DWP's Neil Couling defends Universal Credit progress as elements of welfare shake-up pushed back

Department for Work and Pensions' director general tells MPs that policy changes are behind new timescales

By Jim Dunton

21 Jul 2016

New work and pensions secretary Damian Green has extended the government’s timescale for introducing elements of Universal Credit, but the department’s lead officer for the programme has insisted the programme is not facing delays.

Green announced new milestones for the sweeping overhaul of the nation’s benefits system – first planned by his predecessor-but-one Iain Duncan Smith – in a written ministerial statement yesterday.

He said transition of all benefit recipients to the new system was now not expected to be complete until March 2022 – one year later than the previous projection.

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Green’s announcement came before a session of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee that was already scheduled to examine progress with Universal Credit, and MPs took the opportunity to quiz DWP’s director general responsible, Neil Couling, on the issue.

Couling refused to accept that the new timescales represented a delay, but said they reflected changes made to the scope of the programme because of the government’s expanded ambitions for welfare reform.

“It’s a bit like you ask me to build a house with three bedrooms in it, and halfway through, when I’m laying bricks, someone’s said ‘can you put another two bedrooms in it?’,” he said.

“Which is why I don’t think it’s a delay – it’s an increase in scope; a change in design.”

Couling told MPs that the latest delays were principally due to changes in the scope of Universal Credit outlined in last year’s Summer Budget, including reduced housing entitlements for 18-21 year-olds and restrictions on benefit entitlements for families with more than two children.

He said further complications had included Scotland Act changes that allow the Scottish government to vary elements of Universal Credit and similar devolved arrangements in Northern Ireland.

“The programme itself has actually been hitting all the dates that have been set for it,” he said.

As well as slowing the pace of Universal Credit’s rollout, Green’s “reshaping” announcement also delays the incorporation of Housing Benefit for pensioners into Pension Credit until the completion of the Universal Credit timetable, “in order to give greater certainty to local authorities” about their financial responsibilities.

Green said Universal Credit was the biggest transformation of the welfare state since its inception and remained a key part of the government’s plan to reduce reliance on benefits and increase incentives to work.

“I believe this plan is the best way to ensure secure delivery of the government’s welfare reform priorities, increasing employment outcomes and supporting claimants at an affordable cost for the taxpayer,” he said.

DWP’s Couling told MPs he believed the latest timescales were realistic.

“Based on what we know now, or the policies settled as they are now, I’m confident that we can deliver to this timetable,” he said.

Earlier in the session PAC chair Meg Hillier had told him that she would not like to be in his shoes.

He replied: “There are a number of people who say that across Whitehall, actually.”

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