The Department for Work and Pensions is facing renewed pressure to rethink a planned acceleration in the rollout of Universal Credit amid warnings that the result will be “dire” for benefits recipients.
Louise Casey, the former director general for the troubled families programme in the Department for Communities and Local Government urged prime minister Theresa May to pause the programme’s implementation or risk increasing levels of homelessness and children being taken into care because of lags in payment times between existing benefits payments under the new system.
A group of 12 backbench Conservative MPs – understood to include Heidi Allen and Andrew Selous, a former parliamentary aide to Iain Duncan Smith, the driving force behind Universal Credit – have signed a letter to work and pensions secretary David Gauke, airing similar concerns.
The PCS union today said general secretary Mark Serwotka had written to DWP perm sec Robert Devereux demanding a halt to the programme because of its likely impact on both benefits claimants and staff.
Universal Credit brings together six existing employment benefits into one payment system. It was originally envisaged as being fully implemented by 2015, but changes to plans for the service and IT issues have delayed progress and full implementation is now expected by March 2022.
From next month the rollout of the system’s so-called “full service” is set to be stepped up to cover benefits recipients at 50 additional Jobcentres every month, but Casey, the MPs and PCS fear this would exacerbate problems related to the switchover which can mean delays of several weeks in benefits payments.
Serwotka’s letter to Devereux cited figures from the Citizens Advice Bureaux indicating that 39% of Universal Credit claimants waited more than six weeks for their first payments to come through, while 11% reported waiting more than 10 weeks without benefits.
Casey, who advised four prime ministers from Tony Blair to Theresa May on social policy until she left Whitehall earlier this year, said the implementation of Universal Credit was having unintended consequences the government should not ignore.
In an interview for BBC Radio 4’s PM show, she said the government should pause the programme while improvements were made.
“The overall intention might be right, but the fact of the matter of it is that the overall delivery of it means that some people, because of the waiting time before benefit kicks in, will end up in dire circumstances, more dire than I think we’ve seen in this country for years, and that we have to stop,” she said.
“It’s OK occasionally to say ‘we didn’t get the implementation completely right, let’s pause and see what we can do’,” she said.
“At the moment, everyone’s holding out and saying ‘we’re pressing on, we’re pressing on, we’re pressing on’.
“It’s like jumping over a cliff and once you’ve jumped people end up at the bottom. And we don’t want that to happen.”
Casey said it could not be the intention of the policy to drive homelessness levels or see more children taken into care.
Serwotka said the gpverment's handling of the programme had inflicted misery on vulnerable people.
“It is completely unacceptable that one in four claimants are waiting more than six weeks to receive support, pushing already vulnerable people further into poverty and despair.
“Cuts to DWP staff and resources must be reversed to give the department the means to develop a system that offers genuine help.”
DWP said around 80% of new claims were paid in full and on time, with figures for June indicating a 92% rate. It said that claimants who could not wait for their first payment to come through could request an advance that could be repaid over a six-month period, and that just under half of new applicants took up the option.
The department added that where new claims were not paid on time it was estimated that two-thirds of cases had an outstanding verification issue, such as providing bank statements, evidence of childcare costs, or proof of rent.
A DWP spokesman said: “Universal Credit lies at the heart of our commitment to help people improve their lives and raise their incomes. It provides additional, tailored support to help people move into work and stop claiming benefits altogether.
“With Universal Credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system."