MPs demand Government review its 'disrespectful' response to universal credit report

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The Work and Pensions Committee says the Government's response to its report on universal credit and childcare was'dismissive, disrespectful’ and treated the committee like ‘dirt’.

frank-field

Independent MP Frank Field is chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee

The select committee, which is chaired by independent MP Frank Field, has published a follow-up report in reaction to the Government’s response to its original report on support for childcare as a barrier to work under universal credit.

By convention, the Government has two months from publication of a committee report to respond.

The Work and Pensions Committee's original report, which concluded that universal credit acts as a barrier to helping parents get into or back into work after having a child, was published in December and a Government response followed in January.

In its response, the Government said that universal credit is 'more generous than legacy benefits in the support it provides towards childcare costs'. It also refers to the Flexible Support Fund for claimaints who may be struggling with upfront childcare costs and says the ddepartment will be more flexible with parents who have 'good reason' not to report childcare costs immediately.

Responding to the select committee's recommendation childcare payments under universal credit be paid directly to childcare providers, the Government said it has 'no plans' to do so.

Dissatisfied with the response, the committee has put out a further report in which it states, ‘the response gave the impression that the Government was simply dismissing the very serious problems (under UC) that are plaguing parents who are trying to get into work.

‘This was particularly disappointing given that the Government is relying on working mothers to contribute the vast majority of the additional hours of work expected under UC [universal credit] and because the secretary of state has acknowledged the very serious problems that structural flaws in universal credit are causing for parents who rely on childcare support to be able to work.’

It says the Government should:

  • review its response and provide another which matches the consideration the committee employed in an attempt to help parents to move into work, as the Government claims it is encouraging them to do. It says if the Government considers that the solutions it recommended are not practicable, it should explain why and set out alternative means of addressing those problems;

  • explain how, in the absence of plans to introduce direct payments, it intends to address the serious difficulties that parents and childcare providers are experiencing with the current system;
  • explain the details of the pilots it is running to trial a more flexible approach to the provision of receipts for childcare costs, including where pilots are being run, when they started, how long they will run for and if they will be monitored, as well as what options for providing evidence of childcare costs are being trialled;

  • explain its view on the recommendation that it should divert funding from the schemes aimed at wealthier parents (Tax-Free Childcare and 30 hours) towards universal credit childcare to help more people into work;

  • commit to providing an analysis of the Government’s spending on the 30 hours funded childcare policy by income decile, to show which households are benefitting from it – in addition to the analysis on the impact of universal credit childcare cost caps it has already promised.

Frank Field, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, 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.’

Labour's shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said, 'It is frankly astonishing that ministers have shown such contempt that a cross party committee has publicly complained that they have been treated “like dirt”.

'Sadly this dismissive attitude is nothing new for struggling parents who are denied access to vital childcare support. From huge shortfalls in tax free childcare to the systemic underfunding of childcare providers, the early years sector and parents who rely on it have been neglected by this Government.'

Sector response

The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), which gave evidence to the committee for its inquiry into universal credit and childcare, said the Government cannot 'sidestep' the issues with the childcare element of universal credit.

Head of policy and external relations Jonathan Broadbery, said, 'The reaction of the Work and Pensions Committee speaks volumes about the Government’s approach to universal credit and the childcare element.

'The committee heard evidence from parents unable to take up employment opportunities because they couldn’t afford upfront childcare costs. Our evidence focussed 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.

'The Government cannot simply sidestep this issue. It is aiming to help people get back into work and also wants to address social mobility. However, this appears to be another example of one policy working against its other stated aims. 

'This issue needs fixing before further roll out of this benefit so nobody is prevented from working and no families or nurseries suffer as a result of identified flaws in the universal credit system.'

Chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, Neil Leitch, said, 'We understand the frustration of the Work and Pensions Committee as the Government continues to ignore the serious consequences of a childcare system that is underfunded and is simply not working for those who most need it.

'We know providers now have no choice but to introduce voluntary charges or ask parents to pay more for their non-funded places. So it’s inevitable that providers who are struggling to stay afloat will prioritise parents who can afford these charges. This means there is a danger that the 15 per cent of costs that universal credit claimants have to contribute will soon be out of kilter with low incomes as non-funded hourly childcare rates continue to rise.'
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