Cabinet minister Michael Gove has acknowledged the government may need to review “the nature” of its flagship welfare reform, after being asked whether Universal Credit can provide sufficient financial support to claimants.
More than a million new applications have been submitted since the UK imposed strict social distancing and travel restrictions in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The new welfare system is designed to provide an incentive for people to take up work, by enabling claimants to keep receiving benefit payments alongside income from a job.
However in normal circumstances, claimants are expected to actively seek work in order to qualify for financial support.
This has led to concerns about whether the system has enough flexibility to deal with the current circumstances where work is unlikely to be an option for the vast majority,
Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster insisted the whole welfare system was kept under review, but asked whether the standard weekly claim of £94 per week was sufficient for people to live on, he indicated further changes could follow.
“I think we have to consider the nature of the system and whether or not we do need to ensure that we better support the vulnerable, we keep that constantly under review and I think it’s important that we do recognise that its a very very difficult economic time for very many,” he said.
The message from Mr Gove contrasts with comments made by the Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, who told a parliamentary select committee last month “the underlying principles of Universal Credit have not gone away”.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently admitted he would not be able to live on £94 per week, which is also the rate of statutory sick pay.
However, Mr Gove was keen to stress that while Universal Credit was one of the mechanisms by which the government was offering support to those in need during the coronavirus pandemic, it was not the only one.
“It is not the only means the government is deploying, as you’ll be aware there are up to 1.5 million people in the most vulnerable category – the shielded vulnerable – who we are distributing food and prescription medicines to.”
He also pointed to a new task force led by Environment Secretary George Eustice, which is working with local authorities and charities to identify those who are vulnerable and in need in communities across the UK.
The Department for Work and Pensions is recruiting at least 5,000 more staff to increase its capacity to handle the surge in demand for Universal Credit.
Ministers have previously made clear that in addition to the standard claim of £94 per week, new Universal Credit claimants may be able to receive more money through housing and support additions.