First published in the November 2017 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here http://www.southleedslife.com/author/hilary-benn-mp/
There is a very important debate going on at the moment about Universal Credit and the outcome will affect a lot of people in our community.
Universal Credit (UC) rolls six benefits - Child Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Income Support, JSA, ESA and Working Tax Credit - into one monthly payment and it is meant to help people to keep more of their earnings when they work. The principle is a good one. That's not the problem. The problem is the way in which the Government is planning to introduce it, and in particular the fact that people will have to wait six weeks to get any money once they have claimed.
It’s not very difficult to work out that many families will not be able to cope without any income for six weeks. Indeed we already know this because in the areas where Universal Credit is being piloted, about 50% of people are having to apply for a loan to tide them over. The loan, of course, has to be paid back which means they start in debt.
Leeds is still part of the early implementation phase. This means that new UC claims are only being accepted from people with relatively straightforward circumstances, eg single people with no children. It is not due to be fully implemented in our city until next June. As a result of this, the number of UC claims in Leeds is still relatively low.
Even so, Citizens Advice Leeds is already seeing clients who are suffering severe consequences as a result of design and implementation problems with UC, including people being left with no income for weeks at a time.
The most common problems are difficulties with the initial claim process, delays to the first payment, high levels of deductions being made for arrears (including council tax and rent) and withdrawal of UC because of sanctions.
In one of the Leeds CAB case studies, they tell the story of a man who recently completed a university course and made a claim for UC while he was looking for work. After 6 weeks, he had still not received any UC payment despite having met all the requirements for making a claim. With no money to pay his rent or buy food, the man was issued with eviction proceedings by his landlord and had to apply for food bank vouchers in order to eat. This shows that the 6 week waiting period is unworkable and unfair.
As the Opposition, we've been raising this in Parliament repeatedly. We have had one success. After a great deal of pressure, ministers decided to scrap the expensive charges on the telephone line that people have to use to find out what has happened to their claim, but on the main issue of the waiting period the Government hasn’t moved - yet.
We're not giving up, however. Recently we put down a motion calling on the Government to pause the implementation of Universal Credit while they fix the problems and it was carried by 299 votes to nil. Government MPs – extraordinarily – decided to sit on their hands and did not take part in the vote. Anyway, we now know what the view of Parliament is and we will keep up the effort until ministers listen to the facts and the arguments and introduce a more sensible policy. It would only be the right and fair thing to do.
Finally, on another issue, the campaign to stop the closure of the Holbeck Royal Mail delivery office is gathering pace. I expressed my opposition to the plan in a recent debate in the House of Commons and the petition is gathering support. The proposal might save Royal Mail money but it will cost local residents dear in term of time and travelling distance if they want to go and pick up a packet or parcel. That's why it shouldn't happen.