Universal Credit and Welfare Reform debate (Opposition Day motion)

Dame Anne spoke in Tuesday’s debate on Universal Credit and Welfare Reform moved by Liam Bryne MP.

Her speech is available here or on the They Work For You website:

This is a timely debate. I would say that, wouldn’t I, as I chair the Select Committee that happens to be undertaking an inquiry into the implementation of universal credit. I hope that today’s debate and the findings that my Committee will eventually publish—I cannot say exactly what they will be in advance—will help to highlight important issues to the Secretary of State and his Ministers, such as the questions that still need answers, the decisions that still have to be taken and the unintended consequences. I know that witnesses have already presented us with a number of such consequences in the evidence we have taken. Some groups will be worse off under universal credit and some will lose out. [Interruption.] I hope that the Secretary of State is listening, as he is due to appear before the Select Committee on Monday; he has until then to find out all the answers.

We know that major change costs money, not just in administration and set-up costs: the Government have said that there will be cash protection so that there will be no cash losers at the point of transition from existing benefits into universal credit. Those transitional

arrangements will then be frozen until the universal credit level is reached or the cash protection will be lost when there is a change of circumstances.

The Government are already cutting large areas of support that people receive—in-work credits next year, for example, while housing benefit is already being reformed—and there are more changes to come. Child care tax credit is being reduced, while the rules for working tax credit for couples have changed so that people have to be in work for more than 25 hours in order to qualify. Under the new universal credit, certain things will not exist, particularly various premiums received by many disabled people and their carers. There probably will be fewer cash losers than originally anticipated as people move on to universal credit because quite a number of people will already have lost their benefits or have seen a reduction in their income. That is probably good for the Government in respect of transitional protection because it will cost them less, but it is potentially bad for the claimant who is going to have to live on less money.

This is a huge subject, so let me concentrate my remarks on the most vulnerable. Even by the Government’s own analysis, some people will not be able to manage the online claims system or, indeed, the monthly payments. The Government use the term “digital by default”, but it will be impossible for many people, perhaps because of their IT skills or indeed as a result of the cost of accessing the equipment. I was glad to hear the Secretary of State say that there would be terminals in Jobcentre Plus centres, as that has not come out to date in the evidence we have taken; let us hear the announcement on Monday.

The Government say that most people will manage the process or will soon adapt to it. It is great if they do, because if the majority are not able to manage the system as it has been designed, it would be a catastrophe. It would also be a catastrophe if the IT did not work. In that case, everyone claiming universal credit, including those who are computer literate and can manage the system, will be in deep trouble. This is not a single benefit such as tax credits. Then, when the IT went wrong or did not work properly in the first place, it meant only a part of the family’s income not being paid. Families were not left destitute, as they had other income to fall back on until the problem was sorted out or until interim payments were put in place. That cost an absolute fortune at the time. If the IT does not work for universal credit, families will receive no money. They will not be able to pay their rent, pay any bills or buy food. As is inevitable in such circumstances, it will take time for the arrangements to be put in place, and they may become destitute before that happens.