Last Friday, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published what can only be described as a scathing analysis of the governments approach to the introduction of Universal Credit (UC). It describes the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) as having a “fortress mentality”, when it comes to listening and responding to the problems being experienced by claimants and local organisations supporting them. Rather than seeking to address the systemic flaws that are causing the hardship reported by claimants, charities and social and private sector landlords, the DWP persists in dismissing evidence and refusing to measure what it doesn’t want to see. Instead the department simply responds with the mantra that UC is working, followed by a reference to the latest employment figures, as evidence of this.  Evidence from the Trussel Trust shows that in areas where UC has been introduced foodbank use has increased significantly. The standard government response to this, rehearsed by DWP Ministers and the Prime Minister alike, is that the reasons for foodbank use are complex and cannot be linked to any one cause, including UC. This position is as flawed as the benefit it attempts to defend.  

The reason that hardship levels and the causes of foodbank use are not fully understood is that the government does not currently monitor them, not that they don’t exist. Conversely, despite the Prime Minister’s metronomic claims that the current employment statistics demonstrate that UC is getting more people into work, the Public Accounts committee reports that the government has admitted that it is unable to measure the additional jobs resulting from Universal Credit, adding that the government argues that "just because you can’t measure it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist."

How can the Government have it both ways. If we are expected to accept that unattributable increases in employment are evidence of UC working, then increases in foodbank use in those areas in which it has been introduced must be acceptable as evidence of failure.  Alternatively, if the links between foodbank use and UC are overblown then any claimed link between UC and rising employment must be seen as equally spurious.

The Chancellor’s Budget announcement of £2.7Bn for Universal Credit to go towards the work allowance and to ease the process of migrating people from current benefits have to be welcomed.  The problem is that this investment could simply be a case of throwing good money after bad.  Without addressing the built-in five week payment delay that is currently forcing people into debt, rent arrears and foodbank use (for which the government has been required to introduce up-front payments which themselves force people into debt), UC remains fundamentally flawed.  MPs from all sides criticised the Chancellor's UC announcements for falling short. Tory MP Heidi Allen expressed concern that the Chancellor’s announcements “will only fix the symptoms and not the cause.”

DWP ministers assure us that they are "testing and learning."  But it has to be a matter of huge concern that the Government is still not listening to those reporting how the systemic flaws in UC are causing acute hardship.  

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