Plaid Cymru Debate: Universal Credit

Oct 25, 2017 | Articles, Assembly Business, Assembly Issues | 0 comments

Plenary Wednesday 25 October 2017

17:58:15
Gareth Bennett AM

Gareth Bennett AM

Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

Spoken Contribution – 17:58:15
Watch this contribution on Senedd TV | View this contribution in the Record of Proceeding document

Thanks to Plaid for bringing today’s debate. The new system of universal credit is causing major concern among those who will be affected by it. We are seeing this from the results of the roll-out so far. So, in UKIP, we share the concerns. We agree with Plaid to that extent, and we think that Plaid are right to bring this forward as a subject for debate, although we don’t support Plaid’s ambition that welfare should be devolved to Wales. In that regard, we actually support Labour on this occasion, in that we don’t think that devolving the welfare system to the Welsh Assembly is a viable solution to the problems facing Wales, and it may actually make things a lot worse, because of the reasons that we’ve heard advanced, of Wales being a net recipient of welfare and the lack of knowledge that we will get the same level of funding if welfare is devolved. I accept that Steffan Lewis may have raised a point that needs to be further investigated, but that’s our position as it stands at the moment.

We also agree with the Conservatives to some extent, in that the principles behind universal credit may have been laudable in terms of helping people back into work, as a concept. It is just that the way that the new set-up has been designed is so very flawed that it leaves us very probably in a worse situation than we were in before.

We heard evidence on the subject on the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. We had academics from social policy units coming in who’d interviewed a lot of the claimants who were involved in the roll-out, and a sample of the claimants were asked what they thought about the new scheme. Overall, the new system wasn’t welcomed. The major issues included accessing the system in the first place, delays over payment, issues over whom the payment goes to where there are joint claims, and sanctions.

One aspect of the new system is the difficulty of making the claim in the first place. Now, a few years ago we had a change from a system whereby most new claimants for benefits would make an appointment to see someone, a real-life person, at a jobcentre or a similar office, to a system whereby the majority of new claims were made over the phone. So, that raised one level of difficultly. Now, with universal credit, we’re moving on to a new level of difficulty, because now the initial claims are made online. So, this raises the issue that some claimants aren’t online and can’t do things online, and the risk is that many of those people could fall through the cracks.

Once you actually get your claim processed, the next problem is the delay over payments. Well, we’ve heard a lot on that subject today. Bethan Jenkins detailed that in her opening contribution when she highlighted the risk of claimants falling into more debt due to the delays. There’s also the risk of the rent arrears, which we’ve also heard about, due to the system whereby the claimants themselves get paid the rent in a large lump sum, and it’s not actually paid direct to the landlord. Unfortunately, this method does increase the risk of people getting into arrears and landlords not getting their rent. Eluned Morgan highlighted the issue of the problems of the joint claims, and who gets the payment, and the fact that there isn’t really any protection built into the system for women and children, although, obviously, it’s not always the woman who gets the payment, but in general that is a point that we need to consider.

Once you are in the system and you are getting your payment there is the ever-present threat of sanctions, which Leanne Wood mentioned. Now, under universal credit, the sanctions regimes are tougher, and, of course, as in any bureaucracy—and the welfare system is a massive bureaucracy—the sanctions can be misapplied. Here is a for instance. The universal credit system has to deal not only with people not in work, but also people who are in work, but who are in low-paid jobs. This is because it is also replacing working tax credits. The problem is that, under the old system, you could claim working tax credits without visiting the jobcentre, as they were claimed through the tax system. Now, if you have a job, but it is low paid, you still have to go to the jobcentre to claim your top-up payments. So, you are in work, perhaps in a regular full-time, nine-to-five job, but you also have to go to the jobcentre at regular intervals. I wonder if you can see where we are going with this: yes, people who have jobs are being given jobcentre appointments that clash with their hours of work. They’re missing these interviews, understandably, and are then sanctioned by the jobcentre for failing to keep them. If one is caught up in this kind of trap, one is entering a Kafka-esque world of battling against a heedless bureaucracy, and the individual will very rarely win that battle.

Even if you have a job that takes up, say, 10 hours, you will encouraged—in other words, blackmailed—into getting another job for 15 hours. This inflexible approach leads to absurdities such as a woman of 60-plus who had three jobs totalling 21 hours and was still told to get another job. Sanctions can come quite randomly, and can occur six months after the alleged misdemeanour occurred. The problem with this is twofold. One issue is that the person being sanctioned will probably no longer remember the reason for it, so won’t be able to effectively appeal. Another issue is that it will be largely unforeseen, so it again raises the risk of the claimant going into debt or rent arrears—

The Deputy Presiding Officer - Ann Jones AM

The Deputy Presiding Officer - Ann Jones AM

Are you winding up, please?

Gareth Bennett AM

Gareth Bennett AM

Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

Yes. So, in general, we agree that this is a massive problem. The other issue that no-one’s talked about, which I don’t have time to go into, is that there is no meaningful way of retraining people through the system at the moment, and that is the crucial element. If you’re going to get people into work, why is there no real emphasis on retraining them and getting them into meaningful employment? Thank you very much.