The Government’s chaotic flagship welfare reform faces its seventh delay, ministers announced on the last day before MPs go on summer holiday.
Ministers were urged to “get a grip” of their Universal Credit (UC) plan, the brainchild of former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, after it was revealed a year delay would be added to a succession of setbacks.
It means moving existing claimants onto the new benefit will start in July 2019 - not July 2018 - and complete in March 2022. The original plan was for UC to be fully in place by 2017. Just last year ministers wanted the job done by 2020.
The announcement came as Theresa May was holding her first major meeting with Angela Merkel within a busy day for politics.
Labour MP Frank Field, chair of the work and pensions select committee of MPs, ridiculed the latest problem.
“With today’s announcement the new Secretary of State poses a question to the country. Are they likely to see High Speed Two completed before Universal Credit is fully rolled out?”
The first stage of much-delayed HS2 rail scheme is projected to be complete by 2026 at best.
Universal Credit, arguably the centre-piece of the Tory overhaul of social security, will replace six of the main welfare benefits, and tax credits, with a single monthly payment.
The aim is to save billions of pounds of taxpayers money but has been dismissed by previous Governments because it is too complicated to implement.
Delays could lead to uncertainty for claimants and raise questions over whether projected savings can be made.
Lord David Freud, the work and pensions minister, explained:
“It is essential that the Universal Credit rollout for all claimant types is delivered in an orderly and successful manner; that claimants receive the support they need in a timely fashion; and that welfare reforms are delivered safely as the roll out continues.
“The previous Government altered the Universal Credit rollout schedule to make sure that the delivery continues to be safe and controlled. I believe this was the right decision: this new Government is committed to administer the Universal Credit Programme in a careful, reliable and transparent fashion.”
But the move faced criticism.
Debbie Abrahams, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Yet again the Tory Government has been forced to extend the Universal Credit rollout.
“This is the seventh time that the timetable has been altered since March 2013 and the implementation of Universal Credit is beset by problems.
“For example, Unison has made me aware of a worker who has fallen foul of the strict DWP monthly assessment period, meaning she’s losing nearly £700 a year in Universal Credit on a £11,600 salary, purely because her monthly pay date varies. This simply isn’t acceptable.
“The Government claims to want to support working people but. The new Secretary of State should get a grip of roll-out, look at the myriad problems in implementation and immediately u-turn on the Tories’ cuts to the work allowance.”
David Finch, senior economic analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said: “Today’s announcement of yet more delays in the roll out of Universal Credit should give the government time to consider whether its current design is right for the new economic conditions Britain faces.
“With most independent economic forecasts pointing to higher inflation and lower real wage growth in the coming years, implementing Universal Credit in its current form risks deepening the squeeze on living standards facing low and middle income families.”