Stop the Universal Credit juggernaut

By Bernadette Meaden
August 11, 2017

The word juggernaut comes from the huge vehicles used by Indian temples to transport statues of their gods. They were so difficult to control that they often crushed people in their path. It seems an appropriate metaphor for the rollout of Universal Credit. But rather than trying to stop the juggernaut when it is seen to be crushing people, the government is choosing to accelerate it.

From the outset, Universal Credit (UC) has had serious flaws. Some are due to the simple desire to cut spending on social security, others suggest that its designers had no understanding of life on a low income with no financial cushion.

Most obviously, the decision to pay UC monthly, in arrears, means that just when people most need financial support they may get no help at all. Take this recent tweet from Oldham foodbank:  “Dad in low paid job mum just given birth to 2nd child all benefits now stopped for 6 wks before UC starts as it's a change of circumstances.”  This seems almost guaranteed to give children in poor families the worst possible start in life.

And a six week delay is the official, best-case scenario. In reality it can be months. Croydon Council told the Work and Pensions Select Committee, "...we have seen at Croydon on average it is about 12 weeks before any form of payment is awarded”. Indeed this delay is responsible for the trail of havoc Universal Credit leaves as it is rolled out across the country, with rent arrears and foodbank use soaring in its wake.

The reason for this inbuilt delay is because behind UC (and behind welfare reform in general) was a belief that poverty and ‘welfare dependency’ is caused not by structural economic injustice, (eg wages too low to support a family) but by the feckless behavior of people in poverty. Welfare reform was about cutting the social security budget through changing claimant behaviour. So the inbuilt delay was based on the patronising idea that claimants needed to learn how to budget. “The majority of claimants will be paid a single monthly payment, which will encourage personal responsibility for finances and encourage claimants to budget their money on a monthly basis.” In reality, as anyone with lived experience knows, people on low incomes tend to budget to the very last penny.

Other flaws in UC may have come from a surfeit of ambition. Beyond the most frequently cited aims (to simplify the benefits system and ‘make work pay’), its proponents fully expect UC to transform not just the culture and behavior of claimants, but the entire welfare state, the economy, and the labour market. 

Iain Duncan Smith spoke of a desire to encourage personal responsibility and make people more independent. Yet the conditionality of UC means that even when people are working and need to claim it to make ends meet, they are subject to in-work conditionality, which means they can potentially be sanctioned. This level of state intrusion into the lives of people in work has not been tried anywhere else in the world – there are no comparable international precedents.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) told the DWP Select Committee about workers, "in a position of having to choose to take a shift of work or attend an inappropriately scheduled Universal Credit interview. They were facing a “get a sanction or get in trouble at work” kind of position, so two different masters asking for mutually incompatible things".

The only way for a UC claimant to become independent will be to get off UC altogether, but whilst insecure work and low wages persist this will prove impossible for many. Inevitably, some families and individuals will have to accept having their lives dominated by the DWP as the price of survival.

Paradoxically, the government promotes UC to business by saying, “it means a more flexible workforce”, and, “We’ve changed the rules so that people aren’t limited by the hours they can work, or discouraged from taking temporary or short term work. Having access to a more flexible and responsive workforce can help your business...”

So the government pays claimants monthly in arrears because it wants them to behave as if they have a steady and secure income, pressures them to try to increase their earnings, but enables and encourages employers to turn those same workers on and off like a tap. Indeed, far from helping workers to achieve higher earnings, the Resolution Foundation says,” the current UC system risks trapping people in low pay.”

The government also says that UC, and particularly in-work conditionality, is designed to drive up productivity in the economy. But how will pressuring people to work longer hours or take a second job do that? Productivity is measured in terms of output per hour worked. Realistically, only employers have the power to boost productivity by making their systems more efficient, providing additional training, or investing in better equipment etc. Simply working longer hours does not boost productivity. The government’s answer to this is to say it will  ‘encourage’ UC claimants to improve their skills. But there is clear evidence that responsibility for any skills shortage lies with the government and employers, not workers.

The IPPR has reported that, "Employers in England are spending £5.1 billion less on training in real terms than a decade ago. Public investment has also been slashed – the adult skills budget has been cut by 40 per cent in real terms between 2010/11 and 2015/16”

So both government and employers have cut back dramatically on skills training, but the government is using the social security system to put pressure on workers to improve their skills. This is the essence of welfare reform: blaming the victim and holding the powerless responsible for the failings of the powerful.

Some elements of Universal Credit just seem needlessly cruel, like cutting the Disabled Children’s Allowance from £52 to £25.95 per week.  Chris Grayling told the House of Commons that, “once fully implemented, approximately 100,000 children would have a lower entitlement as a result of the reform of disability benefits under universal credit." There will be transitional protection, but of course that won’t apply to new claims. So, knowing at the time that four in 10 disabled children were living in poverty, the government chose to make them even poorer in future, through Universal Credit.

There is also the removal of the Severe Disability Premium, a means-tested premium for disabled people with high support needs. Last year the then Minister for Disabled People Justin Tomlinson said that, in the midst of a social care crisis, there are no plans to help councils meet the inevitable extra pressure on social care services.

For sick or disabled claimants waiting months for a Work Capability Assessment, CPAG told the DWP Select Committee that the consequences of UC are quite severe, “because the way in which conditionality works has been altered...someone waiting to be assessed under the work capability assessment on UC, who has been handing in medical certificates, can still be required to spend all their time doing work search and be work available... It is people who are very unwell and it causes them an awful lot of anxiety because they are constantly worried that if they cannot keep up with the treadmill of applying for jobs, they will face a sanction"

Halton Housing Trust cited an example of a tenant in this position,  “who was suffering from breast cancer and was in receipt of quite intensive chemotherapy, and she was sanctioned because she was unable to use the full 35 hours a week to find work because she was physically unable to".

There are many more problems and injustices contained within Universal Credit, too many to examine here. For far too long the superficial attraction of simplifying the benefits system meant that these problems were glossed over, amidst a political consensus in which Universal Credit was generally agreed to be a good thing. But these problems are hitting, and will increasingly hit, the most disadvantaged people, the people who have already suffered disproportionately from austerity and welfare reform. The juggernaut of Universal Credit needs to be halted and radically reconsidered.  And the lives of the children and adults the welfare state was designed to support must stop being treated as collateral damage.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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