Bishop of Portsmouth argues for delay to plan to extend waiting period for universal credit payments

On 13th July 2015 the House of Lords debated Government proposals to introduce seven waiting days for applicants for universal credit, prior to receipt of payment. Two motions were put to the House – the first, from Lord German, to exempt the housing element of universal credit from that; the second, from Baroness Sherlock, to delay enactment until universal credit had been fully rolled out. The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in support of Baroness Sherlock’s amendment and voted for it in the subsequent Division of the House. Baroness Sherlock’s amendment was passed by 135 to 124 votes. The Bishop’s speech and an extract of the Minister’s response is below:

14.04.09 Portsmouth maiden speech 2My Lords, I and others from these Benches have welcomed the principle of universal credit, and I readily do so again. However, the best of policies and principles have practical consequences which make all the difference to the effectiveness of policy. In that constructive spirit, wishing universal credit to be successful in simplifying the complexity faced by benefit claimants and confirming the dignity of work at a decent rate of pay, I add some reservations to the extension of waiting time to seven days.

Delay in receiving first benefit payments has been an issue for many years. Inevitably, and sadly, there can be administrative delays. I am not aware that any assurance has been given that universal credit processes would prevent such delays; indeed, I doubt that any such reassurance could be given. Process, technology and human error are realities. Compounding these with longer statutory waiting times will exacerbate the problem. We should be reticent about further lengthening that wait, at least until delays consequent on the new universal credit process and procedures are ironed out. It would be rash, given our general experience, not to expect some continuing transitional challenges. There are some worrying instances and worrying delays. That is not to attribute blame—rather, it is to remind ourselves of the importance of extensive and ongoing training for those involved in assessing applications and advising on helplines. I hope the Minister might confirm ongoing commitment to this.

Some caution about extending waiting times is therefore appropriate. Furthermore, whereas, as we have heard, jobseeker’s allowance provided for a waiting time of a fortnight, universal credit has a month before first payment is reached. Carers and lone parents have not previously faced a waiting time rule at all. Not all those affected will benefit from redundancy payments or have the cushion of savings. Though some will, a compassionate and just system provides for the worst cases and for those most vulnerable. A job search, which we would wish to encourage, costs money.

The welcome advantage that universal credit encompasses a number of previously independent benefits, which in almost every way is a huge step forward, is in this instance, perversely, a disadvantage. The consolidated nature of universal credit being awaited by a claimant means that the payment being delayed is likely to be a very significant part of income.

As I understand it, the intention of the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, is to moderate the impact of these proposed changes—to moderate risk. On balance, I have some anxiety that the first amendment risks complicating universal credit arrangements by excluding housing benefit from the regulations. It seems to go a bit against the grain of simplifying the benefit system. The second amendment, delaying enactment, gives some time to assess the impact of moving to monthly payments and any protection needed for vulnerable groups, for instance. I hope that the Minister can consider agreeing to a delay to allow for some learning in transition to what I trust will be a significant step forward in supporting those in need through universal credit and into work at a decent living wage.

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud) (Con): [Extract]: …The noble Lord, Lord German, gave a considered examination of the issues that relate to housing support during the period of waiting days. At present housing benefit is paid from the Monday after the claim, so housing benefit claimants already have to wait for up to a week for their award to begin. I think I can speak for the whole House when I say that we all agree that the old system of multiple and sometimes overlapping benefits was confusing and could have perverse incentives and disincentives. Because it is a unified benefit available in and out of work, universal credit removes disincentives to work and simplifies the system. To exclude the housing element from the waiting days would add administrative complexity, go against the policy of simplifying income-related benefits, and make the payments confusing to claimants. That point was made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and my noble friend Lord Farmer…..

..The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth asked: how will we ensure that people are supported in their work search? We have more than 26,000 staff now trained to provide job coaching, so we are rolling that out in scale.

Division on Baroness Sherlock’s Motion:

That this House calls on Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the Social Security Advisory Committee’s Report of June 2015, to delay the enactment of the Universal Credit (Waiting Days) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 until Universal Credit is fully rolled out (SI 2015/1362).

Contents 135; Not-Contents 124.

Baroness Sherlock’s Motion agreed (Government defeat).

The Bishop of Portsmouth voted ‘content’