People placed on the government’s flagship benefits scheme have been driven to food banks because of it, the work and pensions secretary has suggested for the first time.
Amber Rudd said it was “absolutely clear” there were “challenges” with the rollout of Universal Credit.
She added that the “main issue” behind a spike in reliance on food banks may have been claimants not being able to access welfare support quickly enough.
The Trussell Trust, a UK poverty charity and the UK’s biggest network operator of food banks, found last year that referrals to its centres were 52% higher in areas where Universal Credit had been rolled out.
Ministers have never before drawn a correlation between the under-fire benefits scheme and people’s reliance on food banks to feed themselves or their families.
But on Monday, Ms Rudd chose the moment, three months into the job as work and pensions secretary, for the government to take ownership.
She told the House of Commons: “It is absolutely clear that there were challenges with the initial roll-out of Universal Credit, and the main issue that led to an increase in foodbank use could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough.”
Ms Rudd insisted that changes had been made to give people more “freedom and security”.
Labour jumped on the admission, saying it was “astonishing” and vowing to “completely overhaul our social security system so that it supports people instead of driving them into poverty”.
Frank Field, the independent MP and chair of the work and pensions select committee, was less surprised.
He told Sky News: “It’s only astonishing because she’s the first secretary of state who’s said the obvious.
“So I welcome her to planet earth, and to be on the same world that the rest of us sadly are on.
“Now that really important barrier has been broken and she’s put herself into the world of truth – as we all understand it – I hope there’ll now be action about what’s so wrong about Universal Credit.”
Mr Field said that “knowing Amber Rudd” she did not say it “off the cuff”.
Downing Street did not distance itself from her admission, with Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman saying the government had “long acknowledged” problems with the initial introduction of Universal Credit.
Lord Kerslake, chair of housing association Peabody and former head of the home civil service, said the government had for a “long time… been in denial”.
He criticised Ms Rudd for using the “past tense” to discuss failures of Universal Credit, saying “we still have problems”, such as the five week wait claimants have to wait for their first payment.
“A lot of people get into debt during that period and then never really get over those problems,” the crossbench peer, added.
He also said Brexit had “sucked the air out of every big issue in parliament at the moment, and that’s a tragedy – because there are urgent issues like Universal Credit that desperately need to be looked at”.