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The National Audit Office has condemned universal credit as causing hardship as well as being expensive, inefficient and lacking in any proof that it increases employment rates. However, in a report out today the NAO also concludes that there is now no alternative but to continue with the rollout of the benefit.

The report sets out the many changes and delays that the programme has been subject to.

According to the original plans the full rollout to 8.5 million people should have been completed last year. Instead, fewer than 1 million people are currently receiving UC, with the completion date now set at 2023, six years late.

Individual claimants also experience delays. 25% of all new claims were paid late in 2017. The DWP says that late payments are now down to 20%, but that it does not expect this figure to fall any further, blaming claimants for not providing information on time.

The NAO found that UC was causing hardship to some claimants:

“We spoke to local and national bodies that, together, work with a significant minority of claimants. They showed us evidence that many of these people have suffered difficulties and hardship during the rollout of the full service.”

The DWP, however, are entirely unrepentant:

“The Department does not accept that Universal Credit has caused hardship among claimants, because it makes advances available, and it said that if claimants take up these opportunities hardship should not occur.”

The NAO notes, however, that in its own report published this month the DWP found that 4 out of 10 UC claimants were experiencing financial difficulties.

Few of the systems within universal credit work as well as expected.

For example, the DWP claimed that 90% of claimants would be able confirm their identity online, using Verify, the online tool. Instead, the actual figure is just 38%.

And the extravagant claims made by ministers about the way that UC is improving the benefits system and claimants lives were found to have no foundation either.

In particular, the NAO found that:

  • It is not clear that Universal Credit will cost less to administer than the existing benefits system. In fact, it currently costs four times more to process a UC claim than the DWP said it would.
  • The DWP does not know whether UC is reducing fraud and error.
  • The DWP will never be able to measure whether Universal Credit actually leads to 200,000 more people in work, because it cannot isolate the effect of Universal Credit from other economic factors in increasing employment.

However, in spite of its almost total failure to meet any of its objectives, the NAO now sees no escape from the full rollout of UC.

The report concludes that “there is no practical alternative to continuing with Universal Credit” because of the many changes that been made to jobcentres, digital systems and the working practices of the 12,000 employed on UC delivery.

Commenting on the report, Frank Field, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee said:

“This report blows up the DWP’s constant assertion that everything is going well and that any criticism comes from those who wish to make trouble for Universal Credit. The points that individuals have raised with the Select Committee are now writ large as systemic faults within the system, and the Government is caught in a trap of its own making. Because ministers were taught to be in denial earlier the programme, it has advanced to a stage where there is now a mega cost to scrap it and a mega cost to taxpayers to continue with it. Either way, too many claimants are being screwed down into destitution while the DWP insists that all is okay. The Universal Credit we have seen is a shambles, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Sadly this report will make little difference if the senior officers running Universal Credit remain firmly entrenched in La La Land.”

You can download the NAO report from this page.

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