Last week in Parliament, a debate was held on a motion asking the Government to release all impact assessments related to the introduction of Universal Credit, their new benefits scheme which rolls up six previously separate benefits (Child Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Income support, Jobseeker’s Allowance, Employment Support Allowance, Working Tax Credit) into one monthly payment. The Government claims that the Universal Credit system “makes work pay” and simplifies the process of claiming.
Given these claims, one would think that the Government would be only too ready to release impact assessment papers, for they would surely demonstrate the unparalleled success of this scheme, which this Government claim is “helping people into work”. But no – Tory MP after Tory MP stood up during the debate to extol the virtues of Universal Credit but very few referred to the subject of the debate and instead accused the Labour Party, with monotonous repetition, of “scaremongering”.
Some Tory MPs took a softer line and admitted that the rollout of Universal Credit was causing problems but these same MPs still, at the end of the debate, voted against the release of impact assessments. One Tory MP (Steve Double, St Austell & Newquay) even bizarrely claimed, after accusing the Labour Party of scaremongering: “JobCentre Plus staff told me that people who move over to Universal Credit tell their friends how good it is…people coming into the JobCentre Plus saying ‘My friends have told me that UC is so good for them. When can I sign up for it? I want the positive experience that they have had’.”
When I challenged Steve Double about this claim he asked me to check with the JobCentre Plus staff and indeed, a letter from me has been sent to the St Austell JobCentre to enquire whether these glowing claims are an accurate reflection. If these claims are in fact true, who could possibly object to impact assessments being released? They will no doubt reflect the happiness and joy being spread to Universal Credit claimants in beautiful Cornwall. One would think that the Government would be shouting this marvellous news from the rooftops – if it were true.
I wasn’t called to speak in the debate as it was heavily oversubscribed but had I been called I would have made three very simple points:
1) That far from Labour MPs “scaremongering” we are simply reporting the UC problems that our constituents are coming to us with. These are myriad – from the 5 week wait for the first payment, which is way too long for those with no savings and therefore no financial cushion to tide them over, to those who have lost money in transferring from income support to UC, and to specific issues such as “Work Coaches” who have no training in how to deal with autistic claimants. My constituents come to me because they are scared, scared of a system which seems designed to lock them out and leave them destitute.
2) The flaws in the so-called “Managed Migration” system whereby those who are currently in receipt of legacy benefits such as Tax Credits and Employment Support Allowance will be transferred to UC. This includes thousands of people with mental health problems who, under this scheme, will receive a letter telling them how to apply. However, although they are informed by letter, they must apply online and if they fail to do so in time (one month) they will be left without any support at all, either temporarily or permanently. Clearly this system will adversely affect those most vulnerable in our society, people with mental heath issues who will not necessarily open their mail, and those who do not have easy access to the internet. The mental health charity MIND has called for a pause to the rollout and for these obvious problems to be fixed, and it would appear from a recent BBC report that the Government is now backtracking and delaying the introduction although information as to what is being done to fix the problems is scarce. MIND suggests that there is no reason why people’s existing benefit claims cannot be transferred over to Universal Credit automatically and this would seem to be a very practical and humane solution which I hope that the Government will take up.
3) The Prime Minister claimed at the recent Tory Party Conference that “Austerity is over”. Yet in my constituency, where so-called “Full Service” Universal Credit was rolled out this year, Foodbank use has gone up by 35%. Only the most loyal Tory MP would fail to recognise that these two factors are most probably causally related, and that for people in mine and in many other constituencies, austerity is most definitely not over. Even the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey, is reported to have told Cabinet Colleagues that many families could lose as much as £2,400 a year as a result of transferring to claim Universal Credit.
Summing up the debate, Shadow Minister Mike Amesbury said “Let us not forget that for millions of people Universal Credit is more than just a policy; it is a daily reality. That reality is insecurity. It is fear, hunger and all too often, homelessness.” He went on to say “We need to stop, radically reform and fix this policy before it is too late.”
The response from Minister Alok Sharma was to heap praise upon his Tory colleagues, repeat the mantra that Universal Credit helps people into work (although no clear evidence can be shown for this), and to state that “playing politics with people’s lives helps no-one.”
His clear dismissal of the problems experienced up and down the country also helps no-one, and his Government showed that it does not wish evidence of their failing scheme to be made public by voting against the release of impact assessments by 299 to 279.
One cannot help but wonder what they have to hide.