More trouble for IDS: how claimants are unprepared for Universal Credit

Ahead of Duncan Smith's grilling by MPs, a new study shows 92 per cent of claimants are unprepared for the new system in at least one area.

Iain Duncan Smith will be grilled by MPs on Wednesday about the progress (or lack of) in implementing Universal Credit and there's further evidence today of why so many across Whitehall are troubled by the Work and Pensions Secretary's grand projet

Three months before UC, which will replace six of the main means-tested benefits and tax credits with a single payment, is introduced nationally, the first independent survey of recipients by Citizens Advice has found that 92 per cent are unprepared for the new system in at least one area. Changes that will be introduced include monthly, rather than weekly or fortnightly, payments, a new online system for accessing benefits and the direct payment of housing benefit to claimants, rather than landlords. 

Previous research has found that claimants believe monthly payment will make it harder for them to budget and this concern is reinforced by the Citizens Advice study, with three-quarters saying they could not alone "keep track of my money on a monthly basis". In addition, two-thirds say they will need help to "get online and manage my universal credit account". One claimant, Derek Mallet, from Birmingham, said he was "concerned about having to use the internet in order to set up and get benefits. I have never been on a computer." This unpreparedness, Citizens Advice says, is "widespread across people of all backgrounds and ages".

In response, the charity is pushing for the government to allow claimants to request fortnightly rather than monthly payments and for their rent to be paid directly to their landlord for the first year of the new system. Gillian Guy said: "Our report shows that an overwhelming majority of people do not feel ready to deal with universal credit. Our findings must act as a wake-up call for government.

"The results demonstrate yet again how vital it is that implementing universal credit is not left to chance. There is clearly a breakdown in the system if 90% of potential claimants are not ready to deal with this major change to their payments, and ministers must act urgently to address this problem."

For now, the DWP insists that it is working with "councils, social landlords and community groups, including Citizens Advice, to offer support" to claimants. But if Universal Credit is not to become, in Labour's words, "universal chaos", it does look increasingly likely that Duncan Smith will have to accept the changes urged by Citizens Advice and others. 

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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