UK Politics

Labour pledges to 'pause' universal credit if elected in 2015

Men outside a jobcentre Image copyright PA

Labour will "pause" the government's flagship welfare reform if it wins the next general election in 2015, shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves has said.

Ms Reeves said her party supported the universal credit policy in principle, and hoped to "rescue" it.

She said the Department for Work and Pensions had been in "chaos" under her opposite number, Iain Duncan Smith.

Mr Duncan Smith said implementation of the project was now "working well".

'Good money after bad'

The universal credit system merges six working-age benefits - income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, income support, child tax credit, working tax credit and housing benefit - into a single payment in a far-reaching change designed to encourage work and reduce fraud.

In an interview with BBC One's Sunday Politics programme, Ms Reeves said: "We set up a universal credit rescue committee in the autumn of last year because we had seen, from the National Audit Office [and] from the Public Accounts Committee, report after report showing that this project is massively over budget, and it is not going to be delivered according to the government timetable.

Image caption Ms Reeves urged ministers to "get a grip on this incredibly important programme"

"We believe in the principle of universal credit, we think it is the right thing to do."

But Ms Reeves criticised ministers for not being open about what had gone wrong with the project.

"There is no transparency," she said.

"It's going to cost £12.8bn to deliver and we don't know what sort of state it is in.

"So we have said that if we win the next election we will pause... the build of the system for three months, calling in the National Audit Office to do a warts-and-all report on it."

She said the "pause" would not involve halting the pilot schemes that were already in place.

But the Labour MP urged ministers to follow her prescription immediately.

"The government doesn't need to wait for the next election," she said. "They could do this today: call in the National Audit Office, stop throwing good money after bad, and finally get a grip on this incredibly important programme."

'Complete nonsense'

Mr Duncan Smith, in an earlier interview with BBC Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics programme, said he had "intervened" in the implementation of the project a year ago.

"I was concerned that what was happening was that they were going to try to roll out universal credit in the same way that historically many programmes in government had been rolled out, which was kind of like a big bang, so you get everything ready and then you hit the button, and off it goes.

"Lots of things you discover later cause huge problems, and I didn't want to move anyone on to universal credit and then find that they suffered as a result."

Image caption Mr Duncan Smith said potential problems with the scheme had been identified at an early stage and fixed

He said the department had developed a "much better" strategy, under which the project would be introduced in phases.

On Friday, the work and pensions secretary announced universal credit would shortly be expanded from the 10 job centres where it is currently being piloted to all 90 job centres in north-west England.

At this stage, the move would apply only to single claimants, who represent the simplest cases, expanding further to encompass couples and families at a later stage.

Mr Duncan Smith told Pienaar's Politics: "Once you've got it set in the North West you can then roll it out all over the rest of the country knowing that you are likely to achieve what you set out to do."

He said reports that the policy might be abandoned were "complete nonsense", adding: "All our IT at the moment is working and it's working well, which is why we've taken the decision to roll it out to the whole of the North West."

More on this story