In David Gauke’s world, universal credit is working well

Anticipating tough questioning from MPs, the work and pensions secretary, David Gauke, got his concession in early: even before the first question was asked, he had announced that from next month the universal credit helpline would be free and claimants would no longer be faced with the prospect of 55p-a-minute call charges.

But that welcome sop to the massed critics of the government’s flagship welfare reform was all that Gauke was prepared to give away. He dug in on more substantive issues such as the 42-day wait for a first benefit payment, and sidestepped related concerns about rising rent arrears, debt and food bank use.

Gauke was clear: while he was prepared to look at the evidence and make changes where necessary, his decision last month to accelerate the universal credit rollout was the right one. There would be no pause or unplanned “firebreak” to review progress: he was determined, he said, to deliver universal credit successfully.

A letter Gauke sent to the work and pensions committee on Tuesday explained why he had opted to press ahead. The government had stress-tested the system against criteria including whether claimants received an acceptable level of customer service, and whether payments were made on time. Universal credit, it concluded, was “safe to proceed” and “operating within acceptable parameters”.

This was interesting, because the committee has a mountain of evidence – more than 100 written submissions from claimants, councils and landlords – suggesting universal credit is not safe and that it is driving thousands into debt, eviction, destitution and mental distress. A fifth of claimants are not paid on time. These, it seems, are “acceptable parameters” for a social security system to operate within.

The Labour MP Neil Coyle said that in his Southwark constituency the total rent owed by tenants claiming the new benefit stood at £5m, and 1,242 households had eviction-level arrears. The committee chair, Frank Field, noted that his local food bank in Birkenhead was stockpiling 15 tonnes of food to deploy during the Christmas period, when universal credit arrives in town.

Gauke and the DWP’s director of universal credit, Neil Couling, seemed at times baffled to hear of calamities like this. Perhaps these were “acceptable parameters”. Gauke said he was aware of just eight universal credit evictions nationally. Coyle was disbelieving: two of his constituents alone had been evicted. Landlords across the UK report increasing evictions.

The slightly detached Whitehall world of universal credit was a feature of the committee hearing. If universal credit was meant to mirror the world of work, why was it necessary to wait a minimum 42 days for a first payment, asked the Tory backbencher Heidi Allen: “Six weeks is not the world of work. I know nobody who waits six weeks to be paid.”

Gauke said it would cost money to shorten the length of the first payment period (the bill is said to be £140m); there were, he suggested, more pressing priorities for public money. Asking low-income claimants to go into debt via loans repayable to the DWP over six months is, it seems, the best way of paying for the design problems of universal credit.

MPs were unconvinced. To qualify for a loan, claimants have to show they are penniless – unable even to get a loan from family and friends. They can receive up to 50% of their expected first payment but, as the written evidence to the committee shows, this is rarely enough to cover rent, food and fuel bills over the long waiting period.

Gauke suggested it was a success that the latest figures showed 50% of new claimants were taking up an advanced loan. Allen was having none of it, arguing that this was “just papering over the fact that the six-week wait doesn’t work”. Field agreed: “What you [Gauke] are really saying is that the transition is too big for some people, from their known world to your world of universal credit.”

Allen pointed out that universal credit still faced “massive hurdles”. Jobcentre staff had told her universal credit was still “only 60% built”; there remained serious problems with childcare payments, eligibility for free school meals, housing payments, and the onerous bureaucracy faced by self-employed claimants.

Gauke was implacable. His world of universal credit seemed to be working well. His rosy vision of a reform under control and suffering mere teething problems was later repeated by Theresa May at prime minister’s question time. They pressed the idea – based on slender, dated evidence – that universal credit gets more people into work.

That universal credit is a bureaucratic nightmare has now captured the public’s imagination; that it has become a vehicle to deliver benefit cuts to working families is still yet to be fully appreciated. Ministers may believe the problems lie within “acceptable parameters” but they aren’t going away. As Allen put it: “They [the problems] are going to come and bite us on the whatsit if we are not careful.”