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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.

ATOS debate speech (transcript)

Below is the transcript of Dame Anne’s contribution to the debate on ATOS and it’s role in carrying out Work Capability assessments for those applying for Employment Support Allowance held in Westminster Hall on Tuesday 4th September 2012:

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): Congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing this important debate. This is my first time speaking after my extended absence and therefore a good subject.

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): On behalf of everybody in the room and in the House, I welcome the hon. Lady back to the House. We are delighted to see her in such good shape. We were sad to hear of the difficulties in the long period of recovery she has had to go through. She is very welcome back.

Dame Anne Begg: I thank the Minister for being gracious. He may not be quite so gracious by the time he has heard what I have to say. I do not think that the Government have grasped how disastrous the ESA assessment system is. It is not something that can be fixed by a few tweaks here and there; we tried that with the Harrington review. What we have heard today in the Chamber—and in the “Dispatches” and “Panorama” programmes filmed in June this year—suggests that not much has changed. The people complaining are not just the usual suspects, not just the radical crips, the workshy or those who want money without being assessed. They are ordinary people, most of whom worked hard all their lives until the sky fell in and they lost their job because of an illness or an acquired disability

It is not enough for Government to say that the genuine claimant has nothing to fear. In too many cases, genuine claimants are not scoring any points in their initial assessment. There is something fundamentally wrong with the system and the contract that Atos is delivering. When the British Medical Association votes at its conference to say that the work capability assessment is not fit for purpose there is something wrong with the system. When GPs are reporting an increased workload, not just as a result of providing reports but as a result of treating patients whose condition has worsened as a result of their WCA experience, there is something wrong with the system.

When my constituent, who has lost his job because he has motor neurone disease, scores zero on his WCA and is found fully fit for work, there is something wrong with the system. When that same constituent appears in front of a tribunal and in less than five minutes is awarded 15 points, there is something wrong with the system. When people with rapidly progressive illnesses are not automatically put in the support group, there is something wrong with the system. When some people would rather do without the money to which they are absolutely entitled rather than submit to the stress of a WCA, there is something wrong with the system. When someone with a severe illness has to fight for a year through an appeal to get the correct benefit, only to be called in almost immediately for another assessment, there is something wrong with the system. When the recall and assessment happen the following year, and the following year, there is something wrong with the system. When people feel so persecuted, there is something wrong with the system. To top it all, they lose their contributory ESA after only a year if they are in the WRAG group.

When up to 40% of appeals are successful and there is no penalty for the company carrying out the assessments, there is something wrong with the contract. When so many appeals result in an award of ESA support group status when the original assessment was no points, there is something wrong with the contract. When there is no penalty for a high percentage of wrong decisions, there is something wrong with the contract. When there is no incentive for assessors to get the assessment correct first time, there is something wrong with the contract. It is time for the Government to act, because there is something fundamentally wrong with the whole system.

Text of full debate available from: http://www.publications.parliament.uk

Video of full debate available from: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=11307&st=10:58:30

Dame Anne speaks at 2h 7mins.

You can also watch a clip from the debate here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeatCaWVGEQ

Dame Anne speaks in ATOS debate in Parliament

Dame Anne spoke for the first time since summer recess in Tuesday’s debate on ATOS’s contract to carry out Work Capability Assessments for sickness benefits.

You can watch her 2hours 7minutes in on the Parliament TV video.