Lib Dem Conference highlights – the Universal Credit Debate

On of my highlights of Conference was the debate on the emergency motion on delaying the rollout of Universal Credit because it is turning into a disaster for the people who are forced to claim it. People have to wait 6 weeks or longer for money. Imagine what that is like if you have no savings to get you through – a situation many people on low incomes will face.

The idea of Universal Credit is a very good one. It aimed to end the poverty trap which stopped people on benefits from getting work because it cost them to do so.

I made a speech from a Scottish perspective, outlining the principles of accessibility, fairness and confidence that were in our manifesto on social security and observing that Universal Credit meets none of them in its current form.

Other speakers gave some pretty harrowing examples of how people could lose their homes and have to rely on food banks to get by.

I am really hopeful, though, that we really are going to take this stuff to the Tories and try and get things changed.

The reason for my optimism is our new Department of Work and Pensions spokesperson Stephen Lloyd. Remember all that energy he put in to regaining his Eastbourne seat? He seriously never stopped campaigning after 2015. Well, that energy and determination is going in to opposing the Tory Government and building alliances across the Parliament to force the Government to think again. Here, in full, is the speech that he made in the debate:

The Tories’ reputation for competence is an oxymoron of epic proportions. This is a party who have politicised our police force with their ridiculous introduction of police and crime commissioners, prevented councils from building new council homes from the receipts of Margaret Thatcher’s huge council house sell-off programme decades ago, which is a direct cause of today’s appalling housing shortage – and then today the complete shambles of what they’ve done with Universal Credit. Competence is not a word which springs to mind!

The original concept of UC was ‘to make work pay’ and when we supported it in coalition it would have done. Since then though, over £3bn has been taken out of the programme. The work allowance, for instance, an amount people on benefits can earn before those benefits start being reduced, has been slashed to the bone. In some cases – to zero!  And the taper rate, which determines how much people get to keep of their benefits for every extra pound earned, has also been cut to ribbons!!

This has rendered the entire principle behind universal credit – to make work pay, something I and the Liberal Democrats passionately believe in – utterly worthless.

Universal credit is no longer a progressive, reliable policy; it is a complete train wreck. And the Conservatives are responsible!!

It gets worse. Housing payments made directly to the tenants; something I fiercely opposed at the time when I was on the Work and Pensions Select Committee – telling the ministers that it would lead to a shocking rise in rent defaults. And I remember so clearly the then Secretary of State chiding me for ‘not trusting that tenants would pass the money on to their landlords’….

The result?, and this is even before the full national UC rollout-out, have been every bit as bad as I feared; if not worse!

Latest figures from the likes of the  Peabody Group, a housing association which owns and manages more than 55,000 homes in London and the south-east, have said the rate of rent arrears among its tenants on universal credit is three times greater than those not on the new benefit. Three times greater!

or Gloucester City Homes which has more than 4,000 rented properties in their portfolio; they’ve said that 85% of its universal credit claimants are in arrears, compared to just 20% of all other tenants.

These are utterly shocking figures……

The Tories incompetence and ideological fixations over Universal Credit are leading to appalling consequences for thousands of people. And if UC is not checked. Stopped right now, in its tracks, so the failings can be addressed, it will be tens of thousands of our fellow citizens slipping into grotesque levels of debt.

Frankly, if we do not have a ‘pause’ I see thousands of families even losing their homes…..as I do not see the private sector landlords being as accommodating as local councils when their tenants fall into rent arrears….!

And the delays in recipients actually receiving their new Universal Credit payments are making a grim situation even worse. Conference: it is becoming common knowledge that many recipients on the UC pilots weren’t receiving their new rolled up Universal credit payments for two or even three months.

Imagine for a moment what this actually means? These aren’t folk who have lines of credit with the local bank. It’s people who are often disabled, disadvantaged, people who have been out of work for a long time. So for them to borrow money, we are talking loan sharks, pawnbrokers and pay day loan co’s.

