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An early summary of the evaluation of the Universal Credit pilots

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I have come across an interesting report this week prepared by Andrea Kirkpatrick who is a Principal Research officer in the DWP’s Universal Credit Evaluation team which seeks to summarise some of the key problems identified in the Universal Credit pilot areas.

The not surprising part is that she has identified a large number of problems previously highlighted by welfare advice groups and disability charities. I understand her report was based on information prepared by each Local Authority and interestingly enough, I note that there is a big caution towards the end advising that ‘findings and basic statistics here cannot be independently verified by the DWP analysts. Caution needs to be exercised in using the numbers presented as they are based (in many cases) on small population samples.”

The biggest challenge identified is the Government’s aim to go digital by default. The pressure groups have clearly been campaigning against this as not all claimants will have access to the internet and more importantly, they may not have the necessary skills to use the internet.

Lewisham Council have identified that 52% of social housing tenants do not have home access to the internet whilst Birmingham Council found that 50% of their social housing tenants didn’t even have their own email account.

Another key area of challenge is the proposed single monthly benefit payment intended to align those claiming benefit to those who receive monthly wages who are in employment. The Government aim is to prepare benefit claimants to start receiving the monthly payments in preparation of their return to employment. However, it was clear that this was always going to prove a major challenge as many social housing tenants have monetary budgeting issues such as debt and rent arrears. Although some Local Authorities have worked with local groups to provide financial management training, the report finds that take up on this has been rather slow and often been cancelled due to the poor numbers of attendees.

It is arguably one of the biggest aims of the welfare reform to encourage people to seek employment as a way of maximising income. The Government is attempting to eradicate the popular consensus that ‘sometimes staying on benefits is a better option financially than working.’ The report highlights that Local Authorities are working with the DWP and developing services to encourage their constituents to view work as the best option for income maximisation but progress has been slow in many areas.

Disability groups have consistently highlighted the effect the welfare reforms will have on the most vulnerable groups of benefit claimants. The report has highlighted a need for a triage process but have also identified that with the limited resources available to Local Authorities, support is likely to be restricted to those most in need, for example, Lewisham Council have based their triage process on a scoring and trigger system for managing customer contact. It is clear that the Local Authorities need to work in partnership with support groups and other agencies to ensure that services and help are provided accurately those who are most in need.

So what does this mean for the welfare reform? It must be clear that there will always be problems when changes are introduced. However, what is clear is that these problems have been highlighted from the start and unless the Government provide some answers to these areas soon, there is likely to be rather uncertain times ahead.

By Ngaryan Li, Pro bono welfare solicitor