Mind raises concerns that safeguards for vulnerable claimants will not be in place
Up to 750,000 benefit claimants with a disability, including mental illness, risk being left penniless by plans to move them on to universal credit, campaigners have said, highlighting concerns over the planned expansion of the struggling welfare programme.
The mental health charity Mind called on ministers to halt the so-called “managed migration” of 3 million people from existing welfare benefits to universal credit from next year because of concerns that proper safeguards will not be in place to protect and support vulnerable claimants.
It said the well-documented difficultiesexperienced by chronically ill claimants who have already moved on to universal credit suggested many more would be at risk of “slipping through the net” during the migration, potentially leaving them without any income and exacerbating their illnesses.
The scale of the migration and the political risks attached to it are regarded with nervousness in Whitehall because of the sustained criticism of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over its handling of universal credit, most recently by the National Audit Office (NAO).
The concerns came to a head on Thursday when opposition MPs called for the work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, to resign after she was forced to apologise for misleading MPs about the findings of an NAO report that highlighted problems with the rollout.
Although the NAO had called for the rollout to be slowed down until the problems could be fixed, McVey claimed to MPs that it had said the rollout should be speeded up, triggering complaintsfrom the head of the NAO, Sir Amyas Morse, and a subsequent admission from McVey that she had “inadvertently” misled MPs.
Labour and poverty charities have called for the universal credit rollout to be paused in order to iron out design flaws and deal with funding and administrative problems that have left tens of thousands of low-income claimants in debt, facing rent arrears and reliant on food banks.
The DWP’s social security advisory committee (SAAC) has said the task of safely moving existing claimants on to universal credit over three years from 2019 “raised important questions about the delivery challenge facing the department and the potential impact on claimants”.
Launching a consultation on the migration a fortnight ago, the chair of the SSAC, Paul Gray, said: “The planned rollout of universal credit is now reaching its most critical and challenging stage.”
Mind’s director of external relations, Sophie Corlett, said: “We are hugely concerned about the ramifications of these proposals, which leave open the real possibility that many people with mental health problems could see their benefits stopped entirely while they struggle with the process of applying for universal credit.
“Already, far too many people are losing out because they can’t navigate the online system for universal credit or fill out complex forms when they’re unwell. The safeguards the government has proposed simply do not address the concern that people will slip through the net and be left without a source of income.”
A DWP spokesperson rejected the warnings, describing them as scaremongering. The spokesperson said: “The fact is we are working on the migration process to ensure claimants are fully supported during the transition, including those receiving disability benefits.”
Alison Garnham, the chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “We urge ministers not to migrate more claimants to universal credit until the design, delivery and funding problems are resolved. To do otherwise is to roll out financial misery to yet more families.”
Under the DWP’s current plans, existing claimants will be sent a letter warning them that they have three months to apply for universal credit before their current benefits are cancelled. Mind argues the DWP should guarantee that no one moved on to the new benefit will have their benefit stopped until the new claim is established.
The difficulties of applying for the digital-only universal credit were highlighted in recent DWP research which found that among people with long-term health conditions who made a universal credit claim for the first time, a quarter were unable to register a claim online and more than half said they needed more help setting up a claim.