Universal Credit: a human and political catastrophe

A human and political catastrophe. That’s how veteran Labour MP Frank Field –  Chair of the influential Work and Pensions Select Committee – recently described the UK government’s roll-out of Universal Credit.

Mr Field is not a man known for hyperbole – and this claim is certainly no exaggeration.

Just about everyone who has examined the introduction of Universal Credit, which is possibly the biggest reform to the social security system ever attempted – can see that there are serious and fundamental flaws that need to be fixed.

You’ll no doubt have seen an increasing amount of discussion in the media about this in the last few weeks. With Universal Credit currently being introduced in more and more council areas across the UK, the serious problems that emerged in pilot areas are now affecting ever more people.

We are hearing countless, harrowing stories of people on low incomes – often with young children or other dependents – left for weeks or even months without the support they need to pay their rent or put food on the table.

Anyone looking objectively at the Universal Credit story so far would struggle to understand how any government could have let it come to this.

There was a lot of good will for the UK government when they set out to simplify a benefits system which everyone agreed had become far too complicated. But they have squandered this good will by refusing to listen to legitimate and serious concerns.

For those who don’t know, Universal Credit replaces 6 benefits and tax credits – Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credit, Income Support, Working Tax Credit, Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance and Income-related Employment and Support Allowance – with one single monthly payment.

This seems straightforward enough on paper – but the way in which this change is being administered is causing a dreadful increase in people facing hardship, rent arrears and foodbank referrals.

For no justifiable reason, anyone moving onto Universal Credit is required to wait at least 6 weeks for their first payment.

Although people entitled to Universal Credit are often in work, they have very low incomes, with children or other dependents. They just do not have the luxury of going for so long with such a big hole in their family budget.

This 6-week delay is having quite frightening consequences. In Highland and East Lothian councils – two areas which have had UC for the longest period – average rent arrears for those in receipt of UC are a staggering two and a half times higher than those who are still on Housing Benefit.

On top of this waiting period, there are serious flaws with the application process itself.

The DWP hope that everything relating to Universal Credit can be done online. That’s all very well if you know how to use a computer or have access to the internet, but a recent Citizen’s Advice Scotland survey found that only a quarter of respondents said they could complete an online form on their own without any problems.

Citizen’s Advice have also found evidence of widespread mishandling of applications by officials.

In the areas in Scotland where Universal Credit has been fully rolled out, almost half – I repeat, almost half – of the cases they dealt with over a six month period showed evidence of issues such as poor communication, administrative errors and delays in payment.

This is not a system which just has a few teething problems – it’s a system which is fundamentally broken.

Without considerable changes, the roll-out of Universal Credit is set to be a disaster, pushing many more families into further hardship – unable to pay their rent or to put food on the table.

A real head of steam is building up demanding the Tories change course.

The Scottish Government, alongside council umbrella group COSLA, have seen more than enough evidence – and we have formally asked the UK Government to pause the process while the problems can be fixed.

This is a call echoed by MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, as well as the Welsh Assembly, anti-poverty charities, housing associations, churches and countless other organisations.

And tonight, the House of Commons is facing a crunch vote on whether to demand a pause.

MPs from all parties need to listen carefully to the overwhelming evidence, and urge the UK government to put the brakes on this process.

Things should never have got this far – they should have learned the lessons from the pilot areas – but even now, at the eleventh hour, the UK government should pause the roll-out so the serious flaws can be properly addressed.

To plough on would be morally unforgivable – and it would be catastrophic.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Evening Times.