This is a rant, but let’s have it:
Here’s a short list of long points re: some of Universal Credit’s fatal problems as I see them (literally – these are based in problems that people I’ve interviewed actually have).
1) Universal Credit is based on a truly terrifying government and political class contempt for people in poverty.
I have a lot to say on this, so let’s go:
The main point I want to make is that Universal Credit is based entirely on the (false) premise that people in poverty are solely responsible for that poverty and any problems they have finding work. All Universal Credit problems flow from this political contempt.
The (highly misleading) idea behind Universal Credit (and its strict in-and-out-of-work jobfinding conditionaility) is that people only need a kick up the backside to get out of poverty. With Universal Credit, those kicks take the form of sanctions threats, constant reminders to find more hours in jobs that already pay almost nothing, and days on meaningless, fruitless, privately-provided “employability” courses.
In other words – if you’re poor, stop being poor, or else. That’s it.
This should make everyone furious.
It should make everybody furious, because it is entirely about government shifting blame for societal problems onto the shoulders of people who are least able to respond, or to take the financial burden. There is no acknowledgement whatsoever from government that the problems that land people in poverty might be external – that too many people these days can’t find enough decently-paid work to live on. I see this all the time, as does anyone who frequents foodbanks and jobcentres. It’s real.
Why does government think it has a free pass on this? There is no concession AT ALL to the fact that finding secure work which pays a wage that people can survive and thrive on is difficult, especially in some parts of the country, where it is incredibly difficult (I know this, because I travel around). There is no acknowledgement that government needs to address those problems before pointing the finger at the very people it has abandoned. There is also no concession that money which should be spent on wages and social security keeps disappearing into offshore tax havens. How long will this be tolerated?
Readers of this site will know I regularly interview people who experience these employment difficulties. I’ve interviewed cleaners, carers, housekeepers and people who work in warehouses and in other low-paid jobs. They all have the same problem – insecure employment, variable hours and low wages. They never get ahead. They never will. They never have the money to get ahead. They’re thousands of pounds behind, because they’re in debt. Welfare reforms such as council tax benefit cuts (and court fines for non-payment of council tax) and LHA and benefit caps pushed people into debt even before they were moved to Universal Credit.
As I see it (and I do see it, as I say) government’s answer to its own glaring job creation and wages failures is to set up a system such as Universal Credit and to tell people who receive it that they are responsible for the lack of local jobs and money, and that they need to pull finger to sort problems out. They must fix financial problems by meeting Universal Credit’s strict conditionallity rules and working endless hours for very little money in an unreliable, low-wage economy.
If anybody dares to supplement their non-income by thieving or dealing, they’re chucked in jail (I’ve lost count of the number of people on the breadline I’ve spoken to who’ve done time for such offences. Nobody seems to want to talk about that). It’s just a pity that the same strict rules for behaviour aren’t applied to all these tax dodgers we keep hearing about. Those people walk away from the havoc they create (or fly off in their private jets, or sail away in their yachts, or whatever).
Let’s say it again: government has a poisonous loathing and contempt for people in poverty. Governments have spent years spreading that poison via the rightwing press (and vice versa).
So many of Universal Credit’s problems have their source in that contempt – from delays to benefit starts to Universal Credit’s failed IT and administrative systems to the scandalous and criminal amounts of public money blown on the whole pathetic project.
The idea is, of course, that people in poverty are lab rats that all governments are permitted to run perverse live experiments on. Take it from me – that’s the exact subtext whenever someone in government or the DWP says that government is learning about Universal Credit as it is rolled out. Government is saying that it’s fine to live-trial these things on people in poverty and it hardly matters if people disappear down a hole along the way.
There’s no acknowledgement that Universal Credit should have been up and running properly (as if that was ever going to happen) before it was inflicted on people who could least afford things to go wrong. Government still literally shrugs when it hears that Universal Credit claimants end up in rent arrears, or homeless, or in terrible debt, or without enough money to feed themselves. People in poverty are always considered acceptable collateral in these projects. Government ran Universal Credit pilots, but clearly learned nothing from those and made no meaningful adjustments. Or didn’t want to.
