The Department for Work and Pensions has not proved it is ready for the rollout of Universal Credit, a committee of MPs has warned, and a botched implementation of the scheme risks leaving benefit claimants "destitute".
A report from the Work and Pensions Committee urged the department to adopt stronger safeguards to protect claimants involved in the trial of the government's flagship welfare policy.
The department is set to begin a ‘managed migration’ pilot aimed at testing procedures for transferring almost people away from their current benefits programme and on to the single, monthly payment scheme.
The first managed migration pilot in Harrogate from July, but in a report, the committee hit out at ministers for refusing to implement its previous recommendations for a series of 'readiness tests' to monitor the department's ability to safely transfer people on to the new system.
The committee group said operational tests before the start of the scheme, as well as a further two-step test ahead of the 'at scale' rollout of the benefit should be implemented by ministers to prove they are "up to the job".
Speaking to CSW’s sister title PoliticsHome, committee chair Frank Field said the tests should be put in place "before a single person" is transferred over.
“Anyone who sees their income slashed or their circumstances and life chances reduced, or any of the other messes UC is getting people across this land into, will find no comfort in learning it didn’t happen on purpose.
“Does DWP want to explain to them it didn’t bother to find out how they might be affected? Will it be a comfort to learn DWP did take a look at that, but didn’t bother to apply its findings? ‘Test and learn’ must mean just that: DWP should not move one person onto UC until it does test, and does learn, and proves it is ready to safely do so.”
The committee said the DWP should "at 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.
Earlier this month work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd confirmed Harrogate had been selected because of its diverse spread of claimants.
"We have chosen them because they have had Universal Credit for three years. They are an experienced job centre. And they are an area which have both urban and rural claimants," she said.
"And we will be making sure we have the opportunity to test and move as many as possible in an effective way so that we can really learn and demonstrate the success of managed migration."
However Field accused the DWP of “still talking semantics: we are talking about people”.
“Six months after we started pressing them on the next potential UC disaster on the horizon, the department is yet to prove it’s up to the job of so-called ‘managed migration’.
"At every stage since landlords and local authorities raised the alarm about hardship and homelessness with us two years ago, the story of Universal Credit has been a sorry, painful one," he said.
“If the department is confident that Universal Credit is operationally ready to begin the managed migration pilot, there is no explanation for not setting and meeting the tests to demonstrate this."
In a response to the report, the DWP said it was “taking a slow and measured approach, and will return to Parliament before increasing the number of people moving onto the benefit”.
It added: "We have a proven track record of delivering major programmes of change as safely as possible.
"In the last year we have successfully moved 250,000 people from Universal Credit live service to full service. More than 1.8 million households are now supported by Universal Credit."