Yesterday the government were defeated in parliament, with myself and 298 other MPs voting to pause, and fix, Universal Credit before it is rolled out any further.
The vote is non-binding on the government but I hope it will encourage them to think again.
Universal Credit has been piloted in various areas before being rolled out wider. However, the whole purpose of a pilot study is to test the feasibility of an idea BEFORE it’s rolled out to a wider audience. Pilot studies offer the opportunity to identify potential problems, and to fix those problems before the scheme is launched wider.
However, what we appear to have in the case of Universal Credit is a scheme with many identified flaws but which is being rolled out to some of the most vulnerable people in our society by the government regardless.
Just this weekend I was talking with a CAB worker in my constituency and he described to me a basic flaw with the application procedure for universal credit. The scheme hinges upon the applicant making an appointment for an interview with the Job Centre AS WELL as filling in all the fields in the electronic UC application.
However, if the applicant fails to make an appointment with the Job Centre the whole process is deemed null and void and the applicant has to reapply all over again. Yet the CAB worker I spoke to told me that this was a common error made by applicants, leading to delays in payments being made; delays that those applicants simply cannot afford.
Such a simple thing – all that is needed is a reminder at the finish of the application process to make a job centre appointment – exactly the sort of niggle that should be identified during a pilot process, and remedied PRIOR to any wider launch. Yet it would seem that this problem was either not identified by the pilot scheme, or even worse, it was identified yet nothing was done about it.
Similarly, there is no trigger under the UC system for working out entitlement to free school meals. Currently, the children of parents who receive working tax credit are entitled to a free meal, yet there is no such threshold built into the UC system.
The Resolution Foundation has warned that ministers face having to either cut back free meals or give them to all children whose parents receive UC, which would cover an additional 1.7 million children and cost an extra £600m a year.
Single parent families are particularly badly hit by the new system. In my own constituency of Heywood and Middleton, there are 4,402 single parent families (according to the Census of 2011), which equates to 33% of the local population.
There are presently 530 single parents in Heywood and Middleton receiving UC (as of most recent DWP data from June 2017). Heywood and Middleton’s Job Centres are due to become full service in Feb 2018.
The charity for single parents, Gingerbread, has found that single parent families are experiencing significant financial hardship through delays, errors, fluctuating payments and payment in arrears. Around a third of single parents surveyed by Gingerbread were in debt before UC (Gingerbread, 2017); when families are already struggling, UC risks putting many more at risk of financial hardship.
Gingerbread make several urgent recommendations, including reducing the delay to a first UC payment, improving communication of advance payments, introducing longer repayment plans and exploring options to move to fortnightly payments for those in most need.
Similarly, the Child Poverty Action Group also recommend reducing the current six week wait for a first payment to two weeks, and warn that universal credit in its current form will contribute to increased rates of child poverty.
The group states that measures such as lifting the two-child limit will keep up to 200,000 children from poverty and that removing the benefit cap will keep up to 100,000 children from poverty.
The Citizens Advice Bureau has found that the 6 week wait is pushing people into debt, with 1 in 5 claimants having to wait longer than 6 weeks, and that Advance Payments help but are only partially propping up a flawed system (they provide people with only 50% of a payment, which covers 2 weeks, and most people wait 6 or more weeks).
Following yesterday's overwhelming vote in parliament to pause and fix the system, the government should ensure that:
● No one is left waiting longer than 6 weeks without an income
● Those who need it get a payment within 2 weeks, which they do not need to pay back
● People have access to a minimum standard of support to help them adapt to the scheme.
I don’t think I’m scaremongering (as the Tories have accused us of) in raising these issues and I don’t believe that it was ever the intention of those who devised the Universal Credit Scheme to leave thousands of people unable to pay essential bills and pushing them into debt and hardship.
The Government must act now and pause and fix the Universal Credit system before hundreds of families are made to suffer.