THE Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) has come in for fresh criticism over its controversial flagship welfare reform, Universal Credit, with a scathing demand from MPs that it “prove it’s up to the job”.
In a new report – Universal Credit: Tests for managed migration – the Work & Pensions Select Committee of MPs (WPSC) warned the DWP that not a single person claiming so-called legacy benefits should be transferred across to Universal Credit (UC) until it can demonstrate it is ready and able to cope with this process of ‘managed migration’.
Meanwhile, in a separate report, the Northern Housing Consortium (NHC) has highlighted how housing associations in the North of England are feeling the pressure, and bearing the burden, of Universal Credit’s roll-out for new claimants. Unsurprisingly, the organisation is also calling for the ‘managed migration’ process to be put on hold until the flaws in its implementation have been “ironed out”.
According to the WPSC, the DWP needs to test its “operational readiness”, using tests based on recommendations from its own expert advisory panel – the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) – as well as recommendations from the National Audit Office. Furthermore, the department needs to ensure it is meeting these tests before it begins even the pilot phase of ‘managed migration’, the committee warned.
But the committee says that the DWP has provided “no convincing reason why it won’t accept these expert recommendations”.
“DWP is still talking semantics: we are talking about people. Six months after we started pressing them on the next potential Universal Credit disaster on the horizon, the department is yet to prove it’s up to the job of so-called ‘managed migration’,” said Frank Field MP, chair of the committee.
“Anyone who sees their income slashed or their circumstances and life chances reduced, or any of the other messes Universal Credit is getting people across this land into, will find no comfort in learning it didn’t happen on purpose.
“Does DWP want to explain to them it didn’t bother to find out how they might be affected? Will it be a comfort to learn DWP did take a look at that, but didn’t bother to apply its findings? ‘Test and learn’ must mean just that: DWP should not move one person onto Universal Credit until it does test, and does learn, and proves it is ready to safely do so.”
Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Margaret Greenwood, responding to the select committee’s report, said: “Universal Credit is clearly failing and is in no state for the Government to begin the next phase of the rollout.
“The Select Committee is absolutely right to highlight that the Government is asking Parliament to approve the pilot for the next stage without any clear tests by which its success or failure will be judged.
“It is simply irresponsible to require almost three million more people to transfer to Universal Credit when the Conservatives have still failed to fix its fundamental flaws, such as the five-week wait for a first payment.
“The Government must stop the roll out of Universal Credit as a matter of urgency before any more people are pushed into hardship.”
Meanwhile, in the NHC’s report – Impact of Universal Credit Revisited – the organisation has highlighted the burden housing providers face, from the pressures on frontline staff, to the level of extra resources housing providers have invested to tackle problems. These include improved IT systems, new processes, team restructures and realignment of services to offset the negative impact on tenants’ rent accounts.
The report builds on evidence collected in the NHC’s year-long longitudinal study of its membership across the North collecting evidence on their tenants, their organisation and their experience of dealing with the DWP. It also reflects on other studies throughout the roll out and anecdotal evidence from member consultation events.
Findings suggest that although there have been “positive steps” taken by DWP, many issues raised in the initial studies are a continuing concern. This includes inconsistency of information from contact centres, rent arrears increases and waiting times still going beyond five weeks.
The NHC said it is concerned that despite the “hard work of housing providers to offset the impact of UC implementation”, the ‘managed migration’ of all remaining working-age benefit claimants onto UC which is supposed to begin this year will result in “increased caseloads for both housing providers and DWP staff alike”, with the added pressures that come with it.
According to one housing provider quoted by NHC: “We are concerned about the potential for customers to disengage from the benefits system altogether – particularly if they have issues with maintaining their UC claim, are sanctioned, or do not understand that UC includes support towards housing costs.
“Whilst prior to UC if the wheels fell off, we could support customers to submit a nil-income statement to HB while they got back on track, there is not this option under UC.”
Barry Turnbull, NHC’s business intelligence officer, said: “The system should be more effective in the way it works with social landlords by being more flexible and there should be mechanisms in place to make it easier for third parties such as landlords to support claimants – the landlord portal could be pivotal in achieving this.”
With no “realistic alternative other than to persevere with UC”, the NHC is repeating calls the roll-out of Universal Credit to be paused, to give the DWP the “opportunity to iron out the persisting flaws required to make the system workable for all concerned”. If the Government wants the roll-out and the benefit to succeed, the organisation added, it needs to ensure a flexible approach to its delivery.