Over the last week, Universal Credit has been the subject of two major debates in Parliament called by the Opposition reflecting mounting concern over the way it is being introduced across the country in order to replace six other working age benefits, known as ‘legacy’ benefits.
A government consultation on what statistics it should publish on Universal Credit has just closed. They are unlikely to ever have a mass readership, but actually the use of statistics has been crucial to the debate over Universal Credit.
A key issue has been the six week wait for an initial payment once a claim has been made. According to the government‘s own figures, one fifth of claimants are still waiting longer than that to be paid in full and there is mounting evidence that the wait for payment is pushing people into debt and rent arrears.
The government should publish regular statistics on how many people are waiting longer than six weeks and how much longer they are waiting. It has said that it is going to address the problem by making it easier for people to get advance payments. That means we also need regular updates on how many people are requesting them and how many are getting them.
Even after the initial six weeks, Universal Credit is always paid a month in arrears. The government says that it is designed to mirror the world of work where people are paid monthly salaries.
However, the Office for National Statistics released figures this week showing that over a fifth of lowest paid workers are paid fortnightly or even weekly. They often do not have the savings to see them through six weeks without any money coming in.
Labour has been pressing the government not just on when Universal Credit is paid, but also how. Universal Credit is paid to only one person in a household and as a single payment, even though that covers different elements such as help with housing costs.
Paying Universal Credit to only one person in a household can make it more difficult for victims of domestic abuse to escape an abusive relationship. Including help with housing costs in a single payment to a claimant rather than directly to a landlord may also create difficulties for more vulnerable claimants such as people with learning disabilities.
It is possible to request alternative payment arrangements, but the government does not publish figures for the number of people asking for them or the number granted so we don’t know either how many people need them or how difficult it is to get them.
Ministers have repeatedly argued that people claiming Universal Credit are more likely to move into work and remain employed. However, the figures it quotes date from 2015 before cuts to the amount that people can earn before their Universal Credit starts to be reduced (known as work allowances) had been introduced.
The kind of people claiming Universal Credit at that time were also very different. Initially, in what it is known as the live service of Universal Credit, claimants were predominantly young, single people looking for work. The full service is now being rolled out and it can take claims from people whose circumstances may be more complex.
The government should publish figures on Universal Credit claimants under the full service who find and remain in work. It is important to know as well if people are progressing in employment, either through working more hours or finding a better paid job.
The government’s statistics for sanctions also only cover the live service and so at present we don’t know the sanctions rates for people in the full service of Universal Credit.
The figures for both sustained employment and sanctions should cover gender, age, disability, ethnicity, the number of children in a household and other groups such as care leavers.
There appears to be a very high sanctions rate for care leavers under legacy benefits. We know that because care leavers are flagged up in legacy benefits as they are a particularly vulnerable group, but there is at present no way of tracking them in Universal Credit. [[Hi Andrew, Are we sure that’s the case? Or is it that the system is there, but it’s not working properly. If we are sure, then please leave in]]
This autumn the government is accelerating the roll out of the full service of Universal Credit from 5 to 50 Jobcentres a month. To address the flaws in the design and delivery of Universal Credit we urgently need accurate and up-to-date statistics to see what impact it is having.
The government’s consultation asks respondents for what purpose they would use the statistics. The answer is to hold government to account and ensure that policy affecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society is based on facts not fiction in the form of out-of-date figures.
Margaret Greenwood is Member of Parliament for Wirral West and Shadow Minister for Employment and Inequalities.