Universal Credit rumbles on: don't be distracted by the smoke and mirrors

By Bernadette Meaden
January 16, 2019

In any appraisal of Amber Rudd’s performance as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, there is one area in which she should score very highly – media management.

On 11 January 2019, in a case brought by four working mothers on Universal Credit, the High Court ruled that the way the Department for Work and Pensions has been assessing income from employment is unlawful.  One can only imagine the consternation in the corridors of the DWP when this judgement was handed down. The BBC’s social affairs correspondent reported, “Leaked documents that I saw in October showed officials discussing the problem but concluding that "there is nothing we can do to mitigate this issue". It was bad news in anybody's book.

And yet, on the very same morning, Amber Rudd made a speech which managed to get the headline 'Universal Credit U-Turn' on screen on the BBC news channel for much of the day. Her speech promised some changes, and raised the possibility of others, but arguably gained much more positive coverage than it warranted, largely due to a failure on the part of the media to understand the true scale of the problems with UC. The ‘U-turn’ the BBC was referring to related to a decision not to apply the two child limit to children born before April 2017. The limit remains, but, said Rudd, the lack of retrospective application means that the policy “retains its fundamental fairness.”

This ‘fairness’ means that from now on, unless parents are quite high up the income scale, having three children will be considered an irresponsible gamble, and their third child will be refused support if they fall on hard times.

Meanwhile, as the DWP gloated on positive reactions to Rudd’s speech, the leader of Cumbria County Council was speaking about what Universal Credit has done to his area. Councillor Stewart Young said, “It is causing immense hardship. One of the consequences is families can’t cope and it’s leading to the break-up of families and leading to children being taken into care...”  A social security system that leads to children being taken into care is not just failing, it is malevolent. It needs to be stopped immediately. Nobody should be placated by anything less.

And nobody should be under any illusion that Amber Rudd fully grasps the problems with UC, or would change it so radically it could become acceptable. She is firmly behind the terrible ideology which underpins Universal Credit, (see her belief in the fairness of a two child limit) and in denial about the numerous lives wrecked by it. She insists that UC is "delivering a fair and compassionate welfare system" and is “a force for good”. As for the people driven to foodbanks and made homeless: "Some of the criticisms that have come from various publications have been based on one or two particular individuals where the advice hasn't worked for them”, she says

The reality is that, as politicians and think tanks and charities discuss changes to a ghastly system, people are still being fed into that ghastly system and suffering the consequences – consequences from which they may never fully recover. This is inhumane. The minimum anyone should be asking for is not change, but a complete halt, so that no more lives are chewed up and spat out by Universal Credit. Too many people and organisations are helping to extend the life of a policy that should be consigned to history.

There should be no succour given to a government deliberately inflicting hardship on its own people, and no condoning of a system that is most cruel to those who can least bear that cruelty. Nor should we be reassured by the much-hyped delay on managed migration. Deven Ghelani, who describes himself as the architect of Universal Credit, says two million people will still move onto Universal Credit this year because of a new claim or change in circumstance. Allowing two million people (and their families) to be drawn into a system with so many problems is not cautious or responsible, it is reckless and irresponsible.

Just to prove the point, some of the hopes raised by Amber Rudd’s speech regarding the managed migration pilot were dashed within days. Existing claimants will not be automatically transferred to UC, as campaigners had asked, and the DWP had led them to believe might happen, but will be forced through the difficult and demanding application process.  And whilst positive reactions to her speech were still being written, her Department sneaked out a written Ministerial Statement which, for the first time, means some pensioners will feel the brutal impact of Universal Credit. Age UK’s Caroline Abrahams said: “Last week the new Secretary of State at the DWP… made a speech about the future of Universal Credit that was widely praised as thoughtful and compassionate. We are very disappointed that only a few days later, her Department has quietly announced a measure which will hit the older couples affected very hard, undoubtedly pushing more into poverty.”

At times it feels like the government is an abusive partner, and civil society its victim. Too many people and organisations are grateful for any concession the government makes, whilst the big picture remains unacceptably unjust and abusive.

The fact that so many people are grateful for so little shows how beaten down we are, how years of ill treatment from our own government has reduced our expectations and crushed our ambitions, so that the slightest show of compassion is seen as a victory.

Universal Credit is a policy in political trouble, technical trouble, legal trouble, and moral trouble. To keep drawing people into it is callous irresponsibility, no matter how many 'thoughtful and compassionate' speeches the Secretary of State might make.

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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

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.