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The National Audit Office comment on Universal Credit

The National Audit Office comment on Universal Credit

The National Audit Office comment on Universal Credit

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The National Audit Office published its report on Universal Credit on 15 June 2018.

Universal Credit is here. The Department for Work and Pensions plans to have rolled out its digital service by December 2018 and has already made many changes to its jobcentres, digital systems and the working practices of its staff. It has already been rolled out to a million claimants. From July 2019 the Department is due to begin moving claimants on existing benefits to Universal Credit. As numbers on Universal Credit increase, pressure on the Department’s staff, systems and local organisations will also increase. We concluded that it would be so costly and complex to move back to the old system that the programme had now passed the point of no turning back.

Universal Credit requires not only changes within the Department, but also changes to how claimants access and communicate with the Department and to how they manage their money. Many national and local front line organisations that represent or work closely with claimants showed us evidence that a significant minority of claimants are struggling to adapt, and are suffering difficulties and hardship as a result. Issues included:

• Claimants struggling to make a claim - problems can include a lack of identification or bank account, language barriers or being given the wrong information about which benefit to claim;
• Delayed payments - around 20% of claimants do not receive their full initial payment on time. We found that 113,000 claims were not paid in full and on time in 2017, and estimate the number of late payments in 2018 will be between 270,000 and 380,000. From January to October 2017 those affected by payment delays faced average additional waits of four weeks;
• Inadequate support - local providers told us that ‘Universal Support’ funded by the Department to help claimants adjust to Universal Credit does not meet claimants’ needs; for instance, it does not include debt advice;
• Problems with the identification and treatment of vulnerable claimants – the Department’s own research showed that some work coaches were struggling to identify and apply processes flexibly for vulnerable claimants. Some also reported feeling ‘overwhelmed’ with the number of health claimants they are dealing with; and
• Additional burdens on those that support claimants - housing providers report increased rent arrears since the introduction of Universal Credit. And the Trussell Trust has reported a more rapid increase in the use of foodbanks in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out.

We recommended the Department improve the way it works with front line organisations to understand what is happening with those claimants that are struggling to adapt. Many organisations that support claimants told us that the Department has often been unresponsive to issues they have raised. Many have seen demand increase since the introduction of Universal Credit, and told us that providing support is made more difficult due to rules around a claimant’s consent to provide access to their information. Some organisations voiced concerns that the level of support they are providing will not be sustainable as claimant numbers increase.

But the Department has now made clear that it intends to listen. Its approach is based on trialling ways of working and testing whether they work. It has already demonstrated that it can adapt the programme and its systems when it understands that things are not working. We look forward to seeing the Department reach out, and front line organisations responding by providing the constructive feedback and evidence that the Department needs to make the programme work.

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