Work and Pensions Questions

15th October 2018

Alok Sharma answers MPs’ questions to the Department for Work and Pensions.

Transition to Universal Credit

5. What assessment she has made of the effect on the public purse of the five-week wait to transition to universal credit. [907040]

Claimants are entitled to benefits from the moment of making a successful claim. The first payment under universal credit is made five weeks after the claim date, and all subsequent payments are made monthly thereafter. The five-week wait has no savings implications for the Exchequer.

Unlike the Health Secretary, a lot of people I represent get in touch with me about universal credit, and in particular about how they struggle to repay the loan given to them during the five-week wait period. If entitlement has already been established, will the Minister consider, instead of issuing loans, giving them the money they deserve and are entitled to in the first place?

We talk about giving support to people and, as the Secretary of State pointed out, £1.5 billion of support was put in, so those who are on housing benefit get two weeks’ housing benefit run-on in actual cash and of course people can take advances. I would say this to the hon. Gentleman and all his colleagues sitting there now who are talking about supporting the vulnerable: if that is what they want to do, why did they not support us when we voted for the £1.5 billion?

One certain way in which universal credit is helping the public purse is by getting more people into work. Can my hon. Friend confirm that universal credit is forecast to help an additional 200,000 people find work in the coming months?

I can—200,000 people over the roll-out period. Not only that, but people will be taking on extra work as well.

Astronomical numbers of people are applying to food banks during that critical five-week period. Has the Minister—yes or no—read the Trussell Trust report on universal credit roll-out?

I met the Trussell Trust last week and had a very constructive discussion. [Interruption.] I had a very constructive discussion. What I would say to the hon. Lady is that, when it comes to food banks, as she knows, the all-party group on hunger put out a very good report and said there were complex reasons for the use of food banks. You cannot put it down to any one reason.

Five hundred and thirty households presently receive universal credit in the Kettering constituency, but with the roll-out this Wednesday up to 7,700 households could be affected. Can the Minister assure me and my constituents that Kettering jobcentre is ready for the change?

I go up and down the country to jobcentres, and they invariably tell me they are having a good experience. They are learning from the past. What I think my hon. Friend will find is that his jobcentre is absolutely prepared for this further roll-out.



Universal Credit: Scotland

7. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the advice and support offered to recipients of universal credit in Scotland. [907042]

We have over 1,600 work coaches across 84 jobcentres in Scotland, who are trained to offer support and advice to claimants. As the Secretary of State pointed out earlier, we have a brand-new partnership with Citizens Advice Scotland.

Citizens Advice’s Stirling district is a superb independent source of advice, having published a plain English guide to universal credit. Does the Minister agree that independent advice on benefits is essential and that ensuring it is provided without political point scoring from the Scottish Government and local government will serve claimants better?

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is a great champion of his constituents, and he works very well with the local jobcentre. He is absolutely right: what Citizens Advice is providing is a huge amount of experience; it is an independent organisation with a national footprint. I absolutely agree that the last thing the vulnerable need is political point scoring. What they want is support, and that is what they are getting under universal credit.

What assessment has the Minister made of the closure of six jobcentres across Glasgow—

Seven jobcentres in Glasgow. What assessment has he made of those closures as universal credit rolls out this month?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have reconfigured our estate. One of the reasons that has happened is that we had over-provision of space— 20% more than we needed—and we now have jobcentres that are actually delivering. At the end of the day, one of the reasons for this is that we have much lower levels of unemployment than in 2010. I hope that is something the hon. Gentleman welcomes.

I recently held a drop-in surgery at the Kinning Park Complex in my constituency, because roll-out in Glasgow has already begun. The big issue that people raised was that they did not even know that this was going to affect them. There is a huge gap in awareness. What is the Minister going to do about this so that people actually get the benefits they are entitled to and do not lose out on transitional payments?

As I said, when I go to jobcentres, it is very clear to me that they are working extremely hard in engaging and in letting claimants know things ahead of time, and indeed in engaging with local Members of Parliament. I hope the hon. Lady has had a chance to visit her jobcentre. If she wants to have a detailed discussion about this, I am very happy to have a discussion with her after these oral questions.


Universal Credit Roll-out

13. What progress she has made on the roll-out of universal credit throughout the UK. [907048]

Universal credit is now live in 495 jobcentres available to new claimants, and within weeks it will be available throughout the country.

In two weeks’ time the remaining two thirds of my constituency will receive universal credit, following the one third who have already received it. Notwithstanding the frankly irresponsible narrative that we hear from Opposition Members, the work and pensions staff in the Aberdeen jobcentre cannot wait to get started and to deliver this transformative benefit. Can the Minister confirm that it is on track to be rolled out in two weeks’ time?

