Work and Pensions Questions

11th February 2019

Alok Sharma responds to MPs’ questions to the Department for Work and Pensions about universal credit.

Universal Credit Roll-out

2. What recent progress she has made on the roll-out of universal credit. [909108]

We have now successfully rolled out universal credit full service across the country, with 1.6 million people now claiming universal credit. For the next phase, referred to as “managed migration,” we will test and refine our approach in a pilot, with up to 10,000 people moving from legacy benefits to universal credit. That pilot will start in July 2019.

It has now been a calendar month since the High Court found the DWP unlawful in its universal credit work assessment periods, yet hard-pressed families are still being penalised for receiving payments on a four-weekly basis. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment to make a statement to this House on how to rectify that appalling anomaly?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point but, as he is aware, the Department is considering the High Court judgment carefully—I have said this before in the House—and it therefore would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.

Can the Minister confirm that, because of the Budget, there will be £4.5 billion available in additional measures over the next couple of years?

Yes, we set out in the last Budget that there will be £4.5 billion available, with a large amount of that obviously coming through the increase in work allowances.

As the Minister knows, universal credit has now been rolled out in Hull. A constituent, who has had an incredibly troubled life, came to see me on Friday. During his time he has suffered from addiction, he has been sleeping on the street and he has had convictions. The good news is that, not long ago, he walked through the doors of the Jubilee Church in Hull, and people there have been giving him support. He is now on an 18-month rehabilitation course. However, he has been told that, at the same time, he has to actively look for work. Surely the Minister would agree that while this young man is on a rehabilitation course—an opportunity for him to turn his life around—he should not also have to prove that he is actively searching for work.

Easements are, of course, available. I am happy to sit down and discuss the specifics of this case with the hon. Lady to see what may be possible.

On the evening of 14 January, the Government announced that, from this May, mixed-aged couples on a low income will no longer be able to claim pension credit when the older partner reaches state pension age and will have to claim universal credit instead. Couples affected could lose out by up to £7,000 a year, and the Conservative party manifesto pledged to safeguard pensioner benefits. Why have the Government broken that pledge?

Of course, we are safeguarding pensioner benefits overall.

No, you’re not.

If the hon. Lady would kindly listen, what I am saying is that the long-agreed change for mixed-age couples was voted on and agreed by Parliament in 2012. We should also be clear that mixed-age couples already claiming pension-age, income-related benefits at the point of change will not be affected, so long as they remain entitled.

Hansard
 

Universal Credit: Fluctuating Income

4. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the monthly assessment period for universal credit takes into account a claimant’s fluctuating income. [909110]

Monthly reporting allows universal credit to be adjusted on a monthly basis, which ensures that if a claimant’s income falls, they will not have to wait several months for a rise in their UC award.

My constituent who works for the NHS is paid a day outside her assessment period, meaning that she has to borrow money to pay the bills when she loses the benefits she is entitled to. Why, despite the High Court’s ruling, are this Government still making the lives of single working parents as difficult as possible?

As I have said, we will respond to the judicial review in due course. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that, where the employer pays a claimant on a fixed date every month but that changes because of a weekend or a bank holiday, we tell the employer that they should still report the actual pay date to the real-time information system, so that the UC claim is unaffected. Guidance is available from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on that.

I think the Minister has just referred to the situation that affects my constituent, who is paid on the last Friday of every month, so as the calendar date varies, there are occasions when there is a nil award for UC. Will he confirm that that issue is being looked at and considered?

Yes. As I have said, this is a matter where employers need to take action, and guidance is available from HMRC. As I understand it, employers were once again reminded before Christmas that they need to get the right payment date in place.

My constituents in this situation are still being harassed by the Department. Is the Minister going to make the change in line with the High Court judgment from 11 January or for all claims that fall into this category from the very beginning?

I completely understand why colleagues are asking these questions and why they want answers, but I have to repeat myself at this stage and say that the Department is considering the High Court’s judgment. I hope therefore that the hon. Lady will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to comment further.

Very good of the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) to join us. He will be pleased to know that he is just in time.

My constituent received an unexpected late payment for temporary work during his UC assessment period, which resulted in a nil award. Surely the time has come to ensure that the assessment period recognises when the money was earned and not when it was received.

We had a discussion about what happens where there is a fixed payment date, but I point out that where two awards had been made in one assessment period it would mean that the claimant would be entitled to a maximum UC award in the following assessment period.

Hansard
 

Universal Credit: Social Security Advisory Committee

8. What recent progress her Department has made on implementing the recommendation of the Social Security Advisory Committee on alternatives to claiming universal credit online. [909114]

Universal credit is primarily a digital service, but it can also be accessed via telephone and in a jobcentre, where in-person support is available. We also provide assisted digital support as part of our current universal support offer.

The Secretary of State told Sky News that she will ensure that no deflection script strategy is used by the universal credit helpline in the future. Is she therefore admitting that a deflection script has been in use, and that there has been a culture of rushing people off the phone and diverting them online? If so, will she now apologise for the Department having denied this tactic?

The hon. Lady has already been sent a copy of the universal credit digital channel document, which Department for Work and Pensions staff use as a guide when taking calls from claimants. She will be aware that this document says clearly that staff must use a common-sense and sensitive approach in resolving queries ahead of any digital discussion. Let me be absolutely clear that there is no intention to deflect and there are no targets for getting claimants to use a digital channel.

On 15 January, the First Minister of Wales agreed with Plaid Cymru and Labour MPs that the devolution of certain aspects of welfare benefits should be explored. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how universal credit can be better tailored to the needs of the people of Wales, particularly with regards to claiming online and the needs of Welsh speakers?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have now put in place mechanisms so that Welsh speakers do benefit. I am happy to meet him and any other colleagues to discuss any issues that they may wish to raise.

Hansard
 

Location of Jobcentres

16. What criteria her Department uses to determine where jobcentres are located. [909123]

The DWP has a network of over 630 jobcentres across the UK. We consider a number of factors when making decisions about the future DWP estate, including the potential demand for services, the accessibility of our buildings and value for money.

I have a vulnerable constituent who lives in Stansted Mountfitchet but has to travel an hour and a half by public transport to Braintree in order to access a jobcentre. Will the Minister please review jobcentre provision in my constituency, specifically in Uttlesford district?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work she does on behalf of her constituents. I can confirm that we will continue to work with community-based partner organisations, including Saffron Walden Town Council, to ensure support and the delivery of outreach. Also, for vulnerable claimants and those in remote areas, alternative attendance arrangements can be introduced.

Just before I call the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), I can tell her that this morning I conducted my usual weekly Skype session with school students, and today it was with students at the outstanding Elm Wood Primary School in her constituency. I engaged with those quite superb, articulate and personable students, and with their class teacher, Stephanie Kamara, and the headteacher, Ms Myrtle Charles, who made a guest appearance. What a credit those students are to their teachers and parents.

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Topical Questions

T2. European Union citizens who have worked in this country primarily through agencies are at risk of failing the habitual residence test although they have lived here for many years, because their employment might not have been continuous. Will the Minister meet me to outline what protections are available for those EU citizens? [909132]

Yes, of course I will meet the hon. Lady. As she knows, there are set criteria in place before people are able to claim benefits or universal credit, but I am of course very happy to meet her.

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Some people are paid four weekly, not monthly, so one month of the year, they will get two payments. Will the Minister ensure that universal credit can cope adequately with this situation?

As my hon. Friend knows, we discussed this in an earlier question. Of course, the key thing is to get support to people, and where they have two payments in one assessment period and none in the following period, they should expect to receive their full universal credit payment.

Hansard

 

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