Bishop of Coventry asks Government about funding for debt advice services

On 22nd November 2017 the House of Lords heard the repeat of a statement made by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on Universal Credit. The Bishop of Coventry, Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, responded to the statement:

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, I share with the Minister and the House a bit of local information. We find ourselves in an interesting situation in Coventry, with rising employment and yet a 30% increase in usage among those in the city—mostly single males—among whom universal credit has been rolled out. Like others, I very much welcome the changes and I am sure they will help enormously but, at the same time, I still have reservations about whether they have gone far enough and address other issues that some of us on the ground have identified.

I was glad to hear in the Statement the reference to universal support, although there were not many details about its rollout. I was also glad to hear about the partnership with CAB and other bodies; I am conscious, though, of the long queues each morning outside the citizens advice bureau in Coventry. Can the Minister say what sort of funding will be provided for universal support? In particular, on the issue of debt, which is important, will dedicated funding be made available for impartial debt advice for those who are running into difficulties?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Buscombe) (Con): I thank the right reverend Prelate for his intervention. While we are very proud of the fact that we are getting more people into work, one issue that we really must tackle and which we have been thinking about—hence our response—is the need now to focus our efforts on in-work progression. That is why the Government have allocated additional funding of more than £8 million over four years to run a suite of tests and trials inside and outside government to support the development of evidence about what works to help people progress in work—we have already had ministerial meetings to discuss this—including those who are insecure at work and women returning to the labour market. The Social Security Advisory Committee at the Department for Work and Pensions—which is entirely independent of us—has just published a report on this which is extremely helpful in terms of our thinking. We need to complement record-high employment and record-low inactivity with a labour market that increases living standards, with economic security for everyone across the country. That is why the right reverend Prelate is completely right; we have to focus on that.

With regard to debt, when someone goes on to universal credit, they will have a work coach, with personalised support and assistance. There are noble Lords across the House who have been very involved, as I have, with the passage of the single financial guidance body Bill which, at its heart, is all about financial capability. This is extremely important in complementing our work and progression of universal credit. It is about education from an early age, helping people to manage, signposting people who are in difficulty to really good support. At the moment, support comes from three different bodies, but one purpose of the Bill is to bring them into one single ​financial guidance body that everyone can have access to for free advice, debt support, guidance and further signposting of what might help them. I am rather proud that we have seen that through your Lordships’ House. Through its passage—I am looking at the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson—we have also sought to clarify our commitment to introducing a debt respite scheme with breathing space, which I am confident will help thousands of people who are in debt and in difficulty. Again, this Government are very proud of that and we wish the passage of that Bill well in another place.

I know that I am taking up time but, briefly with regard to universal support, we have invested £200 million in universal support and all claimants can access help with managing their finances when they come on to UC through those different channels.