal credit, even saying that it is “indefensible”.
As it stands, there is overwhelming evidence of the harmful impacts of universal credit, including rising debt, rent arrears and even evictions. The Government must take action or face serious constitutional questions. They have had three sitting days to respond to the legislature but have failed to do so, keeping this House and the country waiting, along with the 7 million people who are expected to be using this programme.
The Government’s figures indicate that 90,000 families will be transitioned on to universal credit full service over the next 90 days. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that while the Government delay making a decision, about 1,000 more families each day, on average, will have to wait six weeks and get further into debt?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why this debate is so urgent—we cannot wait. Although, yes, this is still a small proportion of the full number of people who will have universal credit rolled out to them, this amounts to a 63% increase in the number of people who will be on full service over the next six months.
It is a loan!
The hon. Lady nailed it in a remark that she made a moment or so ago. There have been just three sitting days since the Opposition day debate. Were we to presuppose that Her Majesty’s Government would seek to respond to that debate—let us not presume that—would it be fair, in all honesty, to expect them to do so within three sitting days?
I will come on to that in a moment. The precedent was, unfortunately, set by the current Government.
As I said, the Government have had three sitting days to respond to the legislature. It might be useful to quote the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who is now First Secretary of State. At the last such defeat for a Government, in 2009, he raised an immediate point of order, in which he asked the then Deputy Speaker:
“In the wake of that devastating vote for the Government, have you had any indication that Ministers intend to come to the House and make an immediate statement about how they propose to change their policy, as the House has now spoken clearly?”—[Official Report, 29 April 2009; Vol. 491, c. 931.]
Within three and a half hours, the then Government made a statement.
The right hon. Gentleman had changed his tune a bit by last Thursday, when he said that all
“governments have to abide by the rules of parliament. We’re a parliamentary democracy,”
“as the Speaker said last night, motions like that are non-binding motions, so they don’t engage government activity particularly.”
He cannot have it both ways.
These events have raised a more fundamental constitutional question, given reports that the Government no longer intend to require Conservative Members to vote against Opposition day motions.
I will say exactly what I am proposing very shortly.
If the Government’s position is that Opposition day debate motions should have no binding effect on the actions of the Government, it fundamentally alters the relationship and balance of power between the Executive and Parliament. It would mean that apart from votes on legislation and matters of confidence, the Government could ignore the decisions and will of Parliament. This is very dangerous ground, and the situation needs to be seen in the context of the blatant power grab by the Executive that we witnessed on Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill last month.
For the hon. Lady to accuse the Government in such a way is to suggest that there has been a change from precedent, but votes on Supply days have never been binding on the Government. That is a clear precedent going back many years, and the position was entrenched by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.
The point is that we need an urgent response to this really important issue. We are calling for a clear set of proposals from the Government that will reflect the will of the House and pause universal credit roll-out while the issues that I raised—and many more that I did not have time to raise—are fixed.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Is she as surprised as I am by Conservative Members’ denial of the seriousness of these issues? Their comments will give no succour to my constituents, such as the mother of three who is currently sleeping on her cousin’s floor after she was evicted from her home because of non-payment of rent that resulted from delays in universal credit. This is not about the Opposition versus the Government; it is about real people—our constituents—suffering.
My hon. Friend raises an important case. It is absolutely shocking that in 2017, in the fifth richest economy in the world, such cases are brought to our surgeries day in, day out. Things are only going to get worse, and that is absolutely unacceptable.
The moment for pausing universal credit—this is determined by statutory instrument, as the hon. Lady knows—has passed, but there will be another opportunity to do so in January, when another one-month pause is built into the system. If we could find a compromise with the Government and make significant changes to the policy, such as reducing the six-week wait to four weeks, would that be acceptable to the Opposition?
A number of cases have been brought to me. Last Christmas, one constituent waited for two months without any money to get redress. On the constitutional question, democracy can only work if everybody gets involved. It is no good the Government boycotting Parliament.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an urgent need for a pause? In Wallasey, the roll-out will begin halfway through November. Six weeks later, it will be Christmas. The Department for Work and Pensions will not be open on Christmas day, which means that many of my constituents will have to wait until the new year for assistance. That is why our local food bank is looking to collect 15 tonnes of extra food to deal with demand. Does she agree that it is time that the Government listened to Parliament and acted to alleviate such obviously avoidable hardship?
One of my constituents who has severe mental health problems has been signed off as sick until December. We go on to universal credit in November, and he has been advised that if he does not prove that he is looking for work, he will be sanctioned and his benefits will be stopped. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is dangerous to have assessors overriding the views of registered doctors?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the impact of in-work conditionality. There are about 1 million people on zero-hours contracts who may not know from one week to the next whether they will be able to work 35 hours each week, and we know how much harm universal credit will do to them. Those people are doing the right thing, but they may be sanctioned if they are deemed not to be working enough hours.
My hon. Friend is being generous with her time. During last week’s debate, I raised the reluctance of private sector landlords to rent properties to people who are on universal credit. Is she aware that social landlords frequently issue a notice indicating that they will seek possession of a property if the tenant is in arrears for only a week? Is it not scandalous that an ever-increasing number of people will approach the Christmas period with such a threat hanging over them?
Absolutely. Surely what is happening is not right, so we must stop this.
I will now make some progress, although I will take more interventions later. People might not have kept up with the hundreds of stories that we have heard from colleagues on both sides of the House, but we must make sure that the Government’s flagship programme is amended to take account of the real hardship that people are experiencing. We have heard about that hardship not just from claimants, but from charities that deal with claimants, as well as many other organisations.
There are three key issues with universal credit: the programme’s design flaws, which have been there from the outset, as I mentioned last week; the cuts that were introduced in 2015; and various implementation failures. First, I will talk about the programme’s flaws. The six-week wait before new claimants receive any payment is particularly draconian, and it is having real impacts. Four weeks of the waiting period are to provide that universal credit can be backdated, but an additional week’s wait was added as policy, and claimants must wait a further week for their payment to arrive. That is believed to be one of the primary drivers of the rise in debt and arrears.
No, I do not.
It is so important to stress that half of those in rent arrears under universal credit entered arrears after making a claim. We know that one in four is waiting more than six weeks, and one in 10 is waiting more than 10 weeks.
There are 1.5 million people on housing benefit in the private rental sector, and private landlords do not have the flexibility or even the patience of housing associations and councils. Does the hon. Lady agree that if 50% of the 1.5 million people who will ultimately be on universal credit lose their homes, it would be an absolute catastrophe?
We know the real issues involved in the housing crisis at the moment, so the hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point.
The Government claim that the purpose of making payments once a month in arrears is to mimic the world of work, but that is not the case. Data published just yesterday by the Office for National Statistics shows that a quarter of the lowest-paid—those most likely to be on universal credit—are paid every week or fortnightly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) has said, given that nearly 400,000 more people are due to go on to universal credit over the winter, at this rate 80,000 people will be waiting more than six weeks for a payment, with 40,000 people waiting more than 10 weeks for their first payment.
My hon. Friend makes the very important point that these policies are not accidental consequences, but something that is baked into the universal credit system. That is why it is not unreasonable to ask the Government to respond within three sitting days of last week’s Opposition day debate. Does she share my concerns that universal credit payments will be made to only one member of a household and about the consequences of that policy for victims of domestic violence, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) has been campaigning?
No. I am sorry, but I am not going to take any more interventions.
Other design problems I mentioned last week include: the fact that payment is made to one member of the household—predominantly men—and that the second earners, who are predominantly women, face much reduced work incentives; the fact that severe disability premium payments were not incorporated into universal credit; the fact that rent is paid to the claimant rather than the landlord; the fact that self-employed people are subject to the punitive minimum income floor, which fails to reflect the reality of the peaks and troughs in their working hours; and the fact that in-work conditionality is coming down the track, meaning that 1 million working people will have to visit jobcentres while much of the Jobcentre Plus estate is being closed, and will face financial sanctions if they fail to work the hours their job coach deems they must work. On top of that, there are the real-time information flaws, which have been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), and the fact that there is no time limit on disputes, which will lead to more delays in payments. There is also, of course, the fact that the child element of universal credit has been reduced from 20 to 19 years.
I turn to the cuts made to the programme since its introduction. Universal credit was meant to simplify the system, but it was also meant to make work pay. We have always supported those principles, and we still do, but unfortunately the 2015 summer Budget slashed the work allowances, and the rate at which support is withdrawn was dramatically increased. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies said in its response to the Budget, that meant the promise that work would always pay was lost. The cuts reduced the work allowances from £222 a month to £192 a month for a couple with two children claiming housing costs. It is estimated that that will result in an additional 340,000 people in poverty by 2020. Some families have been left as much as £2,600 a year worse off.
Families with three children face even greater difficulty, as the Government have decided that the state should play no role in supporting the life chances of the third child. A whole generation of children will be born without the support that was offered to their siblings, which is a break from the historical principle that the state should not punish children for the circumstances of their parents. Single parents have been hit particularly badly. In real terms, a single parent with two children who is working full time as a teacher will be £3,700 a year worse off.
That is even before we reach the Government’s freeze on social security rates, which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation predicts will push 500,000 more people over the poverty line. Its analysis shows that the freeze will mean that a family of four receiving universal credit will be over £800 a year worse off in 2020, and that is on top of the other cuts I have outlined. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will continue the freeze on social security payments, including universal credit, given that it was introduced when inflation was 0.3% but the rate is now 3%?
As I revealed last week, the Child Poverty Action Group’s forthcoming report estimates that these cuts will push 1 million more children into poverty, 300,000 of whom are under five. What does it say about this Government when their policies knowingly push children into poverty? The Secretary of State, the Minister for Employment and many other Conservative Members have tried to suggest that data apparently showing a 3% increase in employment outcomes under universal credit compared with the situation under the previous system is evidence that universal credit works to get people into work. However, they fail to add that the data is from 2015—before the cuts were implemented. Will the Minister now commit to updating the figures, and will he retract these particular statistics, which he has used numerous times?
It is worth pointing out that the most recent figures show an underspend—I repeat, an underspend—on tax credits of as much as 2.4% compared with the projections of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Will the Government provide an exact figure for the savings that that has created? Could not some of the underspend be put towards sorting out the problems that we are now encountering under the new programme? I will return to that point in a minute.
I am very sorry, but I will not give way now.
I turn to the implementation failures. Leaving aside the many changes to the programme’s schedule over the past few years, the most recent roll-out has been beset by problems. I was glad that the Government listened to Labour and will replace the high-cost phone line with a free one. Will the Minister give me a timetable of when that will happen? Will he also assure me that the free phone line will be funded not by the taxpayer but by Serco, the contractor?
Other implementation issues still remain, however, including the fact that people are denied prescriptions and dental treatment because pharmacies and dental practices do not know who is eligible for free treatment. People also do not know about advance payments or alternative payment arrangements.
I have been inundated with emails and calls from people telling me their UC horror stories. For example, a self-employed Oldham woman is worried that she will lose her business and home when she goes on to universal credit. I have received so many stories from self-employed people that you would not believe it, Mr Speaker. They are really concerned about what universal credit will mean for them. A private landlord is worried that three of his tenants are thousands of pounds in rent arrears under universal credit, although they had never previously been in rent arrears. Southwark Council estimates that such arrears will be an average of £1,700 per universal credit tenant. Disabled people are isolated and alone as the support of severe disability premiums disappears, along with other disability support. As I have mentioned, food banks are running out of food. Even current and former DWP advisers are expressing their deep concerns about the programme and the fate of claimants.
