Universal credit: Amber Rudd to listen to 'expert guidance'

media captionAmber Rudd: "I know there are problems with universal credit despite its good intentions...I know it can be better."

Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd has agreed to listen "very carefully" to concerns over universal credit, conceding the system "can be better".

Making her first Commons appearance since getting the job on Friday, she faced calls from Labour and the SNP to halt the rollout of the single benefit.

She said she would "learn from errors" and "adjust" the system, which she admitted had problems, where needed.

She also rejected a UN report on UK poverty as "extraordinarily political".

And she made clear that universal credit had an important role to play in reducing the number of workless families and tackling in-work poverty.

The ex-home secretary replaced Esther McVey on Friday after she quit over Brexit.

The BBC's political editor Laura Kuenssberg said she expected a change in tone from Ms Rudd and although not necessarily a major shift in policy.

The government's plan is for almost seven million people to be on universal credit - which replaces six working age benefits - by the end of 2023.

But the new system has been hit by delays and claims it is forcing some claimants into destitution and even prostitution.

Labour has called for the next stage of the rollout - which will see 2.87 million people moved onto universal credit next summer - to be abandoned while the whole system is reconsidered.

'Expert guidance'

Answering questions from MPs about her department's work, Ms Rudd was pressed by Tory Sir Desmond Swayne to ensure the changes were "measured and continually improved".

She replied: "I share his view that it is vital as it is rolled out that we do learn from any errors, we do adjust it to make sure it properly serves the people it is intended to."

Ms Rudd said she would take heed of what campaigners have said about universal credit, following a call by 80 charities and other organisations for it to be halted.

What is universal credit?

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Universal credit is a benefit for working-age people.

It replaces six benefits - income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit - and merge them into one payment:

It was designed to make claiming benefits simpler.

A single universal credit payment is paid directly into claimants' bank accounts to cover the benefits for which they are eligible.

Claimants then have to pay costs such as rent out of their universal credit payment (though there is a provision for people who are in rent arrears or have difficulty managing their money to have their rent paid directly to their landlord).

The latest available figures show that there were 1.1 million universal credit claimants in August.

This makes up about half of all households claiming unemployment benefit, but only 10% of households claiming housing support and 2% of those claiming disability-related support.

"I am certainly going to be listening very carefully. Part of the benefit of the universal credit rollout is going to be making sure we get the expert guidance from the people who have been working in this field for many years and we will certainly be doing that."

But Ms Rudd took issue with the findings of a report by the UN's special rapporteur on extreme poverty who claimed last week that ministers were in a "state of denial" about poverty levels.

Despite the UK being one of the world's richest countries, Philip Alston said he had encountered "misery" during his 12-day tour.

Asked about the report in the Commons, she said: "We are not so proud that we don't think we can learn as we try to adjust to universal credit for the benefit of everybody, but that sort of language was wholly inappropriate and actually discredited a lot of what he was saying."

The government has agreed on several occasions to slow the pace at which universal credit is extended across the UK.

Ms McVey announced earlier this month that claimants would be given more time to switch to the new benefit.

Among a number of other changes, she said they would not have to wait as long for their money and debt repayments would be reduced.

In the Budget last month, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced an extra £1bn over five years to help those moving to the new payments and a £1,000 increase in the amount people can earn before losing benefits, at a cost of up to £1.7bn a year.