Universal Credit, Grenfell, and inequality

By Bernadette Meaden
June 15, 2018

In a damning report the National Audit Office (NAO) says, with a sort of grim acceptance, that the DWP is now so committed to Universal Credit it would be too expensive to cancel it. But the NAO judges on financial grounds. On social and ethical grounds, we cannot afford to let Universal Credit (UC) continue.

As the evidence of harm caused by this flagship policy has piled up, many people and organisations have clung to the idea that it is right in principle, it just needs fixing. But whilst the NAO identifies its ‘value for money’ failure, there is now plenty of evidence of the moral, ethical and intellectual failure which lies behind it.

Only yesterday, the High Court ruled that removing the Severe Disability Premium and Enhanced Disability Premium from ill and disabled claimants constituted ‘unlawful discrimination’. But it took a terminally ill man to spend some of his precious remaining time on earth to take the DWP to court to prove this. That would not be necessary in a system which is ‘right in principle' or ‘well-intentioned’.

The same system cuts in half the allowance for a disabled child – deliberately, by design, when we know that disabled children’s families are some of the poorest, most disadvantaged in the UK. That is not well-intentioned or right in principle.

At best, UC reflects shocking ignorance of life on a low income. At worst it is cruel and almost savagely callous. In a decent society it would not be allowed to continue.

Because Universal Credit is wrong in so many ways, it is creating human and social costs which we cannot in conscience accept. It is creating and exacerbating physical and mental health problems, increasing the risk of homelessness, and removing financial stability for adults and children. The NAO says it could be too expensive to scrap it, but the NAO’s remit is relatively narrow. If we look at the indirect cost of UC, the social harm it creates, the pressures it increasingly places on the NHS and other services, then even in financial terms scrapping it could be the right thing to do. It would most certainly be the decent and humane thing to do.

Disgracefully though, the DWP is determined to press on. It is determined to force the most disadvantaged people in society into an inhumane and damaging system, a system which may tip them into destitution and damage their mental and physical health.

The rollout is so delayed, however, that only a fraction of the eligible households have yet been transferred to UC. It remains to be seen whether this system will be sustainable when millions of households are drawn into its clutches. Will the public tolerate cruelty on such a large scale? Time will tell. But when the history of this policy is written, it will appear as senseless and as inexcusable as cladding tower blocks in flammable materials, and failing to rehouse the residents when their homes burned down.

And perhaps the reasons behind both these failures will be identified as being the same – that such policies were designed, and such decisions were taken, by people who had little regard for, and seemingly no knowledge of, the lives of the people those policies and decisions would affect.

Inequality in money, power and social status produced UC and produced the ongoing disaster of Grenfell, because the people and the politics that currently hold sway equate wealth with success, and poverty with failure.

No matter how hard a person works, and no matter how much they are contributing to society, if their income is not high enough to make them completely independent of any social support, if they need social housing or social security, then their views and feelings are not respected. You may be an inspirational teaching assistant, or a wonderfully compassionate care worker, but if you need benefits, then in the minds of decision-makers it would appear you don’t count and your concerns are not taken seriously. And you can live on fresh air for six weeks.

The musician Akala, discussing  the aftermath of the Grenfell fire on Twitter, said, “I'm pretty sure if the fire was up the road just half a mile no stone would have been left unturned. But everyone at the Holland park and St Marks ends of the SAME street has proper fire safety. I know I lived there for five years.”

He continued “So this could not have happened to people on the very same road, just because they/we (we as it includes me) have a little or a lot (Holland Park end) more money. It's that crude and simple.”

The same is true of Universal Credit. The policy is a cruel and harmful failure, but because it only affects people on low incomes, it may be allowed to continue. If it affected wealthy people or political donors, it would be stopped immediately. It’s that crude and simple.


© 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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