‘Deeply irresponsible’: DWP kept ‘alarming’ universal credit findings secret for 18 months

Report revealing ‘lack of awareness’ among claimants released to MPs a year and a half after it was produced

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 17 April 2019 08:48 BST
Amber Rudd admits Universal Credit failings for first time

Ministers have been accused of keeping “alarming” findings about their flagship universal credit scheme under wraps for a year and a half.

MPs say it was “deeply irresponsible” to delay the release of the report, which suggests nearly half of claimants were not aware their tax credits would stop when they claimed universal credit, and 56 per cent felt they received too little information from HMRC.

The document was produced in November 2017 but only released this month to MPs who, in the meantime, have had to make “pivotal” decisions based on “partial” information, according to the chair of the Work and Pensions Committee Frank Field.

In a letter to senior ministers, Mr Field said the “excessively long delay” had taken place during ongoing decisions about the flagship welfare benefit, which have affected the “lives and incomes of millions of people”.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has repeatedly argued that universal credit is more generous than the old benefit system and provides a “safety net” for those who need it.

The report reveals, however, that more than a third were experiencing financial difficulties – of which six in 10 said their difficulties started after they began claiming universal credit.

It also found that there was a “lack of awareness and a perceived lack of clear information about the new benefit and the migration process”.

Politicians and charities who support people transitioning to universal credit said it was “counterproductive” for ministers to have refrained from publishing the research for a year and a half. They urged the government to take into account all future research in a “thorough, timely and transparent way”.

In his letter, Mr Field asks Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd and Chancellor Philip Hammond what actions they took “immediately on seeing the report, aside from deciding to delay publication”.

He writes: “MPs should not be asked to make these pivotal decisions based on partial information. It would be deeply irresponsible for the government not to provide Members of both Houses with the best possible information on which to make them.

“It is profoundly regrettable that this seems to have occurred in this case. I very much hope that this consideration will be at the forefront of the government’s mind as it makes future decisions on sharing the findings of its own research.”

Garry Lemon, director of research and policy at the Trussell Trust, said the fact that the research has not resulted in significant changes to the support provided to people moving onto universal credit was “not only deeply concerning, but deeply irresponsible”.

He added: ”Our benefits system was created to anchor us all from being pushed into poverty, but for too many people moving on to the new service, universal credit has pushed them to a food bank.”

Jess Leigh, policy and campaigns manager at disability equality charity Scope, said: “At a time when government needs to restore trust in the system, sitting on a report for 18 months is counterproductive.

“This report is further evidence that universal credit isn’t working for disabled people. As universal credit becomes a reality for millions of disabled people, many face losing vital welfare support and falling off a financial cliff edge.

Amber Rudd admits Universal Credit failings for first time

“It is critical that the upcoming trial of managed migration takes into account all research in a thorough, timely and transparent way.”

The latest figures show that the DWP is expected to spend close to £1bn on administrative errors in the payment of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) to disabled people – far more than initially expected.

The department was forced to admit that even after new guidance had been issued to staff in 2015 in an attempt to correct the problem – which saw around 180,000 people deprived of benefits they were legally entitled to – 30,000 extra cases had been identified where it was possible the same error resulting in underpayment had been made.

A government spokesperson said they had received Mr Field’s letter and would respond in due course, adding: “This study shows the public’s understanding of universal credit continues to rise. Satisfaction levels are high and people are being helped into work quicker.

“We publish reports once they are quality assured and we regularly update the Committee on universal credit.”

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