In short these are some of the most vulnerable people in our country, being crushed under an initiative which is flashing red warning  lights of a strobe light intensity for all to see – and what is the government doing – NOTHING!

They are determined to continue the mass rollout – and in fact it comes to my own constituency, Eastbourne, in October.

I therefore believe it is crucial, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands of people not yet on Universal Credit, but whose lives will be ruined if we don’t act; that the Lib Dems and Labour join together in calling for a pause to the rollout. To see if it can be rescued before it’s too late.

As the party’s DWP spokesman, I know the Labour shadow Secretary of State, Debbie Abrahams. I worked with her on the Work and Pensions Select Committee when I was last an MP.

So I am saying to her: Let’s both join together in demanding the government pause the Universal Credit rollout, and let’s do it now, together, before it’s too late?

Friends. I started the debate questioning the Conservatives wholly un-warranted reputation for competency.

So next time you see a Tory minister introducing yet another policy which has shambles written all over it like Universal Credit, stick a red nose on them as well as a pair of size 15 purple shoes and a spangled jacket – because you will then see what the Conservative party really stands for – and it’s not competency; it’s being a 22 carat, copper-bottomed, red nosed, purple booted clown…

Please join me in supporting this motion.

The debate is first thing on this iPlayer programme.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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5 Comments

  • David Warren 24th Sep '17 - 2:42pm

    I am really heartened to see this being highlighted by the party.

    There is already a lot of poverty amongst people on benefits without this.

    People really struggle to manage long term on the meagre amounts available to them from the welfare state.

    Food banks are not the answer.

    A decent level of support is.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Sep '17 - 2:54pm

    Well done LDV, well said David Warren!!

    It was all well intentioned in coalition, and the IDS that had in opposition gone into the wilderness as one crying for the poor, could probably convince others of the extent of the conversion to the new caring ,compassionate, kind and of Conservatism, akin perhaps to liberalism if not Liberalism.

    And… back to reality…………

  • suzanne Fletcher 24th Sep '17 - 3:42pm

    wrong Caron – clowns are funny – this is all tragic (but I do know what you mean and a good speech you made)

  • suzanne Fletcher 24th Sep '17 - 4:04pm

    speech not called to make at conference :
    When I joined the Liberal party in 1974 one of the main policies that I wanted to have was what was then called “Negative income tax”. So I was really pleased when Universal Credit was first mooted – till I found out how it was being implemented.

    I was a volunteer advisor for Citizens Advice Bureau for 40 years, and one of my roles was also policy work. On important issues we recorded, after anonymising, actual cases we dealt with, drew up reports and submitted evidence. This is how the report referred to in the motion was built up – all on facts, and hard evidence.

    We also did reports on the importance on face to face interviews for many people. Most in this hall will be used to doing transactions electronically, and have easy access to such, but for some people with problems with confidence, physical and mental problems, it is extremely difficult not to do things face to face.
    Add to that the cost of phone calls that need to be made for problems that arise with the claim – if not in a contract calls to the Universal Credit line can be up to 45p a minute from mobiles and 12p from landlines.

    Those in a position to advise and campaign need to be publicising the campaign, “Stop the Loan Sharks” http://www.stoploansharks.co.uk/ and similar to encourage people not to turn to such high interest and illegal lenders.

    New refugees, given leave to remain, will have problems as they only have 28 days from being on support to being on benefits on working. They are starting with nothing and will have no bank account.

    So a plea to the Government to LISTEN, and then ACT on the Citizens Advice report.
    Don’t let my and others vision continue to be a nightmare for those who are in most need.

  • “Housing payments made directly to the tenants; something I fiercely opposed at the time when I was on the Work and Pensions Select Committee”

    Vulnerable people can have payments made to their landlord still, I propose that those in rent arrears will meet the definition of vulnerable. I wonder if this (payments to landlord) is really the cause behind rent arrears or how much of it is that the first UC payment is made 4-5 weeks after applying (not good for those going onto a means tested benefit) and any application for payment in the meantime is a loan which is paid back over 3+ months, therefore it could be 4 months until you are up at your full UC amount.

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