Redesigning Universal Credit with humanity

By Bernadette Meaden
August 1, 2018

Imagine if Universal Credit had been designed with empathy and respect for claimants. Imagine if it had been designed by people who understood the difficulties faced by people living in poverty, or with a chronic illness or disability. Imagine if it had been designed with the belief that the purpose of social security was to enable people, whatever their circumstances, to live a dignified life with peace of mind.

Sadly it wasn’t, and as it rolls out more and more people realise that Universal Credit is an unfolding disaster. Calls grow for it to be either scrapped, or stopped and fixed. If it is fixable, then a new paper from Northern Ireland provides a blueprint.

In June 2018, Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy at Advice NI, Northern Ireland’s independent advice network, had a Twitter exchange  with Esther McVey about Universal Credit. He asked the Secretary of State, “Would you agree that more changes are needed?”. Esther McVey replied, “As UC is a new benefit, specifically designed to be a modern benefit & a flexible one too, then of course when changes are required, we should do just that. Changes will need to be worked through to ensure no unintended consequences. But I want to make sure changes can be made.”

Six weeks later, Kevin has produced Proposals on Universal Credit (UC): How to make it better  This is an admirably concise (only five pages) but comprehensive critique of Universal Credit, with proposals for both strategic and operational changes which would make the benefit humane, respectful, and fair. It addresses not only the problems intrinsic to UC, but the cruelty and injustice of the whole welfare reform programme of which it is the culmination.

The paper’s approach is characterised by the brief introduction, which says, “Advice NI believes that now is the time for a fundamental review of the purpose of Universal Credit with a view to rebalancing the focus on meeting the needs of claimants as opposed to delivering value for money; focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable as much as it focuses on getting people back to work.”

The operational proposals show the in-depth detailed knowledge of UC and its numerous problems which come from either trying to claim it, or trying to help someone claim it – knowledge and understanding which is so obviously absent amongst DWP Ministers and civil servants. In this paper, everything is approached from the claimant’s point of view, with every suggestion an opportunity to make UC accessible and supportive. It is particularly pleasing to see proposals on benefit sanctions which would make them very rare, far less harsh, and for people with limited capability for work, non-existent. This would end the cruel scandal of sick and disabled people deliberately being made destitute by their own government.

Each aspect of UC, from making a claim, the claimant commitment, challenging decisions etc. is addressed with the aim of making it easier and less stressful, with special consideration always given to the most disadvantaged or vulnerable claimants. It is a model of how a system could be designed with humanity, and (we can dare to dream) kindness.

The paper’s proposed strategic changes are refreshingly radical and involve abolishing most of the policies introduced in the 2012 Welfare Reform Act like the two child limit, the benefit cap and the bedroom tax. Other proposals involve reversing the impact of austerity by abolishing the uprating freeze, and reversing the cuts made to UC in George Osborne’s 2015 Budget. Being realistic, it’s impossible to imagine the current government effectively admitting that Iain Duncan Smith’s entire welfare reform programme is a disaster and abandoning austerity for the poor, but these changes are certainly necessary if we are ever to restore an effective system of social security.

Advice NI says, “We hope that this paper will be a catalyst for change; a catalyst for improving Universal Credit for the vulnerable, low income working age households both working and not in work who rely on this new system for their social security. Over to you now Esther McVey…”

I’m not optimistic about Esther McVey’s response – but any politician who says Universal Credit should be kept and is fixable needs to be made familiar with this paper, and held to its standards of decency, fairness, and respect.

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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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