Full rollout of universal credit, the government’s flagship welfare reform, is being delayed again, adding £500m to its overall cost, the BBC has learned. Officials say not enough people are moving to the benefit as they are “scared” to move to universal credit.
The system was meant to be fully live by April 2017, but the new delay will push it back to September 2024. The welfare delivery minister, Will Quince, said claimants would not lose money as a result of the change.
The backroom discussions leading to the latest delay were recorded by a BBC team whose series, Universal Credit: Inside the Welfare State, starts on Tuesday.
The new benefit, which replaces six existing payments, has been beset by problems, with claimants having to wait at least five weeks for the payments to start and many reports of people falling into debt, and having to resort to food banks as a consequence.
On top of that, advance payments of the benefit, introduced to help people through the five weeks with no money coming in, have been blamed for putting claimants into debt. That’s because once the benefit finally comes through, payments are reduced to pay off the advance.
Claimants are meant to transfer onto universal credit when they have a change of circumstances, such as moving in with a new partner.
The film-makers were allowed access to meetings inside the Department for Work and Pensions, and officials are seen pondering what to do when they realise fewer people are reporting changes of circumstances and therefore being transferred to the new benefit, than expected.
One programme shows Bolton mum Paula struggling to feed her family when her first universal credit payment comes in at just over £500 for a month, because of deductions to pay off the advance she took during the five-week wait.
She ends up resorting to a food bank. “I have just got myself into one big mess and I have lost control over everything,” Paula tells a debt counsellor. “I am in debt up to my eyeballs and it’s not going to go away.”
The counsellor tells her: “Any customer on universal credit, we already know that you’re standing on the back foot. “If you don’t have money saved up already or you don’t have backup of family who can support you, you will fall into taking an advance payment.” She added that benefit deductions to pay off the advance, leave people “constantly trying to catch up”.
Neil Couling, the senior civil servant in charge of the rollout for the past five years, is filmed telling a Whitehall meeting: “We’ve got a lot of anecdotal evidence of people being scared to come to universal credit.
“It’s a potentially serious issue for us, in terms of completing the project by December 2023, but I’m urging people not to panic.” But a few weeks later, in September 2019, he decides to delay full rollout to September 2024, putting £500m on the bill.
“Three, six or nine months, it doesn’t matter – the headline will be: ‘Delay, disaster’,” he says “I would say, ‘Go safe, put the claimants first, and I’ll take the beating.'”
Despite the problems, Mr Couling says he believes that once universal credit is fully implemented, it will be successful and regarded as “the right thing to do”. “This is the system that will form the bedrock of social security for the next 30 years.”
He expects universal credit to continue to grow, with 2.6 million people already on it by September last year: “Right now there’s no way I can put the brakes on and stop.
“I have to keep going to the destination or you have to set me a different destination, because there’s 2.6 million people, and if we get something wrong we could disrupt their lives and they’ve got no alternative. There’s no alternative bank they can go to get help. We are the payer of last resort.”
Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Margaret Greenwood, called the news “hugely embarrassing” for the government and called for universal credit to be scrapped.
“Universal credit was supposed to be its flagship social security programme. PMSL
“Instead we now find that it is being forced to delay the full rollout because the public have so very little faith in it and many are actually afraid of it,” said Ms Greenwood.
The government says universal credit was always intended to be introduced slowly. SLOW!!! A SNAIL COULD CRAWL THE LENGTH OF MAINLAND UK IN LESS TIME!!!
It is “the biggest change to the welfare system in a generation, bringing together six overlapping benefits into one monthly payment and offering support to some of the most vulnerable people in society”, said Mr Quince.
“It is right that we revisit our forecasts and plan, and re-plan accordingly, ensuring that the process is working well for people on benefits.”
MORE UC NEWS
- Universal Credit: Welfare system to be delayed again with completion not expected until 2024
- NO CREDIT Single mum in tears as Universal Credit five-week wait leaves her with no money for food or bills
- Universal Credit: Inquiry into economics of benefit launches
- UNIVERSAL CREDIT: DWP confession is horrific
- Universal Credit: Inside the Welfare State, BBC2 — behind the scenes of a creaking system
- Universal Credit case finds government discriminated against thousands of disabled people
- Pembrokeshire rent arrears shoot up after Universal Credit introduced
- Government loses court appeal over short-changing disabled benefit claimants
- Tories deny knowledge of poverty caused by Universal Credit delays
- Important box Universal Credit claimants need to tick for free NHS prescriptions
- Universal Credit claimant who had just a sandwich to eat on Christmas day begs supermarkets for food
- Pregnant mum-of-three forced to live off porridge after Universal Credit leaves them penniless
- Universal Credit: Parts of UK to be ‘significantly worse off’ after roll out
- Universal credit sending people into arms of loan sharks
- Universal Credit is a disaster says union for the DWP staff
- Revised prescription forms with Universal Credit tick box to be introduced
- The faces of Universal Credit: 11 stories about making ends meet
- ‘I’m no scrounger’ says angry hardworking mum on benefits
- Liverpool’s poorest families worse off under Universal Credit
- Cruel Universal Credit is a universally discredited failure
- Free prescriptions on Universal Credit – these are the rules to avoid charges and fines
- Universal Credit: Six extra entitlements you could be able to get in 2020 explained by DWP
- Low-income families set to be poorer under universal credit
- DWP apologises after landlords left unable to identify tenant payments
- Universal Credit has left me feeling suicidal
- UNIVERSAL CREDIT: Citizens Advice demands an overhaul