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Universal credit to continue roll-out despite ‘abject failures’

The work and pensions secretary has insisted Universal Credit ‘is working’ despite calls from council leaders and some of his own MPs to halt the rollout of the controversial scheme.

Speaking at the Conservative party conference in Manchester yesterday, David Gauke said the rollout will continue to the ‘planned timetable’.

But in a concession to criticisms of the scheme from some quarters about the length of time it takes for the first payment to come through, Mr Gauke said claimants will no longer have to wait six weeks, as they do now.

‘They will receive this advance within five working days,’ said Mr Gauke. ‘And if someone is in immediate need, then we fast track the payment, meaning they will receive it on the same day.

‘Universal Credit is working,’ he added. ‘We’re not going to rush things. It is more important to get this right than to do this quickly, and this won’t be completed until 2022.

‘But across the country, we will continue to transform our welfare system to further support those who aspire to work.’

Before the Conservative party conference speeches started on Monday, there were calls from a small group of Tory MPs, led by the South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen for the rollout of Universal Credit to be paused.

Writing on Twitter after Mr Gauke’s speech, Ms Allen said she was ‘disappointed’ the rollout was not being delayed.

‘Advance payments are, of course welcome, but they merely mask payment delays and system flaws,’ she commented.

Responding to Mr Gauke’s speech, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, Gillian Guy, said it was ‘reassuring to see that David Gauke recognises there are problems with Universal Credit’.

‘Evidence from Citizens Advice and others – including the DWP itself shows many people risk getting into serious debt as a result of delayed first payments,’ said Ms Guy.

‘Advance payments can help people make ends meeting during this period, but they must be combined with more action to reduce the number of people waiting more than six weeks for their initial payment.

‘The government also needs to make sure people have access to the support they need to help them adapt as they move onto the new benefit.’

The chief executive of the Child Poverty Action group, Alison Garnham, welcomed the news about fast-track payments, but added: ‘Given the serious and wide-ranging concerns about nearly every aspect of Universal Credit, we had hoped for more on how the government plans to address the funding, policy design and administrative problems plaguing Universal Credit before it is rolled out to families.’

Before the conference started, there was also a call from the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) to halt the rollout of Universal Credit in Scotland.

In a joint letter to Mr Gauke, social security minister Jeane Freeman and COSLA community wellbeing spokesman, Kelly Parry said there had been a number of ‘abject failures’ with the scheme.

According to the letter, the average level of rent arrears for tenants in areas where Universal Credit has already been introduced (Highlands, East Lothian, East Dunbartonshire and Inverclyde) are at least 2.5 times higher than those for tenants in receipt of housing benefit.

The letter adds the four local authorities trialling the system are facing additional costs of over £800,000.

‘Universal Credit is failing the people is it designed to support,’ said Ms Freeman. ‘The Universal Credit pilots have also highlighted problems with monthly payments, removing landlord direct payments and making a single household payment.’

Speaking on BBC1’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday, the prime minister said she recognised ‘there have been problems in the way that Universal Credit has been working out for people’.

‘I think fundamentally most people agree, Universal Credit is a good system because it is a system that ensures that work always pays and that the more you earn the more you’re able to keep,’ said Theresa May. ‘I think that’s right.

‘We need to roll out Universal Credit,’ she added. ‘What we also need to do is ensure that we’re addressing the specific issues that are being raised by people.’

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