The roll out of the full digital service for universal credit has been plagued by errors, delays and computer crashes, leaving vulnerable families in debt and at risk of eviction, an MP has said.
Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington, home to one of a handful of locations to pioneer the full UC system, has called for an overhaul of the service after receiving a regular flow of complaints from desperate constituents.
“The rollout of the digital, full universal credit is failing working parents and vulnerable people and the government is far too slow at tackling its flaws,” Brake said.
Brake’s comments, based on a catalogue of local cases investigated by his constituency office, is the latest in a string of reports highlighting glitches and flaws in the design and day-to-day operation of UC.
It emerged as the Institute for Government (IFG) thinktank reported that the UC project, which has limped from crisis to crisis and is six years behind schedule, has been “turned around from the brink of disaster”.
The report by IFG senior fellow Nick Timmins said that after being in crisis three years ago the programme was now heading in the right direction, and although it was still “a work in progress” it now “looks more likely to survive”.
However, it concluded that cuts to UC might undermine its original aim of helping more people get more and better paid work, and it may prove more expensive to run than the six benefits it replaces. “It is far too soon to tell whether universal credit will finally do the business,” it said.
UC has until earlier this summer been operating in only partial form, with most claimants being single individuals with straightforward claims. Since May, the so-called full service has started to expand and now includes couples and families with more complex claims.
Brake is to meet the work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, on Wednesday evening to discuss the problems experienced by his constituents. He will tell Green that while he supports UC in principle, the roll-out of the full digital service has been chaotic and confusing, especially for vulnerable claimants who struggle with an online-only system and find it difficult to get help.
He said: “On a weekly basis I see residents who don’t receive payments or are forced to use a clunky system which is unusable and unsuitable for people with disabilities.
“Every day new problems arise as a result of poor staff training, IT failures and poor IT systems. The government must get its act together and realise that this defective pilot scheme is having a serious effect on many people’s lives.”
Problems highlighted by Brake include:
- Failure to pay, or abruptly ceasing without warning to pay, housing benefit to private landlords on behalf of vulnerable claimants, leaving them at risk of eviction;
- Flaws in the online system preventing people uploading copies of bank statements and other documents needed to secure payments for childcare places, leading to unpaid childcare bills;
- Long administrative delays and mix-ups over payments to claimants, frequently resulting in them running up arrears or being forced to turn to food banks.
Green has written to Brake saying the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is “gathering evidence to understand the current vulnerable claimant journey with the universal credit service”.
A DWP spokesman said: “It’s misleading to draw wider conclusions from the anecdotal evidence of a small number of people.
“The reality is people claiming universal credit are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the previous system. We are rolling out the UC service to all types of benefit claimants in a safe and controlled way so we can ensure it is working effectively for everyone.”
Brake will cite research by Sutton Citizens Advice Bureau which found that there has been a big increase in clients seeking help on UC cases since May, when the digital service was unveiled.
The research said claimants needed more help to apply online and manage their claim, while DWP staff needed more training and a smarter approach to problem solving to sharpen up administrative processes.
Steve Triner, CEO at Citizens Advice Sutton, said that he supported the principle of UC but it needed to be reformed to ensure the experience of people claiming the benefit is kept simple.
“It is unfortunate that the experience of some Citizens Advice Sutton clients is that the benefit does not always make work pay and the administration from the point of view of claimants is not always straightforward.”
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