MSPs have called on the UK Government to urgently halt a new pilot aimed at moving more people on to Universal Credit.

Bob Doris, convener of Holyrood’s Social Security Committee, accused the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of “effectively punishing people for going to their work”.

His committee has repeatedly raised concerns around the implementation of the new benefits system, which has been blamed for pushing Scots into rent arrears and exacerbating poverty.

READ MORE: Less than half of Universal Credit claimants have rent paid directly to landlords 

Earlier this year, Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd confirmed that claimants in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, who still receive the old-style benefits will be the first to be moved to Universal Credit under a pilot scheme starting this month.

Those who lodge new claims or whose circumstances change are already receiving payments under the new system, which merges six benefits into one monthly sum.

But Mr Doris warned the scheme has been “littered with mistakes” since being introduced in 2013, and insisted the latest pilot should be scrapped before it is rolled out UK-wide.

He also raised concerns over “in-work conditionality”, which critics insist sees some low-paid workers who claim Universal Credit potentially subject to sanctions unless they seek more hours or another job. The DWP argues sanctions are only used as a last resort.

Mr Doris said: “We are deeply concerned that despite raising this issue as part of the Committee’s In-Work Poverty Inquiry with the DWP in January, and the UK Government’s failure to appear at our Committee to give evidence, they have carried on with plans for implementation regardless.

“This movement represents a huge cultural shift and we do not believe it is right to sanction the working poor, effectively punishing people for going to their work.

“The DWP has said they are currently taking a ‘light touch’ approach to in-work conditionality or sanctions but there is little confidence that when the system rolls out more widely that low paid and part-time workers won’t suffer as a result.

“The roll-out of Universal Credit has been littered with mistakes and it is vital that this latest pilot is put on hold to ensure that there is no negative impact upon claimants who rely on this money.”

The Social Security Committee said the transfer of claimants to Universal Credit should not proceed until there is more clarity around what it will mean for those affected. It also stated it is opposed in principle to attaching punitive conditions to those already in work.

READ MORE: MSPs blame soaring rent arrears on Universal Credit 

Last week, a food bank in Harrogate warned it is braced for a rise in demand as a result of the pilot, which will see long-term benefits claimants shifted to the new system for the first time.

Claimants usually have to wait up to five weeks for their first payment under Universal Credit, but this has been reduced to two and a half weeks for the Harrogate roll-out.

Critics have blamed this delay for pushing people into poverty and debt.

Lucy Stewart of the Harrogate food bank told the BBC it fed more than 2,000 people last year.

She said: “We hope the process goes smoothly but the reality is that there will always be people who slip through the net of this pilot.

“We’re likely to see an increase in demand for food, because people moving across to the new system are going to spend three weeks without any income.”

The DWP said there are now more than two million claimants receiving Universal Credit and service improvements continue to be introduced.

It said the Harrogate pilot will begin this month and last for at least a year, and will be subject to “full and rigorous internal governance”.

In addition, the DWP said it has committed to return to the Commons with its findings before making wider changes.

It said there are no immediate plans to expand the latest pilot into Scotland.

A spokesman said: “We are taking a measured approach to moving people to Universal Credit from the old system, working with expert stakeholders to ensure vulnerable and complex claimants are fully supported.

“We will also consult with Parliament before extending the process to more people.”