I come back to my asks. First, the Government must end the six-week wait. They should bring it forward by at least one week, but if it is to be brought forward by two weeks, as has been widely reported, that will make a huge difference to people. Secondly, they must ensure that alternative payment arrangements are offered to all claimants at the time of their claim. To suggest that this already happens is more than a little disingenuous. The DWP guidance is vague to say the least. The alternative payment arrangement options include fortnightly payments, split payments and payments directly to the landlord.
I will not; I am sorry.
My third ask is that the Government reconsider closing one in 10 jobcentres at the same time as they are rolling out the programme. It is nonsensical that those closures are happening at the same time.
Finally, given the latest assessment from the OBR, which shows a projected 5% underspend in tax credits, which is equivalent to £660 million, will the Government commit to investing that money back into the programme, for example to eliminate the two-child limit? I also remind the Minister of my earlier question about lifting the social security freeze.
All this is reason for the Government to respect the will of the House—this country’s elected representatives—and pause the universal credit full service roll-out. I stand ready to work with them in the national interest to address these problems and avert the disaster that is universal credit.
We had a very good debate last week, to which around 80 Members contributed. As I said then, there were passionate, thoughtful and insightful speeches from across the House. I am aware that many hon. Members wish to take part in today’s debate, so I shall keep my remarks brief.
The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) pressed us to respond to last week’s vote. It may help if, before coming to the substantive matters, I put that vote in context.
I just said, not just yet.
Large numbers of Conservative MPs made valuable contributions. The decision on whether or not to vote is a matter for Members and their parties, and as you, Mr Speaker, noted last week, it is a legitimate decision to take. Universal credit was fully legislated for in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and subsequent statutory instruments, and it was extensively debated by Parliament.
Well, I will come to many of the things that came out of the debate, and as I just said, it is a legitimate decision to vote or otherwise in such a debate, but there is much that one takes from a debate like that, and I thought, as I said, it was a very high-quality session of this House.
I have asked the Secretary of State twice, and now the Minister twice, for advice for me to take home to Birkenhead. On the Secretary of State’s advice, he says that the roll-out of universal credit in Birkenhead in November will all go hunky-dory—no need to worry: people will not actually be reduced to hunger and perhaps destitution. However, the staff of our food bank in Birkenhead are saying that, on the experience of other areas where the benefit has been rolled out, they will need to raise another 15 tonnes of food in the coming year. Should I go home and tell people not to pay any attention to the food bank staff and say that they are scaremongering? Should we put all our trust in the Minister that this will work?
The right hon. Gentleman is of course right that he has raised that point a number of times. I think last time he raised it, he put it in the context specifically of Christmas. I am aware that organisations like food banks do have an increase in their activity at Christmas-time. I think we have to be careful in ascribing the reasons for the usage of food banks to individual or simple causes, and as I said to him—
Order. I understand the—[Interruption.] Order. I understand the very strong passions in this debate, but Members should respectfully wait for the Minister to deal with one intervention before immediately seeking to embark upon another. If I may very gently say so, I do think that the Minister himself is a most courteous fellow, and I think he ought to be treated with courtesy.
And, Mr Speaker, my response to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) today is to say no, of course we do not expect that to happen. We want this system to work absolutely as well as it can. We have improved the process, for example, on advances, to make sure that people get the assistance that they need in a timely way.
This is not the food bank staff thinking up ideas or targets. This is our food bank talking to other food banks in other areas that have already had the roll-out. On that basis, they suggest that in the coming year—not just Christmas—they need to raise an additional 15 tonnes of food. Are they scaremongering, so we should put what they say to one side, or should we believe them that the Government will not be able to deliver universal credit without reducing people to hunger?
Of course I am not going to say a word against the right hon. Gentleman’s food bank staff and suggest that they are scaremongering or doing anything else negative like that, but my response to his substantive question is, no, we do not expect these things to happen because we want this system to work as well as it possibly can. Its performance continues to improve and we continue to evolve and improve the system.
No, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
We also continue an active dialogue with Members across this House and, of course, other people outside, and we will continue to listen to concerns. Where we hear about improvements and identify the need for them, we will make them. As the Secretary of State and I said in opening and closing last week’s debate, the Government will continue to roll out this benefit gradually, in a considered way, adjusting as necessary as we go.
The Opposition are asking for a pause in the roll-out. We already have planned pauses in the roll-outs. We have just had one pause and another is scheduled for January. These breaks in the schedule have intentionally been built in. They illustrate my point of a slow and considered roll-out, rather than the alternative big bang approach—an approach which Opposition Members may recognise from 2003, with the disastrous implementation of working tax credits, with billions misspent and many families left without money for six months, and many, many more facing huge repayment bills.
Debates over risk registers in relation to a number of different parts of Government policy happen the whole time. They also happened, by the way, when the Labour party was in government. I think people in general would agree that it is important, for the sake of better management of government, to be able to consider these things in the way that they are.
The Speaker is right that the Minister is a courteous man. I have written to the Secretary of State and not yet received a response, and I was hoping to question him today on this very point. Before first coming to this House, I ran a welfare centre. This policy is flawed because it relies from day one on hardship payments. Hardship payments should not be a policy decision. The Secretary of State could do the decent thing now and pause this, or even reduce that period. I ask the Minister to respond directly to that point.
It is a system that is replacing a deeply flawed system and striving to face up head-on to endemic problems that we have had for decades and that were left in the “too difficult to deal with” tray—an old system, where complexity and bureaucracy had so often served to stifle the independence, limit the choice and constrain the outlook of its claimants.
Would my hon. Friend agree that, unlike the disaster that was the tax credit roll-out in 2003, the Minister and the Government had built into this process a slow roll-out, and the Minister has proved himself adaptable on the landlord portal and on the advances and the ever-increasing speed with which these payments are being made?
Would my hon. Friend agree, therefore, that by doing this roll-out steadily, over a period of time, over nine years, it enables us to continue to learn and adapt as we go and to develop the best system, which clearly is what we are doing?
I agree with my hon. Friend entirely. It is so important to go through the process and optimise the system, because universal credit prepares people for work, helps them into work and helps them to get on in work. Eventually, we estimate that about 7 million people will benefit from the advantages it brings, with a quarter of a million more people in paid work as a result. We know that it is working already. Three separate studies show that people get into work faster with universal credit than they do with jobseeker’s allowance. Once there, they face none of the hours rules and cliff edges that have held people back.
The Government listened to some of the requests raised in a Westminster Hall debate on this issue in January 2016. There have been some changes and improvements. However, it is the cuts and the savage implementation of sanctions that are hitting people the hardest, and giving a loan to somebody already in debt is not a help at all. You should not be doing that, Minister.
Not only considering, but over a third of tenants in the social rented sector have that arrangement under universal credit right now. It is available for vulnerable claimants and for those for whom that arrangement is important.
As you said last week, Mr Speaker, what we do in this House is important. Members’ insights are important, too. Indeed, Members of Parliament are uniquely placed to funnel and convey feedback and to critique and propose improvements.
I pay tribute to the Minister. Since February, he has engaged with my constituency to improve universal credit. Taking into account the debates we have had over the past few days, does he not agree that to make universal credit truly flexible and personalised but also fair, it is necessary to ensure that first payments are made far more quickly and that private sector landlords can set up alternative payment arrangements on the same basis as social landlords?
We are continuing to improve processes, and that includes my hon. Friend’s point about ensuring that alternative payment arrangements in the private rented sector work as well as they can. He and I have had the opportunity to discuss this issue.
In looking at what might be available to him, will the Minister look at the situation in Northern Ireland where, by default, payments are made directly to landlords, payments are made on a two-weekly basis, unless claimants request otherwise, and split payments are made on the basis of demands from individual claimants? If the changes introduced in Northern Ireland are working effectively, will he take some lessons from them?
It is, of course, a reality of devolution that we will have different systems operating. There is a different approach in Northern Ireland and a different approach again in Scotland—they are not exactly the same. For clarity, the hon. Gentleman identifies three points: rent paid direct to landlords, which we have discussed; more frequent payments; and split payments, which came up a couple of times in the speech by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). They are all possible in England when appropriate for an individual claimant.
I want to press on, because I do not want to take up too much time.
From last week’s debate, as well as the general commentary received and heard, I have taken away for action a number of points that were raised. There were some individual cases, and also policy and process matters, including how we can improve arrangements for direct rent payments, our approach in cases of domestic abuse and the process for housing benefit debt recovery. Some informational issues also came up. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), I committed to publishing the roll-out schedule for the landlord portal and trusted partner status. A question was asked by the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) about staffing levels. In fact, we are increasing, not decreasing our staffing levels to complement the roll-out of universal credit. The hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) asked about the process for third-party representatives acting for clients. I recognise that we can do more in providing clear information on such matters and I commit to doing so. As well as reporting to the whole House, we are making sure that additional information is provided to Members as the full service comes to their constituency, and we are running a number of sessions in the House for both Members and caseworkers.
Those of us who have had some experience of working in government on rolling out policies know that just because a policy or change in policy is announced does not mean it is actually happening on the ground. I urge the Minister to accept the call for a pause to guarantee that the changes he says he is making are actually filtering through on the ground. That is a problem. It is not a new problem in government, but if he pauses some of the changes can be made so that people’s lives do not have to suffer.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. Of course, we monitor those things constantly. As I was saying earlier, this is one reason why we have pre-scheduled pauses in the sequence.
Yes, this is a fundamental reform. This is a lot of change. It is a new benefit, a new IT system and a new operational system involving new ways of working with partners. Yes, that does bring with it some challenges, but its implementation is happening at a very measured pace, stretching over nine years from 2013 to 2022. In the next four months, universal credit will move from covering 8% of the benefit recipient population to 10%. This careful, gradual approach means we can continually adjust and evolve the programme. We can see that in enhancements such as the landlord portal and trusted partners, the refreshed approach to advances and many, many other back-of-house and systems changes. We see this effect coming through in the huge improvements in timeliness and first-time accuracy.
Not including the hon. Lady, but many Members, perhaps including the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), will wish to contribute to the debate.
In every phase and in every respect, the development of universal credit has been all about enhancing the way it helps people to get into work and get on in work. Already, universal credit is transforming lives and we want more families to benefit from the satisfaction, the self-esteem and the financial security that comes from progressing to a job, to a better job and to a career.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to debate universal credit again today, and well done to the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary for securing today’s debate.
In my two and a half years in this place, I have become accustomed to some big, historic events happening, such is the nature of the era of politics we are living through right now. Last Wednesday, we witnessed something very rare: not only a Government losing an Opposition day motion, the first time that has happened for over 40 years, but a Government refusing to concede an inch to try to win the vote and Mr Speaker giving as close to a rebuke as is possible for the Chair to give to those on the Government Benches.
I pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker, in that regard. I do not believe the Government would have had any intention of respecting last week’s debate, last week’s vote, or indeed the conventions of this House, were it not for you challenging their behaviour in such a way. The statement from the Leader of House at business questions on Thursday was apparently to be the sum total of the Government’s response to the defeat. It gave no indication of when the Secretary of State would return to the House following the debate, nor did she say which areas of concern the Government were looking to act on. The Government’s behaviour last week encapsulated perfectly their approach to difficult decisions, whether they be difficult because of divisions within the Cabinet, divisions within the Conservative party or divisions among our constituents.
Either way, this is a Government paralysed by fear, indecision and a complete lack of strategic direction, a Government desperate to deflect, defer and delay. I say that because they have basically accepted they need to do something in key areas that are completely undermining universal credit, but rather than accept a partial solution, offered to them on a plate by a group of Tory Back Benchers ahead of the debate last week, they deflected and deferred, caught up in indecision. They threw up red herrings on the telephone charges but refused to do anything substantive in the key policy areas. Their every move is a desperate calculation to fight the fires of that particular day. Strong leadership would have seen action last week; strong leadership would have accepted the parliamentary arithmetic and the mood of the House and of our constituents, and would have accepted the need to act.
Last week, we saw the desperate weakness of a Government unwilling to defend their flagship social security policy in the Lobbies, in what must be a near unprecedented scenario. They completely misread the House. They had no idea—or decided to ignore the fact—that the main Opposition parties were working together to force a vote on Wednesday night. They completely misread the strength of feeling in the House against universal credit in its current form and the way that you, Mr Speaker, would react to that defeat and the Government’s sleekit abstention. In doing so, they showed a disrespect for Parliament. They thought they could wriggle out of an embarrassing defeat by abstaining, but instead they had to contend with a defeat and an embarrassing rebuke from the Chair. Even now, after the Government have been dragged to the House, we still get nothing.
I feel for the Minister, who has been forced to substitute for the Secretary of State, because he has been asked today to defend the indefensible. I am hoping that the events of the last week will have offered some steel to those on the Government Back Benches who pushed hard for reform but accepted the three-line Whip to abstain. This is a Government on the run. Now is the time to force home the changes we have all been pushing for: fixing the six-week wait, fixing the advance payment being a loan, fixing the monthly payments. All of these would be a start, but the biggest win would be for the Government to acknowledge the glaringly obvious—the evidence in front of their eyes—and admit that universal credit as it stands is failing those it should be helping.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) put a very good question to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) when he asked whether she anticipated that the overall pot would increase. She said she would come to that, but she did not—I twice tried to intervene because she did not come to it, but she did not take my interventions. What is the SNP’s position on that?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Government are making choices, it would be sensible for them to choose to prioritise the incomes of low-income families, instead of prioritising the interests of higher earners by cutting taxes and raising the tax threshold? Does he agree that there is scope for improving work allowances in universal credit and helping those who earn the least?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady, and I will come to that shortly.
The Government should review the cuts to the work allowances, which are acting as a disincentive to work and making work pay less; review the cuts to housing benefit, which are driving up rent arrears, as I am sure will be touched on in tomorrow’s debate; and review the cuts to employment support, which are denying help to those who need it most, and they should fully review and then scrap the disgusting sanctioning policy, which could have cost the life of my constituent, Mr Moran, and has cost the lives of others. That was the subject of an excellent paper by Sharon Wright of Glasgow University and Peter Dwyer of the University of York in The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice.
The Government are hiding behind the illusion that universal credit helps people into work and makes work pay. They actually believe that universal credit is working on this basis. The Secretary of State’s own figures show that in the 2% of jobcentres where universal credit has been rolled out, there has been a mere 3% uplift in employment rates.
The hon. Gentleman and I often speak in the same debates and I understand his passion for supporting the most vulnerable in society, but from visiting jobcentres and talking to people going through the process, I know that the staff are incredibly passionate about the way universal credit is helping people. It is time that all Members engaged and listened to the positives as well as the challenges we need to navigate.
I thank the former Minister for his intervention. I said last week, and I say again, that we agree with the premise of universal credit—rolling together all these benefits into one payment and simplifying the system—but under successive Chancellors and Work and Pensions Secretaries, of whom there have been too many in recent years, the benefits have been salami-sliced to nothing. The issues facing universal credit are the result of the Government’s cutting and cutting the areas where they are meant to be helping people.
Further to the very good intervention from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), if the hon. Gentleman thinks that universal credit has been cut too much, and given that the Scottish Government have tax-raising powers, will he put his hand in his pocket and add extra relief north of the border?
The hon. Gentleman knows better than just to regurgitate the Whips’ interventions notice, and he knows that the Scottish Government are responsible for 15% of social security powers and that they have already mitigated more than £400 million of Tory cuts. How much more does he expect the SNP Scottish Government to clear up this Tory Government’s mess?
Does my hon. Friend recognise the figures that show a 17% increase in rent arrears, a 15% increase in the number of people getting into debt with loan sharks and a 87% increase in crisis grants from the Scottish Government in universal credit areas?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The evidence is there for the Government to see.
Is the 3% uplift in employment rates really worth the rise in in-work poverty we see in universal credit areas, the crippling rise in rent arrears or the disgusting rise in foodbank use? There is no data on the quality of the jobs the 3% are managing to pick up, but we know that work coaches are forcing universal credit claimants to sign conditionality forms that force them to take any job, regardless of its security or suitability, and that the threat of sanctioning is forcing them to take it. We know that in general there is a rising prevalence of insecure and low-paid work, which is crushing morale and harming the UK’s productivity rate. The threat of sanctioned destitution is forcing people into accepting precarious and unsustainable work.
My constituent Martyn Dewar, the disability students officer at Heriot-Watt University, has pointed out to me that although under employment and support allowance a disabled person can become a student and continue to claim, the same will not happen under universal credit? Does my hon. Friend agree that this is another loophole the Government should close in the interests of disabled students, if they obey the instruction of the House last week to pause the roll-out of universal credit?
I absolutely agree with my hon. and learned Friend, who raises a very pertinent point that I hope the Government have heard.
We all agree that employment is a route out of poverty, but what hope do we give those who are employed and living in poverty? What hope can the Government give them, given that they are currently participating in the only route out of poverty the Tories know and yet still live below the line? The cuts to universal credit are making people worse off. In East Lothian, more than half of the local citizens advice bureaux clients on universal credit are worse off by on average £45 per week. A third of their clients are better off but by just 34p per week. We know from the Resolution Foundation that the decade from 2010 is to be the worst for wage growth in 210 years. Not since the Napoleonic Wars have we had it so bad.
The cuts in the tax thresholds do not help those on the lowest incomes. [Interruption.] They do not. That is not the best direction of the funds. Helping people in receipt of work allowances and addressing the taper rates would be of far more assistance to people on low incomes.
Universal credit is not making work pay, and the Government are not making work pay. They are making people pay the price for austerity cuts. If the Government are serious about universal credit and serious about tackling inequality, they need to get serious about fixing the major problems with universal credit as it is currently being rolled out. Parliament has spoken on universal credit, and it is time the Government acted to fix it.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. It is always good to have that discipline behind one.
Let me start with a point about process. I listened carefully to what the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), said. In the House, she resisted temptation and accurately quoted what the House had decided last week, but I am afraid that outside the House the Labour party is misleading people. It is saying that Parliament voted to pause and fix universal credit, but the motion last week did no such thing. I mention that because it is important to the substance of today’s debate about the Government’s response.
As the hon. Lady said, the House did ask the Government to pause, but what the House did not do was provide a single reason in that motion why the Government should pause. [Interruption.] I was at the debate last week, and I spoke in it. The hon. Lady set out some reasons in her speech, but the motion, which is what the Government have been asked to respond to, contained not a single reason why the Government should pause.
It may well be that if Her Majesty's Opposition had added just a couple of words to their motion so that it read, “That this House calls on the Government to pause the roll-out of universal credit full service in January 2018, as announced in the written statement by the Government in November 2016”, we could all have agreed.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention.
Let me run through, very briefly, one or two of the points made by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth. She is fond of saying that she completely supports the principle of universal credit and wants it to be implemented, but she then goes on to list innumerable reasons for her fundamental disagreement with all the key strands of the benefit. She cannot have it both ways. If she does not want universal credit to be implemented, let her just stand up and say so. She should not pretend that she agrees with the fundamental principles, and then say that she disagrees with almost every important aspect of it.
I listened to and read very carefully what the hon. Lady said during last week’s debate. I shall pick just a couple of reasons for the fact that I could not support that motion. The hon. Lady referred specifically to housing. The Minister set out the position very clearly today, as the Secretary of State did last week. If there are universal credit recipients who have issues with managing their rent, they can arrange for their landlords to be paid directly, but I do not think we should patronisingly assume that every single person receiving universal credit is incapable of managing the rent. Most of them are perfectly capable of managing their finances, and we should treat them accordingly.
What I was going to come to was why I do not think it is right to pause the roll-out. One of the important aspects of the roll-out is the housing portal which will enable social housing landlords in the first instance to communicate with the Department to deal with tenants when there are rent issues. If we were to pause the roll-out, the Department would not have an opportunity to deal with the real issues that are raised, and to fix them.
I am going to make some progress. I have only a couple of minutes left.
The Minister has been very clear today, and, like the Secretary of State last week, he has listened carefully to the issues that have been raised and, I think, has dealt with them. If we just paused, we would not have the opportunity to deal with any of those issues.
I have only a couple of minutes left.
The shadow Secretary of State had a number of asks, although I noticed that between last week and this week the list had become considerably longer. That is what happens when the asks are not included in the motion. In her speech last week, the hon. Lady specifically asked for waiting days to be removed completely. Waiting days have always been a factor in the welfare system. [Interruption.] I read the hon. Lady’s speech very carefully, and she said at the beginning that she wanted to get rid of the waiting period.
The reason for the waiting period is very simple. If someone falls out of work for a few days, for example, we do not want that person to submit a universal credit claim. There has always been a waiting period in the benefits system, and I think that that is sensible. The Minister has already dealt with the cases in which people need to be paid more frequently, and has accepted, as the Secretary of State did last week—
I am not going to give way. I have only a minute left.
The Minister has accepted, as the Secretary of State did last week, that the system was not paying people fast enough initially, but also pointed out that the more recent figures showed that the Department had speeded up the payments, and that it has refreshed the guidance to ensure that people can receive advance payments, which I think is very sensible. [Hon. Members: “Loans.”] They are not loans; they are advance payments. Anyone who earns a salary is familiar with the concept of an advance.
I have looked at all the issues that the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth raised last week. The Secretary of State dealt with each and every one of those issues thoroughly during the debate, but the motion, which called for a pause, did not give a single reason why the Government should pause roll-out. The Secretary of State, the Minister and the Leader of the House have made it clear that as we develop changes in the policy, they will be reported to the House. That is why I do not find it surprising that after only three sitting days—as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare)—Ministers had not come to the House.
I think that the Minister set out the position very clearly today and that the House has debated it very clearly, and I therefore think that people should have confidence in a policy that will get more people into work.
