There has been a mixed reaction to the decision of Citizens Advice (CA) to accept £51 million from the DWP to provide support to universal credit (UC) claimants until April 2020. CA’s decision looks even more of a gamble now that Labour have called for the scrapping of the benefit and Esther McVey has warned that millions of families will be £200 a month worse off as a result of the rollout.
As we revealed last week, Citizens Advice (CA) and Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) will receive the huge cash boost to run the Universal Support scheme which is currently administered by individual local authorities with grants provided by the DWP. The scheme offers budgeting advice and digital support as well as help with claims for UC.
The Trussell Trust put out a press release saying:
“We welcome the Department for Work & Pensions’ announcement today that Citizens Advice will be delivering a more comprehensive Universal Support service to people making a Universal Credit claim from April. Strengthening the system – which should provide wrap-around support to everyone making a new claim – will make a real difference to thousands of people navigating a completely new, digital service whilst under extreme financial pressure.”
However, Disability News Service (DNS), in an article entitled “Tory conference: Charity’s silence on universal credit deaths, hours after minister announces £51m funding”, raised fears that the funding would hamper the ability of CA to challenge the DWP.
DNS also listed criticisms from disabled activists that CA had ‘sold out’ to the DWP .
There was also a good deal of criticism of the move in the discussion forums of Rightsnet, the site for welfare rights workers.
Many posters raised the issues of independence and impartiality.
But there were also concerns about whether the cash would be anywhere near enough to obtain premises, hire and train new staff and buy enough IT equipment to deliver Universal Support effectively without impacting on the normal advice giving services of CA.
Moreover, as one poster pointed out, the CA service in their county has entirely closed down, meaning there is currently no infrastructure available to provide Universal Support.
If claimants cannot access Universal Support, have to travel long distances to do so or have to wait a long time, it will be CA rather than the DWP that they will hold responsible.
Adding to the difficulties posed by the decision is the fact that whilst CA has repeatedly said it supports universal credit, the Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell has now gone on record calling for UC to be scrapped entirely.
This leaves CA in the position of strongly supporting the rollout of a benefit that the Conservative party introduced but other political parties condemn.
The decision by CA may become even more questionable in view of the leak by the Times at the weekend.
The Times claims that Esther McVey has privately warned cabinet colleagues that millions of families will lose £200 a month when UC is rolled out to existing benefits claimants.
According to the Times, half of lone parents and two thirds of working-age couples with children will lose the equivalent of £2,400 a year.
To be seen to support, and be a part of a system delivering, such savage cuts to low income families could be a disaster for the charity.