Tories’ flagship policy is a “national scandal” with families going hungry, reveals Labour MP Frank Field

Parliament today heard the full horror of the Tories’ flagship policy that has left many families looking at the prospect of going hungry for weeks as Christmas approaches.

The roll out of Ian Duncan Smith’s brainchild – the Universal Credit welfare overhaul has been criticised by MP’s from all quarters, as well as charities and housing associations whose tenants have been left unable to pay their rent for weeks.

Opposition MP’s today called for the six week wait their constituents were facing to be reduced to a month to mitigate the harm. As Universal Credit is rolled out around the country, it has left people without payments for up to 60 days, leaving them in rent arrears and at risk of eviction.

Frank Field, the Labour chairman of the work and pensions select committee, described how the botched benefit roll out had become “a personal nightmare for our constituents.”

The Birkenhead MP told ministers that words cannot express the full “horror” of universal credit, in a shocking speech that detailed how families in his constituency were left going hungry.

In his heartfelt speech, the veteran Labour MP gave these shocking examples:

“Constituent No. 1 made three applications online. When they finally got through, they were told that no application had been received. They were paid six weeks after the third application. The constituent has three children to feed, and they were hungry.

Constituent No. 2 had twice attempted to apply online, and twice the application had been lost. They waited a further eight weeks before receiving money. They were hungry.

Constituent No. 3, who has a four-year-old daughter, waited two months for universal credit to be processed and tried the hotline six times, but was told that a new system was in place—it took several days before they phoned her back. She was then told, “No claim could be found.” Wow! Her payment date was pushed back by a further 11 days. My constituent and her daughter went hungry.

Constituent No. 4 waited 12 months for universal credit. The Secretary of State, bless him, not here today, admitted that some error had occurred. My constituent is sinking in debt, despite the role of citizens advice bureaux, MPs, food banks, and getting welfare rights advisers in—despite all that.

Constituent No. 5 was migrated from housing benefit to UC, with their housing benefit stopped immediately. They then waited seven weeks for UC, but when it came there was no housing component. Again, this constituent risks being evicted.”

And in a damning indictment of the Government, the Labour MP concluded: “The Government tell me that the roll-out of universal credit in Birkenhead is going hunky-dory—that all the things I have tried to represent and all the pleas from the food bank to raise 15 tonnes more food is scaremongering—

so will the Minister say whether the Government are still as confident as they were when I first asked the question many months ahead of the roll-out?

Or should I go home and roll up my sleeves with those at the food bank who are trying to collect 15 tonnes more food to prevent families from being engulfed, this Christmas and beyond, by hunger of undue proportions? This is a national scandal that the Government could stop. Will they stop it, please?”

Watch his shocking speech to Parliament and read the full transcript below:

Emergency Debate: Universal Credit Roll Out

Emergency Debate: Universal Credit Roll Out

Posted by Parliament Today UK on Thursday, 16 November 2017

This is Frank FIeld’s full shocking speech:

For my constituents, the horror of the full roll-out of universal credit happened yesterday.

I begin by confessing my inadequacies. When we debate in this great place I am sure most, if not all, of us reflect on how we simply do not have the language to match the task of presenting to the nation, through this Chamber, what is happening. This is the most important debate I have participated in during my nearly 40 years as the Member of Parliament for Birkenhead. I have never felt more acutely the inadequacy of the language I have to try to tell the House of the horror that is now happening to a growing number of my constituents under this so-called welfare reform programme.

So long as I do not get lots of interventions, as I did last Tuesday, I promise to speak briefly on five brief themes: first, the horrors under the existing roll-out of universal credit, before the full roll-out; secondly, the organised chaos that now presents itself in my constituency; thirdly, the national impact of what will be a growing crash and smash in many decent, honourable people’s lives; fourthly, the one reform on which all members of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions agree—this will not be our only report, but given the evidence, and we want to report to the House on the evidence, not on what we think or feel, the biggest change the Government could make is to reduce the initial wait from six weeks to four weeks—and finally, the long-term reforms.

