The government’s new universal credit benefit system could “wreak havoc” and has created a “digital barrier” that prevents many disabled people and other disadvantaged groups from accessing the support they are entitled to, according to a UN human rights expert.
Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said the government’s “test and learn” approach to universal credit risked treating such groups “like guinea pigs” and could “wreak havoc in real people’s lives”.
And he said that the preparations being made by local authorities and charities for the rollout of universal credit had “resembled the sort of activity one might expect for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic”.
He said: “They have expended significant expense and energy to protect people from what is supposed to be a support system.”
Alston was speaking to journalists at the end of a 12-day visit to the UK, as he published a preliminary statement on his findings. He will present a full report to the UN Human Rights Council in June.
Earlier this month, Disability News Service reported how written evidence submitted to Alston’s inquiry described how a man with learning difficulties had died a month after attempting to take his own life, following a move onto universal credit that left him hundreds of pounds in debt.
Alston said in his report that a key feature of universal credit was the imposition of “draconian sanctions”, even for minor infringements.
He said: “Endless anecdotal evidence was presented to the special rapporteur to illustrate the harsh and arbitrary nature of some of the sanctions, as well as the devastating effects that resulted from being completely shut out of the benefits system for weeks or months at a time.”
Alston also warned of the impact of the government’s decision to make universal credit the first major government service that is “digital by default”, with the expectation that claimants will rely on an online service rather than human interaction with DWP staff.
He said: “We are witnessing the gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a webpage and an algorithm.
“In its place, a digital welfare state is emerging. The impact on the human rights of the most vulnerable in the UK will be immense.”
Asked about Alston’s concerns about universal credit, the new work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, told MPs on Monday that she had been “disappointed, to say the least, by the extraordinary political nature of his language” in the report.
She said: “We on the Conservative benches will always engage with professionals, experts and non-governmental organisations – we are not so proud that we do not think we can learn as we try to adjust 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.
“We look forward to working with experts in the area to make sure that we get the right outcome for the people whom we want to look after.”
She later described her new department as “a force for good”, but she admitted that there were “problems with universal credit, despite its good intentions”.
She said: “I have seen them for myself. I will be listening and learning from the expert groups in this area who do such good work. I know it can be better.
“I will make it my role to ensure that we deliver that through our discussions within the DWP and through discussions with the Treasury.
“We will have a fair, compassionate and efficient benefits system.”
In response to Rudd’s comments, Alston said on Twitter that the government had “a set of talking points about poverty and employment” that fail to address poverty, use “carefully chosen and misleading statistics to paint a rosy picture” and “ignore the horrible situation in which a large number of Britons live.
He added: “That’s not the way to find solutions.”
He also told Disability News Service: “I am hoping the secretary of state’s criticism of my report is not a substitute for a more systematic policy response to the many issues I have raised.
“My report recounts in some depth the many problems experienced by adversely impacted groups, and especially by people with disabilities, and I would hope that DWP will seek to improve the system so that it does not cause such hardship and make already very difficult situations even worse.”
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