Attacking HMRC on a range of issues, a Times editorial comments: “Tax Credits have repeatedly been overpaid because changes in individual circumstances occur too frequently for the bureaucracy to keep up.” That’s quite true. But the Universal Credit scheme, contained in the Welfare Reform Bill currently passing through Parliament, relies centrally on the principle that it will be possible to respond to changes in people’s needs as they happen, “in real time”. It is not possible now, and it is not going to happen like that.
The government has sidled away from the promise of a computer system that will cope with everything – no system could be expected to record changes in household circumstances as they happen. What they are currently relying on is the development of a faster PAYE system, which generally depends on income coming from employment. Changes to overpayment rules mean that claimants who are overpaid will have to repay money regardless of whether they could reasonably have known they had been told the wrong thing or were being paid the wrong amount – a situation which the Ombudsman has previously criticised for the instability it creates for low-income households.