Stop and Scrap Universal Credit

By Bernadette Meaden
April 18, 2018

Today in a National Day of Action organised by Disabled People Against Cuts, activists across the country are calling on the government to #StopandScrapUniversalCredit. Also today, in a perfect example of the crass, insensitive nature of the benefit’s design, the Work and Pensions Select Committee is holding an evidence session on ‘the domestic abuse risks of Universal Credit single payments’.

By default, Universal Credit (UC) is paid as a single payment to a household, rather than to individual claimants. As the Committee explains, “Under these circumstances, there is a risk of "financial abuse": the paid partner withholding money to exert control and make it difficult for the other partner to leave. The only alternative currently offered by DWP – one partner requesting separate payments – carries the obvious risk of further violence and abuse when the abusive partner inevitably finds out.” When separate payments are approved, partners are notified of the change and monthly payments are halved. It doesn’t take much imagination to envisage what this could trigger in an abusive relationship.

But when the Committee recently raised these concerns with Kit Malthouse, Family Support and Children’s Minister , his reply was extraordinary. He wrote, “the implication that UC will exacerbate the issue of domestic violence is completely without foundation". He then went on “Importantly, both members of a couple do not need to consent to a split payment. The decision maker and work coach will make a decision whether to split the payment between a couple, based on information provided by the requestor, in terms of what is deemed to be in the best interests of the household, the requestor and children.” Like the notorious rape clause, this gives DWP employees an incredibly intrusive role in the lives of claimants, enquiring into the nature of relationships, with the power to withhold an arrangement which an abused and frightened partner has plucked up the courage to request.

The Minister then, almost unbelievably, went on to quote a fragment from a Women’s Aid report Unequalled, Trapped and Controlled  which says, "The opportunity for payments to be split between partners in cases of financial abuse was however, not regarded as a solution; ..... 85 per cent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that if they requested this, the abuse would worsen when their partner found out." The Minister appears to believe that this actually supports the case for single payments. It is quite mind boggling.

Organisations like Women’s Aid and Refuge have been expressing their fears about Universal Credit from the outset, to no avail. The juggernaut has rumbled on relentlessly. In its report, Violence against women and girls, Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights said,  “we expressed our concern in this area in our legislative scrutiny Report on the Welfare Reform Bill, when we said that the new payment method would ‘reduce the financial autonomy of women’. In our December 2011 Report we recommended that the Welfare Reform Bill, now the Act, ‘be amended to allow payments for children to be labelled as such and be paid to the main carer’. The Government argued, however, that it was not possible to accept this recommendation because of the way that Universal Credit is structured.” This characterises the whole approach to Universal Credit – people’s lives, their safety and wellbeing come secondary to a rigid structure.

Amber Rudd, speaking about the Windrush debacle, recently said, “I am concerned that the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual.” Universal Credit took this approach and systematised it, creating a Kafkaesque world where individuals are subservient to an inflexible system, constantly at risk of a slight mistake, a small change in circumstances meaning ‘computer says no’, tipping their lives into chaos and potential destitution.

It was probably possible to simplify the benefits system in a humane manner, but Universal Credit has not done so. The DWP’s much-vaunted ‘test and learn’ approach sounds reasonable, until you think about what it means in reality. People’s lives and livelihoods are used as the raw material on which to test a system, but very little learning seems to happen. Take the wait for a first payment, for example. For years, people were made to wait six weeks, forcing them into foodbank use, payday loans, even homelessness. Only when some Conservative MPs began to raise concerns was the wait reduced, grudgingly  – to five weeks.  Not so much ‘test and learn’ as ‘persist against all evidence and make minimal changes only when absolutely unavoidable’.

As Universal Credit rolls out to more families, disabled people, the self-employed, and others with complex circumstances, its inflexible nature, its incompatibility with people's real lives will become increasingly evident. One can only hope that this, combined with its breathtaking harshness (significantly reducing the incomes of severely disabled people, for instance) will create enough political pressure to restore some humanity to a system which currently looks like instutionalised bullying. It is certainly not social security.  

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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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