Last Wednesday I came to this place to do what I, like everyone else here, was elected to do: to debate the issues that affect our constituents, and to vote on those issues in the way that we believe will best support them. The Ayes definitely had it last week, with 299 votes to zero in favour of pausing the full roll-out of universal credit until the problems encountered in the pilot scheme had been fixed. Not only did the Government forfeit their right to vote, but they are now ignoring the result, pretending that it did not happen and burying their heads in the sand.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is one thing for the Government to ignore Opposition Members, but it is another thing—and foolhardy and irresponsible—for them to ignore organisations such as Shelter, Citizens Advice, Gingerbread and the Child Poverty Action Group, to name but a few, which are at the forefront of dealing with the chaos of this roll-out?
I certainly do. Such is the Government’s arrogance.
Coastal Housing, one of the leading social housing providers in my constituency, tells me that 90% of its tenants who are already on the pilot scheme are behind with their rent. In total, those tenants are over £73,000 in arrears, which means that, on average, each of them owes approximately £830. Coastal Housing and its tenants have told me of a series of problems with the scheme. The initial seven-day waiting period does not cover housing costs; the month-long assessment period, followed by a wait of up to seven days for the money to be paid into their banks, is putting too many people in debt before they even start on the scheme; and people are being forced to rely on food banks for the first time ever while they wait for their money. However, despite all those issues with the pilot scheme, the Government think that the best way forward is to plough on regardless.
I anticipate mayhem for far too many vulnerable people on 13 December, when the scheme is rolled out in Swansea. It does not take a mathematician to work out that if they transfer 12 days before Christmas and the payments take between 35 and 42 days to appear in bank accounts, a lot of Swansea residents will be in dire straits at the worst possible time.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that if the Government had a heart, they would put that pause on the roll-out of universal credit—and, indeed, on other benefit sanctions—before Christmas, so nobody goes without over the Christmas period?
The hon. Lady says there is mayhem. In my area, universal credit was rolled out 15 months ago, and although there are undoubtedly some problems, it is certainly not mayhem, and the measures introduced by the Government in recent weeks will fix the vast majority of the problems. So may I give the hon. Lady, and hopefully her constituents, the comfort that this will not be mayhem?
I do not agree, and I can give examples from the summer when there was mayhem, even before this system came into operation.
How can Conservative Members be so oblivious to the predicament they are putting people in? [Interruption.] If they quieten down, they will be able to listen to what I have to say.
During the summer holidays I became aware of the empty shelves in my local food bank. These shelves were empty because mothers could not afford to feed their children. They were relying on the free school meals during term-time, but during the school holidays they had no choice but to visit the food banks. So I decided to do something: I set up a lunch club for local children. I anticipated that me and my team would feed around 500 children, yet we ended up feeding 6,638 over 10 days. That was the scale of the problem, and that was before universal credit.
So how on earth are my constituents going to cope at Christmas with less money coming in and an even greater demand for money going out? Should I start planning a Christmas lunch club now, and asking local companies for donations yet again, or will the Government please open their eyes, look at the situation they are creating, and put a hold on the roll-out until the fundamental flaws of this ridiculous universal credit are resolved?
Last week we had a Labour Opposition day debate on pausing the roll-out of universal credit, and now we are debating the outcome of that Opposition day debate. Universal credit is a great move forward in how benefits are claimed. It is replacing an outdated system—a system which is complex, and which I have seen from my own experience in my constituency discourages people from working for more than 16 hours a week. Many of my constituents have wanted to work more than 16 hours a week and have said that it is just not worth the hassle, because if they were to do more than 16 hours even for a short period, they would be affected and could be left in financial difficulty, with waits for benefits to be reinstated.
Universal credit will ensure that people are better off in work and will make it far easier for constituents who want to work more hours and gradually increase hours to be better off, and to be able to do that without the stress or worry about the impact. This is a gradual roll-out over nine years, moving from 8% of the claimant count to 10%, and all new claimants. The number of people on universal credit as of the summer was 590,000, and 230,000 of them—nearly 40 %—were in work.
As with all policies, implementation is key. Of course when we move from an extremely complex system to a more simple system there will always be things that crop up, which the Government then work to address. That is shown by the fact that the Government are doing a gradual roll-out.
I am listening to the figures my hon. Friend mentions. Does she recall that the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) said there was mayhem before universal credit was rolled out? I am puzzled by that, as this is a gradual process.
My hon. Friend raises an important point, which serves to show that there are some inconsistencies in the Opposition’s argument against universal credit.
The Government are doing a gradual roll-out, so that testing can take place, and they are then able to modify the implementation based on what is learned from the experience of the practical implementation of the scheme. As Ministers have made clear, claimants who cannot afford to wait can get advances up front. These payments are made straight away. The Opposition are irresponsibly scaremongering in an attempt to frighten existing and potential claimants, and trying to negatively portray the universal credit system as a bad thing, rather than talking about the benefits to the people of this country.
I will not give way at the moment.
The Opposition are scaremongering rather than talking about the benefits of universal credit in helping people move into work and making it easier for claimants in the long run. Universal credit is a good step forward in how benefits are delivered to the people who need them. Claimants who need these advance payments because of their particular circumstances will receive advances within five days, which is quicker than for new claimants applying for the old jobseeker’s allowance.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but there is an assumption that everyone on universal credit will already be in debt, which I refute.
For Labour to suggest that this Government want to deliberately disadvantage people when they need help from the state is frankly appalling. I am also amazed by the indignation of the Opposition about the outcome of last Wednesday’s debate, which was just that: it was an opportunity for the Opposition to debate an issue that they wanted to bring before the House.
However, over the last few weeks since returning from recess we have had some major pieces of actual legislation from Government passing through the House, but where were the Opposition in these most important debates? Why were they not in the Chamber debating and questioning the Government? Notably on the Finance Bill, we would have expected the Opposition to be doing exactly that. Was the reason for their absence that that would not have generated sharp headlines? The Committee of the whole House on the Finance Bill did not even run to its full allotted time. That is unbelievable, since the Opposition have complained not only about not having enough time to debate important issues, but we have also debated not debating in this House. The first piece of Brexit legislation had a Second Reading in the House last Monday, too, and where were the Opposition?
If the Labour party truly believed what it was saying—that it does indeed support the principle of universal credit—it would be working with the Government to make sure that the roll-out is a success, rather than scaremongering and trying to block this good reform to our benefits system.
Disaster looms for tens of thousands of Birmingham citizens, with universal credit being rolled out less than a fortnight before Christmas, on 13 December. MPs’ offices are being besieged by worried claimants, including people who have suffered previous changes introduced by the Government, and the Government seem to be oblivious to the pain they are causing. All too often over the years they have shamefully demonised claimants, and they blunder ahead learning nothing from the mistakes of the past, even on universal credit where there is agreement in principle but the Government seem determined to get it wrong in practice.
On the issue of demonising, I must tell the story of Angela, who came to my constituency office and wept for 45 minutes as she poured out the fact that she had left school at 16, trained to be a nurse, met her husband in the NHS, and they then got married, bought their own home, and had three kids, but, sadly, two of them were disabled, with Scottey, the eldest, being severely disabled. She told about how she was feeding Scottey on one occasion, and then she saw on the television, as she said, Mr Osborne’s speech about shirkers and strivers. Three weeks later a whispering campaign started against her in Kingstanding, with two neighbours in particular saying “Why has she got a car on benefits and we haven’t?” She described what this ultimately culminated in: “Jack, you know what kids are like; they listen to their parents.” Twice in three weeks, when she was out in the streets with Scottey in his motorised wheelchair, local youths threw stones at him.
I thought to myself then, and I think to myself today: do the Government not begin to understand the pain that they have caused over the years—in the changes from disability living allowance to personal independence payments, for example? The impact studies showed that 0.5% of the claims were fraudulent and 99.5% were not. Nevertheless, the Government went ahead with the change, which had catastrophic consequences for people such as Fiona in my constituency, who fought for her life and tried to keep working but ultimately got her PIP two weeks before she died of breast cancer, and Zak, who was in a wheelchair and was assessed and reassessed from three months old. He finally got his PIP two years ago on 17 July; he died on 3 August.
Do the Government not recognise the problems on this and so many other fronts, including for those suffering from motor neurone disease who are desperate to secure lifetime awards rather than being constantly reassessed? I heard a very moving contribution at a recent event here in the House of Commons from a man who said:
“I’m going to die. For God’s sake, why do you keep reassessing me?”
Then we have the Tory Workers Union attacking people like us who are raising issues like this today. It has said to me:
“Most people are not on UC but have jobs and want their MP to show some sort of encouragement”.
Actually, many of them do have jobs. We will never cross the road on the opposite side. We will support the working poor, the poor and the vulnerable. Labour founded the welfare state and we believe in a Britain that looks after the poor, the working poor, the disabled and the vulnerable.
My hon. Friend talks about workers who are claiming universal credit. Studies in East Lothian have shown that 18% of those people who are working saw no change in their income, that 18% saw an average increase of £18.31, and that 45% of people in work saw a fall in their income of £39.99 a week.
My hon. Friend is describing real-life experiences in our constituencies and bringing home the facts that the Government seem oblivious to. I sometimes question what planet the Government are living on.
We are determined that we will get this right, and that is why, unashamedly led by our shadow Secretary of State, we have been fighting to achieve precisely that. I stress again that there is agreement across the House on the principle of universal credit, but unless the Government get it right, the pain will continue and be magnified for hundreds of thousands of people in the next stages. I say to Ministers specifically in relation to Birmingham: please do not press ahead with the introduction of universal credit on 13 December. Come and listen to some of the heartbreaking cases. We have had people in tears in our constituency offices asking, “What are we going to do over Christmas?” Come and listen to the landlords who say that they are never again going to let to tenants on universal credit. Hear at first hand the real-life experience of the consequences of your actions. Have you no heart? Pause universal credit and then get it right.
This is the second time in less than a week that I have stood and spoken in favour of the Government’s planned roll-out of universal credit. Last week, my colleagues and I listened as we were lectured by the Opposition. Time and again, it was implied that because, at election time, we on these Benches wear blue rosettes rather than red, orange, yellow or green ones, we did not hear the same difficult tragic cases in our surgeries, we did not work just as hard for those vulnerable individuals who desperately need our help, or we did not care just as much for the welfare of our constituents. In fact, some even asked—I have heard this again today—whether we were proud that we were pushing our constituents into poverty. And do you know what? I find that grossly offensive.
I will not give way.
I am proud to be a Conservative Member of Parliament and I am proud to sit on these Benches with colleagues who work just as hard, and care just as much, for the people they represent as any other Member of this House. Let us be clear that no party in this place has a monopoly on compassion. Socialist, nationalist, Liberal, Conservative or Green—all of us in this place are here first and foremost to serve our constituents. To imply otherwise, and to indulge in wild and insulting generalisations, does not help our constituents, does not inform the debate, and does very little for how people perceive this place, and neither does the gratuitous scaremongering that we heard too much of in last week’s debate. To imply that simply because this Government are a Tory Government they do not care, and are not listening to and acting on the concerns of Members and public bodies, is unfair and untrue.
Last week the Secretary of State announced that all Department for Work and Pensions helplines would be free by the end of the year. A couple of weeks before that, he announced that a more proactive approach would be taken to making clear the availability of advance payments.
I thank my fellow member of the Work and Pensions Committee for giving way, but does he not agree that an issue about third-party providers remains? Is he as worried as I am about constituents in Glasgow who have telephone bills of £100 as a result of using third-party providers to try to get help from the DWP?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree that questions have to be asked about third-party providers, so I would join him in questioning the Government about that.
