If Philip Hammond’s Budget was designed to stave off any particularly pressing problems, rather than really building the Britain that he suggested he was going to build in his introductory remarks, then it’s not yet clear whether he’s managed that with Universal credit. Yesterday the Chancellor told the Commons that ‘I recognise the genuine concerns on both sides of the House about the operational delivery of this benefit’.
He announced a series of changes, including the end of the seven day waiting period at the beginning of a claim before someone is deemed to be entitled to Universal Credit, which will lead to a shortening of the six week initial wait to five. Hammond also promised better access to advance loans for those who need money immediately and a two week extension before a housing benefit claimant’s payments end and their UC payments begins so that they can continue paying their rent.
But today we got the small print of those changes, and the worst bit of small print is that the reforms will not be introduced until the new year. In a statement to the Commons, Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke revealed that the seven day waiting period will stay until February, which means that many claimants will be without their benefit money over Christmas. A delay in removing the delay would be unpopular at the best of times, but Christmas is the time when family finances are tightest – and when tight family finances are a source of huge stress to parents who hate the idea of their children going without presents. This was quickly seized upon by Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, who said:
‘The reforms announced today will not be introduced until next year and will do nothing for the tens of thousands who are stuck in the six-week waiting period over Christmas. Anyone who has tried to claim universal credit since Tuesday 14 November will not get their first payment until after Christmas day. That will mean tens of thousands of families going without over the festive period.’
Gauke pointed out in response to Abrahams and complaints from other MPs that those who start a claim can get a 50 per cent advance on that claim. But this still leaves the prospect that there will be some heartbreaking stories about families left miserable by the roll-out of a benefit that is supposed to change their lives for the better.