Universal Credit rollout could take over 1,000 years

The number of people claiming Universal Credit has fallen to the slowest rate for almost a year, according to the latest statistics from the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP).

Just 540 people started claiming the benefit in May, the lowest monthly take-up figure since July last year, when 400 new claimants started receiving Universal Credit.

There are approximately 5.4 million people currently claiming working age benefits in the UK.

According to shadow work and pensions minister Rachel Reeves, at the current rate of progress it will take 1,222 years for the welfare programme - which the DWP said last year would cost the taxpayer £12.8 billion - to be rolled out across the country, meaning Universal Credit’s rollout would finish in 3236.

A total of 8,500 people have claimed the benefit so far, although there were just 6,570 claimants as of the end of May, largely because some people have become ineligible due to increased income.

The statistics show that new claimants are overwhelmingly young and male. Seven out of 10 claimants are men, and over six in 10 of claimants are aged under 25.

The new benefit, which aims to combine six benefits into one payment, was only eligible for single people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance for the first time during the period studied.

As of June, couples are now also eligible to claim Universal Credit. At the moment it is available in just 39 out of roughly 750 jobcentres across the UK.

The DWP says it is currently expanding the benefit to cover the entire north west region, and once this process is complete it will be available in a total of 90 jobcentres, or one in eight jobcentres in Britain.

A DWP spokesperson told ComputerworldUK that the department expects the north west rollout to be complete "by the end of this year."

The Labour party has said that it would temporarily ‘pause’ the introduction of Universal Credit for three months in order to review the project if it came to power after next year’s general election.

The party is supportive of the policy in principle but Reeves has warned that Labour is prepared to scrap the project if the costs of continuing outweigh the benefits.

Even chancellor George Osborne is understood to be concerned about the scheme, as indicated by news that HM Treasury still has not signed off the business case for Universal Credit three months after receiving it.

During a select committee hearing last month, then civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake admitted that Universal Credit is being drip-fed funding by HM Treasury as it receives updates and assurances on progress.

Typically major projects require their business case to be approved by HM Treasury in order for them to continue to receive funding.

Just a week after his admission, it emerged that Kerslake is due to step down from the civil service this autumn.

Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, took to Twitter to ask: "Has @SirBobKerslake been sacked for telling the truth?"

The National Audit Office is currently conducting a follow-up study into Universal Credit, due to be published in the late autumn.

It will follow a damning report into the early progress of Universal Credit last year, which revealed losses of at least £34 million, weak management and poor implementation, which the NAO produced last September.

A DWP spokesperson said: “These statistics reflect the rollout of Universal Credit to May 2014 and the first 10 Jobcentres, and since then we have expanded the new benefit to 29 more Jobcentres and started taking claims from couples too.

"Universal Credit is a vital reform that will simplify the myriad of benefits and make work pay and it is on track to rollout safely and securely against the plan set out last year."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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