Universal Credit – where are we now?

Thursday, 26 September 2013 - 4:27pm

Not so long ago, the Government had a very different vision for Universal Credit to how things have panned out.  

Photograph: lydia_shiningbrightly (Flickr)
Photograph: lydia_shiningbrightly (Flickr)

The next few weeks should have been a time of celebration in the Department for Work and Pensions.

For the last two years, October 2013 has been publicly billed as the day when Universal Credit, the Government’s flagship benefit reform, really takes off.  The plan was that between next month and April 2015 no fewer than 4.5 million households would be receiving Universal Credit.

Hard reset

Following a ‘resetting of the timetable’ the number of people claiming that benefit during the same period is expected to be fewer than 20,000.

The idea of a simplified benefits system which genuinely offers financial rewards for those who work part-time or on low wages has been the holy grail of politicians for decades. Frank Field and Harriet Harman famously tried to reform benefits in the early days of the last Labour Government, only to retreat from it when they realised how difficult it would be. You would be hard pressed to anyone who has ever encountered the benefits system who does not think reform is long overdue.

Where did it all go wrong?

That’s the obvious question. Key staff changes and reports of IT issues mean the Universal Credit project appears to have been beset by problems from the start, and the last few months have been particularly devastating.

In May it was revealed the Cabinet Office had ‘amber flagged’ the Universal Credit programme as one needing urgent action to address serious problems. This was followed by the National Audit Office writing one of the most devastating reports anyone can remember, in which it accused Universal Credit development of being poorly managed, using resources badly and being ‘overambitious’.

Finally, last week there seemed to be confusion at the heart of government, with Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron sending out contradictory messages as to when Universal Credit's full roll-out will be completed.

So where are we now?

The Government has stated publicly that Universal Credit is still being rolled-out nationwide from October. That’s stretching the credibility of what’s actually happening. Basically, six new Jobcentres are getting Universal Credit between October and April, to join the four which already administer it.  However, even in these ‘Pathfinder”’ areas it will be almost exclusively new single, childless job seeking claimants who will be added to the system.

My guess (and it is just a guess) is that we will not see any large-scale roll out to include more complex cases or migration of existing cases before the General Election in May 2015. Only then will the ultimate decision as to the fate of Universal Credit be made.

For more from me on Universal Credit, have a listen to this speech which I gave recently at South London YMCA

Exempt accommodation

It’s worth rounding off with a brief update on the perennial issue of Exempt Accommodation. Homeless Link and other agencies have spent many, many months working with partners in Government to find a solution to this fiendish issue. The good news is that we believe the general direction of travel is a positive one and DWP are committed to “protect providers from any unintended consequences” of benefit reform, as promised in Lord Freud’s letter if the 4th April.

Needless to say we will share more with you as soon as we can, so please watch this space.