Universal Credit rollout is conscious cruelty

By Bernadette Meaden
October 2, 2017

The government is going to press ahead with the rollout of Universal Credit. Despite all the warnings from people who know what is happening in the real world, David Gauke has announced that the timetable will not change. The only concession is that claimants will be offered advance payments. This is no solution. Advance payments are a loan, deducted from future payments – so a meagre income becomes even more meagre, and the claimant starts out in debt.

Too many people still seem to think that problems caused by Universal Credit are due to administrative or technical difficulties. It cannot be said often enough or clearly enough – the problems we are seeing, and the even worse problems we are going to see, are due to the design of the benefit itself, and the political and moral decisions made during the design process. This fundamentally flawed design was then made worse by cuts, making it an even meaner benefit, guaranteed not to mitigate poverty, but to cause it.

First and foremost, as it will affect every claimant, we should understand the reasons behind the minimum six week delay before receiving any money. As Nicholas Timmins of the Institute for Government writes, “Under the old system, the goal was to pay benefits within two weeks of a claim. Under Universal Credit, there is a formal waiting period of one week with no money, with the benefit then being paid monthly in arrears – the intention being that this more closely mirrors what it is like to be in a job…

The effect of this 'discipline' in practice has led to an in-built wait of six weeks before people get their cash – three times as long as the old system… Waits of ten or twelve weeks are not uncommon. The overall effect has been to plunge people already on low incomes into rent arrears and debt and in some cases homelessness.  Apart from the ideological step of making the benefits mirror a monthly salaried job – when growing numbers at the lower end of the labour market are on ‘zero hours’ contracts or other forms of the ‘gig economy' – the six week wait was incorporated, to put it crudely, to save money.”

The stark fact is that under Universal Credit, the poorest people in the country are expected to accept six weeks without income as the price they must pay for needing support. This may have an impact from which they may never fully recover. 

One has to ask the question – would any halfway decent government deliberately inflict a six week loss of income on families with children who are already living in or near poverty? Having been given so many warnings, with so much evidence of the harm that is being done and will be done, this is indeed ‘conscious cruelty’.

Many commentators still say that Universal Credit is ‘good in principle’. I would say that there is so much wrong with the design, and it is causing so much harm, the principle is an irrelevance. As families are increasingly drawn into this system it will undoubtedly cause children to go without essentials such as shoes that fit, warm winter clothes, heat, food, and even a home. That, surely, is unconscionable.

And we surely cannot say Universal Credit is ‘good in principle’ when we see the way it treats disabled people.  Already hit by such harsh cuts that the UN has described it as a human catastrophe, disabled people, and even disabled children, are set to be punished even further.  

Last week Sarah Batty, a welfare rights adviser, tweeted, “What a day. A severely disabled man has lost £41pw (over £2k pa) moving from ESA onto #UniversalCredit because .. it's designed that way ..”

Yes, the designers of Universal Credit abolished the Severe Disability Premium. They also cut in half the disabled child’s allowance, taking income from some of the poorest and most disadvantaged children in the country. Good in principle? I think not. Hundreds of thousands of disabled people, already living in poverty, will be made worse off under Universal Credit. How can that be good in practice or in principle?

David Gauke was yesterday reported as saying that he wasn't taking a ‘risky or reckless’ approach to Universal Credit. Today he announced his intention to ignore all the numerous warnings and set in motion a tidal wave of misery and suffering across the UK. He also reportedly said, 'I am not someone whose political reputation is tied up with Universal Credit'. Indeed he is not. The person whose political reputation should be inextricably tied up with Universal Credit is Iain Duncan Smith, who has managed to remove himself to a safe distance as his ideological flagship crashes into the rocks of reality, smashing people's lives to pieces.

No doubt whatever happens both men will continue to lead a life of comfort and privilege - but the damage caused by their decisions will be huge and shameful, blighting the lives of children for years to come. 


© 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

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.