The problems with Universal Credit are grim. There are not really more of them, there are just more of the old problems.

The report on Universal Credit by the Public Accounts Committee is pretty damning, but that should come as no surprise.  The PAC argues, amongst other things, that

  • The Department’s systemic culture of denial and defensiveness in the face of any adverse evidence presented by others is a significant risk to the programme.

  • Universal Credit causes financial hardship for claimants including increased debt and rent arrears, and forces people to use foodbanks.

  • The Department is failing vulnerable claimants because it places too much reliance on the discretion of its work coaches to identify and manage the needs of people requiring extra support.

  • The package of support to help claimants adjust to Universal Credit is not fit for purpose

  • Universal Credit is pushing costs onto the local organisations that support claimants – including local authorities, housing associations, and foodbanks.

  • We are seriously concerned about the Department’s ability to transfer around 4 million people from existing welfare benefits to Universal Credit without causing further hardship to claimants.

They also comment that the DWP can’t assess or justify its claim that UC will push another 200,000 people into work, but that’s hardly a major criticism; the suggestion that a rollout causing hardship to 6-7 million people can possibly be justified by changing the behaviour of 200,000 of them simply reinforces the lamentable distortion of perspective and priorities that has blighted this system from the start.

The flurry of criticisms that people have been making in the last couple of weeks are of different kinds.  Some are about poor administration.  Claimants are supposed to track changes in their online journals, and the DWP can’t absorb information that’s presented in this way.  (Even The Sun has noticed.)  Claimants who fall into rent arrears – that’s most – may have direct payments to landlords, but there is evidence from Citizens Advice that in some cases the DWP is deducting the rent from the benefit and not passing it on.  A disturbing proportion of new claims are paid late, or not paid enough.  The DWP is holding claimants to standards that it’s unable to meet itself.

Other criticisms, however, concern the way the benefit has been designed.  The concern about women at risk of abuse was raised formally more than five years ago.  UC has also been criticised for not being able to deal with people who don’t fit in its boxes, but the problems with dealing with non-standard “pathways” were identified right at the start.  In 2003, the DWP commissioned a report which told them that segmentation, or working to ‘typical’ profiles, wouldn’t work: “Profiling outperforms the random allocation of treatments but wrong denial and wrong treatment rates are not trivial”.  That didn’t deter pilots of segmentation for unemployed people in 2005, presenting details of segments in 2010 (when UC was first announced) and further commissioning of a ‘proof of concept’ on it in 2014.  The problem is basic.  This system is supposed to offered a personalised response to millions of people, and with that many people, there will always be some who just don’t fit.


3 thoughts on “The problems with Universal Credit are grim. There are not really more of them, there are just more of the old problems.”

  1. John Seddon of Vanguard Consulting writes regularly about this topic and arrives at much the same conclusions as stated – particularly those concerning the inability for software systems to deal with the complexity of demand – something he has been banging on about for years to deaf ears in Government.

    Never mind ‘nudge’. UC is about kicking people into work by reducing them to being paupers or making them disappear and become a cost expenditure on someone else’s limited and tightening budget . Desperate people who need money do not have the liberty to think about a joining a union, work place rights, zero hours contracts and poor pay and conditions. I know people who have jobs and after they’ve travelled on expensive privately provided ‘public transport’ have very little left for other expenses.

    UC is created by people who do not know how the majority of people in this country live.

  2. Leaving aside the misery caused to claimants, from a broader public policy view, it is depressing how little governments and bureaucracies learn from these systematic failures, particularly the billions wasted on unfit IT systems!

    1. Just after I made the above post, I read on the Scottish Parliament web site the agenda for the next Social Security Committee on 1.11.18. Among various interesting agenda items is a submission from the PCS, civil servants union, on their members experiences, as DWP/HMRC of trying to implement UC in Scotland!

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