Universal credit: Urgent report calls on ministers to push back any votes over 'major areas of concern'

Demand comes as new work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd acknowledges problems with welfare reform

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
@ashcowburn
Thursday 22 November 2018 01:05
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DWP secretary Amber Rudd accepted their had been 'teething problems' with universal credit
DWP secretary Amber Rudd accepted their had been 'teething problems' with universal credit

Major areas of concern remain with universal credit, a group of MPs warn today in an urgent report calling on ministers to push back any vote on the flagship welfare reform.

The Commons Work and Pensions Committee claims that getting “managed migration” – the process of transferring claimants from existing benefits to universal credit – wrong when it starts in mid-2019 could “plunge claimants into poverty and even leave them destitute”.

Despite money being allocated for universal credit at the Budget, the committee warns that “major areas of concern” about the welfare reform remain.

It adds that MPs in the Commons have not had a chance to scrutinise and report on the revised regulations brought forward by the government in November, and claims the indicative timetable suggests “there will be no opportunity for expert scrutiny”.

While a specific date has not yet been allocated for the vote by the government, the committee recommends that no vote take place until the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) has been able to report on the regulations.

The report states: “These regulations have a profound effect on the lives of millions of people, including some of the most vulnerable in society. It is impossible to overstate the importance of getting them right.”

Frank Field, the chairman of the committee and independent MP, said: “The committee’s main proposals seek to ensure that the risk of moving claimants from the old system of benefits on universal credit lies with the government and not on the shoulders of poorer people.

“The government is thankfully making and then remaking its policy on how best to transfer existing claimants on to universal credit.

“It would be a pity if the government undermined this new way of thinking by not giving parliament and SSAC enough time to comment on its latest changes before it pushes parliament into a vote.”

The demand comes as Amber Rudd, the new work and pensions secretary, said on Wednesday that the government’s flagship welfare programme is “a tremendous force for good in this country” but acknowledged there is “a problem” with the reform.

She accepted there had been “teething problems” with universal credit, which is due to be rolled out to all claimants by the end of 2023 – following several delays since its introduction by Iain Duncan Smith.

But she defended the reform, which rolls six “legacy” benefit payments into one monthly sum, claiming it “makes it much simpler and more straightforward for people to access” and “makes it easier to get payment immediately and incentivise getting into work”.

At the Budget last month chancellor Philip Hammond bowed to intense pressure from charities, campaigners and cross-party MPs to make universal credit more generous, spending £1bn to – ministers say – cut the wait for a first payment from five to three weeks.

A further £1.7bn will improve “work allowances” – the amount someone can earn before their benefits start to be crawled back from their higher income, which will be worth over £600 per person.

While the respected thinktank the Resolution Foundation said the changes would ease the affect for 200,000 people they added that far more must be done to make it “fit for tackling the big challenge of in-work poverty”.

“The welcome extra investment in universal credit at the Budget means that a further 200,000 working families will now be better off under the new benefit system than the old one,” said Laura Gardiner, its research director.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “As we’ve said before, these regulations were open for comment on our website for several months, and over 400 stakeholders offered their views. During this time the Work and Pensions Select Committee did not submit any feedback.

“These regulations are designed to support people on to universal credit. They protect 500,000 severely disabled claimants and provide transitional protection for all those moving to universal credit, meaning that no one loses a penny at the point of transfer.

“Delaying these regulations would leave people on a punitive legacy benefits system that disincentives work and fails to pay people the benefits they are due – costing 700,000 families an average of £285 each and every month.”

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