Tory welfare chiefs have “no idea” what life is like on the breadline, a Conservative peer has declared in a devastating attack on failings in Universal Credit.
Lord Forsyth, a former employment minister under John Major, told the Mirror ministers were “not particularly honest” in their defences of the five-week wait for payment.
And he said the six-in-one benefit has caused “real and substantial hardship” – with austerity cuts prompting “stress and difficulty”.
The peer’s scathing comments came as the influential Lords Economic Affairs Committee, which Lord Forsyth chairs, released a report saying Universal Credit “isn’t working”.
The cross-party group demanded major reforms to the benefit, including ending the five-week wait for payment which “entrenches debt, increases extreme poverty and harms vulnerable groups disproportionately” by plugging the gap with a two-week grant.
Peers also demanded “less emphasis” on sanctions and for £6bn of historic Tax Credit debt – which is still being clawed back from up to 30% of families’ benefits – to be written off.
Peers also said a £20-a-week temporary rise for coronavirus, which ends in April 2021, should be made permanent.
And they said the current monthly payment, which can fluctuate wildly, should be fixed at one level for three months at a time.
Speaking to the Mirror ahead of the report’s release, Lord Forsyth said: “This notion that you mimic the world of work by having monthly assessments and the five-week wait…
“It just feels that that was designed by people who had no idea what life is like for people who are living on the breadline, and who have got no savings.”
He added: “The fundamental problem is the amount which is made available to people is not enough for them to live on.
“Over a period of years following the 2008 financial crisis, there have been reductions and that has added to the stress and the difficulty.”
DWP ministers – including Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey – claim “no one has to wait five weeks for their first payment” because people can get an advance against their own benefits.
“But Lord Forsyth said: “It’s not particularly honest to say people don’t have to wait five weeks – when the answer is they’re taking out a loan which has to be repaid.”
The peer said the system had been designed around an “idealised claimant” and people whose lives are more complicated are “falling through the cracks”.
He added: “I don’t think it’s for officials in the department. This is for ministers.
“The government was elected on a promise to ‘level up’. The Prime Minister has said he wants to govern as one nation.
“I can’t believe that many people in politics who don’t believe there should be a safety net below which no one will fall, and a ladder to get them out of the net.
“What our report shows is there’s a very big hole in the net and the people falling through the net are some of the most vulnerable in our country. This is just something that needs to be fixed.”
Today’s report is scathing about the five-week wait for payment.
Ministers recently announced two weeks of “run-on” payments, worth £149 on average, will go to every current benefit claimant who moves to Universal Credit.
But new claimants of Universal Credit – including 3million who applied during the pandemic – cannot get that two-week grant.
Peers heard evidence that the wait is driving people to food banks.
Disability Rights UK told the committee 30% of disabled claimants could not eat regular meals during the five-week wait, 30% could not heat their homes, and 40% went into significant rent arrears.
Today’s report concludes: “The wait entrenches debt, increases extreme poverty and harms vulnerable groups disproportionately.
“The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has introduced some measures to mitigate the most harmful effects but these fall far short of what is needed.”
The report also says the monthly assessment period for UC, which can cause payments to fluctuate, “is impractical, fundamentally unfair and must be resolved. “
“If claimants experience significant falls in income or experience disadvantageous changes in circumstances during this time, then a mechanism should be introduced to enable them to have an early reassessment,” the report says.
Minister for Welfare Delivery Will Quince said he would consider the report in detail but added: “The case for Universal Credit has never been stronger.
“The system defied its critics in unprecedented and unforeseeable circumstances, processing more than 3.2m new claims at pace since mid-March and paying more than a million advances worth hundreds of millions of pounds to those in urgent need within days.
“We remain committed to supporting the most vulnerable in society, which is why we currently spend over £95 billion a year on the benefits system.”