We are backing a call by one of the UK’s leading advice charities to pause the planned rollout of universal credit as it continues to fail claimants and staff.
In a wide-ranging and damning report published today, Citizens Advice says the new benefit that replaces six other legacy benefits is “failing too many people and forcing many into debt”.
Covering issues such as delays, poor systems and the severe impact on claimants, the findings coincide with concerns we have consistently raised with the Department for Work and Pensions.
We were not opposed to the introduction of universal credit in 2013 but from the outset criticised the rush to implement it to a political timetable instead of building a reliable service that served people’s needs.
Since then we have complained about failing IT and technology, inadequate training and continuous improvement processes, and excessive pressure because of a lack of staff.
We raised these again with MPs on the work and pensions select committee in March, saying plans to rapidly expand the full universal credit service in October should be put on hold.
In its report, Fixing Universal Credit, Citizens Advice says it is seeing more universal credit claimants with debt problems and rent arrears compared to those on the legacy benefits.
In a survey of its clients the charity found more than half of universal credit claimants reported difficulties with the application process.
This comes as the government confirmed plans this week to close almost one in 10 jobcentres because it says more claims will be made online in future.
But the report notes one in 10 adults in the UK has never used the internet and 14% do not have internet access at home, and that these people are disproportionately likely to be disabled, have a long-term health condition, and unemployed or on low incomes.
As well as a pause, the report calls for more support and resources and for the helpline to be free of charge.
Not enough staff
Our submission to the select committee noted 30,000 civil servants have been cut from DWP since 2010 and that many highly experienced, fully benefit trained processors have left to be replaced by staff given just a few weeks of training.
Short term contracts are still widely used and, even among permanent staff, turnover in universal credit is very high, with the rate of people leaving being double what would normally be expected.
The department clearly does not have enough staff to cope and this affects all aspects of the service, including the quality of advice offered to claimants as well as call handling times.
Housing is a major concern, with many of our members reporting to us they do not feel the amounts paid under universal credit are enough to cover a family’s rent, and that delays are triggering evictions.
They also report significant increases in the number of food vouchers being issued and referrals to other bodies or local authorities for extra support.
We believe the current rollout schedule, being pushed solely to meet ministerial commitments, forces staff into an intolerable situation and risks inflicting more harm on claimants, and should be suspended.