Universal credit rollout may be delayed again amid Tory backlash

Reports suggest major welfare change not fully operational until December 2023

The rollout of universal credit could be delayed again while ministers assess problems that have plagued the Conservatives’ flagship welfare change, including a backlash from the party’s MPs.

The work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, told the House of Commons the migration of claimants on to universal credit would not start until next summer, rather than January as had been expected.

“Under the process of managed migration, the rollout will be slow and measured,” she said on Monday. “It will start not in January 2019, but later in the year.

“For a further year, we will be learning as we go with a small amount of people – maybe 10,000 – to ensure that the system is right. The rollout will then increase from 2020 onwards. It will be slow and measured, and we will adapt and change as we go.”

Leaked documents obtained by the BBC appeared to suggest the benefit is now not expected to be fully operational until December 2023, and the government is considering spending millions more to mitigate some of the problems with the changeover.

This would make the full rollout nine months later than scheduled and six years later than originally planned. Migration had initially been expected to start for small numbers of current claimants in January.

Numbers were expected to significantly increase in the summer, with more than 2 million households – including about 1 million working families, as well as 750,000 disabled and ill claimants unable to work – transferred to universal credit under “managed migration” over three years.

Campaigners have said there should be no mass transfer of claimants until it is clear the system can accommodate them and problems with payment delays have been fixed.

Claimants will be sent a letter giving them three months to apply for universal credit before their current benefits are cancelled, which MPs and charities have warned will see many vulnerable people fall out of the benefits system.

The shadow work and pensions secretary, Margaret Greenwood, said the Tories had “quietly accepted that their flagship social security programme isn’t working”.

“The government must stop the rollout of universal credit immediately,” she said. “We need urgent answers from Esther McVey about what’s going on and what action the government will take to tackle the many flaws in the system.”

Dame Louise Casey, the former head of the government’s troubled families team, said the “constant tinkering” with universal credit was not helping families.

“My worry about more pauses is this needs to be halted and sorted out. Something also needs to be done for the thousands of people who have already transferred over to it who are now in crippling debt,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday.

“People having to wait for five weeks, who are used to being on either weekly or fortnightly pay, just doesn’t add up, and making those people take out loans just pushes them further and further into destitution.”

The documents obtained by the BBC suggested the government is drawing up plans to mitigate some of the effects of the rollout, including continuing to pay income support, employment and support allowance, and jobseeker’s allowance for two weeks after a claim for universal credit has been made. A similar policy for housing benefit was introduced in the budget last year.

The documents also said claimants who request an advance to help them avoid debt while waiting weeks for their first universal credit payment would only have a maximum of 30% of their payment deducted to pay back the advance, rather than the current 40%.

The Department for Work and Pensions said it could not comment on the leaked document, calling the report speculation.

“We will publish full plans for the next stage of universal credit rollout, including managed migration, in due course,” a spokesman said. “Anything before that point is speculation and we do not comment on leaks.”

The DWP needs to pass regulations in the autumn to implement the next phase of the managed migration to the new system, but a growing number of Conservative MPs have publicly expressed concerns.


Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

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