Which brings me to my second point:
2) Government’s claim that Universal Credit is about “making work pay.” I hate this glib slogan and all variations on it. It’s a facile catchphrase which was clearly coined/adopted to work in a tweet and divert attention from the real problem – which is that work itself doesn’t pay for so many people and that the wealthy divert money elsewhere. Wages are terrible. People are in and out of insecure, low paid work all the time (see above).
If government wants to make work pay, it could surely start by raising the minimum wage to £20+ an hour. It could rein in tax dodgers. It could also think about working on sensible projects – or, at least, projects which make more sense than Universal Credit. Call me naive, but I have occasionally wondered what might have happened if the billions wasted on Universal Credit had been invested in, say, jobs, local manufacturing, wages and housing.
As it is, we have this shambles. Talk about a government failure to prioritise. It’s just a shame that god almighty or whoever it was didn’t say, “create decent jobs and social security for all,” to Iain Duncan Smith when god appeared to IDS above the poor at Easterhouse. Unfortunately, god appears to have told IDS to squander billions on a useless IT and administration system and to call it Universal Credit. Go figure.
3) Last point: the widespread claim that benefits systems need to be simplified.
I take issue with this one for several reasons.
The main one is that the idea that benefits can and should be simplified is not necessarily right – ESPECIALLY in austerity, where notions of so-called simplification and placing a whole benefits system such as Universal Credit online are merely justifications for the real motivation, which is public sector service cuts.
In such an environment, “we’re making things simpler” is just another way of saying “we’re getting rid of face-to-face help and expertise, and eliminating service users who can’t manage without support and/or use computers.” I see that often enough already.
The truth is that benefits systems are complex by definition and need to be – particularly, I think, when it comes to disability benefits and housing benefit (many of the people I’ve worked with need homelessness help as well as housing benefit assistance, for example).
Benefit support isn’t a One Size Fits All scenario, as proponents of Universal Credit would have you believe.
I often deal with people who require face-to-face support and complex support – they need people to help fill in forms, to organise housing, to provide some social care and to know from years of training and experience why some people struggle to meet conditionality demands and to stay in contact. This isn’t rare at all. It’s common.
Again, as readers of this site will know, I’ve regularly attended jobcentre and housing meetings with people who have learning and literacy difficulties, and support needs. Many have been in and out of work all their lives. Some are getting a bit older and getting left behind. Some can’t work, whether government likes that or not. Universal Credit’s online, DIY ideology is not for them. It utterly ignores the fact that there are reasons why many people struggle to find or keep work, or can’t work – reasons other than the abject laziness that government likes to suggest is the main cause of poverty.
I’d certainly argue that benefit support systems need improving (and then some) – but in the sense that benefit systems need proper resourcing and skilled, well-paid, long-term personnel.
I can say for an absolute fact that one reason that people I’ve worked with have become so frustrated with benefit systems is because austerity has cut frontline and back office services to the point where nothing functions.
God knows I’ve experienced that firsthand – lost letters, indifferent and uninformed staff, phone lines which are never answered, cancelled jobcentre appointments because there aren’t enough advisers, benefit claims closed for reasons nobody understands – the works.
Universal Credit exacerbates that problem. It’s an unreliable online, poorly-staffed system with a tacked-on, oversubscribed phone helpline. Jobcentres – the only places where people might find face-to-face help of any description – are being closed across the country.
The idea that simplicity is the right answer by definition is far too simple and disingenuous – and yet has been totally accepted. The idea that Universal Credit’s current administrative woes are merely teething problems is also disingenuous. Rotten and unworkable systems are always considered good enough for people in poverty. Universal Credit is simply the latest manifestation of that contempt.
I refuse to accept that there isn’t room for bigger and better concepts that appeal to everyone’s best, rather than worst, instincts – ideas such as decent work that pays decent wages for all and decent social security that supports all. Even Labour ought to be able to get behind that sort of concept without fear of being labelled the welfare party, or whatever it is they’re afraid of. The fact that some people can’t work also needs to be recognised. Forever.
There is absolutely no way that Universal Credit is about liberating people from poverty.
It’s about drawing more and more people into the government’s net via the DWP’s conditionality and debt collection regimes. Wait until people on tax credits are moved over.