Ministers are facing calls to immediately halt a plan to begin shifting millions of people on to universal credit, amid serious concerns that it risks “pushing many of them into destitution”.
Some of the country’s most prominent charities have made a joint plea to the government to halt the migration of claimants from the old benefits system to the new system, warning that vulnerable people will be given a three-month deadline to make a new claim or risk losing their current benefits.
In an open letter to work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey, seen by the Observer, charities including Mind, The Trussell Trust, Shelter and Disability Rights UK state that as many as 2.6 million people could eventually be affected. The figure includes 700,000 people with mental health problems, learning disabilities and dementia. They say that anyone unable to engage with the plan risks being left with no income at all.
The process of “managed migration” to universal credit is due to start from Monday. It will see people move off old income-related benefits, jobseeker’s allowance and tax credits. While a few hundred will be moved now, everyone is due to be moved to the new system in the next two years.
“We are … gravely concerned about the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) plans for universal credit managed migration,” the group writes. “We believe that your approach for moving people receiving older benefits on to universal credit risks pushing many of them into destitution.
“We ask you to consider the devastating consequences for someone who faces challenges in engaging with the process having their only income cut off, especially during this cost-of-living crisis. No one subject to managed migration should have their existing benefit stopped until they have established a claim to universal credit. Instead of setting arbitrary deadlines, the DWP needs to take responsibility for ensuring people’s safety.”
They call for “proactive support” from the government for those being forced to move. “We urge you to refocus on supporting people by creating and communicating a clear safeguarding process,” they write. “We ask you to pause your approach until you have addressed these risks, and commit to completing a thorough trial of the process and putting the outcomes to parliament for scrutiny.”
Charities are concerned by the government’s own 2018 research, which showed that among people with longterm health conditions, 24% could not register a claim online, only 57% were confident about managing their payments and 53% said they needed more support setting up their claim.
More than a third (38%) said they needed more ongoing support.
The DWP will initially move 500 people across to universal credit. However, Mind warned it was unacceptable to use those in the group as “guinea pigs” – and that being left without help could be life-threatening. “The DWP’s managed migration plans could leave people with mental health problems with no income,” said Paul Farmer, Mind’s chief executive. “Those too unwell to engage with the DWP could be left unable to pay their rent, buy food, or pay their rising energy bills. This is completely unacceptable.
“Mind – and many other charities representing people affected by health problems and poverty – is willing and able to help shape the managed migration process into one which is fit for purpose and which does not risk the financial security of hundreds of thousands of people. But as things stand, the managed migration process is too dangerous to continue.”
Sara Ogilvie, director of policy at the Child Poverty Action Group, said that proceeding with the migration process without a full trial and evaluation was “profoundly irresponsible”. “It should not be asking claimants – who by definition are least able to bear financial pressures – to shoulder the risk, in particular at a time when budgets are already stretched to breaking point,” she said. “The department must commit to fully trialling and publicly reporting on the managed migration process and it must ensure that no one loses their existing benefits until they have a new claim for universal credit securely established.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Over five million people are already supported by universal credit. It is a dynamic system which adjusts as people’s earnings change, is more generous overall than the old benefits, and simplifies our safety net for those who cannot work.
“Roughly 1.4 million people on legacy benefits would be better off on universal credit, with top-up payments available for eligible claimants whose universal credit entitlement is less.”