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Government insists it won't ditch five-week wait for Universal Credit despite coronavirus outbreak

Nearly half a million people applied for Universal Credit in the last nine days, the DWP claimed

3 min read

Ministers have insisted they won’t ditch the five-week wait for Universal Credit payments during the coronavirus outbreak.

This is despite calls from Labour and charitable organizations to scrap the delay to help those impacted by the epidemic. 

It was also revealed that the Department of Work and Pensions had seen a surge in Universal Credit (UC) applications, taking almost 477,000 in the last nine days.

This figure is almost double the peak monthly figure of applications recorded last year, when 240,000 people made new UC applications in the month up to 14 February 2019.

Thérèse Coffey, Work and Pensions Secretary, told the select committee: “The underlying principles of Universal Credit have not gone away. 

“By that I mean, the design is meant to be based on your general income, we need a month to assess what your monthly income is likely to be. 

“But, as I keep reiterating, the advances can be made to people pretty quickly… We will be sticking with that advance.”

She also insisted that the “system is working”, and said last week they had received around 70,000 applications for advances on UC payments.

Meanwhile, the DWP's top civil servant, Peter Schofield, said it would not be possible to turn the UC advance into a grant, making it non-repayable.

He told the committee: “Yesterday we registered 105,000 claims to Universal Credit. It’s a major success of the organisation, and we did it because a lot of the system is automated, we’re not changing the way the system is working. We’re running the system on that level of capacity.”

“To make a change [to the system] requires reprogramming, resetting or manual processes which we simply, at those levels of volumes, wouldn’t be able to manage.

“The key thing for us now, and it may be a difficult message to give, but the key message is clearly, from an operational point of view, to stick with the framework we’ve got, stick with the policies we’ve got and then the automation will work.”

This is despite Labour calling for the five-week wait to be scrapped, as well as an end to sanctions and an increase in payments, amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

On Monday, Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth told the Commons: "Jobs and incomes need to be underpinned with a comprehensive income protection scheme; European-level statutory sick pay for all workers from day one; and increased Universal Credit, with a suspension of sanctions and an end to the five-week wait.”

Foodbank charity The Trussell Trust has also joined calls for an end to the wait on UC payments. 

Emma Revie, Chief Executive of the Trussell Trust, said: “We know the five-week wait is already pushing people to food banks, trapping many in debt and making issues with housing, ill health, disability and domestic abuse worse.

She continued: “As more people look likely to move onto Universal Credit as a result of the outbreak, the most effective way to help would be to end the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment by giving people grants, rather than loans that have to be paid back further down the line.”

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