By Daniel J. McLaughlin
The Pope's a Catholic, bears do their business in the woods, and the rollout of Universal Credit has been delayed... once again.
MPs were due to vote on moving three million existing benefits claimants onto the new system, but Amber Rudd has pushed it back. Instead, MPs will be asked to approve a limited "test and learn approach to this 'migration' process. The trial scheme would involve just 10,000 recipients.
The government, however, insists that all claimants will be on Universal Credit by December 2023 - with large scale migrations supposed to begin in November 2020.
New claimants, or people whose circumstances have changed, will continue to be put onto the new system. It is expected that 1.6 million people will migrate to it by Christmas 2019 - adding to the 1.4 million Britons already on Universal Credit.
Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions committee, welcomed the delay: "The government seems finally to have woken up to the human catastrophe that was waiting to happen under its ill-formed plans for moving people onto Universal Credit.
"The Secretary of State deserves credit for revisiting these plans. As a next step, and in keeping with this new approach, it is essential for the government to proceed with 'mass migration' of people to Universal Credit only once it has proved to parliament that it will not push more vulnerable people to the brink of destitution."
In December, Ms Rudd told the work and pensions select committee that she would "like to keep an open mind to" slowing down the rate of moving claimants to the new system. The work and pensions secretary said that the rollout of the new benefits system could be slowed to "make sure it is effective" and that "we get it right". The thing is, the Tories have had plenty of opportunity to get it right since they announced the policy in 2010.
Rudd told MPs: "I would much rather every individual gets the personal attention and care getting on to Universal Credit than sticking to a prescribed timetable."
When taking the role of work and pensions secretary, she agreed to listen "very carefully" to concerns over the benefits shake-up, conceding the system "can be better". However, Rudd failed to listen to the United Nations report on poverty in the UK, calling it "extraordinarily political".
She hailed Universal Credit as a "tremendous force for good" - exactly the opposite of the findings of UN expert, Philip Alston. He said that the "punitive, mean-spirited and often callous" welfare cuts had inflicted "great misery" on the British people.
Universal Credit was meant to be the flagship programme for the Tories, designed to bring "fairness and simplicity" to the social security provided in the UK.
Instead, it is a cause of embarrassment for the Conservatives. Full roll-out of the programme has been delayed time and time again, and claimants are being denied the money they desperately need to get by. It's been difficult for the benefits shake-up, but it's been a nightmare for claimants.
It was meant to simplify things, but Universal Credit has made things much more complicated. It rolls six benefits into one Universal Credit, merging income support, jobseeker's allowance, employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax benefit, and working tax benefit together
But it is not working. If you don't believe me, ask the government. Their own reviews of the benefits shake-up - 'Project Assessment Reviews' - studied the progress of Universal Credit between 2012 and 2015. Out of the ten reviews that were completed, not a single one gave the Tory flagship programme a "green rating", a clean bill of health.
Before the reviews were public knowledge, following a two-year battle by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to prevent their release, the government was forced to hand the documents over to the Work and Pensions Committee.
The committee gave a damning report which said the reviews failed to make the case for extending Universal Credit. The report warned that there was no evidence that more people would be helped into work, or that an automated online service could be run successfully on a national scale. The reports also raise repeated concerns over IT systems, project planning, staff morale and costs.
Former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey, who resigned from the position in November, made a written statement to the Commons following their release: “Come 2018, the Universal Credit Programme is in a very different place since those reports were written."
Well, that's not quite true. We are in the first days of 2019, and Universal Credit is still plagued with errors. Whistleblowers told the Guardian that the IT system is "broken", and that the glitches and errors in the "cobbled-together" system has resulted in delayed payments for weeks, and claimants' benefit payments being wrongly reduced by hundreds of pounds.
"Universal credit is so riddled with design flaws and process faults that it is practically guaranteed to generate mistakes and delays that would push vulnerable benefit claimants into hardship," the Guardian reports. The mistakes in the error-riddled system can add on average an extra three weeks to the formal 35-day wait for an initial benefit payment. This risks pushing claimants into debt, rent arrears, and reliance on food banks.
One whistleblower said: "The IT system on which universal credit is built is so fundamentally broken and poorly designed that it guarantees severe problems with claims. In practical terms, it is not working the way it was intended and it is having an actively harmful effect on a huge number of claimants.”
Whistleblowers are not the only ones with damning evidence against Universal Credit. Many claimants are left in limbo after finding it very difficult to provide the evidence needed for extra support, according to a recent report from Citizens Advice. The network of charities said that 48 per cent of claimants found it difficult to provide evidence, particularly when it is needed to claim more support for health problems. There were 40 per cent who struggled to prove they needed help with housing costs, and 35 per cent said the same about childcare.
Furthermore, it is driving claimants into poverty. A third of claimants in the UK have been hit by deductions from payments. According to the Observer, official figures show that "hundreds of thousands of Universal Credit payments are being subject to deductions used to pay back arrears in rent, council tax and utility bills". The proportion of claimants hit by deductions has shot up from one in 10 in May 2017, to one in five in December 2017, to a third in May 2018.
Rent arrears caused by Universal Credit have now reached a staggering £24 million across the UK. The Big Issue reports that 65 housing associations in England found that tenants are now in arrears to the tune of £21.6 million, while the figure is £1.2 million in Scotland and it is also above £1 million in Wales. It is averaging around £420 per person.
Even McVey, during her tenure as work and pensions secretary, acknowledged there are problems with Universal Credit. In a speech to the Reform thinktank, she said: “And where we need to put our hands up, admit things might not be be going right, we will do.”
It's all very well putting their hands up and admitting problems, but the government needs to fix the issues that their Universal Credit programme has caused. It is driving claimants into poverty when it was meant to drive people into work.