The government wants to remove scrutiny of its policy to move benefit claimants onto universal credit.
Ministers have proposed scrapping the 10,000 cap on how many people the government could transfer from older-style benefits onto universal credit before having to stop and let MPs examine the impact on people’s lives.
Letting the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) push ahead with the scheme without independent checks risks repeating the “shambolic” early days of universal credit, experts said, “when many people were left without anything to live on for weeks or sometimes even months on end”.
Through its so-called managed migration scheme – which was paused when Covid-19 hit the UK – ministers aim to gradually move everyone receiving legacy benefits such as employment and support allowance onto the universal credit system by the end of 2024.
The DWP will restart the scheme this year by first targeting those on working tax credits, sparking fears among the 1.7 million people who can expect to be moved onto universal credit – most of whom are disabled or long-term sick – that they will be pushed into hardship.
While the government says many people on legacy benefits will be better off on universal credit, campaigners warned that the benefit and the five-week wait for a first payment is linked to deeper poverty, food bank use and soaring rent arrears. In 2019, experts told the DWP moving people from legacy benefits onto universal credit risked letting them “fall between the cracks and suffer hardship”.
In restarting the process, ministers are also seeking to drop their commitment to evaluate the impact of universal credit on disabled people and other claimants once 10,000 have been through the managed migration pilot. Such a change must get fresh approval from parliament rather than being pushed through under the radar, anti-poverty experts said.
The process “creates a significant risk for both those who are reliant on these benefits, many with complex lives, and also for the DWP in delivering it”, said Dr Stephen Brien, chair of the independent Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC). The welfare watchdog raised concerns after examining the DWP’s draft proposals to update universal credit regulations.
Amber Rudd was work and pensions secretary when the government pledged to cap the number of claims it would transfer to universal credit at 10,000 before reviewing the process and deciding whether to continue with the scheme.
But now the DWP is planning to remove that cap and its associated commitment to give evidence to parliament about the effect moving to universal credit is having on people’s lives.
The SSAC warned that this risks letting the process go unscrutinised and means there will be no clarity on how the success of the mass migration to universal credit should be measured.
Independent oversight should be established “for the public to have confidence” in the process, Brien added, telling ministers he would seek further expert advice.
Anela Anwar, chief executive of anti-poverty charity Z2K – which provides support to benefit claimants on low incomes – said removing the “vital safeguard” 10,000 cap must be agreed on by MPs in the Commons.
“It ensures [the] DWP avoids a repeat of the shambolic early stages of universal credit, when many people were left without anything to live on for weeks or sometimes even months on end,” she added.
“That resulted in MPs getting hundreds of complaints from desperate and angry constituents.”
She added: “We can’t begin to understand why DWP wants to remove it, but hope MPs from all political parties insist upon retaining this final safeguard before roll-out begins.”
The managed migration pilot differs from natural migration, when legacy benefits claimants are forced to move to universal credit through changes in circumstances such as moving to a new area. Through the managed scheme, people whose universal credit entitlement is less than they receive through legacy benefits receive a “transitional amount” to top up their payments.
Universal credit is also paid monthly, whereas some legacy benefits are paid into people’s accounts more frequently.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Universal credit is a modern dynamic benefit which supports people in and out of work. We have always been clear about our ambition to move people over from the legacy systems, which are complex, inefficient and based on ageing, inflexible IT.
“The department will continue its regular engagement with the committee and our ambition remains to see the rollout of universal credit delivered safely and on time by 2024.”