I know that the Secretary of State was listening to the Work and Pensions Committee last week when I and other Members expressed concern about the amount and quality of the data being gathered on advance payments. None of these actions is that of a Government who are not listening. This debate is about whether we should pause the roll-out of universal credit or if we should press cautiously ahead while learning, and evolving, testing and refining the system, as we continue to deliver this important life-changing benefit to the people of the UK. In my opinion, we should and must press ahead.
I recently had a meeting with the Snow Hill citizens advice bureau in my constituency, which has expressed concerns about the roll-out of the full service. I agree that we need to simplify our benefit system, but universal credit is not working for most of its claimants. The six-week waiting period is pushing claimants further into debt, with some facing more delays if they have complicated circumstances. This forces claimants to borrow money and rely on food banks, and some face eviction while waiting for their first payment. Although the full service has not yet been implemented in my constituency, the shocking cases I have heard about from the citizens advice bureau and other organisations have prompted me to speak out. I agree with many of my colleagues that the Government should pause the roll-out until a system that is fully functional has been put in place.
Mr Speaker, you will be aware that I received much criticism for missing last week’s debate on universal credit, so I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this week’s proceedings, six days on from the last time we discussed the matter. I note that the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) is not in the Chamber on this of all days.
My constituency will see the full roll-out of universal credit in April next year, so I did follow the debate very closely. I was encouraged that Members on both sides of the House agreed that the general principles of universal credit were correct. We heard that from Conservative Members and from all the Opposition parties. I also noted the final vote last Wednesday. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) said, that result was different from what Labour Members have described in this debate. The Leader of the Opposition tweeted earlier today that Labour had secured an emergency debate on why the Government were
“not respecting Parliament’s vote to pause & fix Universal Credit”.
That was not the vote that Parliament held last week, yet that is what the leader of the Labour party is suggesting we are speaking about just now. That is not the case.
While there are issues with universal credit—I will come to them in a moment—we must also acknowledge the benefits. Recent data shows that compared with under the old welfare system, people on universal credit are more likely to find work, to stay in work and to earn more money in work.
I am sorry, but Opposition Members were critical that I was not here to represent my constituents’ views last week, so I will use my four minutes to speak for them.
That the system has benefits is hardly surprising, given that things have been simplified. I am grateful that the Government are listening to concerns raised by Members on both sides of the House, as we saw with the decision on the cost of calling the helpline.
Our last debate under Standing Order No. 24 was about another Government decision not to vote. During that debate, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said:
“The key thing is that nobody expects them”—
“to change their policy or direction on certain issues just because they get beat on a Labour party Opposition day motion—that is the last thing people expect.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 228.]
While the SNP shadow Leader of the House might not expect things to change, I am encouraged that the Government are listening to concerns from Government and Opposition Members. The responses that I have received from the Secretary of State and Ministers to constituency queries have been constructive and helpful. By dealing with issues in that way, we can ensure that universal credit, which is accepted across the political spectrum with an agreement in principle, not only works for everyone, but delivers for everyone.
Thank you for allowing this debate, Mr Speaker, and for your comments about whether it should be held. I also thank the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for her efforts in bringing this debate to the Chamber today. She said earlier that we cannot wait, and she is absolutely right. We cannot wait any longer for the Government to listen finally to the pleas that are being made. They ignored Parliament last week, but they have been ignoring calls since the pilot programme was launched in Inverness and the Highland Council in 2013.
Between 2013 and 2017, there have been ministerial meetings, letters, questions and debates pleading for action. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) said that the problems were evident before the full service roll-out, which was exactly what we found in Inverness. We have been pleading for action. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) spoke eloquently about the people who come to his constituency surgeries in tears, and I have also had many people turn up in tears—the disabled; single mothers; the low-waged. Last Friday, a constituent turned up to my office crying tears of gratitude for, in her words, “ending her nightmare” with universal credit.
The situation is not just about the wait for payments. This is about missed payments, delayed payments, wrong payments, communication blockages and debt by default. Those who talk about scaremongering or do not want to acknowledge that those things are facts should come and listen to the people who experience them from day to day. There is the humiliation of their being asked to go for a work capability assessment when they are clearly unable to work.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this has a tremendous impact on disabled people? We have asked for the roll-out to be paused and rectified instead of continued at a time when the Government know that the system is not working.
I completely agree, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. I have had constituents whose carers have helped them struggle to my constituency surgeries to tell me about their difficulties with the process. People who are blind or incapable of walking unaided are having to go for work capability assessments. That is humiliating and degrading, and the roll-out should be paused. Those things should be fixed or taken out of the system.
The Government have lauded the fact that the system for processing universal credit will be entirely online, but 35% of people do not have access to the internet in my constituency, which has one of the highest claimant counts in Scotland. Surveys by Citizens Advice have found that 32% of people will be totally unable to access the system and that another 32% will have great difficulty in doing so. This is just a Kafkaesque nightmare that further frustrates, demoralises and depresses the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
Order. I have said this before, but I will gently say it again for the benefit of new Members: a Member cannot be expected to give way to a second Member while responding to an intervention from the first. It is just a matter of timing. That is all. I understand the hon. Lady’s commitment, but we have to do these things in an orderly way.
I was just clarifying that I have experienced exactly the same in my constituency, where mobile phone coverage still lags behind, particularly in our rural areas. This is not only about people’s inability to get online; people are unable to get on a bus to actually get to a jobcentre to use its facilities. Those bus services sometimes do not exist.
I commend my hon. Friend on his work in Inverness, which everybody in Parliament admires. When he mentioned jobcentres, I noticed the Minister for Employment shaking his head, but he wants to close three of the four jobcentres in Glasgow East, where digital exclusion is a massive problem. Does my hon. Friend share my concern?
I am going to make a little progress.
I want to discuss some of the effects that have occurred in my constituency since 2013. This is not new to us; we have experienced things on a daily basis. Over 60% of my casework—this is coming to everybody—is made up of universal credit issues. This is an incredible drain on the resources of my staff. The jobcentre staff are working as hard as they possibly can, as are staff at the citizens advice bureau and all the other agencies, including food banks, which are having to deal with the collateral damage. The use of food banks is being driven up by universal credit. If anyone on the Government Benches cares to listen to the people at the sharp end, they will understand that that is a fact of life. By the way, if someone is going to donate to food banks, please take UHT milk and tinned meat, because those are the kinds of things that they desperately need. The chair of the Scottish Welfare Fund told me in the past week that people are now going to food banks for food that does not need to be cooked so that they can save money on electricity and avoid running up bills. How damning is that?
I agree with you, Mr Speaker, that the Minister for Employment is a gracious gentleman. I have spoken to him across the Chamber about this issue on many occasions, but now is the time to listen to the experts and to those who are actually experiencing the effects of this. Now is the time to pause this shambolic, chaotic roll-out, and to take the trouble to fix it. Now is the time to listen to the people who are struggling through against the increasing poverty to which they are being subjected. Please, come to my summit in Inverness, listen to the agencies, hear what these people have to say, and get them involved in the process of sorting this out so that people can live in dignity.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to set out my clear support for universal credit and its principal aim of ensuring that work always pays.
I will give way in a few moments.
I support universal credit, which simplifies what was an over-complex and bureaucratic system. Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), I am disappointed by some of the tone of the debate both today and last week. Today, we have heard accusations of knowingly pushing people into poverty; last week, we heard the comment that the Conservative party is undertaking “calculated cruelty.” When I raised that point, there were cries of “Oh, yes it is!” from the Opposition. What a ridiculous assertion. What utter nonsense.
A person does not have to be best friends with Opposition Members to know that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) said, no party has a monopoly on compassion. No party has a monopoly on care or concern for the most vulnerable. I know many Conservative Members, just as there are in each and every political party, who were driven into politics by their concern for the most vulnerable in our society. Let us not have any more nonsense about calculated cruelty.
Where there is a difference is on policy. This debate is on the Government’s response to last week’s debate. What is their response, and what should it be? Mr Speaker, you rightly said in response to a point of order that
“this motion does matter; it is important; it was passed. As a matter of fact, however, it is not binding. That is the situation.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 959.]
So what should be the Government’s response? Let us consider the substance. Conservative Members want universal credit to succeed, but heaving heard the debate both today and last week, I fear there are Opposition Members who do not want it to succeed.
The hon. Gentleman and I have previously been Committee colleagues, and I have a lot of respect for the way he approaches such matters. When the Government first proposed universal credit in 2011, they said it would lift 900,000 people out of poverty, including 350,000 children. That laudable aim should be welcomed on both sides of the House. What is the Government’s ambition today for the number of people they expect to lift out of poverty?
I, too, enjoyed working with the hon. Lady in a cross-party spirit on the European Scrutiny Committee in the last Parliament, and I look forward to doing so again. I have been told—I hope the Minister is able to confirm this—that 250,000 additional people will be helped into work as a result of this policy.
No, I will not.
The Government’s response should be to ensure that universal credit succeeds and has the transformative potential to get people into work and to ensure that they stay in work. The Government should continue to test, to learn and to rectify during the gradual roll-out.
Does my hon. Friend agree there are three things that the Government could recommend? First, Jobcentre Plus offices should brief all local councils on what universal credit is about and how it is being rolled out. Secondly, jobcentres should be encouraged to have credit union literature to help people avoid getting into loan sharks and debt problems. Thirdly, the Government should work closely with the largest housing associations, such as Bromford, to establish best practice between housing associations and jobcentres.
I would encompass those questions in one by saying that better communication is needed. Each of us, as a Member of Parliament, bears a responsibility for that communication, too. Having heard the responses, we should pass them on to our constituents in good faith and in good time.
No, I will not.
The Government should be listening, and they have listened on telephone numbers. It was implied last week that it was a premium-rate number and that all telephone calls cost 55p a minute, which is absolute rubbish, but I am pleased that the Government have listened and, in fact, have gone further by indicating that all telephone calls to the Department for Work and Pensions will now be free. I welcome that development.
The Government should not listen to those who want this policy to fail. The system is not perfect, and the Government are right to listen and to learn from their mistakes, but it is not cruel to encourage people into work. It is not cruel to support people while they are in work, to remove barriers to people increasing their hours or to remove disincentives for people getting into work. Arguably, the cruelty was in the old system. People were penalised if they wanted to take on more hours, which left them trapped on benefits, rather than enabled to reach their full potential.
Last week, the Government party refused to vote on the Opposition day motion seeking a pause on the roll-out of universal credit. The motion was tabled because UC is not working in the way its designers told us it would and the way many of us intended and wanted it to. The full roll-out of UC started in my constituency in April 2016, and it is not working for hundreds of my constituents. I know that because they have told me directly and because I have also been told by those trying to help them to deal with the consequences and the mess: the citizens advice bureau, the council’s revenues and benefits staff, food banks, places of worship, community organisations, teachers and school welfare officers.
Those whose income and business depends on regular and reliable payments are also feeling the impact—not only council and housing association landlords, but private landlords, many of whom are small businesses, and childcare providers, which are also small businesses. Employers are telling me of the stress the delays and non-payments are having on their staff who are UC claimants; this is affecting their ability to remain in work, because they cannot afford their childcare place or the cost of travel to work. At worst, claimants are losing their homes, and the only temporary accommodation available at a price the DWP will pay is well outside London—it is too far to commute for those in work hoping to keep their jobs.
