It’s rare that a government pauses the implementation of a flagship policy. There’s so much ego involved in these matters that to do so is to admit a failing, rather than merely being sensible. But the government has had little choice but to further delay the roll-out of Universal Credit while it sorts out some of the problems with it. The plan had originally been that a further roll-out to four million people would start in January, with more claimants moving in July. But today the Work and Pensions department confirmed that the July deadline has moved to November as a result of fears across Parliament that those who are already receiving the benefit are severely struggling.
There have been rumblings about this policy for a very long time indeed, and ministers have always responded with the argument that they are implementing it gradually, and changing the design of the benefit every time a problem becomes obvious in the latest small batch of claimants to receive UC. They had planned to use a system known as ‘agile’ to implement it, but this failed, with a row between suppliers of this IT system and the DWP as to whether the design of the benefit actually prohibited an ‘agile’ system. This led to a reset of the policy in 2013. The deadline for implementation has slipped at least seven times, from 2017 to 2023.
Does it really matter if a project is overdue? Surely it is far better for ministers to delay full implementation until they are confident that the benefit really is working?
The problem is not so much that ministers are trying to work out what the problems are as it is that they know the issues very well and are unlikely to solve all of them. The most politically potent flaw is the shocking loss of money that some claimants face. Esther McVey is reported to have told ministerial colleagues that many households could lose more than £2,000 a year, and admitted in a TV interview last week that ‘some people will be worse off’.
Another problem is the amount of time it takes for claimants to receive it, which can leave many of them unable to cover their rent and so on. The current waiting period is 35 days.
While there are plans for concessions on a number of matters, one of the biggest problems – reflected in McVey’s comments – is that there simply isn’t enough money for the benefit at the moment. It was supposed to cost a great deal more to implement, but this was cut back a number of times by George Osborne when he was Chancellor. The Treasury is likely to make some concessions in the Budget later this month, but there seems little prospect of a full funding pledge. Which means that no matter how long the timetable slips, ministers will still come up against the same problem, which is that vulnerable people are losing staggering amounts of money from a benefit that was supposed to liberate them.