The Work and Pensions Select Committee has called on employment minister Alok Sharma to answer questions about his department’s readiness to move benefit claimants to the Universal Credit system.
Committee chair Frank Field wrote to Sharma on 10 October as the committee launched an inquiry into Universal Credit, the government's flagship welfare reform. “You will no doubt be aware of widespread concerns about the approach the government is taking,” he said.
Field asked Sharma to explain what assessment the DWP had made of the likely impact of managed migration – the move from the existing benefits system to Universal Credit. In particular, Field sought to find out whether the department had carried out a full impact or equality impact assessment.
Field also asked Amyas Morse, the head of the National Audit Office, to set out how best to assess whether the department was ready for managed migration, which is expected to affect nearly four million people.
Field wrote to Morse asking him to expand on the NAO's recommendation that DWP should assess whether its automation and digital systems are ready to handle more caseloads through managed migration. The department should “ensure the programme does not expand before business-as-usual operations can cope with higher claimant volumes”, it said in a report in June.
The report highlighted severe delays in the programme’s implementation and said it may never be value for money. At the time, Field said the report showed DWP was "stuck making slow, fraught progress on a policy that it cannot now go back on".
Field has now asked Morse to set out which tests the NAO would consider necessary to assess the department’s readiness for managed migration, the data needed to measure its progress and whether DWP has given him any indication that it intends to carry out such an assessment.
A number of hurdles remain for DWP to pass the regulation it needs to move onto the next phase of the rollout. The Labour Party has called for a full debate over the legislation amid growing concern over the impact it might have on claimants.
On Thursday, work and pensions secretary Esther McVey contradicted previous government assurances on the reform by admitting “some people will be worse off” under the new benefits system. Two former prime ministers – John Major and Gordon Brown – have both called this week on the government to pause the rollout to address problems with the rollout and to increase the generosity of the system.
The Treasury is reportedly facing mounting pressure to act after the policy's chief political architect, Iain Duncan Smith repeated his call to reverse the £2bn cut to the system that sparked his resignation as work and pensions secretary in 2016.