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21.09.15

Another 25 areas, from Durham to Reading, roll out universal credit

Another 25 JobCentre areas across England have started implementing universal credit today (21 September).

The new all-in-one benefit is only being offered to single claimants applying for unemployment benefits as part of the first phase of its delayed nationwide roll-out.

It will bring together six benefits and tax credits – jobseeker’s allowance, income support, employment and support allowance, working tax credit, child tax credits, and housing benefit – into a single monthly payment.

The new areas included in the scheme are:

  • Abergavenny
  • Amlwch
  • Andover
  • Bishop Auckland
  • Borehamwood
  • Caldicot
  • Chepstow
  • Chester-le-Street
  • Consett
  • Crawley
  • Crook
  • Durham
  • Haywards Heath
  • Hemel Hempstead
  • Holyhead
  • Horsham
  • Llangefni
  • Merthyr Tydfil
  • Newton Aycliffe
  • Peterlee
  • Reading
  • Seaham
  • Spennymoor
  • Stanley
  • Winchester

The controversial scheme has suffered a number of delays and reversals since its initial 2010 proposal by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith MP.

In 2013, the Public Accounts Committee warned that the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP’s) management of the credit had been “alarmingly weak”, with much of the money spent on IT development having to be written off. The committee had always recommended that the department should assign clear responsibility for inspecting the progress of the new programme, but claimed it failed to develop an overarching business strategy instead – leading to “substantial nugatory expenditure” and extensive delays in its implementation.

It added that the programme would not be able to roll out to the promised 184,000 claimants by April 2014.

In September 2014, Duncan Smith announced that its implementation would be accelerated across the country, promising to “finish what we started” under Neil Couling, the new officer responsible for running the programme.

By that point, universal credit had undergone several big timetable revisions. Instead of nearly one million people claiming the credit by April of that year, the actual figure was 7,000.

Also in September, the then permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government, Sir Bob Kerslake (now Lord Kerslake), had warned that the timetable was “undeliverable” as it was “too tight”. He criticised the department for its “culture of good news” that prevented this from being recognised.

In November 2014, the National Audit Office added to the pressure by saying universal credit may not be value for money regardless of how it was implemented, due to the twin-track approach to rolling out its ‘live service’ while simultaneously developing its ‘digital service’.

It stated that the DWP had reset universal credit on a sounder basis but at a significant cost by extending the time for implementation and choosing a more expensive approach. Ministers also risked racking up a multi-billion pound bill if IT systems designed to run the flagship benefits reforms were not introduced on time.

But Smith told the BBC at the time that universal credit would generate up to an extra 300,000 people in work once fully rolled out.

He said: “Three million households are set to gain by £177 on average and 500,000 working families will receive more help with childcare – 100,000 of those in part-time jobs benefitting for the first time. By spring next year one in three jobcentres will be offering the new benefit.”

But other concerns surfaced, including Citizens Advice warning in February this year that while the government is working with local authorities to develop ‘universal support’ for claimants, it had only been tested across 11 sites nationwide ahead of its roll-out.

Also in February, the Commons Public Accounts Committee found that “very little progress” had been made, with only 0.3% of eligible claimants on the scheme despite £700m being spent on development.

The committee was also critical of the lack of transparency of the department as it fought a legal battle in order to prevent publications that may have shown universal credit in a negative light.

But a DWP spokesman insisted universal credit was “on track” and that they were “making good progress”, with the latest evidence showing “it’s already transforming lives”.

Yet in July, PSE revealed that a quarter of local authorities had not even started making preparations towards the switch and were frustrated about the confusion surrounding the transition, according to a report by Ipsos MORI.

But the DWP reiterated the reformed credit system is helping people move into work more quickly, giving them “increased financial security”.

However a report from the Resolution Foundation opposed this showing that universal credit needed a major reform if it was not to treat working families as “second class savers”. It found that working families moving onto the credit system could be treated more harshly than wealthier savings, with any money put aside potentially counting against their benefit entitlement.

For the full list of jobcentre areas offering universal credit, access the government’s benefits guidance.

(Top image c. Rui Vieira, PA Wire)

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