I thank my hon. Friend for engaging with his local jobcentre, which is not always done by Opposition Members. I hear the same thing from other jobcentre staff across the country. Universal credit is working, and I say to the Opposition, “Stop scaremongering: you are not helping the people who need the support.”

As universal credit is rolled out, the Government have announced that they are removing local authority funding support for claimants and placing the role solely with Citizens Advice. When will Doncaster Citizens Advice, and all the other branches in the country, know for sure exactly what resources they will receive, and when?

Let me be clear. Local authorities will continue to provide that support until the end of the current financial year, and will work in parallel with Citizens Advice, which is starting its work in the autumn.


Topical Questions

Under universal credit, severely disabled people will lose out on disability premiums worth up to £80 per week, and will also lose the £30 “limited capability for work” component. Last week, the Secretary of State said that 1 million disabled people would be “significantly better off” under universal credit. Let me ask her now whether that is really the case. Is not the reality that after the premiums and the £30 component have been scrapped, disabled people will in fact be worse off overall under universal credit?

The Secretary of State has made it absolutely clear that we will be protecting people who currently receive the severe disability premium. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Lady just listen? A million disabled households who are now receiving legacy benefits will gain, on average, £110 a month on universal credit. Those are the facts, and the hon. Lady should try to accept them.


T4. Shortly after the 2015 general election, the then Chancellor removed £3 billion per annum from universal credit. That would never have been allowed to happen had the Liberals still been in government. Members of all parties in the House have urged the Secretary of State to urge the Chancellor to replace the £3 billion work allowance so that work really does pay; will she do so? [907064]

It is absolutely clear that under universal credit work is paying. That is why we have over 3 million more people in jobs than in 2010.


T5. I welcome the announcement that Citizens Advice will be providing universal support in Dudley South and across the country. Can the Minister explain how this will benefit my constituents, and particularly their timely access to universal credit? [907065]

Through Citizens Advice, which we are rolling out across the country, it will be possible particularly for the most vulnerable to get support in terms of budgeting help and also digital support.


T3. We have heard a lot of warm words from the Secretary of State and Members on the Government Benches about universal credit, but I was recently approached by a constituent who has had to give up a well-paid job because of severe anxiety and depression and who, after the wait for universal credit, is going to be £400 a month worse off, so will the Secretary of State disown the Prime Minister’s assertion that austerity is over, because it certainly isn’t for people on universal credit? [907063]

We have been absolutely clear that there are going to be protections in place for those currently on legacy benefits as we move across to universal credit. I do wish the Opposition would stop scaring people from moving on to universal credit.


T8. Ministers defend the five-week wait for universal credit on the basis that employees will have had a month’s pay in their bank account when they left their previous job. Does the Minister accept that that case simply does not apply to employees paid weekly or those on zero-hours contracts? [907068]

I have huge respect for the right hon. Gentleman, as he knows, but that is precisely why we introduced this £1.5 billion of support earlier this year, which means people can get advances up front—up to 100%—and those on housing benefit get a two-week run-on, which is money that does not have to be repaid.


Birmingham’s food banks have had their busiest year ever—70% of their demand is due to universal credit. Can I give the Secretary of State a choice? Either pause this crazy roll-out or come to Birmingham and help us to raise the tonne and a half of food we need each month to replenish the empty food bank stock.

We have had this discussion in a number of questions now. Can I be absolutely clear? The right hon. Gentleman should look at the report produced by the all-party parliamentary group on hunger, which said that the reasons for food bank usage are complex and myriad, and cannot be put down to any single reason.


Under managed migration, claimants of legacy benefits will effectively have to apply anew for universal credit, and some vulnerable claimants may not realise and lose transitional protection as a result. Will the Minister look again at how those claimants can ensure that they retain their transitional protection?

The Secretary of State, other Ministers and I are having detailed engagement with the various health groups that the hon. Lady is talking about. We are, of course, looking at the recommendations made by the Social Security Advisory Committee.


One of the concerns being expressed by constituents about the universal credit roll-out is literacy levels and people’s unwillingness and fear about being able to complete forms. Given that universal credit is to be fully rolled out in my constituency in December, what assurance can the Minister give me that those with poor literacy levels with receive the support they need to get the benefits that they need and deserve?

Universal support has been available since 2017, but our partnership with Citizens Advice is clearly a step up. I hope that that will make a positive difference to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.


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