On 5th December 2017, I spoke in Labour’s Opposition Day Debate on Universal Credit Project Assessment Reviews. Read my contribution here:
Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I welcome the concessions that the Government have been forced to make on universal credit, but I do not believe that they go anything like far enough to relieve the hardship and stress that this roll-out is causing, and will continue to cause unless and until the Government take on board the concerns and take further action. There are so many issues with universal credit that it is essential that the full extent of all project assessment reviews that the Government carry out are placed with the Work and Pensions Committee. The Government must come clean about their assessments so that the risks can be identified and scrutiny can be provided by the Committee.
I know that many Members across the House share my concerns about the roll-out of universal credit. It might be convenient for the Government to ignore the views of those on the Opposition Benches who have expressed legitimate concerns on behalf of their constituents and, in the case of the Secretary of State, to pass them off as scaremongering. However, the Government should not ignore the concerns shared by many outside this House, too—by organisations at the forefront of supporting people through difficult periods and supporting those who are most vulnerable. These organisations include Community Housing Cymru, which acts as an umbrella body for housing associations across Wales, and Citizens Advice, Shelter, and the Child Poverty Action Group. Does the Secretary of State consider these organisations to be scaremongering, too? These organisations know the pressures and hardship that UC is causing, as they are picking up the pieces when people’s lives are turned upside down due to the debt and anxiety caused by issues created by the roll-out, and the Government should take note.
Recent research undertaken by Cardiff Metropolitan University has highlighted the fact that one in five claimants is not receiving their full entitlement on time, with some facing a delay of four to eight weeks. The Government should address the waiting time as it is what causes most hardship. Many people do not have savings or money set aside to cover day-to-day living expenses during this period. The Government have taken away the seven-day waiting time, thus reducing the period to five weeks, but this is still too long for people to wait. We should also note that this is a minimum waiting time, and many people are waiting longer, leading to arrears and claimants needing to use food banks, increasing their debts and living in poverty.
We know that food bank use is increasing. A recent Trussell Trust report shows a 30% increase in people using food banks in areas where UC has been rolled out. Perhaps the Secretary of State thinks that report is scaremongering, too.
Michael Tomlinson (Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole): The hon. Gentleman mentions the Trussell Trust. Does he acknowledge that the trust’s chief executive has welcomed the measures the Chancellor announced in the Budget, and will he also welcome them?
Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard that I welcomed those concessions earlier this afternoon, but, as I also said, they do not go far enough. I was with the Trussell Trust last weekend, collecting for the food bank in my area, because I know, as many other Members do, that that need is growing rather than reducing.
It appears that there are the same issues everywhere UC has been rolled out, and in my view it stands to reason that, with a hastened roll-out, these issues will only increase. We need a pause and fix. In Wales, as of October 2017 almost 25,000 people were in receipt of UC, meaning that the roll-out is just 6% complete; full roll-out is expected by November next year. I do not understand why the Government cannot see that hastened roll-out will lead to increased hardship, and why they will not act to pause and fix, to avoid families being subjected to undue stress and hardship.
There is not much evidence of any festive spirit coming from the Government on this issue, and talking about the Christmas period that is almost upon us, the news that thousands of low-paid people on UC will receive reduced payments or none at all over Christmas because they are paid weekly and their income
“will likely go over the universal credit limit” is extremely worrying. A similar problem will re-occur in other months that, like this December, have five paydays, because UC is calculated on a monthly basis.
The Government must realise that Christmas puts huge pressure on family budgets and this situation will massively increase hardship. When people have five weekly earnings payments within an assessment period, their income might be too high to qualify for UC in that month, but the official advice is:
“You can re-apply the following month as you should only get four wage payments in your assessment period then.”
I am sure that will really help families through the Christmas period!
This flaw needs to be addressed and a fix found; it cannot be that difficult. Those paid weekly will find four times in a 12-monthly cycle that this “apparent” overpayment happens, and that could either reduce or cost them UC. Surely a mechanism can be found within Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. This is yet another glitch among a growing list that have beset UC.
We have heard today, and will continue to hear, the evidence that this roll-out is causing significant hardship and undue stress. The Government must listen to these very genuine concerns, and act to avoid further hardship.
I was glad to hear the Secretary of State’s comments, and congratulate my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams on introducing this motion.