Universal Credit: Whitehall watchdog promises probe as rollout quickens
SSAC chair tells CSW the body will monitor the merging benefits system to make sure it matches ministers' pledges
Whitehall's social security watchdog has pledged to conduct a review of the rollout of the government’s flagship Universal Credit as the controversial welfare reform scheme is implemented nationwide.
Paul Gray, chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee – which has a formal statutory role to advise government on secondary legislation related to welfare, said Universal Credit was now being delivered on a large scale.
The government announced earlier this month that Universal Credit was available in all Jobcentres across the country to new single jobseekers and the full service, which covers families, would soon be in place at nearly 150 Jobcentres.
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The Department for Work and Pensions has been under pressure to rethink its plans after warnings from Louise Casey, the former director general for the Troubled Families Programme in the Department for Communities and Local Government, that delays to receiving benefits under the scheme could lead to increased levels of homelessness and children being taken into care.
Most recipients will receive their Universal Credit payments monthly, rather than weekly as currently happens, while the time before recipients are eligible to receive their first payment has increased from three days to seven days.
As the payments are made a month in arrears, this means recipients often wait a total of six weeks for their first payment. According to the Citizens Advice Bureaux, implementation so far has seen 39% of Universal Credit claimants wait more than six weeks, while 11% reported waiting more than 10 weeks.
Speaking to CSW, Gray said the committee, which is an advisory non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions to review all secondary legislation related to welfare, had recommended that the time delay in the scheme be reduced. However, this has not been accepted.
“I think the committee absolutely buys the rationale for moving to a monthly system for the majority of people rather a weekly system," he said.
"That is positive in terms of work incentives as it is how most people get remunerated, but at the same time as that was being introduced an additional period of waiting days was added.
"Traditionally you have to wait three days, in Universal Credit that was increased to seven days and we recommended strongly against that. We just felt that additional wanting period risked being the sort of straw that broke the camel’s back.
“For whatever reason they didn’t accept that advice, but it has added to the pressure the government is now facing. Even if you accept the case for a monthly [payment system] another seven days [is difficult] particularly for vulnerable claimants. That was one recommendation that wasn’t accepted.
"But linked to that we did urge the government to adopt a more transparent approach to the granting of short term budgetary advances for people who are struggling with the cashflow implications of Universal Credit. And after a bit of a delay, that recommendation as accepted. So that is one example where we did have impact, and it shows us getting involved in some quite significant points of detail around Universal Credit.”
Asked yesterday if the committee would have a remit in reviewing the rollout, Gray said: “We certainly intend on giving ourselves that remit”.
“Keeping a view on what is actually happening on the ground, as distinct from looking at the sets of legal regulations, I see a as really effective part of our constructive challenge role [to government].
“That is why this morning we were out at [homeless charity] Centrepoint and that is why we go out and make lots of frontline visits to Jobcentre Plus offices and other players in the system so hopefully we are reasonably informed about what is happening on the ground as well as what it is said is meant to happen on the ground.”
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