A committee of MPs has accused the Department for Work and Pensions of having “wilfully missed the point” of a call to carry out “readiness tests” before beginning to transfer benefit recipients onto Universal Credit, after the DWP rejected the idea for a second time.
The department is preparing to move up to 3,000 people who are already receiving welfare benefits onto Universal Credit, as part of the test phase for the so-called “managed migration” of claimants over from the legacy benefits system. New claimants are already being enrolled to the new system, which combines six existing benefits into one payment.
Parliament’s Work and Pensions Select Committee has urged DWP in two separate reports, in January and May, to put a series of tests in place that the department must complete before the pilot begins in Harrogate this summer, to ensure it is ready for the move.
Responding to the May report on Friday, DWP said that while “government agrees with these recommendations in principle”, evaluations will not begin until after the pilot has started. The department said it would use the pilot "to help us inform our tests for readiness to move to managed migration at scale".
The committee had said it was imperative that DWP test the system and publish its findings before beginning the pilot as the department had not yet proved it was “up to the job” of the pilot, and that mistakes could lead to claimants facing financial hardship.
The MPs said that if the department was not willing to run tests before the pilot, it must “as 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.
In its response, DWP said it had set out a series of questions that the pilot would help to answer, including “Do we have sufficient numbers of trained staff in place to support scaling?” and “Have our assumptions been tested in the pilot phase?”
But it did not commit to collecting data on payment timeliness, customer satisfaction and claimant dropout rates as recommended by the committee.
Committee chair Frank Field said the response showed the department had ignored warnings that its approach to managed migration could put benefit recipients at risk.
“The government has wilfully missed the point, and this is becoming a distressing pattern,” Field said. “We, like so many others, have asked the government not to move to ‘managed migration’ until it demonstrates it is ready to do so safely, without exposing a single claimant or their children to debt, hunger, or homelessness.”
He added: “The government doesn’t seem to understand that this is not the same as showing us how many staff it has trained up, how many stakeholders it has briefed, or that it has managed to get its computers working.
“What matters, and what the department should be testing and learning from, is the outcome of all of this for claimants, particularly the most vulnerable claimants – of whom there are disproportionately few in Harrogate.”
The department is planning to carry out its tests in 2020, a year into the pilot phase but before the full rollout. After the government first rejected the idea in January, the committee said this solution was “not good enough” to ensure managed migration would go smoothly.
Field added: “To put it bluntly: without looking at outcomes for claimants there is no point, for anyone other than the department itself, of these tests or what it intends to learn from them. How does the government hope to get the regulations it needs through parliament when it blithely ignores all this?”
Responding to Field's comments, a DWP spokesperson said it was "wrong to suggest that this department is resistant in any way to the idea of tests".
“We have already set out 10 tests of readiness, and pilot outcomes will be subject to full and rigorous review - including operational readiness.
“We are working with numerous expert stakeholders during the pilot, ensuring vulnerable and complex claimants are fully supported and safely moved over to Universal Credit, as well as consulting with parliament before extending the process to more people.” The nationwide rollout of managed migration needs parliamentary approval to go ahead.