Universal credit was supposed to be introduced by IDS/DWP in September, but the roll-out date continually gets postponed. The aim is to replace several in- and out-of-work benefits – job seeker’s allowance, income support, employment and support allowance, tax credits, plus housing benefit and support for childcare costs – with one single payment. However there are snags, big ones:
* The vast majority of claims are meant to be initiated and managed online, but benefit claimants are the people most likely not to have a computer or are not trained to use it,
* Payments will be made monthly rather than weekly or fortnight, which will increase the risk of rent arrears especially when support for housing costs will be paid direct to the tenant, not to the landlord as normally at present,
* A new conditionality will be imposed: recipients will be expected to look for work as soon as their youngest child reaches 5 as well as further away from home, a 90-minute commute being considered reasonable compared to 60 minutes as now.
* Claimants will also be expected to look for more or better work till a certain level of income is reached, and non-working partners will also have to look for work until the couple cross the income threshold.
* Those who fail to comply with the new conditionality regime can have their benefits withdrawn for up to 3 years, and sanctions can be carried forward into new claims. Even if hardship payments are made in cases of sanction, they will be recovered by DWP,
* The rate of support for many children with disabilities will be substantially less than at present,
* Adults with disability will be badly penalised: the severe disability premium currently paid to disabled people who don’t have another adult caring for them will be ended, resulting in a loss of £54 a week. Similarly, disabled claimants who work and get the disabled workers element of Working Tax Credit will lose £54 a week.
* In-work claimants on the lowest incomes who are deemed not to be looking for more hours or better-paid work could face a sanction with a punitive loss of benefit,
* Awards to self-employed claimants will be made on the basis that they are already earning a ‘reasonable’ minimum income whether they’re getting that level of income or not,
* The government have not yet decided how free school meals or free prescriptions will be managed under Universal Credit, but if eligibility is set at lower income levels than now, many will suffer a substantial cut in income,
* Nor is it true, as IDS likes to claim, that most claimants will gain from Universal Credit: middle-income claimants will come off worst, but even those on the lowest incomes who IDS likes to claim will gain will find those gains will largely disappear once the impact of benefit and tax credit cuts since 2010 are taken into account.