Someone really needs to show some leadership and heed the calls – being made by MPs of all parties, the advice sector, the Scottish government and even, through the Public and Commercial Services Union, the Department for Work and Pensions’ own staff – for the planned accelerated roll-out of universal credit to be put on hold.
Even before the universal credit ‘full service’ starts to hit 50 new jobcentres a month from this autumn, frontline advisers with whom Lasa (a social welfare law and tech charity) is in contact through our rightsnet adviser website
have been reporting significant problems with the new benefit, which, of course, promised to restore ‘fairness and simplicity’ to the system.
Indeed, anyone spending just a few minutes scanning our online peer support forums will quickly get a sense not just of the types of difficulties being experienced by claimants, but also: how the same problems are cropping up across the country; how they are being repeated week after week, month after month (despite the government having committed back in 2013 to slowing the pace of roll-out to allow it to adopt a ‘test and learn’ approach); and of the real-life impact on people in often desperate situations. For example, in areas where universal credit has been fully rolled out, the number of food bank referrals is more than double the national average.
It’s worth noting as well that, while the majority of those currently in receipt of universal credit are ‘simple’ cases, such as single people without dependants, full service roll-out is impacting massively on vulnerable groups as the system expands to also include people with disabilities and families with children, for example.
It’s also worrying that the extent of the problems being reported is despite the fact that more than £13bn is expected to be spent on introducing the new system, that the full service had only been rolled out to 64 of more than 700 jobcentres by June 2017, and that there are currently fewer than 600,000 people in receipt of the benefit. If the system isn’t coping at this scale, why would it be expected to as the numbers ramp up?
Accelerating the roll-out of universal credit at this point might make sense if the only priority is getting back on track in reaching the millions of people who had been expected to be in receipt of the benefit by now. However, doing so without having addressed the kinds of issues being raised at the front line would seem to be a recipe for a (continuing) disaster, with advisers, food banks and others left to pick up the pieces.