A former government official and a dozen Tory MPs have added their voices to mounting calls on the government to slow down the implementation of universal credit – its controversial overhaul of the benefits system.
Dame Louise Casey, who conducted a year-long study for ministers into community cohesion, likened pressing ahead with the system to “jumping over a cliff”.
She told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme the changes, which involve merging six benefits into a single monthly payment, made her “hair stand on end”.
Casey, a former director of the Labour government’s rough sleepers unit, said the plans, which have already been tried on 530,000 claimants, would “end up making the situation worse for people that are working poor – let alone people that are on benefits”.
Casey’s intervention comes after 12 Tory MPs, including the prominent backbencher Heidi Allen, called for the rollout to be paused over fears about the impact on claimants already receiving universal credit in trial areas, according to the Daily Telegraph.
Signatories to the letter, which was sent to the work and pensions secretary, David Gauke, include Andrew Selous, a former parliamentary aide to one of Gauke’s predecessors, Iain Duncan Smith.
Universal credit was introduced in 2013 to simplify the social security system. The number receiving it will rise sharply next month when the rollout is due to be accelerated to 50 new areas, before being fully implemented by 2022.
New universal credit claimants are set to receive significantly less than they would have done under the tax credits system, as a result of changes aimed at cutting £12bn a year from the welfare bill.
Landlords report that rent arrears among tenants receiving universal credit are running up to five times the level of those on the old system.
Research by the charity Citizens Advice found that of the people it had helped, over a third had been waiting more than six weeks for their first payment, and more than half were borrowing money to cope.
However, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said its research had found that about 80% of all new claims were paid in full and on time.
Allen spoke out in the Commons earlier this month to call on the government to “slow down a little bit and get it right” after figures showed that about one in four new claimants waited longer than six weeks to be paid.
Gauke is due to make a decision in the coming days about whether the rollout should be accelerated.
He is understood to be determined to press ahead with the rollout. A source said: “In July we rolled out to 29 jobcentres and things are progressing apace. There is no legislation or parliamentary component to the policy, so it is not under threat. Twelve people signing a letter is not a revolt.”
The DWP said: “Universal credit lies at the heart of our commitment to help people improve their lives and raise their incomes. It does that by providing additional, tailored support not available under the old benefit system, including more help for those in work so they can eventually stop claiming benefits altogether, and under UC people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the previous system.
“The vast majority of claimants are comfortable managing their money, and for anyone who needs extra help, we have budgeting advice and benefit advances. Continuing to roll out universal credit in a safe and controlled way will mean many more will benefit from moving into employment.”