When I saw the Minister at the coffee machine yesterday and he kindly told me that he would reply to the debate, I said that I had already asked the question four times. I am sorry that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is not here today, because he has no more important task. However much affection we have for the Minister of State for the seriousness with which he has gone about his career in this House, this issue is of such national importance that for the Secretary of State not to be here says something pretty big.

I have now asked the question five times. The Secretary of State tells me, “Go back home and say it’s all hunky-dory. You don’t have to worry. It’s all going to be rolled out fine.” And I say, “The food bank says we need 15 tonnes more food.” Who are we to believe?

This case began some time ago, but a person who is involved turned to their MP for help yesterday, the day of the full roll-out. It is an historical case of a gentleman who had waited and waited for an operation at our local hospital. That operation took place at the same time as he was told to turn up for an interview at our Jobcentre Plus. He was sanctioned. A friend reported yesterday that this constituent of mine is now homeless and, while homeless, struggling to recover from the surgery.

I will now give five examples of the horrors that are happening in Birkenhead under the existing system. We were told the system would be simplified and manageable. These five cases have come into one MP’s surgery. I do not want to speak for terribly long, but I could raise yards of cases—we could all raise yards of cases—of what is actually happening to our constituents.

Constituent No. 1 made three applications online. When they finally got through, they were told that no application had been received. They were paid six weeks after the third application. The constituent has three children to feed, and they were hungry.

Constituent No. 2 had twice attempted to apply online, and twice the application had been lost. They waited a further eight weeks before receiving money. They were hungry.

Constituent No. 3, who has a four-year-old daughter, waited two months for universal credit to be processed and tried the hotline six times, but was told that a new system was in place—it took several days before they phoned her back. She was then told, “No claim could be found.” Wow! Her payment date was pushed back by a further 11 days. My constituent and her daughter went hungry.”

Conservative MP Anna Soubry said: “These are heartbreaking and unacceptable accounts, but I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman can help me. When I met the citizens advice bureau in Broxtowe, where we had UC being rolled out in July, I was told that it is now making the arrangements with all relevant authorities so that these very examples do not exist.

My question to the right hon. Gentleman is: did these constituents come to him at the end of this ghastly process or earlier? If they had come earlier, they would find that we as MPs all have exactly the access to speed it up. Does he agree that we should be doing this now before it comes out in our areas?”

Frank Field replied:

I could not agree more, although I have been here a little longer than the right hon. Lady and I never thought that as an MP I would be speaking like this, about this, with my job being adapted in this way. Of course we have had summits, and we are continuing to have them, bringing all the people together, including Jobcentre Plus, to try to prevent these things from happening. Despite those efforts, these are the cases of horror that are resulting and that I am presenting to the House.

Constituent No. 4 waited 12 months for universal credit. The Secretary of State, bless him, not here today, admitted that some error had occurred. My constituent is sinking in debt, despite the role of citizens advice bureaux, MPs, food banks, and getting welfare rights advisers in—despite all that.

Constituent No. 5 was migrated from housing benefit to UC, with their housing benefit stopped immediately. They then waited seven weeks for UC, but when it came there was no housing component. Again, this constituent risks being evicted.”

The Birkenhead MP continued: “Four constituents of mine have had their claims closed down, with the only too imaginable consequences of what it has meant for their lives. The landlord of one of them has said, “I do not want to evict the tenant, however I might be left with no choice.” That tenant has said, “I am behind with not only my rent, but my council tax. All I’ve got to live off is child benefit. The school has been so worried about the welfare of my son that my sister offered to take him in to her household so that he was not taken into care.

I might give way a little later, but I want everybody to have a chance to speak. 

Let us examine how sanctions apply in this system. I wish to give one example of a lad who, after huge difficulty, got a part-time job. We must consider the pride that came with that job; he was walking out in the morning knowing that at end of the week he was going to bring a wage packet back. I point out that this is at the end of the week, Minister, not the end of four weeks or six. There was a transformation in him, but the jobcentre decided that he was not trying hard enough to get a better job, so they sanctioned him and took his money away. He then could not exist on the money from his job. He now has no money and is well on his way to destitution. 

