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We all know the Department for Work and Pensions is fond of claiming disabled people are “fit for work” when they aren’t. Another thing that isn’t fit for work is its flagship Universal Credit system.
The new system will start to come into effect with pilot schemes in the northwest of England in April 2013, and full national roll-out is due to start in October 2013. But a report from the Parliamentary Work and Pensions Committee says it should not progress before it addresses serious issues.
We know this won’t happen. Iain Duncan Smith is far more interested in getting a flawed system out on time than in getting it right, and Universal Credit is already seriously behind schedule, no matter what the David Cameron said in PMQs yesterday. But the report means he cannot say he was unaware of the problems.
“The Committee notes that the Government has set a very ambitious timetable for Universal Credit implementation and expresses concern about whether there will be sufficient time for the Government to learn from its pilots and whether it is desirable or necessary to implement so many changes at once,” the report states.
The committee is chaired by Dame Anne Begg, who added: “We have serious concerns about how more vulnerable people will cope with the changes, especially the online claims system and the proposed single monthly payment. Some claimants will not be able to make an online claim and others may struggle to adapt to monthly payments.”
Measures to help these claimants may be hard to access and too slow in identifying them, meaning they could fall into debt and hardship before any extra support – and none has been identified – can be applied.
The committee says vulnerable claimants will be unable to manage plans to pay rent costs to the claimant, rather than the landlord, and may fall into arrears. Appropriate “safety net” arrangements need to be developed and tested – there aren’t any at the moment. And there should be an option to continue with payments to the landlord instead – again, no such option exists in the new system.
Nor is there any process to identify claimants who are struggling to manage their housing costs, meaning the government will offer no help to them before they fall into arrears and face eviction.
There is no evidence to show that Universal Credit will provide more generous support for disabled people, despite this being a stated aim.
Some disabled people will have their entitlement reduced under Universal Credit. Transitional protection will mean that they do not lose in cash terms immediately, but this protection will erode over time, will be lost if their circumstances change, and is not available to new claimants.
Income calculation is complicated so I’ll quote the report directly:
“The Government plans to calculate monthly Universal Credit payments by using information about claimants’ employment earnings taken from data feeds from HMRC’s new Real Time Information (RTI) system, which is being introduced to administer PAYE taxation. The Committee comments that whilst Ministers are confident that RTI will be delivered on time to support Universal Credit, tax, accountancy and business organisation raised a range of specific concerns about the RTI programme, and the Committee did not receive satisfactory responses from DWP and HMRC about these issues.
“The Committee welcomes the Government’s efforts to simplify the provision of information on income by the self-employed, but shares the concerns of witnesses that the proposed system could impose a significant and unnecessary burden on the self-employed. It is also concerned that the proposed Minimum Income Floor rules could act as a disincentive to entrepreneurship.”
It’s a government IT scheme; it won’t work and we all know it.
Dame Anne Begg said: “There appears to be no contingency if the IT system doesn’t work.”
See what I mean?
The report also warns that essential elements of support are not in place. Additional resources are needed by the advice sector – such as Citizens Advice – to cope with a “significant increase in demand”.
We know this will not be forthcoming. The idea is to push people off benefits. If they get advice about how to apply correctly, this won’t happen. Advice services will be starved.
Significantly, when considered in tandem with my article on the Universal Jobmatch system, the committee attacked the sanctions regime employed by the DWP. In the report, the committee said it “believes it is essential that DWP supports claimants in the job-search and that the support available to each claimant is clearly set out and actually provided.”
Meaning: it isn’t at the moment.
The sanction system also gets a hammering: “There is little evidence that they strengthen work incentives on their own.”
The arrangements for passporting benefits, such as free school meals, are attacked as unclear: “The entitlement criteria have a significant impact on decisions about returning to work or increasing working hours… It is essential for the Government to put fair and workable criteria in place… A clear indication is now needed on the arrangements.”
In other words, fair and workable criteria are not in place at the moment.
Liam Byrne MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, poured scorn on the scheme: “Two and a half years in, the Government doesn’t seem to have a clue about the big questions it’s got to get right,” he said.
“If ministers don’t wake up and get a grip soon, then Universal Credit is going to continue its rapid descent into universal chaos, spelling disaster for millions of Britain’s families.”
Dame Anne recommended Paul Lewis for his commentary on the report. He said: “Online applications only, no paper forms. But 11 million adults have no internet at home. Support for them not clear. Disability benefits to change again as means tested help moved to UC. Over 400,000 to get less, but total remains same.
“Rent paid to individual, not landlord for almost everyone. Major change and hard to manage by most vulnerable, say MPs.”
In other words, this system should be put ESA as it is not “fit for work”.
Perhaps it should go in the ‘work-related activity’ group? Maybe after a year of hard work getting itself up to fitness, it might be serviceable. But I doubt it.
And that begs the question: If the DWP can’t get its own scheme – meant to simplify the system – workable within a year, how can it expect people to coax their disabled bodies into good condition within the same period?