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DWP dismissing ‘unacceptable hardship’ caused by Universal Credit, says watchdog

Universal Credit is causing unacceptable hardship for the claimants it was intended to help, the Public Accounts Committee has said. Photo: PA

Universal Credit is causing unacceptable hardship for many of its claimants, according to a report from a public spending watchdog.

It suggested the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) appears to be turning a “deaf ear” to these concerns.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the department’s “fortress mentality” is failing claimants who are struggling to adapt.

It said: “The introduction of Universal Credit is causing unacceptable hardship and difficulties for many of the claimants it was designed to help.”

A “department in denial” cannot learn from mistakes and the culture needs to change, the PAC said.

It said: “The department’s systemic culture of denial and defensiveness in the face of any adverse evidence presented by others is a significant risk to the programme.”

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The committee added: “Unless the department learns to listen, it will not be able to adapt the programme to make it a success.”

Universal Credit, which is being rolled out gradually, replaces six existing benefits with a single payment – but critics have argued the programme, which has been subject to several delays, is flawed.

Some 8.5 million people are expected to be on Universal Credit by 2023 – but the PAC said there is a “real risk that we will see claimants facing hardship on a much larger scale”.

The PAC said the DWP has persistently dismissed evidence Universal Credit is causing hardship for claimants and additional burdens for local organisations and “refuses to measure what it does not want to see”.

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Meg Hillier chairs the PAC. Credit: PA

Meg Hillier, who chairs the PAC, said: “This report provides further damning evidence of a culture of indifference at DWP – a department disturbingly adrift from the real-world problems of the people it is there to support.

“Its apparent determination to turn a deaf ear to the concerns of claimants, frontline organisations and Parliament is of real concern. The culture needs to change.

“A department in denial cannot learn from its mistakes and take the action necessary to address the desperate hardship suffered by many Universal Credit claimants.”

She said the department’s “painfully slow approach to correcting underpayments, years after it accepted responsibility, indicated weaknesses at the highest levels of management”.

Ms Hillier added: “As a priority the department must demonstrate a tangible shift in the way it listens and responds to feedback and evidence.”

She said a recent Government announcement of changes to the rollout of Universal Credit “offers no guarantee that the problems facing claimants will be resolved”.

Universal Credit is taking too long to pay people the money they need to live on, the PAC said, adding food bank use has increased more rapidly in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out.

The proportion of claimants paid in full and on time must be significantly improved and methods for measuring claimants’ hardship should be established, the PAC said.

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It said the package of support to help claimants adjust to Universal Credit is “not fit for purpose”.

Personal budgeting support is often offered to claimants when they are already in debt and may not include debt advice.

The report was released as Citizens Advice said single disabled people could lose out under Universal Credit under a range of circumstances.

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Even when disabled people do get the support meant for them under Universal Credit, whether they are in work or not, they can be hundreds of pounds worse off a month than the previous system.

“This is money people desperately need to cover their bills.”

A DWP spokeswoman said: “We will carefully consider the findings in the report – a number of which we are already working on. For example, we have recently begun a new partnership with Citizens Advice to deliver better support to the most vulnerable, and are working with stakeholders to ensure the managed migration process for people moving onto Universal Credit works smoothly.

“So far this year we have already announced several improvements to Universal Credit, such as plans to reinstate housing benefit for vulnerable 18 to 21-year-olds, making direct payments to landlords, offering 100% advances and providing an additional two weeks of housing benefit for claimants.”