Frank Field MP, who leads the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, has called on the government to declare a “Christmas truce” on the roll-out of Universal Credit, as pressure on the Tories to pause the flagship welfare reform mounts.
Universal Credit (UC) wraps a number of existing social security benefits and tax credits into one single monthly payment, with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) planning to accelerate its roll-out from five to fifty areas per month from October 2017.
The new system has been beset with delays and has been blamed for soaring levels of rent arrears and debt among claimants.
Earlier this month Citizens Advice warned that plans to speed up the roll-out of UC are “a disaster waiting to happen“, while Labour said new DWP statistics showing that one in four claimants are waiting longer than six weeks to receive their first payment is evidence the new system is in “total disarray“.
And the Liberal Democrats, who helped to introduce the policy when in coalition with the Conservatives, said today that UC has become a “train wreck” that needs to be stopped.
The Work and Pensions Committee is currently investigating UC’s “troubled” rollout, which it says has caused real “hardship and financial difficulties”.
Evidence also suggests increased demand on food banks in areas where the new benefit is currently operating, as reports of long delays with payments and other issues continue to mount.
Commenting on an update on the progress and problems in the roll-out of Universal Credit, Frank Field MP said: “The Secretary of State (David Gauke) still has it in his power to prevent a human and political catastrophe that we have heard about this morning.
“We will hear from David Gauke in October but we must begin to wonder what more evidence the Government needs before it heeds the unanimous call we are hearing from front line providers to pause the rollout.
“We know DWP is aware of these problems and working hard to find fixes but surely common sense says that you should halt extending this programme until those fixes are in place and demonstrably working. What is the point of having pilots otherwise?
“Evidence from the first three Universal Credit boroughs shows they have amassed £8m in rent arrears, with more than 2,500 tenants in London claiming Universal Credit so far behind with their rent they are at risk of eviction from their homes.”
He added: “We are hearing evidence of people being plunged into all sorts of vulnerability as a result of the debt, risk of hunger and homelessness, and resulting stress of being migrated onto Universal Credit, with its in-built 6 week delay in receiving a first payment and much longer waits for many people.
“People already on low incomes simply cannot cope without any income for such a long period of time.
“That people are as a result reliant on food banks, for example, is not an acceptable facet of our social safety net.
“It must behove the Government now to declare at least a “Christmas truce”, and fix all these problems before progressing any further.”