We need accountability for the harm of welfare reform

By Bernadette Meaden
November 12, 2017

As Sarah Batty writes in an important but grim new study into the impact of welfare reforms on communities in the North East, “People's deepening poverty was not due to poor money management skills or benefit ‘delays’, but because welfare reforms had, by design, reduced their entitlements below subsistence-level income.”

As full service Universal Credit rolls out across the country, flaws in its design are becoming obvious. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, features of its design that produce extremely damaging effects are getting more attention in the media.

The fact that these features are part of its design, and have remained unchanged although the benefit has been piloted since 2013, indicates that they were fully intended, and that the harm being caused is considered acceptable.

In a remarkable statement on Universal Credit last week, the Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee Frank Field said "The lack of data being collected and published on Universal Credit is troubling, to put it mildly. It gives the impression that this mega reform is driven by blind faith rather than evidence of the impact it is having on the lives of the poor.”

This is something that people at the sharp end of welfare reform, and those who have studied it objectively, have known for years - that the policies were never based on sound evidence but driven by ideology, an ideology which, basically, does not believe in social security as we have known it.

The problem now is that the appalling suffering and even deaths which are being caused by these policies are often seen as isolated incidents where ‘the system’ somehow went wrong. The truth is, this is what the system now exists for – to implement policies which cause tremendous hardship and anguish, to children, to people who are ill, and to people who just have the misfortune to be poor.

Let’s be quite clear what welfare reform is. It’s a set of policies which will, by 2020/21, take £27billion per year from the incomes of the poorest adults and children in the UK. It is difficult to believe that anybody could design and implement such policies without being aware that they would cause severe hardship and suffering.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when the DWP fails to collect vital data on how Universal Credit is ‘working’. We shouldn’t be surprised when the most senior tribunal judge says the DWP is dragging people through appeals for their benefits when the DWP does not, in law, have a leg to stand on. We shouldn’t be surprised that there is widespread evidence of disability assessors producing dishonest reports.  We shouldn’t be surprised if the DWP is acting in a callous and ruthless manner, because it has been given callous and ruthless policies to implement.

The DWP is now a department of government which has been tasked by politicians with the imposition of poverty and destitution. Poverty and destitution are occurring not as a result of incompetence or ‘something going wrong’, but through deliberate policies.  Until those policies are abandoned, the suffering will continue.

So perhaps we need less focus on the technicalities of how the DWP is implementing policies like Universal Credit and disability assessments, and more on the policies themselves, which actually dictate that support must be withdrawn from our most disadvantaged neighbours. And the politicians who designed and defend those policies need to be held accountable.

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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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