Experiences of families on universal credit 'dismissed' by government

By Joe Lepper

| 11 April 2019

The veteran MP Frank Field has delivered a stinging rebuke to the government over its "dismissive and disrespectful" response to concerns over universal credit-related childcare payment problems.

Chair of the work and pensions committee Frank Field: "We on the committee are frankly sick of these disrespectful government responses that treat us like dirt.” Picture: UK Parliament

Speaking as chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, Field accused the government of treating the committee and indirectly its witnesses, including single parents, "like dirt".

The former welfare reform minister, who has been Labour MP for Birkenhead since 1979, and now sits as an independent, chaired an inquiry examining how universal credit was making it harder for low-income parents to access childcare.

Its 2018 report detailed evidence from families and experts, and the government then produced the allegedly errant  formal response.

The committee has taken the rare step of publishing a follow-up report, focusing on the government's response.

Under convention the government has to respond to committee reports within two months.

Concerns raised by the committee last year were that parents are having to cover initial childcare costs, gather receipts and then wait to be reimbursed by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Some parents found that handwritten receipts from small childcare providers were not accepted.

In some cases parents had to turn down work because they could not cover the upfront costs of childcare.

The committee's follow-up report says that the government's response "may well be the most skimpy and disappointing response we have ever received".

"Overall the response gave the impression that the government was simply dismissing the very serious problems that are plaguing parents who are trying to get into work."

It adds: "We have taken the unusual step of producing a report on the government's response in order to urge it to think again and to offer a more substantive response to our recommendations."

In launching the report Field said: "We on the committee are frankly sick of these disrespectful government responses that treat us like dirt and fail to engage with our robust, evidence-based conclusions. It's not clear they've even read this one.

"Worse, in responding this way, government dismisses the experience and evidence of the individuals and organisations that have taken the time, and made the effort, and are working with us to try to fix the unholy mess that is universal credit.

"This response in particular is simply not acceptable, and that is why we are taking the unusual step of issuing this report, demanding that they go back, look at what we and our witnesses have said, and come up with a second, decent response. This will not do."

The original report detailed evidence from, among others, Thuto Mali, a single mother who had to turn down a job offer because she could not fund the upfront costs of childcare before she started work. The problems from universal credit forced her family to turn to a food bank.

 

Last month Mali was named "Supermum of the Year" by the Sun newspaper for her campaigning work urging the government to give families more help with upfront childcare costs.

In its latest report, the committee is calling on the government to explain how it will address childcare cost issues faced by parents and give further details of pilots it is running to test a more flexible approach to the provision of receipts for costs.

The committee wants to see funding from childcare schemes that benefit wealthier parents, such as 30 hours free childcare for families earning up to £200,000 a year, diverted to fund universal credit childcare. It is calling on ministers to explain their view on this recommendation.

An analysis of government spending on the 30 hours offer in terms of which families are benefitting and its effect on universal credit childcare costs is also being called for.

Among early years groups to give evidence to the committee was the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), which said the committee's response "speaks volumes".

NDNA head of policy and external relations Jonathan Broadbery, said: "The committee heard evidence from parents unable to take up employment opportunities because they couldn't afford upfront childcare costs.

"Our evidence focused on the impact for settings of delayed payments to parents as we know that the childcare element is the payment most likely to be held up.

He added that any further cashflow issues could be "catastrophic".

Early Years Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch, said: "The committee is absolutely right to say it is ‘unacceptable' that the poorest households are struggling with childcare costs while the government continues to subsidise households earning up to £200,000.

"Whether or not government changes the eligibility criteria for these funded hours, they need to ensure funding covers the true cost of delivering them and that providers are not reliant on parents paying voluntary charges to pick up the shortfall."

The DWP said: "These claims are disappointing - we take the committee's input very seriously, have provided detailed responses to all of their recommendations and have already accepted some.

"We will now carefully consider their additional points.
 
"Universal credit is supporting 1.8 million people and can pay up to 85 per cent of people's childcare costs, which is more generous than the old benefit system."

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