You may be aware of my ongoing campaign to make improvements to the Universal Credit benefits system which is currently being rolled out across the country. As such, I thought it would be helpful to outline the policy aspects, I believe, we can improve and an overview of what I have been doing in Parliament to secure those improvements and bring about change for the most vulnerable.
Universal Credit (UC) is the Government's flagship welfare reform programme, which combines 6 benefits into one monthly payment. They are income based Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), income-based Employment Support allowance (ESA), income support, working tax credit, child tax credit and housing benefit. The system has been designed to incorporate a 6 week wait before recipients receive their award. This comprises a 7 day waiting period followed by a 5 week assessment period. The in-built 6 week wait assumes that UC claimants will have money left over from their previous employment or savings to carry them through the wait period. However:
- 31% of low paid workers are paid more frequently than monthly
- 41% of all families have no savings at all
- DWP Research (‘Universal Credit Test and Learn Evaluation, Sept 2017) has shown that the wait for the initial UC payment was a key factor for claimants being in rent arrears;
- 41% of claimants were in rent arrears after 8 weeks of making a claim
- In their April 2017 report, the Trussell Trust reported that referrals to foodbanks in full service areas had increased on average by 16.85%, more than double the national average of 6.64%
As a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee since 2015, we have been reviewing the roll out of UC. You can read our previous reports and recommendations here. We are also conducting a review currently, as outlined below.
Having raised my concerns about flaws in the system with the previous and current Secretaries of State, I continued to follow the system's development closely. Aware that an opportunity to pause the roll out would be available in mid-October 2017, I publicly called for it on the BBC's Daily Politics show on 15th September. I asked the Secretary of State to pause the roll-out of the full service UC system while IT issues and system design flaws were fixed.
The announcement made at the Conservative Party Conference on 2nd October confirmed the roll-out would not be paused. Instead, the Secretary of State pledged to raise the awareness of advance payments which were available to claimants who were unable to wait for their first payment.
On 9 October, during Work & Pensions Departmental Oral Questions, I questioned the Secretary of State further on whether advance payments were in fact the solution.
Building on this question, I further raised this issue with the Prime Minister during Prime Minister's Questions on 11th October. I asked the Prime Minister if she would meet with me to discuss my concerns regarding the 6-week waiting period. Two of my Conservative colleagues, Sarah Wollaston and Johnny Mercer accompanied me. We discussed general flaws with the system, the 6 week wait and the 55p per minute UC telephone line. We left feeling our concerns had been listened to.
On Wednesday 18 October, the Work and Pensions Select Committee put our concerns directly to the Secretary of State and Neil Couling, the Director of the UC programme at the DWP. You can watch the evidence session here. We outlined very clearly the problems the Committee had found with the system from evidence collected through our enquiries. The evidence session began with the welcome news from David Gauke that the UC claimant telephone would be a freephone line by the end of the month. I was delighted by this news as it told me the Prime Minister had indeed reacted swiftly to one of our major concerns. It is fair to say the rest of the evidence session was demanding.
Later that day, during Labour's Opposition Day debate, I re-iterated my concerns about the 6-week waiting period. You can hear my speech here. I abstained in the vote, not because I was whipped to do so, but because I had been assured by the Prime Minister that she would consider my concerns. Having met with her only the previous afternoon, I felt I should give her the time to consider the situation properly. To maintain momentum, I also spoke on the BBC's Sunday Politics programme on 22nd October.
On 16th Novemeber Frank Field and I secured a Backbench debate calling on the Government to support the Work and Pension Select Committee's report which recommended the initial waiting period for a first Universal Credit payment be reduced from 6 weeks to one month. You might wish to listen to the full debate here.
During the debate, I urgied the Government to support this recommendation as part of my ongoing campaign. You can listen to my speech in the debate here, and you might also wish to listen to my BBC Radio Cambridgeshire interview about hopes for the future of mycampaign on the link here.
The debate was reported by BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and you can listen to the summary at the link here.
I do feel positive and assured that the Government is listening and hope to secure further concessions in the coming weeks. I will continue to campaign on reducing the 6 week wait and update this webpage with news as the campaign develops.