London Mayor Sadiq Khan has again highlighted the issues facing Universal Credit by calling on the Government to immediately pause its rollout in order to prevent thousands of Londoners being at risk of ‘considerable disruption’ and ‘a significant threat of harm’.
The comments come from a submission to an official consultation which closed on 20 August 2018. This relates to a three year managed migration process starting in July 2019 under which over two million claimants will be sent a letter giving them three months to apply for Universal Credit before their current legacy benefits such as Income Support are cancelled. Khan has stated he believes people currently on these benefits should be automatically transferred instead of having to apply.
This is not the first time this year that the Government’s flagship welfare benefits reform programme has run into controversy. Now in the second year of its delivery, Universal Credit has already been paused earlier in the year for Jobcentres to catch up with claim numbers.
Replacing six means-tested benefits, including Income Support and Jobseeker’s Allowance, Universal Credit was supposed to simplify the benefits system and ‘make work pay’. With a fully digital interface and an online platform capable of pulling earnings information directly from HMRC’s PAYE systems, there were high hopes for the new scheme.
Nonetheless reports of problems around technology, accessibility and knowledge of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff has meant that the implementation has been far from smooth. Consequently organisations such as Mind, Citizens Advice and Child Poverty Action Group have raised concerns as to the way the benefit has been brought in, especially in connection with long delays in payment causing rent arrears.
Another particularly pertinent issue highlighted by organisations and now Khan has been the initial claims process and how claimants who are vulnerable are left to fend for themselves when it comes to having to make new online claims. Traditionally the claims process for benefits has at least theoretically been a very straightforward procedure; a telephone call followed by a paper/online form. This meant that intermediaries including family members, advice centre workers and deputies could easily claim on behalf of another person. The new online system however means that it is much more difficult to do this and Khan has stated that he believes that Universal Credit is causing ‘significant hardship to Londoners most in need of support’, a statement echoed by Child Poverty Action Group and Inclusion London.
A spokesperson from the DWP however stated in response to Khan’s comments: “Research also shows that a large majority of people receiving Universal Credit are satisfied with the service they receive. We continue to make improvements to the delivery of Universal Credit where needed and will ensure those migrating from legacy benefits get the right support.” It remains to be seen therefore what the ‘right support’ will mean for claimants, their intermediaries and the organisations which support them.