LATE LAST night – following the Brexit vote – I spoke in the Commons on the failures surrounding the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC), as well as its indiscriminate sanctions.
It was encouraging to see the Government listen to the concerns of the majority, including their own MPs in last week’s budget. Some much needed tweaking was finally carried out that will make some difference to claimants currently at the mercy of UC. But it has come too late for many who have already borne the brunt of its failure to provide basic support.
Specifically I spoke on the effect of UC across Greater Manchester. Parts of the City region were early pathfinders for the new system, and there are now over 40,000 people in Greater Manchester claiming Universal Credit. As rollout has ratcheted up here, so too have the problems with delays and inaccuracy of payments – yet we are only 10% of the way through rollout.
5 years into UC the fears raised by charities, local authorities and MP have become a reality for an increasing number of families. Yet the Government allows the UC juggernaut to rumble on regardless. I spoke to Shelter in Greater Manchester who are inundated with casework on rent arrears and evictions because of UC. I heard countless stories of extremely vulnerable tenants placed at the mercy of landlords due to the failures of UC. For example, a lady with mental health problems who was forced out of work. Her UC payment took 2 months to arrive from the point of application, by which point she had accrued two months of rent arrears. The landlord has already started the eviction process by the time her claim was paid.
In Oldham, which was one of the first pathfinders for UC, the problems are coming to light here too. Over 4000 claimants – 12% of the existing legacy benefit caseload – are now on UC. Benefit casework has increased by a third in the last year, correlating with increased rollout. UC is fast becoming the issue that constituents are most likely to approach me about. Delays, incorrect deductions, confusion and a lack of support are the words I am hearing time and time again. I recently spoke to a constituent who for the last 6 months has been underpaid on her UC claim. Despite countless efforts to rectify this with DWP she is struggling to cover the cost of food and heating. The health problems she has have significantly reduced her life expectancy. This is no way for her to live the remainder of her life.
We know that Foodbank use is up across the country, and we know that there is a strong between this and the roll-out of UC. Claimants – including many working households – are being driven into a cycle of debt and despair. There is a corrosive nature to UC that is undoing the fabric of what a decent society should look like, and questioning the effectiveness of the state to help those in need when they most require it.
I’m clear that the state must be there to support people whenever a time comes when they can’t help themselves. This may be because of poor health, the loss of job, family breakdown or disability. Or this could just be a hardworking family who can’t make ends meet. I’ve been there myself and seen first-hand how important the welfare state is to those in low-income work.
So the state is failing if it fails to help people in such times. And Universal Credit is the epitome of this failure. Far from simplifying the benefits system and helping people back into work, it has turned into a quagmire of unintended delays and pure design flaws.
The hardship grows as the caseload grows. Which is why we need a pause, to review and to refine. The Government didn’t listen to evidence pre-rollout. They have a chance to listen to the growing evidence now – starting with today’s Opposition Day debate from the Labour Party.