Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
Wigan became a pathfinder because it wanted to influence the design and delivery of universal credit, while being guaranteed that no individual would lose out, and it has identified problems. Full service roll-out began in April, and there has been a steady increase in claimants. We currently have 7,000 claimants, nearly 3,000 of whom are council tenants. Around 22,000 people are likely to eventually migrate to universal credit, most of them in work.
The challenges are many. Tenants on universal credit have a 97% likelihood of going into arrears, a 90% likelihood of breaching £200 in arrears and a 60% likelihood of breaching £600 in arrears. Much of that is due to the waiting period and, in many cases, delays. An eight-week delay is not unusual in Wigan, and that leads to an average £600 in arrears for a council tenant. The waiting period, as my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms said, is completely unreasonable. Some 16 million people nationally have less than £100 in savings. They can ask for an advance, but it is repaid at 40%. A Government agency does not have to do affordability checks, which even payday lenders have to do.
Food banks in Wigan have seen a massive increase in demand. Since the roll-out in April, the already high demand has increased by 50%. Some 112 people a month in Wigan ask for help from a range of council services with universal credit and complex benefit issues, and 92% of those people say they have no food or money due to delays in payment. If we couple the roll-out of universal credit with the slashing of local welfare schemes, we have a perfect storm.
Wigan has used the pathfinder trials to build up a network of support agencies, but it feels that the primary purpose of helping the DWP to design a system that is fit for purpose has not been achieved. There is no point in pathfinders and pilots unless lessons are learned. So what is the purpose of a pause? Will Ministers return to the pilots and learn the lessons? Will they listen to the agencies, which say that there are systemic problems?
“We will simplify the benefits system”—I have heard that many times over the years, and no one could disagree that we should, but two decades as a CAB manager has taught me that people’s lives are complicated. The system has to be flexible and person-centred and allow for a vast range of circumstances. It has to be easy to access; there have to be enough resources—staff and computer systems—to allow it to operate from day one; and no vulnerable group should be worse off by the implementation. I am afraid that universal credit is failing on all three of those tests.