The roll-out of the government’s Universal Credit welfare reform is to be further delayed amid concerns about the planned migration of existing benefit claimants onto the new system next year.
According to the BBC, ministers have paused the country-wide implementation of the flagship reform amid reports of claimants suffering financial difficulties. Leaked documents also set out plans for new measures to insulate claimants from financial hardship.
Currently, the system, which will merge six benefits into one payment, is available to new claimants, with the migration of those receiving other benefits expected to begin in 2019. However, the BBC said the documents show that initial testing has been pushed back to next summer, and large-scale movement won't begin until November 2020 at the earliest.
The documents also reportedly reveal that millions have already been spent trying to prevent any adverse effects of the Universal Credit rollout, including transitional protections and following the concerns about the rollout, new claimants will continue to receive other benefits during the transition as well as other forms of support.
One document seen by the BBC states: "We can currently offer no assurance that ultimately these proposals will prove to be deliverable, can survive legal challenges where they can be delivered, and do not invite new political criticism by generating new policy issues."
The controversial welfare programme should have been fully operational in April last year, but has been paused a number of times due to problems during the rollout, which is now set for completion by December 2023.
The revelation comes a week after the chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Frank Field, said employment minister Alok Sharma must answer questions about his department’s readiness to move benefit claimants to the Universal Credit system. Field, a Labour MP, wrote to Sharma on 10 October as the committee launched an inquiry into the reform, citing “widespread concerns about the approach the government is taking”.
The committee will hold two evidence sessions this week as part of the inquiry examining DWP’s running costs and plans to move existing benefit claimants onto the new system. In the latter, Sharma will give evidence on how the department will decide whether to start, delay, or pause the process, known as managed migration.
The leak follows a warning from ex-prime minister John Major that the programme in its current form could be as politically damaging as the poll tax was in the early 1990s.
His comments came as work and pensions secretary Esther McVey revealed that some claimants would be “worse off” under the changes, despite Theresa May’s assurances to the contrary.
Speaking about the rollout in the House of Commons yesterday, McVey refused to say whether she had lobbied the Treasury for additional funding ahead of the Budget later this month. "I do not let people know what we do in private meetings," she said, but added that she was "championing UC to make sure that it works the best it can possibly work".
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said in a statement: "We will publish full plans for the next stage of Universal Credit rollout, including managed migration, in due course.
“Anything before that point is speculation and we do not comment on leaks."