Transcript of Drew Hendry’s speech in Parliament 17th January 2017
A hard-hitting indictment of the impact of the Governemnt’s austerity measures from the SNP.
I beg to move,
That this House
is concerned at the impact of policies pursued by the Department for Work and Pensions upon low-income households;
notes the negative impact on those with low-incomes disclosed in the roll-out of Universal Credit;
expresses concerns about cuts to Work Allowances under Universal Credit;
believes that the closure of JobCentre offices in Glasgow and other areas will create difficulties for many people in accessing services;
and calls on that Department to suspend the roll-out of Universal Credit and the JobCentre closure programme.
According to the UK Government, universal credit was supposed to bring fairness and simplicity, and I ask hon. Members to hold that thought when I share the experiences of some of my constituents, of people trying to help them and even of Department for Work and Pensions staff trying to navigate them through universal credit. Inverness was a pilot area for the roll-out, meaning that we were suffering the bitter effects and chaos of the full service earlier than other areas. Universal credit is hurting the people who need help the most. I know that if Government Members could see at first hand the grief that it causes, they would understand why I am so passionate about it.
Before I share some of my constituents’ experiences, I shall tell Members of my recent meetings with citizens advice bureau officers Leslie Newton and Elaine Donnelly. They have, respectively, 40 and 17 years’ experience of dealing with some of the most challenging situations we could imagine—folk at the end of their tethers, and sometimes even at the end of their lives. They have seen it all and had to deal with it. When I met them last week, they were moved to tears telling me about their universal credit case load. They told me about the suffering they were witnessing. They told me that the roll-out is a shambles, and that nobody in the system communicates with each other. They told me that the process simply does not work. They see neither fairness nor simplicity.
The transitional protection is limited and will not protect new claimants. It will be lost if the household undergoes changes in circumstances, and it does not protect people against the anguish and suffering that lengthy delays are causing them. Again, the disabled are some of the hardest hit by the move to universal credit…
The loss of the severe disability premium has taken nearly £62 a week out of the pockets of the most critically disabled. Cuts to the disabled child addition mean that 100,000 disabled children stand to lose up to £29 a week. Cuts to the severe disability premium mean that disabled lone parents with young carers stand to lose £58 a week. Those in the work-related activity group who receive employment and support allowance will lose around £30 a week.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the lack of information and data that the Department for Work and Pensions has on its own activities, particularly when it comes to the most vulnerable claimants? On 10 January, I asked the Department to provide me with the number of people who had had their benefits withdrawn or suspended in the process of transferring from disability living allowance to personal independence payment. It wrote back on 13 January to say that it did not know; is that not shocking?
It is shocking.
Disabled people who have been found unfit for work by the work capability assessment are still expected to take steps towards finding work. That group includes those who have suffered serious injuries, those in the early stages of progressive conditions such as multiple sclerosis, and those with learning disabilities. Disability unemployment is a long-standing, unique issue, and the universal credit process is creating more barriers for the disabled people in the workplace.
The Prime Minister has been talking about JAM—the so-called “just about managing”—but thanks to universal credit, many families’ income is about to be toast. I suggest the Prime Minister comes to Inverness and talks to my constituents about her shared society—to those families with children who will be up to £2,630 per year worse off, according to the Children’s Society; to the lone parents and people with limited capability for work under the age of 25 who will lose £15 a week; and to the young people and their families who will be pushed further into poverty because of reductions in standard allowances. The four-year freeze on support for children will see the value of key children’s benefits cut by 12% by the end of the decade. Universal credit will not only fail to lift children out of poverty; it will push them further into poverty.
Citizens Advice has said:
“Universal Credit is failing to live up to its promise…from the outset people have experienced problems…delays to claims and errors in their payments.”
The Public Accounts Committee found that the systems were “underdeveloped”, and said there was increasing pressure on DWP staff. My team and I see it every day, day in, day out. Only yesterday, a constituent, Laura Shepherd, got in touch. She was at the end of her tether. Her 20-year-old son, Douglas, has severe autism, and has been on the waiting list for a work capability assessment since the end of September. During this time, they have had no disability support, just the minimum level of universal credit of just over £200 a month. Quite understandably, the family are trying to get this sorted out—they want their claim backdated to cover a period when they were incorrectly given child tax credits instead of universal credit. The universal credit team cannot even give Laura any dates for a disability work assessment for her son, because assessments of that nature are done by an external contractor. The team actually told her in writing to contact me, as her MP, because they were at a loss as to what to do.
