Amber Rudd’s admission about universal credit and food bank use has come much too late
The future of the benefits system remains in the balance and there is no certainty it can ever be fully enacted without causing untenable harm
Finally, a government minister has acknowledged an uncomfortable truth that everybody outside the government took as a given long ago – that the explosion in the use of food banks in recent years is in large part a consequence of failings in the rollout of universal credit.
Amber Rudd, who took over at the Department for Work and Pensions in November, told MPs today that delays in universal credit payments being processed meant that claimants may have “had difficulty accessing their money early” and therefore could not afford to buy food. Perhaps Rudd has learnt her lesson about making sure the House of Commons isn’t misled.
For years, the government has been in denial about the mess that is universal credit. The apparent logic of wrapping separate benefits into a single system has overridden every practical objection and left ministers wedded to a policy that has caused real harm to a great many people.
What has been just as bad – worse, perhaps – is that the department inherited by Ms Rudd last year has previously avoided even collecting data that had the potential to corroborate the stories of hardship which were becoming ever more commonplace. If the introduction of universal credit was misguided, then refusing to collect statistical information that could prove or disprove its impact was a dereliction of duty.
Since taking up her present role, Ms Rudd has sought to bring a more “compassionate” approach to a policy which, if it were not for Brexit, would have gained even greater notoriety than it already has. She notably ditched plans for a two-child benefit cap and slowed down the overall rollout of the scheme.
Last year’s budget included an additional £1bn to reduce the wait claimants were experiencing for their first payment – from five weeks to three. Other changes have been made to increase the amount individuals can earn before their benefits start to be deducted from their higher income. That measure, which has cost a further £1.7bn, has been helpful – but only up to a point.
As the Resolution Foundation think tank points out, the number of working families who will lose out under the new system will still, in the end, be 3 million. 2.2 million families are expected to make a net gain from universal credit.
What’s more, recommendations made last November by the Work and Pensions Committee, chaired by Frank Field, have now been rejected by ministers. The committee was particularly exercised by the impact of benefit sanctions on vulnerable claimants, who it said were being pushed into “grinding poverty”. There had also been criticism of the way benefit administrators were refusing to accept health-related emergencies as legitimate reasons for claimants to miss an appointment.
The select committee’s conclusion about the impact of benefit sanctions appeared to have been given added weight by a government report published in September which concluded there was no evidence of sanctions encouraging claimants to obtain work. Ministers’ rejection of the criticism is therefore hard to fathom.
Ultimately then, the future of universal credit remains in the balance. For all the good Ms Rudd has done, there remain a great many opponents to the scheme – inside parliament and out – who maintain that it can never be fully enacted without causing untenable harm. Ms Rudd’s admission over the link between universal credit and the use of food banks will strengthen that argument, even if the worst delays have now been dealt with. Fixing the remaining flaws in the system may well end up costing more money that its introduction ever hoped to save.
With that in mind, and with Ms Rudd apparently in the mood for some truth-telling, might the secretary of state admit that the whole scheme has been a colossal mistake?