Alok Sharma responds on behalf of the Government to an Oppositiion Day debate on universal credit

17th October 2018

Alok Sharma responds on behalf of the Government to an Oppositiion Day debate on universal credit highlighting the latest jobs figures that show that under universal credit the incentives to work and helping people into jobs.

No one can say that universal credit does not get a decent outing in the House: we debated it at departmental oral questions on Monday; I responded to an urgent question on it yesterday; here we are discussing it again today; and tomorrow I shall appear before the Work and Pensions Committee. It is of course right that we debate, that we as a Department are held to account and that we listen and improve the system, and that is what we are doing with universal credit. In her speech, the Secretary of State outlined all the measures we have taken and all the changes we have made over the past months. It has been about benefiting all our constituents who need support.

In this debate, we, and the Opposition in particular, should never lose sight of what it is that we all came into politics to do, which is to improve the lives of our constituents. In the Department for Work and Pensions, it is about not only supporting those who need support but ultimately helping people into work. Of course, helping people into work is about helping people to earn a wage, but it is often also about much more than that. It is about restoring someone’s self-confidence, giving them their pride back and fuelling that sense of fulfilment that comes from their being able to support themselves and their family. That is precisely what universal credit does. It is a system that supports the vulnerable, that is fair to taxpayers, that is sustainable and, ultimately, that makes work pay.

As a number of my colleagues pointed out, under universal credit, people get into work faster, stay in work longer and earn more. As the latest jobs figures showed yesterday, our policies are working. They are helping people into jobs.

Will the Minister give way?

I will not take interventions. I took around 50 interventions, in effect, from colleagues yesterday, so I hope the hon. Lady does not mind.

Unemployment is at a 43-year record low. Youth unemployment has more than halved since 2010. Wages are growing above inflation for the seventh month in a row. Britain is starting to get a well-deserved pay rise as we come out the other side of the terrible economic legacy that we inherited from the last Labour Government. This is a record that we on the Government Benches are proud of.

We heard some excellent speeches today; let me outline some of the comments that were made. We heard a really thoughtful speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who pointed out the disaster of the introduction of tax credits. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) talked about the enthusiasm and commitment of the staff in his local jobcentres. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) made a really passionate speech. I recently visited his local jobcentre with him and he absolutely cares. When he said that the legacy benefits system sapped ambition, he was absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) pointed out the problems in the legacy benefits system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), a former Employment Minister, talked about Labour’s welfare trap.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) made a thoughtful speech and pointed out that at the end of the day this is about making sure that work pays. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) pointed out that he has constituents who have recommended universal credit to other constituents as something that absolutely works for them. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) talked about the legacy benefits system being broken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) talked about the fact that under universal credit the incentives to work are absolutely strengthened. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) pays a huge amount of attention to these issues and is incredibly engaged with them. She highlighted our excellent new partnership with Citizens Advice. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) reminded us that people were trapped on the legacy benefits system. My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) talked about tax credits.

I could go on. I am sorry that I have not been able to mention all the excellent speeches made by Conservative Members. When Opposition Members have individual issues, they should bring them to us. It is no good talking in generalities; bring forward those issues and we will address them.

The Secretary of State, in her opening remarks, outlined all the reports and the information that we as a Department have already published on universal credit. She made it clear that many independent organisations publish regular reports about universal credit, too. This is not a welfare reform lacking in scrutiny and transparency. However, this is not just about publishing information; it is also about interactive dialogue, which we are having.

We will continue to engage as we move forward for the next phase of universal credit, but playing politics with people’s lives helps no one. We should be working together to support the most vulnerable. I urge the House to reject the motion.


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