So my third theme is: what is the national impact of this slow motion crash for us, but high-speed crash for our constituents? What has the Trussell Trust told us about the impact around the country of this roll-out of universal credit? We must remember that the Trussell Trust is the “trade union”, so to speak, of only half our food banks. It reports that it needs 1,500 additional tonnes of food for the coming year in any case, but that it will need an additional 2,000 tonnes to take on the consequences now of UC. As I have said, in Birkenhead we will need 15 tonnes of food in the coming year. We knew that this, for us, evolving slow crash, coming up over weeks, was going to happen, but in Birkenhead it actually began yesterday. 

That is why the Select Committee, of one mind, on the evidence that it received, said that the most important thing the Government could do, of the many things it could do—this was the one thing that stood out from our evidence and we wanted them to do it as quickly as possible—was to reduce the wait from a maximum of six weeks to a maximum of four weeks. The first 133 submissions to the Select Committee told us that the six-week wait is the main force pushing people to having no food, risking everything and the brink of destitution. It is not a surprise, is it, Minister, given that the data from your old Department, the Treasury, tell us that more than half of low-income and middle-income families have no savings at all to fall back on? Two thirds of us have less than a month’s savings to tide us over a crisis. 

Let us consider the very idea that these families—the most vulnerable people that we have the honour to represent in this House—can wait for six weeks. In the cold light of day, one wonders how any decent set of people—[Interruption.] The great architect of this reform is not in this place, although he was here earlier—I refer to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). Could he ever have really wanted this result for this reform? I hope he is going to come back and tell us that when he failed to fend off cuts from the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer he could never have envisaged that this reform of noble intent should end in these personal nightmares for our constituents. 

The Select Committee does not yet have evidence on this—we may get the evidence to persuade us to publish a united report—but for me there seem to be five obvious reforms that we need to build into universal credit, in addition to that four-week wait. First, if Scotland can have two-weekly payments, why cannot England? Northern Ireland is going to get payments every two weeks; why cannot Wales? I thank Scotland for negotiating a subcontracted agreement to show that what was thought to be impossible is indeed possible, once due pressure is applied. I offer huge thanks for that.

Secondly, we want rents to be paid directly to landlords, if people wish.

Thirdly, we want the DWP automatically to tell local authorities and housing associations that their tenants will be pushed into debt. I do not think that is our or the citizens advice bureaux’ job; it is the Department’s job.

Fourthly, under the current system babies and toddlers are going without Healthy Start vouchers and children are going without free school meals because the data that was previously held separately and could be given to local authorities is now held in the universal credit system and not given to local authorities. Can that terrible nonsense please come to an end?

Lastly, my colleagues and I had a fight when the Government removed from the statute book the duty of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to promote claimants’ welfare. The Government said that it was not necessary and that they were tidying up the statute book—“We’re all in favour. Who could possibly be against promoting the welfare of claimants?” My argument was that if it is so unnecessary, let us just leave it on the statute book, in case. The current sanctions policy could never, ever have worked if that duty on the Secretary of State had existed, because the Secretary of State delegates to every person who works in DWP offices, and they would have to carry out that discretion on the Secretary of State’s behalf.

The House knows that I was as tough as old boots on the need for sanctions—people should have to abide by the rules—but the idea that we have sanctions without anybody in the office being able to exercise discretion is appalling. Imagine being an officer to whom somebody says, “You can ring the hospital and find I was actually on the operating table when you wanted me here for an interview. Please don’t sanction me!”, but the sanction is applied automatically because there is no discretion. That should end.

I plead with the unbelievably decent Minister for Employment: I want those mutterings of his—when he says that he is appalled, that this does not need to happen and that he can explain why it is not going to happen—to be on the record when he replies. I also ask this of Ministers on the Treasury Bench for the fifth time:

the Government tell me that the roll-out of universal credit in Birkenhead is going hunky-dory—that all the things I have tried to represent and all the pleas from the food bank to raise 15 tonnes more food is scaremongering—

so will the Minister say whether the Government are still as confident as they were when I first asked the question many months ahead of the roll-out?

Or should I go home and roll up my sleeves with those at the food bank who are trying to collect 15 tonnes more food to prevent families from being engulfed, this Christmas and beyond, by hunger of undue proportions? This is a national scandal that the Government could stop. Will they stop it, please?”

By Benjamin Jenkins

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