The Welsh government's minister for tackling poverty has warned that the coalition's Universal Credit (UC) system has thrown a question mark over the state's ability to deliver support to most vulnerable people.
Huw Lewis told assembly members in the Senedd how UC will have a knock-on impact on Welsh government support such as free school meals.
In Wales, the receipt of various welfare benefits is used as a measure when assessing an individual’s entitlement to government support such as the school uniform grant scheme and free NHS dental treatment, known as ‘passported’ benefits.
Minister Lewis is highly concerned that Westminster is not releasing key information to enable the Welsh government to put new arrangements in place for these ‘passported’ benefits under UC.
He made a commitment that the Welsh government will do all it can to make sure those entitled to assistance continue to receive help despite the changes to welfare.
He also questioned claims that the new benefits system will get more people into work.
Lewis said: “We are faced with the challenge of introducing new arrangements for our passported benefits such as free school meals which are currently linked to UK benefits that are about to be abolished.
“We are still waiting for critical information and assurances from the UK government to inform our plans. We will do all that we can, with the information available, to try to ensure the continued delivery of these benefits.
"But let us be clear, the failure of the UK government to act effectively on providing the information we need would mean that vulnerable children will not get free school meals, or grants for school uniforms. This is not just an administrative procedure. It could mean unnecessary hardship for our most needy children.
“One of the key planks of the UK government’s reforms is the introduction of UC. Whilst the ambition of a simpler system in which work pays is welcome, there are major question marks over whether the new system is indeed simpler. Our research suggests that any positive effects on employment in Wales are likely to be, at best, very modest, and will depend on wider economic conditions."
The Welsh Government claims it is taking action on a number of fronts to help people with targeted support, including:
- The Digital Inclusion programme - designed to help mitigate the impact of digital elements of welfare reform.
- £22 million in 2013-2014 - to assist the 330,000 families who previously received council tax benefit.
- £3.9 million additional support to pensioners in paying their council tax.
- £75 million being invested up to March 2015 to support a range of community based projects.
- Introduction of a discretionary assistance fund following the UK Government’s decision to abolish crisis loans and community care grants.
- £750,000 made available to councils to help people affected by the bedroom tax.