Alok Sharma responds to a Westminster Hall debate on the provision of universal support

28th November 2018

Alok Sharma responds to a Westminster Hall debate on the provision of universal support in East Suffolk, which provides assistance to universal credit claimants in making claims and managing the payments they receive.

It is a pleasure, Mr Hosie, to serve under your chairmanship for, I think, the first time.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this important debate. He is a real champion of his local community, and he continues to raise issues in the House that are important not only to himself and his constituents but more widely. I completely understand that he wants to ensure that his constituents receive the support they need in the welfare system and, if required, further support to help them into work.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend and I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the Give us a Chance annual reception in Parliament, where the organisation launched its Communities that Work campaign to help even more social housing tenants into work, and I was very pleased to attend that event with him. Of course, across the Department of Work and Pensions network we already have jobcentres working closely with housing associations to support people in gaining new skills and to help them into work.

Let me turn to universal credit more widely. As my hon. Friend noted, universal credit rolled out in his area in 2016. I was very pleased to visit his local jobcentre in Lowestoft with him in September, and like him I was impressed by the commitment of the staff. In fact, I pay tribute to him, and I thank him and his staff, for the very real and positive interaction he has had over a long period with his local jobcentre.

My hon. Friend talked about issues that arose regarding the delivery of universal credit in his constituency in 2016. However, I hope he will also acknowledge that, over the last couple of years, we have made changes—positive changes—in supporting people on universal credit. I will just outline a few of those changes before moving on to talk in more detail about universal support, which I know he is keen for me to discuss.

In the 2017 Budget, we announced a £1.5 billion injection for universal credit. That came in earlier this year and meant that the seven-day waiting period before the activation of a universal credit claim was abolished. Also, advances of up to 100% of the estimated payment at the end of the first period are now available, interest-free and repayable over 12 months—that will be extended to 16 months in the future. There is also a two-week run-on of housing benefit, which is money that does not have to be repaid and that helps people who are currently receiving housing benefit with their cash flow.

In the Budget a few weeks ago, another net £4.5 billion over the scorecard period was injected into universal credit. I will pick out just two items. The first is that work allowance is increasing by £1,000 from next April, which will assist 2.4 million families. Secondly, as part of the managed migration process that my hon. Friend mentioned, there will be the two-week run-on of out-of-work DWP legacy benefits, which will assist around 1.1 million people.

My hon. Friend talked about the direct payment of rents. I know that he will welcome the fact that we now have the landlord portal in place. It was co-designed with a number of housing associations and allows for direct payments to social housing providers. By the end of this year, around 90% of all social housing stock will be covered by the landlord portal. Of course, work has also gone on to ensure that those who are in the private rented sector are also able to have their rent paid directly to their landlord, if that is appropriate. In addition, up to 85% of childcare costs are covered under universal credit, and it has been possible since earlier this year for individuals to upload information about those costs, so the process is much more efficient. 

I hope my hon. Friend will agree that we have listened and acted to improve the system. He wrote to me some weeks ago, and I owe him a response, but I wanted to attend this debate and hear any further comments that he quite rightly wanted to make before I responded. If I am not able to give him satisfaction with my answers today, I will make sure that I do so in writing to him in the next few days.

Let me turn to universal support. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is an incredibly valuable service, particularly when it is delivered in the right, targeted way. Since 2017, universal support has been delivered by individual local authorities. Some of them have chosen to deliver this service directly themselves; some—around a third of local authorities—have chosen to outsource the service to third parties, such as Citizens Advice. I believe that certain local councils have set up a model whereby Citizens Advice takes the lead in providing personal budgeting support.

Although I appreciate that some local councils are doing good work in the area of universal support, provision across the country is, if I may say so, mixed. My hon. Friend highlighted all the good work that has been going on in his local area, and of course I commend that work and all the key stakeholders who have been involved in it. I will come on to say how they can perhaps continue to work together.

However, based on the information we have received from local authorities across the country, take-up of universal support in 2017-18 was around 30% of what the DWP had forecast it would be. Clearly, what we needed to ensure, and what we want to ensure, is that we have a system in which more people receive this support and that we reach out and assist the people—particularly the vulnerable—who ultimately need it. My hon. Friend referred to the need for us to reach out to those who are particularly vulnerable.

I will just set out how the Department took this decision about the new partnership with Citizens Advice. As my hon. Friend and others will be aware, for some time now key stakeholders have been quite vocal that, in its current format, universal support was not delivering on its aims and that claimants were ultimately missing out on this key support. More recently, the Work and Pensions Committee opened an inquiry into universal support, and I provided it with oral evidence in July. The Committee has since published its report, and the Department will of course respond to all the points it raises.

In recent months, Citizens Advice and a number of other charities, think-tanks and MPs have shared evidence with the Government showing that the type of support available, and how people can access it, differs depending on where people live. As the Government have continued this “test and learn” approach to universal credit, the design of the support has needed to change.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, it was announced on 1 October that from April 2019 Citizens Advice will deliver a more comprehensive and consistent support service, independent of Government, to help ensure everyone can access the support they need to complete a universal credit claim, no matter where they live. Of course, the DWP maintains close partnerships with local authorities in many areas—for example, in identifying customers with safeguarding, housing and health needs, and in initiatives such as troubled families support.

Local authorities are funded for the current year to deliver universal support, and they will continue to do so until the end of March 2019. I raise this point because my hon. Friend asked what would happen in future years. The grant agreement for local authorities is only ever for one year, and there should not necessarily be an expectation that funding will continue beyond this year of allocation. Citizens Advice has been asked to run alongside the arrangement that local authorities currently have in place to get up to speed, so that it is ready to deliver from 1 April with no gap in service provision. My hon. Friend raised the issue of funding for next year. Some £39 million will be provided to Citizens Advice, and money is also going in this year to help it get up to speed.

Local Citizens Advice already has strong working relationships with key partners such as local authorities and housing providers, and will be working closely with them as the service is launched. Citizens Advice will build on where good practice exists, such as local good partnership working. From the perspective of Citizens Advice, it is of course independent of Government, but as my hon. Friend pointed out, the Citizens Advice in his area has strong working relationships with key partners. I certainly expect that it will work closely with those key partners as the service is launched, and build on where good practice exists, including local good practice.

The Work and Pensions Committee put out its report on universal support on 28 October this year, and I will read a short extract from it:

“The Department’s announcement that the contract for Universal Support will pass to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland in 2018/19 and 2019/20 will help take pressure off already-stretched local authorities.”

My hon. Friend talked about what will happen beyond that period. Clearly, we will look to see how the partnership we have in place with Citizens Advice progresses. I completely appreciate that, as we move into managed migration, we need to make sure we have an offer that is robust and sufficient to assist people.

In conclusion, the Department for Work and Pensions wants the strong partnerships with local authorities to continue. We want universal support to be delivered well and consistently across the country, and I certainly expect there to be continued local working between Citizens Advice and other key stakeholders on the ground. For me, this is the start of a conversation with my hon. Friend, and as time progresses and Citizens Advice develops its partnerships nationally and locally, I will be happy to continue this dialogue. As I said, I will, of course, write to him in the coming days about any of the points that I have not been able to answer.

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