The government has openly admitted that the new benefits system has directly contributed to rising poverty and yet, surprisingly, there is little outcry and the solutions offered are scant.
Eight years after its inception under Iain Duncan Smith in 2011, a Member of Parliament has finally conceded that Universal Credit may not be working in its current form. Initially scheduled for a UK-wide roll out in 2017, the much maligned scheme is currently not expected to be fully available to all until 2022-23. This week, the current Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd came clean to the House of Commons by saying there had been ‘challenges’ to the roll-out. She then went one step further and conceded that it had led to a rise in food bank use.
“The main issue which led to an increase in food bank use could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough”
Credit must go to Rudd, for saying what her predecessors could not, despite only being in the job since November. Despite this however, it was a shocking admission from a government minister and the figures surrounding Universal Credit make for grim reading. What is the government doing to rectify this and should we all be more concerned?
Teething Problems Or A Flawed System?
As a general concept, Universal Credit has been praised, albeit before the difficulties of the last 18 months. The general feeling was that the UK benefits system desperately needed reform. For claimants, the previous system could be viewed as a highly confusing web of endless bureaucracy. The change was meant to eradicate these difficulties, not unlike those seen in Ken Loach’s anti-austerity film I, Daniel Blake.
Its potential to cut out benefit fraud was also championed, with a centralised, combined payment approach supposedly easier to track. The problem is that restructuring an entire £63 billion pound system, to be used by 7 million people is not a simple task. Previous Chancellor George Osbourne’s seismic cuts to work allowances in the wake of Universal Credit had complicated the matter even further.
The issues have subsequently been far-reaching and complex since the roll-out began. Claimants have struggled to access the exclusively online system, people are also being forced to wait five weeks before receiving any payment and there has been fierce criticism aimed at the fact it is only paid to one person per household. What this all means, is that despite the original promises, 3.2 million UK families are expected, on average to lose £48 per week under Universal Credit. That’s £2496 a year and yet the silence is deafening in terms of government action.
The Butterfly Effect
The problem isn’t just that Universal Credit has led to an increase in food bank; there is the potential for Universal Credit to soon be linked with a rise in homelessness too. Some claimants have been waiting so long for payments, that they have naturally built up rental debts that they are then unable to cover. It has now reached the stage where some private landlords are refusing to deal with anyone on Universal Credit. Obviously this directly affects those in need, but the landlords themselves also face a difficult moral decision. If they decide to deal with claimants, they face the possibility of their own knock on effect; a painstaking legal battle to receive any money they are owed.
A rather disturbing consequence of all the problems has been around the fact that households with more than one occupant will only receive a single payment each month. Currently, this is the arrangement for couples, but the lack of thought put into this is quite staggering. It has been criticised for being thoughtless at best and misogynistic at worst. There is a growing feeling that the DWP could have unwittingly given potential abusers an advantage, while the most vulnerable men and women in society will suffer.
We must not forget Universal Credit staff in all this, who have themselves been deeply affected by everything that has happened. Due to a lack of staff and severe number of complaints, they are struggling to cope. Four years after a previous walk out, staff announced this week that they would be voting on whether to hold another strike in March. Add to this the disastrous effect Universal Credit is set to have on Britain’s elderly, and the fact that any parents under 25 will automatically lose £15 a week, it seems the scheme is not working for anyone. On the face of it, this is not strictly true, as government figures show 2.2 million families will be better off. However, these numbers are representative of those who may have savings or just need a quick fix, not the 3.2 million who rely on benefits most of all.
A Paradox Of Indecision
When digging down to find out what is being done to address the failing system, the bare facts suggest not a lot really. After Amber Rudd’s admission, it seemed the government may be taking drastic action on Universal Credit, but the fact is that none of the core policies have been changed. Labour have long been calling for a scrap to the system, or at least a halt of the roll-out, but this suggestion has created a paradox. Scrapping Universal Credit at this stage would not just put millions of claimants at risk of further damage, but throw away billions in public money and be a humiliating defeat for the government.
It needs clear reform, even if that just means rectifying the individual roll-out issues mentioned above. Amber Rudd and the DWP may well implement these in the near future, but even after Monday, the roll-out still continues, as do single household and monthly payments. Despite some words and empty promises, nothing has changed. This is part of the government’s self-titled ‘Test and Learn’ evaluation, which leaves a very nasty taste considering recent events.
It is a wonder to some that there is such a lack of outrage at it all, but in truth it can be seen as summative of a wider problem. That this affects a British ‘underclass’ who are not worth talking about in the national conversation. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Rudd’s comments came in the same week she knew full well Channel 4 would be airing their Skint Britain: Friends without Benefits series. If no further action is taken in the coming weeks and it was simply a PR move, this must all be treated for what it is: a national disgrace.