Children’s Commissioners urge immediate pause in Universal Credit roll-out

The UK’s Children’s Commissioners have called for a halt in the controversial roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) for families with children as they face an “almost impossible challenge” due to the weeks-long wait for payments.

In a direct plea to the Chancellor, they said a pause was “essential” to prevent hundreds of thousands more children experiencing poverty and warned families are finding it hard to afford basics such as food and heating.

Theresa May said ministers were “listening to the concerns” being raised as the flagship benefit reform rolls out across the UK, amid reports the Government could act next week to cut the six-week wait for payments to five.

But the commissioners for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland wrote to Philip Hammond ahead of next week’s Budget to call for an immediate pause in the roll-out for families with children.

They also called for the restriction of UC benefits to only two children to be reconsidered, saying it constitutes a breach of children’s rights to an adequate standard of living under the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.

In a letter to Mr Hammond (pictured), the commissioners wrote: “It has become clear that the absence of income for a number of weeks while Universal Credit payments are authorised and implemented presents an almost impossible challenge to the ability of families to provide basics such as food and heating to themselves and their children.

“In our view, amelioration measures must be put in place before there is further roll-out of Universal Credit.

“We believe that these steps are essential to prevent hundreds of thousands more children experiencing poverty and the consequential impact on their future life chances.”

They also called for an urgent review of the benefits freeze after the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) forecast a four percentage point rise in absolute child poverty by 2021-22, three quarters of which will be caused be benefit changes, affecting 400,000 children.

The Department for Work and Pensions has declined to comment on a Sky News report suggesting the UC wait time could be cut early next week, but minister Damian Hinds stressed that the Government was “continually looking to improve the system”.

A source close to Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke played down suggestions that he was acting in response to intensive behind-the-scenes discussions with as many as two dozen rebel Tory MPs.

Mr Gauke has been meeting a range of MPs, including many from the new intake who came into Parliament in June, to explain the policy, the source said.

Responding to reports of imminent concessions, Mr Hinds said: “I won’t be commenting on Budget speculation but we have made clear that no one has to wait for six weeks before they get their first full payment because they can get an advance which is interest-free and recovered over six months.”

UC replaces a range of six benefits with a single payment designed to ensure that work always pays.

But it has been mired in delays, and the six-week wait for a first payment has been blamed for forcing many claimants into rent arrears and reliance on food banks.

After starting with pilot areas, the DWP is pressing ahead with the roll-out of Universal Credit across the country despite calls from Labour for a pause, sparking warnings that new claimants could land in money difficulties over the Christmas period.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Jeremy Corbyn told Theresa May a Lincolnshire-based lettings agency is issuing all its tenants with a “pre-emptive notice of eviction” as UC has driven up arrears where it has been rolled out.

A copy of the GAP Property letter held by Labour, dated November 2017, said the agency “cannot sustain arrears at the potential levels Universal Credit could create”, and included a Section 21 eviction notice “to be exercised only in the event that you fail to pay your rent in accordance with the terms of your tenancy (in full and on the date due).”

MPs will vote on Thursday on a cross-party motion calling for the wait for a first payment of UC to be cut from six weeks to one month.

The motion was tabled by Commons Work and Pensions Committee chair Frank Field, who said he believed the Government was heading for defeat.

“I doubt many households in this country could get by for six weeks – and for many much longer – with no income, never mind those striving close to the breadline,” he said.

Responding to questions about the legality of the GAP Property letter, Mrs May’s official spokesman told reporters: “You saw the PM said that she would hope to get a letter from the leader of the Opposition and we will look into it, and we will see what we can find out about it.”

Mr Hammond declined to rule out cutting the UC waiting time as he insisted the Government was in listening mode.

Asked if he was ruling out a reduction in the six-week wait, he said: “The reason we are rolling out the Universal Credit programme is because of the way it supports people to get into work.

“The evidence is that people who are on Universal Credit are more likely to get into work than people who are on legacy benefits. So it does work.

“But of course we are listening to the concerns people have, this is a new programme and as we roll it out we want to learn and we want to improve the rollout.

“And we will continue to listen, to learn and to apply that learning.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2017, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Laura Lean / PA Wire.