Stephen Timms – 2021 Speech on Universal Credit

The speech made by Stephen Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham, in the House of Commons on 18 January 2021.

The problem is that the Government have lost the capacity to listen—to listen to their own Back Benchers, to the all-party Work and Pensions Committee, to people claiming universal credit and to the public. That was clear in the contemptuous dismissal of my Committee’s report on the five-week delay between applying for universal credit and receiving the first regular payment. The Government response to that report was published last week. In our meetings, we studied the evidence, sifted the material and listened carefully to what Ministers said in response. It is clear that the five-week delay is forcing people to food banks and pushing them into rent arrears. Social security is supposed to protect people from those things, not induce them as it does at the moment.

On a unanimous, all-party basis, my Committee recommended new starter payments equivalent to three weeks’ worth of standard universal credit, to tide people over in those difficult first few weeks. The Government’s response simply dismissed that recommendation and all the recommendations. Of course, the Government can reject our recommendations. They could carry out their own analysis and reach different conclusions. We recommended that the Department should do its own research on the impact of the five-week wait on food bank demand, rent arrears and claimants’ mental health. The response was:

“The Department will not be conducting nor commissioning any research.”

That was it. The Government do not want to know. They have lost the capacity to listen.

How can it be right that people have to wait until March to find out whether universal credit will be cut by almost a quarter at the end of March? How are struggling families supposed to plan? What justification can there be for having left jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance unchanged? Those claiming them are in exactly the same position as people claiming universal credit. People receiving the severe disability premium have not been allowed to switch to universal credit, even if they wanted to. Why have Ministers singled out disabled people for such harshness?

If the cut goes ahead, it will push child poverty up to levels we have not seen since 1997. There is no justification for going back to £72 per week. There was one very telling point in the briefing circulated by the British Association of Social Workers: the sharp increase in children in care, up from 60,000 to 80,000, with the enormous cost that that imposes, began when the cuts to benefits began. It is a false economy. The £20 a week should be left in place.