Ronnie Cowan MP
I was hoping to talk the House through a timeline that covered all aspects of requiring, claiming and receiving universal credit, but the time allotted will not allow me to do so. My constituency has had full roll-out for 12 months, so this is an abridged version based on what constituents have told me at first hand.
My archetypal constituent—I will call her Mrs Smith—is 50 and married. She lives in Port Glasgow and had been working at a local retail shop, but she has left on health grounds. Seeking support, Mrs Smith goes to her local jobcentre in Port Glasgow only to find that it has been shut. She instead walks three miles to the jobcentre at Greenock, but is surprised to learn that no one there can advise her on what benefits she is entitled to. She is told that the staff are not benefits-trained and are not even able to offer her options. Mrs Smith subsequently learns of universal credit from a welfare rights organisation, so she applies online. This would make Mrs Smith unlike the 15% of constituents surveyed by my office, who said that they could not use a computer or had great difficulties in doing so.
Mrs Smith lodges her application today, 16 November. By 23 November, she realises that although the application has been lodged, there is in fact at least another month of waiting while the entitlement is calculated. At this point, Mrs Smith’s remaining savings are used up by rent, council tax, TV licence, utility bills and shopping—the usual things. Her husband works, but he has a low income and they are now struggling financially. It is worth reminding Members at this point that the Money Advice Service found in 2016 that more than 16 million people in the UK had less than £100 in savings.
As November presses on, Mrs Smith’s financial situation becomes more desperate as she has underestimated the amount of time it will take to receive support. Please remember that this story is based on real-life examples that my constituents have brought to me. People do not fall into universal credit trained; they learn as they go along. At the start of December, because of a long-standing commitment, she takes her granddaughter to the movies, using a credit card to pay. She is accumulating debt.
By mid-December, Mrs Smith applies for a crisis grant and considers visiting the local food bank. The constant pressure of having no money begins to creep into every facet of her life. She is stressed and her relationship with her husband is suffering. None the less, she makes it through to her first universal credit payment sometime after new year.
Mrs Smith’s husband is paid weekly and coupled with real-time income data, which means that her universal credit payment fluctuates wildly. She is now locked in a boom-and-bust cycle, with her universal credit sometimes falling to almost nothing, while in other months she receives eight weeks of income in one assessment period.
What will the future hold for the real-life constituents of Inverclyde, apart from the uncertainty, stress and poverty that this system inflicts upon them? I am politely asking the UK Government not to ignore the overwhelming evidence. Universal credit is not working. Saying that its predecessor was worse is no excuse. It does not help my constituents from week to week. The roll-out must be halted. Take the time to reform the fundamental flaws in universal credit and then implement a system that truly offers applicants the stability on which they can build their lives.