On 21st October 2013, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer spoke during the debate on the Universal Credit, Personal Independence Payment, Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance (Claims and Payments) Regulations 2013. The Bishop said he hoped that proper attention would be paid in the working out of the universal credit system to the mother’s role, which in many circumstances was crucial when the whole family was under stress. He also expressed concern about the monthly payments system, which was making it more difficult to control family finances. The Bishop hoped that the Minister would give an assurance that one-month’s back-dating would be legitimate without a particular reason needed for it and would clarify the circumstances under which a claimant was considered unable to claim online due to system failure.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for bringing this matter to our attention again, and for the three powerful speeches which we have already heard. First, I want to emphasise my concern about that part of the Motion which speaks of the way in which universal credit awards paid in respect of children will not necessarily by default be paid to the main carer of the children and the disproportionate impact this will have on women. Through my work, I have become increasingly aware of the mother’s crucial role in the sorts of situations that we have been discussing over the past few minutes and indeed over the past few years. The mother needs to have proper control of the money which is coming for the benefit of the family and in respect of her children. I hope that in our discussions and the way in which the regulations and the whole universal credit system are worked out we shall be able to pay attention to the mother’s role, which in many circumstances is crucial when the whole family is under severe stress.
Secondly, I share the concerns which have been expressed by all previous speakers about the impact of the monthly payments system. It is already beginning to make it more difficult to control the finances of the family and, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, said, there is the danger of opening the way for payday lenders. We are already seeing considerable growth in the work of payday lenders. That in itself is not yet due to universal credit but my fear is that universal credit will become a factor as the monthly payment system comes into being.
I wanted to take up one particular detail of the regulations which fits in with the monthly payment concerns but is also specific. Regulation 26 of Part 2 speaks of the back-dating of universal credit and limiting that back-dating to some very narrow categories. This contrasts with the present situation for tax credits, which can be back-dated for up to 31 days so long as the claimant meets the rule of entitlement throughout that period.
I raise that question for two reasons. One is that many people will become eligible for universal credit at the birth of a new child—a particularly difficult moment to be making your claim. Secondly, the regulations acknowledge the possibility of the failure of systems. However, it will be hard to prove that failure if a claim is delayed or not made until three or four weeks after the claimant is entitled to make it, especially if that reason involves the inability of the claimant to access the system, whether due to a fault in the system itself or due to the claimant’s online skills.
What I would like the Minister to say to us is that one-month’s back-dating would be legitimate without a particular reason needed for it. That would reduce bureaucracy and would reduce the complexity of making claims. If he cannot do that, then at least there should be a back-dating for families who have become eligible for universal credit because they have had a new child and are busy with the celebration of its birth. That should happen without the requirement for “medical evidence” to demonstrate the incapacity to claim. Not getting online at the point when you are having a child seems to me to be a self-evident reason for delay in making your claim. There are far more important things to be doing on the day of the birth of your child, are there not?
Can the Minister clarify the circumstances under which a claimant is considered unable to make a claim online as a result of system failure, and whether that can include not just a direct failure of the system but also the difficulties that individuals are facing and will face in getting online to make a claim? I hope that the Minister will be able to give some reassurance so that people do not miss out on credits to which they are entitled by the regulations.
Lord Freud: …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds raised backdating. We will expect households where there is a change of circumstances which means they become eligible for UC to make that claim as soon as possible. However, if they are in hospital or incapacitated we will consider a claim for backdating.
The system failure issue is about system failure, not about people not being able to work the system; the system has to be down. I remind noble Lords that we have telephone and face-to-face systems and home visits as part of our service. It is not an automatic, “you have to use the online system and that’s that”. There will be a tiered system, although we are looking to get as many people online as possible. Indeed, it is amazing how the digital approach is taking off. We are now looking at people using not computers but smart phones. In fact, the GDS is being redesigned for a phone not a computer because that is the latest technology…