If I have time, I will make one specific point on that.
Other impacts have emerged as the Government cut the funding for DWP staff, which adds to waiting time and errors; many Members will have seen the article in The Independent from a DWP worker who deals with benefits. Then we saw the cuts to in-work support and the cuts to support for third and subsequent children. Those of us who live in high-rent areas, such as west London, where a small family flat costs about three quarters of an average worker’s take home pay, have seen no proper adjustment of the local housing allowance.
In the face of all this evidence, so clearly set out last week by so many MPs on both sides of this House, the Government party refused to vote, and three parliamentary days later the Government have still made no statement to the House in response to the many important and excellent points made in the debate calling for a pause. The Leader of the House committed the Government to respond to the debate and the vote. There is no reason why the Secretary of State or a Minister could not have come to this House before now, at least with an initial response, and today the Minister did not use the opportunity he had to respond to the vote last week. The Government’s actions—or, rather, lack of them—hold in contempt not only Parliament, but those already unable to feed themselves or their children, those who are facing eviction, those who have lost their jobs and, overall, those who have lost their dignity and hope for the future.
Let me give an example from my casework to show why the Government need to freeze or put a pause on the roll-out of UC. I have encountered two people, at different times, whose UC was stopped when employers paid them at the end of the outgoing month, because of the way the weekend or the bank holiday fell, and the DWP stopped their claim because it told them they had been paid double that month and so were not entitled to any UC. This went on for weeks and weeks, with them having no money to pay the rent and the childcare places being lost, and they were put at risk of losing their jobs. If a UC claim is terminated by the DWP, even because of a mistake by the DWP, it cannot be reopened, and the claimant is required to make a fresh claim and to use a new email address—all the journal is lost.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) has given the House several suggestions for changes and improvements that could be made to the UC system, including reducing the six-week wait, reinstating the limited capability for work element for disabled people, assessing self-employed people on their annual income, reinstating the level of work allowances and reducing the taper rates. Those are just some of the improvements that could be made and that the Minister could be considering. He could have made some initial comment on them just now, but he did not do so. The system needs to be properly resourced and to have adequate staffing and adequate IT. Local authorities and other landlords need to have access to claim data. By saying that they want the system to work, the Government are, in effect, admitting there is a problem. They need to do more than just want the system to work; we need to know when they will make it work.
Mr Speaker, after last week’s debate, you said:
“This place, and what we do here, matters very much.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 957.]
I agree with you, and so do my constituents.
I am grateful to have caught your eye, Mr Speaker; I am conscious that I spoke in the recent debate on the Government’s response to Supply day debates and in the debate last week on universal credit. I recognise that in this place repetition is not frowned on, and that hesitation and deviation are positively encouraged in some quarters, but I shall do my utmost not to try the House’s patience.
With the greatest of respect to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), I question the wording of the motion, which asks us to debate the Government’s response to
“the decision of the House”
on universal credit. The House knows what the hon. Lady means—I know what she means—and I am not interested in silly semantic arguments, but this does get to the core of the matter. The Commons expressed a view, as you wisely said in response to the points of order after last week’s debate, Mr Speaker. It gave its advice to the Government on the roll-out of universal credit. However, the House cannot, on the basis of an Opposition day non-legislative motion for debate, take a decision on a matter of Government policy.
As we discussed at length in the previous debate under Standing Order No. 24, and as I believe was agreed among Government and Opposition Members, declamatory resolutions proposed for Opposition day debates are not and cannot be binding on the Government. That constitutional convention was entrenched by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the principle of which was supported in the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos in 2010. When that Act was last debated, three years ago yesterday, the Opposition spokesman at the time, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), spoke in its favour and said that the Labour party continued to support it.
There is no constitutional requirement for the Government to respond to resolutions of the nature we are discussing if that is what the Opposition choose to table for Supply day debates. If the Government choose to respond, they have to determine when and exactly how, particularly if there are fiscal consequences to any actions they determine. Part of the role of the House is to hold the Government to account, so I do not think that last week’s debate was in any way fruitless or a waste of time. In the immediate term, the Government were held to account through the Secretary of State’s responding to 17 interventions. By my count, in a much shorter speech this afternoon, my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment replied to 11 interventions. He was held to account by this House.
I have absolutely no doubt that Labour’s talented Front-Bench spokespersons will do their utmost and use all their wiles to ensure that the Government’s decisions on universal credit are drawn to the electorate’s attention. Conservative Members are comfortable with the roll-out, the time we are taking and the way we are presenting it to the country. Ultimately, the electorate will decide. They are seeing the Opposition’s view and the Government’s view, and that is one role of the House.
I am comfortable with the position that our Government are taking in implementing the changes. That is partly because when I talk to staff at my local jobcentre, expecting the usual litany of failure that accompanies IT projects from all Governments, I hear enthusiasm and positivity about the universal credit system and how responsive it is. I am pleased that the Government have already proved themselves similarly responsive, with 50% of new claimants now securing advances, the new landlord portal and the consistent improvement in the time taken to make payments. There may be other measures that the Government can take to bolster the success of the system, but to my mind they would be wholly wrong to pause the roll-out of a system that reduces complexity, increases flexibility and improves employment outcomes for the recipients.
Conservative Members have talked a lot about improving work incentives. I shall not go over the history, but I have constituents who say things such as:
“My own personal position is that of a single parent carer to my disabled child. I can’t work as he has very high and complex needs… Quite frankly the rollout of universal credit is terrifying”—
The hon. Lady is always eloquent, and I take seriously the issue she has raised. I urge her to draw that to the attention of Ministers. I cannot handle specific issues in her constituency, but as I conclude I can describe the generality of employment under this Government. We previously debated universal credit on the day on which the new employment figures came out.
If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will not.
I assume that it was only because of the timing of the release of those employment statistics that the Opposition Front-Bench team were unable to weave them too strongly into their speeches on the day. They did not welcome the 52,000 increase in employment on the previous quarter; they did not welcome the 215,000 increase in employment on the previous year; and they did not welcome the fact that unemployment is at the lowest rate since 1975. [Interruption.] Obviously, they did not have time. There is evidence that universal credit is helping this success story. I urge the Government to continue to look creatively at how the system can work better, but under no circumstances to halt the roll-out.
Last week, I shared with the House my own experience of benefit delay as a single parent when I was working as a teacher. We all sat and listened as Members from across the House voiced their concerns—and their constituents’ concerns—about the impact of universal credit. We also heard some horror stories—only they were not stories; they were accounts of ordinary working people living through the so-called reforms that this Government have insisted on pushing through. The concerns raised on the Opposition Benches were echoed by Gingerbread, Citizens Advice, Crisis and—indeed—some Members on the Government Benches.
Surely the Government do not plan to ignore the decision made by this House and to carry on regardless? The six-week wait is forcing people into further debt. My constituency of Crewe has been identified as one of the most indebted places in the country, with almost 4,000 children living in poverty. My constituents literally cannot afford to be subjected to this punitive programme.
Will the Government admit that the six-week wait is nothing more than a penny-pinching exercise? How dare they patronise us with their excuses? Do they really expect me to explain to my constituents that the Government’s six-week wait is there to teach them how to manage their finances better? We keep hearing the stock defence that universal credit is getting more people into work. What type of work is that—secure work, work that pays a real living wage? We all know what lies behind those unemployment figures—poverty pay and precarious work. The truth is simply that this Government’s policies are hurting ordinary working families, hurting the poorest and hurting the most vulnerable in our society.
We were told that this policy would “make work pay”, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that a further 3 million working families will be made on average £2,500 a year worse off. Food bank referrals have increased by more than double the national average in areas where universal credit has been fully rolled out.
The Government have finally listened to the Labour party and stopped ripping off constituents with their premium charge helpline. They now need to listen to the calls of charities and councils and immediately pause and fix the roll-out of universal credit, before more people are pushed into debt, hunger and homelessness. A pause would stop the rapid increase in the number being brought under their programme. I ask the Secretary of State to outline his response to the many concerns that have been brought to his attention again today. This is the Government’s last chance to show that they do have some heart, that they can see sense and that they respect the decisions made by this House; otherwise, they risk consigning themselves to the dustbin of history as a Government who lack compassion, competence and credibility in equal measure.
A policy should be founded on its vision and its values. The idea that work should always pay is clearly a good value, and many people across the House agree with that. The system should be easy to understand as those accessing it should be able to do so without any challenges or barriers in their way. Simplifying the system from six benefits down to one achieves that aim. People should be able to increase or decrease their hours as the work or the requirements change. It should be quite straightforward for people to increase their hours and for employers to give more hours and more work—if that is what they want to do—so that people can get more experience and there is more reason for employers to give more training and for people to gain greater qualifications. That allows progression and, perhaps, promotion in the workplace, which is very good for those individuals, for the society around them and for the businesses employing them.
I will not give way; time is tight.
The Government are delivering for the poorest. Periods of Labour government have always resulted in an increase in unemployment. From 1997 to 2010, unemployment went from 2.1 million to 2.5 million. Unemployment has dropped to below 1.5 million under this Government.
My hon. Friend highlights an important point. Many fully able people have got into work, and we need to ensure that the whole of society—all our communities—can get into work.
The number of children in workless households has fallen to a record low in every region since 2010, and the figure has fallen by 90,000 in the past year. The Resolution Foundation reported that the number of low-paid people—those on less than two thirds of the median wage—is at the lowest level since the 1980s.
I will not give way.
Labour supported universal credit and has no plans to drop it. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) highlighted, the initial debate was supposed to be about a pause and fix of the universal credit roll-out, but it has now changed to just a pause. A pause to do what—amend it or drop it? There are currently no proposals from the Opposition to roll out a new system. We must have the opportunity to fix through the test, learn and rectify approach. Only 8% of universal credit has been rolled out so far and there are proposals to take that figure to 10%, but this is a slow and cautious procedure.
I want to get to the number of issues that do need to be fixed.
The policy would be better if it were closer to its values. For example, the taper should be set so that it rewards people better than it does now. The seven-day waiting period ought to be reduced—not receiving money for one week involves a substantial sum for people who are often on the lowest wages. The test, learn and rectify approach gives an opportunity to improve the system of direct payments to landlords. That ought to go forward rapidly, but we also need to reflect on individuals being in charge of their own finances. The responsibility actually helps the individual because it is a responsibility they will have when they go into full-time work. It is a terrible situation when someone who has been so supported by the state and is, in a sense, dependent on it moves into work and has to realise the loss of that welfare support in addition to all the challenges of a new job. We also need to change the substantial six-week waiting period, which is not in the spirit and values of universal credit. The period ought to be four weeks, right from the off.
The Government are demonstrating that they are listening. A key part of that has been the introduction of the free telephone service. I do not want the roll-out to be stopped, but there needs to be reform for it to go on.
I am a new Member here. I was here for the debate last week, but I did not have the opportunity to contribute. However, I agree with the Minister that that debate was a good one.
It is outrageous that the Government are ignoring the clear will of the House— expressed by a vote of 299 to zero—to pause and fix the roll-out of universal credit. This is a real danger to the authority of Parliament. I will highlight two issues in my constituency to the Minister. A jobcentre is closing in my constituency, and many of my constituents are worried that the roll-out of universal credit will mean more trips to the jobcentre, which means that they will have to travel further. That could result in more sanctions as people are late or miss an appointment.
