Growing fears are being voiced by a wide range of authorities over the plan to migrate millions of employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants to universal credit (UC), beginning in July 2019.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan warned of a ‘significant threat of harm’ to vulnerable claimants if the transfer goes ahead.
Khan has made a submission to the Social Security Advisory Committee consultation on the issue. In it he argues that the introduction of UC has already caused “significant hardship” to claimants and adds that:
“Until now, these problems have only affected new claimants or those who have undergone a change of circumstance that has resulted in ‘natural migration’ to universal credit. The government’s proposed ‘managed migration’ of all remaining working-age benefit claimants next year poses a significant threat of harm being caused on a much larger scale if these issues are left unresolved.
“The most serious consequence of managed migration is that it will be the vulnerable who suffer the most.”
Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury added his voice to the growing chorus, telling the TUC conference in Manchester this month when asked about UC that:
“It was supposed to make it simpler and more efficient. It has not done that. It has left too many people worse off, putting them at risk of hunger, debt, rent arrears and food banks.
“When universal credit comes into a local area the number of people going to food banks goes up. What is clear is if they cannot get it right they need to stop rolling it out.”
Also earlier this month, the Resolution Foundation argued for a delay in rolling out UC any further, claiming that 1.8 million families will see their income drop when they move onto UC and that:
“Politicians in all parties have increasingly found cause to question the efficacy of persisting with the reform.”
The former chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee, Paul Gray, talking last month about the migration of existing claimants onto UC, said that:
“The chances of bringing it off successfully, and getting 100% compliance are ... well, let’s just call it very challenging. You are calling for a massive shift of behaviour and compliance in people who just haven’t been used to this.”
Gray agreed with mental health charity Mind, who have warned that many vulnerable claimants may be left without any income as a result of not managing to make an effective claim for UC.
All of these criticisms come in the wake of a damning report on UC by the National Audit Office in June of this year.
The NAO warned about the risk of hardship, explaining that:
“We spoke to local and national bodies that, together, work with a significant minority of claimants. They showed us evidence that many of these people have suffered difficulties and hardship during the rollout of the full service.”
There is no evidence at the moment that the government is prepared to listen to the ever increasing clamour of voices urging it to pause and put things right, before undertaking the mass migration of millions of claimants.
But, as the deadline draws near, and the political risks of cutting the incomes of potentially millions of people at a time when the economy may already be suffering from the shock of Brexit become more obvious, a postponement of the inevitable is still on the cards.