Three years ago, in the face of constant stories about the struggles of people claiming Universal Credit, Conservative MPs openly raising their own concerns in Parliament and former Prime Minister John Major warning it was becoming another Poll Tax, the then Work & Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, instructed DWP to rewrite the “managed migration” regulations so that only 10,000 “legacy benefit” claimants could be moved onto it and a full report presented to Parliament before it was rolled-out nationally. In a Tweet, she stressed her approach would be “careful”.
The move was widely welcomed by critics as a return to evidence-based policy-making in a Department whose approach had increasingly become one of ideological wishful thinking. Shortly after, Ms Rudd announced the pilot would begin in Harrogate, but it wasn’t until July 2019 that the new Regulations were finally laid in Parliament. In her statement she said, “the pilot will give colleagues and claimants confidence in the Department’s approach to the transition before we return to the House to report on progress and seek permission to extend managed migration.”
Last week, as Parliament headed into the Easter Recess, it was revealed that DWP plans to drop that 10,000 limit and press ahead with managed migration through a “Discovery Phase”. Interestingly, this wasn’t disclosed through a Ministerial Statement or even a DWP press release, but through the publication of the minutes of a meeting of the Government’s independent Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), which examined DWP’s new draft regulations last December. The removal of the 10,000 cap was clearly one of the key concerns of SSAC’s members.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise as SSAC was one of the key critics of the original draft regulations back in 2018, and its former Chair, Sir Ian Diamond had welcomed Amber Rudd’s 10,000 case limit. Inevitably, there have been changes within SSAC’s membership over the past three years, including the Chair himself. Dr Stephen Brien, a former advisor to Iain Duncan Smith during his time as Work & Pensions Secretary now holds that role.
In January, Dr Brien wrote to Work & Pensions Secretary, Therese Coffey MP, explaining SSAC’s concerns. Apparently, a meeting then followed. Despite his own involvement in the genesis of UC and the mild nature of his letter, he got a response back from the junior minister offering quarterly meetings instead of his proposed approach to more meaningful scrutiny. An extra-ordinary meeting of SSAC was then held in February to discuss DWP’s plans again. The minutes of that are not yet published, but the letter Dr Brien then sent makes it clear that SSAC members were not impressed. They decided to “take the regulations on formal reference” so that their own concerns are put to Parliament alongside the Regulations. In the press release SSAC put out last week, Dr Brien throws down the gauntlet to DWP:
“A process to move around 1.7 million households, many with complex lives, onto Universal Credit from legacy benefits creates a significant risk for both those who are reliant on these benefits and also for DWP in delivering it. For the public to have confidence in this process and to minimise risk further consideration needs to be given to establishing appropriate independent oversight and scrutiny of the programme as it moves forward.”
The real question underlying all this is who in DWP really wants to have a fight about managed migration? Neither Ms Coffey nor junior minister, David Rutley MP, has never suggested the 10,000 cap is a problem. At Z2K, the suspicion is that it is senior officials themselves who demanded this U-turn. When Amber Rudd imposed the 10,000 cap on migration notices in early 2019, many MPs and others in SW1 assumed she had put a political handbrake on a project that was running well ahead of the Parliamentary support for it – and perhaps even out of control.
Officials can certainly point to the success of UC in the pandemic as proof of its merits. But the Harrogate pilot was suspended during the pandemic before really getting going and so this doesn’t get answer the thorny question of how a cohort of 1.7 million people, most of whom are disabled people in receipt of ESA and have very different levels of aptitude for a digital-based system can be migrated across to UC without adverse interruptions to their income. The National Audit Office recently stated “the [UC] system is really designed for simple cases and it works well for those cases … it works less well where there are specific needs for individuals that need a tailored approach.”
Z2K’s own research with some of our clients who have been moved over onto UC shows how problematic that experience has been. One client spoke for many when she said, “without that support (from Z2K), I would have gone insane …. I just didn’t understand it, it was a complete minefield.” Another told us, “I didn’t know anything about UC at all …. I went to this place [the Jobcentre ] .… and it was like they assumed I could deal with a computer .… they just pointed there and said you have to do the thing online.”
The hundreds of similar testimonies Z2K has heard and the tens of thousands of cases other advice agencies have helped with, show why much more effective safeguards should be put in place before managed migration begins and why this 10,000 cap is so important. Many other organisations working with those struggling to manage their UC claim feel the same. Right now though, there’s no sign of anyone senior in DWP listening to those concerns. That’s why we back SSAC’s challenge to DWP and why we will be calling on MPs to reject the Department’s plans to scrap the 10,000 case cap and the formal report back to Parliament before UC is rolled-out.