Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith rejects claims that the introduction of the government’s flagship universal credit reforms is in chaos.
Labour says figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) show that only a fraction of the numbers due to be using the new system by the time of the next general election will be transferred on time.
But speaking ahead of his appearance in front of a committee of MPs, Iain Duncan Smith said the delay was caused by the need to to allow the most vulnerable claimants more time to adjust to the changes.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We could easily have tried to rush those people in, but we have decided not to.
“They are the people who don’t have any work requirement on them and they have had the biggest change going through the work capabilty assessment and therefore they need time to get through. I think it is only fair to give them longer.”
Mr Duncan Smith revealed in December that his 2017 target for the full introduction of universal credit is set to be missed, with around 700,000 claimants facing a longer wait.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said a “handful” of the promised 1.7 million would be switched by 2014/15 and only 400,000 by the following year – less than 10 per cent of the original target.
Mr Duncan Smith refused to comment on the figures, although he acknowledged that the programme had changed.
“I’m not going to give any figures out,” he said. “I do accept, of course, that this plan is different from the original plan.”
Ms Reeves said the scheme was in chaos and urged Mr Duncan Smith to hold cross-party talks to rescue it.
“David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith repeatedly promised to deliver their flagship policy ‘on time and within budget’,” she said.
“That claim, and the credibility they staked on it, now lie in tatters. For months on end, the government have tried to avoid answering questions about universal credit but these OBR figures tell the truth of how (they) have broken their promises on a spectacular scale.”
Ministers claim the initial roll-out of universal credit – which combines six means-tested benefits into one monthly payment and is designed to ensure people are better off working than on benefits – has been a success.
They point to figures suggesting it is encouraging more people to look for jobs in what Mr Duncan Smith described as a “cultural shift”.
But critics say the limited implementation of the scheme, which has been plagued by IT problems, only includes the least challenging cases.
The all-party public accounts committee found that at least £140m had already been wasted on the project, which was blighted by “alarmingly weak” management.
Mr Duncan Smith is appearing in front of the work and pensions committee on Monday.