GIVEN the length of time campaigners, charities and benefit claimants themselves have been warning of problems with Universal Credit (UC), it wouldn’t be unfair to describe Philip Hammond’s concessions in last week’s budget as “grudging”.

The chancellor’s amendments to the controversial benefit – now being rolled out fully across the country – included a £1.5bn fund to help people moving onto UC, a reduction of a week in the six week waiting period before successful claimants receive any help, and a two-week bridging system for those claiming housing benefit, to prevent them building up arrears.

The initial response from anti-poverty charities was of relief. Given that the Scottish Government is already making changes to address the worst effects of UC, the response from the Conservative Government although late, was better late than never, perhaps.

But the measure of the UK Government’s concern is revealed by the fact that the opportunity to claim housing benefit bridging payments will not be available until April. The reduction in the six week waiting period – which has caused extensive hardship up and down the UK, which may well be contributing to rising levels of homelessness and rough sleeping and which is forcing desperate claimants to foodbanks – will not happen until February.

The changes could be viewed as a response to the likes of Citizen’s Advice Scotland, which has warned of a 189 per cent rise in people coming to its bureaux seeking help with UC. CAS has also previously argued the benefit is helping drive people into debt, and called for its roll-out to be suspended until fundamental problems can be fixed.

So the Government is to address some of the worst excesses of Universal Credit, but not before more of the UK’s poorest people are driven into misery, debt, and reliance on foodbanks in the run up to Christmas.

The changes are tokenistic, in any case, fiddling at the margins. A reduction in waiting times by one week will still leave people without any source of income for five weeks – although some may qualify for hardship payments. Providing loans to bridge the gap seems less than generous, given they will have to be paid back by future benefit reductions. Should the Government really be forcing debt on those who are already struggling to make ends meet?

Universal Credit is, and always has been ideological and ministers remain as committed as they ever were to the dogma of pushing people into low paid work, sanctioning those who it deems to be not trying hard enough, and endlessly cutting the welfare bill.

Why did it make these changes at all? One can only assume that Conservative MPs are starting to get antsy as their own surgeries fill with constituents affected by Universal Credit in growing numbers. Cynics might also wonder whether concerns about defaulting tenants contributed to the decision to protect housing benefit claims. Private sector landlords through the Residential Landlords Association have been campaigning to make the system “fairer for tenants and landlords alike” after a 10 per cent increase in rent arrears over the last year. Conservative MPs are more likely to encounter the system as landlords, than as claimants, after all.

So there is little sign that fundamentally, ministers are any less wedded to making the benefits system more punitive. And while ‘relieved’ charities call for this to be a first step in fixing Universal Credit, the smart money is on further papering over of the cracks, when what is really needed is a fundamental rethink.