Ministers were under mounting pressure last night to slam the brakes on their radical welfare reform after the Scottish government called for a pause and their Northern Irish partners in parliament raised serious concerns.
With senior Conservative MPs privately voicing unease about the universal credit system, it emerged that the Scottish government and Scottish local councils have written to David Gauke, the work and pensions secretary, demanding a halt to the rollout of the project in Scotland.
The Democratic Unionist Party, whose support allowed Theresa May to stay in government after the general election, has also said it has concerns as the new arrangements begin in Northern Ireland. It is understood that the DUP raised the matter with ministers after charities, councils and housing associations highlighted instances in which the scheme forces people into debt and rent arrears.
Jeane Freeman, the Scottish social security minister, said there had been some “abject failures”, leading to severe hardship for claimants. Data from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) suggests that in areas where a full rollout has taken place, the level of rent arrears for tenants in the new system is at least 2.5 times that of those in receipt of housing benefit.
The findings come after a group of Tory MPs wrote to Gauke asking for a pause in the rollout, which is set to accelerate. A senior former minister said the government was now worried about the “several-week wait” that claimants face before receiving their first payment.
Gauke has said that he will make a decision about the speed of the rollout imminently. However, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been bullish about the programme, stating that those struggling can receive and are being given advance payments and bespoke claim plans.
Universal credit was the brainchild of former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith. It was designed to bundle several benefits into a single payment and allow those in work to keep a greater slice of state support. However, charities and councils warn that a six-week wait for payments is causing hardship, and the government’s own welfare advisers have said the wait is too long and cannot be justified.
The DUP’s reaction is another blow. The party has pledged to back May’s government only in certain key areas, which do not include welfare. Sammy Wilson, the party’s welfare spokesman in Westminster, said: “First of all, we thought it was a good idea that benefits should be rolled into one payment – it is less confusing for applicants. I know from my own constituency that a lot of people wouldn’t have even known what they qualified for because of the myriad benefits.
“But we are concerned about a number of things,” he added. “It seems the rollout has not been as trouble-free as the government anticipated. To someone who is on a low income already or has lost their job, to have six weeks with no income and no payment at all really is not credible.If it is not working in practice, it is the duty of the government to ensure people are not disadvantaged.”
The DWP said about half of new claims were loans made to cover the wait for their first payment. A DWP spokeswoman said: “Universal credit lies at the heart of our commitment to help people improve their lives and raise their incomes. It provides additional, tailored support to help people move into work and stop claiming benefits altogether.
“And it’s working. With universal credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.
“Universal credit is already in every jobcentre for single claimants, and we are rolling it out to a wider range of people in a safe and controlled way. The vast majority of claimants are paid in full and on time, and are comfortable managing their money. Advance payments and budgeting support were available for anyone who needed it.
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