The government must not press ahead with Universal Credit next month
In three weeks’ time, the biggest ever reform to the benefits system will undergo a significant gear change.
For the last 15 months the full version of Universal Credit has been introduced to around 5 new locations every month, but from October roll-out increases to 50 a month. Watford is scheduled for 6th December.
In principle Universal Credit is a good idea. You won’t find many people arguing against the need to simplify the benefits system or smoothing the transition into and out of work. And for many people, it does work.
But as it stands the system is not ready for the acceleration next month. Too many people are waiting over six weeks for a first payment and are not getting the support they need to navigate the system. This is pushing thousands of families into a spiral of debt and placing an even greater strain on our public services.
Citizens Advice’s new analysis, published on 10 September, shows that people we help with money matters are more likely to be in the most serious types of debt — where you could lose your home or even face prison — if they are on Universal Credit than if they’re on one of the benefits it replaces.
Problems caused by flaws in the system can have a huge knock-on effect, as local authorities and housing providers are left chasing what they’re owed, and people are more likely to need services to help with problems such as homelessness, health issues, and social care.
By 2022, over 7 million households will receive the new benefit, and Citizens Advice analysis reveals over half of these will be in work.
Since it was introduced in 2013 the roll-out of Universal Credit has been very slow, as the DWP adopted a ‘test and learn’ approach of ironing out problems with the system as it expanded. This is only right, as this radical benefits revolution is going to affect huge swathes of the population. Just last month Secretary of State David Gauke, who is also MP for South West Hertforshire told MPs he is committed to “getting Universal Credit right”.
But next month’s acceleration flies in the face of caution, because while the principles behind Universal Credit are sound, the system today is still deeply flawed.
It is designed to help people get on in life, but our research shows it can often have the opposite effect, with many pushed into debt waiting for payments, or confused and distressed by administrative problems and a lack of support.
Citizens Advice research is based upon the experiences of people who turn to us when they have a problem, but even the DWP’s own figures show one in five people are not receiving the Universal Credit payment they’re due six weeks after they apply, leaving their finances in tatters. This is simply not acceptable.
With just a few weeks until tens of thousands more people a month are moved onto Universal Credit, Citizens Advice is renewing its call for the government to pause roll-out and get the benefit to a point where it can deliver on its promise.
It must fix the problems with the system and make sure no one waits longer than 6 weeks for an income — while anyone who needs it should receive a payment within 2 weeks that they do not need to repay. The government should also ensure that everyone has access to the support they need to adapt to Universal Credit.
These changes are not small fry, minority issues. A growing chorus of voices — from Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee Frank Field to the ‘architect’ of Universal Credit Iain Duncan Smith — have expressed concern that the flaws in the system and cuts to work allowances are undermining its opportunity to deliver.
Pressing ahead with roll-out now would show a serious disregard of the impact we know problems with Universal Credit are having on people’s lives, and store up serious problems for the services that are left to pick up the pieces.
This article originally appeared in Times Red Box on 11 September 2017.