Ministers are facing fresh demands by MPs to halt the mass roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) until they can ensure no more claimants are pushed “over the edge” and into debt.
The cross-party Commons Work and Pensions Committee warned the support offered to claimants transferring to UC was “woefully inadequate” and risked undermining the whole project.
The report piles pressure on Chancellor Philip Hammond who is facing calls from some Tory MPs to provide additional cash to ease the transition to the new system when he delivers the Budget on Monday.
It comes just days after MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee accused the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) of turning a “deaf ear” to the concerns of claimants facing “unacceptable” levels of hardship.
Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey insisted the system – which is intended to ensure work always pays – was helping the jobless into employment, but acknowledged there was a need to “adapt and change”.
The warnings follow repeated complaints that low income families and individuals in areas where UC has been introduced are being driven into debt because of delays in issuing the new payments.
In its report, the Work and Pensions Committee said the DWP’s system of “universal support” which is supposed to help claimants adapt to UC – which merges six benefits into one – fell far short of what was needed.
Vulnerable people needed more than the single two-hour session of “personal budgeting and digital skill support” they were currently entitled to if they were to maintain their claims under the new system.
“Given the scale of challenges that many claimants face, this is woefully inadequate,” the committee said.
It said the DWP needed to develop a new “flexible, discretionary approach to debt management” before moving to the national roll-out of UC due to begin in mid-2019.
“Crucially, the department must not proceed with transferring existing claimants on to Universal Credit on a large scale until this approach is in place and functioning effectively,” it said.
It added: “DWP designed Universal Credit. So it has a duty to ensure that it works for claimants and the local services which support them.
“As the challenges of managed migration loom, the department faces a critical decision.
“Failure to overhaul universal support substantially now will place not only the well-being of claimants, but the success of the entire Universal Credit project, at risk.”
Committee chairman Frank Field said: “Universal support is not ‘universal’, and it hasn’t been offering much in the way of support.
“DWP must not push one more claimant on to Universal Credit until it can show that it will not push them over the edge.”
The DWP said it had already taken steps to address the concerns that had been raised with the creation of a new £51 million partnership with Citizens Advice to deliver universal support.
“We are committed to delivering Universal Credit in a safe and secure way and getting universal support right is a key part of this,” a spokesman said.
“We have listened to our stakeholders, as part of our ‘test and learn’ approach and have acted on their feedback.
“This new partnership is to ensure the delivery of high-quality and consistent universal support. We will continue to listen and learn, adapt and act where necessary.”