Government 'wilfully missed the point' on Universal Credit managed migration tests

By agency reporter
July 6, 2019

Last year, in a series of statements and a report, backed by expert input from claimant support organisations, the National Audit Office and the Government’s own Social Security Advisory Committee, the Work and Pensions Committee called on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to set – and meet – a series of tests for itself to prove its own readiness  for 'managed migration': the process of moving millions of existing benefit claimants on to Universal Credit. 

On 1 May 2019, the Committee reported again, restating the case for robust and transparent tests of readiness, and outlining what these should be. It insisted again that DWP must, through the pilot,  “prove it is up to the job” before a single claimant is transferred onto Universal Credit through managed migration.

It said: “The Department has provided no convincing reason why it won’t accept these expert recommendations … it will make no difference to the person who endures hardship or destitution, because of operational failures at DWP, whether that occurs during a testing phase or the real thing.” Chair Frank Field said: “Anyone who sees their income slashed or their circumstances and life chances reduced, or any of the other messes UC is getting people across this land into, will find no comfort in learning it didn’t happen on purpose.

"Does DWP want to explain to them it didn’t bother to find out how they might be affected? Will it be a comfort to learn DWP did take a look at that, but didn’t bother to apply its findings? ‘Test and learn’ must mean just that: DWP should not move one person onto UC until it does test, and does learn, and proves it is ready to safely do so.”

The Committee has now received the Government’s response to that latest report, having recently pressed Government again for detail of its plans for running the pilot, including its contingency plans for rolling out Universal Credit if the pilot is delayed.In its latest response, the Government reiterated its commitment not to end legacy benefits during the pilot where a claimant has not made a UC claim, and committed to report on its evaluation of the pilot, including the methods it will use to do so, both of which are welcome.

Otherwise, however, the Government’s response wholly fails to address the central point of all the expert calls for a genuine 'test and learn' pilot: to set tests that measure what actually happens to claimants when they are moved to UC.

Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “The Government has wilfully missed the point, and this is becoming a distressing pattern. We, like so many others, have asked the Government not to move to 'managed migration' until it demonstrates it is ready to do so safely, without exposing a single claimant or their children to debt, hunger, or homelessness. The Government doesn’t seem to understand that this is not the same as showing us how many staff it has trained up, how many stakeholders it has briefed, or that it has managed to get its computers working. What matters, and what the Department should be testing and learning from, is the outcome of all of this for claimants, particularly the most vulnerable claimants - of whom there are disproportionately few in Harrogate. To put it bluntly: without looking at outcomes for claimants there is no point, for anyone other than the Department itself, of these tests or what it intends to learn from them. How does the Government hope to get the regulations it needs through Parliament when it blithely ignores all this?”

The Committee had previously argued that DWP must not “ignore the swell of expert voices warning that the Government’s approach to moving vulnerable people to Universal Credit could end in disaster and destitution”.  At that time, Committee Chair Frank Field warned that “Having got it so disastrously wrong with its first attempt, you’d think that the Government would want to make sure its plans to move vulnerable people onto Universal Credit stood up to robust scrutiny. Instead, it is choosing to push these regulations through Parliament with no chance for MPs to make amendments. That hardly inspires confidence that it has really made the changes needed to ensure that its actions won’t plunge people deeper into poverty. If its new plans don’t have enough safeguards to protect the vulnerable, then MPs will be left with no option but to vote them down.”

In its November 2018 report, the Committee said that the Government's insistence that it would not perform its own readiness testing until 2020—a year after its "managed migration" pilot was due to begin – "is simply not good enough: it must commit to setting the tests it will meet before the pilot begins. The tests, and an analysis of whether they have been met, should be published before managed migration moves to scale in 2020.” It went on to say “MPs on all sides of the House of Commons have pleaded with the Government not to go ahead with transferring claimants from existing benefits to the much-troubled Universal Credit until it can guarantee that every claimant will be migrated safely onto the new benefit and none will be left destitute.”

A few weeks later, subsequently supported by a House of Lords Committee report, the Committee insisted again that the DWP must demonstrate "operational capacity" and ensure claimant welfare before it got the new powers it needs for mass transfer of claimants onto UC: “The Government’s initial plans for moving people onto Universal Credit were seriously flawed and risked plunging some of the most vulnerable people in society further into debt and destitution. If a delay means that the DWP has finally listened to the wide range of voices – including the Work and Pensions Committee –calling for a major rethink of its approach, then that would be very welcome. But the Government cannot simply bury this in the long grass: it must come forward quickly with a better plan.” 

The Government has argued that the managed migrations must be passed to allow it to implement compensatory payments to disabled people who lost their Severe Disability Premium payments in the move from legacy disability benefits to Universal Credit. The Committee will shortly publish a series of correspondence on that issue separately, in advance of its upcoming report on so-called 'natural migration'.

* Letter from Frank Field MP to Amber Rudd MP on managed migration June 2019 here

* Read the report Universal Credit: tests for managed migration here

* Work and Pensions Committee https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/work-and-pensions-committee/


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