The rollout of Universal Credit has been delayed again to 2024 – seven years after it was originally supposed to be implemented.
The delay to September 2024 was uncovered in an upcoming BBC documentary about the government’s flagship welfare reform. It will add £500m to the Universal Credit programme, which is already billions over budget.
The delay has arisen because fewer people than expected had signed up to the new system, according to the documentary, Universal Credit: Inside the welfare state.
In a clip from the programme, Neil Couling, Universal Credit director general at the Department for Work and Pensions, is seen to say in a September meeting that “we’ve had a lot of anecdotal evidence of people being scared to come to Universal Credit”.
"It's a potentially serious issue for us, in terms of completing the project by December 2023, but I'm urging people not to panic," he said.
Universal Credit has been plagued with reports of delayed payments and other problems since its rollout began in 2013.
As of September, 2.6 million people had signed up to the system, and when people apply for benefits for the first time they are automatically enrolled onto UC.
It has been blamed a recent increase in the use of food banks. Last February then-work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd admitted that “the main issue that led to an increase in food bank use could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough”.
People who already claim benefits under what the government is now calling the legacy benefits system – the suite of six separate benefits that are combined into one under UC – are supposed to transfer to the new system when their circumstances change.
In a rare interview, Couling told the BBC that delaying the rollout was “the right thing to do".
“There’s 2.6 million people, and if we get something wrong we could disrupt their lives, and they’ve got no alternative. There’s no alternative bank they can go to to get help. We are the payer of last resort.”
The delay comes after repeated warnings about DWP’s ability to manage the Universal Credit rollout. Last May parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee warned a botched rollout could lead to benefit recipients becoming destitute, and then-chair Frank Field said the department was “yet to prove it’s up to the job” of moving recipients over from one system to the other.
The revelation came as the Resolution Foundation published a report calling on the government to improve UC by improving the "generosity" of payments and strengthening work incentives, particularly for single parents and second earners.
It also repeated its call for DWP to enable childcare costs for working parents to be paid upfront, rather than in arrears as they are now. In a separate report last month, which warned the department did not understand the varying impact of UC in different areas of the country, the think tank shared experiences of UC recipients who had experienced problems because of this sytem.
Responding to news of the latest delay, welfare minister Will Quince said: “Universal Credit is the biggest change to the welfare system in a generation, bringing together six overlapping benefits into one monthly payment and offering support to some of the most vulnerable people in society.
“It is right that we revisit our forecasts and plan, and re-plan accordingly - ensuring that the process is working well for people on benefits.
“Claimants will not lose money due to this forecasting change.”