Today is the 6 of December; a day which many people in my constituency will have been dreading as it is the day on which the Universal Credit benefit payment is rolled out here in Reading and Woodley.
Along with my team, I have campaigned hard both in the constituency and also in Parliament on challenging the Government's determination to forge ahead with Universal Credit, despite it having caused very serious problems in other constituencies where the benefit payment system is presently being used.
I spoke on BBC Radio Berkshire this morning on this matter. Whilst I support the principle behind Universal Credit in that it seeks to simplify the benefit payments system, I am extremely concerned about the way in which the system has been designed in addition to the lengthy wait for the first payment to filter through. The Government should pause and fix this - now. The Budget changes do go some way to help, but I feel they do not go far enough, and there will be a large number of people going over onto this benefit and who will be without money over the Christmas period. The continuation of Universal Credit shows the Government's lack of understanding; a lot of people on benefits have very little money and have no savings to fall back on whilst they wait for their first payment, and I feel desperately sorry for those families facing Universal Credit this Christmas.
I have also previously addressed the issue of Universal Credit in the House of Commons, most recently as yesterday during the debate, and I challenged the empty gestures which some of the Government's concessions will prove to be for the people of Reading East.
Here's what I had to say:
“I wish to address my remarks to the situation in my constituency of Reading East where universal credit is rolled out tomorrow, on 6 December. Tomorrow, 10,000 of my constituents will be hit hard by this failing programme and many—I wish to point this out to the honourable Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) and others—are families in work; some are disabled; and some are people in all kinds of desperate need. We have 10,000 people facing the possibility of a Dickensian Christmas in a relatively wealthy town in one of the most prosperous regions of the country in 21st century Britain. Is that acceptable to any of us? I do not think so.”
The delays in the roll-out—it could be several weeks—mean that it is unlikely that many of those 10,000 people will be able to enjoy the benefits in time for Christmas. Indeed, many will only be paid Universal Credit in January 2018. Just like the family of Tiny Tim in Dickens’s “Christmas Carol”, there will be no Christmas in these households. For those who are not familiar with that situation, it is important to consider that those families will be struggling to find any sort of Christmas dinner, any sort of presents and any sort of celebration.
I note that the Secretary of State has now allowed a greater level of loans for families in receipt of universal credit. However, until January, loans of only 50% are available, so I ask Conservative Members to consider what it would be like to be one of the working poor in Reading, struggling to get by with 50% less income from benefits to cover their Christmas expenditure. That is half the payments they would have had this time last year. Is not Christmas hard enough already for these families? This is not only a sadly mistaken policy, but actually wrong, and the roll-out, in its current form, is failing deeply.
I appreciate that some changes were made in the Budget. However, deep flaws remain—not least the long wait and various other points made by honourable Members. I will run through some of the effects of the budgetary changes on my constituents that many have overlooked today. For the areas where the roll-out is taking place in December, it is irrelevant that the seven-day waiting period is being changed. It will be too late because it happens in February. The period over which advance payments are recovered is being extended, but this is also too late, starting in January. The interest-free advances are too late, as they start in 2018. On and on—these late interventions will not help families who will have a terrible Christmas this year.
It is quite clear that universal credit is, quite simply, a failing programme. The Government are refusing to release key documents, and the changes set out in the Budget fail to meet the needs of families. Given these fundamental flaws, the failure in delivery and the Dickensian misery being forced on families, surely the Government will admit that it is time to pause and fix this benefit.”
I maintain my challenge to the Government and urge them to pause and fix this flawed system; a system which will cause untold misery for my constituents and plunge them into an even deeper spiral of debt and insecurity.