Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Ministers told to cut wait for new benefit amid evidence it is causing debt” was written by Michael Savage Policy editor, for The Observer on Saturday 23rd September 2017 23.05 UTC

Ministers are facing growing calls to slash the time welfare claimants are forced to wait before being entitled to the government’s flagship new benefit, having been warned some time ago by their own advisers that the delay is “beyond reasonable justification”.

David Gauke, the work and pensions secretary, has been under pressure to slow down the roll-out of universal credit, which combines several benefits into one payment, after mounting evidence that it is pushing new claimants into debt and rent arrears. There are also calls for the government to end the seven-day waiting period after a new claim is made. The delay saves the government £250m a year.

Councils and housing associations have raised concerns about the waiting period because it means claimants are then paid a month in arrears, meaning they may wait up to six weeks for their first payment. There have been reports of claimants waiting even longer.

The government had been urged not to proceed with the seven-day wait by the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), which advises it on welfare issues, as long ago as 2015. Its report to ministers then raised “very serious concerns” about the measure. It said it should not go ahead, based on “persuasive and compelling evidence”.

“The committee considers that the impact of having to serve waiting days for a benefit that includes other costs, in particular housing, puts it beyond reasonable justification,” it said. “Universal credit was introduced on a platform of being a simple benefit and we consider that simplicity requires there to be no waiting days.”

There have also been huge cuts to the overall budget for the project: the Resolution Foundation thinktank has calculated that some families will lose out on up to £2,600 a year. David Finch, its senior policy analyst, said: “As universal credit is rolled out across the country, the problems that are already starting to emerge are likely to build. The government should urgently rethink the design and operation of universal credit before too many more families are affected.”

Carl Emmerson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a member of the SSAC, said: “Delays in administering universal credit claims – combined with the fact that there is a seven-day waiting period before a claim can be made and that successful claims are usually paid a month in arrears – means that increasing numbers will have to cover their living costs for a considerable period before their award starts to be paid.

“This is for a benefit that includes support for housing costs. As SSAC has recommended, rather than a pause in roll-out, a more direct way to alleviate the concerns this causes would be to scrap the seven-day waiting period. This would cost the government around £250m a year.”

Chris Goulden of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, another member of the SSAC, said: “The government needs to look at its own evidence about the experiences of those who are claiming universal credit. People in the poorest fifth of households, 70% or so, have no savings at all and others only have a small amount to fall back on.”

The Department for Work and Pensions said: “Waiting days have been a longstanding part of the welfare system, and mostly apply to people who claim universal credit after leaving a job. Budgeting advice and benefit advances are available for anyone who needs extra help. A number of groups are exempt from waiting days, including care leavers, those with a serious illness, prison leavers, and victims of domestic violence.”

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