The Department for Work and Pensions has been urged not to go ahead with the next stage of moving benefit recipients onto Universal Credit until it has tested the process and addressed “major concerns” about its impact on claimants.
Getting the “managed migration” process of transferring people onto the new welfare system “could plunge people further into poverty and could even leave them destitute”, MPs on the Work and Pensions Select Committee warn in a new report.
It said the government should delay a vote on legislation to start the managed migration process until MPs, peers and the Social Security Advisory Committee – DWP's indepedent advisers on social security legislation – have had time to scrutinise the regulations.
The MPs praised the government for listening to concerns about managed migration, and said its proposed regulations were “much improved” compared to previous iterations thanks to changes such as extending legacy payouts to cover the gap between payments that would have arisen for recipients during the transition.
However, they added: “We are not yet persuaded that those improvements have gone far enough to safeguard claimants and to ensure a smooth transition to Universal Credit.”
In particular, they were concerned that the requirement for anyone currently receiving benefits to make a new claim before they can receive any money under Universal Credit puts too much risk on individuals. They said the government should implement the SSAC’s recommendation to instead transfer people onto the new system automatically.
They also said DWP should eliminate a five-week wait for people to receive their first Universal Credit payment.
“These regulations will have a profound effect on the lives of millions of people, including some of the most vulnerable in society. It is impossible to overstate the importance of getting them right,” the report said.
The committee also doubled down on its call for DWP to set out a series of readiness tests for managed migration, which it said the department must meet “before a single claimant is transferred to Universal Credit via the managed migration pilot”. At the moment, the government plans to carry out tests in 2020, a year into the pilot phase but ahead of the full rollout.
This commitment is “simply not good enough”, the report said. The National Audit Office and the SSAC have both urged DWP to test the system before it begins, as well as the committee, and the MPs added: “We cannot understand why it continues to resist.”
The committee said it would recommend some appropriate readiness tests early next year. “We will expect the government to adopt them, or provide suitable alternatives of its own,” it said.
The committee's proposals are intended to ensure the risk of moving claimants from the old benefits system to the new one "lies with the government and not on the shoulders of poorer people", chair Frank Field said.
He added: "The government is thankfully making and then remaking its policy on how best to transfer existing claimants onto Universal Credit.
"It would be a pity if the government undermined this new way of thinking by not giving parliament and SSAC enough time to comment on its latest changes before it pushes parliament into a vote."
A DWP spokesperson said delaying the regulations would "leave people on a punitive legacy benefits system that disincentives work and fails to pay people the benefits they are due".
“As we’ve said before, these regulations were open for comment on our website for several months, and over 400 stakeholders offered their views. During this time the Work and Pensions Select Committee did not submit any feedback," they added.
“These regulations are designed to support people on to Universal Credit. They protect 500,000 severely disabled claimants and provide transitional protection for all those moving to Universal Credit, meaning that no one loses a penny at the point of transfer."