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Universal Credit is sending families to food banks – it must be suspended

The system is failing and the government needs to admit it.

If a manual was ever written on how not to roll out a new benefit it would tell the sorry tale of Universal Credit.

Complaints to the government are so high that they don’t count them "owing to the volume."

If you take out the politics of callous cuts, ludicrous sanctions targeted at those least able to take the burden the principle was sound enough. Rather than a complex range of benefits administered by various departments and agencies of government, there would be a single straight forward benefit.

That was the easy bit. Actually making it happen required planning, resourcing and most importantly a culture which informed every single decision - one that said it’s about people, not nonsensical rules.

The scheme has hit the press for all the wrong reasons and pressure is growing for a fundamental review before it is allowed to roll out across the country.

Oldham was one of the original pilots. The council did not welcome cuts or pain, in fact it was a fierce critic of welfare reform and the impact it was having on the town. Having invested in a new welfare advice service to help residents access benefits they were entitled to but not claiming, the council felt it could work in partnership to get it right.

Yet even the council feel frustrated that while relationships with DWP staff on the ground are reported to be good, many problems with the IT system, delays and errors have failed to be addressed.

My constituency office has been helping many individuals with increasing frequency and it is clear that not only is the system itself broken, but more than that it is littered with rules which add nothing to the process but which send many decent people into unnecessary debt and depression.

When you do have questions or get into difficulty and need to pick up the phone you’ll be charged up to 55p a minute for the privilege of trying to get to a person who can help navigate an online system. This can take over two very expensive hours to complete an application for a couple, if it doesn’t crash midway through. The longest wait reported by government is over 13 minutes – that’s not the total time taken to deal with the query but simply to get to speak to a person. Then it takes an average of seven minutes to deal with the query.

I was so concerned with the impact on my own constituents that I called together a meeting of charities, public bodies and of course those directly affected by the Universal Credit system to hear first-hand it impact. During the discussion it was clear that even those who wanted it to work seemed to think it had gone too far to save.

Oldham Foodbank report truly heart-breaking cases, including new parents who, on reporting the birth of their third child, were hit with a change of circumstance delay which immediately stopped benefits for six weeks as a time when the family had limited wages coming in and rent and other bills stacking up.

Last month alone the foodbank gave three-day food packages to 364 adults and 177 children, the vast majority of which were a result of benefit delays. Most of those were avoidable, they were entitled to the benefits they were claiming; many had been doing so without problems before, but had been sent to queue at the food bank because of unnecessary delays and the failure of government to promote the advance payment scheme.

Nationally the roll out of Universal Credit is only seven per cent complete, but there are such serious problems MPs from across the country are demanding that its expansion is halted. I'm going further to say that not only should the national rollout be stopped but early adopter areas like Oldham see no more people transferred as part of the "Full Service" roll out until government address the failings of this broken system.

If the government goes ahead with this clearly broken system it will send thousands of my constituents into debt and desperation as 19,500 families are shifted onto Universal Credit.

Citizens Advice are leading the charge and it’s a campaign I fully support.

My plea to government is to halt the roll out of Universal Credit until an independent body made up of charities and public agencies agree it is fit for purpose.

Far better an admission of failure now with the mature and responsible decision to learn from that failing rather than to hit over 7 million families, a staggering quarter of the working population who will be forced onto a system which is designed to fail.

Jim McMahon is Labour and Co-Operative Party MP for Oldham West & Royton

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Universal Credit takes £3,700 from single working parents - it's time to call a halt

The shadow work and pensions secretary on the latest analysis of a controversial benefit. 

Labour is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) to be halted as new data shows that while wages are failing to keep up with inflation, cuts to in-work social security support have meant most net incomes have flat-lined in real terms and in some cases worsened, with women and people from ethnic minority communities most likely to be worst affected.

Analysis I commissioned from the House of Commons Library shows that real wages are stagnating and in-work support is contracting for both private and public sector workers. 

Private sector workers like Kellie, a cleaner at Manchester airport, who is married and has a four year old daughter. She told me how by going back to work after the birth of her daughter resulted in her losing in-work tax credits, which made her day-to-day living costs even more difficult to handle. 

Her child tax credits fail to even cover food or pack lunches for her daughter and as a result she has to survive on a very tight weekly budget just to ensure her daughter can eat properly. 

This is the everyday reality for too many people in communities across the UK. People like Kellie who have to make difficult and stressful choices that are having lasting implications on the whole family. 

Eventually Kellie will be transferred onto UC. She told me how she is dreading the transition onto UC, as she is barely managing to get by on tax credits. The stories she hears about having to wait up to 10 weeks before you receive payment and the failure of payments to match tax credits are causing her real concern.

UC is meant to streamline social security support,  and bring together payments for several benefits including tax credits and housing benefit. But it has been plagued by problems in the areas it has been trialled, not least because of the fact claimants must wait six weeks before the first payment. An increased use of food banks has been observed, along with debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness.

The latest evidence came from Citizens Advice in July. The charity surveyed 800 people who sought help with universal credit in pilot areas, and found that 39 per cent were waiting more than six weeks to receive their first payment and 57 per cent were having to borrow money to get by during that time.

Our analysis confirms Universal Credit is just not fit for purpose. It looks at different types of households and income groups, all working full time. It shows single parents with dependent children are hit particularly hard, receiving up to £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credits - a massive hit on any family budget.

A single teacher with two children working full time, for example, who is a new claimant to UC will, in real terms, be around £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12.

Or take a single parent of two who is working in the NHS on full-time average earnings for the public sector, and is a new tax credit claimant. They will be more than £2,000 a year worse off in real-terms in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12. 

Equality analysis published in response to a Freedom of Information request also revealed that predicted cuts to Universal Credit work allowances introduced in 2016 would fall most heavily on women and ethnic minorities. And yet the government still went ahead with them.

It is shocking that most people on low and middle incomes are no better off than they were five years ago, and in some cases they are worse off. The government’s cuts to in-work support of both tax credits and Universal Credit are having a dramatic, long lasting effect on people’s lives, on top of stagnating wages and rising prices. 

It’s no wonder we are seeing record levels of in-work poverty. This now stands at a shocking 7.4 million people.

Our analyses make clear that the government’s abject failure on living standards will get dramatically worse if UC is rolled out in its current form.

This exactly why I am calling for the roll out to be stopped while urgent reform and redesign of UC is undertaken. In its current form UC is not fit for purpose. We need to ensure that work always pays and that hardworking families are properly supported. 

Labour will transform and redesign UC, ending six-week delays in payment, and creating a fair society for the many, not the few. 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.