Tories put the brakes on despised plans for universal credit


Minister Esther McVey wants to impose universal credits and Councillor Diane Docherty, who wants the SNP council to assist with its introduction.

By Bill Heaney

Conservative government Ministers have bowed to pressure and are planning to further delay the roll-out of the feared welfare reform, universal credit.

Despite the fact that his SNP administration on West Dunbartonshire Council is propped up by two Tories and a maverick Independent, Councillor Jonathan McColl has given no such commitment.

The system, the prospect of which has left some prospective claimants terrified and others in tears, it to be rolled out here by the SNP under the guise that it is acceptable and not something that that should be challenged politically.

This is despite the fact that it could cost poor families up to £2,400 when the six individual benefits they are currently receiving will be merged into one payment.

Universal Credit has been beset with problems and is escalating rapidly into a political storm to rival the one that surrounded Mrs Thatcher’s hated poll tax.

However, the SNP response to Universal Credit in West Dunbartonshire has been mild acceptance and they have offered people currently struggling on benefits to help them to fill in the new application form, which must be done online.

job centre plus logoCouncillor Diane Docherty, Convener of Housing and Communities, said: “This system will be a big change for our residents,so it’s great to see that we are working with all our partner organisations to make sure we are prepared for it.

“This is only six weeks away, so I’d really urge residents to think now about how they will be affected come November. Universal Credit will be an online service, so if you need to brush up on your internet skills, get in touch. Similarly, the system puts the onus onto individuals to budget payments for different services, so if you want help with planning your outgoings, we can help you do that.”

Cllr Docherty and her SNP colleagues – propped up by the Tories –  appear to think that the way to help poor people to cope with these draconian cuts in their income is to teach them how to use a computer and turn their attention to planning their household budget.

“That’s like helping people to get tickets for a plane you know is going to crash,” said one disgruntled claimant. “They should campaigning against this and refusing to introduce it here.”

Employment Minister Alok Sharma says the government will publish plans for the next stage of universal credit “in due course”.

And that, by December 2018, universal credit will be available in all job centres for new benefits claimants.

What he didn’t say was that a number of job centres in areas of deprivation such as Vale of Leven have been closed in a cruel sweep of swingeing austerity measures.

Mr Sharma says the switch over for existing benefit claimants to universal credit will be “slow and measured” and start in 2019 with “no more than 10,000 people” to ensure the system is working.

MPs including Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood called for a halt in the roll-out of the reform.

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey told the Commons on Monday that she had been discussing details of universal credit with the Chancellor – and these would be revealed in the Budget later this month.

The system was supposed to be up and running by April 2017, but is now not expected to be fully operational until December 2023, which will be welcome news for people on benefits.

It appears that big changes are going to be made in an attempt to reduce the negative impact on people being moved to universal credit.

First off, plans have been drawn up to continue paying income support, employment and support allowance, and job seekers allowance for two weeks after a claim for universal credit has been made.

A similar policy for housing benefit was introduced in last year’s Budget, following evidence that some claimants were going into rent arrears.

But the documents highlight that the design of universal credit has already ruled out some concessions.

Allowing claimants to receive child tax credits for a fortnight after they apply for the new benefit – which Ms McVey had asked officials to consider – has been ruled out.

It would have needed two different systems – the DWP’s and HMRC’s – to work together to deliver the change, potentially creating additional problems.

“Not having a run-on for child tax credit will be presented as unfavourable treatment of lone parents, who many argue are the most in need of protection of the effects of the move to UC,” the documents say.

Secondly, there are to be changes to how deductions from a recipient’s payment can be made.

Claimants can ask for an advance to help them get by while waiting for their first proper universal credit payment – later the government takes deductions from their regular monthly award to pay that back.

Senior MP Frank Field says desperate young women in his constituency have found themselves so short of money that they have had to turn to prostitution.

Under the revised plans, the maximum amount that can be deducted will be reduced from 40% to 30% of their total award each month.

Thirdly, more help is set to be given to the self-employed, after warnings they could be left in serious financial trouble because of incorrect assumptions by the Department for Work and Pensions about their earnings.

But the documents are said to also to make it clear that these concessions might not actually be achievable.

An extract says: “We can currently offer no assurance that ultimately these proposals will prove to be deliverable, can survive legal challenges where they can be delivered, and do not invite new political criticism by generating new policy issues.”

The government was intending to begin moving almost four million people onto universal credit from January 2019, initially in small batches. Larger scale movements were due to start next July.

Now though, initial testing has been pushed back to next summer, and large-scale movement won’t begin until November 2020 at the earliest.

Leaked papers predict that overall, the latest delay will add an additional nine months to the final deadline for full implementation.

Anger built further last week when Esther McVey said that “some people will be worse off” under the new system, amid claims 3.2 million households will lose more than £2,000 year.

The Times newspaper suggested she had told a cabinet meeting some families could lose up to £200 a month.

Mrs McVey insisted, though, that the most vulnerable would be protected.

Labour said the government needed to provide urgent answers about what was going on and what action would be taken “to tackle the many flaws in the system”.

Social Affairs commentator Polly Toynbee Esther McVey has to go – “Her downright lies are dangerous … the work and pensions secretary’s fabrications about universal credit are worse than the actions that led Amber Rudd to resign.”

She added: “McVey apologised for misleading MPs on welfare changes.  In a world of fake news and downright mendacity, lying to parliament may seem like just another day in politics. But the work and pensions secretary Esther McVey’s non-apology in the Commons on Wednesday, deliberately repeating fabrications about the universal credit disaster, takes indifference to facts to a new level of insolence.”

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