The wife of an officer serving in our Army has now been waiting five months for assistance with childcare costs—she has had no payments for five months—and has suffered a catalogue of errors and very sporadic communication. She could not get her problem sorted out because even DWP staff working on universal credit are not allowed to talk to the service centre or claims manager. Everything has to be duplicated by email, leading to confusion and lost information.
Then there is this so-called helpline. Who on earth thought that it was a great idea to make it a premium call line? It is shameful that people with no money are being made to spend their last pennies on premium lines. What do they do if they have no credit on their mobile phones—that is if the phone has not had to be pawned to make up for the money that they are not getting through waiting for their payments? Many constituents have come to my office to call the helpline because they have no money. When they do call, they are left on hold while DWP staff try to sort out errors for more than 20 minutes. We asked CAB to monitor calls, and it found that none was under the Government’s stated waiting time of three minutes 27 seconds. In fact, all 36 that it logged were for longer than that. The longest was a staggering 54 minutes and 17 seconds. Sometimes, people are offered a call back. If it happens and they get to their phone in time, they are lucky. They only get one shot at that. It is like a universal credit version of Catch 22. The transfer of universal credit to full digital has already been halted, and the halfway house that has emerged is ripe for confusion.
People are required to make some online claims, yet need to take the original copy of letters to the jobcentre at their own cost. A report detailing the impact of the controversial new scheme in Glasgow shows not only that claimants are struggling, but that services and jobs are being put at risk. There is a lack of understanding and explanation of the general requirements of a claim, and those who have special needs are often left to struggle and to face the sanctions that follow. Where is the fairness or the simplicity?
The system is manufacturing debt and despondency. In Highland, the council has a framework agreement for the temporary homeless accommodation services. It is £25 a night or £175 a week. One of my constituents, Gavin, has been living in homeless accommodation. Under the old system, he would have been awarded £168 housing benefit, leaving him a small difference of £7 a week to pay out of his other entitlements. Under universal credit, he has the same housing costs, but gets only £60 a week, which means that he has to pay £115 a week out of his other allowances—but he does not get £115 a week. Even if he gave up food, heat, light and everything else and spent every single penny he would still be short. Gavin and others will always be in arrears. The system is flawed by design.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the latest rise in UK inflation will hit poorest families hardest? Surely the Government should be doing much to counteract its effect given that it is a direct result of the fall in sterling following the Brexit strategy.
I absolutely agree, and there is more to come.
It is not just the homeless who are affected, but families in private rented accommodation who have been waiting for three months for universal credit claims. There is no fairness there. The only simplicity is that it is simply nuts. Highland council is left carrying the debt of the money that Gavin and others simply do not have. It has already accrued an additional debt of more than £180,000 as a direct result of universal credit. According to a report by Glasgow council, a total of 73 homeless people in Glasgow are now on the benefit, and have racked up £144,000 in arrears between them.
The National Federation of ALMOs—arm’s length management organisations—and the Association of Retained Council Housing, which together represent more than 1 million council homes in England, found that the percentage of council home tenants in receipt of universal credit who are in rent arrears has increased by seven percentage points—it was up to 86% in March last year. That compares with 39% of tenants in arrears who do not receive universal credit. The average arrears total has also increased, from £321 to £616.
The SNP Scottish Government have consistently done everything they can to mitigate the worst impacts of Tory welfare cuts, and new devolved powers over social security and employment support will include disability benefits, carer’s allowance and the winter fuel allowance. With these limited new powers, we will seek to build a Scottish social security system with dignity and respect at its heart—
I am going to finish up.
It is wrong that the Scottish Government and the council should foot the bill for UK Government cuts. It is also true that the proposal to cut 50% of jobcentres in Glasgow—a subject I know my colleagues will speak on shortly—is a bad idea. Let us not forget that these proposals come on the back of last year’s announcement of the closure of 137 HMRC offices across the UK, with potentially thousands of job losses in Scotland.
There is a damning litany of failure, confusion, heartache and indignity and a crushing drive towards increased poverty in the universal credit system. Long delays to payments, short payments, lost sick notes, misplaced documents, failure to respond, confusion between departments, crushed morale for the poor Jobcentre Plus staff and an inability to respond to common sense are rife in universal credit. It is time to halt this tragic experiment—the bad IDS idea—and think about how we provide for those who need our help, rather than those few who stand to profit from austerity.