Bishop of Manchester: Government, not poorest, should bear burden of Universal Credit failures

The Bishop of Manchester is calling on the government to guarantee a maximum four-week waiting time for Universal Credit claimants as pressure piles on ministers to pause the benefit system rollout.

David Walker told Christian Today the government should pick up the burden for delays in the process rather forcing vulnerable people to rely on food banks and loan sharks as he urged ministers to abandon the six-week average waiting period.

David Walker is Bishop of Manchester and a long-term critic of universal credit's rollout, which has been underway since 2012.

The comments will add to pressure on ministers to reform the system as two local councils in south London, where Universal Credit is being piloted, published reports warning it would have devastating effects if rolled out across the country if drastic changes were not made.

Bishop Walker was speaking to Christian Today after the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, said it is 'grotesquely ignorant' to assume the poorest has a 'nest-egg' they could rely on in the six weeks until their first payment was made.

'I want to be proud of our national care for today's "widows and orphans", too. Adjustments to the system of universal credit would go a long way in that direction,' Sentamu said, writing in The Sunday Times.

Walker praised the principle of Universal Credit, which is designed to simplify the benefit system by rolling a number of different schemes into one monthly payment and incentivise work.

'I think it can be made to work,' he told Christian Today. 'That is the frustrating thing. I wouldn't suggest that the whole thing should be abandoned.'

But he said the idea of a six-week waiting period before people receive their first payment was 'pretty hard to justify'. Instead there should be 'a guarantee of four weeks' as a maximum waiting time for the system to do the background checks and if they are not complete in that time the payment should be made regardless.

'The burden of this going wrong at the moment falls on the poorest,' he said. 'The government should bear the burden of their own system failing.'

He added the idea the system should be used to save money as well as reform the benefits package had undermined confidence as ministers were torn whether to implement the system fully or use it to pay people less.

'Let's slow it down until people have confidence the system works and the poorest are not being put at risk,' he said in an interview with Radio 4 on Sunday.

'It is inappropriate in any society for those who are at the most vulnerable end of the spectrum to bear the risk for when the rest of us don't get quite right.

'I think that makes it difficult to have confidence that the system is really there to make things better rather than simply to save cash.'