Benefit claimants at risk of 'destitution' if DWP fails to prepare for Universal Credit roll-out, MPs warn
The DWP risks leaving benefit claimants "destitute" if it fails to properly prepare for the roll-out of Universal Credit, a group of influential MPs has warned.
A new report from the Work and Pensions Committee urged ministers to adopt stronger safeguards to protect claimants involved in the trial of the Government's flagship welfare policy.
The Department for Work and Pensions is set to begin a "managed migration" pilot aimed at testing procedures for transfering almost three million people away from their current benefits programme and on to the single, monthly payment scheme.
But in a report, the committee hit out at ministers for refusing to implement recommendations for a series of 'readiness tests' to monitor the department's ability to safely transfer people on to the new system, warning a failure to adequately prepare for the pilot could "plunge people further into poverty and could leave them destitute".
The group said operational tests before the start of the scheme, as well as a further two-step test ahead of the 'at scale' rollout of the benefit should be implemented by ministers to prove they are "up to the job".
Speaking to PoliticsHome, Committee chair Frank Field said the tests should be put in place "before a single person" is transferred over.
"At every stage since landlords and local authorities raised the alarm about hardship and homelessness with us two years ago, the story of Universal Credit has been a sorry, painful one," he said.
"Food banks have become some of our most regular - and valuable – witnesses, and now we begin to hear from groups supporting women forced to turn for the first time to 'survival sex' to find a roof to sleep under."
He added: "If the Department is confident that Universal Credit is operationally ready to begin the managed migration pilot, there is no explanation for not setting and meeting the tests to demonstrate this."
The Department are set to run the first managed migration pilot in Harrogate from July, but MPs are concerned that relatively low levels of deprivation in the area mean the test will not be representative of other areas in the UK.
Earlier this month Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd confirmed Harrogate had been selected because of its diverse spread of claimants.
"We have chosen them because they have had Universal Credit for three years. They are an experienced job centre. And they are an area which have both urban and rural claimants," she said.
"And we will be making sure we have the opportunity to test and move as many as possible in an effective way so that we can really learn and demonstrate the success of managed migration."
But the Committee said the DWP should "at a minimum" use the pilot to collect data on measures including payment timeliness, customer satisfaction and claimant dropout to establish if the system is fit for purpose.
Mr Field added: “The DWP is still talking semantics: we are talking about people. Six months after we started pressing them on the next potential UC disaster on the horizon, the Department is yet to prove it’s up to the job of so-called “managed migration”.
"Anyone who sees their income slashed or their circumstances and life chances reduced, or any of the other messes UC is getting people across this land into, will find no comfort in learning it didn’t happen on purpose.
“Does DWP want to explain to them it didn’t bother to find out how they might be affected? Will it be a comfort to learn DWP did take a look at that, but didn’t bother to apply its findings? ‘Test and learn’ must mean just that: DWP should not move one person onto UC until it does test, and does learn, and proves it is ready to safely do so.”
The Department of Work and Pensions has been approached for comment.