Benefits staff filling hampers for universal credit claimants, says Frank Field

The Times - 06 Dec 2017

Staff at the Department for Work and Pensions have volunteered to fill food hampers amid concerns about the effects of the government’s welfare reform, according to a Labour MP.

Frank Field, the work and pensions select committee chairman, said that the civil servants were “unhappy” about universal credit, the scheme combining six means-tested benefits into a single payment, which has been beset by criticism that it pushes claimants into debt and arrears.

He was speaking as Jeremy Corbyn won a victory over the government yesterday, pressing David Gauke, the work and pensions secretary, into accepting a Labour motion to release assessments about the roll-out of the welfare reform. To avoid defeat in a Commons vote Mr Gauke consented to the demand by the opposition, but said that he would hand the documents only to MPs on the work and pensions select committee and on a confidential basis.

Labour was due to deploy the same archaic Commons rule to try to force the release of the papers that it used last month to force the government to publish assessments of the impact of Brexit on 58 sectors of the economy.

The information commissioner ordered the publication of five assessments on the design and implementation of universal credit in August, but the government had planned to appeal against the decision. Debbie Abrahams, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “These reports will help understand what needs fixing and how.”

Mr Gauke accused Labour of “scaremongering” about the welfare reform and said it was “causing unnecessary anxiety for people who are getting support from the system”.

In last month’s budget additional support was announced for claimants enrolling on universal credit, which is designed to help people back into work.

During an opposition day debate in the house, Mr Field said that civil servants in the department did not share the government’s “confident” view of the welfare reform. He said that Feeding Birkenhead, a coalition of churches and community groups in his Merseyside constituency, was putting a “considerable amount” of food into schools to ensure that it reaches the homes of the children.

Mr Field said that thousands of Christmas hampers would be filled at the weekend, and added: “Among the volunteers filling the hampers are 146 DWP staff. They know where this benefit is going and they are unhappy.”

He spoke of persuading a man not to commit suicide and described a separate incident in which a child had been “crying through hunger”. Benefit claimants were feeling the “cumulative impact” of welfare reform after changes made by Labour, coalition and Tory governments, he said.

Heidi Allen, a Tory MP, broke down in tears as she described the “destitution” faced by some benefit claimants as a result of the government’s reform. She insisted that universal credit had great potential to fight poverty and that more claimants were moving into and staying in work for longer. “Work coaches are there, discretionary housing payments are there, advance payments,” she said.

In the impassioned debate, Matt Rodda, a Labour MP, said that some universal credit recipients faced “Dickensian misery” this Christmas. He was accused by the Tory MP Luke Graham of comparing the welfare reform to “harrowing inequality” in developing countries.

Lucy Fisher, The Times