The government's flagship Universal Credit benefits reform is failing to ask basic questions about whether it is actually working, according to a senior churches social policy adviser.
In a blog for the Joint Public Information Team of Baptist, Methodist, Church of Scotland and United Reformed Churches, Paul Morrison says churches and charities have repeatedly said UC leads many towards 'financial crisis and even hunger'.
However, he says, the Department for Work and Pensions' 'Universal Credit Evaluation Framework' fails to ask basic questions about how families are coping.
Consequently, as the National Audit Office says, the SWP 'does not know how many claimants are having problems with [Universal Credit] or have suffered hardship'.
Universal Credit is meant to simplify the benefits system and make work pay better for those on benefits. Around 6 million families will be affects, including half of all children. Its implementation has been repeatedly delayed and there have been growing calls for it to be paused, including from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Underfunding and failures in administration leading to long delays in payments have fuelled a rise in foodbanks and growing homelessness, according to campaigners.
Foodbank use in the UK increased 13 per cent last year but in areas that have moved to Universal Credit it has shot up an astonishing 52 per cent, Morrison says.
A survey of claimants found that four in 10 families are not coping, he says, with the head of the Universal Credit programme, Neil Couling, saying it cannot be blamed because 'no one knows if these levels of financial hardship existed before the new benefit was introduced'.
'The implications of this admission are enormous. Firstly there are a huge number of families suffering. Secondly the most optimistic interpretation of this research is that Universal Credit isn't helping. Finally, it tells us that the DWP's survey's design doesn't allow us to tell if Universal Credit causes the huge financial problems we can see,' Morrison says.
He says JPIT made Freedom of Information requests to find out whether anyone in government knew whether claimants had enough to live on. 'Ministerial answers confirm there is no information available, and as our research reported in HuffPost shows, potentially useful numbers such as the tally of people referred to foodbanks by Jobcentres is being actively destroyed,' he says.
He argues that the lack of data is deliberate as Universal Credit is designed to increase employment. 'The result is that if you ask how strongly UC claimants agree with the statement "any job is better than none" the DWP can give you full and detailed answers. Ask whether claimants can feed their children and the silence will be deafening.'
He concludes: 'It is simply unacceptable that the Government has chosen to remain ignorant of the negative consequences of its policy choices.
'A properly funded functioning benefit system has the potential to enable people held back by poverty to reach their full potential but this is impossible in families that are simply focused on finding their next meal. The Government says that Universal Credit is a work in progress and that it is using a "test and learn" approach – the question is how can it learn when it does not even look?'