Waiting times for millions of people claiming universal credit payments have been slashed to three weeks, the government has confirmed, as part of measures to ease pressure on the troubled welfare scheme.
Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, said struggling families would no longer have to wait five weeks to get their first payment on the new scheme, which rolls six working-age benefits into one.
It comes after the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, bowed to intense pressure from charities and politicians by ploughing more than £1bn into the troubled welfare reforms, which have been blamed for pushing people into poverty.
Setting out further details of the Budget announcement, Ms McVey said: ”This is targeted support to help work pay and support the vulnerable.
“While the party opposite may hanker for the dark old days, trapping people on benefits, excluding them from opportunity of work and getting on in life, and at the same time delivering a big bill to the taxpayer, we do not.”
Under the plans, debt repayments will be reduced, claims deadlines will be extended to three months and the self-employed will be given a 12-month grace period exempting them from the “minimum income floor”, which stops claimants from earning more than the minimum wage.
These changes apply to claimants who moved onto the scheme under “managed migration” from July 2019. These are people who are already claiming benefits, ruling out new claimants and anyone who has changed their circumstances.
It does not cover a separate £1.7bn to boost work allowances, which was also unveiled in the Budget.
The government’s top welfare adviser, Ian Diamond, said there were significant concerns about the scheme and the current timetable for the roll-out of universal credit was unrealistic.
In a response, published as Ms McVey addressed MPs, Mr Diamond said: “The government has largely delivered on its commitment to protect people’s incomes at the point of migration, but in several other respects too much risk is potentially loaded on to individuals.
“Additionally, the [social security advisory] committee has significant concerns about the scale of the operational challenge facing the department in terms of the delivery of these proposals.
“We welcome the department’s commitment to consult, but consider that – if that consultation is to be meaningful and effective – the current timetable is unrealistic.”
Shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood called on the government to pause the rollout of universal credit.
“The Budget last week did little to address the very long wait for payments which is causing significant hardship,” she said..
“Despite this the government is now planning to start the next phase of introduction of universal credit which it calls managed migration which will involve the transfer of £2.87m onto it.
“Universal credit is failing, the opposition has consistently called on the government to stop the rollout but this government is pressing ahead despite the terrible hardship it is causing.”
While welcoming the extra cash, Frank Field – who chairs the Commons Work and Pensions Committee – said: “Could I advise her that she shouldn’t take routes home in the dark, the part(s) that go along by the Treasury, for her own safety.”
SNP deputy Westminster leader Kirsty Blackman later said that people were still worse off as the benefit freeze and sanctions regime were still in place.
“It seems to me that anything in relation to this has not been done on the basis of how much people actually need to live on,” she said.
“If it was done on the basis of how much people need to live on then there wouldn’t be a huge increase in people going to food banks.”
David Finch, senior fellow of the think-tank Resolution Foundation, hailed the progress made but warned that the final phase of the universal credit rollout was the biggest challenge yet for the government.
He said: “Its progress has been significantly eased by the welcome measures announced in the Budget, including higher work allowances and the rolling-on of key benefits to prevent significant waits between payments.
“The Secretary of State’s relaxation of hard deadlines within which families must complete a claim is also encouraging. But challenges remain.
“The good news is that with the final phase now not starting until late 2020, there is still plenty of time for the government to make further improvements.”
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