What does Amber Rudd pausing Universal Credit really mean?

Why the big news is small fry for claimants.

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Universal Credit, the government’s beleaguered welfare reform, is yet again under the spotlight. The Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd has delivered on hints at the end of last year against “sticking to a prescribed timetable” and delayed the system’s roll-out yet again.

Back in December, she told the Work and Pensions Select Committee that she would “like to keep an open mind to” slowing the rate of moving claimants onto the new system and to “learn and see how long we need in order to ensure it’s effective”.

And now it looks like that’s happening. Originally, MPs were due to vote through a managed migration process (moving existing claimants onto the new system) for three million people. Now that’s been pushed back, and instead they’ll be asked to approve a limited “test and learn” approach to the migration process – starting with a trial scheme of just 10,000 recipients.

Why? Mainly political reasons. Because of its many problems, Universal Credit has been worrying Conservative MPs as well as opposition parties for years – and now it looks like the unpopular government lacks the votes to pass the migration it had scheduled for this stage of the process.

Also, it’s necessary. The system is causing so much hardship already that ploughing ahead with transferring millions of people onto it would cause mayhem – anyone who has come into contact with the system knows this full well.

But how much difference will Rudd’s pause actually make?

Is it really a delay?

The government is still insisting that all claimants will be on Universal Credit by December 2023 – so that suggests the speed of the process hasn’t actually changed. In theory, this means they have the same amount of time to fix problems as they did before Rudd’s decision. Large-scale migration was supposed to begin in November 2020 at the earliest.

But in reality, that 2023 deadline is an imaginary date resulting from numerous postponements. Universal Credit is notorious for pushing its deadlines. It was originally supposed to be fully up-and-running by 2017, after all.

So if we don’t take the government’s claim that it’s sticking to the deadline seriously, then we can assume it is ultimately giving itself more time to roll out the reform. In an ideal world, the DWP would use this extra time to iron out Universal Credit’s many faults, and to train Jobcentre staff to get to grips with the new system – something that is currently lacking.

Do delays even help?

This won’t inspire claimants with confidence, however, as there have been many delays, tweaks, extra money and U-turns in the years since Universal Credit was announced in 2010, and it remains fraught with problems. The history of the reform gives us no reason to believe this latest pause won’t have the exact same effect – simply delaying, rather than eliminating, a public policy disaster.

Millions will face Universal Credit anyway

It’s also important to remember that around two million people will move onto Universal Credit this year anyway – via a new claim or a change in circumstances that changes the benefits they need – according to a figure from the architect of the policy, Deven Ghelani. Rudd’s pause won’t help these claimants.

Welfare ideology is the real problem

One of the key reasons Universal Credit can cause such misery is because it is being introduced in a less generous welfare age. The benefits freeze is perpetuated under Universal Credit, as is the Bedroom Tax, employment and support allowance cut, and household benefit cap. On top of that, Universal Credit now has the two-child benefits limit, and vanishing disability premiums.

This is all with tougher sanctions and work capability assessments for disability benefits – a harsher context created by the Conservatives’ ideological attitude to welfare since 2010.

Unless the social security landscape changes, Universal Credit will still be creating problems for its users.

This is politics before policy

“Pausing” the roll-out has been the battle cry of many poverty and housing charities, councils, activists and opposition parties (including Labour, until recently) – and so by pausing it, it looks like Rudd is listening to those concerns. It’s unsurprising this feels like a victory for those who have been campaigning for it – and any extra time to attempt to fix things before a full-scale migration is helpful.

But the history of Universal Credit is one of fruitless delays. It looks like the government is keener to avoid an embarrassing vote than actually engage with its mistakes.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.