Ministers should be fixing Universal Credit, not glossing over its huge problems
‘ The Government appears to have given up trying to end the five-week wait and associated damage,’ writes Labour’s Neil Coyle.
Instead of listening to the people affected and the organisations supporting them the DWP seems intent on propping up the system’s five-week delay
The National Audit Office has published another damning report on Universal Credit. The Government spending watchdog now says the cost of introducing the system has risen again to a colossal £4.6 billion.
It warns the welfare overhaul could cost more to run than the framework it is replacing. It says the system’s enforced five-week delay for a first payment exacerbates debt and hardship. 312,000 people still received their first payment late last year. And it reveals that Universal Credit has the highest fraud and error rate of any benefit ever introduced in the UK — with more than £1 in every £10 spent in payments being inaccurate.
You would expect Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers and officials to be somewhat humble in the face of this ongoing failure.
But Wednesday’s Work and Pensions Select Committee revealed the opposite, with a doubling-down on spin and pompous assertions and a rank dismissal of the damage Universal Credit is doing to many people’s lives.
The DWP minister even described articles — like my previous one on PoliticsHome — as ‘scare-mongering’ for outlining Universal Credit facts that show two-thirds of people seeking help from the system in the lockdown got nothing at all, or were forced to take out a DWP loan.
The Minister also claimed not have seen much evidence of the problems the delay causes people. But the range of campaigns being run to end the five week minimum delay is extensive.
Here are just a few: the Trussell Trust say they are having to feed over a million people due in part to Universal Credit problems.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation are tackling the poverty Universal Credit contributes to. Citizens’ Advice are paid by DWP to advise people on Universal Credit claims, but they back the campaign to scrap the wait.
Disabled people are disproportionately affected, and the Disability Benefits Consortium supports the call.
The Trades Union Congress wants to end the delay. And national newspapers have run campaigns to end Universal Credit problems.
Perhaps the Minister should do more research, and not just accept departmental spin.
Instead of listening to the people affected, and the organisations supporting them through the dreadful Universal Credit process, on Wednesday DWP outlined that they will keep propping up the delay with ‘roll-ons’ of other benefits.
This works out as basically a seven-week payment of some benefits to cover the first five weeks of waiting for UC. The NAO estimated that 2.3 million people would get a roll-on of Housing Benefit (HB) which could cost an extra £440 million. This figure was before the dramatic rise in Universal Credit claims as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
I am pressing DWP to provide a new estimate for how much the HB roll-on will now cost, as well as the equivalent roll-ons for Income Support, Jobseekers’ Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance.
The Government appears to have given up trying to end the wait and associated damage it causes people and instead seems set to spend hundreds of millions of pounds more on roll-ons – possibly the most expensive sticking plaster ever created.
Ministers should be fixing Universal Credit but instead try to gloss over its huge problems and spend more on avoidable measures. Sadly, they are not just polishing the proverbial turd but are now gold-plating it — at huge cost to taxpayers and ever-greater damage to people’s lives.
Neil Coyle is the Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and a member of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee