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Universal Credit is one of the success stories of the coronavirus crisis

The Department for Work and Pensions has processed a record number of Universal Credit claims since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis| PA Images

5 min read

The Department for Work and Pensions has worked tirelessly to ensure people get the support they need in this crisis – to say otherwise is a shameless political stunt

Universal Credit has many critics. Many who wanted it to fail as coronavirus swept the globe and changed all our lives unimaginably overnight.

Sadly for them, it has not. Far from it. More than two million claims processed since mid-March. Over 900,000 advance payments made, reaching the accounts of those in most need within days. A peak of 2.2 million calls taken over 48 hours. More than nine in 10 eligible claimants receiving their money in full and on time – up on normal times, reaching a new record.

It is in this context that we should all see this feeble, desperate attack on a system which has been supporting the most vulnerable for what it is.

When I read this piece, I was dismayed on behalf of my Department’s hugely dedicated staff, whose Herculean efforts have ensured our welfare safety net catches those who this pandemic has sent into freefall. This shameless political stunt is a betrayal of their endeavours, the evenings and weekends they’ve given up, the emotional strain of the huge number of people requiring their help.

I stand with them. Allow me to make my case.

Taxpayers in this country expect our welfare system to support those in most need, and Universal Credit does just that. As such, assessments of earnings and other factors such as savings are made in order to establish eligibility.

In the maelstrom of a global pandemic, there are various complicating factors which influence behaviours and outcomes. Some people, understandably thrown by the unique circumstances of the time, will have put in speculative claims they later withdrew.

Others will have had their employment terminated and been rehired under the Government’s furlough scheme or received redundancy payments affecting their entitlement.

Some may have taken advantage of the Government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.

And many new claimants will have had their last month’s salary to take into account.

Despite all of those things – as the answer to this parliamentary question indicated – the proportion of new claims which generated a UC payment actually rose in the first two weeks of the emergency, when compared to January and February this year.

The truth is, Labour knows just how well Universal Credit has performed in the face of a level of demand that could never have been anticipated

Where someone did not qualify, this will likely have been because their income in that assessment period exceeded the threshold. But now they’re on the system, because of the way Universal Credit flexes with earnings, if their income drops in the coming months their benefits payment will rise to top it up.

And where we’ve been unable to process claims in time, that’s almost always because the claimant has not been able to provide sufficient information for us to do so. Something which is completely understandable when making a claim for the first time in such challenging circumstances. But our amazing staff make every effort to fill in the gaps – succeeding far more often than not.

It’s worth contemplating just how disastrously the paper-based legacy benefits system was built for such an event as we’re experiencing. With jobcentres forced to close their doors to protect the NHS and save lives, the system would quite simply have ground to a halt. Hundreds of thousands of people would have been denied any support whatsoever from the state in their hour of need. But because the foundation of Universal Credit is its ‘digital first’ model, we’ve actually been able to improve the service we offer as the emergency has unfolded – calling back claimants so they don’t have to call us, to give just one example.

We are continually working to improve Universal Credit, listening to feedback from our stakeholders and claimants. Just this weekend colleagues were updated on several improvements we have made to Universal Credit including a check-through box to our online system to remind claimants to check their eligibility for UC before initiating a claim, the launch of the Apply for a Direct Rent Payment and the imminent go-live of the two-week run on of Income Support, Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance from 22 July 2020.

Mr Coyle knows me well enough to know how passionate I am about improving Universal Credit and making sure it works for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society.  

The truth is, Labour knows just how well Universal Credit has performed in the face of a level of demand that could never have been anticipated. Some of Mr Coyle’s colleagues on the Work and Pensions Select Committee have conceded as much. Even the shadow work and pensions secretary has praised the steps we have taken to ensure support gets to those who need it, stating ‘The key changes it made – suspending sanctions and conditionality, increasing the basic element of Universal Credit, and abolished the minimum income floor – all have my support’.

Record numbers of claims processed. Record numbers of payments made – including more than 100,000 in a single day. Record payment timeliness. Record numbers of people supported, and lifelines provided.

And no, we haven’t been shouting about it. We have just been getting on with the job at hand. But it is a record I’ll never get tired of defending.


Will Quince is Conservative MP for Colchester and welfare delivery minister

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