Featured on the PoliticsHome website on Thursday 10th January 2019.
Neil Coyle MP: On Universal Credit, when Amber says Red, she means Green
It has been widely reported that Amber Rudd, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has given a red light to the planned expansion of Universal Credit. At the Home Office Amber Rudd inherited Theresa May’s hostile environment policy and ended up out of office as a result. Some hoped her experience would mean she refused to be burnt twice and would quickly overhaul Universal Credit to prevent it potentially costing her scalp again – in a high risk department on its fifth Secretary of State in just two and a half years.
However, The Sunday Times and others appear to have fallen for a Department for Work and Pensions ploy. The DWP was set to face a vote to extend Universal Credit (UC) to three million people. Amber Rudd knew this could be a tough vote with most Westminster parties and many backbench Tory MPs raising fears about the rollout and calling for it to be halted or done with significant new safeguards. The Sunday Times even suggested Rudd had claimed she knew the plans were ‘headed for disaster’.
DWP appears to have told journalists Rudd was axing the rollout in favour of a 10,000 people pilot scheme to test UC changes. Whilst the three million no longer potentially facing an imminent move onto UC, the pilot is not entirely welcome.
One million people have been forced onto UC since it first began being introduced five years ago and might legitimately ask why their ‘guinea pig’ experience on UC does not provide enough evidence to not require any new pilots. Solutions to the main UC problems are well known, not least the significant delays to first payments being received (even for the existing benefit recipients) and DWP’s advisory body, charities, the select committee and more have made detailed recommendations Ministers could adopt.
Journalists could perhaps equally have pressed DWP on the new pilot as an admission of the significant failings of Universal Credit, especially given the new system has plunged many people into poverty, forced some women into prostitution, caused some (even working) constituents to end up homeless, and pushed tens of thousands of families into foodbank reliance.
But the real truth is even less salutary. The vote MPs were supposed to have would have allowed for potential safeguards to be introduced to protect people being moved onto UC. This opportunity may now not occur till DWP holds a further vote for the planned 2020 expansion of Universal Credit. In the meantime, DWP has revealed that 1.6 million people will still be moved onto UC this year. This is through ‘natural migration’ in DWP jargon, ie any new benefit claim being taken under UC and not legacy benefits (like housing benefit), or someone’s circumstances changing including a partner passing away, a child reaching 18, moving home, changing job or income, getting divorced or funding a new partner and a multitude of other factors.
So the red light many believe Amber Rudd had shown to extending Universal Credit masks the green light given to move over a million people and their families onto the failing system – but without the potential safeguards MPs, advice and welfare organisations would like to have provided.
Whilst the new Secretary of State may have proved to be a more adept media controller and performer, more of the people affected will soon be turning up at her backbenchers’ – and all MPs’ – surgeries with further Universal Credit problems. Reality will soon gazump media manipulation.
Neil Coyle is the Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee