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Government warned Universal Credit could render claimants 'homeless by Christmas'

Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke signalled his intention not to pause rollout of the scheme, which has been beset with problems

Tom Peck
Monday 09 October 2017 19:15 BST
David Gauke told the Commons the government would carry on with the rollout of Universal Credit
David Gauke told the Commons the government would carry on with the rollout of Universal Credit (BBC)

The government has been warned that continuing with its rollout of the new Universal Credit benefits system risks plunging claimants into hunger, destitution or even homelessness over Christmas.

The Work and Pensions Secretary, David Gauke faced questions in the Commons over the scheme that has proved intensely controversial, and received angry interventions from his own side.

Labour's Frank Field, chairman of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, had asked Mr Gauke: "Given the Secretary of State's confidence in the roll-out of Universal Credit to another 150 Jobcentre Pluses, can he give the House a guarantee that none of our constituents will be faced by hunger, near destitution, for the lack of money over the Christmas period, please?"

Shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams added: "As we've heard, Universal Credit is causing debts, rent arrears and even homelessness up and down the country, with many of the claimants already in work.

"Given that housing associations are saying that over 80% of rent arrears are down to UC, and the Mayor of Greater Manchester is predicting rough sleeping will double as a result of the UC rollout, how many more families does the minister estimate will be made homeless this winter as a result of this Government's refusal to pause UC rollout?"

Mr Gauke told last week's Tory conference he would tweak the system to ensure claimants get advance payments quicker, amid criticism people are waiting six weeks for any money and getting into debt.

Conservative former prime minister John Major this weekend joined those calling for the wider rollout of Universal Credit to be paused.

On Monday, Mr Gauke told the Commons that the wider rollout was proceeding "gradually and sensibly".

Expansion over the coming months, where Universal Credit will be introduced to 50 new Jobcentres every month, will increase the proportion of people claiming the benefit from 8% to 10% of those who will eventually claim it, he added.

"I do believe that on something like this we should roll it out gradually, sensibly, make changes as and when necessary, but that is exactly what we're doing," he added.

"Nobody who needs support should have to wait six weeks before they receive any support, and what we're doing is making clear that people can receive an advance of their first month's payment.

"That is then deducted over the next six monthly periods, and that is helping people deal with the cashflow issues in that first month."

The number of Tory MPs prepared to rebel over the issue has grown to around 25, according to the Telegraph.

Monday's Work and Pensions questions session saw some mild dissent from Tory MPs over technical aspects of the system.

Heidi Allen (South Cambridgeshire), who is said to be leading the rebellion, said the new system of advance payments was treating the symptoms rather than the cause of the problems.

She added: "The advance payments cover roughly two weeks' worth of money. What support is in place for people who are waiting three, four, five, six, seven weeks?"

Former minister Andrew Selous said he warmly welcomed the quicker advance payments, while backbencher Luke Graham (Ochil and South Pershire) said: "He is aware that myself and many other colleagues on these benches have pressed him on the issue of providing support to people during this six-week assessment and transition periods for Universal Credit.

"Can he confirm that Jobcentres in Scotland will proactively offer the advances in support where needed?"

Tory former work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb defended the system, asking Mr Gauke: "Does he agree that one of the reasons why more people have gone out to work this morning than ever before in our nation's history is that as a Government we've not ducked the challenge of welfare reform, we don't let people languish for years on out-of-work benefits, and that Universal Credit is an essential part of the welfare reform programme?"

Neil Gray, the SNP's social justice spokesman, said: "Isn't the Secretary of State's apparent climbdown on crisis loans and advance payments an admission that Universal Credit is failing?"

Universal Credit combines a number of benefits such as housing benefit and tax credits into a single payment.

From October the pace of its rollout is due to be ramped up, with 50 Jobcentres moving to the service every month.

Department for Work and Pensions figures released last week showed 76% of new Universal Credit claimants received their full payment on time in the latest week for which figures were available, up from 65% at the start of the year.

Some 15% of new claimants did not receive any money on time, the figures show.

Changes to the system will ensure those who want an advance payment will receive it within five working days, and those in the most immediate need will receive it on the same day.

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