Supporting the most vulnerable is a “key focus” for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the minister heading up the department said.
Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride said three objectives are helping the most vulnerable, getting people back into work and cracking down on benefits fraud.
But he was challenged by MPs who suggested the Government is taking money from those with the least by delaying moving some legacy claimants on to the new system, through sanctions, and by recovering overpayments.
Mr Stride told the Work and Pensions Committee the Government has a “particular duty now to focus on those most in need as we go through these difficult times”, saying helping the most vulnerable “is a key focus”.
Responding to a suggestion the UK has one of the least generous out-of-work benefits systems, Mr Stride said the cost-of-living payments announced by Government are “pretty high” compared to most countries.
He added: “I think across the piece, there’s a huge amount that’s now going in to supporting those that need it the most.”
Mr Stride was challenged by Conservative MP Nigel Mills over the delay to the movement of people on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) on to Universal Credit.
The Government has postponed the managed transition from 2024 to 2027-8, although if people’s circumstances change they will be automatically migrated and they can choose to move voluntarily.
Mr Stride said 33% of people on ESA are likely to lose out as a consequence of that migration, and 55% will benefit, with savings of around a billion due to the process being delayed.
He said he sees the delay as an “opportunity for a reallocation of resources” to help the department focus on those who need the help.
Mr Mills said it is “extraordinarily unlikely” people will choose to change system, saying: “It’s a bit hard isn’t it, to say we’re trying to help the most vulnerable through this crisis when you’ve just chosen a billion pounds saving literally from the pockets of the absolutely most vulnerable?”
Mr Stride replied: “In an ideal world I’d like to be able to do everything; I’d like to migrate all the ESA people over as quickly as possible, as well as putting certain other benefits up more than perhaps we managed to. But I think in the round, generally, that has been the right decision to have taken.”
Asked if overpayments made through error should be deducted from people’s claims during a cost-of-living crisis, Mr Stride said “in an appropriate way, it is right that that is repaid through time”.
On calls for deductions to be paused temporarily, he said if someone is in a realistic position to deal with their debt “then it should be dealt with at that point, rather than letting it accumulate and become more of a problem further down the line”.
Mr Stride told the committee nine million people are economically inactive in the UK and this is broadly split into four cohorts: the over 50s, people with health conditions, students and carers.
He said he suspects there will be targets for reducing this number.
A Government review into barriers to this group entering work will likely conclude in time for next spring and some of it may be shared before the new year, he said.
Asked directly about workfare – where benefits recipients who are able to must work or undergo training – Mr Stride said it is not being actively considered.
He said: “It has been a feature of the landscape in the past, that’s true, has been used in other countries, but it’s not something that we’re currently reviewing.”
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