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9 August 2017

Universal Credit is sending families to food banks – it must be suspended

The system is failing and the government needs to admit it.

By Jim McMahon Jim McMahon

If a manual was ever written on how not to roll out a new benefit it would tell the sorry tale of Universal Credit.

Complaints to the government are so high that they don’t count them “owing to the volume.”

If you take out the politics of callous cuts, ludicrous sanctions targeted at those least able to take the burden the principle was sound enough. Rather than a complex range of benefits administered by various departments and agencies of government, there would be a single straight forward benefit.

That was the easy bit. Actually making it happen required planning, resourcing and most importantly a culture which informed every single decision – one that said it’s about people, not nonsensical rules.

The scheme has hit the press for all the wrong reasons and pressure is growing for a fundamental review before it is allowed to roll out across the country.

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Oldham was one of the original pilots. The council did not welcome cuts or pain, in fact it was a fierce critic of welfare reform and the impact it was having on the town. Having invested in a new welfare advice service to help residents access benefits they were entitled to but not claiming, the council felt it could work in partnership to get it right.

Yet even the council feel frustrated that while relationships with DWP staff on the ground are reported to be good, many problems with the IT system, delays and errors have failed to be addressed.

My constituency office has been helping many individuals with increasing frequency and it is clear that not only is the system itself broken, but more than that it is littered with rules which add nothing to the process but which send many decent people into unnecessary debt and depression.

When you do have questions or get into difficulty and need to pick up the phone you’ll be charged up to 55p a minute for the privilege of trying to get to a person who can help navigate an online system. This can take over two very expensive hours to complete an application for a couple, if it doesn’t crash midway through. The longest wait reported by government is over 13 minutes – that’s not the total time taken to deal with the query but simply to get to speak to a person. Then it takes an average of seven minutes to deal with the query.

I was so concerned with the impact on my own constituents that I called together a meeting of charities, public bodies and of course those directly affected by the Universal Credit system to hear first-hand it impact. During the discussion it was clear that even those who wanted it to work seemed to think it had gone too far to save.

Oldham Foodbank report truly heart-breaking cases, including new parents who, on reporting the birth of their third child, were hit with a change of circumstance delay which immediately stopped benefits for six weeks as a time when the family had limited wages coming in and rent and other bills stacking up.

Last month alone the foodbank gave three-day food packages to 364 adults and 177 children, the vast majority of which were a result of benefit delays. Most of those were avoidable, they were entitled to the benefits they were claiming; many had been doing so without problems before, but had been sent to queue at the food bank because of unnecessary delays and the failure of government to promote the advance payment scheme.

Nationally the roll out of Universal Credit is only seven per cent complete, but there are such serious problems MPs from across the country are demanding that its expansion is halted. I’m going further to say that not only should the national rollout be stopped but early adopter areas like Oldham see no more people transferred as part of the “Full Service” roll out until government address the failings of this broken system.

If the government goes ahead with this clearly broken system it will send thousands of my constituents into debt and desperation as 19,500 families are shifted onto Universal Credit.

Citizens Advice are leading the charge and it’s a campaign I fully support.

My plea to government is to halt the roll out of Universal Credit until an independent body made up of charities and public agencies agree it is fit for purpose.

Far better an admission of failure now with the mature and responsible decision to learn from that failing rather than to hit over 7 million families, a staggering quarter of the working population who will be forced onto a system which is designed to fail.

Jim McMahon is Labour and Co-Operative Party MP for Oldham West & Royton