I only have one more short point; then I will see if the hon. Lady can have another opportunity.
The second point is that rent arrears are higher among universal credit claimants, young people cannot receive payments towards housing costs, and claimants need to borrow money before they receive their first payment, and all of that is contributing to a higher risk of eviction and homelessness. Will the Minister commit to addressing these issues?
The issue of how we encourage more people into work and ensure that those who are not in work have a decent standard of living is an important one and is worthy of debate. It is valuable to debate not only the principle behind universal credit and the Government’s formulation of the policy, but, given that a further roll-out is due shortly, whether there should be a further pause to resolve and discuss issues such as the timing of payments before the roll-out is extended.
Both of those are legitimate concerns, but the difficulty with the motion and the debate last week was that those two issues were conflated. On the face of it, the motion before the House purported to raise the second issue—namely, whether there should be a pause, and a pause alone. A pause is a temporary or brief interruption, after which service will resume. However, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), in speaking in support of the motion, went far beyond arguing for a pause and instead identified fundamental weaknesses, as she saw it, in universal credit. She identified no fewer than 11 individual amendments she wanted to see. She quoted the charity Gingerbread as saying that the errors in the administration and structure of the system itself needed addressing. She concluded by saying:
“We cannot allow the devastating impacts of universal credit roll-out to happen.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 865.]
Those points are important, because when the Opposition bring an Opposition day motion before the House on an important point that affects the lives of our constituents, it is important that we as MPs know what we are voting on. When the Labour party put that motion before the House, did it intend to request a short and temporary pause to universal credit, or was it asking significant questions about the operation of universal credit? My concern is that, in that motion, the Opposition were playing politics and would have sought to use how we voted on it. If the Government had voted in favour of the motion, it would be open to the Opposition to say the Government agreed with the wider issues in universal credit outlined by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth. If the Government had voted against the motion, the Opposition would say the Government were not even willing to agree to a short-term, temporary measure to fix administrative issues with universal credit.
I do agree, because it would have identified what they were addressing.
I also agree with my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen). She asked the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth whether she was just asking for a pause or would accept administrative changes, and the hon. Lady did not answer the question.
We know the Opposition are playing politics, because the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) admitted that in the last Standing Order. No 24 debate. It was put to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) whether she thought it was potentially contemptuous to put forward a motion for political effect, and she answered:
“I am sorry but I thought we were in politics. We are politicians, so that is what we would expect to do in here.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 217.]
Mr Speaker, in this House I expect to debate motions that affect the lives of my constituents. I expect when I vote that it is clear what I have voted on, so that I can be held to account. That should be the nature of politics.
Today, like every day, I am going to be speaking for the many, not the few. In my constituency and across the United Kingdom, people are worried. They live in fear that they cannot build a better, brighter future—and most criminal of all, no one is listening. So many of those constituents do not feel they are being listened to—not by the Tories in Westminster and not by the SNP in Scotland. Policies north and south of the border make this clearer every day. Indeed, this Government’s flagship policy on universal credit is the best example of this. Last week, I shared with the House a very simple message I had for the people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, and people across the country: we are listening. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) is listening, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is listening, and those on the Labour Benches are listening. That is why we are here today.
I want to start by tackling the myth that people want to live on benefits; that they are lazy; that they are immigrants stealing from British taxpayers. How offensive, how wrong, how damaging, and how reflective of the society we are living in today. People do not choose to live on benefits. Millions of children across the United Kingdom are growing up in working poverty.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
These parents go to work but they still have trouble paying their bills. They cannot fill the fridge. This is not about choosing to live on working benefits—it is about a country that is not paying our workers the wages they deserve. It needs to be changed. Workers need justice. The welfare system was created by the Labour party and will only ever really be protected and saved by the Labour party. I want to make this clear: I am not against looking to ensure our welfare system is accessible, working and delivering for people in need, but I am against a failed system that does not work, and so far universal credit is not working.
Yes, I do.
We know of so many stories across the country of families pushed to breaking point and people becoming more and more ill thanks to the pressures they are increasingly put under. We have heard over recent days attempts from the Government to try to control this situation. They now concede that we need to see a cut in the waiting times for receiving payments—payments that go on food, bills, and simply getting by. That is why Labour Members want to see an immediate halt and that is why some Conservative Members are starting to smell the coffee. Does the Minister disagree with his colleagues who have raised concerns? The fact that they were feted and dragged into Downing Street last week tells me that this Prime Minister is more worried about her job than about the millions of people across the country who are suffering.
I just want to say a word about last week. I had Tory MPs laughing at me when I was speaking. I saw Tory MPs mocking the moving points raised by hon. Members on the Labour Benches. It was a disgraceful way to behave, and it was made even worse by the fact—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I appreciate that I have not been in this House for that long, but this is a debate in which the hon. Gentleman has cast some very serious allegations against Conservative Members with no substantiation whatsoever. A number of colleagues have tried to intervene to tease and prise out the argument that he is putting—he is perfectly in order; I take that entirely—but what he has just said, on two occasions, has certainly caused offence to me, and I believe to all Conservative Members.
Order. I can deal with only one point of order at a time, I say to the hon. Lady in terms that frankly brook no contradiction.
I have heard what the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) has said. I understand that he—an extremely level-headed, even-tempered, equable fellow—is genuinely offended. I am not sure that I can find a cure for his sense of offence. The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) may, in the hon. Gentleman’s mind, have been discourteous—although that is a debatable point, as most things are here—but it was not disorderly. I hope that the hon. Member for North Dorset, who is a seasoned graduate of the Oxford Union of some decades ago, has not had his tender sensibilities overly offended.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. There was an unfortunate occasion in the House during the universal credit debate last week when a Government Member made an unfortunate comment, or used unfortunate behaviour, although he later apologised to my hon. Friend. To suggest that there was no mocking or inappropriate behaviour is not correct, because the Member in question did have the grace to apologise.
Order. I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s very spirited speech, but I must just say to him that I did not sit on my hands. I did not fail to turn up to do my duty. I most certainly did my duty. Debate goes through the Chair, and I think that the target of his criticism is other Members; I do not think that his target is me.
I certainly did not target you, Mr Speaker; I targeted the Government.
On a serious note, what happens to people who do not turn up for their universal credit appointment? They get their benefits taken off them. I repeat to the Government that they are showing no respect. If they cannot turn up to do their job, they should just move over. We are ready and willing to do the job for them. Let us halt universal credit.
It is incredible fun to follow the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), who seemed to be commenting on whether or not the Speaker was here, as far as I could tell. Last Wednesday, when we had the Opposition day debate, was the first day of the roll-out of universal credit in South Suffolk. I will be keeping a close eye on that. Like everyone else, I am sensitive to what people are saying about the real cases that are out there, as we need to be.
I remind hon. Members that we are here today not just because of process or a parliamentary vote, but because Gordon Brown committed one of the greatest blunders in UK public policy. He extended the means-tested benefits system so that it covered not just the poorest, the incapacitated and those in areas of industrial decay, but every area of the income stream. He nationalised millions of families’ incomes and created a massive new era of benefit dependency through the so-called tax credit system, and that was a fundamental error.
I am not speaking theoretically. The Opposition have talked about the real world, so let me talk about my experience. When I ran a small business, I had members of staff who refused to work more than 16 hours a week, because they would lose their tax credits if they did so. I even had someone decline a pay rise because of the impact it would have on their tax credits. We have to understand that Gordon Brown created the road to serfdom—the idea that everybody should be dependent on the state—and I fundamentally disagree with that.
It is impossible to move from such dependency on the state through a cuddly process. When people have been made dependent, it is difficult to break them away from that in the way that is best for them, but universal credit does so. Of course the process is incredibly tricky, but we need to look at the benefits of universal credit. It encourages people to work more hours and make the most of their talents instead of relying on the state. It includes universal support from work coaches, to help people to make the most of their ability. That is the sort of system we want, and we should remember that principle.
Fundamentally, we asked taxpayers to spend £30 billion a year putting a ceiling on wages and productivity. That is basically what happened, as I saw. Why would people want to earn more or be more productive, if they were so penalised through the benefits system? We ask ourselves why we have had such flat wage growth and such flat productivity. It is because we are paying people not to work harder.
That has a fundamental implication for the years ahead, because Brexit is coming. We need to remember what the country voted for. I campaigned to remain, but in my view the biggest issue was immigration. We want sustainable numbers of people to come into this country, but if that is to happen when we lose access to this almost limitless pool of very hard-working labour, particularly from eastern Europe, we will have to get the work done by people in the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely passionate case. I want to mention an incident in my constituency of Taunton Deane. A vegetable farmer recently said that he could not get people to work for him, and has to use eastern Europeans. He knows that there are unemployed people, but because of the 16-hour rule they simply will not take the jobs.
Order. May I very gently point out that if Members who have arrived in the Chamber relatively recently intervene, they risk preventing colleagues who have been here for some hours from contributing? I know that the hon. Lady, who is a most courteous person, would not want that to happen.
It is absolutely right to look at welfare reform in the context of Brexit. My worry, and I say this sincerely, is that—let us look at the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, for example—there is already pressure for a scheme not to get more British workers, but to ask whether we can have workers from Ukraine or Russia. We must think about that, because at the moment unskilled migrants can come to this country only from the EU, not from outside the EU. We have to look at welfare reform through the lens of seeing whether British people will rise to the challenge of stepping into the breach.
The Work and Pensions Committee—I was a member of it—carried out an investigation and we looked at these issues before the general election, and the truth is that large parts of our economy are dependent on migrant labour. If we are to change that, we must understand that the sorts of reform we are now introducing will be just the start of it. There will have to be a real look at education, training and welfare. None of this stuff may necessarily be easy or palatable, but it should move us to a situation in which, instead of flat wages and flat productivity, British people are given a fair chance: they do their bit, and we back them. We will give them support through the universal credit system and we will give them training, and we will have a competitive post-Brexit economy.
I will not give way again. I respect the hon. Lady, but I only have a minute left.
As a mortgage broker, I had many cases where an extraordinary amount of a family’s income came from the tax credit system. That is not healthy, and it is not sustainable. I give the Government credit for having the courage—yes, the courage—to take these unpopular decisions. Sometimes, we have to back unpopular decisions, because without such decisions the country cannot move forward. We are doing the right thing, and we should be proud to be doing the right thing.
Under universal credit, everybody’s monthly pay is automatically sent to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs through the pay-as-you-earn RTI—real-time information—system, and HMRC then sends that to the DWP so that it can do the universal credit calculation. There have been rumours for some time that the RTI system does not work very well. I have tabled questions about that, but the Minister has flatly denied that there is a problem.
It emerged last month, through a freedom of information request submitted by a member of the public, Mr John Slater, that there is a thing called the “Late, Missing and Incorrect RTI Project”. If RTI is late, missing or incorrect, we have a problem, because it is not possible to do the required universal credit calculation. I therefore tabled a question to the Minister:
“To ask…what the remit and activities of the Late, Missing and Incorrect RTI Project are.”
The Minister sent back an answer telling me that it did not exist and that there was no such thing. Fortunately, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs was more forthcoming on this point. I got a written answer last week from the Treasury, dated 16 October, to my written question 107309, which stated:
“The vast majority of Real Time Information submissions are accurate and on time. However, a very small number of data quality issues create discrepancies and these can have an effect on an individual’s tax and benefits position.”
Indeed they can, because if the information is wrong, people’s benefit calculations will also be wrong.
The following day, 17 October, also from the more helpful of these two departments, the Treasury answer to my question 107475 stated that,
“during the 2016/17 tax year approximately 590m payments to individuals were reported via RTI. 5.7% of these were reported late. HMRC does not hold the information in respect of missing and incorrect reports.”
If over 5% of them were just late, never mind the ones that were missing or incorrect, we do have a serious problem.
Looking through all the submissions we received, briefing us ahead of this debate, I was struck by the one from the Child Poverty Action Group, referring to,
“difficulty making claims for universal credit, with many online claims seeming to ‘disappear’.
Universal credit being underpaid because ‘real time information’ provided by HMRC regarding income is not always reliable or accurate.
Claimants being paid the wrong amount of universal credit for no apparent reason.”
What is happening is that the IT is not doing what it is supposed to do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) referred to the anonymous report in The Independent a couple of weeks ago by someone working in a jobcentre, who talked about the grim reality of administering universal credit, rather by contrast with the enthusiasm with which Tory Members have told us that people are working on this. That writer made the point that when there is a discrepancy between what people were paid and what HMRC says they were paid—in other words, an RTI problem—it takes ages to sort that problem out. Members representing constituencies where universal credit has been fully rolled out report endless mistakes, delays and errors, which take weeks and weeks to resolve.
Another reason why this project’s roll-out should be paused and then fixed is to stop these problems being inflicted on tens of thousands more.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who has great experience as a former Pensions Minister. I am sure that he is aware that the idea behind universal credit is to change what has become a very dysfunctional welfare system that not only drains public finances and is very inefficient, but is a huge waste of human potential. Deeply flawed as the old welfare system was and remains, however, it is still a lifeline for many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society, and we have to be cognisant of that. Ministers must handle it with extreme care, even when acting with the very best of intentions.
I am sure that by now we are all familiar with the shortcomings of the old system. Not only was it very complex and difficult—both to navigate as a claimant, and for the Government and jobcentres to operate—but it created huge disincentives to work, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) said. Many would-be jobseekers found themselves facing marginal tax rates not seen in this country since Denis Healey sat in No. 11. The idea of universal credit is that it rewards work: people can work the hours that they want, effectively. It brings in that flexibility and ensures that people will not face the very difficult decision, which has been mentioned by some hon. Members, of basically turning down work in order to keep benefits.
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that under the last Labour Government’s tax credit system, the clawback of wages was 39%, whereas under universal credit it is 63%? The individual keeps only 37% of what they earn. If they pay tax, the clawback rises to 75%—they keep a quarter of it.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am about to discuss tax credits and my experience of dealing with that area as a personal finance journalist in 2003, when the credits were launched.
Work is the only long-term route to financial independence. Not only does long-term unemployment sap an individual’s self-confidence and erode their employability, but children who grow up in workless households are far more likely never to enter employment themselves. Generations of people do not get into work, and therefore poverty beds down. By acclimatising claimants to the rhythms of working life and being designed to ensure that employment always pays, universal credit not only supports today’s claimants, but is helping to steer many of the next generation away from the welfare system altogether, which is a very good thing indeed.
This is, undoubtedly, an enormous change, and Ministers have been wise to choose to proceed cautiously. The full roll-out of universal credit will not be completed until 2020, a whole nine years after the policy was first trialled and enacted. That involves many dry runs, and the process is in very stark contrast to the introduction of tax credits in 2003, when I remember very well that there was huge disruption to millions of people’s lives.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that 2017-18 was supposed to be the final year for the roll-out of universal credit under the initial plan, but that the Government had already accepted that they needed to improve the process? Does he wonder why the Government are being so stubborn now?
I applaud the Government for taking the roll-out to 2022—it shows they are listening. They want to get this right so that we do not end up with the situation we saw in 2003 with tax credits when, frankly, there was a dead ear from the then Government.
I will conclude as I am aware that many Members wish to speak. It is only right that we acknowledge the measures that the Government have put into place to protect vulnerable users, to provide an advanced payment system for claimants who cannot afford to wait for six weeks for new payments, and to ensure that people who are transferred on to universal credit see no loss in their entitlement in cash terms. The Government have rightly announced a review of DWP phone lines, which is a welcome and positive development. I hope that all Government Departments are cognisant of such situations and people in need are not charged excessively for using phone lines.
We have heard in today’s debate, as we heard last week, about the way universal credit has been rolled out and how it is driving families into desperation and hardship. This House expressed its view, yet still the Government bury their head in the sand, wilfully holding their hands over their ears like an errant child. This roll-out must be halted so that the problems that have been identified—many today and many last week—can be examined and fixed.
The consequence of the hardship we have heard about so clearly in this Chamber is a tearing at the social fabric of our communities in a way that is cruel and completely unnecessary. Some 25% of claimants are waiting even longer than six weeks, according to the DWP’s own figures. Six weeks without support is simply not reasonable. The Government cannot use the excuse of innocence or ignorance. The problems with this benefit have been laid bare and Parliament has spoken. Deciding not to listen to the clamour of disapproval, which has been voiced for very legitimate reasons in this House and beyond, does not provide absolution for what is increasingly looking like wilfully causing harm to those in need of support.
I believe that since Parliament has spoken on this issue, there is an ethical imperative on the Government to return to this issue in a reflective manner, offering a positive, meaningful way forward on a matter regarding which we can all agree the principles. What is at issue here is the process—the way the benefit is being rolled out. It is surely not beyond the wit of the Government to revisit and improve it. It now seems clear that the reason for not pausing the benefit, which is riddled with errors, must be and can only be arrogance, and an ideological fixation that is really very difficult to understand.
The SNP has raised three concerns about universal credit: timeliness; direct payments to landlords; and helping those most in need by closing the gap. Now that the Government have addressed all three, including by providing payments within five days—on the same day for those in urgent need—will she welcome those changes and accept that the Government are not being arrogant but actually listening?
The three issues that the hon. Gentleman identifies are not our only concerns about the benefit. We are concerned about split payments, the six-week wait, the cut to work allowance and the flexibility of payments—I could go on, but I am constrained by time. There is much wrong with the benefit. Suggesting that fiddling about with three bits is enough, and dancing on the head of a pin about what the motion said last week, does not cover him in glory.
Properly administered, this benefit could really support people, but not unless time is taken to review the problems with it, some of which I have just mentioned. In the meantime, urgent transitional protections can be put in place to protect those who are victims of it right now. There is no doubt that universal credit payments need to be more flexible and adaptable to allow people more say, and that the system needs to be more responsive to how people live their lives and manage their household budgets. We cannot even begin to talk about an online digital roll-out unless we have already tackled digital exclusion.
People in Scotland and across the UK are suffering terribly, and what is heart-breaking is that the suffering is utterly unnecessary. The hardship is the result of how the Government have bungled the benefit. The status quo is no longer tenable. I urge the Government to do the decent thing: pause the roll-out and fix the problems, as the House voted they should do.
One of the aspects of last week’s debate—we have seen and heard it again today—was that while Opposition Front Benchers said that they supported the principles of universal credit and that their concerns were about the manner of the roll-out, what we heard from those who sit behind them was abject opposition to universal credit. It appears to me that they do not want so much to pause the roll-out as to completely abandon it.
I speak as someone who not only supports the principle of welfare reform but wishes to see its implementation go forward. Universal credit is so much better at helping people into a position where they can help themselves. I do not add my name to those calling for a pause or halt to the roll-out of universal credit because the roll-out is already planned to take nine years, and it is taking nine years because the Government are taking time to get it right. It is called check and adjust.
Let us look at what happened when Labour launched its tax credits with a big bang. I am still helping constituents who got caught up in that mess, which included £2 billion in underpayment and overpayment errors.
It is worth reminding ourselves why universal credit is such an important plank in welfare reform. It is about helping people to prepare for a return to the world of work. It is designed to mirror the world of work. When people return to the world of work, it underpins the promise that people will always be better off in work than on benefits. Under the old system, there was a cliff edge, because it made sense to work for only 16 hours or less, and it cannot be good if we end up penalising people because they chose to do the right thing and go to work. The old system punished work. People could lose more than £9 of every £10 extra they earned. Under Labour, the benefits system was so complicated that some people found that there was no point to working more because they would lose more in benefits than they would earn in work. The old system failed to get young people into work. The old system subsidised low wages by letting the tax credits bill get out of control.
It is also worth remembering what work does for people.
I am very proud that the Conservatives have introduced a national living wage. It is worth remembering what work does for people. It instils a sense of confidence and of self-worth. It enables people to manage their own affairs and make their own decisions for themselves and their families, to be independent, and not to depend on anyone or anything. That is what work does, and that is why it is so important to record again today that more people in this country are working than ever before and that unemployment is at a 40-year low. That is a good thing that we should be proud of. Universal credit is helping people to get back into work. Those on universal credit are four percentage points more likely to be in work within six months than jobseeker’s allowance claimants in similar circumstances. Universal credit underlines the salient principle that people should always be better off in work than on benefits.
I pay tribute to the Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions. What I have experienced from them is a genuine willingness to engage and to receive feedback, and that is both positive and constructive. They have been impressively responsive to my concerns, and more especially to the cases of my constituents that have been brought to their attention. I am pleased that there has been a response to the urgent need for payments. Claimants who want advance payments should receive them within five working days, and for those in immediate need there is a fast-track payment that can be received on the same day. I was initially concerned about the payback period for advances, but I am assured that repayments can be delayed for up to six months, and for a further three months if necessary. I have also received reassurances from Ministers about the issues that face rural constituencies.
I repeat that while I accept that no one should have to wait for six months with no money, it should not be beyond our means to make improvements in the system to reduce the time before the first payments are received. However, it would be wholly wrong to pause the universal credit full service roll-out now.
Let me start by giving credit to Members in all parts of the House who have listened to their constituents and to people who are suffering under the universal credit system and who have called for changes to be made in that system.
As many Conservative Members have pointed out, we have been going through the process of universal credit for six years now, and as the previous Secretary of State said, the system seems to be “fix and learn”. I wonder what problems he was seeking to address when his Government cut £5 billion from the annual budget for tax credit, taking it from a system that helped people into work and putting it into a system that will take an average of £2,500 a year from 3 million working families. I urge all Members to look at the Library figures that state how many families in their own constituencies are currently receiving tax credit and will lose such sums. They should come as a revelation to us all; and to those of us whose constituencies have already experienced the roll-out of full service—not just to unemployed single people, but to families and people who are disabled and seeking to work—they must come as a lesson.
The Government, and other Conservative Members, keep claiming that an extra 250,000 people will move into work under universal credit. I am afraid that that claim is based on figures from 2014-15, based on a small sample of single unemployed claimants before the huge cuts in work allowances were implemented. They do not apply to people who have been claiming employment and support allowance or to families. Analysis of lone parents has shown that their work incentive is reduced by eight percentage points. As for second earners, the huge clawback in universal credit actually reduces their